Tuesday, December 30, 2014

ST. VINCENT Moral Premise Discussion


(Updated 2-9-15 from our MEETUP Discussions)

Director/Writer: TED MELFI
Starring: BILL MURRAY (Vincent)
CHRIS O'DOWD (Bro. Geraghty)

IMDB Log: A young boy whose parents have just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door.

This picture is too good to be true. I may never analyze it just out of respect to the talent displayed. It is a classic example of structure while turning the tables on the traditional concept of Protagonist and Antagonist. 

Here are some notes that have come from out Screenplay Meetup Group discussion in Northville, MI. As the discussion continues I'll add more.


The Movie's tag line is "LOVE THY NEIGHBOR"... but on first appearances the neighbor (Vincent) is not very lovable; and it appears as if Vincent is not loving anyone else in return. Thus, everyone needs to love each other. It's a challenge. But then the curtain is slowly pulled back to reveal that things are not what they seem. No spoilers here...perhaps after the movie leaves theaters. 


The Conflict of Values articulate the inner world-views that create the outer physical-conflict. The values must be naturally opposing.  These same set of values are at work between the all the characters in conflict in a movie, but may personify themselves in different ways. We only need one of these pairs for the film, but our discussion suggests the following possibilities:

Selfishness v. Selflessness
Self-Centered v. Others-Centered
Inward v. Outward
Apathetic v. Engaged
Narcissistic v. Sacrificial

This results in a Moral Premise Statement that could look like one of these:

Selfishness leads to hermitages; but
Selflessness leads to neighborhoods.

Narcissism leads to isolation; but
Sacrifice leads to community.

Self-Centeredness leads to despising your neighbor; but
Others-centered leads to loving your neighbor.


Director, Ted Melfi creates an intriguing structure with ST. VINCENT. He stays true to the classical definitions of the main characters' roles but giving us a fresh perspective of how they can interact. Here is my take of the characters and the roles they play. I may have convinced our MEETUP group of this construction, but please feel free to add your comments to the com box.

The MAIN CHARACTER is the character through whose point of view (POV) the story is told. While multiple points of view are often revealed in a story, one character takes precedence. In ST. VINCENT the main POV is Vincent. We spend the most time with him in his house, at the bar, at the race track and driving Oliver around. Often the MAIN CHARACTER is the protagonist, but in ST. VINCENT that is not the case (see below). The MAIN CHARACTER or POV character is also that character whose values we come to embrace by the movie's end, provided we have a redemptive story and not a tragic one. That is the only role of the MAIN CHARACTER -- to tell the story, possibly of another and sometimes of themselves. Think of the MAIN CHARACTER as the Narrator.

The ANTAGONIST CHARACTER is the character whose primary story purpose is to force the Protagonist to change. The ANTAGONIST does not have to change or arc, but often when they do, they change the least. Think of the ANTAGONIST like the hammer in the hands of a blacksmith, pounding away on the iron having just come from the fire and shaping that iron into something useful and good. In ST. VINCENT I think the antagonist is also Vincent. Except for some changes that have occurred in this life, but not of his own doing, he is the same at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. In Martha Williamson's TV drama series TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL the angels are the antagonists who "hammer" the guest star into making decisions to improve their live. Vincent is such an angel, although a pretty disrespected one at the beginning of the story. 

How is Vincent the same at the beginning as he is at the end? My view is that Vincent is self-less, and takes interest in improving the life of hopeless causes around him, although he's pretty grumpy about it. His grumpy attitude becomes the ironic cement that draws us into his character. I believe Melfi (as well as many of you) could not think of a better actor than Bill Murray to play the part—a case when the actor's natural persona perfectly meet character traits. In this respect, Bill will not get an academy award nomination for being himself, although I'd love to see it.  

