29 May 2009

55. Apocalypse Now

"War is hell" is an old, outdated maxim. This movie makes it plain: War is insanity.

This film is about going crazy. More to the point, it's about breaking points, the points at which those in extreme circumstances -- in this case, war -- turn the corner and become enveloped in their insanity. It's about driving off a cliff.

For those who think "high-concept" movies are inherently dumb, this is an exception to the rule. The high-concept here is: a decorated soldier is sent on an assassination mission -- to kill one of his own! Like Lorne Michael's said: "Write it good, it's Hamlet; write it bad, it's Gilligan's Island." Coppola and Milius wrote it good, and that's why it's on this list.

Luckily, they had help. The script is loosely based off of "Heart of Darkness", the classic novel. But the adaptation is loose in the very sense of the word -- Campbell's book was not about war, didn't have scenes of soldiers surfing. But somehow, like a lot of the best adaptations ("There Will Be Blood" and "The Shining" come to mind), this looseness is part of the movie's power in that the director is able to take certain characters and thematic concerns and infuse them with his own sensibilities, pacing, music choices, and mise-en-scene.

Unluckily, they had some problems. Sets were destroyed by weather, actors were constantly on drugs, other actors had to be replaced or shot around due to creative differences or medical issues, the Phillipines military was uncooperative. All this leads into one of the most remarkable aspects of the movie that you can actually glean from the narrative but that really is illuminated by Eleanor Coppola's documentary "Hearts of Darkness", which is this: the physical production of the film matched both the narrative as well as the theme. In other words, everyone went crazy making a movie about people going crazy.

Structurally, it's works well. I believe that Coppola, like a lot of great filmmakers, was stealing and inspired by one of the best filmmakers ever: Terrence Malick. He made a dreamy, otherworldly movie that's structured in vignettes. But what makes them work so well is their economy: Our main character, Willard (Sheen), is given a task (think Starling in "Silence of the Lambs") and puts it into motion (act 1). In doing the job that he is given with no questions asked -- a Puritanical notion more than anything -- he meets these other soldiers and gets into a variety of scenarios (act 2), leading to the final confrontation with his object of desire (act 3). That's it in a nutshell, and the narrative is simply filled with a variety of bits to fill in the blanks.

The most famous of these, rightly so, is with Kilgore (Duvall). Willard and his boat crew meet up with Kilgore and Kilgore discovers one of the men is a professional surfer. He insists they go surfing together, raiding and clearing out a village with good waves to do so. Again, a task is set-up and completed to a satisfying pay-off, and in the meantime we get the theme illuminated in a different way and as the audience we get the pleasure of a great actor speaking iconic lines: "I love the smell of napalm in the morning", "Charlie don't surf", "You know, one day this war is going to be over".

The thing to take away from this movie -- the thing it does remarkably well that we could learn from -- is that it takes a theme ("war is insanity") and stretches it to the absolute limit. We see the aforementioned Kilgore, obviously insane, but who relishes the chaos -- he's insane but in his element. We see a raid on a peaceful village just to surf -- a crazy thing to do, but the reasons or justifications for murder don't mean much to the dead. We see a stoned character, Chef, walking through the jungle to collect mangoes and is almost killed by a tiger -- this is an insane thing to do, and the result is Chef's breaking point reached. The soldiers go crazy from seeing the prurient dances of the Playboy bunnies -- their sexual breaking point is reached.

And, of course, Kurtz' compound is the ultimate, physical manifestation of insanity, rolling all of the previous craziness into one big ball and one built-up character. Kurtz' is out of his mind, but that's because he embodies the spirit of the warrior. And war is insanity.

24 May 2009

Battle at Kruger

I saw this for the first time last night and was enthralled. Then I noticed it had been viewed over 40 million times, and I realized that the reason this video was so popular and well-known is because it is the absolute essence of the 3-act dramatic structure, just played out with animals in the wild instead of actors or characters on the page.

To wit: everything you need to know about structuring a narrative is in this eight minute wildlife video.

17 May 2009

56. Back to the Future

Another one from the 80's Spielberg camp, which I am warming up to as I get older. This one takes a high-concept idea -- what would it be like to go back in time and meet your parents? -- and pushes it to the limit by mixing comedy, action/adventure, science fiction and period tropes. Most highly successful/classic movies either mix several different genres together (think "Jerry Maguire") to give us something fresh and new, take a genre and embody it so thoroughly that it becomes the epitome of that genre (think "The Maltese Falcon" with film noir), or deconstruct a genre (think "The Searcher" with westerns). Zemekis is a proponent of the former stategy, to great effect.

