Monthly Archives: December 2011

On YouTube and the Democratization of Cinema

“The motion picture has potentialities as a people’s art – when it is controlled by the people and serves their interests. But no such democratization of the art is possible under capitalism.” – John Howard Lawson, 1958

“And, even in the clouds, where formerly ideas and dreams dwelt, they now want to print advertisements – for improved toilets, I suppose.” – Maxim Gorky, 1896

It took me a long time to warm up to YouTube. How could a “professional filmmaker,” as I saw myself, ask to be be taken with any measure of seriousness when placed among Charlie Bit My Finger and The Keyboard Cat in the cyberspace queue?How could the existence of a website primarily composed of (and catering to) tween-generated video blogging and amateur iMovie tributes to everything from Tenacious D to The Secret possibly be good for the future of the moving image?

YouTube is the closest thing we have to what John Howard Lawson referred to as the “democratization” of cinema. Lawson, the blacklisted former head of the Communist Party in Hollywood and the first president of The Writer’s Guild of America West,  saw the potential for cinema to become a “cultural weapon” for the classes but was cemented in an era where making films required keys reserved for monopolists who used the medium as a vessel to communicate the interpretation of life as seen (and felt) solely by the social elite.

History tells a recurring tale: those most in need of an agent of social and cultural change are always those least in the position to acquire one, and such was the case with cinema in 1958, the publishing year of Lawson’s consummate essay, “Film in the Battle of Ideas.” One need only review the public impact of Leninist propaganda films produced by Sergei Eisenstein or the German fascist work of Leni Reifenstahl to recall how motion pictures elicit the most immediate and visceral reactions of all the art forms.

When we look back at Lawson’s America, hindsight begs the question, “Why were no films made exposing the hypocrisies of institutionalized racism?” Precisely because they were institutionalized.

If you wanted to make a film in 1958, you must first have money, and lots of it. You must also have a talent for telling stories with pictures (a key ingredient often overlooked by today’s YouTube generation, of which I am a part). Finally, you must have a means of exhibition, which in the fifties meant having your film miraculously blessed by the elite – one of five major Hollywood distributors. Though this was the era of The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers – founded to fight the exclusive practices of studios presiding over the amnesicly-monikered “Golden Age” of Hollywood – it would still be another eleven years before Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda would bring us the first entry into the American independent movement with Easy Rider (1969).

If you somehow magically conquered all the roadblocks of producing a pro-Civil Rights film in 1958, one institutional failsafe was still in place: Why would a racist studio executive in the 1950s purchase and distribute a film exposing his own prejudice (much less a film produced by the injured party, a black man)? More likely would be the release of a film in which, as articulated by V.J. Jerome, “the white spectator is taught to regard the Negro people as ‘unfortunate’ beings, toward whom the whites should exercise ‘tolerance’.” (A review of modern films such as The Green Mile, Amistad and The Blind Side suggest that this is still commonplace in a system which claims to confront racism upfront – but not in a manner that makes whites uncomfortable.) Due to the triumph of technological innovation through to the twenty-first century, this totalitarian system of crooked gatekeepers is no longer the death knell of our would-be cultural weapon.

We live in a world of revolutions being carried out on Twitter, the president of the United States keeping a Facebook profile and future pop stars (vomit-inducing though they may be) being discovered on YouTube on a seemingly monthly basis. Though purists may groan at these developments, I believe they are the recrudescent side effects brought about in any democracy. When the gatekeeper is rendered obsolete, to a certain extent the inmates run the asylum. But this also allows for a true democracy to take shape. You want to say something important using moving pictures? Now you can! – easier than ever before in history. Sure, we’ll have to endure a myriad of “[Insert fluffy animal] Falls into Toilet” videos, but that concession will buy us things like the cell phone video of Neda, the Iranian woman shot to death at an uprising protest in Tehran in 2009. The totalitarian regimes of China, Morocco, Thailand, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, and Libya all recognize the democratic power YouTube possesses, as indicated by their transparent decisions to block the website within their countries at various points since 2005.

