Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Double Moral Premise

Almost a year ago, a screenwriter (known to me only as PopcornFlix) wrote me the following email, and we had a couple of follow-ups, that I will try to post as part of this one long post. (I'm sorry I haven't posted anything in such a long time. I've been involved in a start-up company, and I've been heavily absorbed in marketing duties.) But here is the email that I find very intriguing, and obviously worthwhile else I would not have held onto it for so long, and finally posted it. My delay, believe me, had nothing to do with questioning it's validity.

----------------

Dear Stan,

I bought your book, and found it useful. I'm a long-time pro screenwriter, so I've read my Egri. You added some interesting distinctions that were worth a ponder.

Your analysis of THE INCREDIBLES sent me back to the DVD, and I discovered something very interesting that prompted me to write this note.

THE INCREDIBLES has, in fact, TWO Moral Premises: The first, as you described, is "working alone" vs. "working as a family." The second, no less articulated is "using your talents authentically" vs. "denying who you really are."

It's particularly interesting that the second Moral Premise uses the same structure as the first. Syndrome uses a "distorted virtue" to gain his success. His talent is inventing things, and he uses his talent to become rich and powerful. Then he turns to vice (being something he isn't) by staging a robot attack so he can pretend to be a superhero, his robot destroys his control technology and he loses.

The signs are very clear in the movie. When Buddy Pine first bothers Mr. Incredible, he says "you always say, be yourself, and I've decided who I am." Then he explains that even though he doesn't have powers, he invents things. Later, when superheros are outlawed, we get to see Bob Parr's conflict between trying to be ordinary (inauthentic) and a superhero (his true self). Dash complains that he's not allowed to use his abilities to compete. "You always say 'do your best,' but you don't mean it." There's also the catch phrase and call back: "If everybody's special, then nobody is."

It seems very obvious to me that THE INCREDIBLES has two Moral Premises, and they each function as they should, complete with Moments of Grace. This raises the question of WHY, and in what narrative situations is it of benefit to have dual Moral Premises?

I started looking for other examples of Dual Moral Premises. JURASSIC PARK has one premise about family vs. single life, but another about nature vs. technology. It's also worth noting that nearly all the technology-supporting characters get killed by the dinosaurs. (Dr. Grant, the hero, is introduced as a man in tune with nature who feels that machines "have it in for him.")

TERMINATOR 2 has the Moral Premise about "sacrificial love," as you mentioned, but it also has a second Moral Premise about fate vs. free will. "The future is not set, fate is what we make." is the mantra of that premise.

MATRIX also seems to have Dual Premises. First, there is "faith vs. skepticism," which is articulated in Neo's journey to believe he is The One. The second premise has to do with "free will vs. fate." There are numerous moments in the film where the premise is discussed. The real world vs. the Matrix is a metaphor for free will vs. fate. To be in the Matrix is to accept fate. To choose to unplug into the real world is to claim your free will.

The easy examples are from sci-fi movies. I'm interested in finding examples in other genres, figuring out how the second premise functions, and what benefit it brings. I do notice that the examples so far are big hit movies, which makes this even more interesting.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Thanks, PopcornFlix.

-----------------

So, I wrote back & told him I liked his theory and suggested some further tests. Here are my questions to him, and his responses.

-----------------

Stan,

Glad you like it. I really want to crack this. Let me know if you can think of any other examples.

Let me break down the Second Moral Premise of THE INCREDIBLES: "Use your talents to be who you really are."
[STAN: Each moral premise must have: a. Two opposing psychological values.]
Be your unique, authentic self vs. force yourself to be something you're not.
[STAN: Each moral premise must also have: b. Two opposing physical consequences that are logically connected to the values.]
Being authentic leads to victory, heroism and love, vs. being something you're not leads to anger, strife, humilation and failure
[STAN: There must be a true-to-life relationship between a. and b.]
The lawsuits force the Parrs to renounce their authentic selves and pretend to be ordinary. Their inauthentic lives are filled with conflict and misery because all of them are straining to be themselves.
[STAN: There must be a Moment of Grace where the Moral Premise is accepted or rejected (even if only subliminally).]
Bob never gave up being a super, he just hid it. When Syndrome offers him a job using his powers, he accepts it.

Helen gave up her authenticity for the family. When her family is threatened (Bob the breadwinner is in trouble), she calls in the old favor and becomes Elastigirl again. Edna gives her the Moment, and she takes the suits.

Syndrome is subliminally give the MP because governments have been buying his inventions, and he's rich. But he refuses to embrace his Bill Gates-like success. Instead, he squanders everything (including his life) trying to use his technology to pretend to have superpowers, and then to give his technology away to eliminate the specialness of the Parr's authenticity. Syndrom is the symbol of eliminating the authentic life.
[STAN: d. All main characters decisions and consequences are in sync with the moral premise's predictions.]
The Parr's become successful when they embrace their true identities as THE INCREDIBLES. Frozone becomes successful when he insists on his superhero identity and gets his super-suit from his wife, who wants him to be ordinary so she can have a night out.

Syndrome uses his gifts to pretend to be something he isn't, and his robot attacks him. He is stripped of his false powers -- be he doesn't learn.

In the epilogue, he uses his false powers to pretend to be a supervillain and steal Jack-Jack, who is a symbol of pure innocence and authenticity. Before he can get away, Jack-Jack uses his real powers to slow Syndrome down, and Bob makes him drop Jack-Jack by throwing the car into Syndrome's jet -- the authentic powers overcoming the inauthentic. But Syndrome is killed by his pretension; his cape kills him. If he had been a real superhero, with real powers, he would have had his costume designed by Edna, who knew the dangers of capes. Syndrome dies because he has refused the Moral Premise.
[STAN: M. I think your analysis of The Incredibles with the Moral Premise you came up with is better than the one in my book. You've also reinforced what makes a good story great— the reinforcing of themes and values on multiple layers, as I suggest in the Preface of the book.]
I'm still looking for patterns in the Dual Moral Premise (DMP). In INCREDIBLES, JURASSIC PARK, MATRIX and T2, there's an obvious fantastic element, and the second MP seems connected to it.

For example, MATRIX is about the nature of reality, and its SMP is "free will vs. fate" JPARK is about cloning dinaosaurs, and its SMP deals with "nature vs. science." T2's SMP is also about "free will vs. fate," but its fantasic element is time travel -- which also connects to fate.

My hypothesis is that in stories that have sharply separated A & B stories (superheros+family life = INCREDIBLES) may be prime candidates for DMP. I suspect that it may be useful because the stories are so thematically separate that they each need a theme to connect with the audience. The question then becomes where is the trigger point for adding the SMP? I'm not sure about this yet, just a hypothesis.

Let me know what you think.

PopcornFlix

------------

Well, P.F., I think that any good story construction is well served by its creators trying to make sense of what the story is really about on as many layers as possible. I don't talk about it in the book, but one of the best structured movies is Rubin and Ramis' GROUNDHOG DAY (1993). I recall in a screen writing workshop diagramming the movie using the THREE ACT structure, and then the 12 STEPS OF THE MYTHIC HERO, and then over lapping ALLISON FISHER PURCHASE FUNNEL (used in romantic comedies) , and finally the FIVE STAGES OF GRIEF. And guess what THEY ALL FIT. For everyone of those models the story had turning points. It was amazing. And that's why the movie works, because it worked on so many subconscious levels. So, I see the Dual Moral Premise the same way. The more TRUE moral premises a movie has the better chance it has of working, and making sense to more people.

Now the big problem I'm sure many writers have with my book and this whole idea is whether or not it's a "good" idea to start with the moral premise, as I suggest, and from it construct a story. I definitely support that process in the book, and I guarantee it will eliminate writer's block. As to whether it will create a block-buster story, I have no vote. Chapter 4 talks gives aa few examples of how genius works, and coming up first with the moral premise IS NOT necessarily one of the factors. But coming up with at least ONE moral premise is definitely necessary, whenever it is done.

So, thanks, P.F. for the great post.

Much blessing, and I hope you all let us know when your movies are on the big screen.

Stan

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Prestige (2006)

Virtue to Extremes is Vice

Christopher Priest - Author
Jonathan Nolan - Screenwriter
Christopher Nolan - Screenwriter
Christopher Nolan - Director

Hugh Jackman - Rupert Angier
Christian Bale - Alfred Borden
David Bowie - Nikola Tesla
Michael Caine - John Cutter
Rebecca Hall - Sarah Borden
Scarlett Johansson - Olivia Wenscombe
Samantha Mahurin - Jess Borden


(I am gong to try to write less by assuming that you, dear reader, have seen the movie and understand it's physical premises.)

The Prestige offers an excellent opportunity to examine how virtues such a passion for excellence and self-sacrifice can become horrific Faustian examples of destructive obsession.

Self-sacrifice is often considered a virtue when that sacrifice is for another's good.
But self-sacrifice is also what obsessive people do for something that they selfishly want but don't need.

