Saturday, November 29, 2008

Lessons Learned: Lost in Translation

Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola; Cinematography by Lance Acord; Editing by Sarah Flack. (There are other significant contributors like the production and costume designers, but I'm trying to keep the list streamlined. Complete credits here.) 102 min. 2003.

Lost in Translation makes an excellent case for not including voice-over in a film. The cast is small, the plot is practically nonexistent, and when there's no dialogue, we're usually just watching the two protagonists, Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) and Bob (Bill Murray), react to their surroundings. Whether they're staring out the window at the Tokyo skyline or tossing and turning in bed, we never get a direct transcript of the thoughts going on in their heads. Initially, the movie seems like the perfect case for having just such a thing. For example: Charlotte gazing out the window. Now imagine there's no music. Instead, we hear Charlotte: "I feel so isolated… I don't know what I'm going to do with John… He and I don't seem to match…"

Alright, that was horribly obvious dialogue that you'd throw out of any screenplay no matter what, but even if you refine it, it's still unnecessary. We don't need to know exactly what Charlotte is thinking because we already get it: she's unhappy. She doesn't know what to do with her life and her marriage is not working out. We already got that in the first few minutes of the film and there's certainly no need to repeat it endlessly. Not only is that a good way to irritate people, but it's a really good way to kill the atmosphere by cluttering up the soundtrack with extraneous dialogue.

I suppose what I'm arguing here is "show, don't tell," but I wouldn't say exactly that. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has great voice-over, and technically, you could argue that there's no need since it's quite clear that the protagonist is utterly miserable. But, because we actually are tripping around in the protagonist's mind for most of the film, it's perfectly appropriate to hear his thoughts directly. (Besides, he does know when to shut up, but I'll be talking about this film in another post.)

Also, if you notice, there's no direct exposition in Lost in Translation. No character explains the general situation, not even to another character (as a stand-in device for the uninitiated viewer). Everything is inferred from the first few minutes of the film. Bob and Charlotte never even introduce themselves to each other – they just start to talk. Though Bob and Charlotte notice each other in an elevator about 8 minutes into the film, their first conversation is only 25 minutes in. It's a little risky, but they pull it off since those first 25 minutes are put to good use, illustrating the inner-workings of their lives, establishing their basic character traits and the character of Tokyo, which functions as a kind of temporary alternative universe.

Okay that sounded stuffy. Let me explain. What Bob and Charlotte have in common is that they're unhappy in their respective marriages and are stranded in a foreign city where they don't understand the language. Otherwise, they have zero in common. There's also an age difference of about 30 years. In another situation, you might be compelled to say that it's sleazy or inappropriate. You wonder if Charlotte and Bob would have spoken to each other if they had met in the bar of a Manhattan hotel instead of the one in Park Hyatt Tokyo. (I doubt it.) The conditions in Tokyo - the emotional and literal disconnectedness – push them to form a relationship.

There are no grandiose monologues where the human heart is laid bare. Everything is always understated – no one sobs or screams, no matter how miserable or angry they get. Here's an excellent scene of Charlotte and her husband John (Giovanni Ribisi) coming across Kelly (Anna Faris), a friend of his, in the hotel lobby. Watch John and Kelly flirt with each other right in front of Charlotte, supposedly in innocent banter. Not only does the scene perfectly illustrate why Charlotte and John are not successfully matched, but it also conditions the viewer to dislike John and subsequently "forgive" Charlotte for flirting with the idea of committing adultery.

I might be reading a little too much into it, but the scene illustrates the discord, not only in the characters’ interaction but in the casting and costuming as well. Look at Charlotte in comparison with Kelly: They’re practically the same height and build, but Kelly is blonder and dressed in trendier clothing. Plus, she’s wearing red and Charlotte is in gray and light blue. Kelly looks like a flashy-fun-house-mirror-makeover version of Charlotte, visually matching John's hip-photographer-persona much better. Note that in two seconds they establish that John and Kelly have a lot of chemistry, probably more than he and Charlotte have, just as she and Bob have more chemistry.

