Thursday, September 4, 2008

Moral Premise Makes It To The Sony Lot

I've been sworn to secrecy, but I can tell you this. Last week I was flown to Los Angeles to screen a major movie in its editing stage (SEVEN POUNDS), have a couple of meetings, and write an analysis of the moral premise. Along with consultants and screenwriters Jim Mercurio (left) and Michael Hauge (right), we watched the film twice over two days on the Sony Pictures Studios lot in Culver City, CA -- once in the editing dens and then in the leather seated Thalberg screening rooms. (That was cool!) And that's all I can say. It was fun, and great to talk to Michael Hauge, whose book I quote several times in my own, after attending one of his screenplay seminars here in Detroit 15 years ago. It is satisfying to know that the audience I targeted The Moral Premise at, is finally discovering it.

I was sure to wear my MICHIGAN cap on the lot... advertising our state, now with its attractive incentive program, can't hurt. This picture was taken late in the day, but when we arrived early afternoon, the "streets" (at the North end of the Sony lot -- the old MGM studios) were busy with all sorts of folks, including small crews here and there shooting inserts for various projects.

Friday, August 22, 2008

He LIked the Book --- I Guess


Hancock PosterLast month I wrote how months earlier I received a call from an assistant at Overbrook Entertainment, Will Smith's production company. Evidently, Mr. Smith had gotten a hold of my book "The Moral Premise" and wanted to talk to me. At the time I didn't know if he liked it or not. I promised to tell you if he did ... or not ... provided I found out.

Well, I still haven't talked to him... but my guess is he liked it. A couple of weeks ago Fed Ex showed up at my door here in Michigan with a couple of scripts and a non-disclosure agreement. My wife persuaded me to sign the thing and get to work. Then, after I handed in my analysis, I was invited to make a couple of trips. I guess someone at Overbrook likes the book.

So, I'll be in L.A. next week on moral premise business, and hope to have some time between screenings or afterward to visit with those of you I haven't seen in a couple of years. If you've got some time, drop me an email.

And, no, I haven't written up HANCOCK on this moral premise blog, but I loved the movie. The Moral Premise? Something like Super Indulgence produces a Super Binge, but Super Sacrifice produces a Super Hero...whether fighting crime or raising a family. Moms are super, aren't they?

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hollywood Calls... sort of

Will Smith in I AM LEGEND
A few months ago I received a call from a lady who said her boss who owned a production company in Los Angeles had read The Moral Premise and wanted her to track me down so he could talk with me. She said she had a hard time finding me because there was another Stanley Williams that kept showing up in her Internet searches. But she figured that the Stanley Williams she was looking for was not on death row in a California prison. It turns out that Stanley TOOKIE Williams III, the gangster, was executed in California a few years back, but Google gives him a lot of "hits."

When she felt it was safe (that I was not in prison) I asked her the name of her boss' company. She said, "Overbrook Entertainment". Now, that sounded familiar, but I don't know my production companies that well, and I felt kind-of dumb, but I had to ask: "So, who's your boss? She said, "Will Smith."

Well, I knew who Will Smith was, but I didn't believe it was the same Will Smith this lady was working for... until I scrambled my webrowser and looked up Overbrook. Oh yeah!

When I regained my cool I told her I'd be glad to get a call from Mr. Smith anytime, and to please tell him that I was a fan of his movies.

That night Pam and I rushed out to see I AM LEGEND, just in case he called the next day. That was months ago. No call. LOL! But it was still cool getting Tracy's call and seeing her name in the credits as Mr. Smith's Executive Assistant at the end of I AM LEGEND.

Tracey told me Smith reads "everything he can get his hands on about the business." That probably explains why he keeps making such good decisions. I've been anxious to see HANCOCK for months. If for no other reason, it looks like the first superhero movie that actually respects the laws of Physics.

I'll let you know if Mr. Smith calls. Hope he liked the book.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Oregon Bloggers Discover Moral Premise

Today (9/4/08, actually) I received this nice email:
Dr. Williams,

I recently read your book, The Moral Premise, and enjoyed it greatly! Last year I co-taught a Faith and Film class at Mosaic Church in Portland, Oregon ( and I taught on the narrative structure of movies and determining the message of movies. Your book was the best resource I consulted. I used the moral premise as a way to help people determine the message, or controlling idea, that the movie intended to convey.

My co-teacher, Martin Baggs, and I led a monthly Faith and Film group for Mosaic Church. For each movie we viewed and discussed, I led the group in looking at the structure and message and framed the message in the terms outlined in your book. People really responded well to articulating the message of the movie in this way.

Martin, my co-teacher, began a blog of movie reviews and referenced your materials.

I also started a blog recently focused on the structure and message of stories and referenced your work also.

I posted a blog entry today referencing your book and explaining the moral premise. In my list of recommendations, I included your book, website and blog. I do hope that my referencing your materials encourages people to view the blog and website and hopefully by your book!