Here are some examples of he sacrifice that they risk and experience for the sake of their art.

Angier and Borden are assistants (plants) for another magician for which Cutter is the engineer. They go to a Chinaman's magic performance to discover the fishbowl trick. They see the man acting crippled afterwards getting into a carriage. They surmise that he's totally devoted to his craft.
BORDEN: This is a performance. This is why no one can detect his methods…total devotion to his art. A lot of self sacrifice…the only way to escape all this (reality).
The concept of sacrifice is evident in the very next scene when Borden assists for The Great Virgil. In the small audience is a lady (Sarah) and a little boy (her nephew). When Virgil smashes the birdcage hidden under a cloth, the little boy cries: "He killed it!" speaking of the bird. Of course, Virgil reproduces the bird. When Borden approaches the boy, and shows him the live bird, the little boy asks, "But where's his brother?" Borden considers the boy for a moment and says "He's a sharp lad." … and later it is Borden that must discard the very smashed and dead bird hidden in the table's false top.

This dramatically foreshadows the sacrifices that both Borden and Angier will make in their attempts to rise to fame.

In showing a coin trick to the lad later, Borden advises never to show how the trick works because as soon as he does he'll be "nothing to them. Nothing." Notice here that PRIDE is the motivation. Borden says, "The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything."

In the next flashback scene Borden recalls how he used the trick to sneak into Sarah's apartment. But, telling her how he did it would not have impressed her. Being there, nonetheless, does.

Fallon (Borden's twin in disguise) is leaving Borden as Sarah comes in.
Borden tells his expecting-with-child and very worried girlfriend how he does the bullet catch.

There is a key exchange in this scene at 29:44:

BORDEN: Don't worry. Don't worry. Because, I not going to let anything happen. Every thing is going to be all right, because I love you very much.
SARAH: Say it again.
BORDEN: I love you.
SARAH: Not today.
BORDEN: What?
SARAH: Well, some days it's not true. And today you don't mean it. Maybe today, you're more in love with magic than me. And I, being able to tell the difference makes the days it is true mean something.
Indeed we begin to see that the love for magic and craft create a dysfunction in Borden's life.

Next we find Angier, in disguise, aiming a loaded gun at Borden and asking, "Which know did you tie?" Borden catches the live bullet, taking off two of his fingers.

Days later, when dressing the wound, Sarah can't believe the wound is still bleeding just as it first did. Of course, this is the other twin, who with the help of his brother, has chiseled off the same two fingers. Self-sacrifice for the trick. Passion for excellence or obsession?

Cutter returns to Angier to keep working. They both know that Borden's mistake and arrogance killed Julia. Angier changes his name to The Great Danton. As they prepare the climax bird trick this exchange (35:34):
ANGIER: Cutter the bird cage can't be our climax, everybody knows it.
CUTTER: Not like this, they don't.

ANGIER: I don't want to kill doves.
CUTTER: Then stay off the stage. You're a magician, not a wizard. You've got to get your hands dirty if you're going to achieve the impossible.
(and the dove nods its head)
Hinting at the Faustian pledge that Angier will eventually kill far more than just a dove, getting his hands dirty with more that dirt and the blood of a bird.

The bird trick goes wrong when Borden shows up to "fowl" it. This is payback for his fingers and the loaded gun. Although Angier wants revenge now.

Angier gets an audience with Tesla. Tesla shows him the effects of alternating current. Angier wants Tesla to make a "real" machine for him, not a trick.

Angier's Moment of Grace - Part 1 (51:27)

Tesla warns Angier to drop his obsession because of the cost (51:27). "No good will come of it." Angier thinks Tesla is talking about money, but Tesla isn't. Tesla admits that good came from his obsessions at first, but he has followed his obsessions too long, and now he is their slave…and one day "they will choose to destroy me."

Angier's Moment of Grace - Part 2 (52:35)

Olivia tries to get Angier to drop the obsession of revenge by suggesting that they are now even. He explodes:
ANGIER: Even? My wife for a couple of his fingers? He has a family now, and he's performing again. Borden is out there living his life, as he always intended, as if nothing has happened. And look at me. I'm alone, and no theater will touch me.
OLIVIA: Us. You're going to need a better disguise.
In both of these Moments of Grace scenes, our tragic protagonist rejects the grace he is offered by first the scientist and then his lover. He is given an out, a way to live in peace. But he rejects it and embraces the obsession of his craft and the obsession of his revenge.

Olivia's line "you're going to need a better disguise" foreshadows the disguise he has to come up with, not just to sneak into Borden's show, but to come up with a "better trick," and how he disguises his "double." Angier will need a better solution than just a twin. "Better trick" is in quotes because in terms of a true moral premise "better" in this case is "worse" and "trick" is not a trick but a "real" Faustian event.

As the story continues, Angier's revenge gets out of control—a counter point to Cutter's remark that Angier rejects: "We don't do tricks we can't control."

Indeed, Angier soon makes it clear to Olivia that he doesn't care about his wife's death, but getting his hands on Borden's secret.

Tesla "perfects" his cloning device, but warns Angier that the box will only bring him misery. Tesla's advice is to drop it in the deepest ocean. The box, of course, the physical object of Angier's pursuit, is a metaphor for Angier's psychological obsession with revenge, which should be dropped into the deepest ocean, as well.

But Borden is as much involved in the obsession, at least for his craft. Sarah pleads with Borden, who is probably the evil twin:
SARAH: I want you to be honest with me. No tricks, lies and secrets. Do you love me.
BORDEN: Not today, Love.
Distraught at their dysfunctional relationship, Sarah goes to Alfred's workshop, looks at the birds that are mostly destined to death, and then hangs herself. She's a bird, who is willingly sacrificed (by the Borden's) for the sake of the ultimate trick (which she does not understand). Her hanging sounds like the fatal snap of the birdcage.

In the end, after Borden is scheduled to die by hanging, his little girl, Jess is brought by Lord Cordlow to visit before he dies. Borden looks at Lord Cordlow, it's his nemesis, Angier, as it has always been. Borden tries to tell the guards that he's been tricked and that the man that just walked off with his daughter is the man he's accused of killing. But no one believes him.

Cutter delivers Angier's devices to Lord Cordlow and is shocked to see Angier.

Borden says goodbye to Fallon, who will live on for both of them. Borden says he's sorry for a lot of things. He wishes he had left Angier to his trick.

As Borden mounts the gallows, above the trap door that will kill him, just as the trap doors killed Angier's clones, Cutter and Lord Cordlow push the Tesla's box to end of a dilapidated theater warehouse. Cutter explains that his earlier description to Angier about the sailor who almost drowned who said drowning was like he was going home, was a lie. Cutter says to Angier that the sailor said, "It was agony." Angier dreadfully looks in the tanks holding his dead clones...100 of them. He reminds himself: "No one cares about the man in the box."

He hears a noise. Is it Cutter? No, it's Fallon, who throws the rubber ball at him -- the rubber ball that symbolizes the transportation of a man from one place to another. Angier, distracted, picks up the ball, and Fallon shoots him, just as Borden says "Abracadabra!" and is hung.

Then Fallon/Borden explains the trick, to the dying Angier.
BORDEN: Sacrifice, Rupert, that's the price of a good trick. But you wouldn't know anything about that would you?
Angier: It took courage not knowing if I'd be the man in the box or the Prestige. You never understood why we did this. The audience knows the truth. Their world is miserable, solid, all the way through. But if you could fool them, even for a second…then you cold make them wonder….it was the look on their faces.
Pride. Lord Cordlow dies, next to 100 of his clones that he has killed.

In retrospect we might figure out that Angier sets up his death during the 100th performance, by luring Borden back stage, and then Cutter, not knowing the trick, and Angier not appearing that night as The Prestige, is able to pin his own murder on Borden to get revenge.

The Moral Premise

In consideration of the moral premise we typically have a vice that leads to some physical detriment; and a virtue that leads to some greater good.

But in a tragedy, such as The Prestige, you have the two prongs of the moral premise that both descend. That is, a vice that leads to some physical detriment; and the vice's extreme that leads to some greater detriment.

Thus, our tragic moral premise can be stated this way:
Obsessive Pride leads to dysfunction; but
Obsessive Revenge leads to destruction…100 times over.
If you have additional insights or a contrary opinion, let me know. Add a comment.

Monday, April 9, 2007

FINDING FORRESTER (2000)

Director: Gus Van Sant
Mike Rich - Written by
Sean Connery - William Forrester
Rob Brown - Jamal Wallace
F. Murray Abraham - Robert Crawford
Anna Paquin - Claire Spence
Busta Rhymes - Terrell Wallace


STUDENTS: If you're a student would you please post a comment and tell me where you're from and what class you're writing for? And, if you can I'd love to see what you're writing for those English and Story classes, or what kind of form you had to fill out for the assignment that sent you here. I'm collecting these. Send them to stan@moralpremise.com   Thanks.  If you'd like a FREE BOOKMARK with writer's helps printed on both sides, send a SASE to "The Moral Premise, PO Box 29, Novi, MI  48376." Here a link to more information. (Scroll down to the bottom of the page linked to see the bookmark.)

