Friday, September 30, 2005
“EVERYBODY WANTS TO GO TO HEAVEN, BUT NOBODY WANTS TO DIE.”
—Blues song lyric
A few years ago, when I was working on a spec screenplay that involved gangs, I visited a school with a lot of gang activity and asked the kids about how gangs worked. One of the things that I found out was that in order to join a gang you had to be “jumped” in. What that means is that you let the other gang members beat the crap out of you for a proscribed amount of time, anywhere from two to five minutes. After that, you are a member of the gang.
This sounded so barbaric to me. I didn’t understand why anyone would allow himself or herself to be abused in this way.
A couple of years after that, I was writing a comic book that had an Australian Aborigine as one of the main characters. While doing research, I read about one tribe that would knock one or two teeth out of adolescents as part of their initiation into adulthood.
I thought back on years earlier when a good friend of mine was rushing a fraternity. I could have never let myself be humiliated the way he allowed himself to be.
I began to see a pattern—groups of men or boys all have some kind of harsh initiation into their fold. It doesn’t seem to be anything that has to be taught; it appears to be inherent behavior.
Later, I was talking with an African shaman who lived in my neighborhood and he began to talk about the manhood ceremony in his village. He talked about tribal peoples all over the world having similar ceremonies that involved what he called “ritual pain.” Sometimes it is ritual scarification or tattooing. Sometimes it is a solo hunt for a ferocious beast. Other times it is to survive alone in the forest. In some cultures it involves a circumcision. Blood or the possibility of bloodletting is almost always part of the ritual. Like the street gangs say, “blood in, blood out.” Meaning that you must undergo the pain to get into, or get out of, a gang.
In all cases, the purpose of this ritual seems to be about tearing the individual down and then transforming them from boyhood to manhood. At the end of the ritual they are considered full-fledged members of the group with the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of an adult of said group.
I asked the shaman about women, and he thought that women don’t usually have these kinds of ceremonies because they have a natural bloodletting that signifies their transformation from girls to women. Plus, they often have blood and/or pain when they lose their virginity. And we all know that there is pain in childbirth, and that does certainly change a woman. There is female circumcision, but it is imposed by men on women; therefore, it is not included here.
I started to think of this idea in story terms. The second act is a kind of ritual pain that changes your character. Usually your character has what has been called a fatal flaw. There is something they need to learn before they can be transformed into a better, more mature, person.
What is it that Elliot’s brother says to him in E.T.? “Why don’t you grow up and think how other people feel?”
We are all resistant to change. There is an old blues song that contains the lyric, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
There is more than likely something about yourself that you would like to change or that you should change but it is too difficult. I don’t know why the world works this way, but the things we should do are always the most difficult. So we rarely run toward change. This is true of your characters as well.
In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear won’t believe that he is a toy and not a space ranger. Also in Toy Story, Woody has to learn to share the affection of his owner with Buzz. When you see the film again, you’ll see that this transformation is not an easy one for them, but they are better “people” when they do change.
In Toy Story 2, Woody is in danger of being discarded and meets Jesse, a clone, who tells him what his fate might be. It is painful for both of them, but they both realize that they have value.
Understanding story allowed Pixar to make one of the few sequels that measures up to the original. John Lasseter and the people at Pixar understand story as well as anyone. Study these films.
Look at Jaws again. Take a man afraid of the water, subject him to the ritual pain of doing battle with a shark, and that pain transforms him. Cures him.
Thursday, September 22, 2005
I once saw a TV guide, or something, that claimed to list the top shows of the millennium. Since TV wasn't around until 1948 that left around 950 years of programming that could not qualify simply because there was no way to broadcast it. I thought this was unfair, favoring shows in the 20th century, so did a little research and decided to add my historical shows to the list.
This list is not chronological.
SHOW: INQUEST P.O.P.E._STATION: THE TRINITY NETWORK_This hour cop drama dealt with the trials of the boys in The Spanish Inquisition. Storylines had the characters cracking down on heretics who worked on the Sabbath or were of the Jewish faith and other such heinous crimes against God. Critics praised the show for it's gritty look achieved by the revolutionary technique of using hand-held candles.
SHOW: POCKET FULL OF POSIES _STATION: BLACK DEATH NETWORK _This popular game show took people stricken with the plaque and put them before contestants who would then wager on which would die first. Winners could receive valuable prizes such as a stale loaf of bread, rancid wine or a year's worth of bloodlettings.
SHOW: MASON AND DIXION _STATION: THE UNION NETWORK_Despite its being unpopular this show about brother fighting brother ran for four years and employed a large cast. This cutting edge show dealt with such hot topics as miscegenation and whether "The Negro" had the intelligence to vote.
SHOW: THE WITCH HUNTERS _STATION: COLONIAL NETWORK _This nighttime teen soap was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer of its day. The drama starred three teenaged girls who had the power to spot people who worshiped Satan. The accused would be set afire, drowned or weighted down with stones until dead. The genius of the show was that no one was safe. The suspense of who would be next to die kept the audience, and cast, on their toes.
SHOW: MANIFEST DESTINY _STATION: THE NEW WORLD NETWORK_A popular adventure series about the genocide of the indigenous people of the Americas. Young boys tuned in each week to see their hero, Chris Columbus, cut of the noses of those thieving San Salvadorians. Or to see Ponce de Leon run a red man through with his sword for not knowing the location of the mythical Fountain of Youth. Because the show was so popular with younger viewers the network received many letters from angry parents regarding the violence - they wanted more. The network honored the request and received such high ratings that the show ran for 500 years.
