Thursday, July 26, 2012

"Second, Or At Least, Other Thoughts About The Screenwriting Template"

Yesterday, I wrote in a disparaging manner about a Joseph Campbell-generated template I was given by a movie studio executive who insisted it was the “One True Way” of telling a story.  Most specifically, “The Hero’s Journey” story.

Upon further consideration, I have moved to the position that I may possibly have been in error.

For those of you scoring at home, for the first time ever. 

The impetus for my possible mind-change takes me back to the fifties, not to movies, or to television shows.  Correction.  It was a television show.  Just not a scripted television show.

What I’m talking about is wrestling.  (Which, it turns out, actually was a scripted television show.)

During television’s infancy, wrestling was a ratings bonanza.  (Not to be confused with the western Bonanza, which was itself a television bonanza a decade later.)  

Wrestling was a natural for the fledgling medium – a crowd-pleasing hoot to watch, and comparatively inexpensive to produce.  It required no soundstage, nor money-sapping production costs.  The action was in full swing at the local sports arena; all that was required was to bring in the cameras.  Include a colorful cast of participants and a carnival barker “Whoa, Nellie!” announcer and, if you will pardon the sports crossover, you were off to the races.

A few names – to illuminate the young, and nostalgify the aging.  Pat Flanagan (Finishing Move:  “The Mule Kick.”)  Bobo Brazil (Finishing Move:  “The Coco Butt.”)  Canadian icon “Whipper” Billy Watson (Finishing Move:  “The Canuck Commando Hold.”)  And 609-pound “Haystacks” Calhoun (Finishing Move:  “Sitting on People.”)

The wrestlers were divided into two categories:  One category was the “Good Guys”, such as multiple champion Lou Thesz, “Argentina”, “Sweet Daddy” Siki, and Ricky Starr (“The Wrestling Rabbi.”)

On the other side were “The Villains” – Ivan Kalmikoff, Dick “The Bruiser”, the dreaded “Sheik” and “Killer” Kowalski – though once, to my eternal horror and dismay, I was informed by a Canadian pal colleging in Boston that “Good Guy” “Whipper” Billy Watson, whom I had once witnessed flip the cap off a Coke bottle with his thumb, reconfigured himself into a crazed, frothing-at-the-mouth “Villain” in Massachusetts.

Oh, “Whipper”, how could you?

Every match back then pitted a “Good Guy” against a “Villain.”  (Or, during “tag team” matches, two “Good Guys” against two “Villains.”)   The “Good Guy” fought clean; the “Villain” egregiously broke the rules by, for example, sneaking out a sliver of sandpaper secreted in the waste band of their trunks and, during clinches, unseen by the referee, rubbing the sandpaper viciously across his opponent’s eyes. (An atrocity inevitably followed, when challenged, by the “Villain’s” “personally affronted” – and always “Boo”-inducing, “Who, me?” reaction.)

So here’s where I’m going with this.

Each wrestling bout followed the exact same trajectory.  They’d fight evenly for a while, each wrestler eluding his opponent’s potentially devastating grasp.  Then, at virtually the same point in every match, things would change.

“The Villain” would gain the upper hand, often illegally, by, say, banging the “Good Guy’s” head into the metal post supporting the ropes – often, more than once – before the referee instructed him to stop. 

By then, the “Good Guy” was often dead on his feet, offering an opportune moment for “The Villain” to drop him to the canvas, with a trip, or a series of elbow bludgeons to the face, pin him for a count of three, and win the match.

At this point, things looked hopeless for the “Good Guy”, a certain loser despite the encouragements of the crowd, which, at least in the fifties, were not so perverse as to root for “The Villain”, despite what may be indicated on Mad Men.

With the groggy “Good Guy” on his back, his shoulders kissing the canvas, “The Villain” dropped down himself onto his dazed, and near-motionless body.

It’s a pin!

The referee counts off the seconds, slamming his palm rhythmically onto the mat.  Remember:  Three palm slams, and it’s over.

The ref counts “One!”

The “Good Guy” doesn’t move.


No reaction.


As the referee is about to slam his hand on the mat for the third and final time, somehow, from somewhere, the “Good Guy” summons the energy to bounce “The Villain” off his body…

And “The Comeback” begins.

