Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Little Miss Sunshine is a good example of a ‘comic journey’ story structure.

movie poster Little Miss Sunshine
A lot of indie movies have yellow film posters. Yellow almost equals indie by now. But the yellow in this film is symbolically linked to a word in the title, of course.

Genre Blend: comedy, drama.

Little Miss Sunshine uses one of the oldest comic structures, the comic journey. This form goes all the way back to Don Quixote and is really a combination of the comic and myth forms. Part of the success of this combination is that these two genres are in many ways opposites. The myth form, using the journey as its main technique, wants to be big, heroic and inspiring. Comedy is about cutting things down to size, finding the falsely big and poking a hole in it. So in a comic journey story, the myth sets up the laughs (puffing up the characters), while the comedy provides the punchline.

— John Truby

For fans of another well-known drama set in Albuquerque, fans of Breaking Bad may be interested to know that both Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris have small roles in Little Miss Sunshine.

  van from above

There’s a ticking clock in this film because the pageant has a set date and time. To the outsider, the stakes are low. But for this family, a successful time together means all.

Little Miss Sunshine uses two techniques that are especially valuable: the endpoint and the family.

— John Truby

Self-revelation, need, desire

grandma glasses

In the first scene we see a little girl’s bespectacled eyes watching a Miss America pageant on TV so we see that she desires to be a beautiful winner of a pageant. For more on the significance of this opening shot, see this video by Now You See It: Opening Shots Tell Us Everything.

opening scene watching pageant on tv

Continue reading “Little Miss Sunshine (2006)”

The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling

When it comes to modern storytelling in Hollywood animated films for children, Pixar is at the top of the field. In fact, The Good Dinosaur, released late 2015, might have been their very first lemon, depending on what you’re looking for in a film for children.

What happened there? Interestingly, Christopher Orr of The Atlantic felt that perhaps The Good Dinosaur hasn’t been well received by adults because it is Pixar’s first film to explicitly target children (rather than doing the usual ‘dual audience’ thing), which leads me to my main point, as encapsulated by Roberta Trites (Illinois State University) in her book Literary Conceptualizations of Growth:

Disney has a long tradition of appealing to a dual audience. In Disney’s major releases, the story frequently includes adults who need to grow as much as adolescents do in a clear bid to pull parents into theatres along with their children.

This has lead to another shared feature of almost all of the Pixar films, unintended or otherwise: what Trites calls The Pixar Maturity Formula. It goes like this:

A mature female, who is coded as an adult, accepts responsibility for herself and for others. Even in the beginning of the movie, she can intuit how other people will react by anticipating their feelings and the relationship between cause and effect and […] she has a higher cognitive facility than the male characters around her do because she can accept death and control her sexuality.

Trites explains that Pixar characters can be easily divided into two distinct categories:

  1. Immature, insensitive, conflict-ridden, funny (and therefore very likeable)
  2. Mature characters (like parents/teachers — and therefore distanced from child)

Note that even though some Pixar protagonists are coded to look like adults, they don’t act like adults. So you can’t judge which are the ‘mature’ characters based on their onscreen age.

As you’ve probably worked out by now, characters from group 2 are pretty much always female, whereas characters from group 1 are pretty much always male.

Continue reading “The Female Maturity Formula Of Modern Storytelling”

Romantic Comedies

Romantic Comedies

1. I Spent A Year Watching Romantic Comedies And This Is The Crap I Learnt from Chloe Angyal, who spent a year studying Romantic Comedies and also got broken up with.

It’s easy to dismiss romantic comedies as fluffy, mindless cinematic dreck, and some of them are just that. In every genre there are some well-made movies, and many more middling and awful ones. But there is such a thing as a good romantic comedy, even the most ardent chick flick-hater will agree. […] Romantic comedies are made almost exclusively for and about women –- in fact, they’re the only genre that is. I dislike them because regardless of any fluffiness or mindlessness, they are powerful pieces of popular culture. Rom coms furnish us with ideas and expectations about some of the most important things in life: love, work, friendship, sex, gender roles. And some of those ideas are worryingly sexist and regressive.

Angyal likens a number of modern rom-coms to Shakespeare, but not in a good way:

Movies like The Ugly Truth andThe Proposal upped the ante on the well-worn trope of the highly strung and socially incapable single career woman. It is nothing new to suggest that a humbling at the hands of a modern-day Petruchio is the only cure for this particular disease. But in recent years, the shrews have become higher strung, the Petruchios more chauvinistic, and the humbling more humiliating than ever before. Remember how in The Ugly Truth, Gerard Butler’s character reduces Katherine Heigl’s character, a competent, professional and authoritative adult woman, to curling up in the fetal position in the closet of her office? And how she then she falls in love with him? Tamed, indeed.