Ryan Blue
Gresham, OR
Thanks, Ryan. Your two blogs look very interesting. I'm sure to read more.


Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Helen's Lost Arc in THE INCREDIBLES

My Moral Premise pen pal from Greece, Geroge C. wrote me with this very good analysis of Helen's arc in THE INCREDIBLES, thus pointing out a weakness in my book.

George, this is great work. I'm glad you understand the power of the moral premise so well.

Here's Geroge's email, verbatim:


Stan, You mention somewhere in your book that in ancient Athens they didn't allow works of art that were damaging to the citizens' moral values. Well, actually that is only a proposal Plato makes in his work regarding how an ideal city should be like, but there wasn't such a law in Athens. And thank goodness, cause, who gets to decide which works of art are good and which ones are bad?! In ancient Greece, the thing which I believe is the most indicative of the close bond between stories and moral premise, is that the origins of theater and the presentation of plays can be found inside religious events. It was within such events that theater and drama was first born. I think that tracing the roots of drama gives us a whole new perspective that doesn't allow us to accept the notion that movies should be simply brain candy.

Thanks for the correction, George. That's important information. (SW)

Stan, I watched the Incredibles and I discovered there's a beautiful character arc (Helen Parr's) that has escaped you! :-) And it's an arc that brings a whole new dimension to the story. You propably don't recall much from the movie right now, but if you ever happen to watch it again, I think you'll agree with me!
Actually, I've lectured on THE INCREDIBLES several times since the book came out, and enjoy showing the clips to groups. As a result, I've seen more clearly Helen's arc, which, as you point out, I did not fully understand when I wrote the book. (SW)
In the arc tables of 'The Incredibles', pg 130-133, you say: "The moral premise is that battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat, while battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory." You also cite how Buddy Pine/Syndrome (the baddie) practices a distorted version of the moral premise: He and his partner, Mirage, appear to be working as a family, but in truth Syndrome just uses her and doesn't really appreciate her. When he's given the opportunity to aknowledge the importance of relying on his family, he rejects the idea and shows he's willing to sacrifice Mirage...

Regarding Helen Parr's arc plot (Mr Incredible's wife) you say that "she practices the good side of the moral premise most of the way..." And that's where I have a very different opinion: I think that Helen Parr, just like the villain, starts out by practicing a distorted version of the moral premise's virtue! Helen Parr appears to be the family's bedrock, but what she really does is suppressing the other family members. She doesn't let them be themselves! She strives for a united family, but on her own egoistic terms. And this results in misery and a dysfunctional family. Later, confronted by a moment of grace, she abandons that attitude, embraces the true virtue of the moral premise, and becomes the heart and soul of the family. I've included some story beats which I think prove my point:

We see Helen being called to the principal's office due to her son's problematic behavior at school. When she talks with her son, we find out that Dash's frustrated because she won't let him go out for sports. Dash is naturally competitive and loves sports, but Helen just won't allow it. Dash tells his mom: "You always say, 'Do your best'. But you don't really mean it. Why can't I do the best that I can do?"

Later, at the dinner table, Helen scolds Bob (her husband) for being impressed with their son's superspeed. She says "We're not encouraging this!" Bob himself is very unhappy cause he cannot be Mr Incredible, and it's because of that reason that he has trouble connecting with his family. Even Violet (their daughter) is unhappy; she has an outburst, saying that she's forced to be 'normal' although she isn't. In other words, she's forced to fit a stereotype, and she's not allowed to be real.

Later, when Bob comes home late, he and Helen have a fight. In that scene it's clear that Bob and the kids suffer because they aren't allowed to use their powers. Bob says to Helen, "You want to do something for Dash? Then let him go out for sports." And Helen rants defensively:"I will not be made the enemy here!" She's the one who tries to hold the family together and meet their needs, but she doesn't realize that by trying to make them 'fit in' and by not allowing them to be who they truly are, she sabotages her own goal. In a way, she is the enemy!

Later Helen finds out Bob's been lying to her and that he does superhero work behind her back. She starts crying when she realizes it. She goes to find him and the kids sneak in with her in the jet. There's a big moment of grace here as danger appears, and from that point her attitude becomes very different. She puts on her costume and when things get dangerous she tells her daughter to put a force field around the plane. Violet responds,"You said not to use our powers." Helen says," I know what I said. Listen to what I'm saying now!"

Helen abandons the distorted version of the moral premise's virtue from now on. There are sequences where Helen works with the family and coordinates them so that everyone's power works harmoniously in conjuction with the others. It's fascinating how Helen's character changes; she becomes a true field leader!

Later at the cave, Helen once more encourages the kids to use their powers. She says to her son, "Dash, if anything goes wrong I want you to run as fast as you can." Dash cannot believe his ears. He responds, overjoyed:"As fast as I can?!"

