Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Day 82: Today's Resolution

Yesterday I talked about the popular sub-genre of comedy which is the Comedy of Disguise or Mistaken Identity. These are hi-concept films that sell themselves so easily in ‘25 words or less’, once you add an actor’s name, they’re a self-starter:

Tootsie An unemployed actor with a reputation for being difficult disguises himself as a woman to get a role in a soap opera....starring Dustin Hoffman.

Mrs Doubtfire After a bitter divorce, an actor disguises himself as a female housekeeper to spend secret time with his children held in custody by his ex....starring Robin Williams.

School Of Rock Wannabe rock star in need of cash poses as a substitute teacher at a prep school, and tries to turn his class into a rock band.....Jack Black.

Dave To avoid a potentially explosive scandal when the U.S. President goes into a coma, an affable temp agency owner with an uncanny resemblance, is put in his place.....Kevin Kline.

Working Girl When a secretary's idea is stolen by her boss, she seizes an opportunity to steal it back by pretending she has her boss's job.....Melanie Griffiths.

The Birdcage A gay cabaret owner and his drag queen companion agree to put up a false straight front so that their son can introduce them to his fiancé's right-wing moralistic parents.....starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane.

The reason that the storylines of these films lend themselves, so well and so easily, to the format of ’25 words or less’ (otherwise known as the "elevator pitch") is that in the one line we learn who the protagonist is, what his/her/their goals are and where the potential source of conflict lies. That conflict dwells, of course, in the, often outlandish, pretence that the protagonist is willing to put themselves through to achieve their end. I would suggest, that so familiar are we with this comedic sub-genre, that on hearing the pithy pitch and hearing just where the conflict lies, we know the scenes or filmic moments that we can expect see when a secretary pretends to be her boss or a salesman passes himself of as the US President; the inherent drama, tension, conflict and ensuing laughter all lie in the pretence. You didn’t really need me to tell you that.

Let me go one step further: the tension always, always, always hinges on the will-they, won’t-they get caught scenarios:

The moment when the protagonist, in their normal guise, has forgotten to remove one tell-tale trace of the alter-ego's disguise: lipstick, nail polish, something that betrays them. Usually, the character in the scene with the protagonist says something like “Michael, is that lipstick you’re wearing?”, suspecting the protagonist of some outré sexual behaviour, but the smart and quick-witted protagonist (they’re usually smart and quick-witted, which makes us like them more) comes up with a sure-fire explanation and the scene moves on.

The reverse or mirror image scene of the previous one is where the protagonist is in their full disguise (often that of a woman) and lets their guard down for a second, speaking in their normal male voice rather than the falsetto one that they’ve been employing in keeping with the character they’re purporting to be (this generally takes place in front of a support character - taxi driver, waitress, bus driver, retail assistant - who is inconsequential to the plot and can’t put the protagonist in jeopardy.

The Climactic scene is always the reveal, the moment where the duplicity and deceit are brought to a head as the protagonist is unmasked. It’s always big, very public and everyone important to the protagonist witnesses the moment. Everything that’s at stake (for everyone), that has been building up over the 90-100 minutes of the story, is turned topsy-turvy; a powerful moment, full of meaning and emotion.

Finally, there’s the Resolution scene; often in these films it’s about the alter-ego character that the protagonist has been inhabiting, now gone. Others in the protagionist’s life admit that they somewhat “miss” that person, so the writer’s of the film find a way of reprising the alter-ego character. Because we’ve invested so much of ourselves in the hero and his/her goal (generally a worthy objective) we need to be gently prised away from Dorothies and Mrs. Doubtfires, before letting them go forever.

When Michael (Dustin Hoffman) waits on the street to meet the Jessica Lange character- at the end of Tootsie - to see if he can they can salvage anything from their relationship, Julie (Lange) has a line that’s something about missing Dorothy (Michael’s alter-ego) or Dorothy’s clothes or him/her maybe helping her to choose clothes?

Throughout the film, we’ve lived the stress and anxiety of the protagonist with the protagonist because we’ve been in on the charade with them; at the same time, we’ve become attached to and fallen in love with the character that they created - Dorothy in the case of Tootsie - because that alter-ego character is the side of the protagonist that they needed to discover to move forward in life (the missing piece of their personality jigsaw) and we needed to witness them discover that. That's the idea that is always deep within the Comedy of Disguise.

Day #82 Tip: A Resolution
The Resolution is also often described as the dénouement; that final part of a play or film in which all the story threads are pulled together. In fact, another description I’ve often heard used a metaphor of this moment being akin to the tying of a bow on a gift-wrapped present, which is ironic, given that the origin of the word dénouement, is the French verb, dénouer, meaning 'to unknot'?

Musically, it’s like a coda, that “concluding passage”, often an “addition to the basic structure”. In Christopher Vogler’s 12-part narrative structure of The Writer’s Journey, he refers to it as “Stage Twelve: Return With The Elixir”.

Whether we call it the Resolution, Denouemnet, Coda or Epilogue, the moment is more-often-than-not-needed, just like a final parting, a chance to see how everyone faired or ended up. Sometimes it’s a bitter-sweet moment, other times everyone lives happily-ever-after.

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