Some cinematic writers and directors and writer-directors have the notion that all that is required to produce a dramatic conflict is to show a physical conflict. This might suffice sometimes, but, even then, the devotees of this expedient often do not know how to present the clash in a way other than we have already seen many times before. Or maybe they just don’t care enough to make the effort to present it otherwise.
The scene-concoctors are, of course, as familiar with the imitatively wrought patterns of movement as we are, which is why they find them so readily at hand, so easy to draw upon when something is needed to fill the time and move the plot “forward.”
So, if there’s a car chase, there is something very familiar about the car chase. Yes, we have seen these vehicles turn corners like this before.
If there are fisticuffs, there is something about the punches and counter-punches that we can say is not entirely foreign to memory.
If there is an axe sweeping toward the head of our prone protagonist, it is a good bet he will jerk aside just before the blade would have severed that head.
How wonderful to see the sudden surge of strength and mastery with which an utterly exhausted one, his arm and hand akimbo, but whom we do not want to die, somehow wins an arm wrestling match with a villain who is in the best possible physical position to plunge a knife into the heart of our beleaguered compatriot yet somehow cannot make it through that last inch or so. Still, were it not for the frayed electrical cord and the vat of water that the good guy can see but that the bad guy cannot, all might have been lost.
The bad news for TV show people who complain about how their short production schedules must usually preclude doing much better in most scenes than the most weakly imagined cinema is that there are shows like 24 and Lost now. (The people who do 24 have to answer questions like this: “But isn’t the unpredictability of the show becoming all-too-predictable?” Yeah, it so boring when you know ahead of time, already, that you are not going to be bored to death. Next….)
For the sake of argument, let’s say you don’t have the resources and talent of the crews doing 24 and Lost. Still, how hard is it, really, to look at a scene you’ve plotted out, to look at the staging you have in mind, to look at your stack of 3×5 index cards of cookie-cutter directions you are about to give to your overly obliging actors and which you culled from the Standard-Issue Director’s Kit of 3×5 Index Cards of Cookie-Cutter Directions for Overly Obliging Actors, cards bearing the same old stale directorial wisdom on them that all the other directors are giving to their actors…and to realize that what you are about to do is a “creative” crime for which you should be flayed alive? How hard is it to take a step back and say, “You know, if we do this the way it’s been done umpteen trillion times before, it will look exactly the way it’s looked umpteen trillion times before.”
Okay, so maybe you’re not an artistic genius; maybe you’re not de Palma; granted. But do something that comes out of your own brain and aspirations instead of out of the index cards. Give it a shot, man.
Maybe it won’t work. Maybe you’ll blunder. But then I as a viewer would at least be able to say, “What a botch! What he was trying here doesn’t work at all! The tone is wrong, the pacing gangs aft agley, and the motivations of Suzy and Sal are improbable in the extreme! But you know…at least he tried. He was after something and he tried honestly to grasp the nettle of it. Got to give him credit for that. It’s crud, but it’s noble crud.”
Where this is taking me is a scene in the 1967 movie Point Blank starring Lee Marvin and directed by John Boorman, a film I was able to see recently thanks to Netflix. (Thanks, Netflix.) Angie Dickinson stars as Chris, a woman who helps the Lee Marvin character, Walker, get his revenge against a fellow crook who double-crossed him during a heist and left him for dead. While not perfect, the movie has very interesting bits in it, and should be preferred to the unwatchable 1999 remake with Mel Gibson, Payback. (Douglas Pratt offers some interesting details about the Point Blank DVD at the moviecitynews.com site.)
The scene occurs when Walker takes Chris to the home of a man he intends to shake down for $93,000, a man he may end up killing. Chris had not fully realized their purpose in coming to the house, and when she finds out, is very upset. For a couple minutes the only thing that happens is Chris hitting Walker, striking him in a way that is utterly awkward, spastic, flimsy and distraught. Walker just stands there impassively, taking it. Finally she collapses. The woman has stopped, so Walker gets another drink or does whatever he was about to do before she started flinging her fists at him. It all just happens.
You watch this scene and no matter how you may assess the rest of the movie, you can’t help but say to yourself, “I’ve never seen this before. I know that people can get upset. I know that someone might strike another person over and over again without that other person flinching. It makes sense that Chris would be so incompetent yet sincere in her blows, given her emotions and everything else. It makes sense that Walker would be impassive and just let her wind down, that he doesn’t feel threatened by her, and also that if he feels any sympathy for her on some level, he doesn’t have the time or inclination to express it right now. It’s plausible. It’s not canned-plot-turn-plausible, it doesn’t follow the index cards, it’s not plausible in virtue of being numbingly familiar. But I’ve seen aspects of this one-sided altercation many times in real life. That, in addition to its consistency with what we know of the characters, is why the scene persuades me. I can accept these emotions, this weakness versus strength, this utter loss of control versus rigid self-containment. Yet this particular scene, the way it was done just now, the whole gestalt of it? It’s out of the blue as far as I’m concerned. Something new. Fresh. Riveting. And it’s not just physical action. It also tells a story about the characters. It moves the story along actually, not just physically, not just through space or time; it’s a development. Okay, I’d better stop talking to myself now.”
And it doesn’t matter if you now instruct me that in “So-And-So Movie” directed by Such-and-Such Director, produced two years before Boorman did Point Blank, there was a similar scene and that Boorman probably saw that scene before he set up his own such scene in Point Blank. Maybe. And Shakespeare stole the plot of Hamlet…what’s your point? Nobody can or should be beyond influences. Your choice is to either enlist and reshape those influences for your own distinctive artistic purposes, or just chew the cud of them like a dull cow.
I’ve never seen the flailing-away scene before. It looks and feels like something that could only have been done by these actors in this scene in this movie. But the police captain chewing out the renegade tough-guy detective, and barking that if you pull another stunt like this, I’ll have your badge? That scene I’ve seen. If the cop ain’t Clint, I’m not interested.
David M. Brown is the publisher of The Webzine, and runs the blog for the Laissez Faire Books web site, where he has been discussing many urgently important topics of the highest possible interest to you.