Thursday, December 16, 2010

NARNIA: THE DAWN TREADER - Without a clear hero and villain how successful will it be?

THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010)


Directed by: Michael Apted
Writers: Christoper Markus, Stephen McFeely et al based on the writings of C.S. Lewis

Georgie Henley - LUCY PEVENSIE
Skandar Keynes - EDMUND PEVENSIE
Ben Barnes - CASPIAN
Will Poulter - EUSTACE SCRUBB

Storyline: Lucy and Edmund Pevensie return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace where they meet up with Prince Caspian for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader. Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarfs, monsters, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world.

PREFACE
I must first say that I have a great fondness for the Narnia tales and C.S. Lewis in particular. We read the Chronicles to our children several times as the grew up. I have read much of Lewis' theological material and have always recommended it. Although he is at times deep and hard to understand in a single sitting. My favorite of his  tales is his Space Triology, which may someday find its way to the screen.

Before I get to the heart of the problem with the VDT story, here's a sidebar about the difference between allegory and myth, and why didactic presentations rarely work.  (See also: Why Story's Work, Part 1.)

ALLEGORY NOT MYTH
The Narnia movies have left me underwhelmed. And only when I saw the Voyage of the Dawn Treader (VDT) did it occur to me perhaps why. I had originally thought it was the presence of Aslan, showing up at the end almost like Billy Graham at the end of his association's movies, giving an invitation to become a Christian, in so many other words. At the end of VDT Aslan says to the kids on the beach who are lamenting having to return to the real world (Earth, I guess) and never seeing Aslan again. (quoting from the book, which is in the movie):
ASLAN: But you shall meet me, dear one.
EDMUND: Are--you there too, Sir?
ASLAN: I am. But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.
This ruined the movie for me.  It was Billy Graham. It was like plastering the "moral premise statement" on the screen in type: "Attention audience, this is what the movie is about... pay attention and go to church."  BTW: Bible devotees notice the Old Testament reference to Yahweh with Aslan's utterance, "I AM."

What occurred immediately in my mind is how J.R.R. Tolkien disliked Jack's stories because they were like poster allegories for Christianity and not myths (like Lord of the Rings) that could exist on their own merit. (see second comment below)

So, it is perhaps upon that foundation that I became aware of the real story structure problem that at least exists in VDT, and which explains why the movie is not doing what it could be doing had they fixed the structural issues. This all has to do with the audience connecting with the characters. Or, to utter it in other words: identifying with and becoming a part of the story symptomatically - imbued - being "in the scene" emotionally.

NARNIA VS. HOLLY & IVY
Stan Williams, Rumer Godden, Trudy Williams (1985, NY)
Narnia VDT will be popular, but mostly by virtue of the capital it has created as a series of children story books, which are far different than a mainstream movie. Indeed I am still working on a script based on famous Scottish author Rumer Godden's THE STORY OF HOLLY AND IVY (SOHI). Back in 1985 I owned the theatrical rights to the story for a year or so, met Rumer with my daughter Trudy (who was instrumental in getting Godden to pay attention to our petition), also took a meeting with Kermit Love (the puppet master of Sesame Street after which Kermit the Frog is named - that's Trudy with Kermit and his creation SNUGGLES  in his NY studio), and with Bill Wiitala and James Leach wrote a screenplay. We even got as far as pitching it to Disney.

Trudy with Kermit Love (d. 2008)
Trudy with the SNUGGLES.
A day after watching Narnia: VDT with my story students, I happened to be reviewing Kermit's notes on our then current SOHI screenplay, and juxtaposed his comments next to a couple of letters I had received from Mrs. Godden. Both had their opinion of what the movie version of SOHI should be in terms of characters. Ms. Godden was begging that the story be told straight ahead like a good children story without all the plotting so evident in movies. That was the "charm of children stories, they're not complex," she argued. But Kermit, being in the movie and television business for some time, saw it differently. His notes points out that SOHI has no over arching antagonist that prevents from Holly finding her "Grandmother's" home.  Yes, there is Abracadabra the Toy Store owl. But he only operates in the toy store, at night, and then only ineffectively -- i.e. small role. Kermit was right. And that is something that must be fixed if we're ever going to make a movie of SOHI. Kermit also points out that the main character is a little girl, the clear protagonist, but that there is not a leading starring role that can pre-load the project to attack financing.


BACK TO VDT
Kermit's concern over the the SOHI are similar to what I see is the problem with VDT, AT LEAST IN THE MOVIE VERSION.  But my prediction is that word of mouth promotion will be moderate. The reasons are here: (forgive me for not elaborating)

Edmund wants the power, but Caspian the better swordman.
PROTAGONST? There is no clear or single imperfect but striving protagonist that dominates the screen time, passion for the goal, or is a person we're deeply attracted to. And the stakes for not reaching the goal are uninspiring, if they are mentioned at all.  King Caspian wants to find the seven swords and the seven Lords, but it's never a do or die mission for him. Indeed Narnia is at peace and everything seems to be going fine. This voyage is a last campaign promise but with no clear urgency. Lucy and Edmund show up, but they're not sure, for some time, why they were brought back to Narnia, and they never have the goal that Caspian owns. Indeed what Lucy and Edmund's goal seems to be (from fade up and black) is to go to and live in Narnia. But while there, Lucy and Edmund are support players to Caspian who has to live with what happens. Lucy and Edmund do not have anything invested long term. They are there for a holiday, almost. Then there's Eustace. Now, Eustace has an arc (perhaps the only one)
Reepicheep and Eustace working together at last.
from being bratty and mean to being respectful and friendly. Eustace also has a clear Moment of Grace when his greed turns him into a dragon and he changes his attitude. But Eustace does nothing until 2/3 through the movie to endear us to him, he does not dominate the story, he makes no moral decision at critical turning points, and and he has nothing invested in achieving the end goal. He is the only one, however, that has a clear, passionate goal -- to go back home. But no one is driving the story, except the author. Caspian, Lucy, Reepiceep, Edmund, and Eustace are, in some regard, co-protagonists, but the classic structure of a story that engages an audience is missing. And then there is this...

Is this a book we should be reading?
ANTAGONIST? There is no clear personified antagonist. Yes, there are obstacles, but they are not always the result of a single force that is obstructing their goal. Yes, there is the Green Mist that influences the crew with thoughts of envy, pride, greed, power, and other evil things, and yes each temptation does slow down or threaten to throw the mission into chaos. But each of these, until the final battle, is dispatched with barely a struggle, albeit Eustace struggles more than most although being a dragon does have it's virtues. We also have no clear idea WHY the evil mist does what it does. "Good" antagonists possess a motivation that they believe is virtuous; there's a logic to their deeds. But not in VDT -- the evil is just there.  And finally, we have the sea monster for the closing act. It's a mighty fight, requires everyone to work together, but from whence did this monster come morally? What is its goal? Is it just confused and wanting attention?

