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Posts Tagged ‘plot’

I was sad to hear that Tony Scott has died, and even sadder to discover that he seems to have taken his own life by jumping from a bridge in Los Angeles. May he rest in peace.

He was one of my favourite directors, and in my mind a much better film maker than his brother Ridley. Recent highlights include Unstoppable and Deja Vu; there are classic thrillers like Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide; and of course it all started in 1986 with top Gun. I’ve never seen True Romance – it was the Tarantino connection that put me off, and I think it would be too violent for my taste.

Why do I like him as a director? Because he knew, like Hitchcock and David Mamet, that film is film; that the point is to take you somewhere within the film. A good plot does not need to have a profound external meaning, but it does need to keep you moving forward within the parameters of the set-up, with your heart and mind and senses fully engaged and desperate to know where it is all going.

He’s dismissed for making films that are merely entertaining, and criticised for being at heart just an ad man – as if his skill lies in creating flashy images and cutting between them quicker than anyone else. Yes, he created some of the flashiest images on screen – what wonderful cinematographers he had, together with his penchant for hyper-saturated colours. But it’s the nature of the cut that counts, not the speed. And he was a master.

He could create incredible tension, and beauty, by cutting from one shot to the next, and thus allowing the viewer’s heart and mind to travel an infinite distance that could never be conveyed with a panning shot. This is film as film. It’s Eisenstein, it’s Hitchcock. It’s all in David Mamet’s seminal book On Directing Film (which is more easily available in this collection).

He also knew that every element of plot had to fit together into a satisfying whole at the final denouement; and that we don’t care how ridiculous it is as long as it makes sense in its own terms. How few scriptwriters and directors seem to know this! The obituary in Tuesday’s Telegraph gets it completely wrong when it says he was all external sheen without a grasp of narrative.

Not everyone is into Sci-Fi, but if you want to get a taste of pure Tony Scott then get hold of the DVD of Deja Vu.

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What is the MacGuffin? You have to read to the end to find out!

In my last post I wrote about the psychology of desire and projection in the experience of cinemagoing. It’s not this particular object that matters to the person watching the film (the treasure, the secret files, the briefcase) – it’s the fact that this object becomes a symbolic representation of a deeper longing. The plot, if it’s a good one, allows us both to acknowledge that longing, and to have a sense of moving towards its fulfilment.

Searching for the hidden treasure!

Alfred Hitchcock is the master in this regard. He doesn’t just create ‘suspense’ (a very weak work); he opens up the hidden currents of longing that lie within the human soul – and attaches them to the most ordinary and sometimes absurd objects.

How? With the MacGuffin! What’s the MacGuffin? This is his answer from an interview he gave with Oriana Fallaci in 1963:

You must know that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story. For example, in a movie about espionage what the spy is looking for isn’t important, it’s how he looks for it. Yet I have to say what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter to me, but it matters a great deal to the public, and most of all it matters to the character of the movie. Why should the character go to so much trouble? Why does the government pay him to go to so much trouble? Is he looking for a bomb, a secret? This secret, this bomb, is for me the MacGuffin, a word that comes from an old Scottish story. Should I tell you the story? Is there enough tape?

Well, two men are traveling in a train, and one says to the other, “What’s that parcel on the luggage rack?” “That? It’s the MacGuffin,” says the other. “And what’s the MacGuffin?” asks the first man. “The MacGuffin is a device for catching lions in Scotland,” the other replies. “But there aren’t any lions in Scotland,” says the first man. “Then it isn’t the MacGuffin,” answers the other…

[From Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p62]

And in the formal structure of this blog-post itself, in the plot of these few hundred words, what is the MacGuffin? It’s the answer to the question “What is the MacGuffin?”

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Sally by sally_monster.When I was about ten I became obsessed with Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the whole Peanuts comic strip. I still have a library of those paperback compilation books that I haven’t had the heart to part with.

One of the recurring scenes was of Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister, standing in front of her class for a ‘show and tell’ session, when she had to bring in something interesting from her weekend or holiday and explain why it was so interesting.

I was talking to a primary school teacher last week. She told me that the fashion in schools these days is not ‘show and tell’, but to teach children to show without telling. They have to find ways of letting a story speak for itself, of letting a drama unfold, of leading listeners to a place where they can reach a conclusion or draw a moral for themselves.

It’s good that advertising executives in the film industry are learning the same lessons themselves, and realising that it is better to tease people in the trailers than to tell them everything about the forthcoming film. As Jane Graham writes:

[Until very recently] the vast majority of studio-financed trailer-makers have played it safe, their audience-tested trailers following the basic three-act rule of set-up, jeopardy and emotional- or action-based blow-out. Now, however, thanks mainly to that feral little monster, the internet, and one of its most recent and riotous offspring, the viral, there are strong signs of a creeping rebellion in trailer-making…

JJ Abrams’ Cloverfield trailer, released in July 2007, was a brilliant example of the latter. Shown in US cinemas before the blockbuster Transformers, this teaser used footage from what looked like a home movie featuring screaming, running crowds and explosions in New York. Flying in the face of the first commandment of film promo (consistently supported by market research) that the more the trailer explains and reveals, the more commercially effective it is, it was devoid of information and untitled – only a release date and the name of JJ Abrams appeared onscreen.

As David Stern suggests, the most significant impact that Rance’s “improv” virals have had on trailers has been to free them from a commitment to plot information. The best online trailers don’t go beyond “teaser” territory, needing only to intrigue, or even confuse, to set film fans off on a detective’s quest. This has allowed for some genuinely innovative and smart promo work, like the fake news report on Dr Manhattan that formed part of the alternative Watchmen universe, and the Coraline trailer in which Neil Gaiman gravely described the effects of koumpounophobia, the fear of buttons, which set the tone for his script.

It’s better to tease than to tell. And it might mean that I don’t have to close my eyes and hum during the trailers to avoid having the plots revealed.

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On Not Knowing the Plot

This has happened twice in the last few months: I’ve discovered a new author, devoured one of his or her novels, rushed to read the next one (without knowing anything about it), and then discovered a few pages in that this second novel is in fact a continuation or a re-telling of the first one. The same people I had loved; still breathing. It’s hard to describe the sense of astonishment; the sheer delight of realising that something so precious and personal – the world of the first book and all that it meant to me – was still continuing. The reason any of this was possible was because, almost on a whim, I decided not to read the back cover before I began.

Our Escape by Felipe Morin.

It has renewed my determination to shield myself from all knowledge of any plot. On my estimation this is how it works: The back cover of a novel typically gives you about 20% of the plot – it takes you just a few steps in; a book review gives you about 40% – the reviewer wants to prove that he or she has read more than the back cover; a film review gives you roughly 60% of the storyline; while a two minute trailer at the cinema will give you 80% to 90% of the forthcoming film in miniature – saving only the final twist for the two hour film itself.

For years now I have tried to avoid the trailers in a cinema. It’s difficult. If only they showed them before and not after the adverts. I close my eyes of course. And if the sonorous voice-over is too revealing I resort to humming loudly with my fingers in my ears. Don’t ask what they think of me.

Anyway. I have realised anew the thrill of not knowing the plot. The joy of turning a page and discovering what I didn’t know, of seeing a story unfold before my eyes. Isn’t this what authors want? I’ve realised that 20% is too much. And I have made another resolution: never again to read the back covers of novels.

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