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Movie Narrative

Pointing the finger          


Two of the best known books on Screenwriting, Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay, as well as David Howard’s How to Build a Great Screenplay, are  tomes very interested in telling people how best to tell a story, how best to develop narrative.  Field advises us that “the next time you go to a movie, do a little exercise: Find out how long it takes you to make a decision about whether you like the film or not. A good indication is if you start thinking about getting something from the refreshment stand or find yourself shifting in your seat; if that happens, the chances are the filmmaker has lost you as a viewer.”  How best to make sure the viewer doesn’t get up for those refreshments? By what Robert McKee calls an inciting incident, “the inciting incident radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.”  Here are three examples of undeniable moments early in a film where a character’s life is radically upset:  North by Northwest, Jaws and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. In Hitchcock’s film, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) gets kidnapped while minding his own business in a hotel. In Spielberg’s, Brody is flung into a crisis of conscience as he must decide whether it is better to close the beach and protect the people, or see the death of a young woman by a shark as a one-off and leave the beach open, protecting the tourist trade. In Scorsese’ film, Alice’s husband dies early on, and Alice and her son decide to traverse the States as she pursues a singing career.

Yet these are inciting incidents of quite different kinds, and can we call any of the characters protagonists in any strict sense? The first inciting incident is based on mistaken identity, the second, impersonal, and the third indirect. In other words none of them are self-inciting, and would surely call into question Howard’s assumption that the protagonist “is someone who wants something badly.” As he goes on to say that “your other characters don’t know that they aren’t the protagonist; only the audience knows who is the main character”, we may wonder if in this sense the protagonists would assume that is their role in the film. If someone else is responsible for the pro-active elements, should the ‘hero’ be not the protagonist but the reactive character? At least if we take into account the sense offered in the Collins English Dictionary as it defines the reactive as “the inhibiting or nullifying action of one organism by another.”  In Jaws, Brody and others try and nullify the shark, in North by Northwest, Thornhill the baddies that want to kill him, and in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Alice reacts to her husband’s death and leaves town. In each instance, and in so many other examples one can think, of, we have at best reactive protagonism, with characters not so much generating a world of their own, but reacting to worlds created by others. When McKee differentiates between Jaws and Mark Rydell’s The River, he notes that the protagonist must not for too long be ignorant of the fact “that his life is out of balance.” In The River, McKee explains, the gap between the inciting incident and the main character’s reaction to it is far too great. As the film opens with “the first half of the Inciting Incident: a businessman, Joe Wade (Scott Glenn) decides to build a dam across a river, knowing he’ll flood five farms in the process”, Mel Gibson’s character remains oblivious till near the end of the film. This is a failure of narrative drive, McKee, would claim, because the inciting incident and the character’s response to it is too yawning, spanning much of the film’s running time. However, while this might be a failure in The River’s case, McKee wants to use The River as a failure chiefly because of its a priori ineptitude. A good filmmaker offers the inciting incident, and doesn’t wait for most of the film before the film’s leading character finds out about it. “The protagonist must react to the inciting incident”, McKee insists in bold, and must do so rather promptly.

However, for numerous filmmakers the inciting incident and one’s reaction to it can become a problem because it closes off the options available and reduces the film to the dictates of the storytelling. If we’re going to explore here how well Hitchcock, Spielberg and Scorsese (working as a director for hire) tell their stories, we might wonder how badly, by McKee and other screen gurus’ reckoning, Antonioni,  Bergman and Godard tells theirs. Surely by McKee’s dictates they do not know how to do their job, since they all manage to fail when it comes to protagonists reacting to the inciting incident. Indeed surely much modern cinema has been predicated on characters who do not respond to the film’s inciting moment, and there are comments by all three of these great directors that explore and explain partly why they would be inclined to do reject ready reaction.