In the movie's final scene when a new supervillain appears, Helen doesn't prevent anyone from using their powers. In fact, she even puts on her mask before Bob does, and gives him an approving look.

Let me know what you think, Stan. Thanks again!


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why Are Stories Necessary? Part 2

What follows is George Chatzigeorgiou's response (who writes from Greece) to my June 10, 2008 post, which was my (long) answer to his question "Why Are Stories Necessary?"

George's insight into the cultural importance of stories and narrative is inspiring. Yes, he's a kindred soul. But he goes beyond where I've been, and sees things I don't, and that's exciting. His writings, which I'm happy to post below, are like good myths which are retold by following generations, taking the old story and adapting it to the current times and making it again meaningful and infused with truth for the reader. Being from Greece, George speaks, reads, and writes Greek and I suspect he has a classical education -- all of which adds to the discussion.

If you want to read this thread in order, read the Feb. 10 post first, wherein he poses the question and I answer. That link is HERE (Why Are Stories Necessary?) and at the bottom of that post, there's a like to this post so you can read in order.

Herrree's George!


Hi Stan,

Thank you for giving such an extensive and thorough answer, and for taking the time to explain that process, the whole thing really makes sense to me now.

So, it's through this whole process of simulation, identification, cause and effect, and use of time that good stories can give us not simply wisdom, but the kind of wisdom that only first-hand experience can provide. So the reason a good story is so precious, is cause it basically gives us the opportunity to become wiser without having to pay the price of wisdom, without having to make mistakes again and again until we finally wise up, and without having to invest the tremendous time it takes for us to reach that point. (many lifetimes in my case!)

All this seems to lead me to another conclusion: A boring story, even with a solid moral premise, isn't enough; it won't work nearly as much as a story that is truly engaging. A good story has emotional effect, the proverbial "thrills and chills", and that emotional effect is absolutely essential for this whole process you describe to work. Maybe that's a deeper reason why we're searching for good movies. ('Seen any good movie lately?') Because an emotionally engaging story is much more effective in giving us the "adrenaline rush that sensitives the synapses in our brain to remember the consequence when it occurs." A boring, poor movie, however, simply won't do the job, even if it has a perfectly executed moral premise. Turns out Hitchcock had the right idea when he said, 'A movie should not be a slice of life, it should be a slice of cake.'

Still, all the attempts at creating emotional effect and all the storytelling craft in the world doesn't mean much if a moral premise isn't there to support the story's drama. It just leaves us empty and unsatisfied. I remember when as a teenager me and my brother went to see the 'Matrix'. It was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen, and we were so excited watching those fantastic action scenes, it was unreal how excited I was! But the funny thing is, when I watched the sequels I didn't like them at all, and in fact I was very put off... How strange! The concept was still the same, the story world was the same, the amazing action scenes were even better than the first movie, heck, even the stars were the same! Later, of course, I understood that the only thing missing was the most crucial one: The moral crossroads, the conflict of values which supported the first film's physical conflict wasn't there anymore. Everything was there, everything but the foundation. There was no meaning, no substance. And ultimately, no emotional effect, no 'adrenaline rush'.

The idea that part of the reason movies are so popular is cause they allow us to glimpse our divine destiny and to experience things from the perspective of God, is so simple and obvious, and yet so stunning and mind-blowing! I never thought of such a thing and I still can't say I have fully grasped it, much less its deeper implications (which I suspect are plenty). 'Going to the movies' is so much a part of our pop culture, that one hardly thinks of it as a mystical experience. And yet, that's exactly what it is! When the lights slowly go out and we watch the screen in anticipation, at that moment, right then, you can tell it's not just a feeling of 'let's have a nice time'; it's a deeper feeling, the expectation for something far more profound. And that feeling I've noticed, sometimes it spreads through the room; sometimes it's even as if I can almost touch it. We really do experience divine attributes when we watch a movie. To the five divine attributes you mention I would add one more, the attribute of IDENTIFICATION. Just as in a really good movie we deeply identify with the characters, feel what they're going through and root for them, maybe God also identifies with us (which maybe explains why He's so passionately interested in our salvation)

You write:
It is only in reliving the lives of others (from true history, or metaphor, and parables) that we have hope of that change, BECAUSE IT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED TO OTHERS... in short - PROOF.
That's probably why we're so fond of having role models and need people to look up to. It's not just an interest for those people, we essentially aspire to have similar lives with them. That's why in our teenage years we desperately search for idols. What we're really searching for is some hope for our future. It's a way of saying, 'Look, this guy did it'. It is proof that we can change our lives also, and a platform of inspiration. (It just struck me,so weird, that the word "idol" comes from the Greek word "ειδωλον", which means -you won't believe this- "reflection"!
But at the heart of all morality is the INDIVIDUAL and SELF-DETERMINATION... Our choice of our future and our own self-determination is a fundamental truth about the human condition.
Curiously, that's a theme that is inherent in the structure of pretty much every story: The hero changing his own fate as well as the fate of other people, of a community, of the galaxy etc, all because he makes a choice and he's gritty enough to stick with it (self-determination). And everything hinges on the protagonist's choice... I've been reading the Proverbs lately, and there's a brilliant verse which I think conveys exactly that: "Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life."(Proverbs 4:23)

Thanks again Stan, that was extremely helpful!

