I attended the Savannah Film Fest this last week. I watched a bunch of movies, but more importantly, I was surrounded by people who worked on this artform. Instead of sitting back and watching Anton Yelchin suffer for his art in “5 to 7,” I watched the film with a more critical eye, and learned a thing or two.
Preface, I know next to nothing about filmmaking, the history of movies, and absolutely nothing about technique. But I found myself learning about my own art of writing by watching these movies. Given the multiple aspects of sensory information a movie can provide, film can sometimes skimp on what is the essential in writing: a good narrative arc.
In writing, there is discussion of the arc of the plot. In scripts, it is a three act structure, which is also often used in novel-writing. In writing, we can use a narrative arc for each scene, each piece of dialogue, and for each chapter. A good script does the same thing, but when you can get a bunch of pretty people to say your words for you, it is easier to forget the words have their own power.
The three movies I learned the most from during this week-long movie odyssey were “5 to 7,” “Foxcatcher,” and “Before I Go.” Both of these movies have big stars and should be available nationwide.
“5 to 7” stars Anton Yelchin as a young writer who meets a mysterious and beautiful French woman in Manhattan and begins a relationship with her. Love and Pain ensue. This was a movie that did a great job with showing a narrative arc in each scene. The filmmaker used longer shots than many current movies, which I’m sure was a technical challenge, but it gave a more realistic feel to that heady buzz when two people meet. Early in the movie, there is a scene of the two of them walking together down a sidewalk. They are walking towards the camera, and as the scene begins they are far away. But the camera doesn’t move, and as they approach, there is a time when they become slightly blurry, and then as they hit the foreground, they are once again perfectly in focus. At first while watching, I thought this was perhaps a mistake, but once the movie ended, it seemed to be purposeful, as an extended visual metaphor for a relationship. As a novelist, we cannot rely on a visual metaphor like this, but the power in an extended metaphor throughout a long scene can be exceptionally useful to convey emotion in a more subtle way.
“Foxcatcher,” starring Steve Carrell and Channing Tatum, is based on a real-life event of eccentric billionaire John DuPont and Olympic wrestlers whom he convinces to train on his own estate. Strange ego-centric behavior ensues. Also some cocaine. It was a good movie, and the ending is very well done. Steve Carrell does a surprisingly wonderful job in this dramatic role. What I learned from this was two-fold: because this was based on true events, the narrative arc is messy. Often when dealing with real-life events, storytellers leave out certain aspects, or combine people to clean up the story and make it more focused. This story was bizarre enough that it required all of the elements to remain in tact. However, as the audience, I found the plot to be cluttered. The beginning felt like this was the story of a wrestler’s triumph. Then the story of two misfits finding each other. Then the story of a cosseted man trying to rebel against his mother and assert some machismo (buying a tank does seem like a display of machismo). The story elements culminated–it wasn’t like the threads of the story were unnecessary, but there was not a through-line focus for the audience to latch onto, which took away from the power of the tragedy at the end of the movie. The other learning moment for me in this film was that the opening felt like one story: Channing Tatum plays a wrestler who has a tough go. The ending felt like another story: Mark Ruffalo plays a wrestler who will protect his naive brother against a Steve Carrell’s billionaire who only cares about himself. One of the critiques in first-time novels is that there are two stories, and that break happens roughly half-way through. My own first novel did this. There was a thematic break at Chapter Five, and the novel ceased to focus on my main character, and became focused on her relationship with a relapsed alcoholic. This novel lives in my computer, and can’t get out.
The third movie was Courtney Cox’s directorial debut, “Before I Go,” starring Sean Michael Scott. A grown man returns to his hometown for closure of prepubescent pain before committing suicide. Hilarity and masturbation jokes ensue. This movie was mostly sweet and entertaining, but in an effort to maintain appeal to the typical Sean Michael Scott fan (remember him in “American Pie” as Stiffler? Yeah, so does everybody else.), the amount of crude sex jokes really took away from the overall sweetness of the themes. In particular, at one point the main character, played by Scott, goes to visit a girl who was always nice to him in school. She is married, has five kids, and weighs about 250 pounds. She has a pretty face, and he appears to be smitten. They go out for drinks and have a great time, and he tells her about his crush, and of course, she had a crush on him, and they decide to go to a motel, despite her unhappy marital status. To be honest, this was a very sweet moment, because her weight is acknowledged, but it is deemed unimportant, because she is kind, and he needs kindness more than anything. The aftermath however? Nothing but a string of humiliating fat jokes. Way to reinforce the idea that if a fat girl dares to take a chance in love or sex, she will ultimately be crushingly humiliated. The same events could have occurred in the script for the absurdity and humor of it all, without all of the fat jokes to take her down a notch. What did I learn? If you try to write to your audience, and not to your own integrity, you lose the emotional impact of your work because it is no longer an honest piece. Treat your characters with the dignity inherent in any human being.
Got writer’s block? Go watch a movie with a critical eye. Plus it is easier to eat popcorn while watching a movie than while writing.