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Tell me a story, Act II: Acts

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Story diagram stolen -- er, borrowed -- from "Observations on film art and Film Art."

Kristin Thompson, author of "Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique," a book I can't believe I haven't read and have therefore just ordered, explores her observations and theory of story structure in a blog entry called "Times go by turns," which gets to the heart of how movie storytelling works by showing how familiar structures involve the use of more than the "three acts" we're accustomed to thinking about. She was inspired by the Society for the Cognitive Study of the Moving Image conference in June at the University of Wisconsin in Madison -- and, boy, does that ever sound like something that would be up my street. (Also: See my post "Tell me a story... or don't.")

Kristin writes:

Most screenplay manuals treat turning points as the major events or changes that mark the end of an “act” of a movie. Syd Field, perhaps the most influential of all how-to manual authors, declared that all films, not just classical ones, have three acts. In a two-hour film, the first act will be about 30 minutes long, the second 60 minutes, and the third 30 minutes. The illustration at the top shows a graphic depiction of his model, which includes a midpoint, though Field doesn’t consider that midpoint to be a turning point.

I argued against this model in "Storytelling," suggesting that upon analysis, most Hollywood films in fact have four large-scale parts of roughly equal length. The “three-act structure” has become so ingrained in thinking about film narratives that my claim is somewhat controversial. What has been overlooked is that I’m not claiming that all films have four acts. Rather, my claim is that in classical films large-scale parts tend to fall within the same average length range, roughly 25 to 35 minutes. If a film is two and a half hours rather than two hours, it will tend to have five parts, if three hours long, then six, and so on. And it’s not that I think films must have this structure. From observation, I think they usually do. Apparently filmmakers figured out early on, back in the mid-1910s when features were becoming standard, that the action should optimally run for at most about half an hour without some really major change occurring.

What fascinates me is how we feel these classical structures in our blood (metaphorically speaking), even if we're not consciously aware of it. Somehow (conditioning? Some kind of intuitive sense?) we feel the story beats as they occur on schedule, and seem to know just where we are in the picture at any given moment. Sometimes that can be very satisfying, giving us a feeling of momentum as we hurtle forward with the movie. In other cases, it can simply feel dull, predictable, formulaic -- as though the structure is dictating the story. These kind of movies feel like they're on auto-pilot, like nobody cares enough to invest in the story and characters.

I'm delighted by movies that play with our ingrained expectations. One that immediately comes to mind is Antonioni's "L'Avventura" (even the title tastes of irony), in which a woman mysteriously disappears and we expect the rest of the movie to be an investigation into what happened to her. Instead, the film itself seems to lose interest in her and goes off in another direction. It becomes an entirely different kind of mystery and opens up with possibilities. Gradually we awaken to a movie that could go anywhere at any time.

Mike Leigh's miraculous "High Hopes" (1988) does something similar, beginning by following a lost young man named Wayne, whom you assume is the protagonist, who encounters another guy on the streets of London, who helps him out. And then Wayne wanders off. The movie stays with the people he's led us to. Twenty years ago I wrote:

A few minutes into Mike Leigh's delightful "High Hopes", you may think you know where the movie is taking you, but believe me, you don't. "High Hopes" -- in story, characters, tone, and structure -- refreshingly confounds the humdrum expectations we moviegoers have built up over years of continuous exposure to formulaic product-pictures.

In its own leisurely and unassuming way, this bracing and unpredictable film dares to tease, trick and seduce us with savage satirical wit and gentle compassion. In the process, "High Hopes" becomes a cleansing and renewing experience, stripping away those dingy layers of lusterless formula that have accumulated over time (clogging and dulling your cinematic senses), as if they were so many sticky old coats of waxy yellow build-up on your linoleum. Writer/director Leigh (who later became well-known in America with "Life Is Sweet" (1991), "Naked," and "Secrets and Lies" (1996)) magically combines personal and political concerns, outlandish caricature and understated naturalism in a film that moves you in marvelous and unexpected ways.