George Chatzigeorgiou

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Why Are Stories Necessary? Part 1

I received the following question from my friend George Chatzigeorgiou in Greece, whose excellent input to understanding the moral premise (with respect to the movie MIDNIGHT RUN) I have posted elsewhere on this blog, HERE.

I've bolded certain phrases that George uses, because they are so well put.
George writes:

Dear Stan:

I have a question regarding the moral premise which is so basic I'm almost embarrassed to ask it. I suspect the answer must be right under my nose, so please humor me by answering it!

My question is this: We've established that the essence of story is change, or transformation if you like. We've also established that this change of fortune, whether for better or for worse, is dependent upon a moral choice the protagonist makes; and we know that this in turn leads to fundamental truths about the human condition and how best to live our lives, truths which pass on to the audience or the reader, the recipient of the story. It's also widely accepted that stories are not just some luxury of sorts, and that there's a real need for stories that is universal and begins since the dawn of mankind. So, if the ultimate purpose of story comes down to passing on some crucial and fundamental truths, then whey do you need stories to convey those truths? Why do we need the vehicle of a story to do that?

For example, if I say to you, "Battling adversity alone leads to weakness and defeat, while battling adversity as a family leads to strength and victory", why won't my communication have the same profound effect in your life as watching 'The Incredibles'? If this truth is so crucial and so fundamental to the human existence, then why don't we immediately recognize it and abide by it? Why does this truth need to be incorporated in a narrative in order to have a better chance of making an impact on our lives?

Also, do you think a good story with a true moral premise can really change people and make a difference in the world? Is there some sort of mechanism inside us that causes a good story to have such a magical effect? Is there a real logic behind thinking that good stories can really benefit the world and make a difference? Stan, is there a thoroughly convincing logical argument to support that storytellers are really able to make a difference in the world and serve a high purpose, and that they're not mere entertainers who try to convince themselves otherwise?
Well, I don't know why I just didn't bold, underline, and highlight the whole message. Didn't I write a whole chapter on this? It seems I did, but I can't find it.

So, thank you George, for asking the obvious, ubiquitous, elephant-in-the-room question.

George's question get at the heart of what it means to be human. And by human I do not mean "animal," or any other lesser life form. Human beings are different, in the very way George is observing. THEY TRANSCEND everything else in creation. They ask questions like "Why am I here?" "Why is life?" "What am I suppose to do?" and "How can I be good and not bad?" And it is in asking those questions that we touch the very essence of the human condition—we are made in God's image. BANG! We have a self-conscience. Nothing else does. We know there is something more than the moment in time we are experiencing. It is inherent in our being, and we can't escape from it. Those that try to escape end up in psychiatric hospitals. Why story? Why, indeed! Well, here's why.

ONLY THROUGH STORY CAN WE "SEE" OUR LIFE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF OUR CREATOR. (See link at end.) Our thirst for stories proves the existence of something greater than us, beyond us, looking in on us, giving us meaning, and someone who most likely put us here. The IDEA that we can KNOW what life MEANS, is evidence that a transcendent ANSWER exists.

Okay, okay, okay... forget the grand philosophy and pontificating. Here are some actual answers, which I'll give in antiphonal fashion to George's highlighted comments:


Yes! The essence of life is change and transformation (up or down). We HOPE things, life, situations, ourselves, can CHANGE and get above (transform) our current miserable life. In the Rosary prayer there's this beautiful line — "here in this valley of tears" — which points to our human need to change and be transformed. It is only in reliving the lives of others (from true history, or metaphor, and parables) that we have hope of that change, BECAUSE IT HAS ALREADY HAPPENED TO OTHERS.

If you simply tell me I can change, I don't see it, understand it, or comprehend how the change can occur. But, if you tell me a story or show me the life struggles of someone who has changed, then I BELIEVE, I ENVISION, and I begin to work toward that end. I have a role model, and example, in short — PROOF.