She notices a growing trend:

More recently, romantic comedies have given us a great deal of graphic male nudity. Male nudity is a growing trend in the genre: in the last [few] years, we’ve seen the barely-clad bodies of Justin Long (Going the Distance), Jake Gyllenhaal (Love and Other Drugs), Ashton Kutcher (No Strings Attached) and Justin Timberlake (Friends With Benefits).

And also notes that all of these are white men who look pretty much the same naked. She also noticed a growing acceptance of casual sex in films like No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits.

Script doctor John Truby, in his book Anatomy Of Story, is very clear on the raison d’etre of a love story:

The love story is designed to show the audience the value of community between two equals. The central concept of love stories is quite profound. Love stories say that a person does not become a true individual by being alone. A person becomes a unique and authentic individual only be entering into a community of two.

What’s really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them.

though Angyal points out the problems therein:

This wouldn’t be a problem, of course, if romantic comedies depicted women and men, and sex and love, in a positive and realistic way. But they don’t. Romantic comedies teach us that a woman’s life is empty and meaningless without a man, and that any woman who believes she is happy being single is simply lying to herself.

Then there is Hollywood’s racist problem:

[Rom coms] teach us that love is only for straight white people –- skinny, beautiful straight white people

And the gender essentialist messages:

[Rom-coms] teach us that men are sex-crazed, commitment-phobic animals who have to be manipulated into romantic relationships, and that when a man really loves a woman, he’ll demonstrate his feelings with grand gestures that barely skirt the line between love and stalking.

 

2. How To Be A Single Woman In A Mainstream Rom-com, from Ryan O’Connell at Thought Catalog is a spoof how-to guide which alerts us to the most common character tropes found in romantic comedies:

Have a weird, random dream job that would only exist in a Hollywood script. You’re a product tester of…products, or a “GLAMOROUS” dog walker, or a super chic editor of Chic Magazine located in Loveless Metropolitan City, U.S.A. Your job is your life. In the office, you’re an assertive smart woman but at home, when no one is looking, you open a bottle of wine and become The Sad Wine-Drinking Single Woman.

3. Romantic Comedies Aren’t What They Used To Be. Then Again, Neither Is Love, from Slate, in response to: Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad? from The Atlantic

Christopher Orr makes the argument that rom-coms ran out of steam in 2012. He argues that although they only stopped being profitable that year, they’ve been terrible for decades (though he did like Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman. He also likes the darker rom-coms like The Silver Linings Playbook and Moonrise Kingdom).  Orr noticed that although big name (male) actors may start in rom-coms (and do a great job), as soon as they get breaks in other genres they rarely come back to rom-coms, perhaps thinking that would be slumming it. As an example he offers George Clooney, who has modelled his career on Cary Grant’s in every way… except that Cary Grant did rom-coms. As for the storyline itself, he points out that in the modern world it’s harder to find an original way to keep two characters apart, which has lead to some ridiculous storylines. Embedded in this article is also the video A Brief History Of Romantic Comedies.

Alyssa Rosenberg points out that both male and female actors are opting out of rom-coms too, if they get the chance. defends defends rom-coms a bit, pointing out some good ones. (She likes 40-year-old Virgin and Bridesmaids, in which the hero/heroine has to have their own inward character arc before they’re fit for being in a partnership.)

[In short, critics don’t mind rom-coms if drama is one of the major genre blends.]

4.  What Went Wrong With Romatic Comedies (Part 2). As Orr subtitles his piece: Critiquing a critique of my critique of modern-day rom coms.

Orr responds to Linda Holmes at NPR who pointed out the misogyny of this debate (without using the word misogyny, though Orr doesn’t mind using it):’we’re not going to enter another “golden age” until we address the epidemic of weirdly aggressive actress-hating that seems to befall anyone who trades on straight likability. Linda Holmes writes also that ‘there is a useful distinction between romantic comedies that are greatand romantic comedies that are greatly loved’, and cautions anyone critiquing a rom-com to critique them for having ridiculous plots, which is the very point, especially in the old classics. Pretty Woman is an example of a ‘greatly loved’ film which is not technically great. She also argues that there is still plenty of opportunity for writers to keep lovers apart.

If Rom-Coms Are Getting Worse, It’s Not Because Society’s Getting Better by Noah Berlatsky is another response to the Orr piece. His favourite rom-com is Say Anything because the main characters are not actually assholes. He also thinks it works because the characters are young — young people still have constraints but older people are free to hook up as they please.

5. The Top 10 Romantic Comedies according to Hello Giggles, and here’s a list of the worst, at least during the last decade from Pajiba. The Guardian asks for a list of the best AND the worst. Except I’ve recently pledged not to read comments sections, so I’m stuffed.