NEXT TIME
On the beach before the effects crew arrives.
Those are the serious problems with VDT as a stand-alone movie. I think it works okay as a childrens' story and as a chapter in the larger Narnia epic. But the problem of adapting a novel and making it work for the big screen is clearly evident here. What's the solution. right now, I don't know. But if Doug Gresham and Walden want to hire me for the next episode I'm available. The problem is that there is a need for both Gresham and Walden to stay true to the source material. That is their goal. And as long as they keep true to that goal, the movies may be less than fully realized. To fully realize The Chronicles as mainstream movies, with on-going success, requires that the basics of movie stories be observed. Adaption means adapting it to the medium, not just making pictures and recording sound, but changing the structure of the story as well.

BTW: the acting, photography, and effects are terrific.

THE MORAL PREMISE
I am at a loss on this. It seems everything is in play. Edmund wants power, but quickly understands his place under King Caspian. Lucy wants to be beautiful like Susan, but quickly burns the spell that allows it.  Eustace is greedy, and at a MOG becomes a dragon, which changes his attitude. (This had the most potential, also because the story is told by Eustace. But the movie's goal and Eustace's goal are not aligned until way too late.  Caspian and Reepicheep seemingly have no vice (although in the book Caspian struggles with pride and selfishness -- and adventures of his own with little thought of his kingdom). There is a moral story going on between Eustace and Reepicheep -- as Reepicheep helps Eustace understand friendship, loyalty, and what it means to be valiant. But their tag team match has little to do with the major spine of the movie -- to find the lost Lords and swords -- although their teamwork at the end helps the Treader accomplish the goal -- and it is Eustace that finds the last sword and places it on the table.

The net result is a lack of focus. As I illustrate many times in my book,  THE MORAL PREMISE, unless the movie is about one true thing at a psychological or moral level, and unless that one thing is consistently portrayed in every one of the main character arcs, the movie will never do well at the box office. Narnia VDT fits that bill, unfortunately.  It fails to connect. The business it does do will be spending the capital purchased by the popularity of the books. But as a movie, it falls flat.  See any number of other posts herein, on other movies, where this isn't true.

Monday, December 6, 2010

THE KARATE KID (2010) - Can a Kid "Get" any Respect?

All photographs and clip in this blog are Copyrighted by Columbia/Sony. They are used in this blog under the educational use provision. 

Directed by: Harald Zwart
Written by: Christopher Murphey (screenplay), Robert Mark Kamen (story)
Revisions (uncredited: Mike Rich, Mike Soccio, Will Smith)

CAST

DRE PARKER (Jaden Smith)
MR. HAN (Jackie Chan)
SHERRY PARKER (Taraji P. Henson)
MEI YING (Wenwen Han)
MASTER LI (Rongguang Yu)
CHENG (Zhenwei Wang)

Training a top the Great Wall of China.
STORY LINE (Columbia Pictures)

12-year-old Dre Parker could've been the most popular kid in Detroit, but his mother's latest career move has landed him in China. Dre immediately falls for his classmate Mei Ying - and the feeling is mutual - but cultural differences make such a friendship impossible. Even worse, Dre's feelings make an enemy of the class bully, Cheng. In the land of kung fu, Dre knows only a little karate, and Cheng puts "the karate kid" on the floor with ease. With no friends in a strange land, Dre has nowhere to turn but maintenance man Mr. Han, who is secretly a master of kung fu. As Han teaches Dre that kung fu is not about punches and parries, but maturity and calm, Dre realizes that facing down the bullies will be the fight of his life.

BOX OFFICE

As the subtitle of The Moral Premise expresses, (Harnessing Virtue and Vice for Box Office Success) a movie's financial success is tied directly to a consistent application of a true moral premise, which gives the character's purposeful motivation in all the

Friday, December 3, 2010

Log Line Hell and Purgatory .. Rarely Heaven

Good log lines require a lot of work and rewriting. Start with a fresh eraser. When you get them right thy're a treat. Reading one is like watching a whole movie in 5 seconds -- provided your imagination is up and running. In the middle of this post I'll give you my latest formula for a good log line, and some great examples I just came across. 


But first, I must lament the dearth of good examples. Last night I was perusing InkTip's December 2010 magazine of log lines and associated pitches -- seemingly hundreds of them. Just reading a hundred log lines in a few hours in stimulating, if not instructive. But the lesson is usually, and sadly, what NOT to do. Some are bazaar. Take Example No. 1
THE THIRD SECRET (Harold Zapata) Imagine Hell in all its fury unleashed on Earth. A young professor of paranormal theistic anomalies suffering a crisis of faith becomes involved in the quest to uncover and stem the last of three mythic secrets hidden deep inside the Vatican Riserva, after the assistant to the Pope is murdered through stigmata by a ghoul-like-child.
What we have here is unimaginable. Now the writer may think "unimaginable" is a good thing. But if a producer can't imagine it visually in his head, it might as well not have been written. Here we have more. First, I can't imagine Hell. Indeed I don't want to. I'd like to avoid all visions of it. And frankly I oftentimes think that Hell is the latest headline of something that's happening on Earth. The latest, for me, was the story of a mother and father who are asking the public via their Facebook page to vote as to whether or not to abort their child. That's all the Hell I want to imagine for today, thank you.

But the big problem with Example No. 1 is that is attempts to pour several apoplectic movies into one under the misunderstanding the more is better. Here's my summary of what's in Example No. 1:
  • Movie 1: Hell unleashed on Earth. 
  • Movie 2: A professor of paranormal theistic anomalies (period). And isn't that redundant "paranormal - anomalies" and contradictory "professor - theistic". Sorry, but I can't imagine what either of those are.
  • Movie 3: Professor suffering a crisis of faith. Does your typical university professor have any faith to be involved in a crisis about it? Still can't imagine it.
  • Movie 4: Anyone trying to uncover a deeply hidden Vatican secret. What does it mean to "stem... a secret." I can't imagine what that means.
  • Movie 5: The Pope's secretary is murdered. (Ah, that's intriguing.)
  • Movie 6: Anyone dying by stigmata. Actually anyone WITH stigmata for real. 
  • Movie 7: A ghoul-like-child. 
Now when you put all of that together there's no foundation for the audience to know where reality is. It seems like anything is possible, with no real tie-in to the lives of the people in the audience -- unless it's an audience of paranormal-theistic anomaly professors who look like ghoulish children with stigmatas, all out to murder the pope. With such an audience, this just might catch on.

Example No. 2
THE OAK TREES EVER (Aragon Olano) - Romance.  Two people from two different worlds desperately hold on to one love that blossomed between two mysterious oak tress.
My imagination is still challenged. What in the "world" is this about? Who's the protagonist? Who's the antagonist? What is the goal? Is this the story of two aliens sent to Earth as punishment for their carnal activities but are caught in a flood and must breed between two oak trees wrapped in Christmas tree lights? Anybody have a hint? Anybody? Anybody at all!?

Example No. 3
There were several like this. So general it could apply to nearly every movie, novel, and comic book ever written:
AND DARKNESS FELL (Phillip Frydendall) Four antagonistic humans are thrust into a fact-paced journey through time. Not all will survive as they become entrenched in the chaos and woe of mankind's history and that of the universe - past, present and future - amid the onslaught of demonic forces attempting to usurp humanity.
I don't know about you, but that one wraps up the whole log line industry.  I mean, what doesn't it include with a line like "past, present and future...usurping humanity."

