Sunday, January 30, 2011

Musical Narrative

In Jay-Z’s memoirs Decoded he proclaims that in order to understand our history—who we are and where we’ve been—we must tell our story. Although he was citing the lack of hip-hop while he was growing up that he could relate, the idea still applies to all and has been around since “humans” have been.

Ever since a clever and grieving Neandrathal got the idea to mark the place where someone whom he cared for died, we started the process of commemorating our lives. Of appreciating our existence. And, shortly thereafter, we started the process of making sense of this crazy world we're in with cave paintings and ancient myths about Stars, Gods, and the way things work.

But, for as long as we’ve had stories, maybe even longer, we’ve also had music and the two have been intrinsically combined. Symphonies are riddled with themes, motifs, and characters. It’s hard to deny the presence of a narrative when we hear the Star Spangeled Banner.

In my experience, musicians have always been extremely good storytellers and the best musicians have always been the best storytellers. VH1 would agree.

Amongst the best storytellers have been country singers. Every country song tells a story. Every single one. Hell, if it doesn’t, than it ain’t country.

Lets take a look at the King of Country: George Strait.

"Sometimes I feel like Jesse James/Just trying to make a name/Knowing nothing's gonna change who I am..."

George Strait recently released a song called “Breath You Take” off his album Twang. The first verse goes:

He looks up from second base, Dad’s up in the stands
He saw the hit, the run, the slide, there ain’t no bigger fan
In the parking lot after the game he said:
“ Dad, I thought you had a plane to catch.”
He smiled and said, “Yeah, son, I did.”

If that doesn’t melt your heart than you don’t have one. The song goes on to proclaim that life is not about “the breaths you take” but the “moments that take your breath away”. As well as document multiple moments in the father-son relationship as the son got older where the father is present for the most monumental moments in one’s life—like being a nine year old and stealing second, or being thirty and having your first son.

On top of this but the way Geore Straight structures his music—the way the guitar plays a softly picked melody for the verses, and how the strings gently rise and fall during the chorus—play to what the song is about. It’s a marriage between the visual narrative and the auditory music. The best example of this in modern film is in Pixar films.

I make grown men cry.

If it weren’t for Pixar’s music I wouldn’t have cried at the end of Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Toy Story 3, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Up. Granted, there stories are brilliantly told, touching on “real” issues the way George Strait can and turning them into excellently poised and crafted stories of the most innocent—yet important—aspects of living. But, the music, the soft piano and strings that float in and out of the scene that add such texture, such depth to what we’re watching that it’s inevitable to be overwhelmed with emotion.

God damn Randy Newman with his soothingly soft yet rash voice and delicate piano melodies. There’s something about a man that has smoked and drank too much who still has the heart to tell these touching. It gets you every time.

So, in conclusion, if you’re having trouble writing your script or play or whatever, think of your characters and the situations they’re in. Then think of what music they would listen to. Then use that to help guide you on your journey. 

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Ikea Effect and Mysteries

Ikea is all at once awesome and awful. They have a great selection of cheap, modern, furniture that somehow works well for its inexpensiveness. One of the best parts of Ikea, though, is their psychological advantage by utilizing a trick known as the "Ikea Effect".

Look at that beautiful wall/bookcase. You made that all by yourself.
The Ikea Effect is, essentially, a way to get customers to enjoy your product by turning them into one of its creators. Basically, when you buy something from Ikea--lets say a bookcase--there is assembly required. You're not just purchasing some bookcase a bunch of Swedes made, you're buying an experience. You have a hand in how well this bookcase functions. You actually help create it. And, by doing so, you subconsciously start to like Ikea because there products make you feel good, they make you feel purposeful.

You built a bookcase. You should be proud.

But, at the same time, it can't be too hard. I remember being a kid and trying to put together those remote controlled cars that came with assembly required and getting so frustrated at the complexity that I gave up all interest in playing with it. Until my father put it together and I realized that I'm awful with mechanical things. The point is that with Ikea, a twelve year old could put together your book case, but a smart one. You don't want to cheapen the customer by making it too easy to put together. This will cause them to grow suspicious of the products validity.

It's about moderation. How much do I make the customer work? This idea is similar in writing with the relationship between the author and the reader. When you're writing, or reading, there is a relationship between how much of the material is spelled out for you--no pun intended--and how much you have to work for. Some authors, just lay it all out there for you whereas others, like Dostoevsky, will make you work your way around excessive adjectives and descriptions. Others--like Hemingway, Weisel, and Carver--will make it seem like they're being very simple when they are actually very complex. This is like the Ikea effect. How much does the reader have to work?

But, if you want to take that further, the writing of mysteries is incredibly close to the Ikea Effect.

Lets take a look at The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. The first in a trilogy, the book is extremely popular, definitely one of the most important books of the decade and the Swedish movies (I think there's a trend here...) are very well crafted. One of the reasons why the series' popularity has soared is because of the mystery itself. It's complex and full of taboos but it's also something that isn't too complex and convoluted that we can't understand it. In fact, once we find out in the end Who did what to Whom, and where So and So is, we get that "Ooohh!" feeling. Like, "How did I not see that earlier?"

Don't get too "hung up" on the wrong details.
It's kind of like after trying to put together that book case for an hour you empty out the box and find that missing washer.