Till, finally,

To the approving roars of the, God bless ‘em, not jaded fifties audience, the “Good Guy” subdues “The Villain” and wins the match.

Remind you of anything?
How about every action picture you’ve ever seen.  Die Hard, and its sequels.  Bruce Willis “down for the count”, turns the tables, and inevitably prevails.  “Jason Bourne” should definitely be dead by now.  But I believe there is yet another sequel on its way where – I’ll put money on it – he emerges from near-oblivion, vanquishing the evildoers once again!
In every one of my cherished westerns, at some point, it appeared impossible that the hero would survive.  But he always did.  And the “Bad Guys” were locked in the calaboose.ß
And it wasn’t only the only the “Morally Just” outcome.  There was an almost viscerally comforting element in the storytelling itself.  
Almost as if…
There was, indeed, “One True Way” of telling a story.
Movies from European countries may vary from this template, though even they put heroes in jeopardy and for the most part, they don’t die.  The difference is usually in the degree and nature of the victory, European countries preferring partial, more ambiguous resolutions, America tending towards ones with “Rocky” music backing them up.
Other countries’ – Asian or African – approaches may differ even further.  Just like their music.  You know, the “Doe, a deer…” musical scale sounds melodious to our ears?  In other countries – we may be jarred by their musical constructions, but they dance to them at weddings.  
But other countries aside, we seem to have an almost hardwired manner of constructing a story.  And any deviation from it seems “wrong.”
The question – and there is always a question – is this:
Is it possible to deviate from that formula and still succeed? 
Or are writers confined to the same old tree, with simply different decorations? 


Thomas said...

The deviation is perfectly possible - just the Hollywood funding isn't there.

Boris B. said...

"America tending towards ones with “Rocky” music backing them up. ...ironically, 'Rocky' does deviate from the formula. He loses the fight. While I do realize that is an unusual outcome, it is what happened. Eventually, in the sequels, Rocky does win but when Stallone did the first "Rocky" he couldn't have known it would be such a huge success, 'necessitating' any sequel, let alone 4 more. He simply knew that the hero won the inner struggle while losing the fight. We can say he lost the battle but won the war. Nevertheless, it is a variation.

I recently began watching the Showtime presentation, "The Big C." The hero has terminal cancer - that's established in episode one. So where do they go? Apparently there are lots of possibilities as the show is now into season 3 (granted, a 'season' on a cable station is about 12 episodes). This show, it would seem, will go against the formula and the hero will eventually die. Not necessarily, but it would seem so. It's a terrific show, regardless of the eventual ending - I'm thoroughly enjoying it. Lots of comedy and just enough drama to keep me coming back.

Granted, I agree w/your premise. The hero must win the majority of the time or the viewers will quit watching. But there will always be exceptions. I just enjoyed the irony of the Rocky theme dressing up the formula.

Doug said...

Alan Alda quoted someone (I can't recall who) who said the essential element of a good story is:

1. Introduce Hero.
2. Put Hero in a tree.
3. Throw rocks at him.
4. Get Hero out of tree.

Sounds pretty good to me. But I like the comment above about how Rocky breaks that mold, kind of...
Another movie that bends that mold is Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!" I admire this movie because Hanks avoids a lot of cliches. You assume the first manager who works out of a camper will be a creep who rips them off. But he's actually OK. You think the character who goes to Vietnam as a Marine will be reported as having been killed there. But it turns out he came home and started a business. There are more cliche-avoidances here, but those two will suffice. I guess my point is that the elements of a story are universal, like chicken. You can have fried chicken, baked chicken, chicken A la King, chicken soup; but it's still chicken. So, every once in a while it's nice to chop up the elements of a story to see what comes out. Usually it's chicken salad.

James said...

I always love the fact that in Goldfinger, James Bond is handcuffed to the bomb, time is running out, he's looking at it--can't make heads or tails out of it. Finally he grabs a handful of wires at random and is bracing to yank the whole lot out, when his hand is pushed away, and someone else's arm calmly flicks the OFF switch. Bomb disarmed. Bond is saved.

Anonymous said...

I think if you boil it down, it makes sense.

People want a story that surprises them. But they also generally want a story that ends happily. So they want a story which can make them believe that the hero can't possibly win, and then the hero somehow wins.

I mean, when you put it that way, it almost sounds easy!