This is not to say that things couldn’t stand improvement. I have a personal distaste for YouTube’s willingness to disable the “comments” section under videos at the uploader’s request. One recent example of this contemptible practice was GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s hateful “Strong” campaign ad where he equates the persecution of homosexuals to the non-existant war on Christmas. Perhaps more egregious (and of personal interest to me) is a video uploaded following the death of world-famous polemicist and atheist Christopher Hitchens which professes to show a photograph of Hitchens praying on his deathbed. How inconvenient it would be for the slime who made this video to have his/her lies exposed directly beneath the video if one were allowed to reveal that the “incriminating photograph” is in fact Hitchens bracing before a bikini wax for his investigation into the limits of self-improvement for Vanity Fair.

My speculation is that the folks at YouTube intended the “no comments feature” to attract more business memberships (since corporations seem to be deathly afraid of criticism), which would echo the perversion of similar democratic advances after the corporate class got hold of them. But I’m not ready to throw in the towel just yet. We have taken another giant leap toward total democratization of cinema with YouTube (and its newer competitors) – a feat culminating in the awarding of a 2008 Peabody Award to its founders – but this is no reason not to demand more in the future.


A Tom Waits Christmas

I got an early Christmas gift last night while flipping through channels with my girlfriend between airings of TBS’ “24 Hours of A Christmas Story”. We switched to the local PBS syndicate, KLRU, and came upon Tom Waits’ December 5, 1978 appearance at Austin City Limits! Being the huge Waits fan I am, I decided we had to watch for at least two or three songs. The first song was “On the Nickel,” followed by a wonderfully seedy performance of “Romeo Is Bleeding.” The third and final song must be one of my top five or ten songs of all time by anyone – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis”.


Hey Charlie, I’m pregnant and living on 9th Street
Right above a dirty bookstore off Euclid Avenue
And I stopped takin’ dope and I quit drinkin’ whiskey
And my old man plays the trombone and works out at the track

He says that he loves me, even though it’s not his baby
He says that he’ll raise him up like he would his own son
And he gave me a ring that was worn by his mother
And he takes me out dancin’ every Saturday night

And hey Charlie, I think about you everytime I pass a fillin’ station
On account of all the grease you used to wear in your hair
And I still have that record of Little Anthony and the Imperials(2) (3)
But someone stole my record player, now how do you like that?

Hey Charlie, I almost went crazy after Mario got busted
I went back to Omaha to live with my folks
But everyone I used to know was either dead or in prison
So I came back to Minneapolis, this time I think I’m gonna stay

Hey Charlie, I think I’m happy for the first time since my accident
And I wish I had all the money we used to spend on dope
I’d buy me a used car lot and I wouldn’t sell any of ’em
I’d just drive a different car every day dependin’ on how I feel

Hey Charlie, for chrissakes, if you want to know the truth of it
I don’t have a husband, he don’t play the trombone
I need to borrow money to pay this lawyer, and Charlie, hey
I’ll be eligible for parole come Valentine’s day

Pathos Is Not a Choice

Chaplin was a master of pathos.

If you’re a filmmaker, you no doubt have had many moments in your work in which you wonder whether what you were trying to do comes across to the audience. Do they think it’s funny? Do they think it’s sad? Do they understand this plot point? Did I establish the MacGuffin well enough?

Well rejoice, ye craftsmen of cinema, for there is at least one certainty in how all films are perceived by their audiences. Pathos, or as says, “the quality or power in an actual life experience or in literature, music, speech, or other forms of expression, of evoking a feeling of pity or compassion.”

Chaplin was a master of evoking pathos, as were many of the silent filmmakers. They relied on it because they knew it can be one of the most powerful tools to hook your audience into your story. They couldn’t rely on fancy dialogue or a sweeping score (early screenings typically just had a pianist playing classical tunes behind the screen).