Finding Forrester takes place in the Bronx where William Forrester, a white, recluse novelist, makes an unlikely friendship with, and mentors, a black 16-year old boy who is gifted at both basketball, literature, and writing, Jamal Wallace.

Finding Forrester (FF), however, is really about finding hope by venturing into the unknown. We make assumptions about the unknown that become legendary prejudices, urban myths, which in turn reinforce our unfounded fears. When chance, fate, or Providence breaks down the barriers, and if we open our heart, we are given new life, and can face the ultimate unknown, death, with peace.

Physical Goals: Jamal Wallace wants to be accepted by his urban peers and so excels at street basketball, purposely hiding his intelligence behind a C average. He secretly writes in notebooks, something he's done since his father left home. His standardized test scores, however, indicate a brilliant mind. He's recruited by Mailor, a private and somewhat exclusive Manhattan school that needs help on its basketball team. Jamal's physical goal is to be accepted by those around him for what he's capable of doing. But he's held back by his own prejudice toward his peers and the prejudice of others that a black kid from the Bronx can play basketball but nothing more.

William Forrester, also a kid from the Bronx, however, wrote a famous novel 50 years earlier that is still creating a wait list at the New York Public Library. He only wrote the one novel, however because he was offended at the crack reviews, and because the deaths of his brothers and parents sent him into a long depression. Forrester, says screenwriter Mike Rich, like many other famous novelists, wrote for themselves, and not the public. Forrester wants to "get out" but he's afraid of what the public and the world outside have in store for him.

In FF, Jamal has to fight his way into Forrester's life, onto the Mailor basketball team, into the acceptance of his literature professor, Robert Crawford, and into the broader culture of Manhattan.

Forrester has to fight his way out of his top floor Bronx flat where he's quadruple locked himself in -- at the door -- but leaves his window, accessible by the fire escape, unlocked . Although his former life involved mountain treks in search of rare birds, now his outside adventures are limited to sticking the top half of his body out the window and sitting on the still to clean the pane's exterior. The clean window allows him to watch Jamal and friends play basketball, and occasional videotape the stray bird from the park.

The Moral Premise. FF can be summarized in this moral premise statement:

Ignorance and avoidance of the unknown
leads to fear, isolation, and despair;
but Knowledge and embrace of the unknown
leads to faith, friendship, and hope.
Expanding on this premise, FF is about how to achieve our dreams that are out of our present reach. The movie suggests that to extend our reach we have to enter territory that often appears dangerous.

This moral premise is ubiquitous in many metaphoric and didactic ways.

A. Fear of the Unknown. The opening rap is about how the force of will allows us to make decisions which allow us to achieve our dreams, even in the face of an establishment that wants to hold us back. In this case the reference is the "white" establishment holding back "blacks". The story, however, isn't as much about racial prejudice, as it is the greater prejudice toward people that are unlike us in a multitude of other ways, white or black. This affinity of keeping to our own kind is one of those mental roadblocks that takes on, unnecessarily, racial identity. FF does a good job of revealing that such prejudice is much deeper than race, and that race becomes the scapegoat. One of the reasons racial prejudice will never go away is because there is a deeper and broader distrust of anyone that is not exactly like us in a hundred other ways — race, yes, but also culture, class, language, height, weight, fashion, intelligence, language, business affiliation, school affiliation, and social standing. It is the fear generated by ignorance of these different categories that leads to false assumptions, which in turn breeds fear.

B. The Raven. Ironically, Jamal's public high school literature teacher asks the students if they are familiar with Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven. A cursory examination of The Raven suggests that Poe's poem was Mike Rich's inspiration for FF. In the poem, Poe is distracted from his depression and grief over the death of "the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore." In the poem, an ebony raven comes rapping at Poe's window. In the movie it's Jamal who enters Forrester's window (first) and door (second). When Poe, the recluse writer, lets in the insistent Raven, it perches upon a bust of Pallas, the Greek God of wisdom. Similarly Jamal comes into Forrester's recluse life in search of wisdom. This reference is doubled in the movie when Forrester, a bird watcher, videotapes a bird outside his window that has "strayed from the park" as Jamal has strayed from his urban culture into Forrester's. Poe's raven is a symbol of sadness and depression that will not go away, because the hope that love has offered has gone away. Rich's screenplay explores what would happen if the raven, which enters the sad writer's life, were to renew hope, rather than reinforce sadness. The connection to the moral premise, here, is Poe's (and Forrester's) reluctance to mount the courage to leave the land of destitution and enter the land of hope.

C. Entering the Lion's Den. On a simple dare, late at night, Jamal enters Forrester's flat via the fire escape and unlocked window. It's a "rickety" entrance that reveals Jamal's willingness to explore uncharted territory. The first thing Jamal does in the flat is unbolt and open the entrance door. It is a practical move that allows him to quickly escape if found-out (which is he), but it also foreshadows his goal for Forrester, and where the story is leading. Jamal is spooked by Forrester and runs out of the flat, leaving his pack behind. Forrester finds it, reads his "notebooks" and marks up his writing with red highlighter, asking at the end of one of the notebooks, "Where are you leading me?" It's a writing instructor's rhetorical question that also moves the story forward. Indeed Jamal is leading Forrester out the front door, now, figuratively unlocked.

D. Questions Point to Unknown Fear. In an early discussion between them, Forrester says to Jamal:
There's a question in your writing about what you want to do with your life. That's a question your present school cannot answer for you.
This comment suggests that Jamal needs to brave the unknown in order to find a way out of the urban parking lot metaphor that his brother, the parking lot supervisor, as succumbed to.

E. Forrester Fears Discovery. After Jamal discovers who Forrester is, he confronts him and wants to tell Forrester what he thought of his novel, Avalon Landing. Forrester wants nothing to do with Jamal's opinion, and is sacred that Jamal will reveal Forrester's whereabouts. Forrester has been invaded and he's scared. He's been found out. His life is no longer private, and he gets Jamal to promise to keep the secret from others. Jamal promises this if Forrester helps him be a better writer. Here we see Jamal forcing Forrester into a constructive confrontation with the outside world, in exchange for gaining wisdom about his inside world. (43 min)

F. Playing by the Rules. Shortly after Jamal starts at Mailor, he has trouble opening his locker. Along comes the chairman's daughter, Clair Spence, who bangs on the locker to make it spring open. "At least they look good," she offers. It's small, but it's a metaphor for the moral premise, nonetheless. The locker door presents a barrier to the unknown. How to cross its threshold requires unconventional methods, and even a little confrontation. We're afraid sometimes to go places when the methods are not our style. So Jamal tells Forrester while watching Jeopardy,
If you're going to play the game, then you need to know the rules.
You don't enter the new world using techniques from the old world. On the otherhand, Jamal's courage is the opposite of conformity. He refuses to run from things that others would fear.

Following the rules, in an unknown world" is also metaphored to us during Jamal's early visit to Forrester's flat. This is a literary lion's den, as the DVD chapter title suggests. It is not a basketball court. Jamal, a basketball always at the ready, absently mindedly starts to dribble the ball in Forrester's flat. Forrester stops correcting Jamal's essay and looks uneasy at him. Jamal stops dribbling. The rules for playing the literary game are not the same as playing basketball. Jamal puts the ball aside.

Again, we see this play out in two scenes were Jamal first avoids a confrontation with Professor Crawford and later when he confronts Crawford and beats the old man at his game of pity quotations. In the first instance, Jamal avoids Crawford's wrath because he played by the game rules of the new environment. But later he incurs Crawford's wrath when he plays by rules not suited for Crawford's lion's den. The lion threatens to eat Jamal. In all these instances of playing or not playing by the rules, Jamal demonstrates his resolve of not being restrained from his dream. He shows us that bravery is necessary for claiming the hope that we all desire.

G. Avalon Landing. Forrester's (one) wunderbook, Avalon Landing, is referenced by Crawford as the great 20th century novel, which suggests how life never ever works out. It describes Forrester's lament and fear of breaking out of the despair that surrounded him after the war and the deaths of his brother, mother and father. Rather than bravely entering the new world offered to him, Forrester retreats from the unknown and lives a life of isolation and fear.

H. "The Season of Faith's Perfection" is a New Yorker article that Forrester wrote about the Yankee's World Series pennant race in 1960. Forrester's family rarely missed a Yankee's home game played in the Bronx at the stadium Babe Ruth built. But in 1960 the Yankee's lost the championship to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the last half of the ninth inning of the seventh game. The article's title is a metaphor of how there is a season where faith can take hold and produce hope, even in the midst of grave disappointment.