I don't' have time to explain all of this, but hopefully you'll understand that achieving the change we want or need, comes only through our own SELF DETERMINATION. The current political argument about socialism and Marxism vs. democracy and self-determination is what this is all about. God has given us (personally and individually) a choice: make good decisions that are in accordance with the laws that I've put into place which allow the universe to operate smoothly, or buck them and suffer the consequences. (There is a collective decision we can make and suffer consequences, for sure, but the collective is only as good as the mass of individuals who make the decisions. The collective has no consciousness, will, or soul. Only individuals do. And that's why Marxism and Communism and Socialism ultimately fail in all their forms throughout history. )

We are thus not responsible for bad things that happen of which we made no decision that caused the thing to happen. We are inherently (by virtue of God's laws, or natural laws) ONLY RESPONSIBLE FOR OURSELVES and those things that happen DIRECTLY as the result of our decisions. We can yell victim all we want, but ultimately we can control our attitude. If we are maimed by a mad man, our responsibility is our attitude toward the horrific event. Do we become bitter or forgiving? Do we seek revenge or consolation? And yet this does not marginalize or denigrate the importance of corporate decisions or the laws of a republic for the common good. But at the heart of all morality is the INDIVIDUAL and SELF-DETERMINATION -- you take that away and you'll end up like East Berlin during the cold war in very short order.


Our choice of our future and our own self-determination is a fundamental truth about the human condition. God has written into the universe and into all human hearts certain non-negotiable rules. One of those rules is "gravity" by the way. Another is the need to tell the truth if you want to live in community with others. Obey these rules an live. Disobey them and die. (See Genesis 2:17, although we don't need the Bible to know that if we step off a cliff we're doomed to fall to our death.)


Sooooo right! Stories require time, and time is the critical element of stories that explain life. Stories are as important as time. Only stories can measure and mark time. Stories cannot exist without time. And time is only measured in terms of stories.

One of the things that points to the importance of time as it interplays with a person's life is that rich and poor have the same amount of time. The richest can not can't make more time. They can make more money, but not time. Time is the great equalizer. There is no "class" when it comes to time. Consequently the rich can understand the drama involved in a pauper's life, and the pauper can comprehend the suspense that brings the rich to their knees. Indeed death is a milestone of time and story, and both the rich and poor die.

Time is that ubiquitous "dimension" (although it has no dimension that we can perceive -- it's a zero-dimension, a dot, that moves along a two dimension line called a life's timeline. But we cannot perceived the line, only the dot.

Yet God perceives simultaneously the two or three dimensions of lines that constitutes multiple lives in multiples places at multiple times. And because we are made in the image of God, and because time and story are dependent on each other, stories allow us to look at our lives, and all history as God does. Stories allow us to time-travel, and instantly bi-locate, even tri-locate our minds across centuries and continents. Stories allow us to experience the attributes of God -- the omnipresence, the omniscience, if not also the omnipotence.


What I just said... to tell time. To tell us IN time, how important decisions are.
Stories manipulate TIME and allow us to see things as God sees them...without the limit of time. We can only experience the Zero-T of time. In reality, we cannot see forward or backward along our timeline or any one else's. But if we tell a story we can move through time and explain why things are, and how they could have been. That is because DECISIONS (especially moral ones) are made in time. A decision is a milestone, a marker, that helps define time. When we decide to study hard and graduate from a school, our GRADUATION DAY marks the culmination of many moral decisions to study so that we may eventually graduate. Thus, graduation is a MARKER of our moral decisions, and the GRADUATION event TELLS us what TIME it is. Telling the story about how we graduated allows us to explore the many moral decisions that we made right so we could graduate, and the many wrong moral decisions a friend made so he would NOT graduate.


Because didactic communication (telling me what to do) does not let me relive the decisions of others and see the consequences of those decisions. If you simply tell me to do something and explain the consequences, the degree to which I believe what you say will happen or not happen depends on a long relationship of trust between us. That trust is the result of many stories and shared experiences passing between us. But if that deep relationship does not exist then there is no realization of the consequence. But a story SIMULATES my life, convinces me that the moral decisions and the consequence have meaning. I can see what happens to Mr. Incredible when he tries to do things alone. I can see what happens to the Incredible Family when they battle adversity together. Because of the relationship with those characters in the first two acts, I IDENTIFY with them. I have established a relationship with them and I am emotionally attached to their decisions. I have lived in their time and their story. I see myself in them because I have made decisions like they have, and to some degree lived the consequences. They reinforce the pattern of my life (assuming their story was created around a true moral premise.)

Unlike didactic communication (telling), narrative communication shows, demonstrates, simulates, and dramatizes the effect of time on those decisions and consequences. Didactic communication has no power to demonstrate, show, or dramatize. You've heard the expression that "experience is the best teacher". Why is that? Because experience creates the drama of time as it relates to decision and consequence, and the suspense between those two nodes. We make a decision (and take an action) and then suspense sets in as we wait to see what the consequence will be. That suspense and intrigue create an adrenaline rush that sensitives the synapses in our brain to remember the consequence when it occurs. Movies especially, but all stories too, rely on this natural method of time, decision, consequence and help us IDENTIFY with the characters as if we were them. Because the story depends on time to work, it can create drama, which gives us an adrenalin rush, which triggers our brain to remember the relationship between a particular decision and its consequence.

Stories also allow us to see inside the mind of a character and know their motivation and moral values, thus identifying the moral good and bad of attitudes and how various kinds of THINKING leads to kinds of ACTION and thus CONSEQUENCE.

