Monday, 29 March 2010

Great Screen Moments - 'The Shawshank Redemption'

"That kid's long gone and this old man is all that's left. I got to live with that. Rehabilitated? It's just a bullshit word. So you go on and stamp your form, sonny, and stop wasting my time. Because to tell you the truth, I don't give a shit."

Written by: Frank Darabont (based on Stephen King's short story 'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption')

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Do you have habitus?

Habitus is when a person has an advantage over their peers in a particular field. Pierre Bourdieu defined it as someone who has "a feel for the game." So how do you gain that feel for the game? In the movie world, we'd call these people critics. A film reviewer has a natural habitus because they have spent their lives analysing movies. They know what makes them good, bad, amazing, shite etc.

In the screenwriting realm, a script reader also has this habitus - it's their job to say what is good and bad. Take someone like Lucy - she spends day after day reading through scripts, widening her knowledge of what makes a great story. So you'd assume that Lucy's scripts are going to be of a very high standard.

This isn't always the case, of course. Sometimes a critic or reader might be able to spot the flaws in another's script, but be completely incapable of writing anything half decent themselves.

But what is essential here is that they have habitus - that natural knowledge of what a good screenplay is; they are already in the world and have a feel for the game. And from there, they are seen as having a certain degree of cultural capital or prestige. We assume their ability to write, based on their knowledge.

On a smaller scale, if I were to say to you - "my favourite movie of all time is Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen," what would you think? Do you think my script would be better than the guy who says his favourite film is The Shawshank Redemption? Unlikely.

This is why a lot of writers in the late Victorian era established themselves as critics before turning to fiction. People like Dickens, Wilde et al. If you show you know what you're talking about, you carry with you a high level of expectation of your writing ability.

So if you're stuck for where to go in your writing career, it might be worth looking into some script reading courses. You might not want to be a script reader but by going on that course and establishing yourself in that world, you gain habitus and prestige - the expectation that what you produce will be good. And you might actually become good in the process!

Friday, 19 March 2010

The wonderment of children

A quick post today just to tell a little story:

In my repetitive mundane soul-destroying joyous, wonderful, enlightening job as a chocolate-seller, I encounter loads of children. A lot of them are rude and some of them just stare at you as though you suddenly resemble Jar Jar Binks! But some are extremely polite and others have brilliantly curious minds.

On Sunday, I was serving a customer, when a small boy of about three years wandered behind the till to join me.

"Hello....." I said, looking around for any signs of the small creature's owners. "What are you doing behind here?"

"Adventuring!" replied the little boy, staring up at me with excited eyes.

"Oh....ok." I looked around again, but still no sign of any parents. "What are you adventuring for?"


"Dragons?! Really?" The boy nodded happily. "Hmmm.....well I haven't seen any today, but if I were you I'd go take a look over there. Worth a look!"

The boy sighed contently and toddled off to the other side of the shop where his parents finally arrived.

Yeah, so kids are funny things. A boy of three adventuring for dragons! I like to think he'll grow up to become a fine writer of fantasy novels. You never know!

Monday, 15 March 2010

Characters as role models

Here's a really interesting post from Manda on whether character (specifically Disney characters) have a moral responsibility to their audience:
In most of the films that you and I grew up with, no matter how powerful women appear to be, they always need a man to rescue them. When you really analyse Disney films, they come across as inherently misogynistic. But are we reading into them too much? How much have they affected our views of the cold, hard Real World? Do we really aspire to be like these cartoon women?
It's a never-ending debate - do storytellers have any responsibility to portray a good, positive moral message?

I'm always inclined to say no - it's not the job of a writer to lie in order to make the audience feel happy. They do what they need to do to tell a good story. Similarly, a writer has no responsibility to show the world as it is - is it wrong of Tarantino to show Hitler dying the way he does in 'Inglourious Basterds'? Some poor little children might fair their GCSE History afterall:

Q How did Hitler die?
A He was shot in the face a million times by a bunch of American bastards while the cinema burnt down cos of that woman who decided to kill everyone because she's a Jew and her parents were killed in the first scene!

However, when it comes to children's stories, I find it hard come down on the side of "anything goes." Because the truth is - children are impressionable; what they see, hear, learn at age 6 influences their entire lives.

