Tuesday, September 09, 2008

On Breaking Structure

I dedicate this post to Nik, one of my readers, who lives all the way out there in Albania. He requested an article on stories that move in reverse, like Memento and Irreversible. I love this topic! (But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk about non-linear structures, too.)

First, let me be clear about one thing, and that is, all new, aspiring writers must master the three act structure first. That’s the most basic building block of screenwriting. At every team practice, Michael Jordan always, always, always returned to the basics – the free throw. And that’s the three act structure for us screenwriters. It’s not enough to have seen lots of three act films and have the knowledge of how a three act structure works. You need the experience of shaping stories within a three act structure, of building tension, of molding that rising climax, and creating satisfying payoffs. That’s not easy. And I think all aspiring screenwriters should have at least 10-20 scripts under their belt and received feedback on all those scripts and been validated about how well they handled their stories before stepping onto the world stage. You gotta be damn good. Plus, so much of a career is assignment work and most of those assignments will be three act structures. You need that experience writing three acts so you can deliver great scripts, which is what you’re getting paid to do.

It doesn’t matter what the concept is with your first 20 stories. What matters is your experience, how well you handled characters and structure, and what you learned from feedback about your own weaknesses. Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Altman all spent YEARS working mainstream and mastering stories in the classical form before they ventured into alternative storytelling. There’s wisdom in that.

With that said, once you have three acts down cold, I say play with structure. So much fun! But you must have a solid reason to tell a story using a different structure. I recently watched La Vie en Rose, which had a non-linear structure. We flowed seamlessly from her middle years to her childhood to her later years without much connection (that I could determine on a first viewing). The transitions were great. The individual scenes were great. The placement of the emotional highs and lows in the narrative was wonderful, and the performance by Marion Cotillard was just a tour de force. Her performance in and of itself is worth the time to watch the film. But what about that damn structure? I recall reading
a review by one of my favorite critics, James Berardinelli, who had this to say:

The film presents Piaf's life via a broken chronology, leaping back and forth across time without apparent rhyme or reason. The movie dips into nearly every phase of her life, which lasted from 1915 until 1963, showing her in one scene as a dying woman who looks 20 years older than she is and in the next as a young girl during post-World War I France. La Vie en Rose's blatant disregard of linear progression is similar in some ways to Todd Haynes' approach to Bob Dylan in I'm Not There, but there's a key difference. Oliver Dahan may choose to present Piaf's life in a fragmented fashion, but everything is ultimately connected (and, except for the childhood scenes, there is a single actress playing the lead character). Haynes essentially made six short films and jumbled them together. The end result is more satisfying in La Vie en Rose, although there are still difficulties becoming immersed in a storyline that jumps around so much, especially when there's no clear purpose for presenting Piaf's life in this fashion.

That last sentence just hits the nail on the head. That’s the reason this film is sitting at 75%
on Rotten Tomatoes and failed to reach the height of greatness because there was no definite reason to the non-linear structure, which was uneven at times and existed just for the sake of highlighting sections of her life. They did this, I think, to make a story that would’ve been episodic (if told in chronological order) more digestible. But perhaps if there had been a direct causal relationship between the different sections of her life, that one section, say, with a heartbreak, was the reason why, later in her life, she did X, Y, and Z, it might’ve made more sense. In the final sequence of Rose, Edith was lying in her bed talking about her memories, how her mind is making her relive moments she didn’t want to see. I wondered if this whole film was a collection of her memories as it was flooding back to her the final night of her life, but no, that was meant just for the final sequence. A framing device like that might’ve helped, kind of like Point Blank, in the sense that the film is all of her final thoughts before she dies. (In Point Blank, Lee Marvin is double-crossed and the entire film is what takes place in his mind moments before his death as he imagines taking revenge on his betrayers. Great film.)

Oh, in Annie Hall, Allen’s non-linear structure punctuated a point he was making about Annie and Alvy, that is, they were fated to always be searching for a love that lasts but never find it. THAT was the reason for his non-linear structure and it worked.

How about Sex and Lucia? I went to see this movie for the structure. It’s true! Yes, the sex was nice, as was Lucia, played by the very pretty Paz Vega. But here’s the thing. The film starts with the beginning. Then, it gives you the ending and ends in the middle. Imagine that! Without getting too deep into the story, they presented a conflict, gave us a tragic ending as it was imagined by the writer living with Lucia as he was writing his book, and then they ended it in the middle where the characters were given the opportunity to choose. Nobody got it. Maybe people were too distracted by the sex and nudity to notice the story. I don’t know. I thought it was pretty damn clever.