LOG LINE CRITERIA

A good log line does many things. It focuses and inspires the writer, it attracts producers and money, and it sells the intended audience. It may change over time, but it becomes the driving force of the physical story, i.e. the log line is the physical premise.  [Meanwhile the Moral Premise drives the psychological thread of the story. Put them together in a Moral-Physical Premise Statement.... but that's another of a dozen posts, herein.]

From my workshop here's what it takes... and then some examples. A good log line is:
  • Based on a SINGLE PHYSICAL HOOK that is otherworldly, out of the ordinary, and intriguing. You only get ONE HOOK PER STORY and everything else has to mind-meld with reality.
  • The subject is an IMPERFECT but PASSIONATE PROTAGONIST
  • The verb defines an INTENSE or INTRIGUING STRUGGLE
  • The direct object  is an UNRELENTING and STRONG ANTAGONIST
  • The qualifying prepositional phrases establish the protagonist's GOAL and the STAKES.
To add frosting to your log line, it should:
  • Imply (not state) GENRE and SETTING
  • Infuse IRONY between protagonist and goal
  • Inspire the reader to VISUALLY IMAGINE the story
  • Instantly demonstrate MARKETABILITY
  • Indicate that the protagonist is on the OFFENSE and not passive.
Now how about some good log lines from the same INK TIP Magazine? I think these fulfill the above criteria very well... and are all movies I'd like to see.
THE MOTHERLOAD (Joan Macbeth) - A woman, estranged from her family for years, reluctantly agrees to drive her recently widowed mother across the country, only to discover her mother has Alzheimer's.
There were too many examples where the mafia or the Russians are the bad guys. We need new good bad guys, but this one sounded less pretentious and actually human.
SAYING HELLO TO THE DEVIL (B.J. Williams) - A hit man, seeking to absolve this haunted past, wages war against the Russian Mafia in hopes of saving the life of a nine-year-old girl they hired him to kill.
This next one I'm going to edit a bit. It reminds me of the jewelry commercials on YouTube featuring a "dog house":
HUBBY CAMP (Ocean Palmer) - Three irritated wives trick their husbands into attending a remote martial correctional facility that specializes in intense remediation in order to reshape underachieving and disappointing husbands.
This next one is slated as a comedy, but it sounds more like a wonderfully redemptive drama. I'm going to edit it a tad as well.
SO YOU WANT TO BE FAMOUS (Don Aldrich) - An aspiring but not very good actress in L.A. contends with her retired live-in grandmother, a retired Broadway superstar, to help underprivileged students of the performing arts.
Still editing... here's a comedy.
CINDERS (Carolfrances Likins) - Cinders refuses to go to the ball - she'd rather stay behind with her tattered friends and scheme the overthrow of the kingdom - but her fairy godmother arrives with other plans.
And finally my favorite, becasue of the clear metaphor, the sign of a good film although it again uses the trite backdrop of the mob.
THE JANITOR (Matthew Blackburn) - A man escapes his past life as hired mob muscle, keeps a low profile as a high school janitor, and takes an opportunity to redeem himself by mentoring a young girl. But when drugs run rampant in the school, [and the girl's life is threatened], this janitor must clean up.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ORDINARY PEOPLE: Can Imperfection Lead to Something More Perfect?

ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980)
Story length excluding credits: 120 min.

Directed by Robert Redford
Writers: Judith Guest (novel), Alvin Sargent (screenplay), Nancy Dowd (uncredited)

Donald Sutherland (Calvin)
Mary Tyler Moore (Beth)
Judd Hirsch (Berger)
Timothy Hutton (Conrad)
Elizabeth McGovern (Jeannie)
Scott Doebler (Buck)
Dinah Manoff (Karen)

Helpful Link to an analysis of the book: http://www.bookrags.com/notes/op/

MORAL-PHYSICAL PREMISE STATEMENT (MPPS)

For those that don't need to wade thought the long analysis here's my take on the MPPS for ORDINARY PEOPLE.

A shorthand version:

Demanding perfection leads the loss of love and friendship;
but
Allowing imperfection leads to the gain of love and friendship.


A longer version, more instructive:

In the presence of stressful situations that are beyond our control:

Embracing idealism and demanding perfection 
leads to the repression of feelings, 
and the loss of love, friendship, and happiness;
but
Embracing reality and allowing imperfection 
leads to the expression of feelings, 
and secures love, friendship, and happiness.


ANALYSIS

The Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS) tells us what a successful movie is REALLY about. Analyzing such a film requires

Sunday, November 28, 2010

AS IT IS IN HEAVEN: Can We Pursue a Passion Too Hard?

Pam and I have discovered Apple TV. Through our Netflix account we can watch as many movies as we want without paying anymore for the two DVDs at a time we get by mail. We hooked the little black box from Apple up to our 40-inch Samsung LCD wide screen with the sound coming through some large stereo speakers. And we sat down for the first time to select from thousands, a  single movie to watch. Could we decide? 

I reluctantly let Pam pick the movie. she scanned the genres and looked at a few log lines, and then, almost by accident she later confessed, played AS IT IS IN HEAVEN (AIIIH).

Reviewer James Li says this of the movie: 
There are no complicated twists and turns in the story. It tells the tale of Daniel (Michael Nyqvist), a successful and talented conductor, who returns the rural village he grew up in, to recover from a heart attack. No one recognizes him because he had changed his name many years ago. Soon, he is approached to lead the local church choir. As he confronts his own past demons, love comes in the form of one of the choir members, Lena (Frida Hallgren), who helps him to find who he really is. Along the way, Daniel also unknowingly upsets the insular town’s social balance.
I told Pam that it would be nice just to watch a movie for enjoyment and not feel as if I had to write an analysis. When I have the DVD it is tempting to rewatch scenes to understand the story better. Writing a good analysis takes days. I am day 6 into working on an analysis of ORDINARY PEOPLE (1980).

But I woke up this morning still mesmerized by AIIIH. So, here's a "short" post on it. 

AS IT IS IN HEAVEN (2004)
(with English subtitles)

Directed by: Kay Pollak 
Written by: Kay Pollak with 4  co-writers




CAST

Michael Nyqvist as DANIEL DAREUS (protagonist, conductor)
Frida Hallgrenas LENA (Daniel's love interest)
Helen Sjöholm as GABRIELLA (beaten wife with incredible voice)
Lennart Jähkel as ARNE (choir's business manager)
Ingela Olsson as INGER (Stig's wife)
Niklas Falk as STIG (village's Episcopal priest)
Per Morberg as CONNY (husband who beats Gabriella)
Ylva Lööf as SIV (spinster who was the choir director before Daniel)

MORAL-PHYSICAL PREMISE STATEMENT

Pursuit of one's passion with obsession leads to demise; but
Pursuit of one's passion with balance leads to love.