I. The Unknown of the Blank Page. About half way through the movie (at about 53 minutes) Jamal faces the unknown...a blank page stuck in a typewriter. Even though Forrester demonstrates how to cross the barrier into the unknown, Jamal is not sure how to pursue his dream. Forrester tells him to write from his heart, and use his mind later. But Jamal is still stuck. Finally Forrester retrieves his 1960 New Yorker article (above) and tells Jamal to re-type his words until he finds his own. Jamal musters the courage and starts in -- tentatively. Forrester yells at him to "PUNCH THE KEYS". Shortly, Jamal does, and in so doing embraces the moment of grace to write from his heart — the strong sounds of the punched keys resonate throughout the flat. At that, Forrester yells in Jamal's street vernacular, "Yes! Yes! You're the man now, dog."

J. What is the Scarlott Tanager? Jamal and Forrester are watching Jeopardy on TV and the question for the answer is: "What is a scarlet tanager?" Forrester quotes a James Lowell poem about a scarlet tanager "Thy duty, winged flame of sprig, is but to love and fly and sing," and explains to Jamal how the poem is about "the song of the tanager, a song of new seasons, new life." Indeed, the moral premise even on Jeopardy.

K. Street Courage. Later, as Jamal walks home, he demonstrates his comfort, if not courage, in an environment that others would run from. He shuns what would seem like the safer sidewalk and walks down the dark street's center, even as: a police cruiser (lights flashing) passes him closely checking him out, a car burns on the other side, and then it downpours. Jamal is aware of all this, but walks steadily on, offering no defense, or courtesy to any of the elements. This shot could be interpreted as Jamal's comfort in the Bronx neighborhood, but it also underscores his embrace of the moral premise by summing-up the bravery to confront unflinchingly that territory that robs mankind of hope.

L. Under the Outer Worlds. When Jamal and Claire spend an afternoon together at a museum, they have the courage to discuss the budding romance between them and the difficulties implied by their different backgrounds of class, culture and race. He also asks her about how she happened to go to Mailor, which only a few years ago was an all boys school. The conversation occurs under oversized models of the outer planets of the Solar System that hang from the glass ceiling. The scene again reinforces the dream of mankind to venture into the unknown in order to uncover our hope for the future.

M. Getting Out. On Forrester's birthday, Jamal persuades him to get out and go to a baseball game. But Forrester gets lost in the crowds and cowards in a corner of the stadium's belly. They leave, and Jamal, with the pull of his brother, takes Forrester to the pitcher's mound of old Yankee stadium in the Bronx. The evening is the beginning of Forrester's finding himself and leaving the confines of his self-imposed prison. He finally shares with Jamal the ghosts that have kept him holed up during the past years, and in so doing finds hope for the future. Jamal quotes him his own words,
The rest of those who have gone before us, cannot steady the unrest of those to follow.
In other words, to find peace, to find ourselves, we must each summon our own courage to enter the unknown future.

N. The Challenge of Integrity. Jamal is accused of plagiarism on an essay entered in the school's writing contest' he has quoted Forrester but doesn't cite him. It is the essay that begins with Forrester's title and first paragraph of "A Season of Faith's Perfection." Not knowing that the article was previously published, Jamal doesn't know he could cite the article from the public record, but rather fears that to reveal his source would force him to break his promise to Forrester. When Jamal confronts Forrester about the problem of possibly being kicked out of school and they discuss the bitter prejudice that Crawford exhibits toward Jamal, Forrester offers an explanation:
FORRESTER: Do you know what people are most afraid of?

JAMAL: What?

FORRESTER: What they don't understand. And when we don't understand we turn to our assumptions.
In other words, our fear comes from ignorance of the unknown, and our inability to enter the unknown with courage.

O. Writing From Your Heart. Another important scene that reinforces the moral premise is the city championship basketball championship at Madison Square Garden. The game comes down to two foul shots that Jamal is given to shoot, with time already run out. If he makes them both, they win. But Jamal has just been offered an illicit settlement in the supposed plagiarism scandal. As he stands at the free-throw line, he realizes that he will be defined by what happens here, not only to the school and Crawford who looks on, but by himself. He doesn't want to graduate from Crawford and be pushed through the academic system simply because he's a jock. He wants to be acknowledged for all that he is. He faces a dilemma but makes the decision that requires the most courage of his young life. It's been clearly shown that Jamal never misses a free throw, and under pressure can shoot 50 consecutive. But on this night, he will define his life for the future. He misses both shots.

This is a huge barrier that takes an immense amount of courage. He is entering unknown territory, but he is determined not to be restrained from his dream as the opening rap foreshadows like a Greek chorus. He will claim his dream to be a writer, and a man of integrity. Making those two shots, would define him as a jock from the Bronx who cheated his way through school and probably cheated on his essay. Jamal faces Forrester's earlier challenge of "writing for himself" and not to write for others. Forrester's exile was in part because he let the opinion of others define him. Jamal was going to be the defining process, not the crooked board of directors who just wanted the school to win basketball games.

That night, after the game, he writes Forrester a letter at the New York public library. Forrester cleans his windows — it's time to see more clearly, even at night. Forrester seemingly knows that Jamal has chosen to define his life for himself and not for others. Finishing the windows, Forrester pumps up the flat tire on his bicycle and rides freely, happily, and without fear through the Bronx streets.

Jamal's ultimate act of self-honesty and integrity, free both him to define what others will say about him, even as it frees Forrester.

P. Forrester's Return. With his new freedom from fear, Forrester has the courage to go to Mailor and defend Jamal during the writing contest. With a surprise visit that is honored by Crawford, Forrester reads a paper that Jamal has written, although Crawford doesn't know it at the time and praises Forrester for what he assumes are the old writer's words. The essay is about both Forrester and Jamal and their fears. What we hear of it is this:
"Losing family obligates us to find our family. Not always the family that is our blood, but the family that can become our blood. And should we have the wisdom that would open our door to this new family, we will find that the wishes we once had for the father, who once guided us..."

The only thing left to say will be 'I wish I had seen this, or I wish I had done that or I wish...

Q. A Peaceful End. At the end of the movie, Jamal, three years later, learns that Forrester has died of cancer in Scotland. In a letter to Jamal, Forrester makes it clear that had it not been for their friendship, Forrester's dreams of returning to Scotland would not have been fulfilled. Jamal gave Forrester the courage to make the decision to end his exile from society and go home before it was too late.

There are other elements in the movie that reinforce the moral premise for each of the main characters, including Professor's Crawford's embrace of the vice side of the moral premise. But, we'll save that for another time, or your own essay. Or, perhaps, someone else would like to write that for posting here. Anyone?

UPDATE 4.25.2015 - MORE ON THE OPENING RAP

Jimmy Bobbitt
Here is a link to the opening rap lyrics and a collection of very good discussion questions.
OPENING RAP LYRICS AND DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
My thanks to the Highline Schools literature teacher for compiling this PDF. It's very useful. (Who are you?)

A reader asked for an interpretation of the rap. I hint at it earlier when I write:
The opening rap is about how the force of will allows us to make decisions which allow us to achieve our dreams, even in the face of an establishment that wants to hold us back. (section A)
That is true of both Jamal and Forrester. And,...
Jamal AND Forrester are entering unknown territory. Jamal, particularly, is determined not to be restrained from his dream as the opening rap foreshadows like a Greek chorus. (section O second paragraph)
To see the "clarity" of the rap, which is ladened with poetic slang and metaphors, read it over, a-loud several times....slowly. As you do, look for clauses and juxtapositions that:

A. Pertain to Jamal's dream of breaking out of the destructive prejudices he's grown up with against education as if it was only a white man's sport. The very first line tells you this: "Yo, nothin' can keep me detained."  Also: "feast when I release the beast within," and "the reapers twin."

B. Remind one of the end they will received if they persistent in this prejudice against education and mentors (of any race or class) that can help us fully actualize our calling. The last line of the first stanza depicts that: "you should bear witness to the end of your existence." There are a number of metaphors that point to a tragic end to those that persist against an education than can elevate: e.g. "body outliner," "red juice," and "up the block."

The style of the rap does seem to waft between the two voices that battle within Jamal (and Forrester), one that tells them to escape the hopelessness of their situation, and the other voice that tells them they can't escape... that defeat is inevitable. A better understanding of the slang, which I don't have, would explain this. Ultimately, however, poetry purpose is to give pause to reflection, not explain things to perfection.

DVD
VOD

Thursday, March 29, 2007

THE ULTIMATE GIFT (2007)

Michael O. Sajbel - Director
Cheryl McKay - Screenplay
Jim Stovall - Book

Drew Fuller - Jason Stevens
James Garner - Red Stevens
Ali Hillis - Alexia
Abigail Breslin - Emily
Lee Meriwether - Miss Hastings
Brian Dennehy - Gus
Mircea Monroe - Caitlin
Donna Cherry - Sarah Stevens
D. David Morin - Jack Stephens
Bill Cobbs - Ted Hamilton

In trying to come up with the moral premise of The Ultimate Gift (TUG) I didn’t have to think very long. The dialogue wants to tell you, over, and over, and over, and over. If you like stories where you have to figure things out; if you like a mystery; if you want to see the protagonist learn things on his or her own the way you are forced to learn on your own, then TUG is not for you.