What they learned and demonstrated was that pathos is not a choice for the audience. When you watch a Chaplin film, you can’t help but absolutely love the Little Tramp. And what is the very first thing Chaplin did in every single Little Tramp movie? He showed him down and out, oppressed, chased by police or abused by street folk.

Our species has evolved from primates to have altruistic tendencies toward one another. I submit that outside of psychopaths and the occasional Wall Street executive, human beings are incapable of watching other human beings be treated badly without feeling empathy.

One of my favorite movies is Paul Leni’s 1923 silent film The Man Who Laughs. And how does that movie begin? The very first scene has a nobleman being held captive by King James II in the year 1690.

Here is another lesson: Human beings will always inherently root for the submissive in a situation in which the hero and villain are not directly specified. If your football team didn’t make it to the Super Bowl in 2009, most likely you went for the New Orleans Saints because they had never won a Super Bowl before, whereas their opponent, the Indianapolis Colts, have won two.

Who is the submissive in the opening scene from Laughs? The nobleman. So, we will empathize with him without the storyteller telling us to do so. In fact, sometimes, the storyteller can insult his audience’s intelligence by over-articulating who they should root for, instead of allowing human nature to run its course.

One scene later, we are introduced to the protagonist, Gwynplaine, the young son of the nobleman from the first scene. He has been disfigured – he lives with an eternal grim, Carnival freak-like grin on his face, carved by the King’s surgeons as further punishment for the nobleman. Not only that, but he has been left to die in a blizzard.

He has been abused. Without knowing anything else about the character or the movie, we already feel sorry for Gwynplaine and wish justice and catharsis for him. We feel like this is a choice we are making, but again, as a storyteller, you must understand that it is no choice at all.

To use Chaplin as an example, take the opening scene of his masterpiece City Lights, in which the mayor of the city is holding a presentation to unveil a new monument. When they pull the curtain to reveal it, the Little Tramp is found sleeping on it. We don’t need to be told why he’s sleeping on it – there’s only one reason someone would sleep in public – he’s homeless. Pathos is achieved.

But now, he’s woken up in front of practically an entire city of people, all shouting, laughing, and jeering at him. He is embarrassed, apologizes, and tries to get down. Who reading this has never been embarrassed in public before? We immediately project our own memories and nightmares of embarrassment onto his and feel for him. We also laugh, of course, for as Uta Hagen says, comedy comes from recognizing one’s self.

A more modern example: The Big Lebowski. What’s the first scene? The Dude is comically abused by thugs in his own home. Pathos. We may be laughing at him, but want to see him succeed in the end. Or take Avatar, now the highest-grossing film of all time. The first time we see the protagonist in Avatar, we notice he is disabled and gets around in a wheelchair. He’s down and out. Another lesson: Human beings will never root against a disabled character unless he’s a total prick… like Jeffrey Lebowski in The Big Lebowski.

Of course, pathos is by no means the only way to get your audience rooting for your protagonist. There is also admiration. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the first scene with our protagonist shows him pulling off daring, high risk cons on entire towns by bringing in a “captured” wanted bandit only to collect the reward and break him out again at the last second. I’m tempted to assert that admiration isn’t a choice, either. You can’t help but admire the hell outta this guy. You may not agree with his ethics, but you cannot watch him pull this feat off and not root for him.

But although admiration may not be a choice, it isn’t as simply achieved as pathos. To achieve pathos, all you need to show is your main character being down and out. To achieve admiration, well, you have to somehow give us a reason to admire the character, and that can take some additional craftsmanship, especially for an anti-hero like Clint Eastwood’s character in Ugly. One of the ways to achieve admiration is articulated in the late Blake Snyder’s controversial book Save the Cat, in which he asserts you should literally have your character save something or someone or perform a good deed in the opening scene to make the audience root for him. Personally, I don’t think this is enough. I think it can be used beautifully in addition to pathos, as it is used in The Man Who Laughs when the cold, starving, deformed Gwynplaine saves a freezing infant from the blizzard in his first scene. We already feel sorry for him and he’s thinking of others?

