Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror

chicken little little golden book

Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).

I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie log line sounds okay on paper:

“After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”

But tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.

Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?

It’s funny — we all grow up on a diet of stories about the lone voice of reason trying to warn everyone about some imminent calamity, from Noah to Jor-El, and instinctively side with this hero and despite the ignorant ovine masses who jeer him or try to silence him. And yet whenever such a person appears in real life, our reflex is to join in with the mobs of scoffers and call them alarmists, hysterics, conspiracy freaks, and doomsayers.

Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing
Continue reading “Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror”

Thelma And Louise Story Structure

Thelma and Louise is an iconic 1991 film, hailed at the time as feminist. I don’t fall into the camp who consider this a feminist film, but it is still one of my all time favourites. I know Thelma and Louise so well it makes an excellent case study in storytelling technique.

While I was writing Thelma and Louise, it was the most fun I had ever had in my life, bar none,” she says. “It was such a pure experience. There was no self-censorship there, there was no second guessing. From a creative standpoint, it was the freest I had ever been in my life. I loved every moment I got to spend time with those characters. Nothing came close to it, including winning all the awards and everything else. As much fun as all that was, it wasn’t as much fun as sitting alone in a crummy office on Vine at 2 in the morning writing that screenplay.

Callie Khouri, who has more recently written Nashville (2012) and the film Mad Money (2008)

Part of the appeal of Thelma & Louise is undoubtedly the ‘hat on a dog’ inversion women holding up banks and murdering men is simply less usual than if two men were doing the same.

What percentage of violence is committed by men

Thelma & Louise and The Early 1990s

Why Thelma And Louise Strikes A Nerve

Time Magazine asked why this film struck a nerve with the wider culture. This is the film that really got people talking about sexism and Hollywood. Until we saw women on screen, few had really noticed that we hadn’t seen women on screen.

By the time Thelma & Louise was made, Hollywood was one of America’s greatest exports. Perhaps American pop culture remains America’s most successful world export. Ridley Scott is British, but has worked most of his life in America. Perhaps his early years afforded him special insight into how America’s Hollywood has influenced the rest of the world.

Genre Blend and Influences

Myth, Drama, Crime >> Road Movie

A road movie is a mythic journey. The problem with mythic journeys is, they can get a little episodic, in a bad way. Just one damn thing after another. But when you have opponents stuck in a car together, that makes the story take a more linear, constrained shape. Thelma and Louise also gets around the ‘one outside opponent after another’ by having the Brad Pitt character turn up more than once.

There are various subcategories of road movies, as well:

I mark the signature of classic and contemporary Westerns, sundry types of road film (doomed/outlaw/lovers subgenre in particular), and the seventies “buddy” movie.

The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise

This film has many elements of an outlaw film, which are obvious and stand out:

  • the killing
  • the robbery
  • flight from police
  • high speed car chase
  • a revenge fantasy (True Grit is an example of a revenge outlaw story)

Classic outlaw movies tend to have deadpan humour. Examples: Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The humour in outlaw films doesn’t tend to suggest self-awareness and growth, but in Thelma & Louise, the classic screwball humour is there to show her character arc. Examples: when Thelma acknowledges to J.D. that her husband is an ‘asshole’, the theatrical robbery speech parroted from J.D., asking for a couple of bottles of Wild Turkey, the wisecrack with the state trooper who pulls them over, the prank of locking the trooper in the trunk).

Thelma and Louise as characters are more like a screwball couple defying authority than they are like outlaws who have a problem with society in general. They are like Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby.

But Thelma & Louise also includes many elements of screwball comedy:

  • the theme of escaping the constraints of authority for the freedom of the open road
  • playing out different roles (with masks)
  • shedding one’s old identity for a new one

You might describe this film as a ‘road screwball’ similar to It Happened One Night (1934)

Thelma & Louise has been described as a picaresque tragi-comedy. Picaresque relates to an episodic style of fiction dealing with the adventures of a rough and dishonest but appealing hero, or two heroines in this case. The classic (“original”) example of a picaresque story is Gil Blas, a novel by Alain-René Lesage published between 1715 and 1735.

The previous year, Susan Sarandon had played a similar character also a waitress, also rebellious and sharp-tongued, in White Palace.

The character of Thelma Dickinson is similar to Lola in Come Back Little Sheba, played by Shirley Booth in 1952.

The trio in the Ford Thunderbird in Thelma & Louise reminds me of the trio in the Lincoln Capri Convertible in A Long Hot Summer. Driving, we have the uptight woman, next to her the carefree woman, and in the backseat the bad boy they picked up on the side of the road. I don’t know if A Long Hot Summer is a named influence on Thelma & Louise, but I bet the writer watched that earlier movie at some point.

Thelma Louise Trio
The Long Hot Summer Trio

The ‘tough girl’ main characters are also seen in Silence of the Lambs, Sleeping with the Enemy, Gloria, Mortal Thoughts and Ridley Scott’s own Alien. We see these characters in various slasher films and rape-revenge movies from the late 1970s through the 1980s.

Marsha Kinder has pointed out strong similarities between Thelma & Louise and the 1979 Swiss film Messidor by Alain Tanner.

  • They are both road movies
  • About a pair of women
  • Who abandon their traditional place in patriarchal culture
  • They leave for a trivial reason, from the city into the countryside
  • The turning point comes with an attempted rape
  • Which the women avert and avenge with violence
  • The Anagnorisis is a momentary communion with nature that makes them realise there’s no going back.
  • They die at the end. Thelma & Louise begins where Messidor ends in a similar small-town restaurant where Jeanne and Marie of Messidor have their final showdown with the law.
  • The setting is mythic, and delineates the nature of their final entrapment.