The same effect occurs in Hitchcock films. There's always a big reveal at the end where our Insecure Male Hero explains everything to us causing us to feel smarter than how we were two hours ago.

The best way to accomplish this effect is by taking something--an object, a character trait, something visual--and turn it into something very important for semi-complicated reasons. For example, the suits the heroine(s) wore in Vertigo. Or the biblical references in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That way we can have something to hang on to, a rock to stand on (the idea of the "totem" in Inception), and trace it's way through the narrative.

The development of the biblical references. The way the suits and the hair matched. It gives the viewer/reader a visual aid to concentrate on. Let's call it the Visual Source. Because it's visual, obviously, and is the source of the mystery itself. Like Anaconda Malt Liquor in Black Dynamite.

Follow the suit. Follow the hair. Follow the mystery.
This is NOT to be confused with the Maguffin. The Maguffin is something completely different; much more fundamental. The Visual Source can never be the Maguffin, but the Maguffin can be the Visual Source.

If you follow all the fundamental's first--giving your characters something visual to work for, faults to work on that are tied with the visual goal, something to lose, and opposing forces with the same qualities--and then throw in a Visual Source that weaves its way through the narrative--then you got yourself a great story.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Rabbit Hole Coverage

Rabbit Hole has been turned into a feature film starring Aaron Eckhart, Sandra Oh, and Nicole Kidman. It's trailer is online. David Lindsay-Abaire's play won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize.

Title: Rabbit Hole

Writer: David Lindsay-Abaire

Draft Date: N/A                          Pages: 61                            Genre: Drama

Time Period: Present                                     Location: Suburbia

Logline: A suburban family deals with loss of a child and the arrival of another.

Act I: The script starts out with IZZY recapping a story to her sister BECCA. Through excellent dialogue we learn that Izzy is pregnant and that Becca has lost a child, although the former not directly. The story continues to Becca and her husband HOWIE debating on how to get rid of, or not get rid of, their lost son Danny. This includes a monologue by the accidental killer, naive 17 year old JASON, who doesn’t appear until the second act. We also learn that Becca’s mother, NAT, has also lost a child—Art. Art is, obviously, Becca and Izzy’s brother. He was also a drug addict.

There is something to be said about the way Abaire introduces his characters. Izzy is introduced through a fight she got into in a bar. It’s a perfect story for her character—she’s someone who is not afraid to go to the heart of an issue. Becca’s response to the story is perfect for her’s—she’s a character of rules, of regulations, which form most of the conflict: everyone saying things against Becca's rules. Also, in this introductory scene, Becca is folding clothes for her lost son, Dan. She has baked very high end confections. This goes on throughout the story as Abaire shows us how settled into motherhood she was—she bakes well, folds well, and loves making homes. In fact, her love of things related to “home” form her major desire: to move.

Howie, her husband, is a very torn man. He seems to struggle with the patriarchal paradigm that dictates he must be the strong one, he must be the rock to get them through this. Although he is obviously hurting, it’s not until his private moments that he shows this. Until the second act.

Act II: The second act starts with a reversal of the first act. Becca, grocery shopping with Nat, has gotten into a fight. She smacked a woman in the grocery store because of her lack of appreciation for her son. The retelling happens at the end of an open house where we meet Jason for the first time. The entrance of this source of tragedy propels Howie to finally unleash his emotions. Also, during this open house, Izzy informs Howie that they’ll never be able to sell the house if they don’t clean up Danny’s room, as it attracts too much attention to something so negative. Becca and Nat end up cleaning out Danny’s room which, naturally, brings up negative emotions from Becca; a scene that questions her commitment to her relationship with Howie, not on a fidelity level but something more emotional. And, without Howie knowing, Becca sees Jason, who provides the only out rightly optimistic look that we get in the play. The final scene is between Becca and Howie, one that ends on a high note, but a vague one.

Abaire does a great job creating symmetry between the two acts to show how our characters have changed. It’s clear by the end that our characters have gone through an arc but, whether or not it’s positive or negative is left ambiguous.

The nebulous ending is something that is justified in this case. This play functions more as a case study in grieving—how we all deal with it differently—and how it can affect our personal relationships, rather than a structured narrative. Abaire shows us how there’s no sense in investing so much in the future, like Becca did by becoming an incredible housewife, or by living so much in the past, like what Howie has been doing by holding on to whatever part of Danny he can. In fact, the best advice comes from the source of tragedy itself: Jason. When Jason informs Becca of the infinite opportunities for optimism to exist in our universe, it breathes fresh air into her. Also, when Howie skips his therapy group, and hears the news of how he and Becca are going out, together, to see people and exist in this world outside their house, he regains his composure, he regains his pride, as he and Becca decide to take life day by day. It seems Abaire is telling us that freedom from grief can be found by coming to peace with the source of tragedy and then moving on—one day at a time.

As Abaire outlines in his notes "Rabbit Hole is not a tidy play." It's a hard play to swallow but this causes us to focus more on it's craftsmanship. It's clear that it's dialogue is incredibly placed and planned. This is a play that has been slaved over and it's reward has come in a well deserved Pulitzer Prize.

Writer: Strong Recommend.
Script: Strong Recommend.