At The Movies – Inside Llewyn Davis

Posted on February 15th, 2014 in At the cinema | No Comments »

Inside Llewyn Davis: Oscar Isaac with that elusive cat.

I was surprised that this didn’t sneak into the Best Picture nominees. Ever since 1996’s Fargo, the Academy has tended to appreciate the Coen Brothers’ efforts, nominating True Grit in 2010, A Serious Man in 2009 and No Country for Old Men which won in 2007. I was even more surprised given the near-universal critical acclaim it received, and since I’ve enjoyed almost everything the Coens have produced, I fully expected to love this one. Having seen it, I’m no longer surprised that it wasn’t nominated and even more startled at the unstinting praise it seems to have garnered.

It starts promisingly, with Oscar Isaac brilliantly portraying Llewyn Davis as a bitter, misanthropic, parasitical, drifter, permanently couch-surfing as he struggles to scratch together a few hundred bucks here and there playing folk music. On leaving the apartment of his bewilderingly benevolent uptown friends the Gorfeins, he mistakenly lets their cat out and ends up almost adopting the poor thing. From here, he ends up at Carey Mulligan’s Greenwich Village apartment and manages to make a little bit of cash playing guitar on a novelty song written by her boyfriend played by Justin Timberlake.

So far, so good. We are offered a bracingly unlikeable hero, struggling for meaning and identity in a heartless universe – see also Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik and to some extent, even Fargo’s Jerry  Lundegaard. But this is a movie trying to find a centre, a narrative thread that will pull us through. We have various plots set in motion – Llewyn’s opportunity to return to the navy, the Gorfein’s cat, his ex-girlfriend who may have secretly raised his child in Akron, the abortion which he has to procur for Mulligan, the song he has recorded with Timberlake, but they have not yet begun to satisfyingly mesh.

And suddenly, they are all, repeat all, underline all, abandoned for an entirely self-contained thirty minute stretch in the middle of the movie, wherein Llewyn shares a car with an absurdly over-the-top John Goodman, laboriously makes his way to Chicago, gets an amazing offer from record magnate F Murray Abraham, turns it down and equally laboriously makes his way back to Chicago to rejoin the movie I thought I was watching. By now, even if the Coens had been interested in joining up the plot-threads, there isn’t time, so it’s left to a clumsy revisiting of an earlier flash-forward to try and give this narrative porridge some sense of structure. It’s worth noticing that this is the third rather episodic film I’ve seen in a row to use this device and here it’s done particularly pointlessly. The sequence we have to watch twice is hardly any more interesting or significant than those around it, and it’s far from clear when we first see it that it is a flash-forward which briefly threatens to turn the whole film into Groundhog Day when suddenly it starts happening again.

I can certainly see what other critics liked about this – Llewyn is a fascinating character, brilliantly realised by Oscar Isaac and by music supervisors T-Bone Burnett and Marcus Mumford. The supporting cast are all fine, and some (Abraham, Mulligan) are exceptional. Some of the episodes are diverting in themselves, others are just a bit “so-what”, but the whole is so wilfully disorganised and uninterested in cause-and-effect that it just starts to become tedious. If you can’t be bothered to arrange the episodes in your story to create some semblance of relevance, I’m not sure I can be bothered to watch.

We get to see Llewyn at his most vulnerable when his doctor friend reveals that he might have a child in Akron. It’s possibly the most powerful scene in the film. Later as he is driving back from Chicago, he passes the turning for Akron – but declines to take it. In a movie which generally has been well-structured and where the plot is strong, this would be a fascinating character beat. In a movie which is characterised by hopeful juxtaposition of unrelated cameos, it’s the last straw.

I return briefly to some points I made about 12 Years a Slave, while noting that Llewyn Davis is by far the lesser film. It is certainly arguable that the events depicting in the Coens’ film are much more like real-life. But it’s also worth pointing out that real life is frequently very boring. The job of an entertainer in a narrative medium is to cut out the dull bits and give the rest relevance and power by properly constructing the architecture of the story. It is also no doubt true that the point of the film is largely that Llewyn is fundamentally incapable of change, growth or development, but it nevertheless seems to me that the story of a character who cannot change can be much more powerfully told if placed in a context where familiar screen archetypes would change. Instead, Llewyn’s “fuck this” attitude seems to have infected the entire screenplay, resulting in a series of unrelated events which wouldn’t really have the power to change anybody.

