I watched King of Marvin Gardens many, many years ago, when it was a VHS rental from a video store (remember those?) I had very little memory of the film, apart from Jack Nicholson’s opening monolog and the one he records later in the bathroom, which I used for a mixtape (remember those too?)
So it was a delight to watch this again and see the film for the “first” time. Bob Rafelson had made several films with Nicholson up to this point, most famously two years before, Five Easy Pieces, which, similarly, many can’t remember save the diner scene.
Stranger by the Lake, Alain Guiraudie’s hypnotic, dreamlike thriller set at a cruising spot for gays sometime vaguely in the early ‘90s, made many best-of lists for 2014, including Film Comment. It’s now on Netflix, where I watched it one lunchtime (not the best time to watch a mysterious thriller, I admit).
Before Picasso went Cubist, he knew the techniques of the old masters. Before the Coen Brothers became one of the more adventurous commercial filmmakers out there, they knew their genre and structure. Blood Simple is tight as a drum when it comes to plotting. But as they got more confident, they began to experiment with form, character, and structure.
Let’s take their Oscar-winning Fargo from 1996. Like their first film, it’s a crime story where a plan goes terribly awry. But in terms of structure, we are a long way from classic noir. This is the first film we’ve looked at that refutes the three quarter structure that so many films follow. How and why it does that is what we’ll get into. Continue reading Film Three-Quarterly: Fargo (1996)→
Having just looked at an example of Hollywood’s classic period, Casablanca, I thought I’d turn to a contemporary film, a difficult film, and one that at first blanch doesn’t appear to have too much of a story: The Master.
With There Will Be Blood (2007) director Paul Thomas Anderson began to explore “difficult” narratives with plots that vanish the closer you get to them, like desert mirages.
As Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film, it is “fabulously well-acted and crafted, but when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.”
What exactly *is* this film about? Yes, it’s about a troubled sailor Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in with a charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his self-help cult. Freddie is looking for help–or is he?–and by the end of the film, he really hasn’t found it. Continue reading Film Three-Quarterly: The Master (2012)→
One of the pleasures of this project is sitting down to re-watch some classic films, this time with a different objective. Casablanca is often used in screenwriting courses as an example of a perfect narrative and structure. But if a beginning screenwriter looks to Casablanca for advice on how to write a script, they will shed tears and blood trying to match something so finely interwoven. As Robert McKee points out in “Story,” Casablanca introduces five subplots before getting to the main plot–the love triangle between Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa, and Paul Henreid’s Victor Laszlo.
Written by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, and based on a play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, Casablanca has a wit that does not take away from the serious nature of its politics, or the mature pain and regrets felt by all who come to this limbo-like city. Despite their fine dress, the great music, and the fun of the casino/bar that is Rick’s, this is a city where life is cheap, and where people make money almost exclusively off people’s misery.
The film is 102 minutes long, so according to our F3Q rules, our main scenes arrive at 25.5, 51, and 76.5 minutes in. Let’s see what we can learn about this film by looking at them.
By the time we get to the first quarter, we’ve been introduced to the city of Casablanca and its position as a possible gateway to freedom from those escaping the Nazis. We’ve also been introduced to–in order–Rick’s Cafe (and how it lay in the flight path of the all-important airport), Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt) the Nazi, Captain Renault (the wonderful Claude Rains), Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson), a slew of minor but well rounded bit players, Rick, and then Ugarte (Peter Lorre) and Ferrari (Sydney Greenstreet). We’ve seen how Rick operates–he refuses to help out Ugarte, from whom he gets the stolen Letters of Transit–and we hear him say “I stick my neck out for nobody.” We hear that a major member of the resistance Victor Laszlo is coming to Casablanca, traveling with a woman, and Rick is not to help them leave.
So at this 25th minute, this is exactly when Ilsa and Laszlo walk in, setting the plot in motion. Seeing Ilsa again sucker punches Rick right in his broken heart. He thought he’d never see her again. And Laszlo is a man most people thought was dead. The tension arises through things both unsaid and unknown, which will be worked out through the rest of the film. Does Laszlo know that Rick and Ilsa were lovers? Does Rick know that Laszlo was the dead husband–or so she thought–that Ilsa spoke about in Paris? Who does she love still? And who will Rick help?
Several things make this quarter interesting compared to standard screenplays. Rick is not a hero who makes a choice in this scene. The film builds and builds until much later, past the final quarter, when Rick finally makes a choice. This script would not get out of development nowadays, perhaps, with such a passive lead character.