6. It’s Not Too Late To Save The Romantic Comedy From Itself from Jezebel, and Don’t Give Up On Romantic Comedies from New Statesman

Tracy Moore suggests rom-coms can be much better if writers/directors made the following modifications:

  • More female characters who need to undergo a character arc before they get with a man. (like Bridesmaids)
  • Men have been allowed to be flawed heroes for a while now but we need women who are equally flawed. (Equal opportunity assholes)
  • Less of the gender stereotyping
  • Sex can be easy to get but more focus on the relationship itself (going back to the classic rom-coms, in which the characters are even already married at the start)
  • More stories about the nuances of relationships and how they can drift apart
  • No more of the extreme ‘cougarizing’ of women in relationships where the woman is much older
  • More interesting story structures such as Sliding Doors
  • More stories about ‘less than lovers, more than friends’ couples
  • Women making Grand Gestures in the way men typically do

 

7. The Romantic Comedies Which Prove You Wrong About Romantic Comedies, from Pajiba, in which the writer writes a love letter to: The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, Better Off Dead, Bridget Jones’s Diary, While You Were Sleeping and The Apartment.

8. These fluffy romantic comedies are actually remakes of horror stories from io9. While Mindy Kaling likened rom-coms to sci-fi because of their ludicrous other-worlds in which heroines behave in completely unbelievable ways, this article argues that Forces Of Nature is a remake of Dracula and so on.

9. The Decline Of Romantic Comedies In 11 Slides from Jane Dough and Five Reasons Why Romantic Comedies Have Gone Downhill from Huffington

10. Every Romantic Comedy Ever, a video shared by Jezebel

11. Women Didn’t Abandon Rom-Coms, Roms-Coms Abandoned Women from Jezebel, who obviously love writing about Rom-coms.

12. 5 Romantic Comedy Tropes That Need To Die from Thought Catalog: Too many white people, too much with the pathetic fallacy of raining, not accepting a woman’s ‘no’ (I’m looking at you, The Notebook), women falling for hot men despite them  being assholes, from a writer who also wishes Kate Hudson would get no more work in Hollywood.

13. Six Annoying Women Character Tropes in Black Romantic Comedies from Bitch Media: The hypersexual Jezebel, the asexual matriarchs, the Strong Black Woman, the Welfare Queen.

14. Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time from The Atlantic. I hate the messages in that film so much. At least I’m not the only one. For an excellent example of a love story by Richard Curtis, see the made-for-TV movie The Girl In The Cafe, which demonstrates his excellent skill as a writer but with interesting messages.

15. Despite what movies would have you believe, men are usually the first to confess love from Discover Magazine. Another way in which fiction differs from reality.

16, 9 movies that make women think it’s romantic to be stalked from Hello Giggles. While I can’t stand this plot point in stories myself (and here’s evidence, in my breakdown of Waitress),  I do wonder: Are women, grown women who have lived in the world, really ‘learning how to live life’ from rom-coms? I doubt it. I think most grown women recognise stalking when we see it in real life. As in the apparent frequency of con-non-con fantasies among women (formerly known as ‘rape fantasies’), being ‘stalked’ inside a fantasy by a fantasy sexual partner is not actually stalking at all, because the definition of ‘stalking’ means you don’t want it and don’t want the stalker. I do wonder about girls, however. At what age is it okay to introduce Twilight to your daughters (and sons)?

The word ‘stalker’ is used casually now, to describe deep liking someone’s social media posts. And it’s used casually in the song below. But genuine stalking is a scary matter…

Planes Trains and Automobiles

I’m not usually a fan of movies in which Steve Martin appears, but Planes, Trains & Automobiles is one exception, partly because of the wonderful John Candy who co-stars. In this story, Steve Martin plays the straight guy, who gets infrequent opportunities to play slapstick, which he is very good at.

Planes Trains Automobiles Steve Martin angry

Planes Trains Automobiles Movie Poster
Written and directed by John Hughes

[Hughes] is not often cited for greatness, although some of his titles, like “The Breakfast Club,” “Weird Science,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Home Alone,” have fervent admirers. What can be said for him is that he usually produces a real story about people he has clear ideas about; his many teenage comedies, for example, are miles more inventive than [more] recent sex-and-prom sagas.

— Roger Ebert

Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.
Like John Candy, John Hughes also died young of a heart attack.

 

This is a very much a movie of the 80s, and the reuniting scene at the end with the tearful wife is a bit eye-rolly to me, but the comedy is still relevant today: If anything, more of us are travelling more often and can relate well to travel delays with annoying co-passengers.

Good stories don’t need to be complex. E.T. is another example of a film which has a simple story line but which was very popular in the 1980s.

The movies that last, the ones we return to, don’t always have lofty themes or Byzantine complexities. Sometimes they last because they are arrows straight to the heart.

— Roger Ebert

This film is a good example of a holiday movie that works. It probably works because the holiday itself is not the main action. Instead, we see a man who learns the ‘true meaning of Thanksgiving’. The holiday itself is simply the ticking-clock.