A friend used to say to our kids (his daughter and my son before they were married, although it is still true now that they are married with 4 kids of their own): "You can make any decision you want, but you have no choice over the consequence." In family matter that consequence may come from the arbitrary will of a parent. But in society that consequence may come from a policeman, a judge, a jury, or even a spouse. We can cheat on our wife (we have the freedom to make that decision) but we have no control over her jealously or bitterness when she finds out. It's one thing to tell someone "DO NOT COMMIT ADULTERY" but to experience it is a far better teacher. But who wants to go through ADULTERY to learn its consequences? Not anyone, really. So, what's a better way to do it? TELL A STORY. SHOW A STORY. Let people identify with the husband and wife, and learn through a SIMULATION the natural laws of the universe. And, hopefully, they won't do it in real life.


They do, undoubtedly. Newspaper and novel accounts of behavior and its consequence convince far more people than didactic preaching. Movie fans that watch the lives of movie stars come and go, learn a great deal about what not do to if you want to be happy. It's one thing not to get caught with a hooker on Sunset Blvd (e.g. Hugh Grant) but I'm sure Elizabeth Hurley wish he had avoided the hooker altogether. If Hugh didn't learn anything from that story out of his life, we sure should have.

We can easily say that storytellers have value, because people spent billions of dollars each year to watch stories, or listen to them. Stories come in all forms, from the $200 million block buster to the weather report. News, magazines, gossip, parables... they all communicate the cause and effect of moral decisions and their consequences. We can't escape storytellers, because they are as important as time and morality.


Here's a link to a short essay I wrote years ago (but reposted on this blog) that explains why movies (and stories) give us insight into our "divine destiny." That is, stories help us transcend this life and give it meaning. Transcendence, of course, is the ultimate transformation or change. We hope for a better life. Time empowers that hope. And stories tell us how to achieve it.

Link to Why Are Stories Necessary? Part 2

Monday, June 9, 2008

Stories and Movies - A Window to Our Divine Destiny

(Originally published by April 2, 2002)

Why are good stories and movies so popular?

The last two years (2000-2001) saw movie box office revenues soar. Even in times of tragedy, movies are in style. The events of 9/11 suggested that all businesses, even the film industry, would suffer. Not so. While there was a slump after 9/11, the film business has never been stronger. Why is that?

Seeing What God Sees

Good stories and movies are popular because they give us a vision of our divine destiny. Because we are made in God's image we have a natural curiosity to experience God's attributes. Unlike any other media, movies allow us to see what normally only God sees in five extraordinary ways.

1. Good stories and movies give us a sense of God's infinite knowledge. THE PERFECT STORM taught us about the rigors of commercial fishing, THE GREEN MILE enlightened us to the horror of death row, and AMADEUS revealed the politics of culture in 18th century Vienna. While it is true that movies rarely get all the facts right, they still tell us more than we could know otherwise. Filmmakers are able to condense into two hours what one person could never absorb in a lifetime. In a movie we are treated to a glimpse of infinite knowledge presented as a unified whole in a manner we could never conceive on our own. In this way, movies give us a preview of our destiny to know as God knows.

Inside the Heart

2. Good stories and movies reveal to us what is morally true. DIE HARD is about a vacationing New York cop who battles a team of terrorist-thieves in an L.A. office building on Christmas Eve. But what the movie is really about is how true love of a man for his wife, regardless of the obstacles, trials, and terrors, dies hard. That is DIE HARD's moral premise. Research indicates that the greater the validity, or truth, of the moral premise, the greater the movie's popularity. That is because what is right and wrong in God's mind is written on our hearts; and when our hearts resonate with the truth on the big screen, our word of mouth promotion generates big audiences.

3. Good stories and movies allow us to know what is in a person's heart. In a novel the author often writes with an omniscient voice telling us what is motivating a character to do good or evil. In a movie, this is replaced with images of characters in private moments or voice-overs of their thoughts. In WHAT WOMEN WANT, the audience, along with womanizer Nick Marhsall (Mel Gibson), hears the brutally honest thoughts on the hearts of the women in his life. The filmmakers also let us know Nick's heart with the same technique. Movies can, therefore, reveal the good and evil at the core of a person's heart and we see them as God does.

4. Good stories and movies allow us to be omnipresent. In JOAN OF ARC (Duguay, 1999) the filmmakers cut between five different story lines hundreds of miles apart. Skillfully we are treated to the convergence of the mystical Joan, her peasant parents, the scheming king, a vengeful bishop, and land-hungry dukes. We are like supernatural voyeurs watching displaced storylines being woven together into a tapestry of intrigue and Providence. We feel privileged — even superior — as we witness the desperate struggling, the naive decisions, and the malice aforethought. We see everything, everywhere, as it happens, just like God does.