What’s the lesson you can take from all of this? What’s the lesson I’m taking? I guess it’s just to trust in human nature. When you tell a story, know that human nature is your eternal collaborator. Trust that if you show your character being down and out the audience will root for him. Trust that if you show your protagonist wanting something but obstructed from achieving it, the audience will inherently project its own desires onto the boon and wish your hero to obtain it.

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with writer/director Shane Black in which he said that all a storyteller has to do to make his audience feel for a character is have him say, “I’m scared” (Shane was using this as part of a larger point about creating sympathetic antagonists, which is another angle you can go with pathos that is of particular interest. A hero will always be more interesting if you give him a dark side, and a villain will always be more interesting if you give him a heart).

Now, what you do with your characters in Act Two after you’ve made us feel for them… well, that’s the $64,000 question. Go study McKee.

The War on Christmas

As a child I was enrolled in a private Catholic school, attended church with my family most Sundays, and, like the majority of children in westernized nations, cherished Christmas.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you “Be of good cheer”
It’s the most wonderful time of the year
It’s the hap-happiest season of all
With those holiday greetings and gay happy meetings
When friends come to call
It’s the hap- happiest season of all!

Those lyrics really rang true for me (and still do). I haven’t been religious for a number of years now yet I retain a great fondness for the holiday. This will help you to understand why my ears perk up at first allusion to a “war on Christmas”. After all, how could anyone hate Christmas and wish to “make war” on it?

People who claim there to be a “war on Christmas” cite three recurring arguments when making their case. I will address them in the typical order of argument.

  • I can’t say “Merry Christmas” anymore. People insist on “Happy Holidays.” This is extreme political correctness at its worst.

In my (albeit limited) time on this planet, I have never met a soul who would soberly react with hostility towards another human being genuinely wishing them a “Merry Christmas” (and if that person does exist, they aren’t worth your steaming over them). Indeed the overwhelming majority of people who send and receive wishes of “Merry Christmas” perceive it as a friendly gesture of goodwill toward their fellow mankind. However, it seems increasingly common that some are abusing the yuletide greeting as a rebellious challenge in the face of those who say “Happy Holidays” (a spit in the face of political correctness, if you will).

I have never understood the negative stigma the evangelical community has attached to “Happy Holidays”. It would seem to me to be an all-inclusive expression, including the celebration of Christ’s birth, the Festival of Lights, and those who just enjoy the day off work. How can it be a slight at a holiday it happily accommodates? It is a convenient utterance designed to complement an increasingly multicultural and religiously diverse world.

To insist upon “Merry Christmas” in this context seems to me a bit stubborn, small-minded, and arrogant. By all means, wish me a “Merry Christmas!” Same to you! But don’t roll your eyes when someone chooses to say “Happy Holidays” or take it as an affront to your religious traditions. Believe me, most people who say “Happy Holidays” aren’t using it as a cipher for “Screw You, Jesus!”

  • You can’t have Christmas without Jesus and Christianity. You all have Christians to thank for the holiday. December 25th is the birth date of Jesus Christ and those who celebrate the holiday should recognize it as such.

First of all, The New Testament gives no date or year for Jesus’ birth.  The earliest gospel – St. Mark’s – begins with the baptism of an adult Jesus.  This suggests that the earliest Christians lacked interest in or knowledge of Jesus’ birthdate.

There is tremendous evidence that Christmas has its origin in the winter solstice festivals that most ancient civilizations observed. According to historical record, Roman pagans first introduced the holiday of Saturnalia, a week long period of lawlessness celebrated between December 17-25.  During this period, Roman courts were closed, and Roman law dictated that no one could be punished for damaging property or injuring people during the weeklong celebration. There was a public banquet, followed by private gift-giving, singing naked in the streets (a precursor to modern caroling), consumption of man-shaped biscuits (a morbid forerunner to gingerbread cookies), and continual drunken partying. The poet Catullus called it “the best of days.”