In fact, Rick is so passive, that he is not the focus of any of these three main scenes. Without doubt he is the film’s hero. But his character is–like America a few years previous–an isolationist. “One woman has hurt you,” Ilsa later tells him, “and you want to take your revenge on the rest of the world.”
By the time we get to the middle scene, we know the back story of Rick and Ilsa’s Paris relationship (and how they knew Sam) through flashback as Rick drinks his sorrows away. From the beginning of the film to this bender, the first half takes place in one day. When the second half begins, it begins with a new day, and a scene in Renault’s office. Strasser is there too, and they know that Rick has the Letters of Transit but they don’t know where. They welcome in Laszlo and Ilsa and offers a Visa to the former if he gives up the names of other resistance leaders in Europe. Laszlo is defiant and tells the Nazis they have no jurisdiction here. Strasser reminds him of Ugarte’s fate.
This mid-point sets up the rest of the film as these threats act as a catalyst–which unless I’m reading the lighting wrong, all takes place on the second day. Laszlo knows he’s a marked man and needs those Letters. And it’s now clear that Rick controls several characters’ fates by possessing the Letters of Transit, despite his selfish bluster. However, Ilsa and Laszlo do not know yet that Rick has them.
The lovely problem with discussing “Casablanca” is that every single scene is important not just to the plot, but to each character appearing in it. Each line of dialog tells us something about the character that speaks it. I’m trying not to write out the whole story like a bad 8th grade book report.
In the third quarter scene, Laszlo and Ilsa meet in their hotel room. Maybe it make more sense that the third quarter is the scene that follows it, when Ilsa confronts Rick and insists he gives her the Letters, but instead breaks down and they fall into each others arms again.
But does the actual quarter scene make sense? It’s just as important, though not as romantic, for sure.
Laszlo and Ilsa now know that Rick has the Letters but won’t sell them, and the Nazis have shut down Rick’s Cafe until further notice. Alone in their room, Laszlo asks Ilsa if she was lonely (i.e. not with another man) in Paris while he was in the concentration camp. She lies and when given a chance to confess she doesn’t. I suspect that Laszlo knows exactly what’s going on. But does she know that he knows?
(BTW, notice how this third quarter frame is almost the same as the first quarter?)
Neither this scene nor the one that follows it follow the “dark night of the soul” cliche. However, in this final quarter scene, Ilsa resolves to go and get those papers, no matter the cost. In that following scene, Ilsa does throw down a gauntlet to Rick–he will have to decide their fate. The rest of the film shows Rick finally having to make some hard choices about people other than himself…but it’s taken the film all this time to get here.
By looking at these three scenes, I’m not suggesting that the Ilsa and Laszlo story is secretly more important than the Rick and Ilsa romance. We came to see a love that cannot be, even when there is through a twist of fate, a second chance.
But perhaps what this structure suggests is that, in the world beyond Rick’s Cafe, the meaning of Ilsa and Laszlo’s relationship, that combination of resistance and romance, is more important. The film has been telling us this is so throughout. So when Rick finally figures out that he needs to set aside his feelings for the greater good, we’ve arrived there first. (This is also why, in lesser scripts, sudden changes of heart feel phony.)
On a side note, there’s a lovely bit of costume design as storytelling: When Ilsa fails to turn up at the Paris train station in the flashback, Rick is wearing his iconic fedora and tan (I suppose) raincoat. We don’t see this outfit again until the very end, when Rick says goodbye to Ilsa at the airport. Very subtle, but poetic.
Also: I think Rick really starts to change his mind about being isolationist when he hears the Nazis singing beerhall songs after commandeering Sam’s piano. To live in a world of that music, or the world of jazz and the American Songbook? The choice is obvious.
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch
Edited by Owen Marks
If anybody knows structure, it’s the storytellers at Pixar. To kick off Film Three-Quarterly, let’s take a look at this sweet, inter-generational adventure in which the elderly widower Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) takes off in his balloon-powered house to escape the old folks home in search of Paradise Falls, South America. However, he has the ingratiating Boy Scout Russell (Jordan Nagai) as an unintentional stowaway. This is journey narrative and a comedy, so lets look at the three quarter scenes of this film and if they confirm to our theories about narrative structure. This is a 96 minute film, so our major scenes should happen at 1) 24:00 2) 48:00 and 3) 72:00 minutes. (SPOILER: They do.)
