Friday, January 30, 2004

Ken James, who is preparing a screenplay of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, responds to my comments on expectation.


Dear Ron,


This is your "Dhalgren" scriptwriter again. Just read with pleasure your last blog about information, expectation, cities, film, and poetry. Having recently come back from McGill University in Montreal – a city whose downtown I’ve only visited once, and that fifteen years ago – I’ve just had a vivid experience of the kind of "heightened attention in a city" you’re talking about.


As a screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting (and a self-proclaimed "structure junky"), I enjoyed your remarks on mainstream film structure. I was particularly taken with this:


"In more formulaic Hollywood flicks, I sometimes think that there is a three-part structure:

·         Chaotic introduction of detail that gradually sorts into elements of plot, character, genre, etc.

·         Machinery moving the plot from point A to point B

·         A car chase or similar FX-heavy conclusion Almost all the pleasure for me occurs in the first of these three movements."


You’ll be pleased to hear that in the film industry, this three-act structure you discern is known as… "three-act structure". It’s the basic template for essentially every film out of Hollywood for the last thirty years. (I choose that time period because that’s about how long Syd Field’s book "Screenplay" has been out, which made explicit the structural rules scriptwriters had been using for decades.) In any given 120-minute film, the first 30 minutes are devoted to the set-up of the situation and characters, the middle 60 minutes focus on complications of the situation, and the last 30 minutes focus on the resolution of those complications.


An important additional element of the template is that what drives the narrative from Act One into Act Two, and from Act Two into Act Three, is a binary, either / or decision on the part of the protagonist. The Act One decision is the "complicating" decision (and in the most conservative films, it’s a morally "bad" decision, a moral error), and the Act Two decision is the "resolving" decision (conservative version: the "redemptive" decision) to undo the complications that followed from the Act One decision. Act Three plays out the consequences of the Act Two decision, for good or ill.


With my students I like to use "The Matrix" as a textbook example of 3-Act structure. (But any Keanu Reeves film will do – as well as any Tom Cruise film, or any film showcasing a Youthful Young (Male) Character’s Coming Of Age.) 30 minutes into the film, the character Morpheus presents the protagonist Neo with the choice of whether to eat "the blue pill or the red pill" – one of which will allow Neo to forget the existence of the Matrix, the other to commit to the destruction of the Matrix. At the point in the film where Morpheus presented those pills, I was the only person in the theater to burst out laughing. You couldn’t have a more obvious representation of the binary Act One decision than that! And, as inevitably as "shave-and-a-haircut" is followed by "two bits", 60 minutes later Neo decides to be honest and admit that he has been told by a reliable source that he is not the savior everyone thinks he is – which turns out to be the redemptive decision. And the last half-hour of the film – Act Three – plays out the consequences of that decision.


Probably the single most crippling aspect of three-act structure is that once the protagonist makes his or her Act Two decision, there is no more internal conflict. The tension of Act Three is purely external: will the protagonist succeed in resolving the crisis or not? That’s the reason both for the "car chase or... F-X-heavy" aspect of conclusions to mainstream films, and for the fact that they almost never dramatically work: all conflict has been displaced onto the external landscape, so there are no questions left for the audience to ask, particularly questions involving emotional identification.


I believe something similar goes on at the end of Act One, when the protagonist makes his or her first big decision. It’s at that moment that all the other aspects of the film that are in play – all that "data" coming at the viewer so stimulatingly in the first act – are decisively put into the service of character decision and action. And at that point, for me as well as you, most films become a lot less interesting. In particular, they become a lot less visual; in terms of the amount of informational weight being carried by the visual part of the film after Act One, you might as well be reading a book.


However, over the last ten years or so there has been a welcome trend in commercial film (even if it’s coded as "alternative" cinema) toward the acceptance of ambiguity and structural complication as a legitimate element of "entertainment". My guess is that the main instigator of this trend (and remember I’m talking about mainstream American film, not the avant-garde or non-US commercial films that have been doing this forever) was Quentin Tarantino’s "Pulp Fiction" – which played brilliantly with structure – as well as Tarantino’s oft-quoted accompanying critical observation: "I’ve got nothing against linear narrative. I’m just saying it isn’t the only game in town." This was a great remark, as it uses the kind of macho language Hollywood knows how to hear. And I think Hollywood did hear it. That doesn’t mean Hollywood will keep hearing it, of course – its products will always trend toward the conservative – but the field has opened up a little for now, which is a good thing.




Ken James