And, since I mentioned before how disliking John makes us feel "morally indulgent" towards Charlotte, we have the same case with Bob and his wife Lydia, only magnified. Lydia never appears onscreen, but her passive-aggressive presence menaces Bob with middle-of-the-night faxes and the occasional phone call. Clearly, Bob is not the perfect husband or father, but Lydia's antagonism makes us side with him – even when he actually cheats on her with a lounge singer. Our response is, "Well, can you blame the guy?" when Lydia must have her own point of view. (I couldn't find a certain scene, so when you watch the movie, pay special attention to their phone conversation while Bob's in the jacuzzi. He's sending an S.O.S. and she basically tells him to stop whining.)

I wanted to say a couple hundred other things, but I know I have to wrap up, so here are a few more points to think about:

Not a travelogue. Exploits the beauty and strangeness of Tokyo (and Kyoto) to foreign eyes. The medley of sound and vision, the accumulation of scenes, the little details, build up to a general impression of the surroundings, rather than perfectly choreographed images of Japanese culture. It feels like you've been wandering around and happened to catch special glimpses of certain things. (Although it was probably far more orchestrated than that, but overall the impression is natural.)

Loose structure. We know the complications right from the beginning. Not much "happens." There are no surprises. The climax is in the final minutes of the film and a moment later the film is over. No pyrotechnics.

Dodging the ultimate cliché. Appropriately, the last conversation is “lost” but also – what can you say at this point that won’t be a terrible cliché? "I love you"? "I'll never forget you"? The emotion on their faces is enough. We don't need to know exactly what they said.

An open ending with closure. What has been resolved by the end of the film? Bob and Charlotte are still in unhappy marriages and now they've had to say goodbye to the one person they've been able to connect with lately. Do we feel for them? Yes. Are we devastated? No. Do we want them to ditch their respective spouses so they can be together? Personally, I don't want them to. I don't think their relationship would work outside of the temporary comfort zone in Tokyo, but their time together certainly gave them some kind of emotional boost. It's bittersweet instead of sickeningly sweet or heartbreakingly bleak. (Sorry for the tongue twister.) The point is – the movie is well-constructed, so the ending feels just right, not like it doesn't know how the hell to end the damn thing.

And there we go.

Next week… Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Monday, November 24, 2008

Beginnings

(Hey, wait, what's my line?
It's that thing with... uhh... oh right.)
Once upon a time...

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Don’t call me “Teacher.”

Good morning, boys and girls. Welcome to the new weekly segment on Stellascript: Lessons Learned. I hope you've eaten a healthy breakfast and that you got a decent night's sleep.

What can you expect from our weekly lesson? Having covered basic writing issues up till now, I thought it would come in handy to pick a different movie or book each week and highlight a number of important elements. It's always useful to see principles in practice, particularly if they're executed successfully. I'd like to set a couple of ground rules to avoid having to repeat myself week after week:

One: Movies vs. Books. Most of my picks will be movies rather than books – at about a ratio of 3:1 (but don't check my math too closely, it's not my strong side). Why? Ideally, if you haven't read or seen the example I'm talking about that week, I think it'll be faster to go watch the film and see what I'm talking about, whereas with reading the book – who doesn't have a reading list that's not a mile long? It'll take you much longer to get to it and then the things I highlighted will likely have less impact because they'll still be theoretical to you.

Two: Not Screenwriting 101. Have no fear: a lesson from a movie can be applied to writing non-screen fiction as well. These won't be screenwriting lessons. (I don't think I'm qualified for that.)

Three: Who Made the Cut? Why did I choose these specific titles? Several reasons. In the beginning, I tried to limit myself to classics, but I felt that was perfectly snobbish of me. After all, people have been doing interesting things in the past decade or so. I started adding titles that were contemporary and pretty soon the list got to be about half and half. I also selected examples from various genres, but again, a lesson from any genre, even if it's genre-specific, can often be applied to anything. Most importantly – I'm giving examples from books and movies that I've read/seen at least twice, very often more. Much more. So I flatter myself that I've had time to understand what I'm talking about and not just going on a first impression.

Four: Not Necessarily First. Examples were chosen not necessarily because that movie or book invented what I’m talking about, but because the example is a good one. Getting caught up in who invented what is an entirely different discussion I don't want to get sidetracked with.