Ticking clocks are often used in other genres such as thrillers and action movies, but the device is also used (less commonly) in comedy journey stories. As Truby writes, any journey story is inherently fragmented and meandering. A comic journey makes the story even more fragmented because the forward narrative drive stops every time you do some comic business. Jokes and gags almost always take the story sideways; the story waits while a character is dropped or diminished in some way. By telling the audience up front that there is a specific time endpoint to the story, you give them a forward line they can hang on to through all the meandering. Instead of getting impatient to know what comes next, they relax and enjoy the comic moments along the way. Other examples of this can be found in The Blues Brothers and Jacques Tati’s Traffic.

‘TRAPPED!’

Public transport is the ideal setting for a narrative because when you’ve got a hero and a main opponent, you have to find a way, as writer, to force them together into the same space. Howard Suber, in The Power of Film, wrote that almost every popular film could be justifiably called Trapped, and this film is no exception. Here we have a well-off white guy, who is basically living The American Dream, trapped first in his workplace as his boss hems and haws in a board meeting, then we see him trapped in a variety of locations as his transportation continues to let him down.

Continue reading “Planes Trains and Automobiles”

Muriel’s Wedding (1994) Film Study

Muriels Wedding poster

Mix of Genres: Comedy, drama, romance.

These days there’s a romance subgenre called ‘fake relationship’. These are romantic stories in which two people are forced into emotional closeness via proximity or circumstance. Muriel’s Wedding doesn’t quite fit this category of romance because it transcends these stories and becomes a story about female friendship instead. There is no girl-meets-boy happy ending, which brings it out of the romance genre.

Written and directed by Paul Hogan (no, not the Crocodile Dundee guy, and no, not everyone in Australia is called Paul Hogan). This one goes by P.J. Hogan, probably because of that Crocodile Dundee guy. This was Hogan’s breakout success, and was also the start of two stellar careers for Rachel Griffiths and Toni Collette. That said, we’re here to talk about writing, for a change.

The Plot Structure Of Pretty Much Every Comedy

While some story experts say that there are 7 or 8 different structures for comedies, others say that this is the arch structure of pretty much every successful comedy recently:

Discontent: the hero is unhappy about something
Transgression with a ‘mask’: peculiar to comedy and noir thrillers (the mask is metaphorical — the hero is trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not)
Transgression without a mask: midpoint disaster when the mask is ripped off — the hero is ‘found out’
Dealing with consequences[ Howard Suber writes: “What will the hero do when he discovers his armour doesn’t protect him, that he can be violated — now and in the future? There is only one satisfactory answer: he can pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again.”]
Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story
Growth Without a Mask [Suber writes on this point: Some people might find it astonishing how many memorable popular films end in violence and death, but the history of drama is filled with them, and it is difficult to find any period that is not filled with them. If death is the ultimate separation, the next worst is the separation of people who love one another…The story that resolves itself in unification is most often a comedy.]

The Plot Structure Of Muriel’s Wedding

Muriel’s Wedding is worth a rewatch not just because it’s funny in a bittersweet kind of way, but because it’s a great example of a comedy that follows exactly the structure described above.

Discontent: Muriel is unhappy with her life in general — she’s been unemployed for the last two years and spends a lot of time alone listening to ABBA.

Transgression with a mask: Muriel lies to Rhonda that her life is going great, that she’s going to marry a guy called Tim Simms and she has a successful career selling make up.

I'm a beauty consultant

Transgression without a mask: The mask is ripped off when Rhonda finds her wedding album under the bed and realises she spends a lot of time going around to bridal stores having her pictures taken. There is a confrontation in a wedding store when Rhonda finds her and Muriel is forced to tell her she just wants to change her life and that there was no Tim Simms.

Because who would want to marry me

Dealing with consequences: Still chasing the popular crowd, she basically ditches Rhonda for those other three bitches who are interested in being her bridesmaids now that she’s a bit famous. So she loses her best friend for a while and ends up completely alone when her husband also rejects her.

Spiritual Crisis: happens in almost every story: Muriel has a revelation at her mother’s funeral when she realises her father is more interested in the fact that Bob Hawke sent condolences than about the fact his own wife is dead. Having herself chased after celebrity by marrying the South African swimmer, she confesses to her fake husband afterwards that she’s just the same.

Growth Without a Mask : The good-looking husband rewards this growth with a proper kiss. Muriel realises that what she wants in life is to live in Sydney with her best friend and make her own life so she pays her father back some of the money she stole and takes off.

The other thing Muriel’s Wedding has going for it are two catch phrases: “You’re terrible Muriel” really took off in Australia and NZ in the late nineties and everyone knew where it was from. It is said three times during the film by Muriel’s hopeless sister.

Relying on the magic storytelling number of three, the sister says this three times over the course of the film.

