BIG LITTLE LIES

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Big Little Lies (2017 - ) | Created by David E. Kelley

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

EDITING TEMPO

BIG LITTLE LIES crosscuts three stories over seven-episodes, then pulls them together at Climax. But instead of limiting itself to the points of view of its three protagonists, the screenplay moves from place to place, person to person, telling the story from an omniscient, God-angle view—as did the third-person novel it adapted.

Free to take the telling where they like, the editing team cuts from the struggles of the protagonists, to the schemings of various antagonists, to snide comments from sideline characters, to inserts of California clichés. In fact, the editors toss in more images of crashing waves than you’d see in a surfing contest.

This brisk editing tempo serves two purposes:

(1) It counterpoints the subtexts of emotional paralysis and anxiety that haunt the three principals. Without these cutaways, the mini-series could have become as static and mood-ridden as a minimalist art film.

(2) These inter-scene montages also serve as a delaying tactic to heighten tension. The splicings busy our eyes while the crosscutting keeps the storytelling in the air, both devices forestalling answers to the ultimate questions: “Who going to die in this story? Who will do the killing?” As the ancient writer’s adage goes: “Make’em laugh, make’em cry, make’em wait.”

DRAMATIC IRONY TO HOOK SUSPENSE

Beginning in 2007, the closed-season series DAMAGES pioneered a radical technique: Each episode’s teaser flashed forward to a glimpse of that season’s violent climax. As the weeks went by, teaser after teaser gave us snippets of the future, but never enough to know what happened in full. We had to wait to the final episode to experience the grand climax.

Along the way, however, we watched the series through the lens of dramatic irony. Because of the teasers, we knew more than the characters knew; we knew they were heading for disaster. The effect of putting the audience ahead of the characters was twofold: One, it created suspense of a unique quality. Two, the audience’s curiosity looked deeper into the inner workings of the characters, asking, “How and why did these characters do what I already know they did?”

BIG LITTLE LIES uses the same essential technique but with a comic touch. Between turning points, the telling flash-forwards to a Don Rickles chorus of fast-talking insult artists who ridicule protagonists and antagonists alike. They play no direct roles in the core dramas but instead get laughs as they mock this cast of pretentious elites. Like the foretastes of the future in DAMAGES, these gossipers put the audience ahead of the main characters but keep the outcome to themselves.

SETTING AS SIMILE

The setting is the costume a story wears. Ideally, the writer would like to wrap her telling in a time and place that heightens the meaning and emotion of its events. The setting’s imagery then acts as a subliminal metaphor for the story’s positive versus negative charges, for good versus evil, comedy and tragedy. With that ambition, the final location of BIG LITTLE LIES is perfection.

The climax takes place at a fund-raising costume party with an Elvis Presley/Audrey Hepburn theme. Elvis’s leather jackets versus Hepburn’s pearl necklaces express the series’ polar conflict of male v. female, aggressor v. victim, but in a way that is at once romantic and dangerous, serious and humorous, over the top and below the belt.

I was hooked, held, and paid off. I’ll miss these fascinating characters and the superb actors who played them.

VIKINGS

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Series Review:

Vikings (2013-) | Written by Michael Hirst

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

ESCAPING THE HISTORICAL ACCURACY TRAP:

When we look back on the what-was, events often cloud over with shapeless confluences of intersecting cultural and physical forces, undercut by coincidence and contradiction. That’s why people argue about what happened last month, let alone last century. That’s also why striving for historical accuracy cripples storytelling. Trying to recreate past events as history says they happened often traps storylines in cul-de-sacs of confusion. Instead of granular factuality, the wise writer strives for historical expressiveness. In short, he captures the spirit of the times.

The three grand treatments of the past: News outlets monitor current events; historians interpret previous events; storytellers imagine living events. Chroniclers record factual deeds; historians sift social, political, environmental, and economic forces; authors express the human consequences.

Lazy writers carry around ready-made stories, hoping to transplant them in interesting historical settings. In such, the past simply becomes a background for a portable tale that could have been told in any time or place.

