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What Works and What Doesn't

[In progress...]

1. EPISODIC PLOTS don't work. They fail to draw the audience in emotionally, because people cannot form a sufficient understanding of character or plot. A good example is the play The Dining Room, reputedly "the story of American life over the last 70 years, as seen through several generations of family interactions -- all taking place in the same dining room." Given this description, one would probably imagine a linear story filled with interesting (if archetypical) characters in a twisting plot filled with nostalgia, humor, romance, and family conflict, as well as an under current of critical reflection on our present moral and spiritual condition. But the format of The Dining Room makes such an expectation impossible to fulfill. The scenes are shown in a random time sequence with virtually no intellectual or dramatic continuity. As a result, every scene essentially starts a new narrative. And each narrative disappears -- melding into yet another narrative -- before the viewer can begin to accept the premise of the previous narrative.

Episodic plots are not just ones that don't fit in linear order. If that were the case, a great film like Momento would be episodic. Episodic plots are those that fail to carry us along in the story, because the events depicted fail to have a convincing structure that includes a conflict (dramatic tension) that demands a resolution. Each scene in a film should move us forward, with greater interest, towards a climax. Example: Vertigo. If a film simply shows a series of incidents in the life of a famous person without developing a related series convincing and powerful moments, the film becomes episodic. Example: Winona Ryder's Little Women (1994).

2. ILLOGICAL PLOTS OR PLOT POINTS don't work. Sometimes the entire plot fails to convince. Example: The Mummy Returns. Sometimes the nagging lack of consistency in a particular plot point can ruin "dramatic" moments in films that may otherwise be entertaining. This is particularly true in action/adventure films. Example: Jurassic Park III. Aren't the Pterodactyls already loose when the story begins? Why should we feel any tension when we see that the protagonists fail to secure the lock on the pterodactyl cage? It won't make any difference to the outcome! -- and in adventure films, every action ought to make a difference.

3. UNCONVINCING CHARACTERS or RELATIONSHIPS don't work. An obvious truism, and one everyone is sensitive to, but worth mentioning. Often, people point to the "convincing" nature of an individual performance as testimony to the quality of a film or play. Equally, we generally believe "that so-and-so was not good in that part" is a worthy form of criticism. In truth, the quality of the acting is only a small part of the overall quality of any visual narrative. If the story is good and the action is convincing, we will, in fact, forgive many inadequacies in performance. What we sometimes mean, therefore, when we praise the performance of an actor is that the story itself carried us away and we were willingly convinced by the person representing the fictional character in that situation that the character (not the actor) represented something true about human life. It is this resonance of truth that we respond to and the vehicle through which we can learn from the arts.

There comes a point however, when either the performance or the dramatic elements through which the character is created (dialogue, action, expression, etc.) utterly fail to convince. Our willing suspension of disbelief is destroyed and we see the fabrication, not the character in the narrative. This is actually often due as much to miscasting as it is to bad acting: Examples: Winona Rider as a New York City taxi driver in Night on Earth; Michael Keaton as Batman; Woody Allen and Helen Hunt as love interests in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion; Kelly McGinnis as an aeronautical engineer in Top Gun; Darly Sabara as a kid (any kind of a kid) in Spy Kids.

4. CONVINCING CHARACTERS work. Again, an obvious truism. Strong characters can carry us through thin plots. Example: Star Trek TV series (original cast).

5. SPECTACLE ALONE doesn't work. Gratuitous car chases, explosions, etc. If properly handled, however, spectacle, can become one of many elements that contribute to the synergy of a film. Examples: Titanic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

6. TRIVIAL THEMES don't work. According the Aristotle, drama (specifically, tragedy) should be an imitation of an action that is of sufficient magnitude to accomplish the catharsis of emotions. Example: Melanie Griffith in Working Girl (1988) is a story about a secretary, whose idea is stolen by her boss, but who eventually makes good by finally getting recognition and a prestigious job. But however interesting the story might be, "getting recognition and a prestigious job" is not a goal that can have sufficient magnitude for a meaningful drama. Compare to the magnitude of the action "sending men to the moon and getting them back alive (Apollo 13)

7. VISUAL POETRY works. This is particularly true of B/W films. During Hollywood's most inventive and formative years, the play of light across the human face was raised to a high art form. Through lighting alone, fear, repression, indecision, enlightenment, grief, joy, desire -- virtually every type of human emotion/existential status can be suggested. A few of my favorites in this regard: The Man Who Wasn't There, The Letter, The Trial.