Perceiving Eternity

5. Good stories and movies give us a sense of eternity. In eternity God perceives time in multiple dimensions, just as we see pieces on a game board. As we can see length, height and depth, so eternity perceives the past, present and future. Movies access the times and events of eternity with flashbacks and flash-forwards. In AMISTAD, during the courtroom scenes, flashbacks are used with staggering clarity to reveal the atrocities that were inflicted upon the slaves months earlier. To people in the courtroom the scene was described with words in the past tense. But to us the scenes were shockingly real and very much part of the present. Thus, movies give us a sense of how God perceives eternity.

Stories and movies, then, are entertainment on a cosmic scale. We can sense what it is like to have all knowledge, our souls can resonate with moral truth, we can clearly understand a person's heart, we can at once witness events in different places, and we can experience the past and the future as if it was now. Just as contemplative mystics seek dark corners in which to encounter God's presence, so moviegoers seek dark theaters in which to encounter God's attributes and sample their divine destiny. That is why movies are so popular.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Midnight Run

Almost a year ago I received this analysis from a reader in Greece, George Chatzigeorgiou. My delay in moving his comment from the comments section of this blog to a main entry proves only one thing. I keep "to do" lists, and some of them are long.

I have since seen the movie, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Indeed, George's analysis is correct, although I may not agree with everything he says, there is no need for my dissection of it. What he writes stands on its own. I'm honored, George. Great job. This film has a wonderfully strong moral premise.



Mr. Williams:

I've been looking for ways to illustrate themes in my stories, and also studying movies that had a strong effect on me, trying to discover the techniques the writers used to make the themes work so well. I read your book, but I'm not particularly fond of any of the movies that are offered as examples in it. So I decided to test the book by applying its principles on a favourite film of mine. I had studied this film ("Midnight run") in the past, but I still couldn't figure out how the premise worked in the narrative so well. Studying the movie from the 'Moral premise' lense, I was astounded by how perfectly the book's conclusions applied to the movie. The results were amazing.
I'd written down some notes, and I decided to turn them into an essay regarding how the book's conclusions apply to this film. I think it'll be of interest to anyone who has read your book and seen the movie.

Okay, here it is: The movie's called 'Midnight run', written by George Gallo, directed by Martin Brest, starring De Niro and Charles Grodin. The plot goes like this: Jonathan Mardukas (Grodin) is an accountant who embezzled millions of dollars from a Vegas mobster, gave them to charities and then jumped bail. Jack Walsh (De Niro) is the protagonist, a skip tracer who arrests Mardukas and tries to deliver him to his boss, so that he can collect a big payment. But their cross-country trip is not that simple. The mob who wants Mardukas dead is after them, and so is the FBI. Not to mention another skip tracer who wants to steal Mardukas from Jack... So basically, the movie's about a skip tracer who tries to evade the mob and the FBI, and deliver a prisoner across country; if he does that, he'll get a big payment which will allow him to fulfill his dream of opening a coffee shop.

But what the movie is REALLY about? It's really about a guy who learns to open himself to understanding. As a result of making this moral choice, the protagonist has a new hope and embarks on a new beginning in his life.
Now let's articulate the premise that's present throughout the movie and within each character's arc:
Understanding leads to hope and new beginnings.
Lack of understanding leads to chaos and demise.

We can see that the protagonist's goal and the desirable consequences of the moral premise are related. The protagonist wants to quit his job, open a coffeee shop, and make a new beginning in his life. In William's words, the story's physical and psychological spine meet. Moreover, as the movie unfolds,the physical story metaphors the psychological story: Every time the protagonist takes some weak steps toward accepting the truth of the moral premise, there is progress. When he rejects it there are complications and problems. Finally he makes the moral choice to accept it, and achieves his goal.

Now let's see some examples on how the premise is reflected and proven through each character's arc:

Jack Walsh (the protagonist)

In his book, Williams says, 'I was tempted to write a chapter on how the Moral Premise is reflected in character names'. Well, this character's no exception. The name of our protagonist (Walsh) sounds very close to the word "walls". Jack Walsh has shut out understanding; he's the hero who raises 'walls' between himself and others. Jack refuses to understand the people around him and to let others understand him. At some point Jonathan says to him, 'You have only two forms of expression: Silence and rage.' Jack exhibits his lack of understanding by being cynical, sarcastic and condemnatory toward other people.

An important note though: These aren't Jack's only traits. If these traits were the only things we see in Jack then we wouldn't be able to identify with him and root for him, cause no one likes to root for a jerk. But that isn't the case; Jack's a complex character (for an action comedy at least). Very early in the film we realize he's an honest person. When Jonathan tries to bribe him, Jack snaps back at him, 'I never took a payoff in my life and I'm not gonna start with you.' In short, Jack is a man of integrity. Later on, when we find out what happened to him back when he was a cop in Chicago, we begin to suspect that this terrible experience he had is the reason why he has shut out understanding and why he exhibits these negative traits. So we start to sympathize with him even more and we want him to achieve his goal, despite all his character flaws.