Commenting on Rossellini, Godard says in Godard on Godard, “Nobody else can film one of Rossellini’s scenarios – one would have to ask questions which he himself never asks. His vision of the world is so exact that his way of seeing detail, formal or otherwise, is too. With him, a shot is beautiful because it is right; with most others, a shot becomes right because it is beautiful.” In Rossellini: “It is beautiful because it is.” Let us couch this in relation to McKee’s comments on The River, and not at all because we want to defend Rydell’s film – the film itself is not the issue; it is the principle behind it that matters. McKee insists it fails due to the protagonist’s late reaction to the inciting incident. A shot is beautiful when it is right for most filmmakers, Godard claims, and this sense of rightness often of course comes from the scenario. Its beauty resides in its ready appropriateness. But Rossellini’s beauty is not a narrative beauty but a documentative one, almost a beauty for its own sake that finds what it needs not from the shot within the story, but the shot almost despite the story. In a film like Voyage to Italy, the relationship doesn’t so much push the story as allow Rossellini to explore Napoli and the surrounding area: the place is as important as the relationship, and while the inciting incident might be an argument the couple have early in the film, this doesn’t mean the characters have to react to this event. Instead it seems they absorb is as the cracks in the marriage keep opening up in relation to how each character perceives Southern Italy.

In such an instance a potential affair the husband embarks on that would be of great import in a narratively driven film, becomes secondary to the spaces Rossellini documents. Godard doesn’t want to ignore story altogether. He likes the combination of documentary and spectacle. “The documentary side is a man in a particular situation. The spectacle comes when one makes this man a gangster or secret agent.” But Godard in his own work often won’t have the character reacting quickly to the inciting incident. When Michel in A Bout de souffle kills the cop at the beginning, Godard then slips into an almost ethnographic account of Parisian life as Michel hangs around the city. He sets in motion the spectacle of a cop killed, and then relaxes into the documentative.

Let us now think of McKee’s comments on The River in relation to Bergman. “The films I make are entirely for my own sake, in the same way that I think an artist paints a painting and an author writes a book for his own sake.” When Bergman adds, in Ingmar Bergman Interviews, “For me cinematography is first and foremost close-ups. People’s faces. I notice that this is what fascinates me more and more, and what I experience as unceasingly exciting.” Now if for example Rydell had said that he wanted to film the experience of people’s day to day life on the farm, then reacting too quickly and too strongly to the inciting incident would be to eschew the normal pattern of this life for the abnormal pattern of narrative development. After all, The River was one of a number of mid-eighties films (a ‘rural cycle’ including the period set Places in the Heart and Country) made at a time when Reaganomic policies were hitting the farmers’ livelihoods. Roger Ebert dubbed them: “save the farm movies”. To create too readily exceptional narrative circumstances denies the normal circumstances the films wanted to reflect: the very normal circumstances being lost to new policies. Obviously Rydell is no Bergman, and no doubt rather more pragmatic, but if Bergman in The Passion of Anna refuses to have the characters reacting to a murderer in their midst on the island in the film, it is because of his fascination with faces and the inner density of a human, rather than vulnerability to external threats. Equally Rydell in his own socio-political way may have chosen to ignore the inciting incident for the possibilities in community exploration.

“The plot of Crime and Punishment without the form which Dostoevski gave it is a mediocre plot”, Antonioni says in a Cahiers du Cinema interview published in The Architecture of Vision. That is why in his own films, perhaps, “an image is essential if each square centimeter of that image is essential.” When McKee insists “the protagonist responds to the sudden negative or positive change in the balance of life in whatever way is appropriate to character and world,” he adds, “a refusal to act, however, cannot last for very long, even in the most passive protagonists of minimal Nonplots.” Yet the way Antonioni describes it, plot and character are relatively irrelevant to his interests, and to try and fit his work into conventional notions of both is to ignore the sense by which he wants to fill the frame. Now this paradoxically may result in ostensibly an empty frame filled, with a character absent from it, or barely present within it, as we often see in Blow-Up and The Eclipse for example.  But it is partly through ‘ignoring’ character that he can attend to the frame. If a film focuses too strongly on its characters, then the frame is not a frame as it is for a painter, but a container of character and story. It moves the character and story along through a series of images that are justified by the character and the plot. In such an instance there will actually be far more empty space in the shot because anything that is not vital to the story can be ignored.