You're Terrible Muriel

The other is, “What a coincidence!” which is funny because the audience realises immediately that the father is having an affair, and so their meeting at the Chinese restaurant is no coincidence at all, but also comedies like this tend to be full of coincidences, so it’s a bit meta. (E.g. Rhonda finding the album exactly when Muriel is trying on the dresses, and so she confronts her inside the bridal store.)

STORY WORLD

The story begins, appropriately, in a small town on the Gold Coast, which is glittery and touristy and offers regular people a week or two of rich lifestyle once per year — the illusion of greatness for the average Joe. Muriel has to escape this setting and go to the big, anonymous city in order to really confront her genuine self. Hence, the story world is connected to the theme.

Welcome to Porpoise Spit

Sydney contrasts with Porpoise Spit — Sydney is the ‘New York of Australia’, the place aspirational young people from small NSW/QLD towns hope to go to make their own way and discover who they are as part of an anonymous crowd.

OTHER POINTS

Muriel’s Wedding is also successful for other reasons:

The main character, Muriel Heslop, is full of  plans and scams. Though we don’t like such characters in real life, we do love watching them on screen — shoplifting, lying, stealing money from her own parents… Muriel has it all.

Muriel is morally as well as psychologically weak, as noted aboveThe lying and cheating constitute the moral weakness; psychologically she has no confidence and is shy. She mistakes the shallow, pretty, high-school-popular girls for good people and tries to be like them even though they’re awful.

The story ends happily ever after, not as a typical romantic comedy would (with the man of her dreams), but with a good female friend, thereby still fulfilling the expectation of unification. (This sort of happy ending has been replicated in rom-coms numerous times since, with another example of female unification being Waitress (2007). In Juno we have a re-unification with a man, though without her baby, which subverts norms for the genre.

There are several set pieces which are memorable: If you watched this when it came out you probably still remember the first boyfriend unzipping the beanbag instead of Muriel’s clothing.

The film is spliced together with juxtapositions. That beanbag scene is swiftly followed by Rhonda’s collapse due to cancer. Hilarious scenes are immediately followed by serious ones. Within scenes, we have the juxtaposition of Muriel’s overjoyed face against her husband’s disgusted expression as she walks down the aisle. This leads to the bittersweet vibe. Muriel’s family is basically a tragic story.

Juxtapositions can be seen in the scenery, too: The bright, kitsch colours of the holiday destination against the griminess of Sydney, where bad things can happen (and do).

kitch setting muriel's wedding

Muriel's Wedding video shop

Since Muriel starts off as such a morally and psychologically weak person, her range of change is large. The audience is given plenty of opportunity to see exactly how she has changed. She’s come full circle when she starts to pay her father back the money she stole and makes the moral decision to look after her friend (a good person) who is now in a wheelchair.

Comedies usually begin with someone who is out of a job, poor, broke, unemployable — a ‘loser’. By the end of the story, more often than not, they’re a ‘success’. The course of comedy is thus always an ascent to power.

— Howard Suber

I can change you'll still be you

Muriel’s duplicitous nature — common to all comedies of this kind, of course — is visually portrayed in numerous ways, not least by the rendition of the ABBA song, in which we see a ‘Betty and Veronica’ sort of difference between two female faces. Two different Muriels.

Abba dress up two personae

Mirrors are often used to convey the same thing, and sure enough…

Muriel mirror

Waitress Film Study (2007)

Waitress is a 2007 film with a tragic real life story behind the movie. It is also a good storytelling case study, as it changes mood part way through.

waitress film poster

Though I don’t like Waitress nearly as much as I like Juno, it’s worth a brief compare and contrast as a way of understanding the way the rom-com is evolving through the decades. Writers can no longer expect large, enthusiastic female audiences for films which basically end with a happy-ever-after when the couple comes from such completely different socioeconomic backgrounds (Would Pretty Woman get a great reception today?) We don’t want to see a woman basically saved by a man. Modern female audiences (even those who love rom-coms) expect agency in our female heroes — it’s not enough to be saved by a prince. (This sort of retrograde, pure fantasy is valid as a fantasy though, and may explain the increasingly popularity of erotica, rather than romance, which at least nods in the direction of feminism.)

First, what Waitress and Juno have in common:

  • They are the same blend of three genres: Drama, Romance and Comedy.
  • They were both released in 2007.
  • They are both indie productions.
  • They’re both about a young woman who, at the very beginning of the story, is thrown into crisis with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy.
  • They are both stories which subvert the traditional love story by ending with the female hero happy, but not happy because she has been reunited with man and child — happy because she has been on a journey to ‘find her true self’.