But what goes? What should / should not a child be exposed to? I'm sure there's not one among you who didn't watch a certificate 18 movie before the age of 18. I watched The Terminator when I was 7 and it scared me shitless! Does that mean my parents are bad parents? I'd say no - (a) they had no clue I was watching it and (b) I turned out ok (ain't hindsight a wonderful thing?!) But there are some people out there who would condemn a parent who let their child be exposed to such graphic violence and strong language.
Probably the one thing in these movies that does cause us to be disaffected as we grow older is the realisation that not everyone gets a fairy tale ending. But I don't think that's necessarily Disney's fault; their job is to entertain (and make a profit while doing so)- no child is going to watch a movie where the Prince and Princess go through a messy divorce and argue over who gets to keep the condo in Clearwater, Florida. Unfortunately, while most of us dream of meeting our Prince Charming (our own ideal- the Disney version is always impossibly bland), we know we're not going to get swept off our feet.
Ah fairy tales - now we're entering fun territory! There is this belief that a fairy tale has a happy ending and that it's meant for children. Would you let your child be exposed to fairy tales? You may say no, but most will say yes. Now answer this - would you let your child be exposed to the original fairy tales?

See? Not many people really know what the original fairy tales were like. But you know one thing - they're not going to be the same as the ones we know! First of all, these stories were written in a time of different moral values, class positions and gender expectations. Second, there was no censorship, as they were often told verbally until someone decided to write them down; there are many versions of the same story, varying in content.

Let's take 'Beauty and the Beast' - the Disney version sees a grumpy monster who develops a heart and falls in love with a beautiful woman. He then transforms into a handsome prince and they live happily ever after. In the old version I read, the beast was a little more.....blunt. Every night he asked the beautiful woman if she would sleep with him (we're talking sex here, not cuddles). Every night she told him no (cos he's a beast and whatnot). She soon grew to not only tolerate the beast, but also love him. One night, in the darkness, a man comes into her room and - with no idea who this man is - the woman has sex with him. Only later does she realise it is in fact the beast himself.

Hmm....would you tell your young child that story? Maybe, but you'll probably remove that sex material. What you'll be left with is the Disney version.

Now look at 'Sleeping Beauty' - after pricking her finger on the needle(?) the princess falls asleep. But along comes a handsome prince...........who proceeds to rape the unconscious princess, leaving her pregnant.

Ok........would you tell that story to your ever-so-impressionable child? I bloody doubt it! But why not?
Characters are a way to tell a story- a story that is predominantly meant to entertain. Are they a reflection of society? Not necessarily. Is there a need for females in fiction to be more aspirational? I don't think so. If we are looking for role models, we should be looking in our real lives. However, it's always nice to read about or watch a realistic character you can relate to. This is why I think a book like Pride and Prejudice is loved not only because Elizabeth lands Darcy (the super pretty powerful rich dude from Derbyshire) but also because Elizabeth herself is an awesome figure in literature. She's not the prettiest girl in school (Oh no, Bella Swan disease!) but she's clever, assertive and witty. More importantly, she makes mistakes. She feels vulnerable sometimes.
So what do you think? Should we stop looking to fiction for role models? Should we look to the outside world? What about children? What moral code should children's literature conform to? Afterall, Shrek successfully bitch-slapped the hell out of Disney and it's still popular with the youngsters. But again, the guy saves the girl. Do things need to change? Can you change them?

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

"Let me do you a favour.....

.....and take that pesky script off your hands. Wouldn't you like to see it all shiny on the tele? Wouldn't that be nice? Yes, that's right. Goooooood boy. Have a cookie."

Ok, so I exaggerate, but I saw this on this morning and just thought I'd share it with everyone:
I'm seeking a script in order to test out the Canon D5 Mk II. Any short film script considered but should likely be shot in or around London.. unless you want to drive us around yourself!
I will be revising and editing the completed footage myself. Everything is negotiable. We will share costs of production (pay for our own food etc. - I provide the camera!) You can buy me fish & chips though if you want.
This is a no payment venture but any future income can be shared. Hopefully, the thrill of making your script will be enough to start with.
If the above doesn't set the alarm bells off, let me explain why it should:

1) This person wants to "test" their camera on your script. That's the only reason they're interested. Then don't care about the story, the characters, YOU! They just want to show off their own abilities and nothing more.

