Monday 1 November 2010

Stories on the Screen (and an Announcement)

Partly in response to some people saying that two posts a week is too much to keep up with, the editors of OnFiction will, for an experimental period of the next two months, post once a week, on Mondays. We'll reconsider frequency of posting at the beginning of January.


I've recently been reading books on screenwriting. Today I'll review Story by Robert McKee, who taught screenwriting at the University of Southern California, and now travels the world giving story seminars. It's a mixture of stern injunction "Never … mistake eccentricity for originality" (p. 8), lofty aspiration such as "… an honest work of art is always an act of social responsibility" (p. 131), and close analyses of examples of successful screenplays. The most interesting parts, for me, were the analyses because whereas the novel and the short story aim to enable emotionally engaged reflection by the reader, film—or so it seems from the point of view of screenwriters—aims to glue the audience to the screen in moment-by-moment concentration for two hours. And, whereas a writer of a novel may think of the depiction of a scene in terms of two pages of print, the screenwriter must think of the equivalent in terms of many hours of work by several dozen people at a cost of more than $200,000. Each moment of film, therefore, needs to have a special quality, and this fact helps to contribute to the interest of close analysis of screenplays.

Telepathic communication between minds doesn't occur, but to me reading a novel by George Eliot or a short story by Anton Chekhov comes close. In a good film, something else occurs: a watching of people with whom one empathizes as they make decisions in pursuit of their goals. A film (says McKee) is a story of desire. In a two-hour story of a character's desire, we can recognize workings of our own desires. Is that what keeps us glued to the screen? I wonder what you think.

Some of the terms used in screenwriting seem familiar in the analysis of print fiction: "scene" is an example. But in film, it has a tighter specification. There are between 40 and 60 scenes in a typical film, therefore although some scenes may last 30 seconds and others may last six minutes, on average scenes last three minutes. Motivated by desire, each must accomplish a turning point, a change in value for one or more characters, that moves the story forward.

At the next level down, I would have expected the units to be shots. In screenplays there certainly are specifications for shots in terms of scene set-ups, and camera positions in relation to settings and characters. In reading screenplays I have been impressed by the thoughtfulness of these specifications. But McKee's energy of analysis is devoted not to shots but to beats. A beat is a unit of movement in the zig-zag line of desire. McKee is keen to tell us that all story is conflict, and that therefore one must concentrate on the story's antagonists, but really, it seems to me, each story beat is a fulcrum that balances cooperation and conflict. And, although, film dialogue is supposed to sound natural, the real purpose of each utterance is to allow a viewer a sense of the desire as it affects each partner in the dialogue, and to sense what's not being said.

Casablanca is one of the most famous Hollywood films, set in a bar in Casablanca run by Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) at which people wait during World War II to obtain exit visas so that they can escape to USA. One scene analyzed by McKee comes after a flashback to the love affair of Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Rick in Paris some years previously, which ended with her standing him up at the railway station, from which they had arranged to escape just before the Nazi occupation began. Now, in Casablanca, they have met again, when she went to visit him in his flat above his bar, where Rick was drunk, bitter, and insulting. Next day, in a street market an Arab linen dealer is trying to sell Ilsa a lace bedsheet. Here is part of McKee's analysis of what he calls Beat #3 of this scene (p. 263).
I'm sorry I was in no condition to receive visitors when you called on me last night.

Rick's action: APOLOGIZING.

It doesn't matter.

Ilsa's reaction: REJECTING HIM AGAIN.
In terms of linguistics, one might say: "Ah, I see: a beat is an exchange of speech acts." And that's right to the first approximation. One difference is that in the better kinds of film, because of the accumulations of the story and characterization, there is an even larger array than Searle describes of extra-linguistic meaning to each speech act. In Casablanca, Rick's and Ilsa's speech acts express intense desires, and in this scene it becomes sharply clear to the audience that Rick's desire is, despite his bitterness, to find a way of renewing his relationship with Ilsa. And, despite her being strongly drawn to Rick, hers is for putting their affair behind her and escaping from occupied Europe with her husband, the renowned Resistance fighter, Victor Laszlo. Each beat moves the story forward: Rick approaches, Ilsa rejects him. The scriptwriter's words, along with the actors' non-verbal implications reflect the intensity of the desires into our minds. The whole scene, according to McKee is 11 beats, the last of which is a final rejection in which Ilsa tells Rick that in Paris she was already married to Laszlo. Rick is utterly crushed. He, and we the audience, can only think Ilsa was just passing her time with him, not serious. What neither Rick nor we know, is that in Paris, she thought her husband was dead, and that he returned on the day that she had arranged to leave with Rick.

Michael Curtiz (Director). (1942). Casablanca. USA.

Robert McKee (1997). Story: Substance, structure, style and the principles of screenwriting. New York: ReganBooks.

John Searle (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

Keith, this book sounds very engaging indeed, and important for thinking about similarities and differences between literature and film. I am intrigued by the contrast between a “beat” and a “scene.” It seems to me that the “beat” concept may be too reductive to describe everything that is going on in a scene, even if, and perhaps especially if, one is attending only to the emotional dynamic. This month I’ve read two novels that struck me as extremely filmic: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery and The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. Their chapters are shorter than “usual” it seems to me and, I would say, more poetic. Two thirds of the way into Barbery’s novel, there is a chapter called “Then” and the chapter says: “Then, summer rain.” That’s it. Is this a scene? Perhaps. Is it a “beat”? Not really. But that expanse of whiteness in which the few words are floating on the page gives the reader time to reflect on what this summer rain has meant to the main character up to this point in the story and what it might mean later. Summer rain is a metonym that would probably lose its power if it were necessarily incorporated into an adjacent “beat,” in a film, but it might function very well if it were conceptualized by the filmmaker as a “scene”. It could be that neither “scene” nor “beat” adequately describes units in fictional narrative.

Keith Oatley said...

Thank you, Rebecca for this comment. I am not sure I have entirely got the concept of a beat or, as I implied, its relation to a shot. Most movie scenes seem to involve several beats: the scene from Casablanca that McKee discusses had eleven beats. I agree that beats may not be the best unit of analysis. I was intrigued, however, that the scriptwriting people found them to be very important. The kind of scene you describe, of summer rain, does occur in movies, without any action (doesn't it?) for instance sometimes at the beginning of a film, and sometimes—as I recall—in Japanese films there can be just a shot of a piece of countryside with a particular weather pattern. It is metonymic, but I don't know what the movie people say about such matters.

Dave's Girl said...

Honestly, I think McKee is highly overrated. The concept of a beat is dubious. I much prefer the hero's journey analysis (the extensive, deeper one - see ); that way it all makes much more sense and you start to talk in terms of sequences instead of beats.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks, Dave, for this comment. I read Syd Field's book on screenwriting some time ago, and have four books on my current list on that topic, of which McKee's was the first. I can't yet make an independent judgement of whether he is overrated, but I can see how he might be. There is a good deal of hyperbole. I agree that sequences are important, but I became interested in beats, and McKee's moment-by-moment analyses of screenplays, because he pays attention both to the words said and to what is not said explicitly but is nevertheless conveyed, and this seems very important in films.

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