When Rome came under Christian rule, the church made every effort to convert pagans to their faith. One way to do this was to allow them to keep their celebrations while gradually lacing them with Christian significance. This wasn’t an inherently sinister practice – just smart salesmanship.

But let’s say for a moment that American evangelicals are right and all this history is bullocks. So what if Christmas was originated in the Christian faith? No one is telling any Christians they can’t believe that or celebrate it with their friends and families within that context. Unfortunately, this courtesy is not granted in the other direction as many Christians demand that any winter festivities resembling or employing Christmas symbolism must be about Jesus. If not, they are offended and see it as an affront to their religion. You see a pattern emerging here, I’m sure.

  • The United States was founded as a Christian state and thus the religious tradition of Christmas is by definition an official state holiday. This permits organized Christmas celebration in public schools receiving federal tax dollars among other institutions.
The religious views of the Founding Fathers has been a point of contention for quite some time and goes far beyond the scope of the “war on Christmas,” so I will attempt to limit my dissertation to a few quotations. The first is from the treaty with Tripoli, drafted in 1796 under George Washington and signed by John Adams in 1797:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Musselmen; and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
Not enough? Let’s look at the First Ammendment of the United States Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

What about Thomas Jefferson’s letter addressed to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptist Association on January 1, 1802:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their “legislature” should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

Why do I feel these quotations won’t be sufficient in convincing people that the United States was not founded on the Christian faith? Oh, that’s right – because these quotes have been around since the 18th century and we’re still having this debate.

There is no “war on Christmas,” and I’m terribly glad there isn’t. No one is going to come into your home on Christmas morning, tear down your Christmas tree and burn your stockings in the fire. If we are ever to get along in this country, we must recognize that our individual traditions do not always flush with everyone else’s, and this is something to be encouraged.

Public schools and government institutions may not allow Christmas parties or the organized singing of Christmas carols since they receive federal funding and are thus protected under the separation of church and state, but this simply asks that you save your Christmas cheer for any other occasion. Is that such a hard pill to swallow? Is it such an offense that it may not be entirely appropriate that Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and atheist taxes be put toward ensuring your ability to see and hear Christmas iconography everywhere at all times?

Christmas is a huge celebration in America and it will be for decades to come. To perceive (and at times knowingly fabricate) a faux “war” on an institution as well-off and thriving as Christmas in America is to belittle the very real struggles of and among the deprived and oppressed.

Of course the overwhelming majority of Christians do not believe in a war on Christmas – my intention is not to generalize all Christians. Unfortunately, many of the loudest Christians can’t stop talking about it, so I felt I should give my two cents.

I’d love to find and post the link to a good opposing editorial to mine, but I’m struggling to find one. If you find (or write) a good one, send me the link and I’ll post it.

Michael and the Packers Factory

Me sitting in Lori Nickel's chair in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel office inside Lambeau Field.

Roald Dahl’s classic novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a wonderful allegory for our collective wish to visit the home of our heroes and be granted a view behind the curtain. The 1971 film adaptation is also a cautionary tale of what can happen when you take advantage of your privilege. Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe sneak into the Bubble Room and sample Fizzy Lifting Drinks in opposition to Willy Wonka’s deterrence, resulting in the initial withholding of Charlie’s lifetime supply of chocolate as punishment.

While filming my documentary Last Day at Lambeau I nearly had my own Bubble Room moment.

The media parking lot at Lambeau Field.

It was October of 2010, the week prior to Brett Favre’s last game at Lambeau Field, the epic showdown we were centering our film around. I had appointments to conduct on-camera interviews with Lori Nickel, Greg Bedard and Tom Silverstein (all reporters of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) at the stadium. Lori instructed me to park in the media parking lot and to enter through the media entrance.