As far as feminist messages go, Juno does a better job. Waitress has the right general idea, but undermines itself in several ways:

  • Jenna’s husband Earl does not transcend the stock character of a toxically masculine red-neck husband in the way that Juno’s boyfriend subverts high-schooler stock characters by being both nerdy and sporty. He is so very unlikeable that it’s difficult to see how Jenna could ever have ended up married to him. Witnessing the unfortunate relationships of her two best friends are meant to give us some insight into how Jenna, too, ended up with a man like Earl, but it still doesn’t quite work, as Jenna seems smarter.
  • Domestic violence is only hinted at. The problem with portrayal of domestic violence in a rom-com is that it’s the wrong genre to explore it seriously.
  • Although it appears Jenna suddenly achieves independence on her own, she in fact is saved by a man, and why did Jo leave all that money to her? Why was he so involved in her life? Because she’s pretty, let’s face it. (The admiration appears to have been largely one-sided.)
  • Jenna’s friend seems to have learnt an unfortunate lesson in love: That stalking equals true love. This is a source of comedy — the man has truly terrible poetry — and the message for the audience seems to be ‘well, you never can judge other people for who they find attractive’, but the unintended message is also that stalking works.
  • Dr Pomatter was created before the decade of NiceGuysTM, but to me comes across as hapless and hopeless and obviously not interested in pies. Let’s face it: Dr Pomatter is not in any kind of prison. As a highly educated white man, America is his oyster. If he’s not happy with his wife (and his actions would suggest he is not) then he should get over himself and leave this small town. He can literally go anywhere. I didn’t buy his bullshit, though perhaps that was the writer’s intention; Jenna doesn’t end up with him, after all.

Still, this film was made on a very low budget ($2m) and grossed closer to $20m, so it’s a success in financial terms. It’s also got a rating of 7.1 on IMDb, so this film is a success by many standards.Waitress has an unfortunate real life drama — writer and director Adrienne Shelley was murdered by a tradesman in her own home before the film was released. So she didn’t even get to see how it became a box office success.

Let’s see how Adrienne Shelley told a satisfying story, even if we have personal political problems with the message…

4
Dawn is played by Adrienne Shelley

Storyworld

This is an unspecified Southern American town, and I have not ever been to an actual Southern American town, but I’m getting the impression that this is the utopian version thereof. There are certain Southern features in this story arena: The accents, the diner as the main setting, the ‘native’ sexist man (called Earl, of course) versus the forward-thinking newcomer (Dr Pomatter) and the feeling that cultural evolution stopped in the 1950s. The nurse is even wearing an old-fashioned uniform of the sort never seen today except in kinky dress-up scenarios. Pies, too, are a symbol of 1950s America, in which housewives had the time to bake, and were encouraged to think that pie-baking was an expression of love. Jenna, too, has absorbed these values.

2

 

Symbolism

Pie Waitress Movie

The pie symbolism would be way too heavy-handed in anything other than a comedy. The pies Jenna concocts represent her moral dilemmas and inner turmoil. As you can see, the pie above symbolises love. The pie itself, though, hooks us into the 1950s housewife sensibilities that the story then aims to subvert. We’re lead to expect a cheesy love story because of these pies, and we’re therefore a little surprised when Jenna ends up without any man at all.

 

7 Step Structure Breakdown of Waitress

1.  Weakness/Need

8

Psychological Weakness: Jenna is in a bad relationship but doesn’t have the strength to leave. Whenever she has a problem she deals with it by making up a new recipe for a pie. She is cynical when it comes to love: “What if it’s my prince charming?” “There’s no such thing.”

Moral Weakness: Although the audience is helped to understand Jenna’s position (Earl is ridiculously despicable), it is a moral weakness (in general) to hate your own husband while pretending everything is all right, then start something with another man. Jenna is not truthful with the people she is closest to. She also considers selling her baby as a way to raise cash — also challenging to the typical audience.

As seems to be the case in all of these stories about a downtrodden wife, it’s necessary for the audience to understand the nature of sexism and acculturation as it happens in small towns. The film A Walk On The Moon has exactly the same problems for a certain segment of the audience: That film, too, is about a repressed wife who has an affair. In order to understand why she did that, it’s necessary to understand the likes of that explained by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. An issue with Waitress is that it is not in fact set in the 1950s or 60s, so we might expect Jenna to have a little more freedom and agency, and just leave her damn husband.

2.  Desire

In the first scene Jenna realizes she’s pregnant, throwing her life into chaos, since she doesn’t love (or even like) the man she’s with, Earl. She wants to save money so she can leave her husband. She desires to win a big pie competition, in which case she will win $25k and, as her friends point out, she could open her own pie shop.

3.  Opponent

Earl, her husband, is a stock character. He’s a masculine redneck who thinks a woman’s place is to cook and clean for him.

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Dr. Pomatter is a romantic opponent, as romantic conquests usually are at the beginning of stories. The problem with romantic plots is that the writer needs to concoct some way to keep the lovers apart. In this case there’s the fact everyone is married plus the unethical bit about a doctor sleeping with a patient. Dr Pomatter is the inverse of Earl, which does not equal perfect — Dr Pomatter isn’t possessive of his wife (that we can see) but he is unfaithful to her. (Is the name ‘Po Matter’ deliberately unappealing? All I can think of is the contents of a po.)