Indeed, on his blog Continuity Boy, Tim Smith talks of gaze clustering, and the manner in which most viewers direct their gaze at certain areas of the screen in the shot and ignore others. “Notice how the gaze is clustered on Puss throughout the clip without taking in much of the background. This clip also uses the continuity editing rules to ensure that viewers shift their attention seamlessly across a cut.” Smith’s cognitive analysis shows that in a film that conventionally tells a story, the viewer will conventionally follow the pertinent areas of screen space and ignore others. When Antonioni says an image is essential if each square centimeter of that image is essential, he is refusing the centrality of plot and character on the centre of the screen as if in fear that much of the screen will then be ignored. He will have created not a frame for the image, but a limiting space for the story, with bits and pieces of irrelevance in the background, there chiefly to serve verisimilitude but easily ignored. However, if we return again to a character’s refusal to react to the inciting incident, then this can also be an invitation for us to see not the image as story but the image as frame. Where McKee might see a narrative impoverishment; others may see aesthetic plenitude. One needn’t exaggerate Antonioni’s refusal of psychology to see that he certainly helped give birth to a sense of framing, which meant that every inch of the frame was heightened with meaning by virtue of the apparent absence of story.

Perhaps McKee, Field and others would say that they are talking not about filmmaking but about storytelling, and their purpose is simply to advise scriptwriters on how better to organise their material. There seems, though, to be all sorts of assumptions sitting underneath this crafts-manlike attitude, evident for example in McKee’s comments on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. He reckons aspiring script writers should study her work, since “she is the finest adapter of novels to screen in film history. She’s a Pole born in Germany who writes in English. Having reinvented her nationality”. He adds, “notice that she and director James Ivory restrict themselves to the social novelists – Jean Rhys, E. M. Forster, Henry James – knowing that the primary conflicts will be extra-personal and camera attractive. No Proust, no Joyce, no Kafka.”

This conservative aesthetic is taken as a given by McKee, yet a similar problem is addressed by Guy Scarpetta in Positif, reviewing Time Regained. Talking of the transpositional as opposed to the adaptable, he notes that many great screen film versions of Dostoyevsky, Kleist, Sophocles etc. have tries to find an homologous aspect that allows for a film version of the book: “Luchino Visconti’s long scenes, devoid of any action, but focusing on the set and the costumes, creates the film equivalent of a novel’s description”. Yet where this transposition slips up, Scarpetta notes, is when working with the novelistic art of modernity, where “everything happens as though it…had chosen to cultivate the “unfilmable” initself, in a way giving up on some of the film’s former realistic functions.” But where for McKee Jhabvala is great because she sticks to the readily filmable, does this not often result in no more than well-made literary films with no sense of aesthetic singularity, no sense of making them more than films of the book, however well-made and finely polished? When Scarpetta focuses on the unfilmable Proust, he notes that director Raul Ruiz breaks with “the false narrative coherence (that of one-on-one intrigue based on the “central conflict”) replacing it with a world of bifurcations, detours, and connections in time; by finding in the language of pictures both that feel of the palimpsest whereby signs overlap one another without actually cancelling each other, and that analogical depth which can bring out (through editing) the most remote feelings and perceptions; organizing the composition of the film around a musical model, with thematic variations, counterpoints, and distant echoes of patterns…” Where McKee settles for the adaptation, Scarpatta differentiates between the adaptation, the homological and the analogical. Where McKee is happy to wonder at the brilliance of Jhabvala’s adaptation, Scarpetta frets over the possible ways in which books can be brought to the screen. Scarpetta asks for radical possibilities within film; the script gurus are always looking for the ready tale to be told.