DISCUSSION

Daniel's physical goal, from childhood, is to bring meaning and happiness to people through music. He becomes so obsessed with this goal that while conducting an orchestra he has a heart attack. He is forced into retirement, and chooses to return (incognito) to his boyhood village to "listen." He's asked to listen to the church choir during one of its rehearsals, and his passion takes over, applying to be the cantor of the church. But he has never directed voices before. After some advice from a distant friend he throws himself back into music. He is frequently tempted to become obsessed again with the music, and must learn how to find balance, e.g. taking time for coffee breaks during rehearsal is one of the ways this is shown.

The finding balance motif is also illustrated when he, as an adult, tries to learn to ride a bicycle for the first time. Lena comes to teach him. The motif continues through the story, and  ironically contributes to his final (but peaceful and goal achieved) demise ...again, in part due to his obsessive nature.
Before the story begins Lena's passion to love a man in a committed way and bring happiness into his life has caused her to fall in with a married man (unknowingly) and live with him for two years. When she discovers his duplicity she is deeply hurt and she leaves him. Now, with Daniel she tries to balance the passion of her calling with the rest of her life. But it is hard, and she struggles to love again. Indeed the first time that Daniel kisses Lena we see a moment of extreme passion that takes him (and her) by surprise and they back off in fear of the consequences of their obsessive natures. 

Gabriella has a voice to die for, and she almost does at the hand of her abusive husband, Conny. She can't stay away from the choir, as Conny demands. Conny's passion for his wife is out of balance and it causes his demise.

Sitg, the village pastor, is so obsessive with being a religious leader that he's taken it to extreme as well, and  has come to teach that even sex in marriage is wrong. Do you see the irony? Passion for one thing, rejects the passion for another, that together should co-exist. His demise is perhaps the most dramatic and telling. His wife, Inger, finds a compassionate balance for her understanding of their relationship in one respect, but goes overboard in another, proclaiming that there is no sin, it's all a construct of the church to control people. She's right about one thing, the people of this village have been controlled. The passion for one thing or another is obsessive, even a passion for repression. Irony abounds.

An example of such out-of-balance passion (of the repressive kind) occurs after the successful village choir concert. An elderly man stands up at the choir's luncheon and professes his love, since elementary school, for an elderly woman sitting near him. The honest expression of this love is painful. The woman is so taken by the expression that in grief she leaves the room without saying a word. We are left with the impression that she has loved him as well, just as long, but now, in their last years the chance for a fruitful life together is lost. 

In similar ways each of the characters, even Arnie and Siv,  have wonderfully believable arcs that move from extreme passion and an inability to express love to a balanced passion that can honestly show love to another in an appropriate way. Arnie's arc is profound.

ACTING

The acting and directing in this film are some of the best I have ever seen. We are drawn into each character (there is great consistency in direction) and we believe in the emotional and intellectual journeys each character takes. It was such a joy to see the subtle way that facial expressions reveal deep inner feelings at moments of revelation. There are a hundred such moments that should be cherished by audiences. I will be watching this movie again. 

MUSIC

As we might expect the music has an arc all its own. Particularly astonishing is Gabriella's solo, during the village concert. It's a solo that is hard to image happening in the sequence leading up to it. She is the least likely, and yet  she must. But can she with Conny threatening day and night? My great thanks to the  filmmakers for nearly locking down the camera on Gabriella as she sings her song, rich with meaning, and cutting away only minimally to the stunned audience.


BIBLICAL ANTECEDENTS
It is hard to go wrong paying homage to Biblical scenes and plots. In AIIIH there are the following visual retellings of Bible stories.

1. Daniel's return to a village that rejected him as a boy, and now struggles with the same, although he can do "miracles" with music, is very much like Jesus' rejection in those villages where he grew up. A prophet is never accepted in his home town.

2. Stig recreates the religiosity of the Pharisees as he tries to control the village and Daniel's life with fallacious moral threats. Inger tells Stig that he has crucified Daniel just like the Jews crucified Jesus.

3. After Conny beats Daniel to a bloody pulp, leaving him for dead in the river, the three women closest to Daniel drag him into his house on a sheet and begin to tend to his wounds. Daniel's limp body and the attention of the women rekindles images of the Peita and the women who come to Christ's tomb to embalm his body.

4. The most telling of the Biblical antecedents recalls both the innocence and sin of Eve before Adam. Daniel and Lena ride their bikes (he's learned some balance at this point) to the river. She decides they need to go for a swim. He's reluctant, it's cold. But this is Sweden where jumping into icy water is a national past time. She strips naked before him, not seductively, but playfully like an innocent child. But she's no child, her body looking more like Eve probably did to Adam the first time—the curves are all there and the innocence of her smile is without guile. What's telling here is Daniel's reaction. He is pleased with her openness to him, but he too appears without guile. There's no lustful glance at her body, but rather a boyish curiosity. He makes no move to remove his clothes or even close the gap between them. Although middle aged, you get the sense that romance is a new experience for him. He has loved music so passionately that there was no room or time for the passion of a woman.

Then, suddenly, Lena takes us to Act 2 of the Adam and Eve story. One moment she stands before Daniel, completely naked, unashamed, innocent, beautiful. Then she remembers her lack of innocence. And she takes the shirt she had been wearing and embarrassingly covers her nakedness. The smile leaves her face and sadly she takes a step toward Daniel and explains that in her desire to live in a committed relationship with a man for life, she had made a mistake and lived with a man for two years before discovering that he was married. She was hurt deeply. Now, to Daniel she reveals the sadness and embarrassment that she feels, because she is not the pure gift that she would like to be for Daniel. Still covering her nakedness, like Eve probably did in the garden after her sin, she looks sadly into Daniel's silent face for understanding. But Daniel is speechless. His countenance changes, and he no longer looks at her with respect, but in fact runs from her, getting on his bike and leaving as fast as he can. It's an amazing scene that reminds us of what it must have been like when Adam and Eve discover their nakedness.

POST SCRIPT - WRITING/EDITING
(Two weeks later). It has occurred to me that the attraction this film has for me is in something "odd" about the scene transitions — they occurred later and sooner than I'm used to with Hollywood films. For years Hollywood tells new filmmakers: "Start a scene later than it begins and get out sooner than it ends." But with AIIIH the scenes start much later than I'd expect, and get out before it was seemingly fully resolved. Yet at no time was a story thread left hanging. My mind worked harder to fill in the story gaps, which were essentially answered 30-seconds into the next scene. It was brilliant, and I'm determined in the script I'm writing now, to do the same thing. Make the audience work for their understanding of the gaps. That pulls the audience INTO the filmmaker process deeper. The consequence, I suspect, is greater satisfaction. I must watch this again.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

EON Productions and The Moral Premise

In an email conversation with a London based screenwriter yesterday, I discovered that EON Productions Ltd (producers of the James Bond film franchise) and Columbia Pictures, sponsor the EON Screenwriters Workshop that brings together serious screenwriters in a workshop environment to develop screenplays for EON and Columbia.