Five: Only the Final Product. When it comes to the films, let me say in advance that I haven’t read the original scripts, so I don’t know if or how they were altered during production. Chances are they were. The point is, like with a book, I'll be working with the final product – the actual film, that is – and be drawing my conclusions from there. So I'll also be crediting the director, editor, cinematographer, and actors, since they all have an obvious hand in the final product. If the film or book is based on a play, story, book, or film – I'll certainly take into account that it's an adaptation or a sequel.

Six: Circumstances of Production Are Out. Another thing I won’t be taking into account is circumstances of production. I don't care if their girlfriend left them when they were writing it, if their editor wanted a different ending, or if an actor adlibbed a line. I mean, of course I care, but when you watch or read something for the first time, you don't know any of that. Therefore, I'm treating all of that additional info as irrelevant.

Seven: References Are In. I will, however, acknowledge references to other films, books, music, etc., within a work (when relevant) because they're explicitly part of the work. For example, as interesting as it is to know that they were writing Casablanca while they were filming it – and though that does explain why Ilsa and Rick are a little all over the place in a few scenes (since they literally didn't know what was going to happen) – you are not supposed to know that when you watch the film. You are meant to see it as complete, intentional. Likewise, I don't care if Jane Austen never married or was in the same predicament as Charlotte Lucas – it is, for my purposes, irrelevant.

Eight: Not Doing General Reviews. My plan is to highlight useful examples, not go into why I think something is brilliant. The list only contains movies and books which I like, so don't expect a ratings system or a bashing-slashing festival.

Nine: Advance Notice. I'll try to say a week in advance (i.e. at the end of every post) which book or film I'll be doing next to give you a chance to read/watch or reread/re-watch it, since I'll pretty much be spoiling the hell out of whatever I'll be writing about. I may not always know since I already have several things in draft and haven't yet defined an exact schedule. But I'll do my best. Of course you don't have to read or watch anything in advance, especially if you don't mind spoilers. (Just a friendly suggestion.) I'll also do my best to include one or two relevant clips from YouTube when possible.

And that's the general idea. No, I won’t be taking attendance. No, class participation is not mandatory. There won’t be any homework. Any questions?

First up: Lost in Translation.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Monday, November 17, 2008

Switching to Weekly Format

over-ambitious?
or the next logical step?
well we'll see won't we?

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Special Season Finale

On November 19th of 2007, I officially commenced blogging. A little more than 360 days later, I find myself a little older and a little wiser. May this enlightening trend continue.

Stellascript will be changing its format somewhat. Haiku Monday will stay the same – nothing like starting the week with 17 syllables. Haiku Friday, however, is no more. A haiku on Monday is enough haikuing for one week. Wednesdays will be for my plucky (semi-)new web comic, Musings. Saturdays will still be for discussing writing and instead of one post every two weeks, these posts will now be a weekly feature. Having covered basic writing elements, I’m going to start analyzing specific movies and books (heavy emphasis on the movies). But these won’t be reviews with a ratings system or anything like that. Basically, I’m going to highlight certain elements that I feel are successful, in the hopes of providing you with ideas to contemplate. I’ll give a more in-depth view of how this is going to work next Saturday.

Before I thank the academy and head to the after party (to which you’re all naturally invited), I’d like give a brief summary of the entire year. For starters, here’s a list of all the posts which had to do with writing (you can also find them in the column on the right under Shiny Shortcuts):

General Guidelines; Writer and Reader; Narrators and POV, Part I; Narrators and POV, Part II; Characterization; Dialogue; Plot; Beginnings; Middles; Endings; Genre; Description; Figurative Language; Subject Matter; Originality; Style; Realism; Editing; Remakes, Sequels, and Series; Adaptation; Protagonist; Antagonist; Love Interest; Foil; Writer’s Block; Writing Exercises

I almost started listing all the different haikus, but in the nick of time I realized I’m not a total lunatic and that this was the reason I have a tag cloud with those handy little labels. It’s also in the column on the right, practically taking over the universe.

These weird and wacky Wednesdays have been fun. I’ve turned Annie Hall into a Greek tragedy (sort of), Buffy the Vampire Slayer into a romantic comedy and a sit-com, tried to imagine The Iliad as performed by Monty Python, and interviewed Princess Buttercup. But most of all I’ve been caught up in conceiving adaptations of various novels, plays, and poems for the big screen, from Browning, Byron, and Keats; to Austen, Brontë, Shelley, Wilde, Shaw, and Shakespeare, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV; to fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. Toward the end of the year - for some unfathomable reason - I started Musings, a web comic: A Bad Idea, Metamorphosis, Adapting Rapunzel, Intangibility, Adapting Sleeping Beauty, Strategy, and Adapting Stella.