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Jo – who is Jenna’s crotchety old-man boss who owns the pie restaurant – is basically her ally who does the bit where the hero is confronted by her ally about her moral decisions. He does this covertly by pretending to read out Jenna’s horoscope from the newspaper but really he’s playing a sort of fairy-godmother, crystal-ball role, giving her life advice based on what he’s heard about her and the doctor’s affair. His views are conservative, in line with the views of the community and also in line with those of a conservative audience: homewrecking is a thing — affairs are always the woman’s fault. (I’m paraphrasing.) Anyhow, I wonder if he also confronted the Doc for being a philanderer… He had every opportunity when he was in hospital!

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4.  Plan

The plan is to save money working at the diner making pies, then eventually leaving Earl. But of course this plan doesn’t work – she is forced to tell Earl that she is pregnant because he’s starting to get violent with her. Earl wants to be a father. The complicating factor is that Jenna and her doctor are falling in love with each other. Then Earl finds Jenna’s stashes of money. She lies and says it’s all for the baby’s things (when it’s actually for her running away).

5.  Battle

For Jenna, the battle is the birth. This leads to the self-revelation. So, the birth process (in which, once again, we see a woman on her back despite not being hooked up to all sorts of cords and monitors, THE most painful way to push out a baby) is symbolic for Jenna’s inner turmoil. 

6.  Self-Revelation

Jenna realizes that she doesn’t want to be the reason Dr Pomatter’s marriage breaks up when she meets his wife for the first time and observes how much the wife seems to admire her husband. Then, when Jenna sees her baby for the first time she realizes what true love is, and that she doesn’t love her husband at all. The baby gives her the strength to tell Earl that she doesn’t love him and he gets dragged out of the room by staff.

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7.  New Equilibrium

When Dr Pomatter unwraps the supermarket pie thing and watches Jenna leave we know he’s going to go back to his wife and that he’s going to go back to eating his crappy pies rather than Jenna’s homemade ones. We see a flash forward to Jenna happy and singing to her baby while she continues to work at the pie shop. Alone. She is financially secure because of the money left to her by Jo, and the next scene shows us that she now has her own pie shop, bustling with people and brightly decorated. She has named it Lulu’s Pies after her daughter. (And after her real life daughter, who appears in the film.) She continues to be great friends with her female buddies.

waitress allies

Black Books Pilot (2000) TV Study

The pilot episode of Black Books is called “Cooking The Books”.

One thing Cooking The Books does really well is introducing the audience very quickly to the three main characters (all of them transcending stock characters, though based on stock), and weaving them together for gags at the climax. When broken down, we can see that each of the story strands indeed has the seven basic steps of a complete narrative. Indeed, even the minor characters, the Mormons, have their own complete storyline.

1. Weakness/Need

Bernard

Psychological need: He’s terrible with numbers and has no patience to learn how to do his own taxes.

Moral need:  He’s horrible to people, and as an example, doesn’t even know his own mother’s name.

Fran

Psychological need: She is a bit clueless and probably a drunk. For example, she’s ordered something to sell but has no idea what it is.

Moral need: Self-centred, she plans to get drunk while her friend gives birth ‘so that it can be like the good old days’. She has no desire to actually help the friend. She sells ‘a lot of wank’ to her customers.

Manny

Psychological need: Manny is highly-strung to the extreme, and can’t control his cortisol levels.

Moral need: He isn’t doing his job properly even though he’s being paid to do it. He is petty and in order to get out of a situation he’s been ‘caught out’ in he’ll continue to elaborate on the lie. (A common feature of comedy characters.)

The Mormons

Psychological need: They’re out proselytising but they have no idea what they’re really supposed to be saying.

Moral need: They push the word of god onto people even if they don’t want to hear it. (The audience knows this moral need already — it doesn’t need to be set up by the show.)

2. Desire

Bernard wants to get his taxes done so he doesn’t get in trouble with the tax department.

Fran wants to find out what the big round thing is that has arrived in her shop and which she has to sell in great numbers.

Manny wants to do as little work as possible while remaining calm. In order to do this he needs a ‘The Little Book Of Calm’ at arm’s length so that he can refer to it at any time.

The Mormons wish to convert Bernard to Mormonism, or something (they’re not really sure — what they really want to do is go door to door knocking, then onto the next one, as they’ve obviously been told).

3. Opponent

Bernard’s opponents are ironic. Normally people are annoyed by Mormons knocking on the door, but Bernard welcomes the distraction because he is in the middle of his taxes and has already paired all his socks. Bernard wants to get his legs broken, so the thugs who eventually beat him up are unwittingly doing him a favour. Bernard’s real opponent is the tax office, unseen by the audience.