I was told that one of the workshop leaders, Alby James, had referenced The Moral Premise. So, I went looking for more evidence. I found THIS great essay by Bronwyn Griffiths posted April 8th, 2008. 


What Bronwyn does that surprises me, is to argue that the moral premise arc is somehow included in the log line. In the past I've said otherwise. I've considered the log line to be the physical premise. Yet, Bronwyn makes good points of how the moral, or psychological premise can be included. For instance, he uses this as an example:
A boxer (the hero) with a loser mentality (vice of the internal conflict) is offered a chance by the world champ (the antagonist) to fight for the title (the call to adventure) but, with the help of his lover (the ally) must learn to see himself as a winner (virtue of the inner conflict) before he can step into the ring (battle).  (Rocky).
Bronwyn's essay does a great job of merging the physical story (his objective story) with the psychological story (his subjective story).  Here's the link: More On Theme .

Friday, November 5, 2010

THE DARK KNIGHT: From Nihilism Can Hope Be Bled?

Director: CHRISTOPHER NOLAN
Writers: JONATHAN NOLAN, CHRISTOPHER NOLAN

Bruce Wayne / Batman - CHRISTIAN BALE
The Joker - HEATH LEDGER
Harvey Dent - AARON ECKHART
Alfred Pennyworth - MICHAEL CAINE
Rachel Dawes - MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL
James Gordon - GARY OLDMAN
Lucius Fox - MORGAN FREEMAN


After much encouragement from students I finally sat down and watched Christopher and Jonathan Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT. But even then, I was interrupted three times. I started to watch it at 8 PM, and finished at 2 AM. That explains what my days are like and why it is often hard to find time to read or watch, even worthwhile projects. 

The latest prompting was a discussion I had yesterday with a student at Biola University where I am preparing to give a day long Moral Premise Workshop. I was at a disadvantage because I had not seen the film. The articulate student perceived the film as having a nihilistic worldview and not morally true. 


My only defense was that I have never seen a film that was popular with audiences and did not have a strong, true, and consistently applied moral premise. And THE DARK KNIGHT was one of the more popular films of all time. At $533MM U.S. domestic it ranks as No. 28 when adjusted for inflation, and over $1,001MM (unadjusted rank #7). So, we can say that a lot of people found satisfaction in watching this film. And I do not see evident that the major of the public are embracing nihilism, unless they're all editing newspaper tabloids.

THE MORAL PREMISE

Here's the moral-physical premise statement for THE DARK KNIGHT.
Revengeful, self-service leads to nihilistic desperation; but
Sacrificial public service leads to purposeful hope.
 
I do not have time now to write about the film, except to say this: The gleam of THE DARK KNIGHT is that the antagonist, JOKER, rather than forcing the protagonist to change for the good, actually forces the cross-protagonists (Batman and Dent) to choose different ends of the value continuum. Batman is willing to sacrifice for the good of the people of Gotham, even if it means that Gotham thinks of him as the villain. He wants the best to come to the people of the city, and so he's will to be chased into exiled, if that means good leadership and hope will return. The story points out that such is the character of a real hero. But Dent, who is ugly under the skin of his self-serving ways, falls prey to Joker's temptations and reveals the self-serving character beneath his heroic, handsome exterior.

THE DARK KNIGHT indeed has a consistently applied, true moral premise to all the main character arcs. You'll notice that each time JOKER tries to make a person or a ferry full of persons choose between who will live or die, it's ALWAYS a choice between being self-serving and public-serving. Or, in more common terms, between selfishness and selflessness.

As the movie progresses along the moral premise arc, the city begins to learn the importance of doing what is right, and refusing the temptation that Joker has put before them. Indeed, the temptation is thickest as the occupants of the two ferries debate over who will blow the other up. In the end, neither allows the temptation to be fulfilled. They all choose sacrifice and public service rather than revenge and self-service. And that gives him hope in the face of desperation.

I guess I also have to comment on the brilliance of the story's structure with respect to Batman and Dent's storylines. In the first half of the movie Batman / Bruce Wayne is encouraged that there might be a good man in Harvey Dent, and that Batman may be able to retire. Thus, Batman's "savior" status appears to pass to Dent. So, Batman and Dent become co-protagonists. But in the end they are cross-protagonists because they do not share the same arc to the end of the movie but rather cross each other, one ending tragically and the other redemptively. So, here we have a movie with two protagonists that choose opposite paths. Dent (the dent in his armor) reveals that he is truly a dark knight, underneath his skin. He is literally two-faced—truly dark.

But Batman's mask and true identity is never revealed, although Bruce Wayne is tempted to reveal himself. Why? Because Batman is not two faced. Even if you were to take off the mask, you'd find the SAME character underneath. With Harvey Dent the opposite is true.

Thus at the end, in uber-heroic character, Batman chooses to be thought of as the villain, because he HOPES that such an action will bring the people of Gotham together, and fight crime day-in-day out with his intrusion, and thus create their own HOPE,




DVD

2-Disc SpEd
Blu-Ray 2 Disc SpEd

Thursday, October 21, 2010

INCEPTION: Can Dreams Become Reality? Should They?


How INCEPTION WORKS, and why it reveals that filmmaking is an act of inception. Indeed, Christopher Nolan tells us a tale of Dom Cobb that is clearly autobiographical.

This is a MORAL PREMISE ANALYSIS of the mega-hit INCEPTION.  ($160MM Budget / $289MM domestic box office.)

Writer-Producer-Director - Christopher Nolan
Length:140 min excluding credits (length used for analysis)

The analysis is based on two viewings of the film by two pairs of eyes, a lot of note taking with a stopwatch, and finally the published INSIGHT EDITION from Warner Bros of the Shooting Script (available through Amazon). The DVD was not yet available. Where my notes were incomplete I referred to the published script.

LOG LINE: 
"In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption, which involves executing his toughest and most risky job to date."


Monday, October 18, 2010

Is the Moral Premise a Misnomer?

The more time I spend time explaining things, on topics which I am supposedly an expert, the more I discover I'm not the expert -- or at least I don't know today, what I thought I clearly understood yesterday. Which reminds me again, that some of what experts believed 100 or 1,000 years ago about their discipline,  are utterly false today.

So, here is what occurred to me a few minutes ago.

The "Moral Premise" of a story, which I have been describing as enshrined in a "Moral Premise Statement" is a misnomer.

Sorry about that.

It might be better referred to as the "Moral-Physical Premise Statement (MPPS)". But that is awkward.

Here's an explanation...of what I understand today. All bets are off regarding tomorrow.

There is the "physical" arc of the story, which is also identified as the physical "hook," or the outward journey of the protagonist, or the physical spine, or  THE PHYSICAL PREMISE.

That physical story arc is paralleled by (or is a metaphor for) the psychological story arc, which is also identified as the inner journey, the moral dilemma, or spiritual journey, or moral spine, or (precisely) THE MORAL PREMISE.

What captures the audience's (or reader's) attention is the physical spine (what the story is ABOUT). But what motivates the protagonist and gives meaning to the story for the audience, is the moral spine (what the story is REALLY ABOUT).