From the very start Jack's prejudiced against Jonathan. He refuses all communication by constantly telling him to 'shut up' and is unwilling to hear Jonathan's side of the story, Every conversation starts with Jonathan asking Jack questions. As the story progresses, Jack shows some willingness to understand Jonathan and to open himself up to him, but it's a back and forth motion. Jack has shut out understanding cause he has become disenchanted with people due to what happened to him back in Chicago. Jonathan says to him, "There's good and bad everywhere, don't you know that?" Later in another scene Jonathan points out to him, "See? For every shit in the world there are six nice people."

Jack has his first moment of grace when he visits his ex-wife to ask her for money. During this subplot we see Jack resorting back to his usual sarcasm and a fight ensues. However, the emotional stress of seeing his ex- wife again makes him change his ways: "I just need some money to... and get out of this miserable business forever. Can't you understand that?" He tears down a wall and tries to be understood by his ex-wife. Because of this breakthrough Jill decides to give him the keys to her car. When Jack asks her what her husband is going to say about this, she just looks at Jack and says, "He'll understand."
As he leaves, his daughter who overheard their conversation exits and offers him her baby-sitting money. She undersatands his predicament and the suffering he goes through, although she hasn't seen him in nine years. There, Jack gets a second moment of grace by his daughter's example. She shows him the way; what he needs to learn.

Jack's still reluctant to embrace the moral premise, and more complications ensue. However, his behavior toward Jonathan gradually changes. We see Jack conversing more with him and their relationship changes. A few scenes later another moment of grace occurs. Jonathan jokes that if circumstances were different they'd still hate each other. But Jack responds, "We might've been friends..." He doesn't condemn Jonathan anymore; he respects him and is able to sympathize with him.

But due to his reluctance to fully employ the premise, Jack has Jonathan taken away from him and he also gets arrested by the FBI. This is the story's main crisis and a major turning point. It's then that Jack drastically changes his ways and embraces the moral premise. He tries to reach an understanding with Mosely (the FBI agent) and make a deal with him. This leads to success in saving Jonathan's life. Even the plan Jack comes up with is based on what Jonathan has told him; if Jack hadn't reached a level of understanding with Jonathan, he'd never know about the discs and would fail in his quest. Finally, Jack gets more money than he'd imagined, gives Jonathan the broken watch and embarks with a new hope in his heart. (By the way, it's amazing to me that this scene takes place in an airport. What better setting to enhance the idea of Jack embarking on a new beginning than an airport?)

We can see how the truth of the moral premise is consistently applied to other characters too:

Jonathan Mardukas succeeds because he practices the virtue of the moral premise. In the beginning he deceives Jack by telling him he suffers from aviophobia, but his behavior soon changes. He tries to understand Jack and get to know him; he's also eager to make Jack understand him. He explains his motives and what led him to steal money from his boss and give it to charities. Understanding is essentially the feeling of shared suffering; the knowledge that suffering's shared by everyone. Jonathan senses Jack's suffering. Early on he asks Jack, "What happened to you?" He's also totally honest with him. He even says, "Sooner or later I'm gonna have to give you the slip." When Jack chuckles, he says, "I'm glad you find it humorous." The fact that Jonathan practices the moral premise's virtue is very important because in the end he succeeds thanks to his virtue. If Jonathan had succeeded by practicing the vice, the moral premise wouldn't be consistent.

Alonzo Mosely, the FBI agent, practices the vice. When he first meets Jack he's critical toward him and doesn't try to come to an understanding with him. As a result, not only he loses his badge, but also fails throughout most of the movie. It's only when he listens to what Jack has to say and decides to strike a deal with him that Mosely gets his man. When he and Jack plan on how to nail Serano, we can clearly see how strikingly different is both men's attitude toward each other than it was when they first met. They no longer look down on each other; they both practice the virtue of understanding. Mosely appreciates Jack's ability ("Get a wire on this man"), and Jack respects Mosely's responsibilities as an FBI agent.

Jack's employer, Eddie Mascone, (Mask-Con, a name of significance if there ever was one) has shut out understanding by being deceitful and dishonest. He has no qualms about lying to his associates if he thinks there is something to be gained. He practices the premise's vice through the whole movie, and in the end he loses the bail bond and he's out of business. Nobody respects him, not even his assistant who secretly works with the gangster's goons. On the phone, we see Eddie yelling in frustration, "Everybody's tellin' me to go f..k myself!"

Whereas Eddie shuts out understanding by being two-faced, the villain Jimmy Serano (Sir-no) has shut out understanding by being arrogant and disrespectful toward even his closest associates. He disregards his lawyer who advises him not to go to the airport. When he goes and meets Jack, he practices the premise's vice by being sarcastic, critical and by trying to hurt and humiliate Jack. He's somehow a mirror image of how Jack was before embracing the virtue of understanding.