Monday, November 2, 2009

Structureless Films

The writer I suggested do a beat sheet countered that a couple of fave movies, Lost in Translation and Sideways, didn't have stories so what's the big deal?

She HAD to love a couple of movies that I abhor for their lack of story and in the case of Lost in Translation, a film I also find racist, or at least a movie that yet again elevates the problems of white people in another culture, while turning the members of that culture into extras in their own country.

First, the lack of story in both Lost in Translation and Sideways is fashionable. My concern is with trying to learn screenwriting from those scripts. Lost In Translation cheats the audience out of the most important moment in the story, such as it is: what exactly did Bill Murray whisper to Scarlett Johansen? But seriously, who cares? Here's a movie that shows Japanese people as either ranting idiots--the Japanese commercial director--or prostitutes--the prostitute. Are there any other Japanese characters these self-absorbed white people ever meet, interact with, care about or know in their time in Tokyo? This is a movie where nothing happens, not even a romance between the leads, (as yucky as that probably would have been), and they don't even get out of the damn hotel long enough to discover anything about one of the most amazing cities in the world.

Sideways has great performances going for it and four really terrific characters, (that is good writing), but I don't think it has anything to teach about structure, especially given the completely unearned payoff at the end the Paul Giamatti character receives.

So if you love those films, you are NOT responding to strong structure. Indeed, Lost in Translation is a classic episodic plot. The episodes could be reordered in almost any fashion without any damage. Aristotle claimed audiences of drama didn't cotton on to episodic plots and I agree.

I guess the best I could say about both films, is that they are exceptions to screenwriting being fundamentally about structure. They may have many pleasures, like mood, dialogue, character, but structure is not their strong suit. So if the writer I attempted to counsel prefers those films to ones with a strong story, I understand. But it's not where I come from and from what I can tell, what most successful screenplays generally contain at their core, viz. a strong structure.

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