Hard-working writers explore the story potential in a span of history by first eliminating an overwhelming surplus of events, then selecting a cast of characters to stand in for that era’s vast population, and, most importantly, merging their factual knowledge of what actually happened with creative imaginings of what could have happened, dramatizing the hidden desires that drove their taken-from-life characters.

In other words, they let history reveal its stories, rather than imposing theirs on history. Discoveries found in books come to life in the imagination. As a result, when all-too-familiar genres, such as Love and Crime, arise naturally out of an unfamiliar world, they fascinate us with never-seen-before rituals, rules, and relationships. History, reinvented and well-told, makes the old new again.

THE VIKING HISTORY:

To create VIKINGS, Hirst called on three primary sources:

(1) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: In 891, King Alfred the Great (849—899) ordered all annals from all towns be collected, copied, and kept in one grand book. The resulting Anglo-Saxon Chronicle lists virtually every significant English event from 450 AD to 1066 AD.

(2) The History of Denmark: A hundred years after Alfred, the Danish scholar Saxo Grammatius gathered all oral sources he could find to compile a Danish history.

(3) The Icelandic Sagas: A century or two after Saxo, the last Icelandic storytellers, men and women who memorized and recited family narratives, transcribed their spoken histories to paper.

In these sources, and much secondary research as well, Hirst found six key events: (1) Ragnar Lothbrok married three times and fathered numerous children. (2) He led victorious Viking raids on England and France, but (3) suffered a major defeat at Paris. (4) In 865, a storm blew his ship aground on the English coast. (5) King Aella of Northumberland captured him and put him to death. (6) Months later, an army led by Ragnar’s sons conquered northern England and executed Aella.

HIRST’S STORYTELLING:

Every piece of history offers raw material for virtually every kind of story, so when Michael Hirst was drawn to the Viking era and Ragnar Lothbrok, he faced two major questions: How to structure a multi-season television series around just six events? And, most importantly, what genres do these facts suggest? He chose two primary lines that could sustain story arcs over decades of his characters’ lives and seasons of audience fascination:

Domestic Drama:

Vendettas inside families can last a lifetime. They churn through three intrinsic values: Envy/Empathy, Loyalty/Betrayal, Unity/Break-Up. To dramatize these values, Hirst redesigned the family that history gave him.

Legends claim that Ragnar had three wives, but for storytelling power, two is a much better number. Two wives can loathe each other to the death, but put a third spouse in the mix and drama turns to farce. So Hirst eliminated a wife and then created Lagertha and Aslaug as multi-dimensional women, mutually contradictory in their natures, living in perpetual hatred.

There’s no record of Ragnar’s siblings, so Hirst looked into Viking lore, found Rolo (a warrior who lived decades in the future), and him made Ragnar’s brother. Hirst’s Rolo, driven by envy of Ragnar, betrays him and ultimately defeats him in the second battle for Paris.

Ragnar’s Quest:

History dealt Hirst a weak hand: How can a man’s haphazard life unify four seasons of storytelling? What Spine of Action would motivate Ragnar to pursue what Object of Desire for over two decades (49 episodes) and end on a meaningfully powerful climax? Motivational questions require deep-seated insight into the inner realms of human beings, and history offers the writer no such answers.

Hirst’s raw material: When Ragnar’s sons carve the blood-eagle on King Aella, they take a Hamlet-like revenge, but only use episodes 44-47 to do it. What’s more, this last movement begins with the coincidental shipwreck that dropped Ragnar into Aella’s hands in the first place. His sons right a wrong, but if their revenge means no more than that, this uptick wouldn’t have the necessary weight to pay off four seasons.

Hirst’s solution: The author decided that revenge would be only a means to an end. To unify Ragnar’s story, he rewrote history by eliminating random chance and linking all pivotal events to the choices and actions of his protagonist and no one else. In short, Hirst gave Ragnar a quest.

Ragnar’s vision of Odin (1:1) triggers the Inciting Incident that launches his quest. Ragnar embraces the god’s call to greatness and goes in pursuit of conquests and renown. But then his struggle for fame takes a negative turn (2:2) when the Seer makes the prophecy that his sons will win far greater glory than him.