(Yes, I've been slipping stealth-quotes from "Chinatown" -- and "Nashville" -- into my writing for more than 30 years.) I was a daily newspaper critic at the time I wrote that, and continued with the job until 1993, but I was thoroughly bored and frustrated by the number of movies that slavishly followed schematic structures instead of letting structure help to guide and shape the story in ways that felt natural and intuitive. I'm far more interested in a movie in which character seems to guide the story rather than plot or structure.

On yet another level, the Coen brothers' "The Big Lebowski" has a hilarious time playing with the conventions of the private eye movie -- beginning with the character of the Dude, who isn't a Chandleresque private eye at all but lives in Los Angeles (that's "Los Angle-ease," according to the narrator) and finds himself drawn into a crazily contorted 1991 version of "The Big Sleep," complete with all-powerful wheelchaired patriarch and oversexed bad-girl daughter.

The protagonist is clueless, his antagonists are primarily motivated by philosophical nihilism, and the narrator keeps telling us what an enjoyable story he's telling us, in case we didn't notice. (Compare to the droll narrator of "Barry Lyndon," who not only tells us what we're seeing, but informs us in advance of how each act is going to end.) After the inevitable femme fatale seduction scene, complete with post-coital pillow talk, we discover that her ulterior motive is... she wants to get pregnant. This movie assumes you are familiar with the rules, and proceeds to twist them, wringing humor from the overturning of your expectations.

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"Pulp Fiction": A chase sequence from... Act II?

Getting back to Syd Field: On his web site, he writes about reading the screenplay for the chronologically scrambled "Pulp Fiction" (1994)... and finding that it still more or less fits the standard structural model for Hollywood films:

I remembered Henry James' literary question: "What is character but the determination of incident? And, what is incident but the illumination of character?" If this key incident is the hub of the story, as I now understood it, then all things, whether actions, reactions, thoughts, memories, or flashbacks, are tethered to this one incident.

Suddenly, it all made sense. Understanding "three stories about one story" allowed me to see the film as one unified whole. "Pulp Fiction" is really three stories surrounded by a prologue and epilogue; what screenwriters call the "bookend" technique. Like "The Bridges of Madison County" (Richard LaGravenese), "Sunset Boulevard" (Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), or "Saving Private Ryan" (Robert Rodat). [...]

It became clear to me that no matter what the form of the film, whether linear or non-linear, there is always going to be a beginning, a middle and an end. A film like "Courage Under Fire" (Patrick Shane Duncan) for example, or "Groundhog Day" (Danny Rubin, Harold Ramis), or "The Usual Suspects" (Christopher McQuarrie), or "The English Patient" (Anthony Minghella), or "Memento" (Christopher Nolan), are all structured around a specific, inciting incident; only when that incident is shown does the story line split off into different directions. To build a non-linear movie means defining the parts, then structuring each part from beginning to end, at which point the screenwriter can put them into any order he or she desires.

You can feel this as you watch "Pulp Fiction" (and, likewise, "Reservoir Dogs"). Field nevertheless comes to the conclusion that "Pulp Fiction" "a new departure," although he finds it superficial: "a "B" movie, shallow, exploitative, the epitome of everything I don't like in the movies. Influential maybe, significant maybe, but in no way revolutionary, as I was defining the term."

I enjoyed "Pulp Fiction" a lot more than Field, but I don't really have much quarrel with the first part of his reservations (it's by no means the epitome of everything I don't like in movies -- "Mississippi Burning," "Natural Born Killers," "Pretty Woman" and, perhaps, "Mystic River" better fit that bill, guilty of contemptuous, exploitive violations that are far more serious -- not to mention far less witty).

So, as always, I'd like to get your thoughts. Can you describe some movies that employ the three-, four- or six-act structure? How do they work for you? I'm not just talking about those that toy with structural or genre expectations, but films that play by the "rules" and succeed splendidly. Do you think a film with scrambled chronology, like, say, "Pulp Fiction," nevertheless follows these structural guidelines, with peaks and turning points at the expected intervals? (I just realized I'd like to write about that, too, but it's been too long since I watched all of "Pulp Fiction" -- or "Reservoir Dogs," which plays similar games.)

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