The thing that's most remarkable about this movie is how wrong it all could have gone. If the tone wasn't just so, if it weren't so good-natured like a modern, twisted version of a Capra fable, it would have gone off the rails from the get-go. We're supposed to empathize with a whiny, skateboarding "slacker" from a barely functioning Valley family whose only friend is a corrupt, bizarre 50-something scientist and whose mother falls in love with him. It's a testament to how well the tone is controlled -- and how likeable the public finds Michael J. Fox (can't imagine Eric Stolz in the role at all) -- that the thing works at all, and that the tone changes and boundry-pushing even works.

It's also a good example of visual storytelling -- the opening tracking shot (shot in close-ups!) gives us so much: starts with a clock, gives exposition on Doc Brown, shows burnt toast from a Rube Goldberg foreshadowing the lightning and things going awry, and finally that case of plutonium.

Another visual storytelling example is the whole Doc Brown/Harold Lloyd reference. He hangs from the clock and we understand exactly what is at stake, what goes wrong and how it is fixed. And no words are used throughout the whole side of his sequence.

Sometimes less dialogue is more.

12 May 2009

House of Games

This is not on the list, but it is too fucking good to pass up writing about. Here are my notes verbatim:

-- "Do you think you're exempt from experience?" -- theme at min 3/4
-- Set-up -- her client -- "What kind of help is your promise?" -- she's not living in the "real world" -- must get out into direct experience -- a gun in 1st act...
-- min 11 -- goes to The House of Games -- underworld/intrigue
-- we're taught what a tell is -- learning [the best movies teach us something]
-- min 18 -- enters the game -- a job, a task -- he gets her into it by conning her -- tit for tat
-- stakes raised -- a big bet, lots of money
-- oh shit -- he lost the hand and now SHE'S out the money -- he conned her
-- the jig is up -- she discovers its a squirt gun -- a con -- reversal [rhythm and release: the tension is lifted]
-- 30 mins -- act 2 now -- he explains the short con and debt to her client is forgiven
-- 35 -- doubt about her position in life [typical 2nd act stuff]
-- 40 -- she goes back out to find that excitement
-- she propositions him to write about him
-- the con game explained -- short con -- shown -- 43 mins. [this is the William H. Macy scene]
-- "Don't trust nobody."
-- 52/3 -- They fuck -- midpoint
-- 57 -- setpiece -- another con
-- 60ish -- a reversal -- mark is a cop -- DEAD -- she's all in now
-- 70ish -- steals a car
-- briefcase is gone
-- she'll give it to him [the money, that is]
-- he's gone -- end of act 2
-- 1:15 -- visits old professor again -- 3rd act
-- 1:22 -- discovers Billy's been in on the con -- same car
-- 1:25 -- goes to tavern -- everyone there from previous scenes -- JT Walsh is alive
-- he cons her -- by showing her the con game!
-- she comes to find him and con him -- she fails -- he recognizes it
-- 1:35 -- she kills him
-- she's got a taste for thievery now -- steals a gold lighter like the one her old friend has.

42. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Like a lot of folks, I have a knee-jerk reaction to Steven Spielberg. When I heard about his movies, I think, "Ah, whatever. Fuck that guy. He's overrated."

I think I'm just starting to get over that.

Between watching "Jaws" for the first time and now watching this movie with fresh eyes, I can see the appeal. Or maybe I'm getting older and less pretentious and I realize that a movie can be entertaining and broadly appealing and still artful.

The main thing I like about this movie is what I like about older, classical Hollywood shows: it takes interesting, idiosyncratic characters and puts them in an economically told story. They make it look easy when it is anything but, but that's Hollywood in a nutshell from what I can tell.

The movie starts out with intrigue, mystery. Where are we? Why are we in the jungle? Who is our hero? He doesn't talk much, gets a great introduction, and already we're into the story, searching for an artifact. Throughout this 10-minute set-piece, we're also LEARNING ABOUT THE CHARACTER. This is becoming more and more important as I watch these movies: they are planting things that will later pay-off. Like what? Like the bullwhip. Like the snakes. Like Indy going to ANY lengths for an artifact. Like Belloch besting Indy again.

Notice also: there's the rhythm and release. And they escalate it so that it happens almost every few seconds. Tension is built, diffused; Indy gets away, only to find it isn't that easy. He removes the idol, takes a breath, then the walls come crumbling down. He jumps across a chasm, then slips down, then grabs a branch. We know he'll always make it in the end, but we never know if he'll make it moment to moment.

In other words, the beginning of the movie is a microcosm of what will happen in the rest of the film. It's almost like the film's thesis statement: this is what I'm going to show you, and if you're paying attention, it will all be right here for you. So relax: with Spielberg, you're in the hands of a master.

The reason he's a master is because he is constantly fucking with you as an audience member. He's playing games with you at every moment, and he knows how to do it well, and he gets great joy out of it. And so do you. Nothing wrong with that.