8. UNDERSTATEMENT works. No straining violins that announce to us this is a sensitive moment, no wails of despair that tell us this character is suffering. Just the unadorned image, the subtle gesture, the moment of profound silence, the shadow of a tear or a quaver in the voice. These forms of understatement, when grown large and intimate on the screen, pull us into the story. (See Thomas Mann's reflections of watching cinema, elsewhere in these pages). Examples: John Wayne's look of resolve at his moment of decision in The Searchers; a mother calls for her child in M -- we know the child has been murdered but we see no violence, just empty streets and hollow staircases, and...finally a child's balloon caught in the telephone wires.

9. THE ARTFUL, UNEXPECTED reversal of fortune works. A tautology, of course, from the Aristotlean perspective. A reversal is a necessary element in drama. Virtually all Hollywood films follow this formula. There is a difference, however, between the predictable (small-town sports team makes a great come back) and the ingenious (out-of-work actor becomes his own worst enemy -- Tootsie).

10. SEQUELS almost never work. This, some people apparently think, seems to be due to a recurring failure of production values, casting, funding, or some other sad mishap. In truth, sequels rarely work, particularly in dramas, for the same reason that TV series are rarely able to maintain a consistently high level of dramatic impact: the concept of a repeating a story with the same character is fundamentally flawed. I read somewhere in an excellent book (now unable to find) the reason for this: as Aristotle pointed out, a character must develop during the story and must overcome some obstacle. Once this has happened, the story is complete -- the usefulness of the character in exploring the meaning of the story has essentially been exhausted. It is therefore, of little point to merely repeat a different version of the story featuring the same character. To do that is to undercut the idea that the character (and therefore the audience) learned anything from the original series of moral trials.

NOTE: The above comment (like much else on these pages) is quite schematic. This is actually a very complex issue. As we change our narrative conventions, some of the eternal "truths" of by-gone ages may no longer apply. Here is what friend and critic Radu wrote in response:
I strongly disagree. Here are 2 counterexamples: StarTrek (mostly TNG and Voyager) and Buffy (including Angel). In both universes, the action and characters are fluid.
Action: there's a long-winded background story behind the piecemeal action in each episode; the topics explored span the gamut of human imagination, passions, emotions, fears. Let me paraphrase the opening words of Outer Limits. In classical drama there's mainly "one image (point) driven to crystal clarity". Modern series "flood our senses (with intertwining sub-stories and sub-sub-stories)"
Characters: First, they come and go; the story is not necessarily character-bound, like in classical drama. Second, they are many. Each episode can explore a bit of the personality or background history of a small set (2-3 characters), and so each of them brings up one more piece of the puzzle that makes up the specific universe. Third, characters change. Part of the appeal of successful series is to see exactly HOW specific characters change. Or to be able to predict how they're going to react in a specific situation.
... and I've only skimmed the surface :)

Although what I say about sequels applies to obvious rip-offs, such as the series of JAWS films, it does not apply to many others. The Star Trek series, for example, were excellent, for the reasons that Radu cites. On the other hand, the need to introduce "guest stars" on virtually every episode of many TV dramas, demonstrates that NEW stories with NEW characters are often needed to maintain interest. Still, there are situations where this does not hold either. Consider Seinfeld with its successful "no hugging, no learning" policy. Here, as Radu points out, some of the appeal is seeing how characters will (more or less predictably) act. Send me a note if you wish to share your thoughts on the matter.