We parked, gathered our gear and headed for the door. I had been to Lambeau Field before as a fan, entering through the Lambeau Field Atrium or some other main entrance, but I had never stepped through the “back door,” for lack of a better term, of this hallowed place. That was thrill enough in itself.

Lori let us in and guided us to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel office. This was a Wednesday, so the weekly telephone press conference with the Packers’ opponent was about to take place. Lori’s office was right next door to the conference room, so she told us if we stayed in the room, we’d probably be able to eavesdrop on the conversation. And what timing – today’s press conference was with the subject of our film, Brett Lorenzo Favre.

We listened as Brett had virtually nothing but kind words to say about the object of his 2008 hatred, Ted Thompson, and his rising star successor, Aaron Rodgers. I also heard the present voices of other Packers reporters with whom I had forthcoming interviews scheduled in the coming days (Mike Vandermause, Rob Demovsky, Pete Dougherty).

The Jeff Blumb memo.

While awaiting Lori’s return to begin her interview, I couldn’t help but look around the room at all the pieces of Packers history. There were old game tickets, programs, media guides, and sports almanacs, but the most “geek attack” inducing of them all was a memo pinned to a cork board. It was from Jeff Blumb, the former PR director for the team, and it concerned an incident in the early 2000’s when former head coach Mike Sherman was furious over a cell phone going off among the media during one of his press conferences. The memo threatened that unless the “offender” come forth and “admit his or her mistake,” a scheduled Brett Favre press conference would be “cancelled for everyone.” I had vague recollections of reading something about this episode at the time it occurred, but seeing the actual memo was a peek behind the curtain indeed.

When Lori returned, she sat in her chair and gave us a spectacular 30-minute interview. We thanked her, packed up our gear and relocated to an empty room across the hall where we would interview Greg Bedard for 15 minutes during his final week as a Packers reporter before taking up his new job as sports editor of the Boston Globe (we are forever indebted to you for finding time for us, Greg).

After we finished Greg’s interview, we had one more to conduct: Tom Silverstein. I knew the location I wanted but doubted the likelihood of acquiring permission. I asked him if we could film in the Packers’ media auditorium where the star players and coaches give their press conferences after games. Tom said he didn’t see a reason why we couldn’t.

A still from our film - Tom Silverstein in the Packers' press auditorium location.

Tom led us to the auditorium. In order to get there, one has to weave one’s way through a number of other rooms and hallways, eventually arriving at the tunnel that the Packers players take out to the playing grass! We could only grab a glimpse before we breached the entrance to the press auditorium. It seemed smaller in person, as most things do, but I immediately recalled all the famous moments which took place behind that podium. All the post-game interviews. The announcements of draft picks. The training camp updates. Most relevant to our project was the Brett Favre trade press conference with Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson and Mark Murphy.

We finished our wonderful interview with Tom and he went back to his office, leaving us in the auditorium to pack up our gear. In order to get back to the media entrance to exit the stadium, we had to pass through the players’ field tunnel again. This time I got a better look.

I was Charlie Bucket in the Bubble Room.

I looked over both shoulders. No one was around besides me and my two crew members. We started to walk up the tunnel to the grass. It was like the moment in the David Anspaugh film, Rudy, when the title character first steps foot on the grass at Notre Dame. But I wasn’t going to walk on Lambeau Field — I just wanted to get a good look. I wanted to peer through the large garage-like door porthole looking out to the bowl.

We grabbed this snapshot of the field tunnel opening as we dashed away.

We approached to about ten yards of the field anticipating someone coming from around the corner to exclaim, “Get the hell out of there!” Suddenly a loud, mechanical growl exploded in the tunnel. The three of us jumped and immediately speed-walked away from the field back toward the press auditorium. After a second of panic, we realized it was the sound of the tunnel door opening (we had evidently activated the motion sensor). We bolted anyway. We were there as guests of Lori, Greg and Tom, and we were not about to make them regret it.

