Saturday, May 29, 2010

Day 51: Let me read your mind

A magic trick. Please, humour me and play along with this and do it quickly, don’t stop to think about it:

Think of a number between one and ten. Multiply that number by nine. Whatever the number you have now, add the two digits together. You now have a single figure. Subtract five from that figure and you’re left with another single number. Think of the corresponding letter to that number in the alphabet (A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4 etc). Now you’ve got a letter, think of a country beginning with that letter. Think of the second letter of that country. Think of an animal that begins with that letter. Think of the colour of that animal. Have you got a grey, elephant in Denmark?

If you ended up with an echidna or an emu or something from the Dominican Republic, well I’m sorry, but the majority of you reading this WILL have that grey, elephant in Denmark. Don’t believe me? Then try it on a few friends next time you’re at the dinner table.

I’m a sucker for magic tricks. What I love about them is the fact that the climax of the trick, the “reveal” I think it’s called (if you’ve seen the film The Prestige) is already set up very early on in the piece, in the “prestige, and everything that follows, which serves to obfuscate, is just showmanship and razzle-dazzle. Once the sleight of hand has been carried out early on in the trick, the work is done and the stunning finale, inevitable. That’s what they do in the The Prestige's story to pull off the big trick at the end.

Most screenplays are like that. Once you, the writer, know your ending, your Climax, your “pay off” to top all “pay offs”, then you can work backwards through your script to set it up

A film spoiler is coming here to demonstrate this idea.

At the end of The Da Vinci Code (and whatever you think of the film or book, that novel was a phenomenon and a page-turning yarn that captured plenty of imaginations) - when we finally end up in Roslyn Chapel in Scotland - the climactic moment of the film comes when we learn (as our two protagonists do) that the Audrey Tatou character is the last survivor of the bloodline of Jesus Christ (and Mary Magdalene); you've got to say that it’s a pretty great story moment. When writer Dan Brown came up with that ending, he knew that he had his story’s climax and could then begin work on the rest to make that play.....he couldn’t have constructed it the other way around. There’s no way he gets Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu all the way through the story from Paris to London to Scotland and then thinks to himself “gee, you know what, she’s the Grail”.

That climax may come as a surprise, even a shock, to us (I didn’t see it coming), but in hindsight we can see that it was inevitable and that Dan Brown had been palming off the evidence, working the “prestige” right from the get-go. In fact, the heavy lifting, the hard work of this story that gives him his “reveal”, happens a long, long time before we get to Scotland. It even happens way before Westminster Abbey, way before the Louvre and Paris and way before what’s on screen; well, some of it’s on screen, in the film's flashback of Sophie’s story as a child in the final Act. The hard work actually happens before that flashback and it happens before the backstory that Dan Brown would have created for her character before he started his first draft. My money says that Dan Brown’s sleight of hand was done the moment he came up with his premise, the moment that he thought the “what if” question, to himself: “what if Christ had a descendant who’s alive today?”

That’s when Dan Brown’s work was done, same as my work/my “prestige” was done when I asked you to think of a number between one and ten; everything after that was progressive complication leading to my “reveal”.

Day #51 Tip: Do the heavy lifting early on to creates the Climax
Thelma & Louise could only have ended one way, and that was the way that it ended. Same goes for Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid.

Thelma & Louise boasts one of the most endearing and memorable endings to a movie; tough job making us cheer for heroes/heroines in such situations, but t'was the story path we were led down from which there would be no turning back. From the outset of that story, did not those two women, and the writer (Callie Khouri) make a deal with us (the audience) to show how those two women (originally it was cast as Cher and Michelle Pfeiffer), could break free of the yolk of men that had them pinned down in their lives of repetitious entrapment?

Remember the penultimate moment of that film? Thelma and Louise, sitting in the car. In front of them, the canyon, behind a line of state police cars and Harvey Keitel(through his loud hailer), encouraging them to turn back and give themselves up. When Thelma or Louise(I can never remember which was which) suggests “let’s go for it” and the other agrees, sad as it is, those two heroines have completed the pact that they made with us at the beginning of the film. They could never have gone back. If they had, they’d have let every woman down who was watching that film. So they drive and the frame freezes or dissolves or something whereby we don’t see them plummet to their inevitable and tragic deaths.

No one ever mentions the word “suicide” when they talk about Thelma & Louise. But in the cold, harsh light of day, that’s what they did. Because we didn’t see their ‘end’, those two live on, in the hard-won triumph of an ironic MOVIE ending: negative that they are gone, but ultimately positive in that they are "free".

Same deal with Butch and "the Kid”; they never went looking for a fight but they never ran from one either. When they were finally holed up and cornered in that room in Bolivia and we see the hundreds of guards outside readying rifle after rifle after rifle, we know that our heroes are cruelly outnumbered. Butch and Sundance know that too, but never let on (that’s part of why we love them). We cut back to the two of them, loading a couple of hand guns each, still wisecracking, pretending that they can fight their way out of this one. The final shot is of Butch and Sundance bursting out of that door, pistols blazing (not wriggling on the floor riddled with bullets and blood). The screen freeze-frames to the sound of a volley of rifle-fire, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, still their irrepressible selves; not dead, but living forever, as only their kind can, on the screen, indelible in our hearts and minds.

William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid says this about his ending: “I can’t do any better than that.”

It’d be a miracle if any of us ever could.

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