Category Archives: Cinema Theory

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.

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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 Dictionary.com 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.


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.”

Amen.