I don’t know if this kind of what-the-hell plotting is intended to give the movie greater poignancy, significance, insight or profundity. I do know that simply typing up a handful of unrelated incidents and stopping on page 120 is a hell of lot easier than constructing a satisfying narrative, with set-ups and payoffs and cause-and-effect throughout. A major disappointment from one of my favourite movie-makers and I can’t for the life of me understand why everyone else seems to love it so much.

It occurs to me that I am pretty much a Coen completest, so for context, here’s a quick rundown of my take on their other movies.

Blood Simple
Powerful, brooding, brilliantly plotted and properly nasty. The low budget shows from time to time, but with a script and performances this good, who cares?

Raising Arizona
Their breakthrough, a sort of live-action cartoon, radically different from their debut, with brilliantly demented lead performances from Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter. I don’t love it the way some people do, but I like it a lot.

Miller’s Crossing
Amazingly complicated film noir with classic scene after classic scene. Just great.

Barton Fink
Just possibly my favourite – a film only the Coens could make. A satire on Hollywood capitalism and East Coast narcissism equally which suddenly turns into a ferocious grand-guinol nightmare in the final reel.

The Hudsucker Proxy
Maybe their most charming film, although a big flop at the box office, especially compared to its more than usually lavish budget. I like it a great deal, possibly because of how unpopular it is amongst Coen fans.

A masterpiece of atmosphere, characterisation, plotting and cinematography. Earns all the praise the gets lavished upon it.

The Big Lebowski
Sprawls where Fargo marches relentlessly, bloated where Fink is lean and focused, but by combining the life-and-death stakes of Fargo’s kidnapping plot, with Hudsucker’s charmingly naive characters, the Coens fashioned another classic which won them armies of new fans.

O Brother Where Art Thou?
A disappointment after the brilliant run of form they experienced up till now. The cheerful stupidity of the characters pulls in the opposite direction from the Homeric template they’ve given themselves and so the film lurches about a bit and goes past several possible endings. The lead performances however are great and the film contains many stand-out sequences.

The Man Who Wasn’t There
Powerful stuff to begin with, but the plot runs out of steam and eventually turns into the same pointless slurry as Llewyn Davis only without the songs. My least favourite of their films by quite a distance.

Intolerable Cruelty
The reviews of this were so bad, I had to stay away. It’s not a true Coen Brothers movie in any case, as Joel and Ethan were drafted in to doctor an ailing script and somehow ended up directing it.

The Ladykillers
Just horrible. If you have the urge to watch this film, just put on the 1955 Alexander Mackendrick version instead. Watch it all the way to the end. Then watch it again. Then destroy any copy of the Coens film in your possession. The only reason I like this more than The Man Who Wasn’t There is Tom Hanks as The Professor. He is electrifying throughout.

No Country for Old Men
Frustrating, because again any semblance of plotting is abandoned in the final third, but the shift in emphasis seems somewhat more purposeful here, and all the sequences are excellent, even if it feels a little bit like reels from two different, but related, movies have been accidentally spliced together.

Burn After Reading
Somewhat trivial, but bouncy and fun. Very happily passes the time.

A Serious Man
A very similar theme to Llewyn Davis but Larry Gopnik is basically a decent guy who makes good decisions, which makes the tiny calamities which unravel his life so much more meaningful. Larry Gopnik’s life doesn’t make much sense to him, but he notices this and complains about it, and seems to live in a narrative world where choices matter. Llewyn Davis lives in a narrative world where it doesn’t much matter what he or anybody else does, because no idea carries over from one scene to the next.

True Grit
A far more faithful version of the novel than the earlier version starring John Wayne, with better supporting performances and with better-staged action. After the intensely personal A Serious Man though, this felt a bit workmanlike.

Next up, Spike Jonze’s Her

Two pieces of advice to improve any script

Posted on March 16th, 2009 in screenwriting | No Comments »

So, we’re now about half-a-dozen scripts in to the Script Surgeon project and the response so far from authors whose work we’ve dissected has been very positive. Good. It’s a hard thing to hear your work taken to pieces, and while we try to be practical, positive and constructive, the fact remains that if we aren’t identifying problems, we aren’t doing these writers any good.