In Act 1, Vincent (as the Main character), introduces us to the people in his life and their hopeless causes (or ironic, hopeless goals), that Vincent (as the Antagonist) will shape into something better. 
  • DAKA the stripper/prostitute. The first lost cause we meet in Vincent's life is Daka. When the movie opens he is letting Daka bounce on him having sex. Vincent's attitude toward Daka is one of obligation and compassion not lust. He "allows" the relationship because she needs the money, she's a "working girl" and he feels sorry for her. This becomes even more evident when he watches her strip at the club. Her pregnancy prevents her from getting off the floor after sliding down the pole. Vincent doesn't look at her with sexual interest, but with fatherly compassion, and he's embarrassed for her. He is constantly paying her way as best he can. She wants to know the sex of her baby, so he takes her to a pregnancy center to find out and "pays" for it. Further evidence of this is in Vincent's non-verbal attraction to Sandy vs. Daka. There is love in his eyes for Sandy, and later, after Sandy's death, there's the beginning of a love for Daka. 
  • OLIVER, is a Latchkey Kid. His father, David, was taking up sexually with his mom's hairdresser and so his mom, Maggie, runs from David taking Oliver with her, and tries to start a new life on their own. But she has to work late as a CAT scan technician. Vincent takes Oliver in, for a baby sitting fee he negotiates with Maggie. Oliver is not fond of Vincent at first and is a fish out of water in Vincent's world. He's lost and hopeless, or so it seems at first. Also, Oliver hopelessly cannot defend himself against the school bully (Robert). So, Vincent shows Oliver how. Oliver is afraid to take risks, so Vincent takes him to the race track, where Oliver takes a huge risk and wins.
  • MAGGIE, the Spurned Mother. Maggie, heartbroken over David's dalliance with her hairdresser, runs away and tries to start a new life. By happenstance she rents a house next to Vincent's. She's hopeless because of her failed marriage, but also because she knows she is failing her son by always being gone, and forcing Oliver to be taken care of by Vincent, who is not the best of role models. Indeed, David gets partial custody over Oliver because Maggie is a half-hopeless parent in the court's eyes.
  • SANDY, Vincent's wife who is dying of Alzheimer's Disease. Sandy hopelessly can't remember Vincent, and yet Vincent lives everyday to express his love to her by trying to pay for the best care in the world for her. He can't pay for it, however, and in his desperation gambles at the track and is in hock to his bookie, Zucko, and secretly Oliver. Vincent does Sandy's laundry, which he does not need to do, and he buys her flowers, which he can't afford, and he negotiates her dinner menu with the staff, and he sits with her and pretends to be a doctor....hoping for that moment when she remembers him. 
  • ROBERT, is the school bully. Robert comes off as an irredeemable bully who has no good male role model in his life. But his dad is out of the picture, and having a family again seems hopeless. 
  • FELIX the cat. Vincent selfishly feeds felix gourmet cat food, while eating sardines and leftovers himself. It is a Blake Snyder classic SAVE THE CAT scene. We can't help but like Vincent because of his kindness to animals.
  • VIETNAM WAR BUDDIES are hopelessly lost on the battle fiend until Vincent saves them. 
  • DEAD PLANTS in Vincent's Backyard. We get a hint of this when 40% into the film we find Oliver mowing Vincent's backyard of dirt, to help him learn responsibility, as Vincent is paying Oliver. But during the credits we find Vincent watering the backyard of dirt, and the dead plant...both hopeless causes. But he takes it in stride, this time with a less than grumpy attitude over Bob Dylan's Shelter in the Time of Storm. (see song description below). Watering hopeless causes is who Vincent is. He had not really changed, but we know that the dirt "lawn" and the dead plant have a chance if Vincent is involved. 
Yes, Vincent is grumpy, as if he is arguing constantly with God about his calling, of giving himself up as the tree stump in The Giving Tree, for people to use him. (Remember after meeting Vincent for the first time, Oliver reads from The Giving Tree and the tree stump's willingness to give even more.) But Vincent never rebells from his calling, and he is obedient to it...although he doesn't do it happily. His ironic behavior (doing the right thing but not liking it) is how many in the audience identify with Vincent. Many of us do what is right, but we don't want to. Deep down we want to be selfish, but we know helping others forcing us to sacrifice our own will is the better thing. We see ourself in Vincent, and we identify with him emotionally. We may try to hide our weariness of doing what is right and being good, but Vincent wears his weariness on his forehead like a neon sign. Out of obligation (and a deep but hidden love of humankind) Vincent does what is right. 

Please make note that if Vincent was a character that was uplifting, positive, and nice the movie would fall flat because there is no "hook" or "irony" to engage our intrigue. The log line: "Happy, clean cut, nice guy helps others be better," is boring compared to "Disgruntled, self-serving bum, can't help himself to help others."