McKee’s approach is echoed by David Howard. In How to Build a Great Screenplay, Howard says, “the omniscient camera “knows where the story is” and goes wherever is necessary to reveal the story to the audience. In The Godfather: Part II, Star Wars, The Silence of the Lambs, and American Beauty, the camera can go wherever it needs to in order to show us crucial elements of the story.” Syd Field, meanwhile, wants to insist the story isn’t only a pragmatic option by the writer; it is cosmically inevitable. Disagreeing with Kurt Vonnegut’s idea of life being “a series of random moments”, Field says: “Birth? Life? Death? Isn’t that a beginning, middle, and end? Spring, summer, fall and winter – isn’t that a beginning, middle and end? Morning, afternoon, evening – it’s always the same, but different.” In each instance we don’t have the expression of the new, but the assumption of the old: the norms, the traditions. And lest we disagree don’t we have nature to remind us of how inevitable everything happens to be?

Obviously McKee, Field and Howard would all insist they are merely offering norms and conventions, but is that simply the case or are they also creating a certain prejudice in the budding screenwriter that will then be handed down to the viewer? If conventional storytelling is as natural as the seasons, why should we bother watching unnatural films? Occasionally the writers offer a nod towards the unconventional, but do so without much illumination. McKee intriguingly insists there are three main approaches to plot:  the Arch-plot, the mini-plot and the anti-plot. Most films offer Archplots: “the Archplot is the meat, potatoes, pasta, rice and couscous of world cinema. For the past one hundred years it has informed the vast majority of films that have found an international audience.” Where the Archplot offers resolute endings, the mini-plot usually provides open endings, while in an Anti-Plot, “the only rule is to break rules” as McKee includes anything from 8 1/2, Weekend, Bad Timing and That Obscure Object of Desire. But while one understands a film like Paris, Texas may have a mini plot, as Travis finds himself back in touch with his son and his ex, is The Red Desert not as strong an example of anti-plot as Bad Timing – though Antonioni’s film makes it into mini plot category? How can Bad Timing, which even has a detective on the case concerning the couple’s messy relationship, fall into the thoroughly non-narrative? When McKee says of Georges Polti that he “inventoried no less than three dozen different emotions from which he deduced “Thirty Six Dramatic situations, but his categories…are vague beyond use”, the same might be said for McKee’s. What use would it be for a scriptwriter to say he wanted to write an anti-plot? If he were to say I want to write a film (like Bad Timing) about a couple who should never have met, and wants to register the fatalistic element of this relationship through an editing schema that constantly acknowledges the rough with the smooth, the sexual high with the emotional lows of a couple who aren’t remotely suited to each other, then the anti-plot serves no purpose at all. The relative eschewal of story isn’t for the pursuit of anti-plot, but to register certain emotional states that more conventional plotting can’t provide.

The problem with much of the script gurus’ advice is that it falls into unexamined truisms on the one hand and dubious first principles on the other. “The source of all art is the human psyche’s primal, prelinguistic need,” McKee says, “for the resolution of stress and discord through beauty and harmony, for the use of creativity to revive a life deadened by routine, for a link to reality through our instinctive, sensory feel for the truth.” “The ending is the first thing you must know before you begin writing”, Field insists. “The goal of a storyteller”, Howard believes, “should be this kind of mesmerizing experience for the audience,” as he compares film to a seamless dream. Though they often talk about principles rather than rules, quite often one feels they settle for no more than opinion, and an opinion often yoked to an obviousness of perspective. This is evident when McKee says “pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little, If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature.”

