Criminal Boredom

John Dillinger wanted poster
Image via Wikipedia

I like Michael Mann’s work.  I was (and am) a devoted fan of the Miami Vice show.  The Last of the Mohicans is one of my favorites and high in my movie quote rotation.  Manhunter, even though it differs quite a bit from the Harris novel Red Dragon, is superior to the generally more faithful Red Dragon with Edward Norton.  True, Miami Vice the movie was less than perfect but I kind of enjoyed it.  If you haven’t seen Collateral check it out.  It’s underrated and I think it might even be brilliant and you will totally buy Tom Cruise as a grey haired professional killer.

So I was expecting to enjoy Public Enemies.  I missed it in the theater and rented it the other day.  Michael Mann, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale…what could go wrong?  Well….

This movie wasn’t really about anything.  There were plenty of threads there that it could have been about but none of them were developed or even looked at.  A cursory glance at best and then events just sort of move on.  It could have been Dillinger’s story but we don’t really get anything from the character.  He has one scene where he talks easily with reporters at his mugshot but that’s the only glimpse of any kind of charm.  Neither is he a blood thirsty bandit, nor somehow driven to rob banks for a living, nor yet a professional robber who goes about it in a workmanlike manner.  He just does it.  We don’t even see that much of it.

It could have been about Melvin Purvis, the G-man trying to catch Dillinger but we don’t get a whole lot of his character either.  More than Dillinger for we at least get the idea he might be concerned about what kinds of methods he will have to resort to to get his man.  It never rises above concern though and it sure doesn’t slow him down.

It’s not a chase movie like The Fugitive, or Catch Me If You Can.  There’s a glimpse of how Hoover used the media to demonize Dillinger and his type and make interstate crime the FBI’s reason for being.  That would have been a pretty good movie there but blink and you’ll miss it.  It’s not about how the Italian mobs organized and turned away from the flashier and riskier shoot-em-ups of Dillinger’s gang either though thatwould have been a good movie too.  If you  think it’s a love story, think again.  There’s no romance.  Dillinger announces to Billi Frechette that she’s his girl and she has no say in it.  You know what else she doesn’t have?  Any real screen time or dialog.

In short, it was just a bunch of stuff that happened.  It didn’t flat out suck either which is the really frustrating thing (for me anyway).  All the elements of story were there.  They just weren’t developed.  It didn’t tell a story so much as record events.  I can watch that on the History Channel.

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Defining a relationship with that one special line

A woman in my screenwriting class has a script about a fairly famous historical romance, and has struggled a bit. There are several interesting scenes between the two main characters, but as we read through what seemed like the defining scene between the pair, something was missing.

I noodled on it a bit, and told her I thought what was missing was a Defining Line.

I’d never looked at it this way before now, but I think in the movies with really memorable romantic relationships have this. Not just a scene that defines the pair’s feelings for each other, but a specific, taut line withing that scene – like the point of the pin – where it is all laid bare.

Some examples.  In Jerry Maguire you have Jerry’s famous line of “You complete me.”  In As Good As It Gets, it is when Melvin says “You make me want to be a better man.”  In Casablanca it is Rick saying “We’ll always have Paris.” In The Empire Strikes Back, it’s when Leia says she loves Han, and he replies “I know.”

In each case the line perfectly defines their relationship, and the line becomes memorable exactly because it is so perfect. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, but if you have a romantic climax in your movie, search out that line. Polish the scene until it comes out.

It’s too powerful to pass up, and may just make your good scene unforgettable.

Describing the Indescribable

“[Bill] entered the room, which could only be described as nondescript.”

I’m going to leave off the citation of where I stumbled across that particular sentence to protect the guilty.  The next few lines, not surprisingly, proceeded to describe the room.  It was an office waiting room, with tan carpeting, brown chairs, neatly stacked magazines, and forgettable pictures upon the wall.  So clearly the author was going for the “characterless” definition of nondescript and not the “defies description”, but it is still a bizarre way to establish a setting.

Take them there
Don’t start by telling the reader how they will view the scene, show them.  I’ve been in enough office waiting rooms to have picked up the vibe of the room without having to be told it was characterless before we even got started.  If you make the description come alive, you won’t need to tell them how to interpret it.

Close your eyes
Put yourself in the scene and discover what captures your attention first.  Close your eyes and imagine the room all around you.  Fill it in. What’s in the corner, what are the colors, how high is the ceiling, is anyone else there?  What is the first thing that captures your attention?  What dominates the room?  Start there and work outwards.  It helps you create an experience and not just check off a list of objects.

Bring in the other four (or five) senses
People are usually visual creatures, but think how powerful a certain song or smell can be to call up a feeling or memory.  Don’t limit descriptions to the colors and position of things in the scene, but also how they smell, sound, feel, and maybe even taste if it works.  In the room in my example, was a droning Muzak cover of Barry Manilow playing through a feeble speaker?  Did the fake plants and cheap furniture fill the room with a faint plastic smell?  Could you feel your shoes stick to the stains hidden in the complex pattern of the cheap carpeting? And if you want to go for broke and bring in a sixth sense, like a feeling of deja vu or a cold shiver, go for it.

Describing a scene effectively is key to understanding how your characters react within it.  Don’t skimp on the details, and don’t tell the reader how to react.  If it turns out your scene really is beyond description, well, then you have a whole different set of problems on your hands.