2) The comment "I provide the camera" definitely seems to suggest that this person expects you to pay more than him. He seems to have forgotten that you've provided the script. He then seems to expect fish & chips, because he's "providing the camera."

3) He is also under the impression that the only thing a writer ever wants is to see their script made. Wrong! No, you're not going to get paid for a short film script, but payment is never "seeing something get made." It may be secretly, but officially, no!

It's obvious from this message that the director in question has no respect for writers or the work they do. Directors are not doing you a favour by taking the script off your hands. Neither are you doing them a favour by letting them use it. It's a mutual partnership - both equal, both important.

On another note, as a writer providing a script, you would usually have no say over where you park the damn car or what the director has for tea. This person is clearly looking for a producer who can provide a script. Failing that, they're looking for a skivvy. That's very different to a writer.

The bad news? This person will receive 10+ scripts from inexperienced writers. Some will believe his bullshit, but a few will know - just like me - exactly what he's doing. And not care. Had I seen this message a year ago, I'd have already sent a script off.

Just a little heads up for everyone out there. Know what you're doing and respect yourself! If people aren't prepared to respect the work you do, they're best left to their own little world.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Mutant Chronicles (review)

Mutant Chronicles
Written by: Philip Eisner
Directed by: Simon Hunter

2 / 5

I was hopeful for this movie because of its fine-looking cast and strong premise. However, I'd heard some dodgy reviews so to say I was sceptical is putting it lightly. The opening worried me considerably - a battle scene to grab your attention. But it was in the trenches with WW2-style weapons. I was horribly confused since I'm fairly certain we haven't had trench warfare in years, making it highly unlikely we'd be using such tactics in the 28th century!

Either way, that's a slight that I can ignore. The story, on the other hand, I cannot! It has huge potential; the prologue sets up a vast, interesting world of politics and war. But there's absolutely no need for it. This film could easily be set in the 1940s and probably would be a lot better as a result!

The characters aren't really fleshed out at all and their motives for joining a suicide mission are very thin. Thomas Jane plays our protagonist, but his story arc is completely under-developed, resulting in a leader we couldn't really care less about. It's a shame because Jane displays some fine acting throughout and could have easily given us a lot more powerful, emotional scenes had the script allowed.

The most criminal aspect of this film is definitely the use (or non-use) of Ron Perlman - a highly talented and drastically underrated actor. We've seen him a lot playing badass sub-characters (see Blade 2 or Sons of Anarchy), but here he's given a boring role as a priest. Not to say priests are boring, but this one is! Perlman does his best with his poor character (filled with painful, exposition-filled dialogue) but it's not enough to save the film.

All in all, Mutant Chronicles had vast potential to give us a smart, action-filled sci-fi film with memorable characters and strong sub-plots. But instead, we are thrown a half-cocked movie with dull action pieces, terrible special effects (not that I mind bad FX usually) and no heart. The only reason this receives two stars (as opposed to one) is that it isn't afraid to take a few chances near the end. But unfortunately, it's too little too late!

Worth a look to see how films sometimes fail their premises, but other than that, give it a miss!

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

'Avatar' - justify the lack of risks

A post a bit ago on on 'Avatar' discussed how - had the film taken more risks - it would have made for a better story. First off, yes - the story was very predictable. We've heard it all before. But if it ain't broke, don't fix it!


Here are a few of the risks suggested:

Our hero's journey is smooth sailing: Jake so badly needs his destination that there's never much ambivalence about the journey. This lack of internal conflict manifests when the Na'vi tribe rejects him: his only betrayal of them is the plain fact of his original mission, which he'd had abandoned in any case. Wasn't it obvious that he might be telling others what he'd learned about the tribe? As the first "warrior" dreamwalker, no less.

If Jake instead pursued an explicit and timely opportunity to betray his new friends, his 'going native' afterward would have been a powerful moral turning point rather than a faint point on a 'character arc.'