But I will always wonder what could’ve been — if I had tasted the forbidden Fizzy Lifting Drink and continued through the open tunnel door and out onto the field. We were wearing badges and carrying equipment. If we had just acted like we were supposed to be there, would anyone have stopped us? We will never know.

As is, my Bubble Room experience is a memory I will carry with me forever.

Turn Left

Robert McKee is the author of "Story", a tome on storytelling principles which I consider essential reading.

“No scene that doesn’t turn.”

Such is the motto of Robert McKee’s bible for storytellers, Story. Until I read his book a number of years ago and began hearing more and more of my peers refer to “turns” and “reversals” and “turning left when they think you’ll turn right,” I had no idea how important a concept this was for screenwriting.

If William Goldman is right and “screenplays are structure,” then scenes are turns.

The next time you watch a film, really pay close attention to the structure of the individual scenes (It’s best to do this with a film you are very familiar with — your brain won’t distract you while attempting to follow an unfamiliar plot). Nearly every movie that follows classic Hollywood storytelling conventions will construct every scene around at least one turn. The beginning of the scene will present one situation, and by the end of the scene, that situation will turn to something else. The character will start happy and turn sad. The hero will be losing the battle and suddenly summon the strength to win. The girl will be making a fool of herself in front of the boy, but the boy will actually find this cute instead of foolish.

An extreme type of turn is called a reversal. These are 180-degree turns from one extreme to its polar opposite. Alive to dead. Attraction to repulsion. Submission to domination.

One of the more hilarious reversals I’ve seen comes in Shane Black’s noir-comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. In the scene, Robert Downey, Jr. is about to play Russian roulette on a captive in an effort to extract information. We’ve seen this scenario play out a thousand times, and Black knows it. Downey puts a single bullet in the chamber of a .38 revolver and takes aim at his cowering prisoner. He cries out, “Where is the girl?” and pulls the trigger. Since we’ve seen this scenario play out before, we expect it to go the exact same way as it always has: click, click, and finally the prisoner can’t bear it anymore and gives up everything. But in Black’s film, before the prisoner can even deny knowing anything, the first pull of the trigger sends the only bullet in the revolver into his head, killing him. This always gets a rousing response of uproarious laughter from the audience, because not only were we not expecting it, but our common sense tells us that in the real world indeed this would happen from time to time when employing such a reckless interrogation method (Uta Hagen says comedy comes from us seeing ourselves).

Another example comes in Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges. Brendon Gleeson enters the scene wanting to kill the character portrayed by Colin Farrell. But when he approaches Farrell with his weapon drawn, Farrell (who doesn’t detect Gleeson’s approach) pull his own gun on himself in attempted suicide. Gleeson’s altruistic instincts kick in and his motivation goes from wanting to kill Farrell to wanting to save Farrell.

While you don’t need a reversal in every scene, it’s good to have as many as you can come up with. It keeps us on the edge of our seat. It’s the quality that makes us all say, “I had no idea what was going to happen in that movie.” It’s even better if you can play on previous cinematic convention like Black does in Bang Bang, making us expect something we’ve seen a trillion times only to deliver the exact opposite.

One of my mentors, Ben Taylor, recently wrote a terrific double-turn scene which takes place in a gay strip club. It shows a drunk, middle-aged man stumbling around, seemingly infatuated with one of the boy dancers on stage. When one of the bouncers at the bar tries to escort the man out, he exclaims, “I’m his father!” Everyone freezes. Shock. The situation appears to be a father has come in to a gay strip club and discovered his own son as a performer. This is the scene’s first turn. But then the boy dancer shouts from the stage, “You’re not my father!” The drunk man replies, “Okay, I’m not his father.” This is a reversal of the initial turn, and got tons of laughs.