Ragnar’s defeat at Paris (4:10) costs him his last chance at greatness, and so with life at rock bottom, where does he go from there? Defying history, Hirst has Ragnar redefine his quest. He could still win immense glory, not for himself, but for his sons. To do so, Ragnar conceives a long con that will not only make the seer’s prophecy come true, but climax on his sacrificial suicide—the spectacular death of a tragic hero.

Ragnar bribes some has-been warriors to row him to England. Once there, he kills these men, and then surrenders to Ecbert, King of Wessex. Even though Ecbert locks him in a cage, Ragnar manipulates Wessex into turning him over to Northumberland. Ragnar knows that Aella, his ancient enemy, will inflict a suffering so degrading and hideous that his death will motivate his sons to take conquer England, take revenge on both Aella and Ecbert, and with win their glorified place in history.

Indeed, history granted fame to Bjorn, Hvitserk, Ubbe, Sigurd, and Ivar, but now, thanks to Michael Hirst, the scale has tipped and the future will know them as the five sons of Ragnar Lothbrok.

FOOTNOTE:

Hirst creates and executes this series without benefit of a writer’s room. VIKINGS is the outpouring of just one artist’s research, imagination, and storytelling gifts.

GET OUT (2017)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Get Out (2017) | Written and Directed by Jordan Peele

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

EXCELLENT EXECUTION OF GENRE:

Horror, when it’s really good, arouses the belly-knotting, irrational fear of things that do not in fact exist. This primal genre comes in three sub-genres: 

1. The Uncanny. In these stories, the antagonists possess fantastic and yet scientifically explainable powers. The alien in ALIEN, for example, forces its spore down the throat of a human being, so the embryo can incubate in the victim’s stomach before hatching and chewing its way out. Parasite wasps here on earth do exactly the same thing when they lay their eggs inside caterpillars.  
 
2. The Supernatural. These antagonists have extra-earthly powers beyond the logic of science. Freddy Krueger in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, for instance, is a demonic, murderous ghost who crosses from the after-world to the real world by moving through the dreams of his victims while they sleep.

3. The Super-Uncanny. The third sub-genre keeps the audience in the dark: From where does the horror come? The supernatural or the uncanny? Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of the Stephen King classic, THE SHINNING, raises the level of terror by suspending us in wonder: Who is he? Is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) a psychopath bent on hellish savagery or a haunted man driven to violence by hellish demons?  

In all three subgenres, monsters thrive on the twisted pleasure of inflicting terrible pain, and then enjoying and prolonging the suffering of their victims. In short, they possess the spirit of evil.

GET OUT gives the Uncanny a 21st century twist by ingeniously dramatizing the unholy merger of science and evil.

SUPERB CRAFTING OF THE MERCY SCENE:

Horror, like all action genres, builds to the moment when the protagonist is weaponless, defenseless, back to the wall, at the mercy of the overpowering monster—aka, the Mercy Scene. If this story is going to have a positive ending, the protagonist, from a state of utter helplessness, must rise to the occasion by either outsmarting the monster by discovering and exploiting a weakness in it, or overpowering the villain by mastering his power. What’s more, the protagonist must come out on top without resorting to coincidence or rescue. This, needless to say, is where most action films fail.

GET OUT’s protagonist does both. He outwits the trap set for him, then unleashes a burst of brutal revenge that would make a monster cower. The writer/director Jordan Peele achieves this with a mastery of storytelling. If you’ve seen it, see it again. If you haven’t, see it twice so you can study the art of set-ups and pay-offs. Every turning point, every detail, every look does one or the other. Not a gesture is wasted.

WONDERFUL USE OF THE GOOD LAUGH:

Horror audiences laugh as a safety valve for extreme fear. This can’t be avoided, so the question is: “Do they laugh when they want or when the screenwriter wants?” The Good Laugh in Horror puts the writer in control. I have never seen the Good Laugh better handled than GET OUT’s hysterical gags.

THE SALESMAN (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

The Salesman (2016) | Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

MERGED GENRES:

Definition: A story’s genres merge when each genre supplies the other’s motivation.