What I have been calling the MORAL PREMISE STATEMENT (MPS) is actually a statement that marries the PHYSICAL PREMISE with the MORAL PREMISE.  E.g.:

[psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment]; but
[psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment].

It is more accurate to describe this formula: "THE MORAL-PHYSICAL PREMISE STATEMENT (MPPS)." But I'm rebelling at the awkwardness of that, and prefer the simpler focus of the story's psychological and motivational arc - the MPS.

Why? Aside from the brevity of it, the "moral premise" is what the story is REALLY about. It is also the one aspect of the story that MUST BE true, if it's to resonate with audiences. Everything about the physical premise can be fiction; audiences don't really care about it's truth. (Just recognize the popularity of myths, or watch a Michael Moore documentary.)  It is the moral story that motivates every action of the character in the physical world. The physical world is simply symbolic, a metaphor, for what is going on beneath the surface, psychologically-morally-spiritually-emotionally. (And that's why, in part, Moore's documentaries can work with some people. The moral motivation behind his rants fundamentally seem valid and true.)

So, in that sense, putting the emphasis on the term "moral premise" is accurate. Stories really are about moral issues. It is the physical premise that brings us outward joy and entertainment -- explicitly, but it is the psychological premise that brings us inward meaning and entertainment -- implicitly. And it's the latter than sticks with us, and informs and guides our personal lives -- which are real.

So, for the time being, I will use MPS and MPPS interchangeably. They mean exactly the same thing. I proclaim them to be equivocal and the former a misnomer. "Forgive me father for I have grammatically faulted."

==== Some further thoughts ====

In an 10-20-10 email dialgoue with my student Ethan, I wrote this, which adds to this post:

The problem with what "words" to use to describe all this is that in Hollywood some of these terms are used day-in and day-out, and many are synonymous with others. You'll read or hear executives, directors, writers, gurus, et al... use the following words, and they're all referring to the same thing: hook, premise, outward story, spine, arc, hero's journey.   And a few others.

The original reason I came to the term "moral premise" is because Lajos Egri (my book is a sequel to his) wrote all about the "premise." But his use of the word in the 1940s when he wrote THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING was and still is confusing without a qualifier. To most the term "physical premise" refers to the physical journey, or hook. But Egri was speaking of the moral or psychological journey, not the physical one. Thus I chose the word "moral premise" to differentiate between what I (and Egri) were writing about and what most of Hollywood means when it uses the term "premise." 
But then I erred. I came up with the MPS statement, which is NOT JUST the moral premise, but is also the physical premise in general terms. The physical side of the MPS (the last terms in the two lines) is NOT the hook, or the TV guide log line, but only a very general, universal description of the arc.

Reading vertically along the left side, we have the psychological journey (or the moral premise), and reading vertically along the right side we have the physical journey (or physical premise)....in general terms. Reading left to right on the top line we have the moral to physical journey before the MOG (e.g. the protag's motivation and consequence), and reading left to right on the bottom line we have the moral to physical journey AFTER the MOG.  Altogether it's ... it's.... it's....???????  I think I need a naming contest.

Finally, the HOOK, or the LOG LINE, are very specific descriptions of the story. Whereas the Physical Premise (in the MPS) is very general.
Ideas anyone?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Virtual Workshop In Progress at Seekerville



Blogger at Seekerville today where a long post explaining the Moral Premise and its application in novels is up, and I'm busy answering writer's questions. All are welcome. It will take me a week to answer the questions.

http://seekerville.blogspot.com/2010/10/seekerville-welcomes-dr-stanley.html

Sunday, October 10, 2010

INCEPTION: Can Dreams Become Reality? Should They?


How INCEPTION WORKS, and why it reveals that filmmaking is an act of inception. Indeed, Christopher Nolan tells us a tale of Dom Cobb that is clearly autobiographical.

This is a MORAL PREMISE ANALYSIS of the mega-hit INCEPTION.  ($160MM Budget / $289MM domestic box office.)

Writer-Producer-Director - Christopher Nolan
Length:140 min excluding credits (length used for analysis)

The analysis is based on two viewings of the film by two pairs of eyes, a lot of note taking with a stopwatch, and finally the published INSIGHT EDITION from Warner Bros of the Shooting Script (available through Amazon). The DVD was not yet available. Where my notes were incomplete I referred to the published script.

LOG LINE: 
"In a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption, which involves executing his toughest and most risky job to date."

CAST

COBB (Leonardo DiCaprio) - Protagonist
ARTHUR (Joseph Gordon-Levitt – of Third Rock) - Reflection
ARIADNE (Ellen Page) (air-ee-ADD-knee) – Daughter Mentor
EAMES (Tom Hardy) - Shapeshifter
SAITO (Ken Watanabe) – Co-Protagonist
YOSUF ( Deleep Rao)
FISCHER (Cillian Murphy) - McGuffin
BROWNING (Tom Berenger)
MAL (Marion Cotillard) - Antagonist
MAURICE FISHER (Peter Postlethwaite)
MILES (Michael Caine) – Father Mentor
NASH (Lukas Haas)
PHILLIPA (Claire Geare)
JAMES (Magnus Nolan)

STORY LINE

(From Warner Bros. Pictures) Dom Cobb is a skilled thief, the absolute best in the dangerous art of extraction, stealing valuable secrets from deep within the subconscious during the dream state, when the mind is at its most vulnerable. Cobb's rare ability has made him a coveted player in this treacherous new world of corporate espionage, but it has also made him an international fugitive and cost him everything he has ever loved. Now Cobb is being offered a chance at redemption. One last job could give him his life back but only if he can accomplish the impossible-inception. Instead of the perfect heist, Cobb and his team of specialists have to pull off the reverse: their task is not to steal an idea but to plant one. If they succeed, it could be the perfect crime. But no amount of careful planning or expertise can prepare the team for the dangerous enemy that seems to predict their every move. An enemy that only Cobb could have seen coming.

BREAKING THE STORY DOWN - THE TURNING POINTS (TP)

The analysis of the TP in INCEPTION reveals (again) of how the most creative filmmakers follow structural rules rigorously. But, where the story demands otherwise, they are not hesitant to break a rule, to make the story work. That is true of INCEPTION.

CLOVERFIELD: Is There Danger in Helping Those We Care Most About?

Last night we screened CLOVERFIELD (2008) ($50MM Budget. $80MM Domestic Gross, which is surprisingly low after a noteworthy $46MM Opening Weekend. The reason is because of the ironic ending discussed in this post.)

Director: Matt Reeves
Writer: Drew Goddard

Protagonist: ROB HAWKINS (Michael Stahl-David)
Romance: BETH MCINTYRE (Odette Yustman)
Co-Protags: LILY FORD (Jessica Lucas)
MARLENA DIAMOND (Lizzy Caplan)
JASON HAWDINS (Mike Vogel)
HUDSON 'HUD' PLATT (T.J. Miller)
ANTAGONIST: The Monster (a metaphor for Rob's disbelief in the love between Beth and him.)

