Thursday, July 19, 2007

MM’s Exposition Example

(For our new study.)


My non-verbal example comes from Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. As you may know, it took Marie a few years to… umm… consummate her delicate marriage to Louis XVI. But consummate they did, and over the course of Act II, we see Marie give birth to two children - first, a girl and then a boy. Toward the end of Act II, servants hang a painting on a wall of Marie Antoinette with three children indicating that she’s given birth to another boy. Then, a quick flash forward, and we see those servants take down that painting and replace it with a new painting of Marie with only two children and an empty carriage.

Cut to a sad funeral.


My good and bad examples shall be in the form of a comparison between Richard Lester’s and Richard Donner’s version of Superman II. (I love comparing these two films. I wrote about it
here and here.)


30 minutes into Richard Lester’s version, Clark and Lois just sort of show up in a hotel in Niagara Falls, and Lois mutters the most horrifying line of exposition: “Can you believe this? Us posing as newlyweds in order to expose a honeymoon racket in Niagara Falls.”


Yes, Lois, he can believe it. HE WAS THERE when Perry White sent you two on assignment. HE FLEW WITH YOU TO NIAGARA FALLS. And… you’re explaining this to him IN NIAGARA FALLS? Are you kidding me? But, of course, this line was thrown into this scene not for Clark’s benefit but the audience’s and they had to endure a bunch of whining and moaning to get it. And then, of course, we’re forced to sit through her SLOW revelation about Clark being Superman. (Lois TALKS TO HERSELF to show how she’s putting two-and-two together.)



Donner doesn’t make us wait for Lois to eventually put two-and-two together. He just hits the ground running in his opening scene with a great plot twist that’s completely rooted in his characters. Lois sits at her desk. She sees Clark enter. She looks a front-page photo of Superman. She looks at Clark. And then she happily draws Clark’s glasses, hat, and suit over that front-page photo.

And she whistles.

(How beautiful is this non-verbal moment? Lois never says a word to anyone to explain that she figured him out. And none of this talking to herself crap, either. THIS was purely visual. And fun!)

Clark strolls up to her. “How are you, Lois?”

With a sly wink, she says, “Oh… just super, thanks.”

Next, they’re inside Perry White’s office in a wonderful scene filled with subtext and happy banter. Perry orders them to go to Niagara Falls. He wants them to pose as honeymooners to expose a newlywed racket. Clark is stunned. “Newlyweds? Us?” Lois is thrilled. “That's a great idea, Mr. White.” But Clark protests, “I'm right in the middle of my series on the City Council…” Lois interrupts. “Oh, it won't take long, Clark. We can just... fly right up there and then sort of... zoom right back again. You know. Like Superman.” Perry says, “Hey. If Superman could give you two a ride we could save a couple of bucks.”

The exposition of Perry ordering them to pose as newlyweds in Niagara Falls would have, first of all, gotten a laugh out of the audience, because that’s the ideal setting for these two lovebirds who are, as they stand in front of Perry White, pretending to NOT be in love. Second, the exposition heightens the already growing tension between them about Clark's secret. Third, the exposition is fed to the audience in the context of SOMETHING ELSE. This wasn’t just about setting up Niagara Falls. This was about turning up the heat on Clark, foreshadowing what’s to come, and giving the audience the sense that Niagara Falls might be Clark’s undoing. And, indeed, it is. Lois would prove, once and for all, that Clark is Superman. SHE outsmarts HIM in a wonderful “gotcha” moment. Fourth, this setup in Perry’s office is fun because we see Clark and Lois react in ways we wouldn’t expect. Lois would’ve despised an assignment like that but she CAN’T WAIT to go. Clark, who would’ve gratefully accepted anything Perry gave him, tries his best to wiggle out of this losing battle with Lois.

And finally, the growing tension in this scene between Clark and Lois reaches a wonderful climax. Clark says, “Lois... you're priceless... you know that? I mean, that's the single funniest thing...” She shows him the newspaper. “Get the picture?”

“Su... Superman? You think I'm Superman?”

“Think? I’ll bet my life on it.”

And she jumps out a window.


Mim said...

We see a lot of remakes of old, classic movies. I think people want to re-capture the original magic that happened with the right combination of director, actors, and script.

I say if you want to re-capture the magic, rent the DVD. It's still available. And what was up with remaking The Poseidon Adventure?

My daughter saw Marie Antoinette and loved it.

Laura Deerfield said...