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s genre of choice is Domestic Drama. The positive/negative charge of the core value in family stories veers between Unity and Disunity and back again, raising the question: Will this family stay together or split apart? Farhadi’s films—ABOUT ELLY (2009), A SEPARATION (2011), THE PAST (2013)—all feature fragile families conflicted on two levels: inwardly into themselves and outwardly into their cultures.

His most recent work, THE SALESMAN (2016), merges its Domestic Drama with a second genre, the Crime Story. In this case, rape. As the film begins, a stranger enters the protagonist’s apartment and violates his wife. The neighbors, however, doubt her story. Their wordless suspicions inflict a bitter humiliation, so she decides to drop the matter and not call the police.

Her husband chooses instead to pursue revenge. He secretly hunts for the rapist, planning to punish him, not with the law, but with exposure to his own family. In Iranian culture, a dirtied reputation in the eyes of your family is crucifixion worse than prison.

Just as the protagonist is about to exact revenge, his wife intervenes and threatens to leave him. She fears that if her husband punishes her attacker, his actions will expose her to even more disgrace. Like the rapist, the victim’s greatest fear is shame. To prevent that, she puts her marriage in jeopardy.

TURNING POINTS:

Iranian culture is not only high context* (see below), and therefore dialogue-lite, but governed by behavioral restraints and moral adhesions absent in western culture. As a result, the actions of the wife and husband trigger reactions from their society and within their marriage that deliver surprise after surprise, followed by insight after insight. The storytelling might not amaze a Persian audience, but for this American, every turning point came with a jolt. The Crime Story climaxes in a state of chaotic Justice I did not see coming.

CHARACTER ARCS:

The conflict-filled path through this story exposes and changes the humanity of both husband and wife. What they lose in innocence, they gain in self-awareness. And since the couple works in a theatre troupe, the change may make them more mature actors. But given the guilt that will now haunt their lives, this is an arc they could have done without.

*High-context cultures have a strong sense of history and tradition. They change very slowly over time, and so from generation to generation their members hold many beliefs and experiences in common. A high-context culture will be relational, collectivistic, intuitive, and contemplative. It places high value on interpersonal relationships within a close-knit community.

As a result, within these in-groups many things can be left unsaid because their members easily draw inferences from their shared culture and experiences. The Italian mafia is such an in-group. In THE GODFATHER, when Michael Corleone says “My father made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” an entire episode of extortion becomes violently clear. Michael then goes on to make the event explicit to Kay Adams because she’s not in the in-group.

High-context cultures, such as those in the Middle East and Asia, have low racial and social diversity. They value community over the individual. In-group members rely on their common background, rather than words, to explain situations. Consequently, dialogue within high-context cultures calls for extreme economy and precise word choices because within such settings a few subtle words can implicitly express a complex message.

Conversely, characters in low-context cultures, such as Northern Europe and North America, tend to explain things at greater length because the people around them come from a wide variety of racial, religious, class, and nationalistic backgrounds. Even within the same general cultures these differences appear. Compare, for example, two American stereotypes: a Louisianan (a high-context culture) and a New Yorker (a low-context culture). The former uses a few tacit words and prolonged silences, while the latter talks frankly and at length.

Excerpt from Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for Page, Stage, and Screen (P. 187)

LOVING (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Loving (2016) | Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HIGH RISK CHOICE OF GENRE:

Character-driven stories fall into six grand categories, each keyed to a distinctive change within the protagonist’s nature (his morality, mentality, or humanity) and the direction that change takes him (positive or negative). A change in morality, for instance, creates two often-used genres: the Redemption Plot (bad guy turns good, e.g., THE VERDICT) and the Degeneration Plot (good guy turns bad, e.g., THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY).

Amongst the various genres that change a character’s underlying humanity, the Testing Plot may be the most rare and most difficult. Its suspense hinges on this question: Will he persist or surrender? In other words, what Testing Plots test is willpower. Generally, these stories risk the character’s physical survival by pitting his strength of spirit against either the blind violence of Mother Nature or torture in captivity: e.g., ALL IS LOST and 127 HOURS versus UNBROKEN and THE PRISONER (1955).

