Saturday, April 5, 2014

"Under The Skin" Is Pure Cinema

Call me pretentious if you like, but in this Golden Age of dialogue-driven television,”Under The Skin” gives me an intriguing reason to go to the movies.

Scarlett Johansson

Okay.  Take any of our most beloved cable television series – Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones, Mad Men, True Detective, and so on.  Now, imagine removing the dialogue track.  What you are left with is mostly just pop music and pictures of people talking.  As sophisticated as our golden age of television has become, it is still a medium in which story is delivered primarily through dialogue - in the manner of a play.

Yes, all of these TV shows have wonderful cinematography, clever sound effects, and purely visual story-beats or metaphors, but the primary storytelling engines are the words characters say and the actors' performances while saying them.

As Alfred Hitchcock said in an interview with Fran├žois Truffaut, "cinema" is more than simply "photographs of people talking." Cinema uses visual imagery, sound design, and creative juxtaposition to tell stories and to give the audience an experience that is unique among all other creative mediums.

Don't roll your eyes yet; stay with me here.  One example of a purely cinematic experience is the movie "Gravity."  If the dialogue were in say, Bulgarian, we could still experience 90% of the visceral impact of the film, as well as it's basic storyline and metaphors.  The problem with most movies today is cinematic devices are used primarily to create empty spectacle.  We get exciting amusement park rides, superhero fantasies, and supernatural intrigues, but for anything with deeper meaning, sophistication, and complexity we have to turn to TV. And, TV means dialogue.

This is why I absolutely loved "Under The Skin" ...and why many others may find it pretentious, confusing, and empty.

The movie is stripped-down almost entirely to its cinematic elements.  The visuals are as startling and impactful as those by Stanley Kubrick.  The sound design creates an eerie sense of dissociation.  The musical score induces almost unbearable levels of engagement, anticipation and dread.  It is a story that
is seen and heard rather than told. What's more, these purely cinematic elements create, for me at least, striking and profound metaphors about alienation, empathy, identity, and sexuality.

The problem is that for people who are used to having meaning and complexity delivered through dialogue, the film offers no easy explanations or exposition.  No one ever tells us why the aliens are abducting men and trapping them in a viscous black fluid.  Nothing the characters say (when they speak at all) gives us any indication of what they are thinking or feeling. No character helpfully sates the movie's "theme" in an easily quotable truism. The devices of the film are exclusively and enigmatically cinematic.

Granted, some people may just simply hate the film on it's own terms.  My heroes are David Lynch, David Cronenberg and Terence Malick - and they may not be yours.  However, I was truly blown away by this film, and I can't wait to see it a second time.  It got under my skin.  At a time when I could be perfectly happy sitting at home we re-watching episodes of "The Wire," movies like this one give me a reason to venture out to a theater.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Why YOU Should Be Watching Hannibal

Like many snobby, pretentious, lazy people, I tend to only watch premium cable (Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Mad Men, Orange is The New Black, and so on.)  I tend to avoid the networks, especially if the network show in general is a spinoff or remake. However, recently my friend, collaborator and teaching assistant, Levin, has been telling me that I need to watch Hannibal. I was dubious, but then he wrote this guest blog for Genre Hacks, and he has convinced me to give it a look. Here's his spiel...

by Levin Menekse

I'm talking about the the TV Show by the way, not the movie. Yes, the one on NBC. I know, it's weird, but the fact is Hannibal (TV show) is the best thing that happened to Hannibal Lecter since Silence of the Lambs.

Don't take my word for it, go consult your favorite TV critic. Or, actually, you know what, I'm going to go to Metacritic and share with you the NEGATIVE reviews of the show. How is that for a change?

Linda Stasi from New York post writes in her review: "Dancy is a perfect, tortured soul; Fishburne is everyman with a brain; and Mads Mikkelsen is perfectly named. What is lacking, though, is any respite from the darkness."

Or let's check out this review from RedEye's Curt Wagner: "In seriously exploring what drives people to kill, Hannibal serves up a meal too heavy to enjoy each week."

