by Joseph E. Green (with permission)
Of the top thirty grossing films on this world list, there are two films which do not really fit the mold. They are Titanic, by this measure the most popular movie in the history of the world, and Forrest Gump. Much has been written about Titanic, both pro and con, and William Goldman even went so far as to say that it deserved the Oscar for its screenplay – despite the banal dialogue – because the structure of the screenplay was such that it carried audiences to (for many) an emotionally devastating conclusion. That is, if structure is screenplay, then no other structure was as successful that year.[i] It may be useful to briefly analyze Titanic for a moment, because from the first time I saw it, I was struck by how calculating it was for the audience. The character played by Leonardo DiCaprio is a street-smart young man, struggling with no money, but possessed of roguish charm, good sense, good looks, and a disdain for snobbery. Lead characters in popular movies frequently have such characteristics, and if they can snap off a wisecrack or two so much the better, as with the John McClane character in the Die Hard pictures. In addition to all this, there are rich snobs (most notably the one played – in a performance so inane it approaches a kind of surrealism – by Billy Zane) to contrast to DiCaprio’s inherent goodness. The Kate Winslet character comes from the upper-class world, and although used to the accoutrements of a comfortable existence she nonetheless falls in love with penniless DiCaprio, thus earning audience empathy.
There are gargantuan fantasy elements here in the treatment of social class. Although somewhat unusual for an American film in that it recognizes the existence of social classes (albeit safely in the past rather the present), the presentation is infantile. Indeed, the politics of Titanic are no more complicated, nor is the love story substantially different from, the Disney film Lady and the Tramp.
In the last half of the picture, the ship meets its fate, crashing and coming apart in as effective and dramatic a fashion as possible for $250 million. There is some more heavy-handed attempt at social commentary, as DiCaprio races to save a group of people locked away at the bottom of the ship. However, this is mostly a backdrop to serve as further evidence of DiCaprio’s inherent heroism. Eventually both he and Winslet get off the ship, but he dies saving her life, leaving her with a lifetime of memories that haunt her forever – That Perfect Boy Who Saved Me. Besides being a fantasy vision of a real human relationship, of which there are none in the picture, the film operates in the sort of underlined drama that is easily translatable and therefore marketable to the people of the world: a world united in its desire for uncluttered sentiment in beautiful and dramatic surroundings.
Forrest Gump, the other oddity on the list of thirty, likewise uses big emotions and big symbols to get its points across, and is arguably one of the most insidious films ever made. The movie tells the story of the idiot Gump, played by the likable Tom Hanks, and his adventures in misunderstanding. Although uncomprehending of any single event that occurs to him, he manages to survive although almost everyone he knows dies or is maimed in some tragic event. At the end of the film, he delivers the signature line of the piece, in which he states that some people think we live in a godless, uncaring world, and some people think that a kindly God looks after us. Gump theorizes: “I…think it’s both.” Critic Roger Ebert found the film insightful:
As Forrest’s life becomes a guided tour of straight-arrow America, Jenny (played by Robin Wright) goes on a parallel tour of the counterculture… Eventually it becomes clear that between them Forrest and Jenny have covered all the landmarks of our recent cultural history, and the accommodation they arrive at in the end is like a dream of reconciliation for our society. What a magical movie.[ii]
The concept that Forrest Gump covers “all the landmarks of our recent cultural history” is so ludicrous as to be held in contempt. The film’s attempts at historical reference include such notable occurrences as the invention of the ‘smiley face’ and digitally placing the actor Hanks into existing footage of LBJ, for example. For Ebert to postulate that utopian societal reconciliation is depicted in the relationship between a mental deficient and a suicidal drug addict is lunacy. Nevertheless, audiences agreed with Ebert at some level, as indicated by its massive popularity. The themes of simplicity, happiness, an implied religiosity, and a participation in all of the key institutions of patriotic life are depicted in Forrest Gump. Gump is a successful football player, acquits himself well in Vietnam, always behaves in a simple, ostensibly moral fashion and even raises a child on his own. The fact that he learns nothing, is in fact incapable of learning, never made a dent in the fantasy-seeking audience. The most telling moment in the film occurs when Gump is enlisted into the army. A drill sergeant asks him what he should do. Gump answers: “Whatever you say, Sergeant.” To which the sergeant replies: “That is the most outstanding goddamn answer I’ve ever heard, Gump! You must be some kind of goddamn genius!” Of course. Gump is the perfect soldier and the perfect citizen, one who is happy and content in a world of meaningless symbols, following the orders of authorities and reveling in the wisdom of convention.