The PROTAGONIST CHARACTER is the character that the audience identifies most with because the character has a physical goal, is imperfect and changes the most. Protagonist's have moments of grace where they recognize the truth of the moral premise and make an active decision to change.  In ST. VINCENT I think all of the main characters are protagonists, with Oliver being the lead protagonist. The audience sees a little of themselves in each imperfect protagonist, both in their lost nature, and their honorable goals, the most common of which is to have a family.
  • DAKA's goal is to have a baby, get a decent job, and have a loving home. Through Vincent in her life, she gives up stripping and becomes a housekeeper, mother, and cook.  She goes from being selfish to selfless, from taking care of herself to taking care of Vincent, as he's been taking care of her. His kindness is returned by Daka changing.
  • OLIVER's goal is to have a family again and defend himself. He gains the ability and will to defend himself, and see the good in others, like Vincent, and especially Robert. This change, that Vincent effects in Oliver, effects both Maggie and Robert, who befriends Oliver. 
  • MAGGIE's goal is to have back her family, earn a living, and to provide for her boy. Through Vincent's hammering, she becomes a mother again by staying home from work and spending time with Oliver, and indirectly she welcomes David back into her life. 
  • SANDY dies, which at first does not seem to be a change for the good in her state. Except, there's a beat in the script that didn't make it into the final cut of the movie. In the script, Sandy leaves behind a life insurance policy, unknown to Vincent, that pays off Vincent's gambling debt and allows Vincent's life to go forward. In that subtle way she goes from being taken care of, to taking care of others, which follows the moral premise arc of Daka, Oliver, and Maggie. 
  • ROBERT wants to be called "Robert" not "Ozsinski" and have a dad figure in his life, e.g. a family. This is accomplished by story's end.
  • DAVID also, comes back from he playboy ways to becoming a Dad and Husband. The script actually gives David a few lines that are not in the movie, like when he agrees with Maggie that he was "an asshole."
  • VINCENT is the protagonist of this own story, and although his values change very little form the beginning, by the end he's managed to have done his best for Sandy, mourn her death, pay off the debt to Zucko (evident more in the script), and he has a family. 
The final scene represents the family that everyone wanted. Around the dinner table, a dinner that Daka has cooked, are all the main characters, including Robert. 


We also discussed several of the songs used in the movie to underscore the moral premise and  the character's arcs. Briefly, ONE STEP OVER THE LINE [Nitty Gritty Dirt Band] relates to the movie as it encourages the characters to step from selfishness to selflessness. It applies to Robert, Oliver, Maggie, Vincent, and Daka. That the original lyrics (Ggogle them) that refer to sex in the backseat of a car, indicates the risk and passion that the characters in St. Vincent need to embrace for their transformation. The song is played under the scene where Oliver is mowing Vincent's backyard DIRT...and that the song was made popular by the Nitty gritty Dirt Band helps. 

I FOUGHT THE LAW (and the law won) [CLASH] is played under the clash between Oliver and Robert in gym, where both get bloodied up. The lyrics immediately reinforce how bullying and revenge are selfish acts that have consequences. But they also refer to the natural law consequences of drunkenness, gambling, leaving your spouse, a dying spouse, and taking others for granted. In each case, or subplot of the movie, natural law wins out. If your motivations are virtuous you have a better chance at happiness than being motivated by a vice. 

START A WAR [The National] plays under Vincent's major loss at the race track. What's significant here is that he's not drunk when he leaves, but he realizes that he's going to have to face facts and the reality of life...and in doing so he's going to start a war...and indeed his bookie is waiting for him at home. The consequences turn the story and the characters in dramatic ways, just as starting a war does. But in this case, because a virtue is in play, the consequences of the war take us to a better place. Vincent as an opportunity to "Walk away now" or "start a war." He has finally come to grips that the war is what he has to face for transformation of the moral premise to occur..

SHELTER FROM THE STORM [Boy Dylan] is played over the final credits when Vincent waters the dead plants and barren dirt in his backyard. At the very end Vincent even "washes his feet" a spiritual sign of true redemption. Download the words and look at how they recount the whole movie, "Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood" [Vincent fought in Vietnam, but also when Maggie and Oliver and Daka needed a friend.] ...Come in, she said, I'll give you shelter from the storm." What is the "storm"? [The situations of hopelessness in the lives of those around Vincent.] And, who is "she"? [Vincent...Vincent is the shelter in the time of storm... and you could say, as well, that his friends, when they change, are create a shelter for Vincent in his time of storm.] 


To study this more, as we will be in coming months, here are some resources links:
Scene times and percentages in Excel worksheet
The Screenplay, submitted for an Oscar from TWC
As is usual, my recommendation is to figure out the Story Fundamentals, the 13 Major Beats using the linked resources. The Story Diamond may help you, as well. 

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