What’s striking is that out of the two sit-coms, one radio play, three feature screenplays and one short film screenplay, the same two pieces of advice would have been appropriate, to a greater or lesser degree in almost every case. So, to save you some cash, before you submit a script to the script surgeons, why not check your work against these two questions?

  • Does your story depict characters who suffer in pursuit of their goals?
  • Have you researched the subject matter?

The second one is easier than the first one. “Write what you know” doesn’t mean that if you happen to be a British middle-class white man, all you can write about is the lives of British middle-class white men. It means that you have to know what you’re writing about, and that can be accomplished either by having lived it, or through researching it. Research is the enemy of cliché and can in itself be inspiring and stimulating.

Want to write a story about a psychiatrist? Ring up the local NHS hospital, or do a Google search, and find one who will let you buy them lunch in exchange for asking them questions. Not only will you get the details of psychiatry right, but you will glean ideas for stories from the process. Want to write a story about rivalry between bishops? Go to the library, get on Wikipedia and find out the details of the hierarchies of the church of England.

Having absorbed all this detail, do you have to respect it all word-for-word? Of course not. If you can make your world convincing, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be accurate. You will sometimes want to pick a more dramatic, funny, provocative, or resonant version of reality to make your story work, but by absorbing yourself in the details, you stand a chance of making those choices smartly and not flagging up to the reader “I don’t know what I’m talking about”. As a non-Doctor, I find every medical line in House to be completely convincing, but I’m well aware that large swathes of it are totally inaccurate.

The other piece of advice is a little trickier, partly because it sounds like a rule and my feeling is that rules are treacherous because there will always be writers who slavishly follow any rule presented to them, regardless of whether it actually applies to their story or not; and writers who instantly break any rule presented to them, because “there are no rules, man, it’s art.” Okay, true, there are no rules, but there are certainly stories and non-stories and stories have certain identifiable features. One, as early posts have discussed, is cause-and-effect.

So… if your story is about a person (or animal or robot) then to preserve cause-and-effect, that person needs to do things. But that means that they need to do those things for a reason which the audience can understand, and then they need to be affected – those actions need consequences. And since stories are about suffering, we have our rule: characters need to suffer in pursuit of their goals.

Some screenplays feature leading characters who do nothing, but just stand and watch the story march past them. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take all sorts of actions, but have no clear motives for these actions. Some screenplays feature leading characters who take actions for clearly understandable reasons, but don’t seem to care whether they succeed in their goals or not. And so on. And none of these is likely to make for a good piece of storytelling.

Maybe you can think of counter-examples – in fact, let me know in the comments if you can, as I’d love to know what these screenplays put in place of this – but locking these three elements together: goal, action, consequences, is likely to bring your central plot much more sharply in to focus.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

False Reincorporation

Posted on March 9th, 2009 in screenwriting, storytelling | 2 Comments »

When a storyteller of any kind begins a story for an audience, it is understood between them that the story will make sense and have a point. Some stories lack cause and effect and so don’t make sense: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in. I actually put a rhino in it. And then fell off the balcony.” This is suprising but not coherent.

Some make sense but have no point: “Today I bought a vase to put flowers in, but it was the wrong colour so I took it back”. This is coherent but unsuprising – the effect is not interesting.

In each case, some element of cause and effect is missing.

When elements from earlier in the story are reincorporated, there may or may not be cause and effect.

Star Wars. The Force is SHELVED (disregarded) while Luke makes his attack on the Death Star, but then MEMORIES of Ben CAUSE Luke to turn off his aiming computer and fire the winning shot using just the Force – which proves to be successful. Cause and effect all present and correct.

However, Han Solo is also SHELVED – he has opted out of the mission – only to be REINCORPORATED when he suddenly show up in time to blast Darth Vader’s ship and allow Luke to make his final run unmolested. What caused Solo to return and at that exact moment? Well, it’s far from clear, but because it’s a reincorporation, you get a pass. The CAUSE is the storyteller. A random pilot showing up out of nowhere just isn’t satisfying.

