Ending trilogies and The Dark Knight Rises (spoilers)

Please be warned: there are spoilers below. If you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises yet, then please come back when you have…

Winding up a trilogy is hard. You only have to look at the tombstones in the vast Graveyard of Part Threes to see how the mighty have fallen: The Godfather, The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Alien, and The Care Bears have all fallen at the final hurdle.

Even the greatest trilogies have limp, if not actually bad, final acts: Return of the Jedi, Back to the future 3, and  Spider-Man all have okay conclusions, but they’re not quite as good as previous episodes (though BTTF2 was a bit of a shambles in my humble opinion).

And the number of the truly outstanding conclusions is very small indeed: Toy Story and Lord of the rings are the most recent ones I can think of, and now I think we can add Dark Knight Rises to their number.

Why do so few of these work? There’s a strong argument that the second act of any story will always be the most interesting. It’s where your hero has everything thrown at them, you’re not bogged-down introducing the audience to your characters and their world, and you can have fun and ramp up the conflict all the way up to 11, knowing full well you can end on a whopping cliffhanger for part three.

But I don’t necessarily buy that for all movies. Very few film makers know that they’ll be seeing a trilogy through to the end. Peter Jackson is perhaps a notable exception, but most directors and writers need to prove themselves with part one before they can even begin to think about parts two and three*. Certainly the makers of the Matrix seem to have been caught on the back foot with this, and Alien3 killed off the survivors of Aliens in a mean-spirited way, suggesting that that the only way forward was to ignore the past. Return of the Jedi took characters that had been made complex and exciting in The Empire Strikes Back and did virtually nothing with them, essentially remaking the first Star Wars with a bigger effects budget.

So why did The Dark Knight Rises succeed where others have failed?

Christopher Nolan has stated in interviews that when he was making Batman Begins he had no idea that there would be any sequels, he concentrated on making the first movie as good as he could. So there was no LOTR-style master plan.

When I’m working on the third act of a screenplay I’ll almost always find that the solution to any story problem is not in what I’m writing now, but in something I wrote back in act one or two. Sometimes it’s something seemingly inconsequential that suddenly has a new resonance and it can mean that you end up looking at your story in a completely new way. It’s one of those golden rules of screenwriting, and the Nolan brothers and David S. Goyer have executed it beautifully; finding the themes that worked so well in the previous movies – part one’s fear and part two’s chaos – creating a new kind of anarchy for part three and stacking the odds against Bruce Wayne/Batman in a way that trumped the previous films without actually repeating the same beats. On top of this come new themes of loyalty and sacrifice that constantly remind you that you’re watching the finale, and that anyone can die.

As anyone who caught the end of The Amazing Spider-Man will know, a story is often about the protagonist asking ‘Who am I?’ To say that Bruce Wayne has suffered an identity crisis in this trilogy is something of an understatement, but here he faces a mirror image of himself: an orphan who clambered up from darkness with hatred in her heart, and a inversion of himself, a masked man who shows his henchmen no loyalty whatsoever and demands the ultimate sacrifice from so many of them. So Bruce must put aside his anger and hatred, recover from his grief, and offer himself in sacrifice to Gotham.

And when Batman tells John Blake that ‘You’ve got to wear a mask to protect those you care about’ we now have a hero who knows what he has become, where his place is in the world, and what he must give in order to save the day. Bruce Wayne’s story has come to a definite conclusion.

In the past, Batman has often been less interesting than his villains, but not this time.

TDKR is not a flawless film; it takes its time, but it never bores and the payoff is well worth the wait. To paraphrase George Lucas; ending a trilogy is fun because you get to tie up all the loose ends, but ending a trilogy is hard because you have to tie up all the loose ends.

*And if you think the graveyard of part threes is big, just have a look at the Cemetery of Trilogies That Never Got Past Part One… Flash Gordon’s “?” ending, anyone…?

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George RR Martin and how I learned to love Big Bang Theory

Warning: this post contains blatant name-dropping. Look carefully see if you can spot it.

My friend and colleague Jo had for months been urging me to watch the show Big Bang Theory. Phrases like, ‘You’ll love it,’ and ‘It’s just your kind of thing!’ were regularly doled out when I interrupted an office discussion about last night’s hilarious episode. Like many people, I get twitchy when people tell me that I’ll enjoy something. How can anyone possibly know me so well as to pre-empt my tastes? Am I not an enigma? A chameleon of the arts, listening to Mozart one minute and watching Phineas and Ferb the next?