SHOW: THREE HUNDRED'S A CROWD _STATION: TRIANGLE TRADE NETWORK _A very popular sitcom about the hilarious goings on board an American slave ship. The show's plotlines usually hinged on misunderstandings, since the slaves chained together didn't speak the same language. This long running show lasted over two hundred years!
SHOW: THE NEWCOMMERS _STATION: THE LIBERTY NETWORK_This comedy pokes fun at immigrants who came to America seeking a better life, but who have a strange way of talking and dressing. But the real comedic irony comes when those who were immigrants just a few years before behave as if they've been in America all long and treat the newcomers like they don't belong. Amazingly, this show is still running today.
SHOW: THE CRUSADERS _STATION: THE HOLY CITY NETWORK_This hour long army show took full advantage of exotic locations as the shows plot revolved around the taking back of the holy land from those infidels the Turks. Despite many cast changes, this program ran for generations.
SHOW: CAMP MANZANAR _STATION:: THE CONSTITUTION NETWORK _A wacky sitcom about a group of Japanese-Americans who had their rights, property and dignity taken away by the government. This show was largely ignored by Americans and is all but forgotten now but, at the time, had its devoted fans who fought to keep it going.
SHOW: LI'L JIMMY CROW_STATION: THE CONFEDERATE NETWORK _The show followed the humorous misadventures of a cute little black boy who didn't quite understand his place in the world and so tried to do all the same things other children did, like using a public restroom, looking a white person in the eye or be treated like a human being. Although not as popular in the North, this show lasted well into the 20th century. It had a way of making some people feel better about themselves.
Don't worry if you've never seen these shows, if I know my history, most of them will be in reruns in one form or another.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
The following is a story by Aesop.
“BUNDLE OF STICKS”
Once there was a farmer with many sons whose sons were always bickering and fighting with each other. One day the farmer called his sons together. He had with him a bundle of sticks tied together.
He commanded each son to take the bundle and break it in half. In turn they tried and failed. The farmer then untied the bundle, handed each son a single stick and told them to break them now. Which they did so with ease.
“You see, my sons,” said the farmer, “if you are of one mind, and unite to assist each other, you will be unaffected by all the attacks of your enemies; but if you are divided among yourselves, you will be broken as easily as these sticks."
Armature (Moral): In unity there is strength.
Aesop lived nearly 3,000 years ago and his stories are still told. Not only are they told they thrive. They are part of our everyday lives. Everyone knows what we mean when we say someone is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or if we say someone has sour grapes. Or if we say of someone that he/she is crying wolf. All of these sayings are from Aesop’s stories.
Why have stories told so long ago stuck around? It is because they had something to say about living as a human being in society, and people haven’t changed much since 600 BC. And believe me, as long as there are people, we will have the same problems we have always had.
Aesop’s armatures are often called morals, but whatever you call them, it all boils down to the fact that he had a point. Not only that, but he dramatized his point. The farmer in the “Bundle of Sticks” story demonstrates his point to his sons rather than just telling them. This also demonstrates Aesop’s point to the reader.
Just as with a joke, these short-form stories have no excess elements. Remember that this is true of any well-crafted story, regardless of length.
I included this story to dramatize the ideas of dramatization and armature.
Thursday, September 08, 2005
The success of There’s Something About Mary was a film that sent Hollywood rushing to produce toilet-humor comedies. But the Farelly Brothers had made other “shock-comedies,” why did this one become a mega-hit that almost everyone seemed to love? I thought the film was so good I saw it three times in the theater. If you knew me, you’d know that I like few films. And I certainly don’t like sophomoric humor. So again, why this film? It had an armature.
I don’t believe that audiences care much about the genre of a story; they just want to be moved in some way. And they respond over and over again to stories with an armature. In Something About Mary, Ben Stiller’s character is dishonest to Mary and to himself. He is a stalker, and until he realizes it, he is not worthy of Mary’s love.
A film like James Cameron’s Terminator would seem, on its surface, to have a flimsy armature, but it really has something meaningful to say. If you recall, Sarah Conner was an ordinary 20th-century woman with a stressful low-wage job at a burger joint. In the first act of the film, Sarah is having a particularly bad day at work when her coworker says to her, “Look at it this way, in a hundred years, who will care?”
As it turns out, Sarah’s life is about to be turned upside down. A robot from the future has been sent back in time to kill her, to prevent her from giving birth to her son, who is a threat to Skynet (the computer that rules the future earth). She is, according to the film, one of the most important people ever born. So, this mundane life that she lives does, indeed, matter. In a hundred years, everyone will care who Sarah Connor was.
In the Wizard of Oz the armature is stated: “There’s no place like home.” But it might more accurately be said: “You may already have what you are looking for.” How do we know that this is so? Is it because it is said? No, it’s because it is dramatized.
Remember that your armature is the foundation that holds up your story. Everything hangs on top of it. Every decision you make should be based on the idea of dramatizing your armature idea.
Friday, September 02, 2005
The Iron Giant is an amazing animated film directed by Brad Bird. On its surface, this film is like E.T. in many ways. It is about a boy who befriends a being from outer space (in this case, a giant robot). And, as in E.T., the government is seeking the alien. So what’s different about it, you might ask. It’s the armature. As a matter of fact I heard very few people compare the two films. They each had something different to say, so the similar stuff on the surface didn’t matter much.
In the story of The Iron Giant, the robot is damaged when it gets to earth. Later, after befriending the boy, the kindly robot remembers that it is programmed to be a weapon of mass destruction. In fact, it nearly vaporizes the boy by accident. Now, the robot has an internal conflict. Will it give in to its programming (its nature) or rise above it? From what I understand, when Mr. Bird pitched the story, he said, “What if a gun had a conscience and didn’t want to be a gun anymore?” That was his armature. In the film it is stated this way: “You are who you choose to be.”