Differences

  • Thelma & Louise are already friends but Messidor is about two strangers who meet on the road
  • The women in Messidor are younger in years (18 and 19)
  • In Thelma & Louise the main characters are rebelling against media culture. In Messidor, the primary rebellion is against respectable bourgeois institutions like the patriarchal family.
  • Jeanne and Marie of Messidor never have a clear destination. Thelma and Louise are on their way to Mexico.
  • Thelma and Louise take a romantic leap into ‘feminist’ mythology (a gender flip on the outlaw movie tradition) whereas the Swiss outlaws are never empowered like that. They don’t have a glamorous shiny convertible. They don’t have exuberant energy and good humour. They are hitchhikers.

Narrative Organisation Of Thelma & Louise

To summarise what Brian Henderson has said about this film, in some ways, Thelma & Louise is noteworthy for what it doesn’t have:

  • Voice over narration
  • No use of the iterative
  • No flashbacks
  • No flash-forwards

Here’s what it does have, and what distinguishes itself from other films:

  • The story is divided into distinct time spaces. The first period covers the time up until the killing of Harlan. Now they are suspended in time their relation to both past and future is uncertain.
  • At this point the film ‘fissures’ we now see a parallel montage which switches back and forth between investigating police and fleeing main characters. This structure continues until the very end when they meet face to face.
  • The audience isn’t really let in on the timing of any given scene. We have no idea how much time is supposed to have elapsed. (We do get a few clues but those are retrospective e.g. when Thelma says it was 4:00 am when she first tried to reach Daryl by phone, this is long after that happened.)
  • Normally, film makers make use of night and day scenes to orient the audience in time but these women are driving through the night, so we don’t get that over the whole film. We only see a couple of nights. We don’t see all the others.
  • The scenes with the detectives are equally indeterminate, time-wise.
  • The information given in each thread fills in ellipsis in the other thread. The film-makers are therefore given the flexibility to break away from Thelma and Louise at any time they want to and allows much storytelling freedom.
  • There is a thematic purpose to all this: Thelma and Louise are themselves living in a divided temporality constantly looking behind them, constantly looking ahead. Listen for how often you hear ‘Go!’ in the dialogue.

Bear in mind, the crosscut technique does not work in all stories, even though it works in this one. Does it work in a film such as Cold Mountain? I found Cold Mountain really slow to read, to the point that I couldn’t finish it. I do enjoy the film adaptation, but probably not because it was crosscut.

Of course the thematic point of the crosscut is that the juxtaposition of the two story lines creates a larger point through comparison. But here that comparison remains on the broadest level, showing that the two leads are equal in the obstacles they must overcome for their love. But the specific scenes where the crosscuts occur are largely wasted.

This film almost overcomes its foundation structural shortcoming through a number of excellent scenes. But then it commits one of the great sins of storytelling, the false ending. When an audience invests two and a half hours of their time watching two people struggle through hell to be together, you better have a profound reason to kill one of them at the end.

Cold Mountain review

Story Structure of Thelma and Louise

Thelma & Louise is a perfect example of story structure. Some people think of stories especially films in terms of three act structure.

As the film starts, the two women are embarking on a camping trip. Stopping off at a roadside bar is a very clear step into a world different from their own. As they both start to let their hair down, they begin to shed more of their former selves but this is drama; every action has a consequence. Thelma attracts the attentions of a local redneck who brutally assaults her. The crisis is precipitated. Given the choice to kill him or warn him off, Louise provoked shoots him in the head and they flee from the scene. Both are thrown into a completely alien world into the woods again.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

Anagnorisis, need, desire

When we first meet Thelma and Louise, they are living in darkness, mortgage holders on a conservative American society.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

If either of the two central characters is the main character, it is Thelma. Thelma has more of a character arc, whereas Louise starts off strong and stays strong, though there is room in the story for Thelma to take over, as explained by Howard Suber in The Power Of Film:

In the first half of Thelma and Louise, the older Louise uses her knowledge and experience to lead. Halfway through the film, however, she succumbs to despair, and Thelma becomes the leader.

The Power Of Film

Thelma needs to learn to live outside the control of her husband.

Thelma desires a fishing trip with her older best friend.

Her anagnorisis will be that she is better off without her no-good husband and she can do amazing things under her own steam.

louise old fashioned diner
In the first part of the film, before the inciting incident, the women look like they stepped straight out of the fifties.
In the first part of the film, before the inciting incident, the women look like they stepped straight out of the fifties.

Ghost (backstory)

Thelma has only been with one man and we find out when she picks up the thieving hitchhiker that she has been with him since she was 14.

Louise had something horrible happen to her in Texas and refuses to go back. Thelma guesses that it was rape.

Setting

Much attention is given to landscape; the imitation Hollywood motels off the highways; a conglomerate of oil wells in dusty twilights; and faces of aged, displaced people, seen briefly in doorways and windows, remnants of lost dreams (particularly for Louise, who notices them). The eternal desert monoliths add to the isolated status of the women’s flight toward the border. […]

So much of the early part of the film is set in familiar post-Hopper (Edward or Dennis) interiors: roadside cafes, motels, and crowded apartments; Western space, with all is potential for self-enhancement and beginning again, fallen into the sordidness of small-town limitation. The bar where the adventure starts looms like an emblem of fallen romanticism hardly up to the already postheroic Urban Cowboy. In the cowboy bootheel slamming of the communal dancing, like some chorus-line crossover of Michael Kidd and Albert Speer, men and women alike wear all the paraphernalia of fantasy western individualism.

In this atmosphere of the ersatz and the fallen, the attempted rape of Thelma in the parking lot and Louise’s killing of the rapist cuts through like an icy blast, announcing the violence and brutality under the celluloid-thin myths of self-sufficiency and heroism.