So what about films that go in reverse?

In Memento, the backwards structure helped us to understand the condition of the protagonist. We didn’t know what the hell was going on anymore than he did. Tell me, though, if the last thing Leonard remembered was his wife dying, then how does he remember the fact that he has short-term memory loss? How does that happen?

But I want to talk about Irreversible. I cannot in good conscience recommend this film. It opens with angry men looking to take revenge on another man, and we’re witness to a tragedy that is so realistic and so brutal, it is one of the few times I had to close my eyes as I watched a film. It made me ill. But then we move backwards in time and we’re made to see the reason for their anger, that is, the rape of Alex, played by Monica Bellucci, in one of the longest, most brutal rapes scenes ever portrayed on film. This, too, made me ill. But in all that time we watch this rape scene, we realize that the angry man who sought revenge on behalf of his violated lover, actually killed the wrong man. Then, we’re made to see all the different events that led up to the rape. We’re forced to contemplate all those mistakes along the way, because this could’ve been avoided. If only he treated her better and wasn’t such an ass! It is about cause and effect. It also forces us to appreciate more the good moments in life, as we saw in the warm, loving ending. Ebert makes
five points about the film that are worth noting. But the most important one is this:

The fact is, the reverse chronology makes Irreversible a film that structurally argues against rape and violence, while ordinary chronology would lead us down a seductive narrative path toward a shocking, exploitative payoff. By placing the ugliness at the beginning, Gaspar Noe forces us to think seriously about the sexual violence involved. The movie does not end with rape as its climax and send us out of the theater as if something had been communicated. It starts with it, and asks us to sit there for another hour and process our thoughts. It is therefore moral - at a structural level.

What are your thoughts?


OJ (not that one) said...

In Memento, Leonard uses the "Remember Sammy Jankis" tattoo on the back of his hand to remind him of this guy with short-term memory loss he knew before his wife was killed. He only had to realize his condition once and get the tattoo done before the knowledge faded again.

Spoilers follow: That, to me, is the most brilliant part of the movie, as the certainty--because we take Leonard at his word at first--of Sammy's condition turns out to be something Leonard remembers wrong (or at remembers only part of, forgetting that Sammy turned out to be a fraund). But then, do we want to believe Teddy, of all people? So in the end, this perfectly illustrates the theme of the movie: How reliable are our memories?

Now, where was I?

Anonymous said...

Hi MM,

This is my first time posting here. You make such a happy boy with this article. LOVE IT.

Keep the good work. Thanks for inspiriting us.

All the best!

James said...

Hey MM.

Just wanted to point out that MEMENTO is heavily structured. You can stick a Syd Field three-act structure in there easily, even though it runs chronologically backwards. But that's not what I want to comment on...

I want to point out --

Christopher Nolan's films tend to be about "how they are structured," as opposed to your typical film which is about character, or plot, or a combination of both.

MEMENTO is about a guy who suffers short term memory loss and can never make new memories. His wife was killed and he is searching for her killer. "Classical Hollywood Structure" would be about the character overcoming or circumventing his memory problem in order to catch the killer...

...but that isn't really what MEMENTO is about.

MEMENTO is really about taking the audience on this journey of never being able to remember what happened before. Which is the reason it is structured to play out in reverse.

And that is also a great hook. The structure supports the premise, and is actually the hook of the movie.

A lot of movies that play with time are missing that key factor. Non-linear structure is used in support of the premise and the hook. NOT to further plot or create "false" tension. (Except in the case of MEMENTO where the "false tension" of not knowing is precisely the point).

Play MEMENTO forward chronologically and it is
lackluster. People don't own MEMENTO because it is about a guy with memory loss, or because his wife was killed.

They own it, because it plays out backwards in a truly original and inspired manner, right down to the opening shot of the Polaroid developing in reverse -- the image of what happened disappearing right before our eyes. And isn't that shot a great metaphor of the rest of the movie?

terraling said...

My 7 month old boy is demanding attention so I'm struggling to think of good films with unusual structures (excluding the aforementioned) to use as examples, but a few observations anyway.