Do you see a trend? Even those who don't like the show have no problem with the show's quality, they merely think it's "too dark". Which, it is. Proudly. And not in a whishy-washy way that most criminal shows/serial killer dramas are these days. It doesn't cuddle you at the end of every episode and show you how safe you should feel because, yes, there might be predators out there but, don't worry, the CSI Team will always catch them, dear audience! Every week, over and over again. And it sure as hell doesn't sugar-coat its "bad" characters to be more friendly to the audience -- COUGH DEXTER COUGH.

I'll tell you when I realized how much I loved Hannibal... I always watch TV shows when I'm eating lunch/dinner. I have watched TV shows that many would find disturbing or grotesque -- Fringe, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Walking Dead, Oz... to list a few -- but none of them ever fazed me. I'm a curious child of the internet dear reader, and through risky clicks or just morbid fascination, I have seen things, real things, so my tolerance for any kind of violence is inhumanly high.

But I couldn't eat while I was watching Hannibal. And it wasn't the graphic violence -- which there is a whole lot of, Hannibal disturbed me on a psychological level. I didn't feel squeamish, I felt horrified -- psychologically invaded, to be precise. See, one of the great things the show does differently from the rest of the serial-killer shows on TV is that it doesn't fetishize killers. It doesn't merely point them out and brand them as an "other", some psychopath we should be afraid of. No, what Hannibal does is much more tricky. It strives to make you understand these killers. It's intimate. Instead of watching these killers from afar, we are with them. We don't merely stare at the TV, being entertained, we are gazing at a mirror that reveals us the abyss of human nature.

Now, before I continue, I shall assume you will fall under either of these two categories if you haven't seen Hannibal yet. You are either A) A person who loves good television but can't stand the serial-killer genre and, thus, haven't given Hannibal a chance or B) A person who is really into dark, crime shows but you haven't caught with Hannibal because there is simply too many shows like it out there.

Come here, dear reader, if you fall into Category A. If you are in Category B, feel free to skip ahead.

You know what I don't like? Westerns. But Deadwood was different and awesome. I don't like mob movies that much either but Sopranos was pretty, pretty good. And I feel like I'm immune to cop shows after watching so many Law and Order episodes -- I mean, seriously, what is a new thing you can say about the justice system and police work that Law and Order and it's one gazillion episodes haven't said?

But then, The Wire is the best thing since sliced bread. Yes, I realize I just pulled The Wire card. Why? Because Hannibal is to, say, Criminal Minds what The Wire is to Law and Order. The Wire used the simplistic framework of cops vs drug-dealers (in its first season) to inquire about larger things such as the bureaucracy of the government institutions and the futility of War on Drugs. Similarly, Hannibal uses the framework of serial killers to inquire about the transient nature of life and the man's desperate search for meaning.

For example, Will Graham, our protagonist, has an enormous capacity when it comes to empathy -- even with Serial Killers and that's why he's uniquely capable of catching them. After a while, we see that he's being profoundly disturbed when he shoots a killer and realizes that heenjoyed it. Will's burden is something the series takes very seriously and something that creates a lot of friction between him and his boss, Jack Crawford, played by Laurence Fishburne. But more than that, the show does something unexpected -- it contrasts his burden with the burden of Bella, Jack Crawford's Wife.

(This is going to be a spoiler, apologies, but it's not that big of a deal, trust me.)

See, Bella is suffering from terminal lung cancer and she wants to handle this burden alone. Bella is played by Gina Torres, Laurence Fisherburne's wife in real life, and their relationship, their push-pull, is portrayed with the gravity and authenticity it requires, something you won't find in any other "serial-killer" drama. Their story in the fifth episode in Season 2 is revelatory in the way that the show doesn't belittle her desire to end her own life and refuses to make her a victim. It's gripping emotional stuff and the scenes between them are usually quiet, moving, elegiac -- the stuff "serious, sophisticated" TV drama's are made of.