For me, this was the most predictable and corny aspect of the film. Had Sully had a more prominent betrayal story, it would have seemed far too much like those teen romcoms where the guy goes out with the girl for a bet, then falls in love, then she finds out etc etc. Yawn.

In Dune, off-worlder Paul Atreides is forced to kill to gain acceptance with the locals when his own kind finally forces him into the wilds. In Avatar, however, Jake only has to show up on a fancy ride. Instead of becoming a nonentity after their earlier aikido warmup, Na'vi chief-to-be Tsu-tey could have drawn a line in the moss: I represent the caution and tradition of my people, and you'll have to beat me down to change and lead us. If Jake has to defeat, even kill an ally who hates him, it tarnishes his character--but Pandora is red in tooth and claw, after all, and it is what he's fighting for.

No no no! One aspect of the Na'vi's lifestyle was that they only kill to protect life. Something as primitive as fight-for-a-place-as-the-alpha-male would have been too contradictory. However, a fight alone (not to the death) could have worked?

Jake masters the bow and horse. Why not let one of the Na'vi surprise everyone by getting to grips with some of that weird sky-people tech? And perhaps even do a little betrayal of his or her own.

Without a huge subplot (that would have made the film far too long), this wouldn't have been possible. Such a sub-story would also have been criticised as unnecessary. I recently wrote something with a betrayal in it, to which a fellow writer noted that it just happens to move things where I want them. His story was undeveloped and unwarranted.

That brings us to the disinterested corporate apparatchik in charge of the whole show. He's the real villain of the piece, who gives the natives none of the respect offered them by his soldiers and scientists, at least until his decisions' moral consequences are thrown in his face by Ripley.

Wait... wrong movie. In any case, Mr. Cameron had the right idea the first time around. Kill the slimeball--or better yet, let an alien do it.

By killing the 'man in the suit,' such mistakes would be repeated. By keeping him alive, he is able to tell others what works and what doesn't. So kill him and you have a slightly haunting possibility of a complete reocurrence of the story....but let him live and there's hope for all worlds.

Imagine a scene where a Na'vi suffers a similar injury, and Sully gets to witness as the Na'vi's companions "put him out of his misery". That would give him (and us) the opportunity for some interesting reflections on his new lifestyle.

This is one area where 'Avatar' falls down for me. Why does Sully accept his mission? Because he's a soldier and those are his orders. But deep down there's that personal reason - the chance to get his legs fixed. This seemed to be ignored and never revisited from half way through Act II onwards.

Sully could have had an internal struggle - working legs as an Avatar or working legs as a human. A good chance to revisit this theme would have been in the finale when Sully (as human) cannot reach the oxygen mask to save himself. This was pretty much the only area I thought 'Avatar' needed expanding on.

What do you think? Should 'Avatar' have taken more risks with its story?

Monday, 1 March 2010

We few, we happy few ......

So, I'm writing my Shakespeare essay at the moment. I'm a huge fan of the old chap's tragedies, but his comedies tend to pass me by - there's not much funny about them anymore. Nevertheless, I'm writing on Measure for Measure (arguing whether it is in fact a comedy at all).

The question I originally wanted to do was on Othello, but the due date for the assignment is before our actual seminar on the play so I'd be relying purely on my A Level notes. That'd be like fighting Bruce Lee just after learning how to make a fist - not advised!

Then I thought about writing on Henry V - another favourite. But the question for that seems to heavily rely on extensive knowledge of Henry himself - we are asked to contrast Shakespeare's representation of the king with the historical figure. So since all I know about Henry V is that he was a badass fighter, I thought better of it.

So now my essay is on Measure for Measure. Nevertheless, Henry V remains one of my favourite works of fiction! And it contains what is - in my humble opinion - the finest speech every written - the Saint Crispin's Day speech. If you've never come across it before, take a look at the 1989 version directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also stars in the title role:

Nice huh?

So what's your favourite speech of all time? In prose, drama, film etc? What's your favourite Shakespeare play (if you're a fan)? My top 10 are:

Henry V
Romeo & Juliet
Titus Andronicus
Julius Caesar
Anthony and Cleopatra
The Taming of the Shrew

What say you?