OVERVIEW

CLOVERFIELD is a frenetic, sci-fi thriller of a group of young adults who's going-away party for their friend, Rob, before he leaves for a job in Japan, is interrupted by a Godzilla type monster. The monster, of course, is a metaphor for the psychological trauma that ROB experiences by his decision to leave NY and the one he loves, BETH, to go to the home of Godzilla, Japan. It's a decision of monstrous proportions that is destined to destroy his life, and Beth's and also the lives of his close friends who love both of them. He's running from the one he loves, and she's losing the one she loves.

Although the movie is short (74 minutes -- the supposed length of a camcorder tape), it closely, but not perfectly, follows the 13 step pattern discussed in The Moral Premise, and other texts. The timings, however, of the page counts are compacted because of the shortened story time.  I will outline the turning points below.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

THE DESCENT: Should We Follow the Over Confident?

Writer/Director: Neil Marshall (2005)

In talking with a consulting client and friend on the West Coast about horror films, we asked ourselves why the innocent die in some popular horror films.  I decided to take a look at DESCENT—Neil Marshall's 2005 story about "Six Chicks with Picks" (axes, that is). It was made in the UK for about $5.5MM and did $26MM in the US and $57MM worldwide.

The movie is about 94 minutes if you exclude the opening and closing credits. This would mean a Moment of Grace (the mid point) is at 47.7 minutes, and the two act breaks at about 24 min and 71 minutes, if ideally structured.


TURNING POINTS / BREAKS 

As I discuss below the Act 1/2 breaks occurs about 36 minutes, the group Moment of Grace (MOG) does occur exactly at 47  minutes, and the Act 2/3 break plus the MOG for the protagonist, occurs at about 75 minutes. (Below, when mentioning the structure of the turning points, that is the timing of events in the story, I refer both to minutes or pages as if they were equivalent. In reality they are not, but page counts is all a writer has to work with -- if he formats the pages correctly, and few writers do -- and minutes are all an editor has to work with.)

The story goes like this: After a white-water rafting trip for three women, a car accident kills the husband and daughter of one of the women, Sarah. A year later, to help Sarah get control of her life again and get over her nightmares and fears, her friends, two from the white water rafting trip, take her on a caving expedition in Kentucky. But the journey goes terribly wrong when they're pursued by a strange breed of predator. The question for the horror critic becomes: Why do these women all die in the cave, since they seem to be innocent of any sin?

I watched the original unrated uncut version (DVD) of THE DESCENT this afternoon and evening, and then a couple of the featurettes. [It takes me a long time to watch these things because I'm stopping every two minutes to take notes and timings. You do not want to go to the movies with me, I'm always yelling at the projectionist to stop the film for a few. Audiences hate me. I once got kicked out of a theater for using the light of my iPhone to take notes.]

SIN AND METAPHORS

In the opening scene three women (Sarah, Beth and Juno) are white water rafting.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Inspiration and a Story's Moment of Grace

Photo by Blakophoto
I am often aware that good stories come from sudden inspiration — like noticing that a morning dew drop, which scatters light into a brilliant rainbow of sparkling colors, is hanging from a weed. 

Such observations are buoyed by transcendence. They are "moments of grace" that inspire our sometimes pitiful lives to embrace hope of a better tomorrow.

Just as writers rely on inspiration or a vision of transcendent purpose, so the characters we write about also must come across their "moments of grace."

This morning, while preparing for my Story Symposium class (a monthly meeting of teens), I was reading Pope Benedict XVI's "Address to Artists" (21 November 2009) and John Paul II's "Letter to Artists" (April 4, 1999, Easter Sunday).  Yes, the Story Symposium is a group of Catholic home schoolers. How'd you guess?)

Benedict's address is filled with inspirational language, like:
Your art consists in grasping treasures from the heavenly realm of the spirit and clothing them in words, colours, forms — making them accessible. (3)(Benedict VXI Address to Artists)
But here is the passage that got me off my chair. It speaks of us as human beings looking for the solution to our lives, and to the problems that befall the characters in our stories, and how there are "moments of grace" for both. This paragraph does not just apply to the artist, but to any person (or fictional character) as they face a problem, a moral dilemma, and look for an idea or inspiration to carry them onward and upward. It may be something or a moment that is beyond current comprehension. But, just as the artist sees that dew drop hanging from a weed, so we can look for those moments of grace when we are introduced to the transcendence that makes being human, almost divine. (emphasis mine)
Dear artists, you well know that there are many impulses which, either from within or from without, can inspire your talent. Every genuine inspiration, however, contains some tremor of that “breath” with which the Creator Spirit suffused the work of creation from the very beginning. Overseeing the mysterious laws governing the universe, the divine breath of the Creator Spirit reaches out to human genius and stirs its creative power. He touches it with a kind of inner illumination which brings together the sense of the good and the beautiful, and he awakens energies of mind and heart which enable it to conceive an idea and give it form in a work of art. It is right then to speak, even if only analogically, of “moments of grace”, because the human being is able to experience in some way the Absolute who is utterly beyond. (#15)  (JPII Letter to Artists at Vatican.va)
I wish I had the quote in my book. Well, now it's on my blog.

Vanquish Fear, Bestow Hope.

Stan

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Living Dead Girl: Is there a Resurrection?


We are proud to host this exclusive online debut of the newly restored HD version of Jon Springer's 35mm classic silent zombie short "Living Dead Girl."  Click HERE to play the movie.

This film is discussed on pages 114-115 of "The Moral Premise." It illustrates several things that writers need to learn. First, "Living Dead Girl" takes a well-worn genre and bends it in one new direction that connects with "zombie" audiences. Second, it illustrates how a story can be true at its core while also being violent and bloody. Third, it humorously metaphors how some in modern society can turned into zombies when it comes to spending time and money.

MORAL PREMISE

In the book I share this MPPS, since the film comes from a Catholic:

Not eating the body of Christ leads to death; but
Eating the body of Christ leads to life.

But there's another way to express the same thing from a human perspective:

Consuming what is only human leads to the walking dead; but
Consuming what is divine leads to waking up the dead. 

Like the film, this latter MPPS touches on the problems associated with conspicuous consumption (the opening scene was filmed outside the famous MALL OF AMERICA) and that change in human behavior is possible, not inevitable (e.g. a resurrection from the dead).

REVIEWER'S COMMENTS
Mitch Davis (Fantasia Film Festival)
It's been called everything from 'Christian trash art' to 'hilarious silent movie spoof', and Jon Springer's strange little zombie film is a bit of both. It's also a ride through the history of film language, incorporating 20's iris-in's, 60's docu style, 70's splatter and beyond, from Carl dreyer to George Romero, complete with a Zappa tune and an appearance by Mark Borchardt, all shot in 35mm at 18 f/p/s. Lots of grisly fun and a VERY impressive achievement.
Minneapolis City Pages
Christian trash art that has been vacuum-cleaned of messianic pomposity.
Ain't it Cool News
A hilarious silent-movie spoof...Romero-style gorefest.

Click HERE to play the movie.

Please share the link.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

THE PLEDGE: Does Virtue Lead to Insanity?