LOVING risks its characters’ inner survival. It tests their strength to maintain a true, undamaged sense of self. The film asks, “Does this couple have the willpower to persist in the face of vicious social antagonisms and ten long years of legal battles? Will they lose their will to love? Will they give up and divorce? Or will they persevere?”

HIGH RISK CHOICE OF POV:

Legal dramas like LOVING conventionally tell their tale from the POV of attorneys fighting for justice. Instead, writer/director Jeff Nichols keeps the courtroom battles off-screen and takes the plaintiffs’ POV as they wait on the sidelines.

This choice anchors the drama in the subtext of the characters’ inner lives, as events hammer at their will to endure. Needless to say, stories told in the subtext of ordinary people demand extraordinary acting. The performances by Australian actor Joel Edgerton and Ethiopian-Irish actress Ruth Negga as Americans from Appalachia were nothing short of brilliant.

HIGH RISK OF REPETITIOUSNESS:

Even when Testing Plot protagonists battle Mother Nature, the storytelling runs the risk of redundant scenes—struggle, struggle, and more struggle of the same kind. But at least they’re visual, cinematic scenes. Thought, on the other hand, cannot be photographed. Repetitiousness becomes an acute danger when willpower combats inner forces of self-doubt, anxiety, frustration, and fear. That LOVING expressed variety, tension, and progression in its quiet faces and places is yet another measure of filmmaking excellence.

MOONLIGHT (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Moonlight (2016) | Written and Directed by Barry Jenkins

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

SUBJECT MATTER:

One of the most startling breakthroughs a writer ever makes is her discovery of a story’s true subject matter. She sets out to create one kind of telling, only to hear the voice of a very different tale pleading to be told. MOONLIGHT is a perfect example. It seems to weave a Social Drama around an Education Plot, but, in fact, a third storyline drives the film.

The genre of traditional Black Cinema is Social Drama—dramatizations of poverty, broken homes, drugs, racism—those persistent cruelties that never find a cure. MOONLIGHT ingeniously shifts these injustices from foreground to background. The film implies social crises but only uses them to tone the atmosphere and set the story’s world.

At first glance, MOONLIGHT seems to tell the coming-out story of Chiron (played by three different actors). The character evolves along an Education Plot that arcs him from confusion about his sexual identity (negative) to understanding his true self (positive). This indeed happens somewhere off-screen, but it is not, it seems to me, what MOONLIGHT is about.

THE MATURATION PLOT:

The discovery of your story’s core genre often comes down to a question of cause and effect. In MOONLIGHT, which came first: Did Chiron’s coming-of-age give him the strength to come out? Or did his coming-out suddenly make him come of age? Immaturity stifles perception; maturity is the ground that grows self-awareness. So in my analysis, if he hadn’t grown up, he couldn’t have come out.

The most difficult creative task in writing a Maturation Plot is conceiving its act of maturity. Exactly what action, under what circumstances, will announce to the reader/audience that the protagonist is no longer a child? In STAND BY ME (1986), Gordie (Wil Wheaton) finds the guts to make the local bully, Ace (Kiefer Sutherland), back down, knowing Ace will take painful revenge the next day. In BIG (1988), Josh (Tom Hanks) chooses to abandon his adult self and return to his adolescent self. Why? Because he’s grown up and that (with wonderful irony) is what a mature person would do.

MOONLIGHT shapes a graceful arc that takes Chiron from boy to man, climaxing with an act of maturity in Act Three’s coffee shop scene. First, he sheds his drug dealer persona by removing that staple of hip-hop fashion, gold Grillz, aka frontsnot just so he can eat, but to face the man he loves as his true self. He then confesses quietly, but with aching poignancy, of his fidelity throughout years of estrangement. His confession of love is not his coming-out; I think he did that within himself long ago. It’s not an act of social or familial defiance, not an act of self-discovery, but the action of an adult.

THE POWER OF SUBTEXT:

The most important events in MOONLIGHT take place wordlessly in the subtext. Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ extreme economy of dialogue opens up a silent pathway to the inner life of an utterly original, multi-dimensional character whose intimidating physique masks gentility, whose stoicism hides life-long suffering, whose loneliness hints at an observant, high intelligence.