Ugh, I hated that bit in Marie Antoinette. The most dramatic, emotional thing to happen in the movie (aside from her being stripped at the border and "re-born" as French) - and it's glossed over with a couple of paintings. Clever, but not effective. Add to that the fact that no one in the movie ages, despite the fact that nearly 20 years pass during the film... meh, I'll just say this was not my favorite movie.

Now, as to the Superman example - what makes the second (original) example so great is that the exposition is part of the plot. As you noted, it's about turning up the heat on Clark. It's revealed in little bits, through action and indirect dialogue, until the confrontation - which leads to a dramatic action. The best exposition is not an aside, it's a part of the story. (Which, I suppose, is why the paintings in Marie Antoinette didn't work for me.)

Unknown said...

As usual, excellent stuff.

I did a review a while back where someone says "did you know that Joe did .....x y and z" and the other guy goes "yeah, I knew that already" My comment on the review was that if your character says he already knows something, it's a pretty good bet that you didn't handle that exposition correctly.

Dante Kleinberg said...

It's funny, I've been complaining lately about the LACK of exposition in amateur scripts. My reviews have all featured a solid paragraphs of "Lingering Questions" where I list a dozen or more things that weren't explained or made no sense.

Have the writing students taken it too far? Has all the talk of hiding exposition led to impenetrable stories?

Laura Deerfield said...

That's interesting Dante. I have seen a lot of that in Science Fiction and Horror short stories when I was editing a fanzine and participating in genre fiction workshops... I attributed it to the fact that the story is clear in the author's head, and they tend to miss the fact that they haven't told the reader enough of what they know.

Anonymous said...

Here's a great example of exposition from The Simpsons:

Homer: Well, here we are at the Brad Goodman lecture.

Lisa: We know, Dad.

Homer: I just thought I'd remind everybody. After all, we did agree to attend this self-help seminar.

Bart: What an odd thing to say.

'nuff said?


Mystery Man said...

Mim - It's not perfect. It's a film to be experienced on a big TV in high def with surround sound.

Laura - I won't argue with you about MA. It's certainly not perfect. But it's VERY pretty. Hehehe... I thought that bit with the paintings was clever. Certainly better than some ham-handed dialogue. Re: SII - exactly. I wished I had written "part of the plot" in the article. Great point. Thanks for that.

Bob - Great point. Are you going to participate in our study?

Dante - That IS an interesting point. Too much, too little, too contrived. It rarely feels to me like it's ever being handled correctly and yet there are no real books or serious studies on this subject.

Ger - Yup. 'nuff said.



Unknown said...

Hey MM-

Our car got hit by a rock while we were in montana and for all intents and purposes is dead, so I have to drive up to Montana to retreive it. I'm not sure if I'll get a chance to participate. I suppose it'll be a function of how long it takes me to catch back up with things and how long you run the series.

Be well.

Mystery Man said...

Hey no worries. Last week, I moved, helped another friend move, and had to go to a funeral.


Anonymous said...

I remember seeing SII the day it opened. The projectionist missed the reel switch and there was a moment of blank screen. When the film started up again, it began with the Niagara falls sequence. It was the next scene, but the cut was so jarring, and the dialogue about them posing as a honeymoon couple so awkward, that the audience began shouting "Wrong reel!" The projectionsist shouted back "It's the right reel." I wasn't aware of the Donner cut. I can't wait to see it.

Mystery Man said...

That's hilarious.

Ann said...

Hey MM, I was at a funeral last week too. How weird. And come to think of it, there was a very mysterious man there...

I wish I was more on the ball for your last several weeks of blog posts. I would've loved to opine. Ah well. Life. Right?

Laura Deerfield said...

Regarding MA... I think I'm much harder on movies that disappoint me because they almost are really great but fall short of the mark.

The thing with the paintings was very clever, but also so self-conscious that it stood out as being very clever rather than communicating the emotion of a child being born and lost. It's an easy trap for intelligent, creative folks to fall into - I know because I've done it plenty of times. It's one of those "darlings" that should have been killed. Very clever, but not right for the piece.

Or maybe I was just in a mood when I watched the movie.

Mystery Man said...

" self-conscious that it stood out as being very clever rather than communicating the emotion of a child being born and lost." Okay, I really love that comment. That's great. I can't argue with that.

And ya know, that moment really was out of place in the film. If there had been a motif with paintings throughout, then perhaps it wouldn't stick out as it did like a sore thumb.

Mystery Man said...

Ann - If the mysterious guy you saw was so good-looking that he was downright sumptuous, then yeah, that was me. Hehehe...