This is so obvious that it needn’t be worth expressing, but what would be of interest is where someone tells the truth in a situation where a lie would be more appropriate, or tells a lie when the truth would seem blatantly obvious. An example of the former comes in Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, where a character announces to someone else that he has witnessed an emotional betrayal, and in the process reveals more about his own personality than of the situation. He in fact misreads the events altogether, and so the pointlessness of him telling the ‘truth’ when a white lie would have been more appropriate becomes all the more pronounced. An example of the latter can be found in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, where the driving instructor insists he wasn’t watching the leading character when it was undeniable that was exactly what he was doing. It reduces him to the state of a child: someone who thinks that simply by denying the truth it will become so. In each instance one feels the revelation of character is much more pronounced than in the example McKee gives. It is as though it isn’t the character’s core that is given in any singular sense, in McKee’s example, but almost a Platonic notion of value: Honesty with a capital H. Here, we see, is a good character. It’s as if the operative word is not character but good, with the character of less importance than the value he expresses.  It isn’t so much an opportunity for a film to reveal character, but to reveal what honest values happen to be. If we feel character is much more obviously revealed in the examples from Pauline at the Beach and Happy-Go-Lucky it lies in asking what it reveals about the singularity of character, not the general nature of values. In Pauline at the Beach the windsurfing instructor might believe he is offering some notion of absolute honesty, but we’re more inclined to think of flaws in his character that reveal not his honesty in this instance, but his sanctimoniousness, his self-righteous assumption that he has a hold on the truth when in fact he has only partially witnessed an event. In  Happy-Go-Lucky the character shows his capacity for blocking out any reality that doesn’t suit his own take on it.

It is our brief analysis of character versus values that can perhaps allow us to call into question another truism McKee offers. “Whether our instincts work through character or structure, they ultimately meet at the same place. For this reason the phrase “character-driven story” is redundant. All stories are “character-driven”. Event, design and character design cannot be expressed in depth except through the design of story.” This isn’t really true: some of Eisenstein’s films are not character driven at all, as they show the movement of history and are far more interested in the ‘people’ than ‘character’, and our own examples indicate films where character is much more evident than in the one McKee gives. In McKee’s story that moment of heroism where a character tells the truth when he could lie would reveal less his character than his heroism, and would probably come at a key point in the story. Perhaps such a character would insist he has always hated the Nazis as he gets shot down in a hail of bullets that could serve as the film’s martyred ending, or a key turning point in the film where the protagonist takes revenge on his honest and brave friend who has been killed. These would be narratively significant events, but probably not especially character revelatory. Sometimes a small event much more clearly reveals, and a series of them might lead us to think the film is character focused rather than story driven. In Arnaud Desplechin’s Ma vie sexuelle, there are numerous moments that crystallise character without especially pushing story. As the central character struggles to finish his dissertation and gets into various emotional entanglements, little details like playing the piano badly, falling down the stairs or a stray glance in someone’s direction reveal details about the characters without arriving at narrative point.

In fairness to McKee, he does say, “the relative complexity of character must be adjusted to genre”, but even McKee admits this is “common sense”. It is often however in the uncommon sense that character collides with plot logic and the latter gives way to the former. When McKee talks of anti-plot or even mini plot these are his terms for trying to elevate story over character and to incorporate character within the story. But, as we’ve proposed, this leads to comments often bordering on the trite or the irrelevant to justify such a position. What happens however when character collides with plot is that sometimes the intricacies of character ‘damage’ the trajectory of narrative. Take Travis Bickle’s decision to slay the pimps over the murder of the politician in Taxi Driver. Imagine the film from a narratively motivational point of view. Would there not be a strong incident to set off Bickle’s revenge drama? Would he perhaps be angry about how he was treated in Vietnam and want to take it out on a politician, or if he were going to save the young prostitute, would it have made sense if Bickle were a relative coming to New York to sort out the people who have taken advantage of her? Indeed we might think of two other films that share similarities with the optional stories we’re offering: the former resembles a little The Assassination of Richard Nixon, with Sean Penn determined to take his frustrations out on Nixon after his ambitions and his emotional life go awry; the latter Taxi Driver scriptwriter Paul Schrader’s own Hardcore, where George C. Scott is a religiously inclined businessman from Grand Rapids in search of his daughter who’s entered the Californian porn industry. Both are probably more strongly plotted films from the point of view of motivated behaviour, but they lack the sort of character complexity that has made Bickle an iconic figure. In The Adventures of the Screen Trade, William Goldman may say, “writing a screenplay is in many ways similar to executing a piece of carpentry. If you take some wood and nails and glue and make a bookcase, only to find when you’re done that it topples over when you try to stand it upright, you may have created something really very beautiful, but it won’t work as a bookcase.” However, while from this point of view there are many better built bookcases than Taxi Driver, the film has proven much more aesthetically significant than many a well-built script.