First, people don't think linearly, our thoughts tend to leap around all over the place. That's an observation in support of non-linear structures, BUT, crucially, our wandering thoughts are not usually random. We are thinking about one thing, and, hey, that reminds me of something off topic, and, oh, yeah, where did I put such and such? To us these thoughts are *connected*, however flimsily, but to an outsider they might well appear like the ramblings of a lunatic.

The challenge is to make sure the audience feels that things are connected and happening for a reason. In the interests of mystery you may be leading them who knows where for a while, but before very long (ie before you lose them) the dots better start to join into something coherent.

Ideally the choice of a non-linear structure would be dictated by the story or theme, such as in Memento, and one can imagine that broken psyches would be a good source of such stories - a schizophrenic for example.

But I don't think that you can dismiss screenplays that use a non-linear structure to create extra tension, it just has to be done well. It is a dramatic tool, and God knows, we could do with more tension in scripts, no? ;-) I'm piggybacking off MM's reviews, but done badly you end up with Jennifer's Body, which if I remember correctly, manages to use a non-linear structure to diffuse rather than increase tension.

Having gone through the process of writing such a story, I know from experience that having expended enormous amounts of energy into making a story inherently full of conflict and tension, it is still possible (but, my God, it's hard on the brain) to wring extra tension out of it by overlaying a non-linear presentation over the story.

OK, I might not have succeeded necessarily, but I know from the experience what in principle is possible from such an approach.

One last point. Newbies are under a lot of pressure to make sure the first 10 pages of their script is damned exciting. The most exciting moment in a story is not necessarily the beginning, and that creates the temptation if not pressure to bring that moment to the front. If you do that you just have to make damn sure you handle it well and get the most out of it.

OK, MM, fess up! How many scripts have you written so far?!

Christian M. Howell said...

Well, I guess I have to skip to Irreversible. I managed to find the scene and I really wish I had kept up with my French.

Other than the vicious beating afterwards, I was more disturbed that a man entered the tunnel, turned around and left.

Rape is a difficult topic to handle though. I'm not sure I would actually show a rape, as the big screen has a different effect than on a 22" monitor.

I guess I'm more a Psycho type of guy where I like to use cuts to show an abstract progression. It does bring into view how easy a rape can happen. But this guy actually took out a vial and snorted from it during. I'd have to watch the whole movie to try and determine the necessity for such a violent beating. I could see wanting to kill a person for that.

As far as reverse structure it can work in certain cases obviously, but you have to have a very dramatic situation, like MI:3 or Fight Club where you can imagine the stakes but not the reason.

I'm actually starting the draft of one now. I think it will work pretty well to build sympathy and question it's validity in the protag's case.

Christian M. Howell said...

After fininding several synopses and reviews, I have to amplify my reply about Irreversible.

It supposedly was 12 scenes with a 3 page outline. This made the dialog almost totally improvised.

I can totally disagree with the exact filming of the rape. Though I wouldn't write it I would have filmed it differently.

Noe held the actual violence until after the rape but I wouldn't have. I would have had him slapping her quiet the whole time, knife in one hand.
ALso, he made the rapist a homosexual and it was supposedly an anal rape (Wow, imagine that at Sundance). It also had a seriously violent scene of the alleged perpetrator getting his entire head smashed in with a fire extinguisher. And I mean smashed in.
I would say that it was similar to the torture porn we don't really see now.

But to be honest, Monster's Ball had a more graphic sex scene along with nearly any JLo movie.

When I watch a movie I want to see good camera work, not a stable shot that lasts 9 minutes.

In other words, it sucked.

ChrisEldin said...

I stumbled upon your blog through googling "Mystery Man" for a post I'm having tomorrow on my blog The Book Roast. (Hope you can stop by, because we're having a mystery literary agent. Would be kinda funny to have *two* mystery dudes)

Anyway, There's a book called "Thirteen Reasons Why" which follows a similar structure. A girl commits suicide in the beginning, and the book explores the 13 reasons leading up to this decision. I haven't read it yet, so I can't say more than that.

Fun blog!

Dave Shepherd said...

Think very carefully about why to break structure before you do it.

Something like Memento, Pulp Fiction -- those are both types of stories that work better with a non-traditional structure.

Something like Jennifer's Body, well, not so much.

Don't break it just for the sake of breaking it.

Jim said...

Of those filmmakers who have chosen to fully exploit storytelling, mise en scene and editing to get at a sense of the fractured and fragmented aspect of memory and desire, the work of Alain Resnais is nonpareil. Beside Resnais, Nolan and Tarantino appear only clever.