Screenwriters are aware of the conventions of film, and indeed in any Screenwriting 101 book you will find a description of the structure and techniques used to create characters for drama. Some characters can be dramatized and some cannot. If your lead is a shy, book-obsessed librarian, then your story had better be a romantic comedy about how an extroverted character gets the lead out of his or her shell. (E.g., Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; if Winslet had also been a nebbish, then there’s no movie.) A plot involving two bookish characters talking about books is, in the best of circumstances, an independent film made in verité style with no budget.
If you want your movie to appeal to a mass audience, it had better have explosive sequences, and they better be up front, in the first ten pages of script. Screenwriting guru Syd Field describes the ridiculous opening sequence of The Matrix (in which a woman dressed in black leaps across tall buildings to elude the Bad Guys) with “Whoa…if that’s not a grabber, I don’t know what is.”[iii] A good example of this convention is illustrated in the James Bond films, which typically begin with some bit of excitement unrelated to the main plot.
A standard script has 120 pages, as one page of correctly formatted script corresponds roughly to one minute of screen time. Field goes on to dissect the formula script as one which has three acts. These consist of the Set Up (pages1-30), followed by what he terms Plot Point I, the Confrontation (pages 30-90), Plot Point II, and then the Resolution (pages 90-120). A plot point, according to Field, is an incident in the story that causes action or changes the direction or flow of the action.[iv] Different books have different names for these contrivances, but almost 100% of all film scripts follow this pattern. It is therefore quite easy for someone familiar with the structure to instantly deduce the plot from a trailer, or even a two-sentence description or poster in some cases. The flow of a given picture generally follows an arc in which the lead character is revealed to have a problem or weakness in the first act which is resolved in the final act. For example:
For Cliffhanger, Sylvester Stallone – always a strong protector of his popular character – insisted on adding the opening scene, in which his high mountain ranger fails and a girl falls to her death. This destroyed his [i.e., Stallone’s character] confidence, which he was then able to recover (redeem) his heroic actions in the subsequent story.[v]
Redemption is a highly popular dramatic motif. It is present in virtually all sports films: Remember the Titans, Miracle, Pride, The Natural, etc. Romantic comedies start with a character that has a certain problem which is resolved by the other person. The ending of such films typically has the male and female leads gazing into one another’s eyes before kissing and then fade-out. In bad romantic films, Plot Point II is often the female lead seeing the made lead in some activity that seems morally disreputable but is actually explained by information the audience has and the female lead, by various contrivances, doesn’t. (For example, she walks in on him when he seems to be kissing another girl, but in reality he is fending off her advances, or it’s a goodbye kiss after he’s explains how much he loves the heroine, etc.) In the movie French Kiss, Meg Ryan thinks that Kevin Kline has slept with a dynamite French girl but it turns out he couldn’t go through with it because he inexplicably preferred Ryan. And so on.
Denny Flinn offers the following advice to budding screenwriters: “Think of a Hollywood movie as a good roller coaster ride,”[vi] and “Don’t leave anything unresolved.”[vii] Exactly. The bulk of Hollywood films are meant to be enjoyed as one enjoys ice cream. This generally applies even to “social event” films or “Oscar” type films. They employ a different motif, but the structure is just as present, albeit often with better acting (though not always) and slightly altered music cues. A great many Oscar-winning films have the same characteristics noted by Denny Flinn, in that they present a roller coaster ride in which everything is resolved. A Beautiful Mind, American Beauty, The English Patient, The Departed, Gladiator, Crash, the aforementioned Gump, and numerous others have these qualities.
Another typical screenwriting how-to book was written by Tom Lazarus, author of the screenplay for Stigmata. He insists that screenwriters place the lead character at the center of every scene: “We pay the actor who plays the lead the most money and we want to see him front and center.”[viii] He agrees with Flinn on endings: “Endings should answer all questions, tie up all loose ends.”[ix] And he proposes a structure for the screenplay that resembles attention-deficit disorder: “You want to present to your reader very different images on the end of one scene and on the beginning of the next scene.”[x] This is a very interesting note, and it is reflected in modern films, with their vernacular of the “smash cut” (meaning a “hard” or especially disorienting cut to a different scene) and their emphasis on constant movement. The result of this can sometimes be an entire film that looks like a two-hour commercial, as in City of Angels, which from a dramatic standpoint appeared to be selling insurance, and The Constant Gardener, which employed techniques learned from television commercials to painful effect in annihilating the otherwise compelling story. It also specifically encourages the constant disorientation of the reader (or viewer) as a means of maintaining attention. This extraordinary note reflects the raw speed of the visual world presented to us on a daily basis via television and the internet. With fewer and fewer people able to maintain any level of extended concentration, the focus moves to a constant flow of unrelated invention, a perpetual startling of the viewer. Thus screenplays (and their accompanying films) begin, more and more, to look like someone flipping channels randomly on a television set – as in the Charlie’s Angels films, for example.
