Friday, June 6, 2014

When a Middle Fails a Beginning and End

Maleficent, a new film starring Angelina Jolie, has a wonderful opening and a wonderful close, but the middle seriously sags. Why that happens speaks to a problem with story structure.

The film opens with Jolie as a mythical creature and a young girl who watches over and protects the Moor, where other creatures like pixies roam. Humans occupy a nearby kingdom. Each mostly keep to their realm until a young man enters the Moor to steal a jewel and is caught by Jolie. They become friends, grow up together, and she falls in love with him.

When the nearby king fails in an attack on the Moor, the young man uses Jolie's love for him to take her wings and get himself appointed king. This sets up a central question, will she get revenge? She curses the new king's daughter so that when she reaches 16, she will fall into a deep sleep that can only be woken from a kiss of true love.

In this middle section, Maleficent watches over the girl, whom she clearly and deeply loves. As the girl gets to know Maleficent, she comes to love her like a mother. But this section of the movie mostly keeps the king scheming to destroy Maleficent off-stage, and there's no real drama around seeing Maleficent care for the girl. Beautifully acted by Jolie, yes; the narrative tension necessary to sustain the movie, no.

Narrative tension is generated when a character has a clear goal accessible to a story's audience, and is blocked from achieving that goal. When an audience has internalized a character achieving that, the narrative tension is transferred to the audience. This is what makes a story compelling.

Maleficent has no narrative tension in its middle section, so the drama of the story sags.

Jolie's wonderful performance can't make up for that.

Jolie as an actress had the same problem in the movie Changeling. Great performance, no narrative tension.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

When a Mystery is a Mystery

My starting point for exploring story structure was a class taught by a literary agent at the time, David Morgan, who had studied with Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!). Egri taught that a story has a premise, character+conflict=resolution. But my background in science fiction had shown me that some stories don't have human characters, or characters at all. In science fiction, some characters embody ideas, not human emotions in conflict. And in literary fiction, some stories also have characters who embody ideas (Camus' The Plague, how middle-class people deal with impending death).

I decided a premise would be a dramatic issue, movement, and the movement of that issue to fulfillment.

Later I found it easier for students to think of a story's core dramatic issue as its promise, and that a storyteller could begin a story with the introduction of its promise and moving it toward its fulfillment.

The science fiction film Under the Skin demonstrates how a story can revolve around ideas more than characters. The main character is an alien that takes on the body of a young female. She/it then goes out seducing young men into a liquid that dissolves their bodies into a slurry fed into a mostly hidden chamber. The alien has only a basic understanding of human communication.

When the alien picks up a young man who has a horribly disfigured face, the alien clearly can't tell the difference, but it does come to take pity on the young man, who is not killed and dissolved. This act of mercy separates the alien from its human male-appearing handlers. It goes off with a man it meets at a bus stop. When the man attempts to initiate sex, the alien has no idea how a male penis and female vagina interact. She runs off, is found in some woods by a rapist, who, when he pulls off some of the alien's human covering, comes back with a can of gas and sets the alien on fire. The alien appears to die, or at least the body it's in dies.

The film seems to be a story about how the alien developing feelings of human compassion doom it.

I'm sure others who watched the film could come to other, equally valid conclusions. This is a film where things happen with no explanation.

For this kind of film to work, a film maker needs to have something to say. The director has something to say, but he's not saying it in the traditional, Hollywood style film that typically offers an accessible main character with a clearly defined issue of human need who transports the story's audience to the fulfillment of its promise. Here, the viewer must interpret what happens and what it means.

Under the Skin does, in its own way, explore the ideas it generates, about how an alien might interact with humans, unlike a film like Prometheus that generates ideas (Jesus was an alien) but doesn't explore them.

Under the Skin is beautiful shot, directed, composed, acted, and edited, so it is a pleasure to experience while it unfolds on the screen. People who like challenging films should give this a view.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.