Tuesday, November 30, 2010

ORDINARY PEOPLE: Can Imperfection Lead to Something More Perfect?

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/


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;
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;
Embracing reality and allowing imperfection 
leads to the expression of feelings, 
and secures love, friendship, and happiness.


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. 

(with English subtitles)

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


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)


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


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.


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. 


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.

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.

(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?


Bruce Wayne / Batman - CHRISTIAN BALE
Alfred Pennyworth - MICHAEL CAINE
James Gordon - GARY OLDMAN

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.


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,


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