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To what do I owe this pleasure?

For some reason I got onto a thought thread about what makes a good
premise for a film.

We've already been through the more global concepts of story and
character, and how important they are to a film completely
independent of budget.
But trying to plumb the depths of what makes a story good, at
least within the context of a film, proves to be something of a

Think about your top five favorite films. If you don't want to play
favorites, then pick any five films that you like. Now for each of those
films, write down a one-sentence description of the story.

For instance, I picked these:
Alien: A group of space voyagers encounter a deadly alien race
and battle to the death until it comes to a one-on-one battle.
North by Northwest: A man is mistaken for a spy and falls into
the realm of intrigue.
Chinatown: A detective is hoodwinked, and in trying to determine
who hoodwinked him, he exposes a family's secret and pays a high price.
Star Wars: A young man loses his family but finds his destiny as
a hero against the dark side.
Mad Max: A young man loses his family but finds his destiny as a
hero against the dark side.

Something that struck me about all of these movies is that there is a
single protagonist.

Alien: Ripley.
North by Northwest: Cary Grant's character whose name I forget at
the moment.
Chinatown: Jake Gittes.
Star Wars: Luke Skywalker.
Mad Max: Max. Or whatever the hell his name was.

The stories are told centering around them and their conflicts.

A very wise man once said that all drama is conflict. And within this
context (entertainment movies), the more enjoyable movies for me tend to
revolve around the resolution of conflict around a single protagonist
(or small group of protagonists like The Incredibles).
Furthermore, there is one primary conflict that is the root of
the story.

That doesn't mean that a movie that has a story that has human conflict
is necessarily a good movie.

Van Helsing. Pretty much centered around Van Helsing.
Star Wars Episode I. Umm... ObiWan? The kid?
Ankle Biters (shudder). Centered around the vampire hunter. Of course, I
still don't know what the conflict was there, other than him vs. the
midget vampires.

Thus, not all conflict is drama.

And a movie like Ju-On (The Grudge) doesn't center around a single human
character, it centers around the character of the house and the human
conflicts radiate from that like the spokes of a wheel. Yet within that
structure, there are several smaller stories that reveal a greater whole
(a cool bit of storytelling in my humble opinion).

Another bit of fluffy logic is that (at least for the most part), every
story has a beginning, a middle, and an </i>end</i>. This
is true of most classical western literature, and actually pretty
universal among all cultures. And since I'm still trying to remain
within the context of a "commercial" movie, let's call the paradigm of
beginning->middle->end a universal.

(Side note here: If you want to bring up movies like Pulp Fiction
and Memento, I will still argue that they have a
beginning/middle/end, just not necessarily in the linear order.)

Now I'll try and link those two concepts together: the beginning of the
story sets up the primary conflict, the middle focuses on the
primary comflict
, and the end resolves the primary conflict.

Again, still not the key to a good story. But we're getting

I think that the key centers on the discovery of the primary conflict.
That conflict needs to be something that we can identify with, on either
a direct or a symbolic level.

Alien: The success of the individual against overwhelming odds.
Who hasn't felt like the universe is against them from time to time?
North by Northwest: Choosing to fight for the greater good over
the self. We all want to be heroes.
Chinatown: Not giving up in the face of adversity.
(Interestingly, the resolution of this conflict ends badly, which is one
of the reasons I like it.)
Star Wars: Triumph of the will, becoming the hero. Rooting for
the underdog.
Mad Max: Revenge. Placed in a context where revenge is allowed.

I may not have identified the same primary conflict arcs as you would,
but these are reasonable identifiable to me, and I think reflect my
experience of these movies.

So some of the "bad" movies:

Van Helsing: What is the primary conflict here? As likeable as
Hugh Jackman is in the role of Van Helsing, I just don't identify with
his character at all. It's a neat actiony romp, but it doesn't hold me.
(I enjoyed the movie, but it's not a great film by any means.)

Episode I: Assuming that ObiWan is the primary character here,
what is his conflict? He goes against the Jedi council? What gets

Ankle Biters: The vampire hunter has to fight vampires. I don't
think I've ever fought a vampire, let alone a dwarf vampire. So a little
secret here: successful vampire movies are about the symbolism--
vampires are used to represent something. In this case, they don't
represent anything but vampires. Bo-ring.

One of the things that I loved about The Matrix was the
trippiness of the whole world-as-we-know-it being an illusion. I think
that almost everyone has had that feeling at one time or another, like
there's something behind the scenes that is making all of this stuff
happen. It's something that we can all identify with. To me, that middle
point is clearly defined as the time that Neo is faced with the choice
between the red and the blue pill, and that defines the primary
conflict: the relative safety of the illusion or the risk of reality,
the known vs. the unknown.