Similarly, Hannibal's relationship with Will Graham is a deeply complicated friendship that would rival any such relationship in, say, Mad Men. Remember Anthony Hopkins' bizarre relationship with Clarice in Silence of the Lambs? How he's weirdly protective of her and makes a guy swallow his own tongue
for insulting Clarice? How he's weirdly captivated by her, despite the fact that he's a brutal serial killer? There are shades of that relationship in Will and Hannibal's friendship and it's simply fascinating to watch them together, especially because Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen play those scenes with electric chemistry.

Similarly, the "serial-killers" of the week are rarely "simply psychotic" as they are in many other shows/movies. There is always a philosophy to their work and a bizarre sort of beauty. For example, the first killer of Season 2 was making a human mural in the shape of an eye to communicate with God. His loneliness, his desire to connect with something grander than him was played in an empathetic way, especially as Hannibal Lecter helped him become a part of his own mural.

Lastly, Hannibal does a great job of side-stepping the cliched "procedural beats". Ultimately, yes, there are some of those but Hannibal does such a great job of making those moments count, either through emphasizing the toll it takes on Will to solve such crimes or through poetic/dream-like images. A recent example came in the second episode of the second season when Hannibal figured out that the killer lives near corn fields. How did he figure it out? DNA, you say? Maybe some CSI stuff and a sexy, pulsating montage?

No, Hannibal smelled the evidence and, in his mind, got transported to the middle of corn fields... And then smiled to himself. That's it. Simple, direct, poetic.

Ultimately, why I love Hannibal is because it's one of those "I wonder how would Spike Jonze film an action movie?" or "I wonder how would Christopher Nolan do a romantic comedy?" In this case it's "How would the brains behind Pushing Daisies make a dark, fucked up but whimsical show about serial killers?" and the answer is he does it awesomely.

Now, if you fall under the category B:

Okay, you dig this kind of shit, right? Serial killers, murders, detectives chasing them, it's your jam. Maybe you need a good fix after True Detective... Maybe how the Yellow King stuff ended up being tied up didn't rock your world. Good, good, come over here.

First of all, you've seen people getting killed on TV/Movies. But not like this.

Hannibal has the following: A killer who makes people into human violins by removing their heads and then "plays" their vocal chords. Another killer "merges" people with mushroom fields, keeping them "alive" by inducing a coma. Last week's killer turned human bodies into, wait for it: Bee Hives. It's fascinating, visually brilliant stuff and I have no idea how they come up with this shit.

Let me add some more stuff onto that layer of cake: Hannibal is gloriously tense. See, we know Will is going to figure out Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer but the way the show goes around getting to that is delicious. And, more than that, it's smart. Usually when you have a brilliant detective who is best
friends with a serial killer, shows dumb the supposedly smart detective down to make it make sense. But not in Hannibal. Both characters are ingenious and writers make an awesome job of painting them into corners and getting them out without seeming contrived. This is some Walter White / Hank Schrader shit right here with all the chess moves and the counter chess moves and you're missing it!

And it's entertaining as hell once you get the hang of it. There are tons of black humor and the show becomes a pulpy thriller as well as a grandiose character study. In one episode, Hannibal Lecter invites a serial killer for dinner and the two eat as it's revealed they both know each other is a murderer. Lecter's guest drops his fork, fearing that the food might be poisoned... Hannibal dead-pans: "I didn't poison you. I wouldn't do that to the food." and what happens is...

Not gonna tell you. You might have to watch it to find out.

Seriously though, this is a miracle of a show. It shouldn't be this good, it shouldn't be able to juggle so
many tones while still being playful. Hannibal Lecter portrayed in a Network Television Series should not be able to compare to Anthony Hopkins' portrayal of the character. But it totally does. It might even surpass that legendary performance if the show gets renewed for another season. And for that to happen, the show needs viewers.

Here's the simple, short, low-down: This is a low-rated but amazing show that needs viewers. You are
a viewer that needs an amazing show. Give it a chance, watch a few episodes. And you shan't be disappointed, I assure you.

Thank you, 


Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Save The Cat" Beat Sheet: Plan Nine From Outer Space

Every year screenplays are sold for millions of dollars, and the happy screenwriters are empowered by self-fulfillment, satisfaction and acclaim. Why can’t that be you? Well, before you can sell your brilliant movie idea to Hollywood, you must first learn The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure!