So, the understanding between storyteller and audience contains another detail, which is an extension of the first. “I include elements in this story for a reason.” Trouble is, audience members get wise to this. When the director includes a bloody big close up of a spike during a fight scene, and for no obvious reason, the audience *knows* that the bad guy is going to get that same spike in the face pretty shortly. When James Bond gets a certain gadget from Q, you’re waiting and waiting for him to use it in the field. If he never used it, you’d be disappointed. Once he does. you relax.

There’s nothing wrong with this, but what do you do if you want to suprise an audience? Bringing in something arbitrary, especially at the end is what audiences generally call a “cop out”. If at the end of the Wizard of Oz, Glinda says “just hold a cat above your head and say ‘fiddlesticks’ three times and you’ll be home in a jiffy”, that would be nonsense. It’s the ruby slippers (silver in the book, but this is the movie) on Dorothy’s feet the whole time which have the power to get her home, BUT WE DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING.

So, how do you hide your suprises in plain sight? Plenty of ways. John Cleese has said that in writing Fawlty Towers, he and Connie Booth would bend over backwards to make the set ups as funny as possible. That way the audience would remember but not analyse.

More subtly, the Ruby Slippers have already played a role throughout the Wizard of Oz. It’s the presence of the slippers on Dorothy’s feet which antagonises the Wicked Witch in the first place, and her desire to posess them causes her to try to kill Dorothy. Because they’ve already played a part, they aren’t hanging around like an as-yet-unused Bond gadget.

Now consider the last film I happened to see: 16 Blocks. Not a masterpiece of screenwriting by any means, but solidly constructed nonetheless. The movie begins with Bruce Willis trapped on board a bus, apparently believing that the end is near, dictating his last will and testament into a dictaphone. The movie then flashes back to earlier that day and over the next hour or so, we see the events which brought him to the bus. When one of the passengers drops a dictaphone and Willis scoops it up we think “well, I know what that’s for” and we feel very pleased with ourselves. But there’s still a good 40 minutes or so to go before the end.

30 minutes later, Willis has a verbal showdown with antoganist David Morse, during which they both articulate their moral positions. Willis then turns himself in as a witness against his fellow cops and in the courthouse, an attempt is made on his life and he falls to the floor. The dictaphone falls out of his pocket and begins to play… David Morse incriminating himself.

The POINT of the dictaphone is NOT to be reincorporated on the bus, it’s to be reincorporated in the court room. But unless Willis has a reason to pick it up on the bus, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Willis has NO REASON to pick it up on the bus, he doesn’t even get to finish his last will and testament, but the structuring reassures the audience that that loose end has been tidied away and we don’t need to look out for it anymore. We’ll sure as hell remember it when it comes up again though. This is a FALSE REINCORPORATION.

Another example, from The Incredibles. In a flashback early in the film, we see Mr Incredible pestered by his biggest fan, Buddy. Later in the flashback, Buddy is reincorporated during Mr Incredible’s attempt to defeat bad-guy Bomb Voyage and his further pestering is seen as being responsible for the anti-superhero law suits which have condemned Mr Incredible to a life of tedious office-work. The audience knows why Buddy was introduced, and has seen him reincorporated. The tick him off their list of things to worry about. The other shoe has dropped.

When, later in the movie the villain Syndrome is revealed to be Buddy all grown-up and hell-bent on revenge it’s hard therefore to see it coming. The first, false, reincorporation hides the second.

Maybe you’re smarter than me and you saw both those twists coming. Fair enough, some of the audience will often be ahead of the storyteller, and that’s just a fact of life. But I believe FALSE REINCORPORATION is an excellent substitute for both Obvious Set-ups and Cheap Suprise if you want to catch at least some of the audience unawares without them feeling cheated.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling II: Character flaws are also cause-and-effect

Posted on March 2nd, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

Comparing different gurus who tackle the same subject-matter is always fascinating. Robert McKee, for example, appears to know almost nothing about reincorporation. He briefly mentions foreshadowing, but completely fails to spot that good structure is not just about timing sub-plots and breaking down long stories into smaller acts, it is also about “planting” what you need early to reincorporate it later.