The opening 10 minutes is a masterpiece of an introductory sequence that both sets up the future elements of the plot (explorer Charles Muntz, the monster bird he claims he found in Venezuela, and the “Spirit of Adventure”) and condenses Carl’s lifelong romance and marriage to his one true love Ellie. We then catch up with Carl in the present day. Ellie has passed on, he’s depressed, and is threatened with gentrification taking his house and a nursing home as his fate.
Our first quarter scene, then, happens when Carl has taken off in his balloon house and, while in mid-air, opens the front door to find Russell on his porch. Ten minutes earlier in the film, he tried to get rid of Russell. But now they are indeed stuck together, and this scene both illustrates how the Boy Scout will be annoying (he’s a motormouth and doesn’t ask permission) and helpful (he spots the approaching storm clouds). This is the beginning of their journey. One is geographic, to Venezuela. The other, more important journey, is that of emotional growth.
By the time we get to our middle scene, the two have landed near the falls, met both the “Monster” of Paradise Falls (a gawky bird that Russell names Kevin), and Dug (Bob Peterson) one of the best animated dogs since The Triplets of Belleville. We also know that three attack dogs are on their trail. Just like he felt about Russell, Carl wants to get rid of these two animals, but in the middle scene, Carl’s emotional world changes.
The scene takes place in the dark around a campfire under a drizzling rain. After a wonderful, Buster Keaton-worthy visual gag about a tent, we learn along with Carl that Russell has an absentee father and no mother, so when Russell asks as he drifts off to sleep to protect both the bird and the dog, Carl says yes.
Carl has gone from a curmudgeon who wanted to leave society and people to live inside his memories and grief to a man now responsible for three other lives. This decision now sends the film into its second half. And its done in one of the quietest moments in the film. (It also will be important in the film’s final scene.)
By the time we get to the third quarter, Carl has received all he thought he wanted. He’s reached his destination, and met his childhood hero Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer), who withdrew from the world in scandal. In essence he’s met his idealistic double. But Muntz is still living with past desires and wants that Monster bird. Muntz and his dogs capture the bird and Carl chooses to save his house from the threat of fire rather than help.
Our final quarter, then, takes place at the lowest point, but not for long. Russell feels sad and betrayed, and as Carl looks around his now nearly destroyed house, he once again thumbs through his photo album, indulging in memories of his life with Ellie. This photo album brings us emotionally right back to the beginning, but a handwritten note from Ellie makes Carl see that he’s been living in the past for too long. This is a comedy with a happy ending, and so Carl makes a decision that to live in the moment. It is beautifully presented in this shot, with Russell’s Boy Scout sash lying over the arm of Ellie’s chair, symbolic of how Carl’s objects of devotion occupy similar places in his heart. That’s masterful stuff, folks.
This choice sends Carl and Russell towards the conclusion of their story, which ties all the emotional threads in a satisfying way. There’s so much more to “Up,” but in this first installment of F3Q, we can see how structure helps carry the emotional back story for both the main characters.
Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Written by Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, and Tom McCarthy
Is there really such a thing as a three-act structure in film? When I first started to write scripts and study film, Syd Field’s Screenplay was one of the few books out there on scriptwriting and structure. In his book, Field talks about the three-act structure, but one thing always bugged me: the second act was twice as long as the other two.
The more I studied films the idea of the four-act structure began to make more sense:
Act One: introducing all the major characters, ending not with the “inciting incident” but with a choice of some sort. That can be the arrival at a new location, or a major choice made by the hero (who may not know of its importance.) Act Two: The development of that choice, which leads to entanglements, ending on a mid-point of major importance. What happens in this middle scene sets the tone for the second half of the film. Mysteries may be solved. In a tragedy, this might be the last time a hero is happy. Stakes will either be raised or identified. Act Three: Further complications resulting from the choices raised or decisions made in the middle scene. This act invariably ends in some sort of low point for the hero. However, decisions are also made at the end of this scene. Act Four: The inevitable results of the actions made in Act Three’s final scene, either leading to a happy or tragic ending.
So this occasional series on this blog will take some films, some classic, some recent, some well-known, some obscure, and look at those three major scenes that link the four acts–the end of the first quarter, the all important middle scene, and the end of the third.
And we’ll be asking some questions along the way: Do these three scenes adhere to the four act structure?
Does this structure change over the course of film history?
Can this structure help unearth a different narrative or explain an obtuse one?
This will be a spoiler-filled series of entries, so you have been warned. On the other hand, I’d love your feedback. This is a theory of mine, so tell me if I’m off my rocker.