THE STORY

Jason Stevens is a trust fund baby, who has never worked a day in his life, and money has always been there for him. It is probably true that the rest of his aunts and uncles, all greedy, selfish people, were raised the same. Jason’s grandfather, Red Stevens, dies and leaves most of the aunts and uncles nothing. For a reason that comes off as manipulated, Red thinks that Jason is redeemable, whereas the rest of his related humanity is not. So, Red leaves a series of video messages and assignments for Jason to complete, hoping that Jason will learn to reject vanity and the self-absorbed playboy life, and become a charitable, generous, self-less community icon. And what happens? Just that. After the trailer there is nothing more to discover. Jason acts the brat, but his greed forces him to work, respect money, make a true friend, value learning, etc.-times 12, until at the end of the movie, his grandfather's attorney rewards him with control of the two-billion dollar estate.

MORAL PREMISE NO. 1

It would be a good challenge to take just one of Christ’s parables (say the Rich Young Ruler) and make a good movie about how through natural, organic circumstances the Rich Young Ruler comes to learn the importance of giving and not hording his wealth. People change values slowly, VERY slowly, and it would take 120-minutes just to reveal, in a realistic, identifiable, organic way, how such a person would just BEGIN to change; yet, at the end, still have weaknesses and imperfections to work on, just as we all do.

But in TUG the writers take 12 parables, and in 114 minutes try to convince us that a 22 year old greedy, playboy can totally change from black to white in 12 different character traits, and at the end of the movie have no faults, no worries, all the money in the world, a beautiful wife, and have the respect of local banks and business authorities to demand that they will pro-bono their time and money to create his pet project…altruistic as the project may seem. If I hadn't been watching the movie for my radio program I would have turned it off and washed the dishes.

It is Jason’s vanity and greed that drives him to pursue his grandfather's will, but he's resentful and angry at having to play the game. Vanity, greed, and their natural consequencies of bitterness and anger, are also evident (overly so) in Jason's aunts and uncles. After having been motivated (by greed) to find a true friend, Jason recognizes (in a Moment of Grace, that occurs before a statue of Jesus’ outstretched arms) that his young friend, Emily, is dying of leukemia. From then on Jason tries to use the wealth he’s been given to help Emily and others survive their pain and suffering. So, the true moral premise of the movie can be stated this way:
Greed leads to resentment and disrespect; but
Generosity leads to love and honor.
So, here’s a movie, again with a true moral premise.

NARRATIVE PROBLEMS

But TUG is an example of how a true moral premise cannot save a story from dismal performance at the box office, even though the book upon which it was based sold 3 million copies. Why? Because, as another reviewer mentioned, the one gift that the filmmakers did not get, was the gift of good narrative filmmaking.

First, however, there are some things the filmmakers did right. The photography is good, and they lined up an all star cast who do well in their roles.

But there are fundamental narrative problems with TUG. Let me describe three.

1. The first cardnial rule of narrative filmmaking is to show, don't tell. But TUG is nearly all words. It is an illustrated book. The sound track alone tells the story. The pictures are not needed. In a well conceived film the movie will allow the audience to experience what the protagonist experiences as both are led organically to some conclusion. But in dialogue, TUG tells the audience exactly what is to be understood and believed predominantly through the presence of Red Steven's video messages. It's a contrivance that works in the book because we have no visuals, and we need to explain motivations and things that cannot be shown. Novels are about thoughts -- plays are about words -- and movies are about pictures. When a movie uses too many words to tell the story, the visuals become impotent. Without the Red Stevens scenes we might have seen how Jason figures out the truth on his own, thus allowing the audience to make the message their own. Red's explanations were a little like having someone like me whispering into your ear all through a movie about what the movie is trying to say. You'd want to smack me in the puss, and tell me to shut up, and that's exactly what I wanted to tell the filmmakers.

2. There is a near absence of metaphors in this film, and metaphors are the lifeblood of visual story telling. There are two basic kinds of moral communications: visual tropes (narrative allegories and metaphors) and propositional statements (what you find in a catechism, e.g. "Do good unto others as you would have them do unto you"). A good film will give the protagonist a physical goal that is really a metaphor for what the movie, at a psychological level, is really about. Now, TUG does have one on-going analogy that sort of works—Red Stevens is analogous to God who teaches his children (i.e. "us" represented by Jason) hard lessons through trials and suffering. Jason, at first, rejects the lessons and tries to return to his bitterness and resentment. But finally he embraces the necessity of the trials for the sake of obtaining the "ultimate gift." In Jason's eyes that ultimate gift is initially the money, and eventually the gift is the love he needs to express by using the money for charitable purposes. But underlying that analogy, the real ultimate gift is the gift of God's charity that we receive in salvation and heaven provided we joyfully submit to God's trials and sufferings.

But I say the analogy only "sort of works." Analogies are figures of speech (in this case visual tropes) that parallel dissimilar story elements designed to help the reader or audience to organically internalize, synthesize and assimilate a truth. A analogy, simile or metaphor are the linguistic opposites of TUB's didactic delivery. Jason is continually being preached to. Thus, in TUB we are not allowed to "discover" truth, but rather we are hit over the head by it. Jason must be told several dozen times that the hard lessons he is learning are each gifts, designed to redeem him. He is rarely given a chance to figure this out by himself, and thus the message come off more like preaching than self-discovery.

3. The flow of the story is mostly manipulative and not natural. Another cardinal rule of good storytelling is that the fiction writer can allow one overt jump in logic or break in the natural order of things, and not lose the audience. In the movie version of TUG there is more than one of these jumps and each seems coincidental for the convenience of the writer. The first is the introduction of Emily into Jason's life. It occurs as Jason is living on a park bench, and young Emily spontaneously (and without good motivation) engages him in pointed conversation. This happens again, in another scene, when Emily's mother, Alexia, sets up a picnic a few feet away from Jason's park bench. It happens a third time, when Jason finds Alexia's stolen purse in a park trash bin, and it just so happens that her unpaid bills are wadded up in the purse, and it just so happens that he goes to the hospital to look for them, instead of walking to her home, and ALL of this is wrapped up in the melodramatic coincidence that Emily is dying of leukemia. A similar sort of coincidence is that Jason's overly greedy and sexed-up girlfriend looks like trash when compared to the winsome and wholesome Alexia. There are many such situations in this story that play to the desire of the writer to paint a plot and protagonist that are without any blemish or need of on-going redemption. Altogether it will be hard for the audience to identify with Jason, root for his success, or feel any compassion for him. And, in the end, who really cares about a perfect young man who is given 2 billion dollars to control? It's far too close to the heretical "heath and wealth" Gospel.

A SECOND MORAL PREMISE

All of this suggests to me a second moral premise that is laid on top of the first. In part it is reinforced by the riches his aunts and uncles who continue to live out their selfish lives without much natural negative consequence, except for a lot of bickering and jealousy. And in Jason's story arc, the more perfect he becomes, the richer he gets, setting up this moral premise:
Vanity and greed lead to wealth; but
Moral perfection leads to obscene riches.
This moral premise is false, although, unfortunately, a great many people, including so-called Christians, hope and believe it to be true.

Friday, March 23, 2007

300 (2007)

Freedom Comes at the Highest Cost of Blood

Zack Snyder - Director
Kurt Johnstad - Screenwriter
Michael Gordon - Screenwriter
Zack Snyder - Screenwriter
Frank Miller - Author
Gerard Butler - King Leonidas
Lena Headey - Queen Gorgo
David Wenham - Dilios
Andrew Tiernan - Ephialtes (nightmare)
Rodrigo Santoro - Xerxes I
Dominic West - Theron


Historical Connection

300 is the movie version of Frank Miller's graphic novel of the same name, which is a fairly accurate retelling of the Battle of Thermophylae (ther-MO-pih-lee), a key event in the defense of Greece from invading Persians, although the movie borrows freely from fantasy genre pictures, with epic sized computer generated monsters and grotesque villains.

It is 480 BC when the Persians make this third attempt to conquer the Greeks, although this is the first campaign by Xerxes I, son of Darius I. The invasions came across the straits at Hellespont, just south of Istanbul, where Xerxes and his fleet of some 600 ships formed a land bridge for his troops that some estimate at 4-5 million, half of which provided logistical support. By land and by sea Xerxes forces moved South and converged on Athens.

Xerxes sent messengers ahead to tell the Greek cities to give him "earth and water" as a sign of their submission and pledge to pay tribute. But, clearly the Athenians and Spartans (former enemies) held the messengers accountable, and throw them into pits and wells, telling them to dig out the earth and water for themselves.