Apparently not.

So, anyway after many months of this I eventually gave in. I was slumped in front of the TV one evening and an episode just happened to be on, so here goes…

And I hated it. Why was the audience in such paroxysms of laughter? They were howling as if this was the funniest thing ever written. I remained stony-faced, waiting for it to click, to suddenly reveal its magic to me.

Didn’t happen.

Then I stumbled across this clip with the laughter removed and that did it. I was convinced that it just wasn’t for me. Me and Big Bang Theory were never going to happen.

I reported this back to Jo and she looked at me as if I’d just burned down an orphanage. She still managed to work with me and was civil in my company, but I’m sure she felt that from that moment on I was damaged goods.

Some months went by and I was invited to dinner with George RR Martin (there it is!). We’d just published one of his early novels Armageddon Rag (available now in all good bookshops!) and while he was in town to promote something called Game of Thrones (never heard of it) he was kind enough to also promote our book.

As you might imagine, Mr Martin revealed himself to be an intelligent man of great taste… and he just loved Big Bang Theory.

How could this be? Two smart people whom I like and respect both fans of a show that leaves me cold. Is it me? Do I have some kind of comedy gene missing?

This was clearly a comedic identity crisis and I decided to give Big Bang another chance. This prompted some understandable howls of outrage from Jo, ‘So you’ll listen to George bloody RR Martin and not to me?’

Fortunately, E4 had at that moment decided to start showing TBBT from episode one and I jumped aboard hitting the series reminder button and mainlining up to 6 episodes a day.

And I like it. Actually I think I love it.

It’s not the best sitcom ever and it lacks the element of tragedy that the truly classic comedies have*, but bloody hell it’s a great way to decompress after a hard day’s work.

It’s a smart as a button, with a rapid pace and great characters. And that’s why it didn’t work when I tried watching it the first time: I was watching an episode from the third series and the audience was howling with laughter because they were anticipating the characters’ foibles. This is why certain sitcoms work so well: we cringe at the tension of George Costanza going in for a job interview because we know he’s going to screw it up, we wince at Ted Crilly’s latest scheme to escape Craggy Island because we know it’s never going to happen. It all comes down to character, not gags. Gags help, they’re often the things we remember, but they’re not why we come back to these shows again and again.

Big Bang Theory is currently at its zenith, but of course, it will have to go through the usual cycle that US sitcoms go through: we’ve already had the unlikeable character who divides the lovers, next will be an overload of celebrity cameos, then we’ll have the series where fans decide that it’s not as good as it used to be, then we’ll have a final series where it has nothing to lose and finds its funny bone again.

And until then I shall continue to enjoy it, but a quick word to the show’s producers: I know that’s not a laugh track, I know the show is filmed before a live audience, but I also know that you’re not above maybe enhancing the laughter to make a point. Calm it down a bit. Have the courage of your convictions. It’s a good show. Too much hysteria can be off-putting for this reserved Brit.

 

 

 

 

*And the best sitcoms are…

Steptoe and son

Fawlty Towers

Blackadder

Porridge

Dad’s Army

Father Ted

Seinfeld**

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Friends (very much series dependent)

Only Fools and Horses

Cheers

Frasier

Taxi

The IT Crowd

The Simpsons

And I’ve recently fallen in love with Community. Not sure if it’s a classic yet, but it has all the potential to be…

If I’ve missed any, then please feel free to set me straight!

**I know far too many people (mostly Brits) who tell me that they don’t get Seinfeld and don’t like the characters, but you’re wrong and one day I’ll sit you down and explain it to you.

Spider-Man versus the dreaded sequel bait

Be warned, the following contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen The Amazing Spider-Man then avert your gaze!

Took the family to see the Amazing Spider-Man in all its 3D glory at the weekend.

 

There were terrific performances throughout; Andrew Garfield has wanted to be Spidey since he was three and he gives his all, Emma Stone is as smart and watchable as she ever is, and Martin Sheen is… he’s Martin Sheen! When he’s not acting, he gets arrested for civil rights protests, and for that, we love him and truly believe that he’s the morally-centred Uncle Ben. Director Marc Webb wrings every drop of acting juice out of his performers, and the 3D swinging-through-New-York stuff was almost worth the extra moolah that the cinemas extort from you… almost.

