Let’s talk about movies.
Having just finished our 3-week screenwriting module with Julianna Baggott, my brain has properly become molded (or should I say ruined) to never watch a movie again without noting its structure, praising its “break into Act 2” scene, calculating its midpoint, and brooding over the slow and torturous ALL IS LOST/DARK SOUL OF THE NIGHT scenes in Act 3.
There are many celebrated and acclaimed ways to structure a film. A particular method, called the Three Act Structure, was the one we used in class to plot out familiar films, such as Hot Fuzz and On Golden Pond, as well as TV shows (Cheers, Friends From College, Ozark). Basically, there are formulas for successful storytelling and this is one of them. We as story consumers have been primed to expect certain kinds of actions to take place at certain points in the story’s arc. You can learn more about the beat-to-beat moments here: http://blog.janicehardy.com/2013/10/plotting-with-save-cat-beat-sheet.html.
While we learned this structure in a “screenwriting” class, a story is a story, no matter the medium. Structure isn’t a topic usually hit on in fiction/novel writing courses, and yet, it is so important to ensuring that 1) your readers are following the plot and 2) you are engaging their emotions and moving them to the edge of their seat – or in book talk, your readers are still turning the pages.
In another one of my classes, we’ve been talking about our “touchstone” books to reach for whenever we’re in need of creative nourishment. In honor of the screenwriting class, I’ve thought about my “touchstone” films.
Here is a list of movies I go back to again and again whenever I need inspiration or when I need to deeply appreciate the art of storytelling:
Cloud Atlas: I first read the book and fell in love with the sheer brilliance of Mitchell’s mind. The movie is definitely a different creature than the book. But I’m rather fond of instances where the book and the film are two distinct pieces of art. After all, a book is not a film and a film is not a book. I worship the cinematographer of the film, or whoever was in charge of chopping up the scenes. The scenes were cut and woven together with such deftness that I believe the film can express the theme of the story (interconnectedness, past lives, history repeating itself, textual posterity) better than the limited technologies the book’s chaptered structure could offer. While David Mitchell is the masterful architect behind the story (see my post about David Mitchell’s visit to Ann Arbor here), I am 100% Team Movie. The china shop dream sequence especially makes my heart stop. Even though I have seen the film close to 10 times, I know there will be many more viewings in my future. I’m especially interested in hearing the director and co. talk about the film via commentary.
Amelie: Amelie is the queen of quirk. The film is an incredibly rare blend of both joy and melancholy. There’s fun and whimsy to be had, but there’s also real, honest emotion which is explored throughout the film. Amelie is a girl who celebrates life’s small pleasures (which my love for the movie makes total sense if you know my undying obsession with the British magazine The Simple Things). She loves the sound of a spoon breaking a creme brûlée crust; she plunges her hand in a sack of grain at the vegetable stand; she loves skipping stones on the canal. These moments make her seem real. These moments make me say, “I wish I could meet her and take her to a park so we can watch the clouds and turn them into animated objects.” The other reason I love the movie is that the landscape is familiar, yet fictive. It is a place of saturated colors, of eccentric characters, of talking paintings, of nostalgic accordion music. The film does not try to represent the “real Paris”—it grabs you by the hand and takes you into a dreamworld of its own kind.
Tarsem’s The Fall: See my love for this movie in my December 2017 post for the Michigan Quarterly Review. Otherwise, I could gush on and on.
Moonrise Kingdom: I absolutely adore the whimsy, the awkwardness, the simultaneous rigidity to order and the freedom of narrative structure, and the OCD mindset that is so prevalent in Wes Anderson’s films. This film happens to be the one I return to again and again. Anderson’s camera work also reminds me to use my zoom button when I write. How do I zoom way out? How do I zoom way in on this situation? What is the detail I want to draw my readers eye to in this scene?
Tell me: which movies inspire you?