Keith Johnstone, on the other hand, who sees reincorporation as the primary technique for structuring stories, is very weak when it comes to creating characters. The best he can offer is a super-objective persued by different means and to remind us that characters need to be affected by what happens to them. Unhappily, we are given no guidance as to how to combine the two. His work on status, which doesn’t appear to be about character, is much more useful.

McKee is much stronger on creating characters and on how to assemble a cast of characters which will work well together. Rambo, he tells us (or I paraphrase him, at any rate) is a less successful and less interesting character than James Bond because Rambo is entirely consistent. Rambo looks like a killer and behaves like a killer. Bond looks like a playboy and behaves like a killer. With contradiction comes fascination. 

Having designed a central character with lots of contradictory elements, you can then round out your cast by having characters likely to bring out their different qualities. When Bond is with M, he behaves like a loyal footsoldier. When Bond is with the villain, he behaves like an assassin. When Bond is with the girl, he behaves like a lothario.

So, it’s not surprising that a great many heroes who have been given exciting skills, or even superpowers, such that they can legitimately achieve what the plot demands of them are also given fatal flaws. This not only allows the possibility of failure, but also makes them more interesting.

But it’s not as simple as creating a character who – let’s say – can run very fast and then giving them a lisp. You can’t just give with one hand and take with another. Even if the lisp turns out to be a vital plot point, preserving narrative cause-and-effect (he can’t make a voice-activated gadget work at a crucial moment!?) we still don’t feel like we buy in. There is no way in which we perceive a lisp as being the cost at which his amazing running was bought. There is no cause-and-effect.

Consider on the other hand, one of literature’s first and most successful superheroes: Sherlock Holmes. Is Holmes’ lonely existence, lack of empathy and opium addiction just colour? Are these arbitrary choices to lend dimension and enticing contradiction to a bland character? No, they also *justify* his amazing powers of deduction. Only because he has devoted his life to learning botany, chemistry, mythology and heaven knows what else, can he solve the crimes he does – but this has come at a price: he has cut himself off from human contact, and now seeks solace in the chilly beauty of classic music and the impersonal intoxication of opium.

The original Superman – Kal El / Clark Kent – is an even more interesting case study. His allergy to Kryptonite is simply a plot point, like Achilles Heel. It tells us nothing whatsoever about his character. The price he pays for his awesome powers is that he can’t connect with Lois Lane. His social failures as Clark Kent does far more to make us accept his astonishing powers than any scientifully vacuous blather about yellow suns.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

Storytelling I: Cause and effect

Posted on March 1st, 2009 in storytelling | No Comments »

The fundamental quality of stories is cause and effect. A happens and so B happens. The famous quote comparing “The king died and then the queen died” to “The king died and then the queen died of a broken heart” exemplifies this perfectly.

Consider what we do NOT like about stories. We reject a story when…
– it is too episodic
– it contains too many elements
– it is confusing
– it relies on coincidence
– it “cheats” by introducing new concepts late in the day (deux ex machina)
– (more subtly) the resolution is “too easy”

These are all failures of causality.

The last one is deserving of special attention. Let’s start by looking at the beginning of the story.

Little Red Riding Hood begins with the following (trivial) cause-and-effect.

LRH’s mother asks her to take a basket of cookies to grandma -> LRH sets out on her journey.

Without this causality, the story doesn’t begin.

But there is a deeper causality too. LRH’s mother tells her “don’t stray from the path” (or “don’t stop to pick flowers on the way” or “don’t talk to strangers” or some combination, depending on which version you read). When LRH does stray/stop/talk she brings about her own brush with death, further strengthening the bonds of cause-and-effect. Without this instruction and disobeyment, the wolf feels arbitrary. With them, we understand what CAUSES the interaction with the wolf.

Hence, when a story is resolved too easily – we sometimes feel that cause-and-effect is missing. If at the end of Star Trek II, the engines are fixed in time to escape the Genesis Wave, then the audience feels they are fixed in time BECAUSE that gets the Enterprise out of danger and for no other reason. If (as actually happens) the engines are fixed at the cost of Spock’s life, then the audience knows that the Enterprise was saved BECAUSE Spock was willing to make the ultimate sacrifice.

The following film, despite some bright moments, effectively unpicks the previous films causality.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service for just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.