The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise

I would add that those desert monoliths emphasise how small they are, and how vulnerable. Annie Proulx makes heavy use of similarly massive landscapes to underscore the impermanence of individual human lives, contrasted against the thread of generations. Annie Proulx also makes heavy use of the difference between ‘true’ country people and try-hard blow-ins from the inner-city, dressing up in cowboy clothes, thinking they’re actual cowboys.

As they escape, when the film truly hits the road, the promise of space and freedom lures them on. But the camera still continues to stress the choking inevitability of the world they are trying to escape, not jus the massive machinery, oil drilling equipment, and trucks that constantly threaten to squeeze them out of our vision, but even the seemingly more benevolent spaces and spires of John Ford’s Monument Valley.

The setting itself is meta. We’re watching Thelma and Louise in a Hollywood movie while Thelma imagines herself inside a Hollywood movie:

It’s easy enough in many Ford films to point out how narratives that are supposed to cover hundreds of miles all seem to take place within the confines of Monument Valley. But when similar things happen in Thelma & Louise, the effect is not the creation of a special world, but a sense of being walled in by expectations and walled in by fate, like the grainy television screen catching Thelma’s robber of the convenience store, making her “famous”.

The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise

As they’ve probably seen in hundreds of films themselves, they head for Mexico.

What the hell kind of route is Louise driving? A detailed explanation of the American setting and stopovers can be found over at Twelve Mile Circle.

Thelma and Louise Roadtrip map

Khouri avoided fragmentation in Thelma & Louise with the Brad Pitt character, who turned up over and over again. If that guy had been separate people it would have felt fragmented to the audience. The masterful thing about that particular thread is that J.D. has a good motivation for following the women. (A couple, actually.)

thelma and louise car

There are often lots of storms in road trip movies, to the point where a storm is cliche. This film doesn’t have storms but it does have a lot of rain. Pathetic fallacy. It never rains on Thelma and Louise themselves, however. It’s raining back home where the men are, and J.D. gets rained on, but Louise and Thelma stay dry inside their convertible.

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Thelma needs to escape for a while from her controlling, dismissive husband of many years. But  more deeply, she needs to learn to believe in herself and in her best friend (rather than in her useless husband).

Thelma doesn’t stand up to anyone, not even her own life partner. She can’t even bring herself to tell him she’s going away for the weekend, leaving him a note instead, and a frozen dinner in the microwave.

The older, cynical, street-wise Louise makes a perfect companion to the more vulnerable Thelma. Notice all the ways in which these characters are set up as contrasts:

  • Louise’s tidy and organised kitchen versus Thelma’s haphazard kitchen with a fridge full of half-eaten Snickers bars
  • The way they pack Thelma throws everything in (including that Chekhov’s Gun whereas Louise is more thoughtful and logical about it)

Louise’s version of the world around them is totally realistic, and her continued exasperations with Thelma’s naivete become bitter commentaries on the failure of her own hope and a particular world-weariness regarding any future happiness for either of them.

The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise

Why did the film-makers give Louise the ghost of having been raped in Texas? Probably to justify all the immoral actions she takes throughout the film, including shooting dead an almost-rapist. In other words, this backstory gives Louise psychological validity to her killing. Leo Braudy has proposed another reason: The storytellers want to avoid sending these characters to Texas, because the role of Texas in Westerns and road films is as a ‘wide open genre space’ as solution to characters’ problems.

Desire

Thelma’s desire is to gain a little independence from her husband, but by taking the mini-step of going fishing with her friend for the weekend.

Inciting Incident

A sleazebag at the bar where they stop tries to rape Thelma. Louise shoots him dead.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner suggests that there is a greater dramatic impact in having a character get herself into trouble than in having trouble land upon her, especially if she gets herself into trouble for good reason.

Fiction Writers’ Review
Louise shoots

Louise has just saved Thelma from violent rape but this is just the beginning of their troubles.

Here’s the thing about this confrontation as an inciting incident: This scene has created what writers call the ‘obligatory scene’. (John Yorke prefers the term ‘obligatory act’.) Now that Louise has shot this guy with a gun, the audience must see a big struggle between Louise and the law. The audience won’t feel the story is finished until they see a showdown between the women and the police.

Ally/Allies

thelma louise cowboy gangsters

Thelma and Louise are each other’s strongest ally, but their relationship doesn’t start off all that close at the beginning. They will grow closer as the story progresses.

Most of the world is against them, mostly men.

Opponent

Darryl is Thelma’s first opponent the one she’s running away from in the first place. Darryl has been described as a perfect example of the Playboy Philosopher archetype.

Harlan is a classic redneck type.

J.D. is a false ally opponent, who makes off with their money and therefore leaves the women desperate and willing to push the envelope.

Subverting audience expectations in a cop drama, even the detective is on their side. In fact, he’s an opponent, for the purposes of plot. But this is the character who is most closely aligned to us, the audience. We see what he sees, as he sees it. We know the women have done wrong, but can’t help but be impressed by them anyhow, just like him. In the final scene when the detective is running for dear life towards the women’s car, trying to get them not to drive off that cliff, that’s how the audience feels too, after spending an entire movie with these characters.

Detective Hal

We don’t know much about Louise’s boyfriend Jimmy, but we do see a glimpse of his violent tendencies when he is turned down then overturns furniture.

Mystery

There is a strong opponent in this story and there doesn’t need to be any mystery, but the mystery of what happened to Louise in Texas is introduced. Thelma basically confirms our suspicions near the end.

Attack by ally

This happens earlier than usual, with the cafe scene in which Thelma has just been assaulted. Louise almost blames Thelma for getting them both into this terrible mess.

Fake-ally opponent

J.D.

J.D. is an unambiguous example of this. The clever thing about the scripting is that he is upfront about his thieving, and still steals from Thelma and Louise. He unwittingly tutors Thelma in armed robbery with the intention only of showing off. Did he really rob a petrol station using those words, or are those words what he wishes he’d said? Thelma, being part impressionable, part naive, quotes him verbatim nonetheless.

