Tuesday, October 1, 2013

sorry, bronco

We need to be clear which emotions are harmful and which are helpful; then cultivate those that are conducive to peace of mind. Often, due to a lack of knowledge, we accept anger and hatred as natural parts of our minds. This is an example of ignorance being the source of our problems. To reduce our destructive emotions we strengthen the positive ones; such emotional hygiene can contribute to a healthier society.

That’s the Dalai Lama, on Facebook this morning. Just this afternoon, I was reading about Socrates’ “rationalistic moral philosophy”—that is, the idea that, as T.Z. Lavine describes it in From Socrates to Sartre: The Philosophic Quest, “reason, or rationality, is the exclusive or the dominant factor in moral conduct.” In other words, “to know the good is to do the good.” While I have some issues with this idea—and will probably bring them up in class tonight, I mention this reading and the Dalai Lama post because together they put my head onto a more serious bent than I had intended for today’s entry here at The Groundhog Day Project.

Not, that this will keep me from sticking to the plan. I just might take it more seriously.

I spent three days—this entry, this entry, and this entry—picking on Danny Rubin for a couple major elements of his original screenplay for Groundhog Day: the excessive use of voiceover, and his meandering structure. The latter, as I pointed out more recently when I dealt with his script notes (here and here), was a deliberate attempt to create a seven-act structure. While I don’t think it quite works, and is probably inappropriate for modern cinema, Rubin was trying something elaborate and, I’m pretty sure—I must read the whole screenplay again to be sure—he accomplished it.

Turns out, he also had big ideas about the use of voiceover; there’s an entire note just on the voiceover in How to Write Groundhog Day

(And, it’s interesting how none of the notes necessarily stood out as important when I read Rubin’s book almost two months ago, but now I’m finding so many of them not only useful but informative in a different way than they were the first time. I suppose that is how knowledge works and how we take in information. My context for Groundhog Day was a little different two months ago. It was one of my favorite films already, and I probably watched it at least once a year since it came out, and I mentioned way back on Day 1 how I used Groundhog Day as one of my go to examples in impromptu speaking when I competed in speech and debate. But, since doing this blog, it has become not only a fixture of my daily life but an elaborate way of exploring who I am, who you are, and how life and society work. It’s on my mind every day. And, I think I take the faults in its early form personally sometimes. That might be weird, but I do. I like Rubin’s script, I love the movie. But, that doesn’t mean that the former is anywhere near perfect or that the latter really is either.

But, the movie’s flaws have become almost endearing… This may seem like one of my more odd comparisons, but it’s like I’ve formed a personal relationship with the movie, almost as if it’s a person. And so, I can look past the bits I might not like on a given day and simply appreciate the greatness of the parts that work best. Groundhog Day and I are dating, I suppose. And, that is not a metaphor I would have expected to use.)

—and I want to deal with Rubin’s reasoning behind the voiceover today. And, maybe I will be able to extract from it a way to appreciate the voiceover as, at the very least, a necessary piece of the invention of Groundhog Day. See, if I am wrong in being so negative about Rubin’s use of voiceover, then perhaps this can be a mea culpa of sorts. Like the Dalai Lama says above, I must cultivate the emotions (and, I’d extend, reactions) that are “conducive to peace of mind.”

(Unless, of course, Rubin was just wrong in using voiceover. Then, screw the Dalai Lama; Rubin deserves my derision at least for this.)

Rubin begins his note on the voiceover by establishing the history; “There are many great movies that employ a voiceover narration,” he explains, “some to extremely satisfying dramatic effect. Sunset Boulevard, for example, is famously a murder mystery narrated by the dead guy.” Then, he provides a reasonability as to why he have authority to discuss and promote the use of voiceover; he taught screenwriting, and he explains:

When I teach screenwriting classes, I never let my students use a voiceover. It’s not because I don’t like voiceovers or, in this case, use them occasionally myself, but because the voiceover is a cheap workaround to good dramatic writing. All the tools a writer needs to develop in order to convey a character’s internal states (how a character feels, what he intends to do, what he remembers, etc.) are left to collect dust while the character simply tells us everything we need to know. A voiceover turns a movie into a story being told rather than a story being shown. It gives a movie a bookish feel. In this case, that’s what I wanted.

I must approach this in parts. First, Rubin makes the best point about voiceover in film that one can make: voiceover is “a cheap workaround to good dramatic writing.” It limits visual storytelling and limits the actor’s job. And, yes, it “turns a movie into a story being told rather than a story being shown.” The thing is, of course, sometimes that is exactly what you want. The Princess Bride, another of my favorite films (and certainly a favorite of many others besides myself), arguably would not work without the framing sequence and the little bits of narration. And, keep in mind: if you really think about it, the framing sequence with the boy and his grandpa has absolutely nothing to do with the story of Buttercup and Westley, even if that final line of the film links them thematically; on a simple, practical level, the fairy tale should work without the frame. Of course, if you’ve read the novel—which I have—you’d know that the framing of the story to gloss over certain elements of the larger story or possibly skip over the kissing bits as in the film, is actually a part of the book itself. The book is Goldman’s “good parts version” of a made up earlier work, S. Morgenstern’s satire about European royalty. To explain away the chapters Goldman skips—I remember something about an entire chapter regarding Buttercup’s preparations for a lavish wedding—would have probably been a bit dry on film, but the framing sequence we have echoes the original in separating us one step from a more complete story (even if the story we get seems quite complete), and it gives us an entirely sweet story that itself echoes Goldman’s original telling of stories to his daughters about these characters. The voiceover endears us to the characters and the story as if it were perhaps we the audience there in bed, home sick from school and being entertained by a grandpa I’m sure we could all appreciate having.

