Horrid Results of Unexplored Consequences

In Screenplay, Syd Field remarked that a typical newbie screenwriter comes to his class with an idea for a screenplay.  Then, Field tries to hash out the idea with the student to turn it into a screenplay.

A lot of these guys have a tragic ending in mind where everyone dies.

Stop!  Isn’t that how it normally happens in real life?  Circumstances pile against people, who proceed anyway.  Circumstances get worse.  They propel forward.  Then, everything blows up and tragedy strikes, and many people never recover from it.

The precise reason why so many memoirs paint the opposite picture is that the opposite is rare, and inspiring.

Let’s face it, in real life, people sometimes die, lose the farm, go bankrupt, or spend the rest of their lives in unfulfilling careers.  That’s the order of things.

So, it’s only natural for a beginning screenwriter, drawing on real life, to want to end a movie tragically.  Because when circumstances such as what we see in movies pile up the way they do in Act II of most movies, tragedy is the near-inevitable result.  That’s what the newbie screenwriter sees, and art (after all) imitates life.

And didn’t Shakespeare write a lot of tragedies?

But, Field always cautions his young screenwriters against tragic endings.  Hollywood doesn’t like the endings where the underdog guy loses the girl to the alpha male she liked better anyway, the main character’s tragic flaw leads to his death, and the star-crossed lovers kill themselves.

Exceptions exist.  Movies like Se7en are rare, though.

Overall, Hollywood loves its happy endings.  Even when the unhappy ending makes a lot more sense, they still find a way to make it happy.

Russel Crowe died at the end of Gladiator.  He was fatally wounded prior to the final combat scene, so that’s pretty much the only possible result.  All he could hope to do was take the treacherous emperor with him (which he does).  But the sadness of his death is minimized by showing him in heaven with his wife.

I’m a theist, and a Christian apologist.  Followers of my other blog know that.  So I’m not theologically convinced that happened (given the fact that, as a Roman, Crowe’s character denied the True God of the universe), but I believe that it could be the outcome of his death.  I’m not debating that.

What I’m saying is that scenes like that make an unhappy ending more palatable.  Rather than explore the pain and suffering his passing causes the characters in the film, the audience gets to see that he’s happy now, and so we (the audience) should leave the theater with a smile.

And fluffy bunnies hop in the sunlit meadow, over grass too green to be real.  Colorful flowers dot the landscape, perfuming the area with their subtle but pleasing aroma.

No, Hollywood, it doesn’t always work out in the end.

But they would like you to think so, to the point that Cracked.com wrote about how major disasters are sometimes overlooked in movies as minor plot points, when they are absolutely anything but.

The episode I saw of Criminal Minds was an example of horrid, unseen consequences left out to make you think that everything worked out in the end.

Three girls — all best friends — were kidnapped and placed in a dungeon with no food.  They lasted five days, so I’m assuming that the perpetrator gave them water.  Anyway, he told them that two of them would live, and one of them would die.  The twist was that they had to choose among themselves the one that would die.

And choose they did.

Then, the perpetrator dropped two hammers into the cell.  The girls had to do the deed.  While the two who had decided to kill the third debated their ability to actually go through with this new twist, the fated girl picked up a hammer and killed one of the other girls — the one that had marked her for death.

She admitted to the police everything that happened, and absolved her surviving friend of having anything to do with the death.

And then, the final scenes depict the FBI agents arresting the perpetrator, who was on a personal crusade against the girls’ families.  Apparently, they all wronged him in the past and he said that he knew those girls were no different than their parents and would show their true colors.  He knew they’d back stab a best friend if it meant surviving.

Chilling.  He’ll probably be tried for kidnapping, false imprisonment, depraved indifference, and facilitating a murder.  It’s doubtful he’ll see sunshine anytime soon.

But what about the girl who killed her friend?

It wasn’t self-defense.  She was in no danger.  She killed her friend before her friend killed her.  Her friend wasn’t armed at the time.  In fact, her two friends were contemplating not killing the other girl.

Hollywood won’t explore this one for one reason: it’s murder, plain and simple, and that girl should go to jail for at least 15 to 30 years — if not life in prison.  Since police procedurals strive to get both the police side of things right, and the legal side of things right, they would be doing truth a disservice if they let the girl off scot-free.  That would never happen in real life.

Though the prosecutor would most likely plead her down to voluntary manslaughter, she absolutely cannot get out of this without seeing the inside of a prison cell for around a decade.

The episode talked about her full-ride scholarship and bright future several times.  Yeah.  That’s all in the toilet right now.

The only legal defense to murder is self-defense, and to argue that you have to be in imminent danger and the force of the weapons must be equal.  If your victim is unarmed, debating whether to pick up a hammer and kill you, that is not going to cut it.

Another example of Hollywood focusing on the little bunnies and obscuring the horrendous consequences.

Importance of Visuals in Film

When writing a novel, the writers can emphasize character traits by internal dialogue.  But in film, that option doesn’t exist.  Traits that define a character must be established visually.  The visuals should help the audience feel what the character feels, the same way well-chosen words in a novel help the reader experience emotions right with the character.

In an emotionally charged episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent (“Magnificat”), Doreen Whitlock is trapped in a post-partum depression of her husband’s design.  The only way out (in her mind) is to kill herself and all of her children.  She fails, leaving her and her oldest alive after a car bomb.

The key to understanding her motive is to feel the same pain that she felt.  Namely, we need to see her isolation and desperation.  How did the audience see this?

The teaser sequence was deliberately constructed to show the audience Doreen’s increasingly claustrophobic life.  In nearly every shot, despite the fact that other people are nearby, the camera stays tight on Doreen.  Whenever she interacts with someone, the shot is wide while the other person speaks or acts, but for Doreen’s actions or reactions the camera zooms in tight on her face.  Whenever Doreen does or says anything, other people are deliberately excluded from the shot.

At one point, she stares into space for a long time.  Then, when the shot switches to her POV, we see a perfectly-kept yard save for an upturned chair.  Doreen’s attention seems to focus on that chair, and she becomes obviously emotional.  The effect is compounded because her son has just handed her a clearly sub-par homework assignment.  A previous scene established that her husband is a no-nonsense perfectionist, so we can deduce that he won’t appreciate either the chair or the failed schoolwork.

In another shot, Doreen walks with a vacant stare into the cul-de-sac in which her house is situated.  We are first shown a long, empty street.  Then, the camera circles Doreen and shows us that every other house on the block is empty.  A screen door, weather-beaten from disuse, clatters against a nearby house.  The background noise from her kids is nearly inaudible, and the only other evident sound is the wind and distant birds.

This teaser is a great example of how film can show us visually what novels explain with emotive words.  In the two scenes I outlined, we are shown that Doreen is under the thumb of an oppressive perfectionist and she feels isolated and lonely.  In the overall sequence, the purpose of excluding others from shots with Doreen is to emphasize the isolation, emotion, and desperation she feels.

If filmmakers explain everything in dialogue, the show gets cheesy quickly.  I think a good rule for film is “Never tell the audience what you can show them.”  Could Dick Wolf and company have told us, through dialogue, that Doreen Whitlock was isolated, lonely, and desperately seeking a way out?  Maybe.  But I doubt it would have been as effective as the close-ups excluding other characters and the empty street visual.  These helped us feel Doreen’s loneliness in a way dialogue never could.