I’ve always hoped that truth of this quality would someday reach the screen; it’s gratifying to see it expressed in my lifetime.

BLACK MIRROR

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK TV Review:

Black Mirror (2011 - ) | Created by Charlie Brooker

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HIGH RISK ANTHOLOGY:

Long-form series, like BREAKING BAD and GAME OF THRONES, unfold their stories, season after season, from a foundation of perpetual characters and settings. But an anthology series works from scratch to invent a new cast, a new world, and, most importantly, a new story, episode after episode. Some anthologies, such as LAW & ORDER and THE X-FILES, lighten the load with continuing characters, but not BLACK MIRROR. Like its famous predecessor, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, not all BLACK MIRROR episodes are equally excellent, but then that’s true of any series. Overall, the uniqueness of this tour de force’s episodes rocks the mind.

MODERN HORROR:

Unlike the last century’s uncanny monsters (ALIEN) and gothic supernaturals (NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET), the genius of BLACK MIRROR seeps unseen horrors out of the kitchen sink realities of our techno-world, which then slowly infiltrate our everyday life, until the world spins like a tornado. From NATIONAL ANTHEM (S.1 - E.1) to PLAYTEST (S. 3 - E. 2), with each episode, BLACK MIRROR unleashes a chilling, too-real fear of what hides inside the gismos we hold in our hand.

MAKE’EM WAIT:

Suspense merges curiosity with emotion. The question “What’s going to happen next?” fills with the dread of “Please don’t let it happen to me.” The tensions in BLACK MIRROR rack our nerves because, although we hope for a happy ending, we know it’s not gonna happen. Early episodes established the series’ storytelling style and warned us that all tales will end in a monsoon of irony: If it’s a downer, the protagonist’s fate will spread a dark smile across his face. If it’s an upper, the protagonist may get what she wants, but she’ll pay a hell of a price for it—probably her soul.

20TH CENTURY WOMEN (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

20th Century Women (2016) | Written and Directed by MiKe Mills

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

MASTERFUL:

Mike Mills wrote and directed this finely crafted minimalist film that unfolds with the depth and complexity of a novel. His portrayal of the inner lives of his characters, their struggles to make meaning, and their unsaid thoughts and feelings draws us into the story like an engrossing work of prose. His camera seems to photograph thoughts.

EXCELLENT MIX OF GENRES:

Maturation Plot, Education Plot and Love Stories with subtle but true character arcs deliver honest portraits of empathetic protagonists.

WONDERFUL USE OF VOICEOVER NARRATION:

Again, as in a novel, Mr. Mills moves fluidly through time. His flashbacks and narration parse the exposition seamlessly into the on-going storytelling. He hooks, he holds, he makes us wait until we absolutely need and want to know the storied facts.

ONE OF THE BEST USES OF MUSIC IN FILM:

Insightful observation and potent comment on the interconnectedness of music and its influence on the characters’ lives.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Manchester by the Sea (2016) | Written and Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

Inciting Incident via Flashback:

Most stories unfold chronologically and so cause and effect happen in that order. The first scenes set up the protagonist’s life and arouse curiosity about the future: “What will happen to this character?” These set-up scenes build to the story’s first major event, the Inciting Incident, this powerful cause triggers the effects that play out in the scenes that follow.

The genius of MANCHESTER BY THE SEA reverses cause and effect, putting the effect before the cause, the cause after the effect.

When the film opens, we meet the protagonist, Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), living a deeply troubled, virtually masochistic life. But we don’t know why, and so we naturally wonder, “What happened to this guy?” When our curiosity reaches the boiling point, the film flashes back to the Inciting Incident. This stunning turning point reveals the cause for Chandler’s silent torment and raises the major dramatic question: “Will he survive this tragic trauma or be destroyed by it?”

Superb Execution of the Evolution Plot:

The film dramatizes a rich, complex tale of the soul-destroying power of guilt. The event revealed in the flashback hollows out the protagonist’s humanity and launches a character arc that evolves from the negative (an unlivable inner life) to the positive (a livable inner life).