Obviously this notion of building a script is pertinent to all three scriptwriting manuals we’re looking at here, but it proves vital to the very title of Howard’s tome, and the book is itself a follow-up to Howard’s The Tools of Screenwriting. It is as if though all three writers are seeking an objective purpose within a quite jaundiced perspective. The very first line of Story insists: “Story is about principles, not rules”, and shortly afterwards adds, “Story is about eternal, universal forms, not formulas.” Which is all very well, but McKee also cannot help but put the very opinion that craftsmanship surely ignores into his writing. Imagine a craft manual insisting that an Escort is inept, a BMW overrated. You would want merely to know how to fix the car you do own, but here we have books that masquerade as manuals but possess the statements of the knee-jerk. “All notions of paradigms and fool proof story models for commercial success,” McKee tells us, “are nonsense.” In his preface, Howard says: “What matters to the user of a building is the way it can be utilized, its purpose and content, its accessibility and ease of use, what he hopes to gain from it. Again, the same is true for the user of a story.” Fair enough, but later in the book Howard says, “…screenwriting is the process of orchestrating the audience’s experience. It is pure manipulation. I hate being manipulated! The bristlers cry. What they mean is that they hate feeling manipulated.” Is all cinema pure manipulation, a meaningless phrase since what does it mean to be purely manipulated? Is pure manipulation not even an oxymoron, where impure manipulation would be more appropriate if one takes into account how we are often manipulated whilst watching films? The guides often give us unthinking prejudices rather than the means with which we can make something work, and what is worse is that the gurus often give the impression that they are not allowing for other options when they haven’t even yet interrogated their own assumptions.

For example, to insist that all films manipulate us is to ignore the very range of thoughts and feelings whilst watching certain scenes in the cinema. When a mainstream horror director creates a sudden moment of shock by cutting to someone staring into a window and at the same moment using a shrill soundtrack, we would surely call this manipulation rather more pronounced than when someone offers a medium long shot of a man walking towards us as we notice his gait. If John Carpenter’s Halloween would offer examples of the former and Antonioni’s Il Grido the latter, then to call both pure manipulation would suggest that our responses would be similar in the viewing experience. But where with many a horror film we laugh at the skill with which the film has played with our emotions, are we not in the Antonioni instance more intrigued by the manner in which Il Grido asks us to investigate our own. As we follow this figure through the Italian landscape as he searches for work and love, so we also muse over post-war Italy, the nature of a man trapped inside his feelings and the means in which he tries to release them, however inadequately. When Antonioni was asked a question in an interview in Architecture of Vision, the critic asking believed Easy Rider too influenced by commercials, but Antonioni believed while that was so, he also thought “that these patterns are part of their linguistic background, and so, after assimilating and reworking them, these films are sincere in expressing them. America is an odd country, which offers a lot of material”, and thinks “Sugarland Express is much more artificial.” Antonioni’s use of words like sincere and artificial helps locate us in very different emotional worlds and where the notion of all films being pure manipulation becomes pure nonsense: an empty statement that indicates there is no room in film for free thought, the very thinking Antonioni would claim his films demand when saying, “I really liked Bresson’s Les Dames du bois de Bologne. I liked his way of “dodging” the main scenes; he let you see only the consequences of the main scenes.” Surely such an approach bears little similarity with the scene near the end of Halloween where Jamie Lee Curtis is chased by Michael Myers and tries to get into the house. As she shouts for help from a child she is babysitting, so we’re caught in the mechanics of fundamental suspense as we wonder whether or not she will make it into the house before the lurking killer catches up with her. As Carol Clover notes in Men, Women and Chainsaws, there is a “tendency, in both criticism and theory, to regard the camera and spectator in a collusive relation intended to generate a sense of mastery, more or less sadistic, over the object of their common vision.” In this the highbrows of theory meet with the lowbrows of script engineering, but where the former often wanted to find a type of cinema that would counter this manipulation, the script gurus take it as a given of cinema and want to teach people how to achieve its effects.