What better way to learn The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure than by analyzing a classic, widely-admired script?  Here for the first time - informed by Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet in his famous screenwriting manual Save The Cat – we present an analysis of Ed Wood’s celebrated screenplay for Plan Nine From Outer Space.  Read on and see how simple it is to write a movie!

Plan Nine From Outer Space begins with a PRE-CREDIT scene in which the mysterious prognosticator Criswell addresses the audience and frames the story in the context of true events that have been officially denied.

Opening Image:  As per Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat this is a visual that represents the genre, theme and tone of the story. The opening Image should be a snapshot of the main character’s problem, before the adventure begins. In Alien, we begin with the lone Nostromo star ship in the middle of wide, empty space. In Raiders of The Lost Arc the Paramount Studios Symbol match dissolves to a real mountain.

Appropriately Plan Nine from Outer Space begins with a funeral. A line of mourners gather by an open grave. The image sets a somber, portentous and uncanny tone. The row of characters looking down in grief and confusion will be echoed in the final image of the film.

Set-up: As per Snyder's Beat Sheet, this expands on the “before” snapshot of the opening image. The film presents the Protagonist’s world as it is, and what is missing in their lives. In Raiders we are introduced to a daredevil archeologist looking for rare and wonderful artifacts. In Alien, Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo wake up after their hyper sleep to find themselves mysteriously drifting in empty space.

Plan Nine From Outer Space is an ensemble film following three separate protagonists, all of whom begin, like the old man in the opening, in a state of confusion and dread.  Here, the “ordinary world” is one in which startling, mysterious events occur, without explanation – events that the protagonists are forced to deny.

These three separate stories are interwoven throughout the film, but they all skillfully merge at the end of the 2nd Act. This three-protagonist/parallel-narrative structure was so successful it influenced later classic films such as L.A. Confidential.

The first Protagonist is pilot JEFF TRENT. His routine flight takes a strange turn,when he sees a blinding light and encounters a flying saucer. The saucer lands at the graveyard where gravediggers hear a strange noise and are attacked and killed by the resurrected corpse of a young woman, the ghastly Vampira.

The death of the gravediggers leads to the introduction of the second protagonist, LIEUTENANT HARPER and a murder investigation. Harper and his boss, inspector Daniel Clay and other police officers arrive and Clay foolishly decides conduct his search alone. After the old man rises from his own grave, the isolated Clay is attacked both the reanimated corpses. Later Harper and the other police discover Clay’s dead body and are convinced of foul play.

A third parallel narrative introduces the third protagonist, COLONEL EDWARDS, who reveals that the government has been covering up the flying saucers, and who wonders if the aliens are connected to other disasters on Earth. He reveals that one small town has already been annihilated.

Notice the artful symmetry here. We have THREE protagonists and our THREE antagonists (the three reanimated corpses) fully introduced to the audience.

Theme Stated: This is what the story is about; the truth the film will reveal. Usually, it is spoken by the protagonist, but they don’t understand the truth…not until they have some personal experience and context to support it.  In Alien, someone quips “Anybody ever tell you that you look dead?” The truth is you’re doomed and you don’t know it yet.

Sure enough, in Plan Nine From Outer Space, in each of the three parallel narratives, each our three protagonists states the theme and truth of the film,  flying saucers are real!  Each of the men are fed up with the official denials and they all DEMAND answers.

Snarls Trent, "I can't even admit I saw the thing [the saucer.]"

Says Lieutenant Harper, "Inspector Clay's dead, murdered, and somebody's responsible!" 

Says, Colonel Edwards, "They're real, but...Who are they? What do they want?"

The film will later reveal the secret alien Plan Nine to reanimate the dead, but here the characters don’t yet understand the truth. The film is ultimately about the conspiracies and cover-ups that always hide a reality to awful to bear.

Catalyst: The moment where something new intrudes upon the status quo.  In Alien, it is the distress call that prompts the computer to wake up the crew.  In Raiders, it is the government agents who contact Indiana Jones about the Arc.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, the ordinary world is interrupted by an encounter with flying saucers.  Even the general public sees the UFO's flying over Hollywood Boulevard and Washington, D.C.