Memorable Character:

As in other wonderful films like 45 YEARS and the more recent 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, Kenneth Lonergan’s work unfolds like a novel by compelling us into the abyss of the protagonist’s unspoken turmoil, but does so by implication, not explanation. In other words, the story’s spine of action runs through the subtext, not the text, and therefore calls for an actor who can bring the unsaid and the unsayable to life without the aid of on-the-nose dialogue. Casey Affleck’s brilliant portrayal of the war within earned his Oscar nomination and my applause.

And finally for you writers:

I’m frequently asked questions about the placement of a story’s first major event: “Can the inciting incident happen in the backstory? If so, could I flashback to it? Or, could I just leave it there and only imply it?” All such questions get the same answer: “Of course.” A writer can tell her story any way she likes, so long as she knows why she’s telling the story her way and how her choices make her story all the better.

The first half of the following Storylogue Q&A addresses this exact question: Flashbacks: The Question is “Why?”

LA LA LAND (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

La La Land (2016) | Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle

McKee Says: It Doesn’t Work

The Musical:

Comparisons (if they’re apples to apples) are always fair. We do it instinctively. When a new Love Story, Comedy, Thriller, or Sci-Fi film premieres, we immediately compare it to the finest of its kind. The benchmark we apply is not “Did they do their best?”, but “Does it measure up to the best?” That’s what people with standards do.

In the greatest American musicals, performers act, sing, and dance with equally brilliant talents in all three dimensions. If they don’t have the voice or the legs—Marlon Brando in GUYS AND DOLLS, Rex Harrison in MY FAIR LADY—they have the good taste to stand still and turn a lyric into a soliloquy. In the best of the best, stellar choreographers and choruses pull off feats that make you jump for joy; sublime composers and lyricists write tunes you’ll warble in the shower for the rest of your life. So when I compare this film to the likes of TOP HAT, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, MUSIC MAN, WEST SIDE STORY, or CHICAGO, it doesn’t.

Genre:

What makes characters burst into song? The conceit of the Musical is that emotional peaks are beyond words. Dialogue can’t contain them, words can’t express them, so characters, by convention, pour their energies vocally into song and physically into all four limbs. But for me (and I’m sure many will disagree) LA LA LAND’s turning points wouldn’t get anyone out of a chair, let alone launch a song and dance number. The love story’s desires and motivations are so weak, the screenplay simply avoids a last act crisis/climax. Because there’s nowhere to go with these characters, the film finishes on a resolution scene, glazed with sentimentality.

Charm:

And yet, here’s why I didn’t walk out: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling exude such empathy, charisma, and good old-fashioned charm, that I’ll stay through anything they’re in, even this.

HIDDEN FIGURES (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Film Review:

Hidden Figures (2016) | Direct by Theodore Melfi

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

The Protagonists are Brilliantly Conceived Underdogs:

Black women of mathematical genius up against antipathetic, envious white men and women of lesser talent in the American South in the time of Jim Crow. The least wrong look or word could get them killed. Our empathy is instantaneous.

Wonderful Acting:

Acted with dignity and without sentimentality.

Pleasure of Learning:

Humbling to know this hidden part of our history. High time it came out.

Horace and Pete (2016)

Robert McKee’s WORKS / DOESN’T WORK Review:

Horace and Pete (2016) | Written and Directed by Louis C.K.

McKee Says: It Works (Spoiler Alert!)

HORACE AND PETE has given the writing world an event to celebrate: the birth of Web Series Theatre.

Louis C. K.’s new series not only works, it revolutionizes the present by recycling the past. When I looked around for something to compare it to, I first matched its 60+ minute episodes with multi-camera TV shows, but this is not a sitcom. Like a first-person novel, the language projects rich metaphors and word-pictures on our imagination, but they’re acted, not read. Like a play, the dialogue crackles with repartee, then segues into 20-minute speeches of vivid demi-poetry, all bracketed by poignant, long-held silences. Yet it doesn’t really feel like theatre, because it’s not live. Episode 3 brought memories of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a famous two-man stage play adapted to the big screen, but HORACE AND PETE isn’t cinema by any means. Finally, my friend, Joel Bernstein, offered this idea: Louis C. K. is the Eugene O’Neill of the Internet.

Indeed, when I put these two authors side by side, they matched and contrasted rather easily. Both C. K. and O’Neill labor in the genre known as Domestic Drama, aka family stories. Their dramatizations (often autobiographically inspired) take place in a home; the struggle for family unity versus schism drives events and raises the same suspense-filled questions: “Will this family stay together or split? Support or betray each other? Survive or self-destruct?”

O’Neill’s LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, for example, dramatizes the Tyrones, a family slit with self-inflicted wounds. O’Neill creates four distinct, mutually antagonistic characters, and then embeds in each an ancient symbol: Behind the mask of the narcissistic, ham-actor father, James Tyrone, hides a Tyrant; his wife, Mary, a delusion-ridden morphine addict, is at heart an Earth Mother; their alcoholic, self-hating son Jamie plays Cain to his super-sensitive brother Edmund’s Abel. To dimensionalize each of his four characters, O’Neill injected an archetype with a dose of modern day neurosis. The result explodes inner contradictions that fascinate.

The Whittell family of HORACE AND PETE, on the other hand, wore their true selves down to the nub long ago. Instead of tragic arcs, C. K. gives them chronic anxiety. With the possible exception of Uncle Pete’s Jester (Alan Alda), everyone in the cast, including the extended family of barstool regulars, is staring into the back of their head, asking themselves, “What the fuck’s the point?”

Ever since he took stage as a standup, Louis C. K. himself has been a walking, talking existential crisis. His shows have made oldfangled angst fashionable again…but with a difference.

Last century modernist authors like Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot), Jean Paul Sartre (No Exit), and Eugene Ionesco (The Chairs) placed highly symbolic characters in highly symbolic situations to pronounce highly symbolic ideas. But that was then. Horace and Pete haven’t the energy to symbolize anything. C. K.’s characters don’t represent the existential crisis; they live it.

Specificity unlocks credibility and credibility opens the door to involvement.

If Louis C. K. (who produces, acts in, and directs his own writing) has a diagnosable neurosis, it’s perfectionism. HORACE AND PETE conducts a master class in the “telling detail”. It’s as if every character’s life history has been plotted back to childhood and beyond, every trait of characterization puzzle-fit with every other trait, and every word of every line cut and polished like a diamond. As a result, from the first gesture on, each episode’s compelling credibility grabs you and holds you.

In the Poetics, Aristotle says that the theatre gives two kinds of pleasure: emotional and mental. In the first case, drama releases tears, fears, and glees that we normally bottle up and never express in public.

But daily life not only smothers feelings, it also barricades the mind. So the mental pleasures of the theatre don’t release, they penetrate. We sit at a fixed distance to onstage action so we can do in the dark what we can’t do in the light: We pierce the surface of behavior and read the hidden truth of human nature, complete with subconscious motivations, contradictions and complexities. This aesthetic education pays off in life with powerful insights into our own humanity and the humanity of others.

Neither of these pleasures are possible, however, if the audience does not trust in what they see. The last thing an author wants is a reader or audience arguing with the believability of her story. Specificity (the telling detail) unlocks credibility and credibility opens the door to involvement. In keeping with this principle, HORACE AND PETE delivers two wonderful pleasures: we learn about people we could never otherwise know, while feeling in ways we’ve never quite felt before. 

Star casting can jeopardize involvement.

The unfortunate HAIL CAESAR!, for example, could not separate its stars from their characters, and rather than finding that ironic, we just disconnected. To be fair, HORACE AND PETE has moments when we suddenly glimpse, “Oh, it’s Edie Falco!” or “Oh, it’s Jessica Lange,” but in the next instant, the stars slip into their roles and we relax into belief.

This may mark the difference between big and small screens. In a movie house, actors are literally bigger than life, so if they don’t keep their performances in check, the star-ness of their massive projections taints the credibility of their characters. But when you hold the cast in your lap, the actors’ personalities recede to let their fictional selves surface quietly and naturally.

Of course, the cast of HORACE AND PETE has acted on screens and stages of all sizes, so the seamless depth of their naturalism may simply be what happens when skilled talent gets a chance to perform inspired writing.