In April I joined The View from Here, an excellent online magazine devoted to reading and writing. I’ve posted alongside a talented group of people. I’ve pondered the meaning of the word writer, the highs and lows of inspiration, the dynamics of relating to an audience, making creative goals and living up to them, legacy and delusions of grandeur, adaptations and interpretations, reading lists and other side-effects, the flexibility of language, authority figures, cellphone novels, the finality of publishing, creative limits, nitpicking, showing and telling, and the challenge of writing descriptions. But there’s always a whole lot more than my posts going on at the View. Do check it out.

My apologies to those who have stumbled upon this blog searching for cliff notes and plot summaries. I hope you’re not too annoyed. I also hope you’ve never used anything I’ve written on a test or a paper. I don’t like to think that somewhere there’s a teacher or a professor wondering what bizarre version of Frankenstein or Shakespeare you got your hands on.

Before signing off on the last post of my blogging season, I’d like to thank all thirty of you for reading and sometimes commenting. I hope that if I’m not giving you anything useful, you’re at least sufficiently entertained. So long, farewell, and may the muses smile upon your endeavors.

(Sorry for getting so dramatic. I’ll be back again on Monday.)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Summary

a year of blogging
lots of words under the bridge
and still more to come

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sex and the City

city! sex! city!
sex! city! sex! city! sex!
city! sex! city!

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Matrix

what is the matrix?
it's certainly not a spoon
(since there is no spoon)

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Monday, November 3, 2008

Haiku Marathons

though they're fun to do
they stretch my ability
to count syllables

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Work those muscles!

Today, rather than ponder over some technical aspect until I feel as though my brain cells are tied up in knots, I’m going to propose a few exercises to:

a) help you with whatever project you’re working on
b) sharpen your writing skills
c) answer a + b
d) 42

Developing Characters
I know some writers like keeping diaries for their characters in order to get into the rhythm of their thoughts, generate feelings and memories. It’s a great idea, but I don’t like getting bogged down by a lot of notebooks, so I do a very abridged exercise: I imagine the character has to introduce him or herself to an audience – a classroom, a therapy group, an auditorium – anything. How do they feel about addressing a group of listeners? Are they good speakers or do they ramble? Would they make good points? Are they shy or confident? Obnoxious or funny? Opinionated or broad-minded? Over-familiar or aloof? What topic would they be speaking about? Does the audience respond well to them? I imagine how they’d handle questions, heckling. I know it might sound a little strange but it can really help you define the character’s dominant traits and even the finer details such as body language or facial features.

Sharpening POV
Level 1: Imagine yourself (or a fictional character, if you’d prefer) sitting in a public place. Pretend that you’re a stranger observing yourself for the first time. What is your first impression of yourself? You might ask why you’re picturing yourself in the first place. Because changing POV relies on your ability to go outside of yourself and adopt a viewpoint that isn’t your own.

Level 2: Pick a person very close to you. How would they perceive you sitting there? What are they thinking of?

Level 3: Pick someone who doesn’t know you too well.

Level 4: Pick someone you don’t get along with or has a negative opinion of you. (Sorry about this one! Hope you can’t pick anybody.)

Level 5: Summary. Do the different POVs resemble each other? How do they differ? Was the exercise easy, intermediate, hard? (Plain annoying?)

One of the best things about this entire exercise is that it’s very influenced by mood so you can repeat it often and get different results.

General Exercises
If you’re in a lyrical mood, you can try converting the lyrics of a song into a scene or a story. If you’re in an artistic mood, you can try to write a scene or a story around a specific image, photographed or painted.

If you’re feeling especially musical, I suggest playing one of your favorite albums or even something totally random, and letting the ensuing mood guide your writing.

And, of course, you can always turn to the Anagram Server for random writing challenges. Just enter a simple phrase and try to make something out of the most promising results. (But that might be my own special brand of wackiness and not very useful to anyone else.)

Next time on Technical Saturday… Future plans for Stellascript. Have no fear, the technical posts are not disappearing, they’re just changing format. Details to follow.