Fran doesn’t have a clear, single opponent in this episode, unless it’s her friend giving birth, which will be standing in the way of her partying from here on in. 

Manny’s opponent is his immediate boss, who expects him to do work, which he can’t/won’t do.

The Mormons’ opponent is Bernard, who is a sort of ‘secret enemy ally’ — his only motivation is to procrastinate over his taxes but he gives them the impression he’s interested in hearing all about Jesus.

4. Plan

The main source of comedy in this episode is that Bernard’s initial, sensible plan does not work. His subsequent ideas get more and more ridiculous. In fact, this is the format of the entire show. As TV Tropes explains:

Black Books relied on A Simple Plan for pretty much all of its plots. The characters would decide to go to a party, or do their taxes, or write a children’s book, or something, and would more or less use this as a springboard for a lot of bizarre and/or appalling behaviour, until they eventually failed, or at best broke even.

Bernard plans to get his dodgy accountant to do his tax but this can’t happen, first because Bernard’s book keeping skills are terrible and second because the police come for the accountant while Bernard is sitting in his office. So he is forced to change his plan: He decides he’ll read all the instructions and do his tax himself. But he doesn’t know the most basic information about himself (e.g. His mother’s first name, let alone her maiden name), and he can’t understand the instructions. He welcomes any distraction. Finally, he reads a bit where he can delay filling out his tax form if he can prove he’s been sick/injured, so he plans to get his legs broken. He’ll swap this favour for a free book. But this plan doesn’t work even after he’s set it up because the man who has agreed to break his legs realises at the last second that he has in fact read this book and doesn’t want it anymore. So next, Bernard plans to start a fight with some thugs.

Fran’s plan is to ask everyone she comes across what they think the lighter thing is. Fran’s plot line is a mystery, of sorts.

Manny’s plan is to buy a copy of The Little Book Of Calm and read it while looking like he’s working but actually eating chunky soup at his desk. This plan goes wrong when he accidentally drinks the little book when it falls into the soup. For the rest of the episode he wanders round in a Jesus-like state spouting advice from the book.

The Mormons plan to come back later, after Bernard is finished being drunk, and work on their conversion then.

5. Battle

Bernard’s battleground is the fight between him and the thugs, which he picks deliberately. This is your classic ‘battle scene’.

Fran’s battleground should be the birthing room but she is instead having her own battle — rushing up to a customer and demanding to know what the round thing is. The scenes are similar in their levels of desperation. When another customer suggests the ball looks like ‘a fake breast that dads wear’, Fran is suddenly reminded of where she’s supposed to be.

Manny’s battleground is also with the thugs, until Bernard intervenes.

We don’t see the Mormons’ battle, but we do see Bernard drunk and saying goodbye to them, so we can assume this is their battleground. The looks on their faces show that they are rather taken aback by whatever has just preceded the arrival of our camera.

6. Self-Revelation

Bernard works out that the Jesus figure who he has woken up to is an accountant. He realises he can just get him to do his accounts (and also ask him for a wine and a sandwich with a pickle.)

Fran works out that the ball thing is a lighter when she sees Manny using it.

Manny’s ‘self-revelation’ comes in the form of cheese lines spouted out of The Little Book Of Calm which he has literally swallowed… and absorbed into his system.

When Manny opens the door of Black Books looking like Jesus, the Mormons run away.

7. New Equilibrium

Bernard has a friend who is going to do his books for him.

Fran has a best friend who now has a baby (and are they still best friends, since she forgot to turn up for the birth?)

Manny is a much calmer version of his former himself, and has a new friend in Bernard.

The Mormons presumably they think Manny is the second coming or something — we know they won’t be back — not by choice, anyway!

Irony in this episode

Irony is the ‘meaningful gap between expectation and outcome’.

Presentation Irony: This is when the audience is used to the tropes of a particular genre but the story throws us off course. The audience expects Mormons to be experts on all things biblical. But ironically, Bernard actually knows more about Jesus than the Mormons do. This is ironic on multiple levels: Because he knows nothing at all about taxes, even though that’s his business — no one in this show knows how to do their job properly — they’re all complete misfits. The other irony is that we expect people who know about Jesus to behave in a ‘Christian like manner’, and Bernard is basically a cynical misanthrope.

Opposite Outcome Irony: This episode has several instances of this kind of irony. Lemons become lemonade when the skinheads turn up outside Bernard’s shop, because he was just aiming to cut off his own wrist with an electric kitchen knife after trying desperately to persuade someone to break his legs for him. Also, when Manny almost dies from swallowing a book he absorbs its messages into his system and turns into a Jesus-like figure.

Surprising means to an end: “Oh come on Bernard, you’d really have to cripple yourself. You’re hardly going to do that just to avoid doing your accounts,” Fran says, the voice of reason. The look on Bernard’s face tells us that’s exactly the sort of thing he would do.