The audience sees him before he is properly introduced. Thelma trips over him. He’s overly apologetic, but since she is still traumatised and temporarily suspicious, Thelma doesn’t reply.

Changed desire and motive

They now want to stay out of trouble with the law. The fishing trip has been abandoned. Louise wants to travel to Mexico. Thelma doesn’t know what she’s going to do.

First revelation and decision

They need money. Louise decides to call her musician boyfriend.

Jimmy

Plan

Louise will call back in an hour and the boyfriend will tell her which bank to pick her money up at in Oklahoma.

As for Thelma, she calls her husband who is annoyed that she left without his permission. She tells him to ‘go fuck’ himself, which we sense is the first time she’s ever said such a thing to him. This is the start of her character arc.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

jd in the wing mirror
This particular shot makes the audience feel uneasy — J.D. is sneaking up behind Thelma.

J.D. plans to rob the women so he asks to hitch a ride with them since he’s a student and has no way back to school after his ride fell through. That doesn’t work at first, but does eventually. Then he turns up yet again (in the rain deliberately not standing under the eaves, I notice, to look even more pathetic) to have sex with the vulnerable Thelma, who he may or may not have planned to rob from the get go.

J.D. is savvy enough about human nature to recognise that the way in with Thelma is to begin by playing schoolyard games.
J.D. is savvy enough about human nature to recognise that the way in with Thelma is to begin by playing schoolyard games.

Apparent defeat

We learn that all of Louise’s life savings are gone. What’s left to do now, when they don’t even have money for petrol?

Drive

Thelma feels responsible for the money going missing so she tells Louise ‘Don’t you worry about the money’. She is newly hardened and resolved to get money by robbing a store. Or, as TV Tropes would put it, she Took A Level In Badass.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

The successful and easy robbery has a galvanising effect on Thelma. She feels she can do anything and is having a good time for the first time in many years. I’m reminded of the elation experienced by Walter White just after he ‘breaks bad’.

Second revelation and decision

In Thelma and Louise, Thelma initially refuses to accompany her friend to Mexico. Only after a patronizing, misogynistic phone call from her husband forty minutes into the film does she commit to the journey.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

When Thelma calls home and immediately realises the police are there the women realise just how much trouble they’re in.

Audience revelation

Louise has been raped (or similar) in Texas, and the anger she holds about this would have motivated her shooting Thelma’s rapist in the carpark.

TV Tropes calls this a Noodle Incident.

The Noodle Incident is something from the past that is sometimes referred to but never explained, with the implication that it’s just too ludicrous for words, and the reality that any explanation would fall short of audience expectations. Questions about it are often met with “You Don’t Want To Know…

In an academic paper I saw the phrasing: ‘Callie Khouri’s script also enhances the film’s ambiguous openness for interpretion by sharply scanting information about the protagonists’ prior lives, except for a few bold strokes.

This pretty much sums up academia vs TV Tropes academics tend to assume the creators meant what they did, whereas the contributors to TV Tropes seem to suggest storytellers construct stories out of Lego blocks, and that there’s nothing new under the sun.

TV Tropes also points out that this noodle incident trope is generally used by trickster characters.

Don’t be surprised if it was caused by a trickster-type character. If there’s a noodle incident and a trickster happens to be in the main cast, the trickster is almost always responsible for it, or at least blamed for it.

Louise is not the stock trickster character but she is certainly an extended version of it. So is Thelma they are constantly getting themselves out of tricky situations by doing underhanded things. Audiences love main characters who do this.

Third revelation and decision

Talking to the detective again on the phone, Louise is told that they won’t get into Mexico. She puts two and two together and realises that Thelma has told J.D. where they were headed, and that J.D. must have told the cops.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

Louise gets pulled over by a cop, who knows all about them. Thelma is now given the opportunity to show the audience how much she has genuinely changed. Whereas before she was simply parroting the words of J.D. when robbing the bank, we now get to see that she can hold her own as a criminal. We see her act calmly and confidently as she gets the cop to climb into his trunk.

The same scene is used in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. When the two guys are pulled over by a cop we think, they’re certainly done for now. There’s also a cop-pulling-over scene in Little Miss Sunshine and another in No Country For Old MenIt’s very common in road movies, and interesting to see the various ways in which the writers get their characters out of this situation.

Battle

I’ve always thought that truck explosion was overdone. I mean, there are a lot of stock characters in this movie, and Thelma’s husband is almost overplayed, but the guy who plays the vile truck driver really does seem overacted. But there is a very good storytelling reason for that very Hollywood truck explosion it makes for a great big struggle scene. The explosion, of course, symbolises their entire mess.

Anagnorisis and Moral decision

Now that Thelma and Louise have become emancipated and liberated they are truly free.

something's crossed over in me

New situation

This part of the film has been left out with the express purpose of leaving the audience in a state of shock. At this point there is what TV Tropes call a:

Cerebus Callback: Thelma and Louise take a polaroid photo of themselves at the start of their trip and stick it to the rear view mirror in the car. The photo flies off the mirror just as the car goes plunging into the Grand Canyon.

final scene

Scott is a formidable entertainer, but he lacks Edwards’ or Altman’s subversive boldness (at their best). His critiques are increasingly vitiated by tidy “with the grain” resolutions (in this sense, Thelma & Louise’s unhappy ending is as problematic as Blade Runner’s infamous happy ending).

The Many Faces of Thelma and Louise

When Thelma and Louise drive into the canyon, they have embarked upon a mythic flight into forever. See The Symbolism of Flight In Children’s Literature (of which much applies to general stories).

Thelma and Louise launch themselves into space and turn, not into magic heroines who manage to land on the other side, or angelic marthrs who crash into the canyon, but into a brightly colored magazine illustration. This last image echoes, as many have noted, Redford and Newman at the end of Butch Cassidy. But I think more of the freeze-framed Jean-Pierre Leaud at the end of 400 Blows, faced with the threatening freedom of the sea. Not gun-toting heroes turning into legends, but hand-holding heroines of thwarted energy turning into a myth of blood, escaping the frame that confines them.

Leo Braudy

Some critics have compared the Grand Canyon to a vagina, or ‘the great vaginal wonder of the world’.

RELATED

Are you writing a road trip story for younger readers? I recently watched Amanda at Book Riot talk about a book called Done Dirt Cheap, which she describes as being ‘a cross between Sons of Anarchy and Thelma & Louise‘. It’s interesting to see books being promoted using films as examples. I guess this is because there are so many books in the world it’s hard to find anything that everyone has read, whereas there are a few tent pole films which almost everyone knows something about, even if they haven’t seen them. It’s not a bad marketing strategy.

American Honey is a 2016 coming-of-age film with some similarities to Thelma and Louise. A naive, disenfranchised 18-year-old is recruited to join a travelling band of magazine sales people. The young crew is travelling around America selling (or scamming) magazines. Like Thelma and Louise, the female main character is a rare example since the road trip symbolises freedom and women are rarely afforded that. Like Thelma and Louise, Star gets up to mischief on her trip, and her main problem is a man. Unlike Thelma, Star has no older female to set her straight only an older female character to set her wrong. If you loved Thelma & Louise, I recommend American Honey.

The Grand Canyon from the United States Series Hiroshi Yoshida 1925

Million Dollar Baby Film Study

Million Dollar Baby

Today is Curmudgeon’s Day, according to Twitter. (Un)happy Curmudgeon’s Day! In that spirit I will take a close look at a film in which a curmudgeonly old man learns to soften up with the help of an earnest and humble young woman. I first saw this film around the time Million Dollar Baby come out and in my memory it was a pro-woman film, but watching it again now I can see that although Hilary Swank becomes the boxing champion in the story, this is nevertheless a narrative about the Clint Eastwood character, who does curmudgeonly very well. (In certain fonts his name looks very much like ‘Cunt Eastwood’, just by the by.)

The film Million Dollar Baby is directed and produced by Paul Haggis, who also gave us Crash. The script is based on a short story by boxing trainer Jerry Boyd, who wrote under the pen name F.X. Toole.

It strikes me given recent Hollywood political news that perhaps the reason female actors are getting paid far less than male actors in Hollywood can be justified within the industry by the fact that women only have to read a few lines. (This even applies in films for children.) Swank’s character gets comparatively little to say throughout, with the vast majority of dialogue happening between the two old men, or via Morgan Freeman’s voiceover narration.

If in doubt about who is the hero of a story, ask which character changes the most. At first glance this would be Hilary Swank’s character, who goes from ‘trailer trash’ to ‘boxing champ’, but this is deceptive; a ‘change of circumstance’ does not equal a ‘character arc’: a fundamental shift in worldview. The character arc belongs firmly to Clint Eastwood’s character, Frankie, who ‘learns to love again’ after past rejection from his own daughter.

None of this is to say that this particular story should have been written differently, simply to say that this is no ‘Female Rocky’, as Warner Brothers tried to market the film as.

Sentence Behind The Story: An ageing boxing trainer learns to love (and lose) again after a brief paternal relationship with a young woman who becomes his stand in for an estranged daughter.

Theme Thread: When you truly love somebody, your actions speak louder than words.

Setting: The big strugglefield of a boxing gymnasium and its surrounding underworld. (This is a story set in an ambiguous decade — it’s unambiguously American, but could be set in any number of decades of the past 70 odd years. There are few technological clues. In other words, this story takes place over Frankie’s whole lifetime — it’s a purely psychological story.)

Symbol Thread: The boxing ring as a metaphor for inner turmoil

Arc phrase: “Always protect yourself” >> “I shouldn’t have dropped my hand “, in which hands held up to protect the head in boxing are a symbol of Frankie’s tendency to not get hurt by others in relationships.

INTERESTING STORYTELLING TOOLS USED IN MILLION DOLLAR BABY

REFLECTION CHARACTER

frankie and scrap reflection characters

Michael Hauge writes specifically of ‘reflection characters’.

This is my term for the character who is most closely aligned with your hero – the best friend, partner, mentor or spouse whose primary function is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation and to urge the hero toward transformation. […] 

The reflection character’s primary goal is to help the hero achieve the outer motivation.

Michael Hauge

Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupree is of course the reflection character for Frankie Dunn. The reflection character is often a teacher, though in this case Scrap is lower in status due to being financially reliant upon Frankie. He nevertheless demonstrates the qualities that Frankie himself needs to learn. He sees the champion quality in Maggie before Frankie does and is in fact instrumental in the pairing.

Frankie and Scrap

CONTRAST CHARACTER

Danger

Why does the character of Danger exist? Why is he needed in the story? While all of the other characters are acted in mimetic fashion, the character of Danger is hammed up, played for laughs in a comic fashion which seems almost wrong for the film. But Danger, and his over-the-top presentation, are necessary for building the setting. The audience needs to know that all the odds are stacked against Maggie’s succeeding in this male-dominated fighting world. As a welter weight who has never actually had a fight, this guy is at the bottom of the pecking order in the gym, but is still more accepted than Maggie is because at least he’s not a girl. He’s as close as it’s possible to get to a girl, however, symbolised by his tights and the way the bigger guys hassle him for them. This demonstrates (as if it’s not already obvious) the machismo of the world of boxing.

danger in tights

There is another reason for the character of Danger: Frankie is exasperated by him. He’s a bumbling fool. This elevates Maggie in Frankie’s eyes. She may be clueless, but it’s not because she has delusions of grandeur — she is clueless only because she hasn’t had the privilege of coaching.

USE OF CHARACTER NICKNAMES

In the case of ‘Danger’, there is a pleasing ironic juxtaposition between the character and his nickname which serves to highlight how very non-dangerous he is as a boxer. The character of ‘Scrap’ has obviously been formidable in his younger years. The world of boxing is a natural story arena in which to make the most of nick names, and other boxers are referred to briefly by theirs. The nick names function as a shorthand for their backstory.

The most significant use of a nick name is that which Frankie gives to Maggie: Mo Chuisle. We don’t learn until the end of the film that this means ‘my blood’, and that when Frankie gave her this name it meant he had accepted her as his own daughter.

In young adult fiction, John Green also makes much use of nicknames as a way to say a lot about a character without saying anything at all. (The Colonel, Eagle, Pudge etc.)

USE OF A VOICE OVER NARRATOR

the cleaner

Scrap is also the storyteller, in a film which makes heavy use of his voice over narration. As Robert McKee says:

There’s only one good reason for voice over narration: counterpoint. Woody Allen is the master of counterpoint narration.

Incidentally, this aspect of film shares a lot with picture books — in a picture book, if the words simply explain the pictures, it’s not working as a picture book. Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott use the phrase ‘ironic counterpoint’ in their excellent text How Picturebooks Work. Likewise in film, if the voice over narration simply describes the scenes it is talking down to the audience. 

Morgan Freeman is well-established as a certain type of narrator. In The Shawshank Redemption, too, he plays a character/storyteller who has already been through his own version of character arc before the story of the (white) hero begins. In his narration he has generally these characters have had much time to reflect and to therefore offer insight the characters themselves don’t yet have.

Have we ever seen a white man narrating the character arc of a Black man come out of Hollywood? Sometimes the insight of a black storyteller character is so deep that he almost tips over into Magical Negro territory — a familiar trope in American stories. However, compared to Freeman’s characters in The Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty, Azeem and Batman Begins, the holey-socked, down-and-out Scrap doesn’t exactly subvert this trope, but perhaps narrowly side-steps it.

Part of the reason the voiceover narration works in this film is because there is a reason for it within the world of the story: At the end of the film it is revealed that the narration is a letter Scrap is writing to Frankie’s estranged daughter, explaining the true nature of his character and hoping the two of them will make amends.

FAIRYTALE/FANTASY SYMBOLISM

In fairytales, a character often bears a curse and comes up trumps despite this curse. Although in fairytales curses might come about due to a witch who wasn’t invited to a party, in modern stories the curse has morphed into some lack of privilege. In Maggie’s case she bears the curse of being female. She also happens to bear the curse of being 32-33 years old in a sport best suited to the young.

The boxing robe given to Maggie by Frankie is symbolic and marks a turning point in Frankie Dunn’s character arc. In fantasy, robes often mean ‘invisibility’, or ‘blending in’, but here it signifies ‘initiation’, and is therefore more akin to the fantasy ‘crown’. (It’s a hooded cloak, after all.)

maggie's cloak

GHOSTS

We learn in a very brief scene outside church that Frankie has a daughter. We don’t know if she’s still alive or anything about her. This explains why Frankie is uncomfortable getting involved with a young woman as a fatherly figure — he’s scared of being hurt again.

Frankie also has another ghost in relation to Scrap, which explains why he’s reluctant to promote Maggie up through the ranks even though she seems more than ready. Scrap explains this to Maggie on her 33rd birthday at the diner: Frankie feels responsible for the game in which Scrap lost his eye.

we learn of eastwood's ghost

The other characters have their own ghosts — we see what a horrible background Maggie’s come from when she buys her mother and sister a house only to have them complain about it.

FORESHADOWING

“I should’ve kept my hands up,” Maggie says from her hospital bed. This has been an ongoing issue, with Frankie refusing to progress her through the ranks until she can learn this properly. Ironically, since it was an illegal punch that lead to Maggie’s injury in the first place, the advice wouldn’t have helped her anyhow.

“Fly there, drive back,” Maggie requests, when Frankie asks how she’d like to travel to and from the championship round. ‘The storytelling device that seems most incompatible with the realities of actual life is foreshadowing,’ reads an article in The Atlantic, comparing it to a device such as metaphor, which exists in the real world as well as in fiction. Why does this kind of foreshadowing exist so regularly in stories?

“We try to predict the future all the time,” Pasupathi says. She speculates that the reason there’s foreshadowing in fiction in the first place is because of this human tendency. The uncertainty of the future makes people uncomfortable, and stories are a way to deal with that.

“The future is never a direct replica of the past,” Adler says. “So we need to be able to take pieces of things that have happened to us and reconfigure them into possible futures.” For example, through experience, one learns that “We need to talk” rarely foreshadows anything good. (Life has its own clichés.)

The Atlantic

SIDESHADOWING

Sideshadowing happens in stories when a character or narrator posits a series of possible events which never have any consequences in the story. Sideshadowing draws attention to the possibility that other paths could have been taken.

A conversation in the hospital between Maggie and Frankie posits an alternative ending for the two of them. They discuss maybe moving to a cabin somewhere, where Frankie can read his books and look after Maggie.

Another possible ending is posed by Frankie just before Maggie asks him to finish her off; he’s been thinking he can get a wheelchair which can be operated by blowing through a straw and she could go back to school.

These two alternative endings serve to heighten the sadness of the actual ending. Those are both the happiest endings an audience could wish for, but the popularity of this film should put paid to the idea that successful Hollywood stories have happy endings.

What is required for the ending of a film is not happiness; it is justice. The bad force may not totally overcome the protagonist, but it always takes its toll. The endings of the vast majority of popular films are, in fact, Pyrrhic victories. […] Happiness has nothing to do with being a hero; in fact, happiness is something heroes learn to live without.