Debate – Change is scary and for a moment the main characters doubt the journey they must take. In Alien, the crew members debate whether to investigate the distress signal.   In Raiders, Indy and Marion debate the Arc and her father’s medallion.

In Plan Nine from Outer Space Jeff Trent tells his wife Paula, about his flying saucer encounter, but he debates about whether to admit the truth publicly because officials have sworn him to secrecy. He is frustrated about what to do next.

Throughout the first act, we have multiple instances of the “Refusal of the Call to Adventure.” Spooked policemen flee the graveyard, characters refuse to believe their eyes, and soldiers sardonically pretend that firefights with saucers were just "training missions."  The film is ultimately about the dangers of denial.

Throughout these debates, notice the repeated and deliberate us of the word “There.” Out there. Up there. Go there. The word “There” stands for the denied truth and the mysterious, dreadful and unknown world that the protagonists have yet to fully encounter.

Also notice that in these debates that both the monsters and the saucers are referred to as “those things.” These “things” are beings and objects beyond ordinary human comprehension, and therefore have no names.

Break Into Two: Here the main character makes A CHOICE and the journey begins. We leave the “thesis” world and enter the upside-down, opposite world of Act Two, the “antithesis.” In Alien, they penetrate the alien ship and Kane is attacked by a face-hugger. In Raiders, Indy and Marion, now partners, travel to Egypt and the Well of Souls.

In Plan Nine From Outer space this decision point is vivid and dramatic. When the army encounters the Saucers, Colonel Edwards makes "the greatest decision of his career," TO FIRE. No longer passively observing the saucers and denying their existence, the Colonel takes ACTION.  

This action directly results in the implementation of “Plan Nine” and the beginning of Act Two.

As the aliens return to their space station, we have the entrance of our main antagonist, the big bad, COMANDER EROS.  He informs his ruler that he has attempted, unsuccessfully, to contact the governments of Earth. He says that to force the people of Earth to acknowledge his people's existence, he is implementing Plan 9, which involves resurrecting the recently dead by stimulating their pituitary glands. 

With the revelation and implementation of the  alien conspiracy, the lives of all three major characters will be turned upside down.

B Story: This subplot explores the THEME of the film from a new angle. Usually, this happens between the main character and the love interest. So, the B Story is usually called the “love story.” In Alien, we have the perverse relationship between Ripley and the android-rapist, Ash, along with the computer, Mother. In Raiders, we have Indy’s relationship with a treacherous monkey.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, we have Trent and Paula. In their parting scene, Paula explains that at night she finds comfort in her absent husband's pillow: "Sometimes at night, when it does get a little lonely, I reach over and touch it. " This underlines the absence of a living sexual partner for her, and her frequent loneliness in married life.

In a reflection of the main plot and main tension of the film, this sexual dysfunction and aching loneliness is DENIED by both husband and wife, and this causes dire consequences . Each time the repressed and hysterical woman is left alone she attracts vampires (symbols of voracious sexual desire) who invade her bedroom and then the back seat of a parked car.

It is no accident that the mastermind behind the monstrous, phallic “thing” is named “Eros.”

Fun and Games: As per Save The Cat, this section delivers on the premise, and the characters explore the new world. This is where the crew in Alien discovers the “face hugger” has acid for blood, or when Indiana Jones tries to beat the Nazis to the Lost Ark. 

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, we get to experience all the horror and thrills of the aliens reanimating the dead promised by the poster and premise. The corpse of the old man rises from his crypt and sneaks into Paula’s bedroom. He is joined by the corpse of his wife, Vampira, and the newly resurrected Inspector Clay. All three “things” chase Paula through the cemetery. 