Most amusingly, in Lazarus’s book he takes a firm moral tone with regard to cinematic violence. He castigates Saving Private Ryan for the “disgusting” and “unrelenting gore.”[xi] However, several pages later, he describes a meeting he took with the creators of the television program Hunter, a cop show. He earned this meeting due to his yeoman work on the David Hasselhoff series Knight Rider. He describes himself pitching an idea for a story for Hunter, about “pornography and snuff films” to be called – no kidding – Rape and Revenge. The idea is accepted with enthusiasm.[xii]
The Scope of This Series
In the course of this series, The Paranoid Style in American Cinema, I have tried to select what I think our examples of skilful filmmaking that, given the restrictions of the medium, have enlightened an American history that, in a paradoxical sense, is kept alive by it. There is a war of perspectives going on, with attendant attempts to bury the past in iconography. Even when political considerations are not uppermost, in any adaptation from life, complexity is often the first thing to go due to the nature of films.
The films I’ve selected for analysis are all from the period after World War II to the present. Whereas the establishment, with its police, military authority, and impenetrable sense of order had been viewed primarily as working for Good, by the end of the fifties cracks began to show. A few films began to question the premises behind the Cold War, for example, and then following the Kennedy assassination a number of films were made questioning the value of the military industrial complex and whether the “American Way” was American at all. These films still moved ahead against the grain, however, digging their way into the stubborn mainstream, often disobeying the conventions of both the larger society and the cinematic language itself.
Perhaps paradoxically, I wish to draw upon the work of a Jewish Biblical scholar as a model for my tasks in this book. In The Death of Jesus, Joel Carmichael outlines his approach for reviewing the Gospel material of the Bible. He first notes that all of the Gospels had been heavily edited and altered in the centuries following the time of Christ. Indeed, certain books had been deemed non-canonical, such as the Gospel of Thomas and so on. Now this editing and structuring had the political point of asserting a universalizing Pauline Jesus rather than a Jewish prophet. It is a kind of literary transubstantiation in which an obscure (and historically dubious) figure from a Jewish sect bent on political revolution becomes a worldwide Savior. However, during the process of this editorializing, not all of the original content conflicting with editorial preference could be removed, due to the fact that some stories and events were too well-known. He thus adopts a methodology for reviewing the original texts:
This theme is basic in any study of Christian origins; it will be reverted to often as our inquiry proceeds.
We shall examine the multiple, disparate elements woven into the Gospels under the influence of this double shift of perspective – theological and historical.
This will give us our cardinal criterion: Anything that conflicts with this transformation of perspective is likely to be true.
That is, any fragment we can manage to isolate that runs counter to the prevailing Gospel tendency of exalting Jesus, of preaching his universality, and of emphasizing his originality, will be regarded as ipso facto probable (other things, of course, being equal).[xiii]
Carmichael’s readings thus attach importance to incongruity in the text – those odd moments and incidents which seldom are discussed during sermon. He identifies and highlights the events that swim upstream from the general narrative. This is what I have tried to do in the context of these political films – identify those going in the wrong direction, isolate the reasons why, and identify the truths that lie behind that movement.
My particular concerns throughout this series will be to connect each film to its real-life inspirations (and, often, its correct predictions, as in The Parallax View and Network). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the bulk of the films I explore were made in the 1970’s – besides being a golden age of American film in general, it is also the golden age for realistic adult films of the macroscopic type, the film of social analysis. The adult world was put aside, seemingly forever, with the explosion of Star Wars and its imitators, but it seems as though such films are making a comeback, with the assistance of George Clooney. This is perhaps a hopeful sign in a United States which seems to have forgotten its history – even its most recent experiences with Watergate, Iran-Contra and beyond.
[i] William Goldman, The Big Picture (Applause Books: New York 2001), 241.
[ii] Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert’s Four-Star Reviews, 1967-2007 (Andrews McMeel Publishing LLC: Kansas City 2007), 265.
[iii] Syd Field, Screenplay (Random House: New York 2005), 152.
[iv] Ibid, 200-201.
[v] Denny Martin Flinn, How Not to Write a Screenplay (Watson-Guphill Publications: New York 1999), 172-173.
[vi] Ibid, 152.
[vii] Ibid, 164.
[viii] Tom Lazarus, Secrets of Film Writing (St. Martin’s Press: New York 2001), 96.
[ix] Ibid, 144.
[x] Ibid, 170.
[xi] Ibid, 178.
[xii] Ibid, 192.
[xiii] Joel Carmichael, The Death of Jesus (Barnes & Noble Books: New York 1995 ), 12.