Howard Suber, The Power Of Film

STORY STRUCTURE OF MILLION DOLLAR BABY

frankie dunn

Note the symbolism of Frankie behind those bars ^^. The character arc will see him come out of his psychological cage. Note that this film is based on some short stories, one of which was originally titled ‘Rope Burns’. (It has since been retitled to match the film.)

SHORTCOMING

Frankie Dunn, boxing coach and gym owner.

Psychological Shortcoming: His relationship with his own daughter has soured and he is unable to relate to any female around his daughter’s age. His only real confidant is the pastor at his church where he is only ever in a verbal sparring match anyhow.

Moral Shortcoming: He discriminates against Maggie because of her gender even though she is obviously the most committed boxing student he could hope to find.

He needs to learn how to get close to people again, and in particular how to relate to women. He also needs to learn to become a true Christian rather than simply going through the motions of attending daily mass.

DESIRE

Frankie wants to take Big Willie Little, pro-level boxer who he has trained for years, right through to the big-time.

OPPONENT

Mickey Mack, big-shot manager poaches Frankie’s protégé. Big Willie goes with Mickey Mack because he feels Frankie isn’t advancing him quickly enough.

Scrap is Frankie’s sometimes opponent, functioning as his reflection ally.

PLAN

His plan doesn’t work when Big Willie Little is poached by a manager. Frankie is especially devastated at Big Willie’s parting comment that Frankie has taught him all he needs to know.

Needing a new focus, Frankie reluctantly settles upon Maggie, so he starts coaching her, meaning to palm her off at the first opportunity.

He does this, but doesn’t like that her new manager is coaching Maggie to lose so that his other fighters can win, so he takes Maggie on again. He will train her to be the best or not at all. He will also protect her from injury by refusing to advance her through the ranks quickly.

BIG STRUGGLE

There are a series of actual struggles — this is a setting which includes boxing matches, after all — culminating in a title fight with an illegal shot from the opponent which breaks Maggie’s neck. She is now a quadriplegic, dependent on a ventilator.

ANAGNORISIS

Frankie goes through the first three stages of grief: denial, then blaming Scrap in anger and later trying to bargain with God through prayer. (Note that when films have a reflection character such as Scrap they always ‘scrap’ with the hero at some point — it’s a screenwriting rule.)

Frankie has the anagnorisis that he would give his own life (freedom) for his daughter (or his symbolic daughter) and he’ll do something illegal and against his own ethics to save Maggie from continuing misery.

NEW SITUATION

At the end of the film there is a small chance that Frankie and his daughter will reconcile their differences, with Scrap’s quiet intervention. Nobody knows where Frankie has gone, so we know at least that he hasn’t ended up in jail. That may be him through the window of the diner — perhaps he’s bought a diner, or maybe it’s not him at all. His face through the glass is wraithlike — having lost not one but two daughters, he has become his ‘ghost’.

RELATED

I hope I’ve argued that Million Dollar Baby is not ‘the female Rocky’.

Here’s an article wondering if Rocky is ‘the most successful bad film ever made’.

The article makes some interesting points:

  • The story indulges in some Cinderella-style wish fulfilment
  • It was sold to adult movie goers as a gritty urban drama but is more like a feel-good Walt Disney children’s film
  • The storyline of Adrian is horribly misogynistic — the shy girl bullied into ‘dating’ a man who ends up falling in love with him is replicated all over films of this era, including Star Wars. (Remember when Princess Leia gets her head smashed against the wall in a ‘passionate’ kiss?)
  • Creed’s laziness saps the film of tension. Rocky really actually wins because he does some exercise.
  • The terrible dialogue and problematic construction give it the feel of an indie film, which works on its favour.

Call it a way-out theory, but I feel there is a correlation between sexist narrative in film and sexual assault in film-making. Multiple women accuse Oscar winner and prominent ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis of sexual assault.

The Problem With The ‘One Big Lie Per Story’ Advice

There’s a rule of writing fantasy which all professional writers are familiar with. (No, I’m not talking about the dangling preposition.)

Fantasy writers are allowed one big lie per story.

As Michael Hauge writes at his Story Mastery website:

The quality that gives every movie its emotional appeal: It isn’t the fantasy element of a story that is interesting, exciting, romantic or funny. It’s the REACTION of the everyday world to that fantastic situation. Therefore you are only allowed to introduce that single incredible element into your story; everything else must be logical and believable.

— Michael Hauge, Credibility (Part 1)

Robert McKee advises the same thing in his well-known screenwriting book Story:

[O]f all the genres Fantasy is the most rigid and structurally conventional. We give the fantasy writer one great leap away from reality, then demand tight-knit probabilities and no coincidence—the strict Archplot of THE WIZARD OF OZ, for example.

– from Story, page 70, in a chapter about setting

Susan Cooper writing quote

I believe the writing advice ‘One Lie Per Story’ is generally sound. What I worry about, however, is that writing teams may be using this axiom as an excuse to avoid examination of their own biases.

Ratatouille Characters

Take a film like Ratatouille. That’s a story starring a talking rat. Yet when feminists point out the dearth of female characters, apologists rebut with the fact that ‘in real life, professional kitchens are staffed mainly by men.’ But Ratatouille is a story about a talking rat. The writers could have written that story any which way they liked. Except the one ‘lie’ is the talking rat. Everything else, in their justification, would have to ‘ring true’ in order for audiences to accept that talking rat, including the typical gender breakdown of a professional kitchen.

But McKee also has this to say about verisimilitude, as he describes a common feature of failed screenplays:

The “personal story” [one kind of failed screenplay] is understructured, slice-of-life portraiture that mistakes verisimilitude for truth. This writer believes that the more precise his observation of day-to-day facts, the more accurate his reportage of what actually happens, the more truth he tells. But fact, no matter how minutely observed, is truth with a small ‘t’. Big “T” Truth is located behind, beyond, inside, below the surface of things, holding reality together or tearing it apart, and cannot be directly observed. Because this writer sees only what is visible and factual, he is blind to the truth of life.