You can fold this on itself as much as the logic in your narrative allows. But there is a danger in placing too many turns and reversals in your scenes. It can start to come across as absurd coincidence. I just made this mistake in a scene I wrote for a workshop:

In my scene (loosely based on a scene from Bukowski’s Post Office), a man returns home to his apartment, drunk, to find that all the furniture has been changed (turn #1). He also finds a woman he doesn’t know lying on his bed, beckoning him to stay with her (turn #2). When he starts to give in to her, thinking it’s just his lucky day, she mentions her husband (turn #3). Our hero asks her what apartment number this is. She says 304. Our hero freaks and proclaims, “I’m on the wrong floor! My key opened your door!” (turn #4). When he tries to leave, there’s a knock at the door. It’s the woman’s husband (turn #5). When the husband enters and sees our hero, it turns out they are old college buddies! (turn #6). Instead of kicking him out, the husband invites our hero to stay for dinner (turn #7). While I got decent notes on this scene in class, under no circumstances can I argue it is anything other than a cautionary example of the risk of implementing too many turns in a single narrative (for an example of a movie that does this, look no further than 2005’s inexplicable Best Picture winner, Crash, in which a select number of characters continue to conveniently bump into each other multiple times in a single day in a city of nearly ten million people).

The opposite extreme, of course, is writing a scene with no turns. If you are the audience of a narrative with no turns, you will quickly get bored and wonder why you’re watching it. It will feel like it isn’t going anywhere. Think of a scene where a character starts happy and ends happy. Or a narrative where a family is living a nice, quiet life in the suburbs and in the end still lives a nice, quiet life in the suburbs. Stories are change — otherwise, what’s the point? To quote McKee’s fictional depiction in Adaptation., “Your characters must change, and the change must come from them.”


Christopher Hitchens Dead at 62

Oh, how I wanted to interview you, Christopher.

I can usually pinpoint the moment of inception for a particular story idea or film concept I have. For Last Day at Lambeau it was reading Mike Johnson’s piece “Still Casting a Shadow” in the 2010 Maple Street Press Packers Annual. I’ve also for a long time considered a documentary film chronicling and examining the events surrounding the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad Cartoons of September, 2005. The inception for that idea came after watching Christopher Hitchens give a speech at the 2007 Atheist Alliance International event on YouTube. Here is the first part of that speech (the second can be found on YouTube with a simple search):

I think the moment that touched me the most was when Hitchens emphatically states that the freedoms were forfeited “without a struggle.” You don’t have to be an atheist or agree with what Hitchens is saying to feel the emotion of that statement. I feel that this sentence reflected a lot of what Christopher Hitchens was all about.

I never met Christopher, but I came to know him through his writing and speaking. He was a freedom fighter, more than anything else. He was a “justice freak” and made great efforts to thwart injustice at every turn, and he did it with creativity as his weapon. Christopher wrote nearly twenty books (of which I’ve only read one, God Is Not Great), was a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, and was a columnist at Slate Magazine. He was an incredibly quick thinker and could come up with crushing, devastating rebuttals in any debate at the drop of a hat (this would rub some people the wrong way, but it was only because Christopher was so much further down the road of thought and didn’t want to waste time holding your hand as you tried to catch up with him).

Two of the writings that stick most in my mind were his editorial on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and his scathing review of Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.

Of course, one of the most valuable of Hitchens’ contributions to society came during the heat of the torture debate in 2008. “Is waterboarding torture,” everyone was asking. But, of course, not one of the decision-makers was willing to submit his or herself to the procedure to actually see firsthand what it was like. Christopher Hitchens did. And he said it was torture.

Christopher died of esophageal cancer last night three hours away from me at the University of Texas MD Anderson Care Center in Houston. He had been in town for a final public appearance at The Texas Freethought Convention with Atheist Alliance of America.

I’ll finish with a quote from Brandon G. Withrow’s eulogy of Hitch in The Huffington Post: “Though Hitchens was not always an easy medicine to take, he was necessary to our health.”

I'll miss you, Hitch.

From the Three Other Horsemen: