Archive for category Movies

Endings

The writer has to decide whether the ending of a story will be happy, sad, or neither. Sad endings are the stuff of tragedy; everyone dies. Happy endings are for comedies; everyone gets married. Sex and death–that’s all that’s important, really. We have permutations of the happy/sad outcomes; in modern work, maybe only one person dies, or maybe the hero doesn’t get married, but triumphs over evil. The mystery is story is like this. The detective/cop (forces of order) catch the murderer (force of disorder), and thereby mend the tear in the fabric of society that the murderer created. A happy ending, except that one or more people did end up dead.

In another category entirely is the unresolved, or “nowhere” ending, where most of what goes on in the narrative is left partially or completely unresolved.

Some people only want happy endings. Life is depressing enough without seeking more unhappiness in our reading and viewing. On the other hand, there is public appetite for the tear-jerker. The sad ending can bring catharsis, and a different sort of triumph–facing loss with dignity and courage. Many people dislike the nowhere ending, where people just go on much as they have, because there is little triumph or catharsis to be found there. I have a particular affection for the nowhere ending, though, because it is the ending that stares me most squarely in the face.

Happy endings are ephemeral. The wedding is over, and you have to get on with married life, which turns out to be one day after the other of plain old living, albeit punctuated with happy and sad events. The most happily-ever-afters end eventually with the death of one partner. And, whatever sad events happen to us, we end up going on as well, going on to more happy and sad events; that is, unless we kill ourselves. And when we die, we are either at the end of everything, or at the beginning of an afterlife. Either way, our own death mostly affects our friends and family. Our own end has very little to do with us, really. I love the nowhere ending, because it is the most true.

The most important decision regarding a proposed ending has less to do with what the writer likes, than whether or not it is appropriate. Put another way, what sort of ending has the story earned? Sometimes the writer needs to try out several. The io9 link below tells about that process, and gives us an example of that in Dr. Strangelove. The initial ending apparently called for a pie fight in the war room, rather than nuclear annihilation.

That would have been quite a different movie and not nearly as good.

Not an unresolved ending!

Not an unresolved ending!

http://io9.com/12-movies-that-filmed-happy-endings-you-never-saw-496347212

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The Truth and The Truth

***SPOILER ALERT***

IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, PLAN TO SEE IT, AND DON’T WANT TO HAVE PLOT POINTS REVEALED TO YOU, STOP READING!

Based on a true story.

This is the most deadly phrase I can read or hear in a movie ad.

In fairness, Dallas Buyers’ Club, which I saw with my daughter, uses the words inspired by a true story in its ads and trailers. Inspired makes it sound a bit more as if it’s intended as fiction, although I suspect that distinction is lost on most moviegoers. Anyhow, this movie version of Ron Woodroof, the AIDS activist who founded the Dallas Buyers’ Club, follows him from his diagnosis, all the way to a court case against the FDA. Along the way, he battles doctors, customs agents, the FDA, and his own worsening state of health. It’s a moving story, and for someone my age, it effectively brought back memories of that time–the cluelessness of the experts, the rampant homophobia, and the ignorant, often hysterical, fear regarding the possibility of being infected. These larger points I recognized as truly depicted within the film, based on my memory of the history.

On the short drive home, my daughter and I discussed the film, and began speculating about its basis in truth. We both doubted that Dr. Eve Saks was a real person. My daughter was not a fan of the pseudo-romantic relationship between Ron and Eve, the going out to dinner and so forth. I wasn’t either. More importantly, we wondered whether or not the character of Rayon was a real person. We hoped so, but we had our doubts.

Rayon, depicted as Woodroof’s business partner, is portrayed by Jared Leto in a gut-wrenching performance that ought to win him many awards. This is one hell of a performance, and one hell of a character.

I looked it up as soon as I got home, and found these:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2013/11/01/dallas_buyers_club_true_story_fact_and_fiction_in_the_matthew_mcconaughey.html

http://www.biography.com/people/ron-woodroof-21329541

Alas, Rayon is not real. The Slate article states, “The real Woodroof didn’t have any particular Rayon in his life…”, and was created (quoting screenwriter Craig Borten), “…as a character to give Ron a dramatic challenge to his prejudices while facing his disease.”

In other words, she’s a standard-issue screen-written sidekick. Sorry. But I was not surprised.

Let me see if I can articulate why I am annoyed.

I remember the eighties and the onset of the AIDS epidemic, from the first news reports of an odd new cancer that seemed to strike mainly gay men. I recall an early report stating the mortality rate appeared to be about 33%. Soon, the true mortality rate emerged. No one, at first, knew what caused it, except that it was sexually transmitted. Then, the virus was found, but there was no cure.

I remember the homophobia, and the pronouncements from certain religious quarters that AIDS was a judgment from God against gays (while leaving lesbians, inexplicably, especially favored by heaven) and drug addicts. Then we were horrified to realize that blood transfusions were a common vector. This situation lasted throughout the eighties, until effective drug cocktails were developed, approved, and prescribed. But between the original diagnoses and the onset of effective treatments, was a decade of denial, bigotry, and fear. And yes, governmental and drug company intransigence both exacerbated that denial, bigotry, and fear, and was exacerbated by those attitudes.

Many people suffered and died, and many, like Ron Woodroof, did what they could outside the establishment–sometimes, outside the law–to buy themselves and their co-sufferers a bit more time, a bit more wellness. I’ve no objection to someone writing about a straight white guy caught up in the epidemic; his story is as valid and moving as anyone’s. But is an invented transexual addict with a heart of gold necessary here? Rayon is portrayed as pivotal, Ron’s supposed business partner. And she’s not real. She is, in the end, a redshirt, a casualty deemed necessary to the script. She is an invention used to show fictional evolution in Ron Woodroof’s purported character issues. What so-called truth am I supposed to glean from this?

Jared Leto’s performance makes all this even more of a problem for me, simply because he is so astonishing as Rayon. A beautiful performance that comes close to stealing the movie. And it is a beautifully acted, well-written movie. The problem for me is that those very screenwriting skills are what muddle the truth. In a today.com article, the movie is referred to as “…the real life story of…”, “…a true story, a triumph…”, when in fact, key points are completely made up. In addition, the characters of Rayon and Dr. Eve Saks are treated, in the article, as absolutely real. Check it out:

http://www.today.com/entertainment/dallas-buyers-club-what-makes-it-pure-oscar-bait-2D11624171

And this is why I have become a biopic cynic, fed up by all this inspired-bybased-on, bullshit. I love fiction, because fiction is true. It is true, precisely because I know it is made-up. With non-fiction, I can never be sure, but at least, I’d like you to try to tell the truth…

The Virus

The Virus

Photo: CDC

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Good vs. Evil, Good vs. Good, Evil vs. Evil (Part 2)

A great villain requires a great hero. Thing is, good can be tough to write. Good sometimes doesn’t seem quite as much fun as evil, but when done brilliantly, it is a delight.

The superhero is very, very good. He/she fulfills our longing for the perfect parent, someone we found out our real parents were not. The superhero knows right from wrong, and does something about it. The superhero has unusual talents to call upon, powers beyond those of the ordinary human. The only downside to superhero-dom, it seems, is having to wear really funny clothes.

The everyday hero is a different animal. They are not our parents; they are our peers. They, and their creators, deserve our respect.

1. Jerry Lundegard squirms so satisfyingly in Fargo, because Police Chief Marge Gunderson (Francis McDormand) is on to him, and there will be no escaping her. I sympathize a bit with poor old Jerry here.

Marge is an everywoman. She has a tough job, she is extremely pregnant, and she is the smartest one in the movie. She is patient with her subordinates, but she is five steps ahead of them. She is confident, but never arrogant. She makes traditional virtues that we take for granted–like loyalty, practicality, common sense, humility, patience, and tenacity–downright sexy. She feels let down sometimes. Her husband doesn’t get how difficult her job is. An encounter with a former classmate is more than disappointing. She never, ever wastes one second on feeling sorry for herself. We never see her complain. She just gets on with it.

I want to study her with a microscope, and I want to be her when I grow up. If I can’t be her, I want her to be my best friend. I love watching her succeed, armed with intelligence, goodness, and dry wit. (I will never look at a wood-chipper in the same way.) I love that her goodness aids her fight against evil. It’s as if her very lack of a personal agenda frees up her mind to think, and think clearly. In some stories, the villain is more interesting than the hero. Not so here.

2. In Parks & Recreation, City Councillor (possibly soon-to-be recalled) Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) is someone who, despite her name, says yes to everything in life. She is a dedicated public servant toiling tirelessly in the world of local government. She is unflaggingly and progressively optimistic about her mission: to make her town, Pawnee, the greatest town on the planet. She has faith in people, and enormous faith in her ability to sway people to her point of view. She is mostly always in the right in her stances on public issues, but she is also often a teensy bit annoying.

She didn’t get where she is without becoming a control freak. Those around her-boss Ron, co-workers and friends, husband Ben-all generally support her aims, and all absolutely love her, as they must, given the way she drives them all.

It is this edge that gives Leslie her pop and sparkle. She shares many of the personality traits of Tammy Two, but with one huge difference. Unlike Tammy, Leslie is always willing to put aside her personal ambitions for the good of the people she serves. But she does it with a grimace. She is a hero, but she is no saint.

3. Breaking Bad is not about the innocent. We may sympathize with many of the characters, but is anyone here a hero?

Walter Jr. begins the series as an innocent, but as he progresses through his teens, I fear next season will see him become more and more like his dad. Or his mom, for that matter.

The hero is Hank Shrader (Dean Norris), brother-in-law to Walt. Hank is a DEA agent. He’s a funny kind of hero; he’s bombastic, profane, and bigoted, but he is the only one here who throws up at the sight of blood. And his job is everything to him. Solving the mystery of “Heisenberg” is his life quest. While everyone else is orbiting around Walt and the damage he does, Hank quietly perseveres. Hank had figured it out at the end of last season; this final season will be the showdown.

We know there can’t be many left standing at the end of the final season; I hope Hank is one of them. He deserves it; he is the only one capable of bringing law and order back to Albuquerque.

4. Good luck finding a pure heart in Game of Thrones. Ned Stark came close, but he was too enmeshed in the politics of the Seven Kingdoms to remain pure. Most of the characters here are busily trying to win a war and not be slaughtered. The moral code is  bound up in medieval traditions of honor, which most of the characters subscribed to only when it furthers their purposes. I could talk for pages about the moral universe of each individual; I find that the most fascinating aspect of the tale.

The only adult character who is a pure heart is Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie). When she makes a vow, she keeps it, and does not allow anything to get in her way. It doesn’t matter the cost. Brienne is not naive. She is a grown-up who has seen all there is to see in Westeros. Brienne and Marge Gunderson are cut from the same cloth; that is, they do their jobs. In fact, I’d love to see Brienne turn up one day in Brainerd, MN. I’d like to see Marge hire her for her police force there. Brienne could learn a lot from Marge, and then maybe the two of them could go back to Westeros and straighten the place out. I see them allied with Daenerys somehow….

And then, maybe, winter will be over.

A woman for the ages.

A woman for the ages.

Photo: imbd.com

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Good vs. Evil, Good vs. Good, Evil vs. Evil (Part 1)

Here are some of my favorite fictional evil people:

1. Good vs. Evil: Jerry Lundegard is a car salesman with money trouble. He embezzles from his employer, who happens to be his father-in-law, and attempts to make right this misstep by arranging a fake kidnapping of his wife. The plan is to use the ransom money to cover up the money problem.

Jerry never takes responsibility for his wrongdoings. He blames circumstances for whatever goes wrong in his life. He does not want to do evil. He only wants to cut a few corners so that he can fix this little problem he has. If he could just fix this little problem, everyone would be happy, and everyone would like him. Even his father-in-law. Jerry is insecure, deceptive, arrogant, and naive. This last quality, the naiveté, becomes the major driver of the gore and horror that ensues.

William H. Macy rocketed into my pantheon of acting gods with his portrayal of Jerry in Fargo (1996). We see the increasingly desperate turning of wheels in his mind as Jerry is confronted by the heroic Sheriff Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand). I loved watching Jerry writhe in this battle of good vs. evil. We have a touch of empathy for him…but only to a point. Then Good must out Evil, and Jerry must have his comeuppance.

2. Good vs. Good: In comedy, everything is just a misunderstanding and all will be well in the end. Nonetheless, even comedies have their occasional true villains. Tammy Swanson, a.k.a. Tammy Two (played by Megan Mullally), is an evil library director in territorial battle with Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) in Parks & Recreation. She is amoral, power-mad, and arrogant. She wields a frightening sexual power over ex-husband Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). To me, the single funniest thing about Tammy is that she is a library director, offering Leslie opportunity to make snarky and hilarious anti-library comments, and demonstrating there is a little bit of Tammy in Leslie. The most evil thing about Tammy, however, is not that she wants to steal Leslie’s beloved Lot 48 for a new library branch, but what she does to Ron…particularly what she does to his hair. Tammy has the ability to make Ron be not-himself, and exercises this power without remorse, thereby placing herself in direct opposition to the spirit of the show, which celebrates the potential of everyone to become their best selves.

In comedy, evil lacks potency, overcome as it is by all the good intentions that surrounds it. Its attempts to upset the order of the comedic universe backfire, and all is good.

3. Bad vs. Bad: It’s a tie between Walter White of Breaking Bad, and Cersei Lannister of Game of Thrones.

Walter (Bryan Cranston), like car salesman Jerry, begins by needing just to cut a few corners…for the greater good, of course. His position is a sympathetic one, at least initially. He is dying of lung cancer. He is a high school chemistry teacher with not a lot of money, has a special needs son, and they are a one-income family–wife Skyler stays at home to see to Walter Jr.’s needs. The diagnosis is a death sentence; Walter only wants his family to be taken care of after he’s gone. He has expertise in chemistry, and so he’ll just cook a little meth, make some money, and die having accomplished his goal.

Walter is pulled into the monstrous evil of the Albuquerque-to-Mexico drug scene, but he is not overwhelmed by it. On the contrary, he finds himself growing into his new enterprise.  He sees himself as smarter and quicker than those he deals with. He is a massive control-freak. He becomes addicted to his new-found power. As the seasons progress, one moral boundary after the other falls, and we see just how evil a “good” person can become. But Walter isn’t “good.” He didn’t “break bad.” He always was bad, infected with a frustrating, thwarted psyche, just waiting for an opportunity. Indeed, a professional career counselor couldn’t have picked a better field to display his aptitudes and interests.

I also love to watch Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) on Game of Thrones. The character is born into a culture of violence and sexism, where a highborn woman is someone to use for the forging of political ties, through marriage, where perhaps she may wield influence, but perhaps not. Every female character in this saga has to deal with slightly different circumstances, is afforded slightly different opportunities, and makes slightly different choices, based on her character and her talents.

Cersei is ruthless. She is smart, but as her horrible father tells her, not as smart as she thinks. She is expected to marry when told. She does marry one man, but has her children by another, her twin brother, Jamie. She thinks she knows everything there is to know, but she is willfully ignorant of quite a bit. She is unable to see beyond her own prejudices. Something of an atheist, she simply doesn’t believe in the monsters beyond the wall. She is likewise in thrall to her hideous son, Jeffrey. As with Jerry in Fargo, I love to watch the wheels turn in her head as she struggles to keep control, but is constantly blindsided by evil that is smarter and quicker than she.

Next post, I’ll throw out some of my favorite heroes.

"Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before." -- Mae West

“Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.” — Mae West

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