Friday, May 26, 2006

The Amazing Disappearing First Act

"Learn the fundamentals of the game and stick to them." --Jack Nicklaus

I hate to come back to the whole “three act” thing, but I find over and over again that people are not adhering to it. My belief is that the lack of strong first acts in films in recent years has much to do with the steady decline in movie attendance. No first act, no emotional involvement.

I think that I mentioned before that I have been studying magic. There are many benefits for storytellers who study magic, one of which is the importance of the first act. Even the simplest magic trick uses three-act structure. Christopher Milbourne in his book Magic Book put it this way:

“The magician can assume nothing. Unless an audience has been led to believe that a closed hand holds a coin, they will not be amazed when it is shown to be empty.”

He’s talking about having a clear first act.

This idea of being clear often frightens my students. They don’t want to point out the obvious. But what is obvious to them may not be so obvious to the audience. Milbourne’s book continues:

“If they are not aware that an object is green, they will not be astonished when the color changes to red. My friend [magician] Paul Ebling illustrated this point during a demonstration of gambling techniques. He passed around a pair of unprepared dice with white spots for examination. Then he announced he would shake the dice and roll a seven. The seven came up as promised. This was a far more remarkable feat than the spectators realized. Until Paul reminded them that the dice that the examined dice had been green, no one had noticed that the dice on the table were red.”

People only notice what you tell them to notice. If you want to involve them be obvious about what you want them to notice. Magicians understand this but over the years I have seen a decline in the understanding and importance of a strong act-one in storytelling. The tendency is to want to get to the meat of a story because that’s where all the fun happens.

I often use jokes as examples because they are little stories. Everyone knows the importance a strong first act when they are telling a joke. And the listener knows that everything that they are being told will help them understand the punchline of the joke. A listener would never say, “Just skip all of that crap and get to the ending”. And joke-tellers know so well that act one is important that when they are in the middle of a joke and have forgotten something they will be sure to go back and fill in the missing information: “Oh, wait, I forgot to say that the guy has a duck in his pants.”

But first acts are all but disappearing from films. There is almost no time spent setting up the characters and the world they inhabit before the inciting incident. They deprive the audience of any emotional involvement. Imagine a magician’s opening move being that he takes a card randomly out of a deck and asks triumphantly, “Is this your card?” Not much of a trick. With no set-up there is no trick. No emotional involvement. Same with stories.

Don’t be afraid to take the time it takes to give your audience all they need to know to become gripped by your story.

Monday, May 15, 2006

The Other Side of the Rollercoaster

It is at this time of the year that the studios put out their big movies – their “tent-pole” films. Their marketers will call these “non-stop rollercoaster rides!” Rollercoaster is the term that they use to describe films with relentless action. They promise all of the thrill, chills, twists and turns of tallest rollercoaster at Magic Mountain or Great America or wherever.

Why are these movies almost always a let down? Shouldn’t action scene after action scene be exciting?

Well, ask yourself what is the scariest part of the rollercoaster? The three-story drop? The corkscrew twist? The big loop? Probably not.

Anticipation is almost always the thing that scares us most. It is the calm before the storm that is the scariest. Imagine yourself in line to go on the world’s biggest and most frightening coaster – The Widowmaker (or something). Imagine the signs warning that those with weak hearts or back problems or pregnant women should not ride. Imagine seeing others on the ride before you. They scream in abject terror. All of this is all part of the experience – the anticipation. Imagine watching the cars maneuver through the loops, twists and spills of the coaster. You watch as people exit the ride, some exhilarated, others shaken and unstable. Some are just plain ill, to put it nicely.

Finally, it’s your turn. You are ushered into your seat where you are strapped in. The safety bar comes down across your midsection. Ironically, the safety equipment makes you feel even more nervous. How bad is this thing if they need all of this stuff to keep me safe, you ask yourself.

With a jolt your car starts to move. The butterflies in your gut are flapping like crazy. The first leg on the track is level. Then you see it – the track ahead stretches up and up and up. Your car starts to ascend. Click, click, click goes the chain that carries your car ever upward. It seems to takes forever to reach the top. You wonder again just how bad the drop will be when you crest this hill.

Then there is that sweet, terrifying, white-knuckle moment when at long last you reach the top. Here it comes.

The drop itself is more of a release of built-up tension. But these precious moments of anticipation are all part of what makes a rollercoaster scary. It is not wall-to-wall action alone that fills you with delicious anxiety, but the quiet moments as well. They are the yin and yang of the experience.

Movies that wish to duplicate this feeling often leave out half of the experience. They have almost no quiet moments.