In the face of the encroaching army, King Leonidas of Sparta, rallies a small army of 300 highly trained men (who had sons to carry on their name), and with 700 volunteer and conscripted thespians set up their ranks at the narrow Thermophylae pass. They know however that they will only be able to slow down Xerxes advancing hordes. Although Leonidas and his troops die, they take a tremendous toll on Xerxes' army. One report suggests that in the first skirmish 10,000 of Xerxes forces died but only 3 Greeks. The delay and infliction on Xerxes forces provides enough time for the Athenians to put together a navy that will effectively stop Xerxes' European expansion off the island of Salamis. Then, the Greek states are able to put together an army that easily defeats Xerxes remaining land troops at Plataea (where the movie ends).

In Miller's book and the movie, the names of the main combatants, Leonidas, his wife Gorgo (not in the novel), and Xerxes, and the names of the conquered armies that Xerxes uses, such as the Immortals, are accurate. The movie is also accurate regarding the dress, manner of combat, fighting techniques, and troop numbers; even spoken lines are lifted from historical records.

One snippet of historical dialogue occurs when the emissary of Xerxes threatens the captain of Leonidas' force. The emissary says that unless the Spartans surrender, Persian arrows would be so numerous as to blot out the sun. The Spartan captain responds, "So much the better, we shall fight in the shade." Today that is the motto taken by the Greek 20th Armored Division.

It was against Spartan Law to surrender. If a Spartan warrior returned from battle without his shield, it is assumed he surrendered, and the penalty was death. Thus, the Spartan rallying cry: "Never Surrender, Never Retreat."

Today, a monument stone sits on a hill at Thermopylae where the majority of the Spartans died in the last hailstorm of Persian arrows (many which have been found at the site). One translation of the ancient Greek epitaph is: "Stranger, bear this message to the Spartans, that we lie here obedient to their laws."

Biblical References

In Daniel 11:2-3 we read the beginning of one of Daniel's visions:
Three kings of Persia are yet to come; and a fourth shall acquire the greatest riches of all. Strengthened by his riches, he shall rouse all the kingdom of Greece. But a powerful king shall appear and rule with great might, doing as he pleases.
In this passage, during the time of Cyrus the Great (559 BC-530 BC), reference is made of Dairus I (36 years, 522 BC - 486 BC), Xerxes I (20 years, 486 BC - 465 BC), and Alexander the Great (330 BC - 323 BC).

There are elements of the film (and graphic novel) that parallel Biblical themes:
  • Xerxes temptation of Leonidas is similar to Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
  • Leonidas is also a Christ figure in that he altruistically dies at the hand of evil for the future hope of the world.
  • One of Leonidas' last requests, like Christ's, is that he and his men be remembered as fulfilling the law, and bringing hope.
  • The movie also explicitly illustrates the grotesqueness of evil through many explicit images that could have been lifted from The Damned in Michelagnelo's Last Judgement above the altar of the Sistine chapel. (The pope looks at this stuff at Mass.)
Milestone of Western Civilization

Today the Battle of Thermopylae is pivotal to Western Civilization and its embrace of law, order, and democracy. While the battle was short, it accomplished four strategic goals:
  1. It imparted a significant physical and emotional toll on Xerxes' armies.
  2. It slowed down Xerxes army from reaching Athens (which had been evacuated).
  3. It demonstrated to Greece that Xerxes was a serious threat. Some reports have it that the Olympic games were in progress and no one wanted to stop them to fight a war.
  4. It gave the recently bonded together Greek states time to mount their army and navy for the final battles.
Thus, the 1,000 that died at Themoplyae, was a just sacrifice, for it allowed the Greeks to defeat the Persians, and allowed democracy to spread into Europe. Had Persians overrun Greek society, Western Civilization would be more likely modeled after the tyranny of the Medes and Persians. (e.g. Iran doesn't like the movie's implication about this. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the "Republic" of Iran is, by the way, the political descendant of Xerxes.)

The Battle of Thermopylae is still studied as a model of training, equipment, defense, and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. It is from this battle that modern warriors, when asked to surrender their weapons respond: "Come and get them."

In these ways, 300 reminds us that fighting tyranny in defense of democracy and freedom has a 2,500 year history of bloody conflict. The wars we fight today are nothing new, and the messages this film brings are uncanny in their connections to the current debate about America's involvement in the lands of ancient Persia. Indeed the political macerations in the film seem frightful contemporary.

The Evil of Tyranny

The physical goal of the film's protagonist and antagonist is make clear in this dialogue as Xerxes tries to persuade Leonidas to surrender.


XERXES: There will be no glory in your sacrifice. I will erase even the memory of Sparta from the histories. The world will never know you existed, at all.

Leonidas ponders that for a moment, then...

LEONIDAS: The world will know that free men stood against a tyrant, that few stood against many, and before this battle was over that even a god-king can bleed.
Trial Moral Premise

There are four characters on both sides of 300's moral premise.

King Leonidas, his captain, Queen Gorgo, and her political counselor all demonstrate selfless service to others and a generous giving of themselves for the safety of their country, which are virtues that lead honor, glory, remembrance, liberty, and hope.

On the other side of the equation we have Xerxes, his emissaries, and messengers, and Theron (the oily politician), Ephialtes (the hunchback traitor), and the Ephors (keepers of the Oracle). The vices each of these example are self-centeredness, service to themselves alone, taking from others, and vainglory that leads to enslavement, infamy, dishonor, and dread. Thus one way to articulate what this movie is really about could be this trail moral premise:

Vainglory in service of self leads to enslavement; but
Humility in service of others leads to freedom.

By the way, the glory that Ephialtes gains is that today his name means "nightmare", for it was his treachery at night that brought a quick end to the Spartans at Thermopylae.

Moment of Grace

As we center in on the film's real moral premise, we also are drawn to the central Moment of Grace. It's about half-way through the movie, as we might expect, and it comes after Leonidas meets with the Ephors, whom Miller portrays as lecherous lepers that control Sparta by interpreting the hallucinated mumblings of a drugged slave girl they claim is a divine oracle.

The King, attempting to follow Spartan law, must consult with them (and the Oracle) before taking any action, but he doesn't buy into their superstitions, lust, or greed. They first demand he give them gold, and, then their interpretation of the oracles mumblings tell Leonidas not to fight, to do nothing.

Thus, this good king, who has sworn to protect the country and up-hold the law is now prevented by the law to defend his country. As his political enemy, Theron, later tells Queen Gorgo, "This isn't about war, it's about politics." In the historical record, Leonidas compromises with the Ephors, but in the movie he defies them, and in the novel the gold is paid by Xerxes to compromise their influence.

Leonidas returns to his home and bed, but can't sleep or welcome his wife's embrace. He finds himself enslaved by political compromise. The queen interrogates him:


QG: Has the oracle robbed you of your desires as well?
KL: It would take more than the words of a drunken adolescent girl to rob me of my desire for you.
QG: Then why so distant?
KL: Because it seems that though a slave, captured by lecherous old men, the oracle's words can set fire to all that I love.
QG: And that is why my king loses sleep and is forced from the warmth of his bed?
KL: Then what must a king do to save his world, when the very laws he has sworn to protect force him to do nothing.
(The Queen's next line triggers the moment of grace, that the King embraces in several ways.)
QG: It is not a question about what a Spartan citizen should do, or a husband, or a king. Instead ask yourself, my dearest love, what should a free man do?
That's it!

He gets the truth of the moral premise, and after a moment of assimilation he again is a freeman and falls into her arms and they make love. It is what a free man is able to do. He is able to give of himself to his wife in love. Not just through sex, even as it is tender and respectful as sex between a married couple should be; but through the courage of facing death as they both seek freedom for their country.

(BTW: This sex scene should be read as a model of martial intimacy; it was romantic, sexy, chaste, good, true, and beautiful. It would be interesting to compare Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body with the sexual love we see in this movie. I suspect we'd find a good alignment.)

Before this Moment of Grace the King frets at fulfilling his duty because he has politically compromised his values. The law intruded on his ability to do what he feels is his ultimate responsibility of defending his country, and so he turns to a higher standard. Not what a politician or king would do, but what would a free man would do.

For King Leonidas, everything hinges on that moment in the story. And consistently we see that our other characters have similar Moments of Grace when they accept or reject this true moral premise:


Moral compromise, even if politically expedient,
leads to enslavement and dread; but

Executing justice, even if politically suicidal,
leads to liberty, and hope.
The Queens Lesson

Now, how the queen learns the moral premise, in her personal dealings, is even more dramatic than how the King has learned it.

My wife, Pam, would have me mention at this point, perhaps something significant. It is after his Moment of Grace that the King essentially renounces his political position (as King) to go on a "stroll" with his bodyguard (of 300). Where before the Moment of Grace he tries to listen to and show respect to the politicians, now he is simply nice but rebellious. To underscore that he is no longer King he turns to leave his wife and go to war, but she calls after him: "Spartan!"