However, surely there are great emotional differences between Il Grido and Halloween, and what sort of approach do we need which can capture that range? When Antonioni admires Bresson’s ellipses this is not so much manipulation of the scene, as its very absence. Where the presence of the scene in Halloween demands from the viewer an instantaneous emotional reaction; Bresson’s approach often creates a delayed one. When Carpenter has us fretting over whether Curtis will make it into the house before the killer reaches her, we do not create a situation in our head; we see the situation in front of our eyes. When Bresson uses off-screen space in A Man Escaped, we are left to muse over what happens to be going on in the courtyard on the basis of the sounds we hear. Even the very title gives away the ending of the film, as if in fear of utilising tactics for manipulating the audience. This isn’t the same as saying that Bresson has no interest in directing the viewer’s attention, but neither is this wish for directing our attention the same as manipulating us. It would be like saying there is no difference between someone who hides behind the sofa and shouts boo, and the person who points in a certain direction and says to us can we see something interesting over there in the distance. When film theory and script manuals overly simplify their claims, we must resist such sweeping statements as they alienate the specificity of our feelings.

The very reason why we have used comments by Antonioni, Godard and Bergman and others is to try and deny the generalised approach one often finds in script manuals to the detriment of specific thoughts and feelings cinema can provide. Syd Field says “in most cases you can express the dramatic need in a sentence or two. It is usually simple and can be stated through a line of dialogue, if you choose; or it does not have to be expressed at all. But you, as writer, must know your character’s dramatic need.” While this works very well for characters in some of the films Field mentions like Thelma and Louise, Lord of the Rings and Apollo 13, it doesn’t work quite so well for Vivre sa vie, The Red Desert, and Persona. Even if we were to throw a label of intention upon the characters in Godard, Antonioni and Bergman’s films, they would be abstract and psychological rather than tangibly goal oriented. Thelma and Louise want to get to Mexico, Frodo to carry the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it; the central character in Apollo 13 to survive a mission in space, But concerning the more obscure feelings of the characters in  Vivre sa vie, The Red Desert, and Persona: what do these people want?”

In a short article in the Guardian, Mark Ravenhill reckons, “Story could only have come out of America, birthplace of Fordism. By assembling cars on a production line, a cheap, reliable product was made available to millions of consumers. A few decades later, the same principles were applied to McDonald’s. Individuality was sacrificed, but in exchange the customer got a cheap meal and a brand that was recognisable and reliable anywhere in the world. It was only a matter of time before the same principles were applied to Hollywood films.” This is a world in which you can have any emotion as long as it can be readily manipulated, any response as long as it is instant. Now this isn’t to say the manuals are quite as simple-minded or as simplistic as Ravenhill might feel, and in the three we have addressed here great and adventurous filmmakers are mentioned. Both Field and McKee mention Godard, Bergman and Antonioni, yet the books’ purpose lie elsewhere. It isn’t so much about exploring the possibilities in the filmic world, but breaking them down into consumable pieces that not so much work as work on an audience. It all seems too close to the boo from behind the couch rather than the finger pointing us in a general direction.

In a chapter on Antonioni in The Material Ghost, Gilberto Perez calls it ‘The Point of View of a Stranger’, and says: “Time in Antonioni is a time of the moment, a time that dwells on the space of the moment, not the dramatic time that in most films subordinates the moment to the overriding arrow of plot. Time in Antonioni is not a time of the what next but a time of the what now, not a linear time but a lingering time…” The biggest problem with the script guru books is that they show a part of the world as the whole. It isn’t only about the boo from behind the couch, but also an exercise in finger wagging rather than the Perezian finger pointing.  The latter can open the world up to multiple possibilities rather than closing them down by a series of truisms that pass themselves more vaingloriously as principles. Perhaps we need to turn the Perezian finger in another direction and tell the gurus where to go.


©Tony McKibbin