Take a film like ALIENS. Now here is a film that most people remember as non-stop action, but there are many moments of quiet. Many moments that allow the audience to anticipate how bad things are going to get for the characters in the film.

So many filmmakers now want to cut right to the chase, the big explosion, the monster, the running and jumping, the firefight, the murder. There is no click, click, click as the tension builds.

They make the mistake of thinking that because the screams come when the monster shows up, that it is only the monster that is scary. They forget about the other part of the rollercoaster ride. It’s the same as thinking that the best part of a joke is the punchline, as if the set-up did not contribute to the joke. Why not a joke with no set-up, just one punchline after another? Wouldn’t that be the funniest thing ever? Wall-to-wall punchlines!

It sounds ridiculous, but it is the same thing as wall-to-wall action. It's the same ‘just the good parts’ philosophy.

No, just as the set-up is an important part of a joke so are the quiet moments of anticipation part of an action sequence. You cannot have one without the other.

So this summer when you emerge from the theater a little disappointed that you were not more thrilled by the action ask yourself if the filmmakers bothered to remember that a rollercoaster goes both up and down. Chances are they did not.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Inkblot Cinema

A while ago I had a talk with a musician friend of mine. He told me that he had gone to see a modern classical concert. He said that it was an awful cacophony, and asked, “What happened to the art of communication?” I thought that was a very good question, one I have often wondered about myself.

I saw a documentary on television about the phenomenon of genius; in it they said that it was a western concept that someone might be so smart that they could not be understood. Sometimes when an artist fails to communicate with her/her audience, the audience is blamed for not understanding. This is an easy out. It’s too convenient to put all the onus for communication on the listener. I have never been sure where the skill lies in confusing one’s audience. Any five-year-old can be unclear.

Unfortunately, storytellers who communicate clearly are often considered juvenile or pedestrian, such as Hitchcock and Spielberg. When Hitchcock was making films the intelligentsia treated him much the way Spielberg is treated now. His films were seen simply as “crowd-pleasers.” Yet both put so much attention on communicating with their audiences that their very names have become synonymous with film itself.

When I talk to people about communication in art, they often say that they don’t want to be handed everything – they want to figure things out for themselves. Artists who think this way often create confusing art. This is a common trait of intellectuals. The smarter people are, the more they like art that is obscure and difficult to understand.

Yet the smarter someone is the easier they are to fool. Magic, for instance, depends on the viewer’s ability to put together pieces of information and drawing the most logical conclusion. If a magician takes a coin and transfers it from one hand to another, and then the coin is made to disappear, chances are the coin never left the first hand.

But because by the time we are adults we have all seen objects pass from one hand to another countless times, we assume it has happened. I call this gap closing, and smart people are really good at it. A professional magician friend of mine confirmed my observation that scientists and skeptics are the easiest to fool.

Gap closing also happens when someone tells a joke. A joke is just a story with a part missing. That missing piece is supplied by the listener; when they make the connection they laugh. In fact, kids will often exclaim, “I get it!” They have pieced the clues together and closed the gap. With a well-constructed joke we all close the same gap – everyone draws the same conclusion.

If the gap is too close, as in the case of a pun, people often don’t think much of it. The further the gap, the funnier the joke. But there is a limit. Everyone knows if you have to explain it isn’t funny. It often means that the gap is too great and that most people can’t close it. Or that people are drawing different conclusions trying to close it.

I wish people held “art” the same high standards they hold jokes to – if you have to explain it, it isn’t working. Smart people will often fill in the gap with something that seems to make sense, but if you ask these gap closers what they “got” they will all say something different. I call this “inkblot art,” or when I’m talking about film, “inkblot cinema.”

With inkblot cinema people see what they want to see. They like what they see because they made it up themselves. But often they have done to themselves what the magician does; they have fooled themselves into seeing something that is not there. Like a skillful magician or comedian, a good storyteller can use this gap closing to his/her advantage. Hitchcock called it pure cinema. He let the audience close gaps all the time.

In Frenzy Hitchcock shows us a brutal murder. Later in the film, he shows the killer disappear into an apartment with young woman. As the killer closes the door, he uses the exact words he used just before he committed the earlier murder. Then he keeps the viewer outside the door to imagine what is happening on the other side. Everyone is closing the gap like crazy, but we are all closing the same one. We all know a brutal murder is taking place on the other side of the door.

Billy Wilder said, “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” Just make sure you have communicated well enough that the audience knows the answer is four. Don’t hide behind your inability to be clear or rely on the ability of your audience to make up something where there was nothing.

Bring back the art of communication.

(What I call gap closing Scott McCloud calls closure. Same observation. He has a great explanation of it in his book Understanding Comics. If you don’t have it – get it.)