Notice she does not call him "king" or "husband." Further reinforcing this moment, we recall the writing of a first century historian (not in the movie or novel), Plutarch, who "mentions in his Sayings of Spartan Women that, after encouraging him"...Gorgo asks Leonidas what she should do on his departure, to which he replies, "Marry a good man, and have good children." (Wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Thermopylae)

Back to the story, the battle is being waged, and Gorgo seeks to persuade the Spartan council to mass the entire army to defend their land. Her political foe is Theron, who she goes to to convince to be on her side. But he isn't interested, and informers her that the issue is not one of war but one of politics. What he means by that is, political power for himself, and he intends to grab it, now that the King has left.

As misogynist villains seem to want, and it is beyond my understanding, he asks her for sex. He reasons to her that if she loves her husband so much, she will be willing to compromise her values to gain political advantage to help her husband. In desperation, and because she has been told that Theron's political support is crucial, she pulls off her dress and bravery offers herself to him. As he begins to rape her he says with disdain and malevolence: "This will not be over quickly, and you will not enjoy it."

Is it a necessary scene? You bet it is. Because it shows us that the Queen has compromised her values, especially to be politically expedient. What happens soon, however, even more so elucidates the moral premise.

She is given opportunity to address the council, even as Theron hideously looks on.
QUEEN GORGO: I'm not here to represent Leonidas. His actions speak louder than my words ever could. I'm hear for all those voices that could never be heard. Mothers, daughters, fathers, sons. 300 families that bleed for our rights, and for the very principles this room was built upon. We are at war, gentlemen. We must send the entire Spartan army to air our King in the preservation of liberty, send it for justice. send it for law and order. Send it for reason. But most importantly, send it for hope. Hope that the king and his men have not been wasted in the pages of history. That their courage bonds us together. That we are made stronger by their actions. That your choices today reflect their bravery.
It's a moving speech that gets a positive reaction from the members (especially with Tyler Bates' original music — it must have sounded great in the council chamber.)

But oily snake that he is, Theron turns on the Queen, and in front of all, accuses her of adultery with her chaste and proper counselor who stands nearby. She angrily denies his accusations. He pours it on and tells the council that she even threw herself at him, Theron, to win his approval. He calls her a whore, and dismisses her as worthless, just as King Leonidas who has broken the law by going to war without their approval, is worthless. (Sound familiar?).

Enraged, and about ready to flee -- her attempts at political compromise having tapped and enslaved her -- she seizes upon the truth of the moral premise, and executes justice -- and righteous justice it is, as her husband awaits his certain death. She sees a saber in the sheath of someone near her. It takes but a moment to decide. She deftly grabs the deadly tool, turns to her accuser, and, as he raped her, now she sticks her weapon into him, deep, sure, strong and fatal. And as she turns the now-scarlet blade she reprises his venomous words: "This will not be over quickly, and you will not enjoy it."

No sooner does she back away, than a pile of gold coins cascade from Theron's robes. A council member picks up a coin and looks at the face pressed into its side. It is the image of Xerxes. Theron was a traitor. (Do you suppose there were 30 pieces of gold here?)

Miles away, as King Leonidas prepares to be buried under the darkening sky of arrows that will doom him and his loyally troops, he cries, "My Queen! My wife! My love!"

In such ways the characters of this movie have either rejected or embraced the truth of the moral premise, and because of their egotism or humility reap the natural results of this moral truth:

Moral compromise, even if politically expedient,
leads to enslavement and dread; but

Executing justice, even if politically suicidal,
leads to liberty, and hope.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA (2006)

GABOR CSUPO - Director
JEFF STOCKWELL - Screenwriter
DAVID PATERSON - Screenwriter
KATHERINE PATERSON - Author

JOSH HUTCHERSON - Jesse Aarons
ROBERT PATRICK - Jesse Aarons Sr
KATRINA CERIO (Kate Butler) - Nancy Aarons
BAILEE MADISON - Maybelle Aarons
ANNASOPHIA ROBB - Leslie Burke
LATHAM GAINES - Bill Burke
JUDY MCINTOSH - Judy Burke
LAUREN CLINTON - Janice Avery
CAMERON WAKEFIELD - Scott Hoager
ELLIOT LAWLESS - Gary Fulcher
ZOOEY DESCHANEL - Miss Edmunds
JEN WOLFE - Mrs. Myers

Let me get into a discussion about this great movie by sharing a little about the author of the book upon which the screenplay was based.

AUTHOR KATHERINE PATERSON

Bridge to Terabithia was originally written as a book (1978 Newbery Medal for best children's novel) by Katherine Paterson, daughter of Presbyterian missionaries to China. She wrote the story to help her young son, David (co-screenwriter), understand his best friend's death — Lisa Hill was eight when she was struck by lightening. Understanding such an event requires a worldview that is cogent, and good writers write what they know.

In an on-line interview (www.terabithia.com), Paterson states:
I think it was C.S. Lewis who said something like: 'The book cannot be what the writer is not.' What you are will shape your book whether you want it to or not. I am Christian, so that conviction will pervade the book even when I make no conscious effort to teach or preach. Grace and hope will inform everything I write
THREE RULES OF STORYTELLING

Indeed, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA is a rich Christian myth filled with symbols of faith and grace that undergird the moral premise. Fortunately, Paterson is a gifted storyteller who understands the first rule of good communication: (1) Entertain. She has the second rule of communication down cold: (2) Tell the truth. And she practices the third rule of successful communication: (3) Respect your audience.


Employing those three rules results in classics like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Bridge to Terabithia. In all of these classic stories, truth resonates with audiences, even as the propositional statements of religious faith are avoided.

I do not mean that propositional statements of faith (such as you find in a catechism or the direct teachings from a religion's bible) are wrong or unnecessary. To the contrary, do I believe (said Yoda). But communicating truth to the masses is the place and time for myth (storytelling about truths), leaving catechesis (explaining the truth propositionally) for another, more analytical time.

In that regard, Paterson says in the same interview:
The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like a fancy dress.
In other words, tell the story with humility and joy, and don't preach with arrogance a pomp de fear.

A final quote from Paterson's quiver is this arrow of encouragement to all of us who are drawn to create:
Unless I was willing to risk mediocrity, I would never accomplish anything. There are simply no guarantees. It takes courage to lay your insides out for people to examine and sneer over.
Ah, yes, the drakes of mediocrity, we know thee well. (God, how I hate mediocrity, especially when I produce it myself -- see Addicted to Mediocrity by Franky Schaeffer and Kurt Mitchell.)

ON TO THE MOVIE

BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA tells the story of tween Jesse Aarons, whose goal is to break free of the mediocrity of fifth grade. A nice boy with a great but stifled imagination, he turns to running and practices for a foot race at school. When the big race comes, he pulls into the lead against his bully nemesises, only to be passed by the friendly, new girl in school, Leslie Burke. That he got beat by a girl is bad enough, but it turns out they are neighbors, and in time develop a friendship.

The darkness in Jesse's life comes from several sources. We discover that Jesse's family is poor and a cloud of poverty and dullness hangs over his large family of five sisters, and a loving, stern father who works hard but without satisfaction. Their family seems to be on the edge of emotional and fiscal depression. Jesse is also the brunt of jokes and ridicule at school for being a little different— he's introverted, and not given to the cruelty of his "peers." Although we are introduced to Jesse's imaginary world through his drawing, it is a closeted imagination than lacks vitality and hope.

Leslie, on the other hand is a bright, confident, outgoing girl with a streak of compassion that is never-ending. She befriends Jesse out of a genuine respect for the dignity of another person and his drawings, which he tries to keep to himself. Leslie quickly makes friends with Maybelle, Jesse's younger sister, by offering Maybelle her collection of Barbies when Jesse rudely rejects Maybelle's tagging along. Where Jesse is good at drawing, Leslie is good with words. When Mrs. Myers (their English teacher) asks Leslie to read her essay on SCUBA diving, Jesse imagines air-bubbles coming from Leslie's mouth, and is further engaged when she tells him afterwards that she just made it up —out of her imagination — she's never been SCUBA diving before.

We are not introduced to Leslie's parents until later, but when we are we discover that they too, like Mr. Aarons, work hard, but their lives are alive with imagination, and are richer on several levels. One of the movie's moments of grace is when Leslie's father, after he and his wife complete their book and re-painting the dinning room (a family project in which Jesse' helps) -- happily quotes Theodore Roosevelt:
Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.
As the story progresses that attitude is adopted by Jesse who proudly delivers it to his dad, when once again Jesse is told to do his chores.

ENTERING TERABITHIA

To escape the occasional persecution that both Jesse and Leslie endure at school, and because they are next-door neighbors in a rural setting, they run into the woods to play. Leslie is the leader here, and freely engages her vivid play imagination, inviting, and coaching Jesse to play along. She knows he has it in him (from his drawings). But to Jesse his imaginary world is something to escape to and keep private, and not something to exhibit by swinging from trees, or to yell about from mountaintops. But that is what Leslie teaches him.

When they find a rope that swings across a small river, she encourages him to give it a try. She does and freely enjoys the freedom of looking up into the clouds. He's afraid that the rope will break, but she tells him it won't. He swings, and listening to her exuberant hope, throws his head back and looks at the clouds above. It's a rush of excitement he's rarely felt.

On the other side of the river, they establish their own imaginary land—Terabithia she calls it. A place where they can be King and Queen, and where their imagination conjures up a land of the supernatural.

Now, in the supernatural world, we are closer to what the movie is really about — the need for hope, a virtue that allows us to see what naturally is invisible. In a Christian context, the key ingredient is "faith." And it plays significantly in the story. Hope results from understanding who we were meant to be, and seeing a way to express it in the larger world.

Early during their creation of Terabithia, Leslie challenges Jesse: "Close your eyes, but keep your mind wide open." They are surrounded by creatures of the imagination. She asks him "Do you see them?" He says "yes" but he sees only the natural world of birds and squirrels. She asks again, "Do you REALLY see them?" And then he sees the supernatural world of squogres and giant bats that only hope and their imagination can bring...what the movie is REALLY about.

Shortly thereafter, Leslie raises her arms in a prelude to the movie's triumph and announces:
"Prisoners of the Dark Master, we've come to free you."
And the wind blows, like the Holy Spirit entering the Upper Room where the Apostles huddled in fear of the dark forces that surrounded them. But in our movie, the proclamation by our Terabithia Queen is aimed directly at the Terabithia King, Jesse, who is a prisoner of the dark master, of which she's come to free him.

MYTHIC SYMBOLS

Terabithia comes from the name of the Terebinth tree found in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, and the Old Testament. The Terebinth is mentioned in Sirach 24:
Like a Terebinth I spread out my branches, and my branches are glorious and graceful. Like the vine I bud forth delights, and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit" (16-17).
The on-line Jewish encyclopedia states that:
Both the oak and the Terebinth offered favorite resorts for religious practices (Isa. i. 29, lvii. 5; Ezek. vi. 13; Hos. iv. 13), and are employed as emblems of strength and durability (Amos ii. 9; Isa. lxi. 3).
When life is difficult we gather strength and durability from hope and our imagination to see what could and will be. Thus our ability to imagine becomes a key component of Catholic sacramentality, where we experience the presence of God in all creation, in our contemplation, and in the Mass. Specifically, imagination is necessary to understand the Mass, its connection with eternity (where there is no time), and the meaning of life. Only then are we able to embrace hope for a better tomorrow.

ROLE OF THE PRIESTHOOD

In Bridge To Terabithia we see the beginning of that kind of sacramental, supernatural imagination in Jesse Aarons' life. For Jesse Aarons is a special person called to that imagination and hope. Jesse is our everyman, the person we identify with. Jesse is us. And as Jesse has a special role in the movie's story, so we have a special role in our personal story. This becomes a story of the priesthood of all believers, and perhaps a little about how someone is called to the vocation of the sacramental priesthood. Thus, it is not insignificant that our protagonist is Jesse Aarons.

The name is significant. Aaron is the name of Moses' brother who becomes Israel's first high priest, who is the first to venture into the Old Testament Tabernacle's Holy of Holies. In that sacred place he confronts God, and brings Yahweh's grace and hope back to the people. And that is what Jesse learns to do in this movie. He enters Terabithia, a sacred and magical place, and brings back hope for his sister, Maybelle, and his Dad.

But that's not all, consider our protagonist's first name: Jesse. In Isaiah 1:11 it says, "And there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse..." That is, from Jesse's blood we get King David and Jesus Christ, both Kings. Jesse Aarons is the King of Terabithia and called to be a priest to bring hope to the kingdom of man.

Leslie Burke, for me, is an angel, if not the Christ figure, that is sent to Jesse to teach him and prepare him for his role to change his world view. Until Leslie suddenly shows up, Jesse is being crushed — by his stern but loving father, by Mrs. Myers his good English teacher ("If you down load this essay, you'll be downloaded into detention"), by the bullies at school, by his family's financial situation, and by not having any hope for his future. But Leslie brings to Jesse the gift of faith in the imagination and the hope that is suppressed within him. Leslie also brings that hope to others in the story by showing them compassion.

And once Leslie has firmly established those virtues of faith, hope and compassion in Jesse, the story transitions. Ms. Edmonds takes him to an art museum, which he has never seen before. He's awed -- and sees the world in a new way. When he's caught the vision of his calling, Ms. Edmonds proclaims over him like a prophet: "You can change the world."

The next thing we know, Leslie and her parents are gone from the scene, leaving behind a pile of lumber.

Now it is up to Jesse to find work that is worth doing and change the world. After a short period of grief and mourning for Leslie, Jesse wastes little time.

The first thing he does is asks his little sister, Maybelle, for forgiveness. On numerous occasions he's been rude and excluded her from following Leslie and him into Terabithia. Then, he works toward a grand restitution, and builds a wooden bridge to Terabithia, and in the arch over the entrance, he hangs a coat of arms that reprises one of Leslie's proclamations, "Nothing Crushes Us." When it's done, Jesse becomes the priest that ushers his little sister into the land of hope; and as they enter crowns appear on their heads, the wooden bridge behind them glistens with gold, and beautiful and clever mythic creatures, including Janice as a Giant, greet them.

JESSE'S VOCATIONAL CALLING

In retrospect we see that Jesse has a calling to faith, a faith so great that it can change the world. It's a calling to the "real" world. For Terabithia is more real than the dark world he comes from. This harkens back to C. S. Lewis' "reality" in THE GREAT DIVORCE where the natural world is no longer as real as the supernatural experience of heaven.

We identify with Jesse, because we all have gifts that God has given us, but until we are encouraged to trust the Old Swinging Rope ("The Old Rugged Cross" is sung in the one church scene) that dangles across the river, we cannot swing across the river of baptism to the supernatural land where squirrels becomes squogres, and dark despair becomes a gold covered bridge to hope.

Leslie teaches Jesse Aarons to have faith, cross over the river, and enter the world of imagination, and hope. As Jesse embraces that lesson, his eyes are open (he's blind no more) and he discovers who he was truly meant to be—a person of hope, a person of vision, and a person of compassion.

Likewise, we are blinded until someone leads us to faith on that rope, and into the land of imagination and hope on the other side of the waters of baptism.

...A BROKEN ROPE

At the end of the movie, it is implied that it is the breaking of the rope that leads to Leslie's death. But, isn't it interesting that it is the rope again that brings her to the "other side" and assists in the transcendence from the natural world to the eternal world of the supernatural. And it is in the image of the broken rope that results in a physical death that reminds us of the Old Rugged Cross that resulted in another physical death, and gives us all hope of eternal life in the realm of the supernatural.

Terabithia, then becomes a sacred place. It's a place of imagination that can only be brought about by faith, hope, and charity.

THE MORAL PREMISE

Bridge to Terabithia has dual moral premises that support each other.

The first is seen significantly in the arc of Janice, the 8th-grade bully who forces kids to pay money or give up their lunch treats in order to use the playground bathroom. She also plays dirty tricks to get Jesse in trouble. But later when Leslie shows Janice uncommon compassion during a dark time, Janice's meanness is turned around, and then shows compassion toward Jesse. It is shortly after that show of compassion that it is Janice who becomes the inspiration for Terabithia's gentle and protective giant.

In this way, the sub-moral premise can be stated like this:
Meanness leads to a curse of rejection; but
Compassion leads to the grace of acceptance.
We see the meanness (and sternness) of Janice, Scott, Gary, Mrs. Myers, and Mr. Aarons converted or challenged by compassion, and when compassion (which is charity motivated by confident hope) is promulgated, grace and acceptance are the result.

But more importantly the movie is about how meanness is related to skepticism, which embraces the dark forces in our lives. Remember Leslie's call: "Prisoners of the dark master, we have come to free you!" That freedom from meanness, which is the result of skepticism, can be relieved only by hope that comes through faith, in the Old Rugged Rope to carry us to the other side. The broken rope gives transcendence to the story's arc, and motivates Jesse. It is because of what Leslie has taught Jesse that he is able to build a more substantial Bridge to Terabithia, and begin to usher others across it

So the more significant moral premise, about which the entire movie is really about, can be stated like this:
Skepticism leads to dread of a dark tomorrow; but
Faith leads to the hope of a bright future.
And the last shot of the movies, we peer into Jesse's eyes. He sees now, that which before he was blind to, now he sees clearly a vision for what the world can be. He doesn't know what he'll do next, but he'll think of something with his eyes wide open and full of hope.


DVD
Blu-Ray
VOD