– Story, by Robert McKee

A truly masterful storyteller is indeed able to tell a story which casts females in traditionally male roles, yet it still feels believable.

Some storytellers are even able to write futuristic worlds in which women have equality, and they still manage to tell a truth; not only truth, but Truth. That’s because they are masterful storytellers.

Storytelling Is A Metaphor For Life

McKee continues:

[F]acts are neutral. The weakest possible excuse to include something in a story is: “But it actually happened.” Everything happens; everything imaginable happens. Indeed, the unimaginable happens. But story is not life in actuality. Mere occurrence brings us nowhere near the truth. What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we *think about* what happens.

– Story, Robert McKee

From a master storyteller himself: Everything happens. Sexism happens. And there is absolutely no excuse at all for the reproduction of outdated, anti-female and outright nasty portrayals of girls or white people in any work of fiction, especially for children.

Consider also the following concepts of storytelling:

‘THE WORLD OF THE WORK’

In talking about what Paul Ricoeur calls “the world of the work”, we assume, of course, that the work offers up a world of its own. Literary works summon such a world through their arrangement and adherence to formal rules; through their use of tradition and genre; through their intent and use of language. We might say that it is through style that literary works become more than the sum of their sentences. Literary works create new worlds by replacing the world itself and it is the metaphorical statement that reveals this operation. “Metaphor’s power of reorganizing our perception of things,’ Ricoeur writes, “develops from transposition of an entire ‘realm'”. Ricoeur calls this realm a “new referential design”, which I specify as the work’s metaphorical design.

– from Goth: Undead Subculture

In other words, a writer can invent any kind of world they want to. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Imagining only worlds full of white boys with a token girl and a token black child is simply a failure of imagination on the part of the storyteller.

THE ‘REAL-FICTIONAL DICHOTOMY’

…literary scholars tend to divide characters in terms of what I will call the real-fictional dichotomy.  According to this notion, fictional characters, by definition, are “unreal” and human beings “real.” … we “construct an image of a person” by “fabricating [the image] in consciousness.”

Believable FictionsOn the Nature of Emotional Responses to Fictional Characters  by Howard Sklar

Sklar argues that: ‘We bring many of the same intuitions and forms of evaluation to our encounters with fictional characters that we use with real people.  With this in mind, I attempt to show that our emotional responses to fictional characters more greatly resemble real-life emotions than some aesthetic theorists would like to concede.’ This argument makes it all the more important that we’re exposing children to a diverse range of characters, if children are indeed reacting to fictional characters in the same way they would react to a person in real life.

CARNIVALIZATION

I came across the term carnivalesque when reading Maria Nikolajeva*, who finds this concept very relevant to children’s literature.

  • Children’s book are often criticised for being not true to life.
  • In fact, verisimilitude (the appearance of being real) should not be confused with reality.
  • ‘Carnivalization’ is a means to achieve a distance from cruel aspects of reality.
  • An example of ‘carnivalization’ common in fiction for younger readers is use of allegorical names for people and places, which would never occur in real life, but  say something meaningful about the story at hand. (Gogol and Evelyn Waugh do this also.)
  • An example of an author for adult readers who has perfected the use of carnivalization is Franz Kafka. The technique is strangely accepted in the work of Kafka, but often questioned by critics when the same thing appears in children’s books.
  • The Wikipedia entry on the genre of Carnivalesque
*who quotes Bahktin, initially describing the work of Dostoyevsky and Gogol

IN SUM

There is no possible narrative excuse for failing to include more female characters and characters of colour in children’s films.

Storytellers must do away with the idea that in a work of fantasy (e.g. one with talking planes), that no other deviation from reality is possible. Verisimilitude is a robust beast.

‘truth’ is not ‘Truth’, and the slavish duplication of human reality in film indicates a failure to make use of story as metaphor for life.

An audience is able to cope with ‘unreal’ situations in fiction because we understand intuitively the ‘real-fictional dichotomy’. Audiences understand that ‘the world of the work’ is different from ‘the real world’. We get it. We can cope.

The reason these concepts are ‘intuitive’ to an audience is due to a long history of storytelling which makes use of devices such as carnivalization (and metaphor and other figures of speech…)

There is no reason, other than unchallenged sexism/racism, why established storytelling techniques cannot be utilised in big-budget children’s films to reimagine an inequal world.

Credibility

INTERESTING LINKS ON VERISIMILITUDE IN STORYTELLING

Based on a “true” story: expecting reality in movies Oxford University Press blog points out that ‘our emotional involvement with a movie depends on the degree to which we expect or “appraise” the events to be real.’  In other words, we expect different things from a story that is based on reality, even though such stories are a blend of fact and fiction. Scientists have measured things like palm sweat and found that viewers are even more affected by, say, a disaster movie, when they know the story is based on true events. The Coen Brothers utilise this when they tell viewers at the beginning of the film Fargo that the story is based on true events (even though it is completely fabricated).

Why newsworthy events do not lead to newsworthy novels from Nathan Bransford advises writers not to expect their story to be more sellable because their story aligns with what’s happening in the news.

Only fiction can be about the trivial without being trivial and more quotes along this line from Explore

The Beautiful Creatures authors give us the rules for creating a believable fantasy from io9. Beautiful Creatures is a fantasy romance based on a book. It’s a story set in a small town and includes witches and devils. Margaret Stohl explains that the co-authors were able to come up with a believable universe because they ‘came out of old school world building, we had a Bible for our universe. We knew histories of characters you’ll never meet. That was a part of it. Obeying your own rules is a huge part of it. things have to matter, laws cause and effect.’