Some of you will recognize Renais as the director of "Last Year At Marienbad" (dated a bit, perhaps, but still a marvelous achievement), and "Hiroshima Mon amour", which, for me, is the better film. Though the film I'd urge you to see is "Muriel". It eloquently expresses Resnais' ongoing themes of time, history, memory and desire. It's available on dvd finally. Netflix has it. Add it to your queue. Additionally, you could google "Alain Resnais Muriel" for useful information on Resnais' methods.

Muriel is not an "easy" film. Resnais is among the most serious and demanding film artists. Though neither is he insufferably without humor. But you will be rewarded with an experience that is as engaging, imaginative, moving and human as any you will find in film

The way Resnais structures the story, situates the characters within the frame, and creates a perfect temporal narrative through editing is made to appear effortlessly simple, yet don't be fooled, this is the work of a one of a kind artist employing a masterfully stunning technique. THIS is precisely what should be studied in film schools. It is a film you can easily return to many times and each time continue to be amazed. And as screenwriters learn from.

Joshua James said...

21 GRAMS is a great example of a non-linear structure

Chris said...

I think alot of what passes for "non-linear" structure in film is nonsense. "Pulp Fiction" is tricked up to appeal to a hipster mind-set but never does it rise above its gimmick. "Memento" fares somewhat better because at least something is at stake. "21 Grams", "Amores Perros" and "Babel" prove that screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga is a one-trick pony. Forced profundity, anyone? Have you read the reviews of his own directorial effort "The Burning Plain"? Alejandro Inarritu is a strong director, whatever else one may think of him, and it is this facet which creates whatever interest is to be found within these films.

I haven't seen "Muriel" but I have seen other examples of Alain Resnais' work. I'll add it to my Netflix list.

Chris said...

I meant to add that "Blue" is a very great film. See the Decalogue for sure.

I had a Mexican girlfriend who laughed at all the attention lavished upon Arriga/Inarritu. She said these stories are little more than lurid pulp melodramas. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but they certainly not more than that. A naked emperor, she said.

Dave Shepherd said...

I think an interesting question is:

If you take a non-linear script, and put it in order, and it becomes bad -- are you dealing with a bad script or a good script?

I've heard Pulp Fiction in order isn't very exciting. So, then are we dealing with a good screenplay, or an average screenplay tricked out to make it look good?

I think that's where some writers screw up. They have a bad screenplay, but they use a non-linear structure to "trick it out", over-selling it.

It's the equivalent of painting racing stripes on a car -- they might look neat... but they don't make the car any better.

nestori said...

I thought that 21 Grams is a good example of how not to make a non-linear story. It felt like it was a decision made in the editing room to try to cover up the shallowness of the story/stories. Story isn't deep and meaningful just because you throw in characters who suffer and cry and pay good actors to play them. I hated the movie - although it looked nice, good cinematography.

Rob:-] said...

Would you say "The Fountain" is non-linear? I hadn't thought about it that way until reading this post.

It has three parallel stories with two characters in three different time periods; past present and future (at least I think it's the future). Each of the three has a beginning, middle and end but are woven together all reaching climax simultaneously.

I must admit that I was so surprised and engaged when I first watched it that I had no thoughts of its structure. Now as I think about it, each of the three stories are told in chronological order. But they are divided into sections, mingling to tell a single universal story. They even overlap somewhat making me wonder if time even exists.

For me I was in awe as the climax progressed, watching scenes that were both funny/strange, scary and confusing all at the same time. It was one of those things where I felt it all made sense but don't ask me to explain it.

Now after rematching it several times, watching the bonus features and the director's commentary (which is not on the DVD but is down loadable from the Internet), I think I understand it better.

It's really a story about life, the universe and everything, to coin a phrase. Rachel Weisz's character, Issi, says in a state of wonder, "Death as an act of creation." This is the core of the story and I've given it much thought since.

I highly recommend it.



James said...

I'd actually put 21 GRAMS down as an example of poor use of fractured storytelling.

There is nothing inherently compelling in the story of 21 GRAMS. In order to make it remotely palatable, the filmmakers simply told the story out of order.

It's a drama -- that plays out like a mystery, simply because the audience is kept in the dark about nearly everything.

Dramatic tension is created by the audience knowing MORE than the characters on screen -- not less.

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