But the story… The one thing that drives me nuts these days is franchise sequel bait syndrome. I watched so many threads set-up in this story, only to then see them unravelled, abandoned and left as loose ends for the sequel(s): what happened to Peter’s parents, Norman Osborne’s fatal illness, will Peter find Uncle Ben’s killer, to name but three. And had these been cut, the film might’ve been a good twenty minutes shorter, bringing it under two hours, saving my bum from numbness and my eyes from 3D strain.

This strikes me as being symptomatic of the producers being in charge of a bigger franchise. Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies had his unique style all over them, he was driving the ship and he told stories that were self-contained. Yes, there were sequel hints at the end, and overriding story arcs, but nothing that bogged down the story you were watching at that moment, and certainly not to the level they do in this new movie. In Amazing Spider-Man there are great chunks – entire scenes – that have little to do with the story you’re watching now and everything to do with the story that has yet to be written. Marc Webb is a fine director, but I’ll be surprised if he’s back for the sequel as this time round Marvel’s producers are running the show and they have a master plan. I guess that’s all well and good for a mega-studio riding high on the success of The Avengers, but there’s an arrogant assumption that I’ll be back for episodes two and three, and at thirty-six quid a pop for the whole family that’s (taps calculator) a lot of money!

I’m currently working in a script that’s practically gagging for a sequel, and I know all too well the temptation to drop in all kinds of hints to whet the viewer’s appetite for future adventures. Fortunately we’ll be working to a very, very tight budget and we can’t afford to waste a word or a scene on this indulgence, so we’re obliged to tell our story and that’s that. So when in twenty years’ time I’m working on Spider-Man 15: We Finally Get Some Answers, and I have the luxury to indulge in franchise sequel bait syndrome, feel free to digitally slap me around the face with this blog post and demand a single story, well told.

Update: I was wrong! Director Marc Webb is back for the sequel. And good luck to him.

 

 

“Thag no like change.” From cave paintings to 3D

Thoroughly enjoyed The Artist the other night. A really charming film that’s basically Singin’ in the rain without the – er – Singin’. In other words it’s that old story about one form replacing another. Change creating upheaval in an artist’s life.

There’s a lot of that about at the moment. Music download sales finally overtook physical recently, and in my day job everyone’s fretting about the decline of physical book sales as eBooks rapidly become the predominant form. And just the other day I shared a cab with a screenwriter and director; the former romanticising celluloid’s organic qualities, while the director preferred the flexibility offered by high-quality digital.

Tonight I watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of forgotten dreams, the latest of his excellent documentaries. This one featured prehistoric paintings from the Chauvet caves in the south of France. Some of the paintings are over 35,000 years old and represent humanity’s first artistic endeavours. Herzog looks at one likeness of a bison, painted with eight legs blurred in a depiction of what he calls ‘proto-cinema’, and imagines how it must have looked with a fire burning and the flames throwing shadows on the cave walls. It’s an almost hallucinogenic moment in a really engaging film.

And this is is where the storytelling urge began. Our ancestors seeing something that moved them and wanting to capture it and share it with their contemporaries (except Neanderthals, they apparently showed no artistic flair whatsoever… which is why they’re now all PE teachers). And that urge is still with us now, whatever the form.

When The Artist was first released, I read many reviews wryly suggesting that Hollywood would no doubt be lining up a whole slew of copycat silent movies, cashing in on the phenomenon. But, as far as I can tell, that hasn’t happened. Maybe they figured out that moviegoers went to see The Artist because of the great story and the engaging characters, or maybe it’s because Hollywood is still so mesmerised by 3D it can’t be arsed to go back to silent movies.

But it’s never the form that endures. Oh sure, 3D, Kindle, HD and iTunes will excite people for a while, but the reason they keep coming back are the stories; that little flutter in the heart when we’re moved by something. Vinyl, celluloid and hardbacks will probably always be with us, even if they become sidelined and niché, and when the apocalypse comes we can go full circle back to cave paintings. Only this time it’ll be mushroom clouds or hordes of zombies we’ll be painting. That’ll give Herzog’s descendants something to talke about 35,000 years from now.