Second, voiceover can also be used as commentary on events, something like American Beauty or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (though the echo of the latter in Iron Man 3 doesn’t fit as well because it is used almost too sparingly and never finds its place, plus, the voiceover tone is just slightly off from the Tony Stark we get in the rest of the film). And, one of my favorite bits of voiceover is in Stand by Me (directed by Rob Reiner, who also directed The Princess Bride). In The Body, Stephen King’s original novella on which Stand by Me is based, the story is as much the personal story from Gordie Lachance as it is the tale of he and his friends that summer when they were 12. The novella includes not only “The Revenge of Lard Ass Hogan” which is dramatized in the film, but also “Stud City,” another short story written by Lachance, who will grow up, much like Stephen King, to become a published writer. The story was personal (though not entirely autobiographical) for King, and the voiceover also makes it personal for the audience watching the film. I wasn’t 12 yet when the film came out, so I suppose it meant something much different to me then than it does now… there’s an interesting study there, I think, examining not just the way different individuals respond to certain stories or films, but the different ways one individual might respond at different times in one’s life (like before or after writing a daily blog about it).

My problem with Rubin’s wanting “a bookish feel” for his screenplay is that a) he was explicitly trying to break into film, so why not go all in? and b) film has its own way of making things personal. NPR did a piece recently about Breaking Bad (yeah, it’s not film, but the format can be quite similar, obviously) leading up to its final episode. The title of the piece—“Point Of View: How So Many Rooted For ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Walter White”—explains their approach to a very specific way film (and television) can attach us to individual characters without the use of voiceover. Among other details, the article cites psychologist Joseph Magliano of Northern Illinois University, who is “one of a handful of researchers who are trying to figure out how movies and television manipulate our thoughts and emotions.” They ought to just ask directors, because they’ve made a science of it. Magliano suggests that “the writers packed the pilot with reasons to feel sorry for Walt.” The author of the piece lists the obvious ones: “He's struggling financially. He has a son with cerebral palsy, a baby on the way and now, he is dying of cancer.” Phil Connor’s doesn’t have all that, but we can certainly identify on some level with a guy who doesn’t want to be sent off to some Podunk town to report on a holiday most people don’t even celebrate. And, the repetition of day-to-day—we can almost all relate to that. We see our lives in Phil’s plight.

(The NPR piece goes on to describe the Kuleshov Effect, which is interesting, but is not really used in Groundhog Day, so I won’t get into it.)

(Sure, it’s used at least a little, during Phil’s Chekhov speech for example. Phil’s visual exchange there with Rita is one of the big pieces of fuel for folks like Claire S. Bacha or Michael Faust, when they suggest Phil’s improvement was driven by his love for Rita.)

I think Rubin’s need for voiceover a) comes from his inexperience as a screenwriter and b) undermines both his notion that film is “whimsical” and his choice to open the story inside the time loop. Rubin says, “The rhythm and feel of the movie came to me as clearly as the story itself. It was less comedic and more whimsical. It was more fun than funny, and merely delightful in its cleverness.” And, he compares his use of voiceover to “the occasional voiceover” in Kind Hearts and Coronets. I haven’t seen that film, so I can’t speak to that, except to say, I don’t find Rubin’s voiceover to be “occasional.” Rubin also says that he “always felt that the voiceover went together with the idea of starting the story already in progress.” The clearest reason, that I can see, to start this particular story “already in progress” is to put the audience a little on edge, a little confused. And, the thing that would ensure their confusion would be to not have the voiceover there to reassure them. Rubin says the voiceover would be “a guide to reassure us that Phil was an everyman, and to settle any discomfort we may have with not understanding his ‘powers’ by reassuring the audience that soon everything would become clear.” I think a more experienced author would trust the audience enough that he wouldn’t feel we need this reassurance. I think Rubin’s better defense is that he “felt that Phil’s gentlemanly and dispassionate recounting of this fable helped give the film that sense of whimsy” he was going for. This rings true to me, having read the script from beginning to end once and looked over pieces of it numerous times since. Well, it rings true in theory, anyway. The problem is that most of Phil’s voiceover is simplistic, pragmatic, and mostly unnecessary. It isn’t whimsical.

But, I can appreciate that, again, Rubin was trying something more elaborate. And, if he hadn’t tried for something bigger, he wouldn’t have had the core we all know. He finishes off his note on the voiceover by explaining:

From my first meeting with Harold and his crew, we talked about cutting back on the voiceover and also giving the story a little bit more of a setup. My first revision did both of these things, but it was a half-measure. Harold’s revision of that draft committed wholeheartedly to a first act setup, and no narration was necessary. With those major changes, the movie grew from a sweet little whimsical film (like Kind Hearts and Coronets) to the full-blown studio comedy we now know and love.

And, to further the defense of Rubin’s lofty goals, I would mention one of my favorite quotations, attributed to Reverend Joel Hawes:

Aim at the sun, and you may not reach it; but your arrow will fly far higher than if aimed at an object on a level with yourself.

It isn’t of course, always the case that we must aim for great things to accomplish good things, but it helps.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to aim high, to cultivate positive emotions and reduce negative.

P.S. This blog has a Twitter and a Facebook page. Follow and like them respectively and help spread the word. And, if you want to support the Groundhog Day Project financially (so I can get a better screen and a blu-ray player maybe to see this movie a little clearer and notice new things, or travel to Woodstock, IL or Punxsutawney, PA, for example), you can do that too...

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