I'm really trying to get a handle on story here. This isn't something
that comes easily to me, particularly with writing a screenplay. I
really want to make good movies. So hit me up here. Tell me if I'm
wrong, or if you think I'm missing something (character aside-- I will
agree that good characters are important) in what makes a good movie
story. Or if you can think of good or bad movies that don't fit the
story/conflict paradigm. Or what movies you like/hate and how they fit.


Mar. 4th, 2005 08:58 pm (UTC)
Windy notes that most moviemakers don't write produce & direct. True.

Robert Rodriguez does. And scores, and edits, and and and. Obviously, he's not most moviemakers. Not even close. My thought is, since he makes good movies by my measure, it's totally worth doing if you're willing to commit to a singular aesthetic vision as a comprehensive whole.

I'd be interested to see if the filmmakers themselves analyze their movies at the level you have. Perhaps Ridley Scott would agree with your essential point while also asserting, "hey man, I made Alien to show the machinations of corporations as delusional in the face of implacable nature and its drive to breed" Or whatever. But he'd also probably agree with you on the point that IF you have a strong central conflict with a strong resolution that is also a gateway to a symbolic understanding of the events, you PROBABLY have the framework of a good story and thus a good starting point for a movie. Or at least a reliably good way to frame a movie.

I found Slacker to be a very good movie without a story/conflict paradigm and a constantly shifting cast of dozens, with very few individuals to hang our hat on. There were micro stories, and micro conflicts, though you find a lot of the conflicts took place within stories told by characters, not seen per se in the movie.

Or Lynch's Lost Highway. There's a pretty straightforward single character with a strong material conflict that represents a deeper symbolic conflict: Bill Pullman's character is trying to solve a problem and is apparently beset by dark forces which may or may not represent the larger force of society or nature or the like. But then there is a deliberate breakdown of the individual character, and the nature of the conflict is telescoped, inverted and displaced as we not only see the character transformed but the events and timeline disrupted. There is almost no sense of resolution, though I left feeling that things had been "explained" more or less to my satisfaction.

One of my favorite movies is Network, in which we see a strong and sympathetic character engage in terrific conflict, while also becoming complicit with the antagonist(s) in the conflict against himself (?!). The ending is a very firm resolution, but I leave feeling not like the conflict is resolved, but the character himself is.

I had to think pretty hard for these and my analysis may be off a bit. But I think it can go both ways. Your description feels right--on gut instinct--as a sufficiently general viewpoint which isn't harmed by these few exceptions. Or wouldn't be harmed with numerous exceptions! I think there's enough movies that match what you've noted for you to be "right". FWIW.

Great films that I love that support your thesis:

The 400 Blows: a boy is beset by peers, elders, even the authorities. He overcomes considerable odds to discover a kind of liberty and and maturity that anyone could rejoice in. A struggle for victory against larger forces, by one of the world's weakest members-- a child.

okay I'm running out of time. some personal faves that fit-
LA Confidential - 2 protagonists, a personal struggle connects to a wider one against endemic corruption
Star Trek: Wrath of Kahn - a band of protagonists, a singular villain, a profounder question of life-death-rebirth held between a personal struggle with very broad impact
The Big Lebowski
Grosse Pointe Blank
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Much Ado About Nothing
Good Will Hunting
Dead Poets Society
Princess Mononoke
Victor Victoria
Mar. 5th, 2005 12:55 am (UTC)
I didn't particularly like Slacker, but I did think it was a brilliant piece of contextual fimmaking-- the style of the movie reflecting the lifestyle of the subjects. I haven't seen Lost Highway yet, which is so not like me being a huge David Lynch fan. He turns things in quirky ways enough to make me squidgy inside (I absolutely love Eraserhead), but his quirkyness isn't just to be weird: there is a purpose behind every frame.

Then again, I've been (ahem)altered on more than a few occasions while watching Lynch films. And no, it is not true that if you watch Eraserhead while on acid that your head explodes.
Mar. 5th, 2005 06:29 am (UTC)
All very good points. You should check out The Anatomy of A Screenplay by Dan Decker. He introduces another element to structure that he calls "Drive", there are several "types" of drives the move a story along. I think using his theory, you'd see that some of the films you've mentioned that look like exceptions to the conflict/story thing, are really just using different "Drives".

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