31 October 2008

70. the african queen

the main thing i've been focusing on in movies lately, both in my own writing and in watching other's films, is structure. i remember long ago, when i first dipped my toe in the screenplay waters, reading someone write, "the most important part about writing a screenplay isn't the dialogue, it is the structure" (that paraphrased, by the way). i didn't understand what they meant and it took me a long time to figure it out, but at least i palpably feel at this moment like i'm on the right track.

there's a very specific form that classical hollywood cinema -- and even most cinema that's considered "independent" -- takes. this goes beyond the vague outlines of what we think of as the "3-act structure", too. in movies, we have very specific, often unconscious beats that we as audience respond to, and these include the way we set things up in the first five minutes to how we must use the midpoint as an apex of the narrative to when we first see the b-story.

john huston was a good director, but he was also a hell of a writer. he understood this structure, and we see that here. we are introduced to our main character, katherine hepburn, who is a proper british society lady in a foreign lady. this is the first image. a stranger comes to town: bogart. he is dirty, his belly grumbles, he is not like hepburn. the war comes to town, her brother is killed, the village pillaged. there is nothing for her to do save go with bogart on his boat, "the african queen", and hope for the best. there is debate, but very little of it.

this is act one. act two begins on the boat, and we see the b-story about using "the african queen" as a torpedo with the exposition cleverly buried in "getting to know you" and map-reading. the a-story consists of her shedding her society image and lifestyle and becoming more in tune with the world that surrounds her, not to mention her falling in love with bogart.

this is an action/adventure movie, so every 15 minutes or so, there's a set piece. in this case, shooting the rapids. hepburn doing something visceral and physical, perhaps for the first time, actually works within the storyline as part of her letting her hair down and embracing life. the set-piece accompanies the story; it doesn't sit apart from it.

the third act is their failed attempt at using the torpedo and their time on the german boat. they fail in that, but they end up married, so all is not lost. as a final twist, they are saved and because comedy and adventure are so closely entwined, they are able to live happily ever after. like billy wilder's good advice, once that's established, they don't linger, the movie is over.