All Star Cast... False Moral Premise... Sink Hole

Now and then I'll get feedback from readers and my shorter workshops that I should give more examples of false moral premises of otherwise good movies that do poorly at the box office to prove my point - that regardless of the cast, production quality, or director, or marketing - if you don't have a true moral premise you're doom to box offiice failure.

(But it's hard to write about things that don't exist... I mean a moral premise that either isn't there, or is so poorly formed it's hard to get a handle on it.) 

Well, I watched one tonight on DVD with Pam. It had all the promise of a great film.  THE PLEDGE stars one of my favorite actors, Jack Nicholson, and costars (in mostly cameo roles) Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Benicio Del Toro, Michael O'Keefe, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard, and Patricia Clarkson. HOW COULD YOU GO WRONG, Sean Penn (director)?

Well, all you have to do is believe something that isn't true, like a false moral premise, and make a movie about it. Here's a good take what the film's really about at the psychological level. Is it true?

Child abuse and murder leads to a quick end in the fires of hell; but
Keeping your word to find justice leads to drunken insanity. 

 No, the virtues and vices are not parallel, and neither is the consequence. That's because this story was made on an idea that is without a good foundation in reality.  The movie is filled with soft falsehoods.

If we attempt to construct a moral premise that COULD have been used for this story it may be:

Child abuse and murder leads to a quick end in the fires of hell; but
Protecting children from an abuser and murdered leads to justice. 

Had Jerry and the killer been pitted against each other in a cat and mouse game, and had Jerry some how, even inadvertently, been responsible for the killer's just death or imprisoned, this latter moral premise could have saved the movie.

I don't expect you'll go see it, I surely don't recommend it, so I'll give you the short synopsis here. The longer IMBD synopsis is here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0237572/synopsis

Jerry Black (Nicholson) takes on one last investigation as a retiring detective. He's probably the best detective the metro department has ever had. He's still got what it takes and he's motivated. A young girl is brutally murdered and he promises the mother, against his eternal salvation, to find the guy.  Like the victim, he discovers there have been several young blond girls with red dresses and very pretty that have been gruesomely raped and murdered, and all the crimes have taken place within a few miles of this one intersection in fishing country. He buys the gas station and C-store at that intersection to stake out the place and over time find the guy. Through a drawing Chrissey drew just before she was killed, he figures he knows the guy is tall, wears a black cap, gives out porcupine gifts and candy, and drives a black station wagon. By happenstance such a little girl (Chrissey) and her single mother come to live with Jerry in the attached home. He doesn't plan it but he takes advantage of the situation and uses the little girl as a lure to get the bad guy. When it looks like he's going to have the guy cornered, the perp, on his way to get Chrissey at a picnic table in the woods that Jerry has staked out with a SWAT team, the perp is killed in a firey blaze caused by a lumber truck that looses it's load on top of the perps car. Jerry never knows this happens (although it was on the only road to and from the spot he was staking out with Chrissey as lure). So, Jerry is left holding to his pledge, into old age, nearly dead drunk, cussing at God it seems, in front of his deserted, broken down gas station. We NEVER see the perp. We never know anything about him or his motivations. But because of Jerry's selfless integrity his life is ruined and now meaningless.

The filmmakers also demonstrate disrespected their audience's intelligence by telling a story that is morally not true (see MPS above), but he also disrespects us by introducing a mind bodging number of red herrings and coincidences.  The story:
  • Paints a number of Christian characters as simpleminded with IQ's in the low double digits. 
  • About the time Jerry thinks of using a little girl as a lure... behold the single lady that runs the restaurant has such a little girl, Chrissey. 
  • When Chrissey's father beats up her mother, mom and Chrissey comes to live with Jerry. We're reminded that she's the right age, right hair color, and when they go shopping Jerry picks out a red dress at the store. 
  • Jerry is watching the little girl carefully, but yet she gets lost at a flea market, and someone mysterious gives her a porcupine tick-tac gift.  But it's not the perp.
  • After promising Jerry not to talk to men without telling him, she does.
  • Jerry is a fisherman and is always "catching fish" with "lures."
  • The FIRST place he goes in his investigation is a Christmas store to ask directions which just happens to be where the perp lives. But we never see the perp there.
  • The antagonists (the perp) never tries to stop Jerry.
  • We never see the perp or learn anything about his motivation or background. 
  • The co-antagonists (his old police buddies) try to dissuade Jerry from the case, but in the end they help him, but then they leave him in the woods alone. There is no real antagonist. 
I'll stop here. But here's a great example of a big budget human drama ($45MM) with an all star cast (above), and in the domestic box office is does only $19MM... which is great if you have only spent $5MM, but I suspect $40MM of that budget was in hiring the principals. The production quality is excellent. Music... oh, yeah, the music was my Hans Zimmer.... another A lister.

Nothing helps a story with a false moral premise.

Now, Mr. Penn may think he respects his audience. I mean he spent a lot of time, and perhaps some money, on this picture. But he has never impressed me as someone who has a good grip on reality. This movie only serves to reinforce that.

Can a "moral premise" be "art"?

A reader (John Conley) writes:

How true does the following Moral Premises seem to you?
1) "A Society that denounces Art and practices Falsehood collapses; but a society that celebrates Art and Truth flourishes."
Or simply put:

"Denouncing art and practicing falsehood leads to a collapsed society; but the celebrating art and practicing truth leads to a flourishing society."  
These have potential but (at face value) are problematic because of how people can casually interpret "art."  

Too many people interpret "art" as "whatever I like."  I had a friend that is an artist that had a show once that exhibited a number of paintings of a dark and grotesque society. They were depressing and I couldn't wait to leave the exhibit. On the other hand I have seen paintings and photography of the poor and homeless, and the artist has discovered the dignity of the person in the painting and  elevated the viewer's interpretation to one of hope.  (Bestow Hope!)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church helps us here understand why some art is popular and others are not. Where the art lifts up human dignity and truth people will flock to it:
Indeed, art is a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creates ... art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the TRUTH of REALITY in a language accessible to sight or hearing. ( CCC 2501. c.f. CCC 2500-2513)
As artists (screenwriters are artists) we seek what is good, true, AND BEAUTIFUL... not just because such works have an opportunity at box office success, but also because working on such things gives us a healthy satisfaction that our life counts for something meaningful to others. 

So, John,  in that respect, if "art" is presented in that uplifting and dignified manner, your statements ring true. I'd also be careful that the virtue and vice are true psychological values and not physical acts, and that the moral premise statement can be easily applied to an individual as well as society. So, I might  revise the statements in this way:

The demeaning of true art, leads to falsehoods, which leads to collapse;
but elevating true art, leads to truth, which leads to vitality.

J.C. also asked if this moral premise statement sounded true:
"Leaving your health in the hands of others leads to death; but taking your health into your own hands leads to life."
Yes it does. It is very similar to the moral premise statement I came up with for A BEAUTIFUL MIND:

Depending only on others for our well-being leads to impotency; but
Taking personal responsibility for our well-being leads to productivity

Thanks for the good questions, J.C.... they get me to blog.

Stan