Midpoint:  This is the moment where the main character either gets everything they think they want (“great”) or doesn’t get what they think they want at all (“awful”). Either way it marks a big shift in the story as the protagonists must take a new course of action.  In Raiders, everything is great, as Indy finds the Arc, but now he must get it home.  In Alien, everything is awful as the alien bursts from Kane’s chest and now the crew must kill it.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, the midpoint is marked by a message from the aliens. Eros explains that they are trying to prevent humanity from destroying the universe. As a result, Coronel Edwards risks court marshal by refusing to deny the saucers existence. Denial is now impossible, the Aliens must be confronted.

The Bad Guys Close In:  Here the main character’s “great”/“awful” situation gets even worse. In Raiders, the Nazi’s take the Arc from Indy and lock him in the pit with dreaded snakes. In Alien, the monster grows large and starts killing the crew members one by one.

In Plan Nine the aliens make plans to raise undead armies and march them against the capitals of Earth.

All is Lost: This is the moment that the main characters realize they’ve lost everything, or everything they now have has no meaning. The initial goal now looks impossible. In Alien, Ripley discovers the company conspiracy and that the crew is “expendable.” In Raiders, a plane explodes and the arc is seemingly lost forever.
In Plan Nine, the three protagonists - Trent, Harper and Edwards – all convene at Trent’s house, and the three story lines merge into one. When they are attacked by the undead "thing," they fire their guns
but the bullets NO EFFECT.  Then a mysterious ray from the saucer turns the “thing” into a pile of bones.  They realize that their weapons are of no use against their enemies and that they are dealing with powers far beyond their comprehension.

Dark Night of the Soul:  This is the main character’s lowest moment. In Alien, Ripley is told by the android, Ash, that they have no chance to survive. In Raiders, Indy must choose whether to save Marion or destroy the Arc, and he can’t do it.

In Plan Nine from Outer Space, Paula is attacked by the undead Clay and abducted by the Aliens. Trent and the other men have failed to protect what they most loved.

Break Into Three:  Thanks to a fresh idea or new inspiration, the main character chooses to try again in a new way.   From the two options and two worlds introduced in the second act, thesis and antithesis, we have the possibility of a new synthesis.  The third act begins In Alien when Ripley decides to escape on the shuttlecraft and set the ship to self-destruct.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space the third act begins when the three protagonists decide to follow the strange light and confront the alien craft directly, going towards it instead of running away or refusing to believe their eyes.

Here Plan Nine follows all the classic third act beats found in Save the Cat:
  • Gathering the team: The three men are finally working together.
  • Storm the Castle: The three men enter the Alien craft.
  • High Tower Surprise: The Aliens reveal that it is the humans who are the villains. It is the humans who are developing solarbonite, a substance that would explode "sunlight molecules" and set off a chain reaction that would destroy the entire universe.
  • Dig Down Deep: Seeing the unconscious Paula carried into the craft by the monstrous, undead “Thing,” Trent must do something, or the Aliens will kill them all, turning them into undead creatures for their army.
  • Execution of New Plan: Realizing that guns are useless, Trent attacks Eros with his bare hands and in the ensuing final battle between protagonist and antagonist, the saucers delicate equipment catches fire.
  • Victory: The humans flee the ship, and the saucer rises and explodes.
Final Image: this is the opposite of opening Image, proving, visually, that a change has occurred within the character.

In Plan Nine From Outer Space, all characters look up at the saucer in flames, finally knowing the truth. This image, all the characters standing in a row is a identical in composition to the opening image, except that while in the opening, the people looked down at the grave in confusion and grief, the characters now look up with understanding and hope.

Lastly, the narrator Criswell returns to reiterate the theme:  if we deny the truth of flying saucers, looking away in fear, we are doomed, but if we just open our eyes, look up and face the truth, we may be saved.

See how easy it is to fill in the blanks and put a story into perfect screenplay structure?  That's all there is to screenwriting!  That's all you have to do and you too can make your story every bit as good as Plan Nine From Outer Space!  Now go write your fabulous movie idea!

Disclaimer:  This April Fools Day Joke is not meant to disparage the beloved Blake Snyder or his classic book, Save The Cat.  However, please share this with anyone who thinks they know "The Powerful Secrets of Screenplay Structure," or who just take screenwriting books a little too seriously.

I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.