So: we get the great 10 minute intro, and then the reveal: he's a professor! He wears glasses! He's like Clark Kent to his previous incarnation of Superman. Great. We get a long exposition in dialogue scene, but it works because we've just had our hearts racing already with the previous stuff, so we could use a breather. Plus, he's a professor. Of course he's going to teach us something!

He gets the go-ahead, and at the end of act 1, he's off to find the Ark. And he does, but not before he reconnects with his old flame, a hard-drinking woman in Nepal; not before he almost eats a poisoned date; not before he has to confront his snake issue head-on; not before he has to fight a German strong-arm; not before he shoots a swords-man; not before he hops on a submarine; not before he gets the girl again. In short, not before he becomes -- or remains -- a hero, and all the twists and turns of the rollercoaster that entails.

You know the details and I don't have to fully recap it for you, but watching it again with my pen and paper and my copious note-taking, I was struck with how well this movie was plotted and structured, how expertly we are played. There was recently released a .pdf of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan talking about the creation of this movie, and it is a doozy. You realize how much thought, how much effort, how much work really goes into something that we think of as puffy, light and fun. But they knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it well: after all, a mere piece of "entertainment" is considered one of the best screenplays ever written, and thus is on this list.

01 May 2009

16. Pulp Fiction

Upon watching "Pulp Fiction" again, the one thing I was struck with -- beyond the dialogue, beyond the non-linear narrative, beyond the intersection of violence and comedy -- was the simplicity and clarity of the storytelling. This movie gives us a few stories, sets them up economically and well, and follows them to conclusions that seem both surprising and inevitable. Set-up and pay-off. Rhythm and release. This keeps us wondering what will happen next and makes the 2:30+ runtime seem to breeze by.


Some foreign hoods in a coffee shop discuss their crimes, and decide, somewhat spontaneously, to knock the place over. A previously mousy woman stands up and gets ultraviolent. A good start. Then?

Two hitmen. Where did they come from? What is there connection to the previous scene? Quickly we start to forget about the foreign folks, because these guys are funny, and we're curious about what they're up to. One has just gotten back from Europe. They get guns out of a trunk. Who are they going to see? They talk about anything but that. They are casual. They fuck with each other. They banter. One thing they talk about is their boss' wife, how someone gave her a foot massage and was thrown out of a window. This is a set-up, and it is exposition in dialogue, but it works because it is funny and violent and it happens so early that we forgive it.

The hitmen come into an apartment and, after more humorous dialogue and a good bit of tension-building, they kill everyone. And then they get shot at. And they kill that guy too. And now the whole movie is in our hands.

Next: after a set-up of a on-the-take boxer and our hitman trading words, our hitman takes the lady on a date after buying heroin. Again, set-up and payoff: we see that she is indeed beautiful. We want to give her a footrub ourselves. And we see that she's got a bit of a thing for coke. And, based on our previous knowledge of what can be done if you fuck with her, there's a built-in tension: be nice, do what she wants, keep it safe. And he does: he buys her food, gives her a cigarette, laughs at her jokes, accepts her invitation to dance. Then: she finds his heroin, snorts it, overdoses. If giving her a footrub results in being thrown out a window, what would allowing her to OD do? Thus, the needle in the heart.

Now: a Christopher Walken monologue. Again, it is good and funny. It's a dream from our boxer, who was supposed to take a dive. He doesn't. He kills his opponent instead. He and his girl are in a motel, ready to flee to Tennessee. They packed up everything, didn't forget anything. Except: the watch. The watch traveled so far, means so much -- he can't leave it. Set-up. So he goes back to his apartment. No body is there. How is that possible? The tension is diffused. Then: he sees the gun. A man is in the bathroom. He shoots him. It is the previously rude hitman.

He's free. He drives away singing. It can't be that easy, though -- he sees The Boss. They fight. They get knocked out in a store. They are put in the basement, stuck to endure the wrath of Zed (by the way, can anyone explain this sequence and what it means? Particularly in relation to The Gimp? It works within the story, I guess, but it mostly seems weird for the sake of weird...). It doesn't work that way. He saves The Boss. The Boss spares him in return. They're square. And he gets a motorcycle -- sorry, a chopper -- out of the whole deal. Pay-off. Like Soderbergh says: rhythm and release, always.

Finally: We're back to the hitmen again. We come full-circle to the beginning scenes. They kill the bathroom dude, then take Marvin. The other hitman believes they've witnessed a holy act. He believes he's got to change (this is why he is the hitman who isn't killed). They accidentally kill Marvin. Set-up. They have to get the car off the road. They take it to Jimmy's. There's a time frame due to Jimmy's wife getting home. Stakes. The Wolf is called. He comes. They clean. They get out of the scrap, but just. Release: they go for breakfast. The original robbers. Rhythm. They handle it, and our redeemed hitman lets them go because he is a changed man. He will live, and he will allow them the same gift. Pay-off. Release.