Friday, January 27, 2017

"Revisiting An Opinion"

This idea fluttered to mind at least partly because of what commenter JED wrote recently about the news game’s proclivity for telling a story.  That is demonstrably on the money.  The people delivering the news believe “telling a story” is the most reliable formula for reaching people and since trying to reach people is their lofty or exploitational – depending on your perception of the news business – that is precisely what they do.

What occurred to me, however, after reading the script of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leelane which I ordered because my aging ears and the actors’ impenetrable dialects caused me to miss huge swaths of the spoken dialogue is that

There is more than one way to successfully reach people.

We often forget that.  And by “we” I mean the people who do and not the people who don’t of whom there are arguably fewer but they nonetheless exist.  The majority of us forget that… I feel confident in saying, while lacking the corroborating evidence to back it up.

Still, I believe it’s correct.  A confirming example, aforementioned in this post, is that if people were not attracted like flame-drawn moths to hearing a story, the news media would not be unilaterally committed to crafting the events of the day into one.

That holds some measure of argumentative water, don’t you think? 

I will now narrow the focus beyond – wait, you don’t “narrow” something “beyond”, do you?  Lemme try that again.

I will now narrow the focus… I can’t think of anything.  I’m going back to “beyond.”

I will now narrow the focus beyond my pontificating generalizations to something I know more confidently about, which is myself, more specifically my personal experience.

I wrote scripts for half-hour comedies.  While engaging in that formidable undertaking, we spent entire workdays, sometimes two entire workdays assiduously “beating out” the stories, meaning structuring the events of that particular narrative. 

What happened?  And then what?  And then what?  And then “what”?  Beat by hammered-out beat by agonizingly devised beat by painstakingly constructed beat.

Sure, there were jokes pitched along the way, which – especially if they came from the Executive Producers – would find their way into the script.  But that was in no way the basic purpose of the exercise. 

Hint, hint.  It was not called a “story meeting” for nothing.

Our extensive efforts went to fashioning coherent, cohesive narratives.  (Which were also required to be funny, making comedy, he self-serving asserted, more difficult to successfully execute than drama.  Though he is arguably correct.  Imagine juggling while tap dancing.)   

What I am saying is, as with assemblers of the news, our laser-like focus was the same:  organizing, honing and communicating the story.

That’s all we thought about.

Not surprisingly then, when somebody with my background attends stage plays and movies whose substandard narratives stink up the place…

I have a negative reaction to those stage plays and movies.

How could it be otherwise?  I have been programmed to see “story as everything.”

And perhaps, I am surmising, not just me.

Does this sound familiar?

“I saw this great movie the other night.”

“Yeah?  What was it about?”

That’s how we talk about things, explaining the experience by telling a story… about the story.  Sure, you likely also inquire if they liked it, but in their answer “for or against”, they inevitably return to what happened.  

I am not certain it can be otherwise. 

“I saw this great movie the other night.”

“Yeah?  What was the subliminal context?”

Who talks like that?  I believe nobody.

And yet…

I read The Beauty Queen of Leenane and I was blown away by just that.  Not the narrative, which was shruggingly familiar and took potholing liberties with my suspension of disbelief – the plot turns on an offstage misapprehension by the lead character who we now see as tragically delusional though there was little groundworking evidence that she might be, making the ultimate “payoff”, when I saw the play, an unacceptably easy way out.

But when I read it, the so-so storytelling melted into the background.  Instead, what rose impressively to the fore was McDonagh’s sensitive understanding of the characters, the subtly balanced primary relationship, the knowing portrayal of the enveloping subculture, and the language.  Ah, the language.

I was going to give you an example, but you have to read it for yourself.  The whole thing is an example, the dialogue, start to finish, like honey – smooth and sweet and natural and rich. 

When I saw it, the play’s searing insight and evocative poetry blew past me, preoccupied as I was with the “eye-rolling” storyline.

My conditioning makes it difficult to escape that. 

But I’ll be missing some remarkable good stuff if I don’t.

Can a play or movie do both – tell a spectacular story along with a captivating milieu? 

I leave it to you to illuminate me.  For nothing immediately comes to mind.  I know –Shakespeare.  I’m thinking something in my lifetime.


Pidge said...

I don't know why, but the first half of Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion" sprung to my mind out of nowhere. It's breathtaking in its ability to tell a story without words. The visuals, actions and sounds do the all work of entrancing the audience and telling the story. The second half moves into familiar territory and becomes a typical horse race story but there are still many moments of pure visual pleasure.

Stephen Marks said...

For Pidge it was "Black Stallion", for me it was "All The President's Men" that "sprung to mind" while reading Earl's great post.

Earl talks about story telling in the news business, best example of this being the Woodward/Bernstein articles in the Washington Post which, arguably, brought down a President. But here is the thing, not once in the book, the movie, the play (Frost/Nixon, essentially a Watergate story) or any of the network news broadcasts were those articles reproduced. What gave birth to the story was then aborted to fit into a book narrative, movie narrative and Cronkite narrative. "There is more than one way to successfully reach people", yeah Earl I guess you're right. Why? Because nobody wants to watch Cronkite read from a newspaper, nobody wants to curl up on the couch with a book full of Washington Post aricles and nobody is going to watch a movie where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman sit around reciting Woodward/Bernstein stories.

I'm pretty sure Earl would not have paid to go to the theater and watch an actor sitting on stage reading an entire copy of "The Beauty Queen of Leenane". "Eyes rolling"? Try eyes closed followed by zzzzzzzzzzz's. That whole "I'd pay to listen to James Earl Jones read the phonebook" is bullshit. Once he got past "Abbott, James 905-555-5555" we'd all be out of there.

So Earl, there is only one way for a movie or play to tell a spectatular story along with a captivating milieu in your lifetime so you can escape those pre-conditioned criticisms. It's a movie or play ABOUT your lifetime. Trust me, write, produce, direct and star in "The Earl Pomerantz Story" and there is no way you cauld be objective, there is no way you could distance yourself from it enough to Roger Ebert the shit out of it and see the flaws. Who's going to play Dr. M?

Excuse me folks for rambling, sorry.

JED said...

I thought the 1982 German movie The Boat (Das Boot) did a great job of telling, in your words, "a spectacular story along with a captivating milieu." It was both exciting and horrifying. The claustrophobic scenes inside the submarine set you up for an amazing scene of the captain outside in a storm in the middle of the ocean trying to shout messages back and forth with the captain of another German submarine. There was a subplot of one officer's fanaticism versus the captain's (and most of the crew) just wanting to get the job done and get home safely.

I've watched a ton of submarine movies but this one made me feel like I was there with them and how horrible that would be.

And thank you for mentioning me and saying I was right about something. I'm going to show that to everyone at work :-)