Certain Things You Do and Don’t Do In Stories

John Goodman and Paul Reiser in One Night at McCool's.

John Goodman and Paul Reiser in One Night at McCool’s.

While I didn’t (and still don’t) think much of the movie One Night at McCool’s, I found the review I did of it a decade or so ago intriguing because of what I wrote about how stories work. I don’t think I’m quite as dogmatic about it today as I was then, but generally I still agree with what I wrote.

Audiences have certain expectations and when they are not met, you either have to have a very good, well thought out reason for not meeting them or else suffer the consequences of people finding nothing worth a damn in your film.

(That is a way of saying you will have made a bad movie. Another example of this is 2002′s People I Know.)

Stories have arcs. Here’s how Wikipedia puts it: “The purpose of a story arc is to move a character or a situation from one state to another; in other words, to effect change.”

If you have no arc – read “change” – you have no story. And no one wants to see that:

One Night at McCool’s (2001)

I hate to be prissy about it, but I think there are certain things you do and don’t do in stories. And I think you often find artists struggling with this. There is a tension between what artists want to say in order to reveal truth in their work, and what structure and genre demand … (Read more)

Brave Cowboys, Beautiful Princesses, Noble Horses

I discovered I had a broken link and my review of 2004′s Hidalgo wasn’t available so yesterday I fixed it and in the process reread it and rediscovered Roger Ebert’s review of it, which I think nails it (far better than I did). In fact, his conclusion is a very succinct capsule of all you really need to know:

Whether you like movies like this, only you can say. But if you do not have some secret place in your soul that still responds even a little to brave cowboys, beautiful princesses and noble horses, then you are way too grown up and need to cut back on cable news. And please ignore any tiresome scolds who complain that the movie is not really based on fact. Duh.

I really like this movie and despite my take on it not being the best, I’m putting it up again. Written in 2004:

Hidalgo (2004)

Hidalgo - PosterDirected by Joe Johnston

I don’t quite understand why Hidalgo came and went with little notice, but it did and that’s too bad. I quite liked it. We’ve seen many action-adventure type movies recently that aspire to capturing something of the Indiana Jones movies but it seems to me Hidalgo is one of the few that even comes close to doing that.

Despite modern elements, including computer work, it has some intuitive understanding of the source of the Indian Jones films, old Hollywood B movies. (It does, however, take huge liberties.)

I recall one review I came across that thought the movie would have worked better if the main character, Frank Hopkins played by Viggo Mortensen, had been more of a wisecracking hero. It struck me that the movie must have sailed right over that reviewer’s head.

Had the movie gone that way with the character portrayal we would have had yet another movie with of the endless, cookie-cutter heroes who populate the incessant stream of adventure drek we keep getting. And heaven knows, we have enough of those to last several lifetimes.

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) tries to tame the horse Hidalgo.

Frank Hopkins (Viggo Mortensen) tries to tame the horse Hidalgo.

The review also appears to have missed the strong note of humour running through Hidalgo, perhaps because it’s dry and, sometimes, rather subtle. A wise-cracking Hopkins would have been like playin Hannibal Lector like Inspector Clouseau.

Hidalgo is another of those Hollywood movies that mixes styles – generally, not a good idea given the results we often get.

In some ways, this is a weakness of the film but, that being said, quite often it does work.

The movie tries to be a western and action-adventure film at the same time. This is difficult to pull off because westerns work best with simplicity whereas action-adventure films, while simple in story, are spectacles. Visually, the two genres are at opposite ends of the scale.

Riding Hidalgo.

Riding Hidalgo.

However, Hidalgo gets away with it by and large. I think this is due to a great, understated performance by Viggo Mortensen. To be honest, he and a few of the other actors are a bit better than the movie really deserves. But thanks to them, a movie that’s a little run-of-the-mill becomes something much better.

The story is straightforward: a cowboy, part Indian, part white, is something of a drunkard having hidden the native part of his lineage in order to fit in better.

However, he’s also the cowboy who takes orders to U.S. troops at Wounded Knee Creek, the orders that eventually led to the massacre of natives there.

Burdened by guilt and being someone who lacks an identity – neither Indian nor white, a lost man – he works clownishly in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, living off his reputation as the best long-distance rider.

To cut to the quick: he’s invited to go across the ocean and ride in the great Arab race, The Ocean of Fire, a 3000 mile life-threatening competition. He accepts, and the movie is about the race. And Hopkins is, of course, accompanied by his horse, Hidalgo.

Zuleikha Robinson as Jazira meets Hidalgo.

Zuleikha Robinson as Jazira meets Hidalgo.

While there are certain absurdities to the movie, factual and realistic fallacies, I like Roger Ebert’s take on it.

If you’re familiar with a certain kind of Hollywood movie, if you’ve loved them, these aren’t problems.

They aren’t what the movie is about. It’s about a hero facing obstacles and overcoming them. At the risk of overstatement, it’s mythical in that way. It’s why we like it and why we don’t give a rat’s behind about how likely or “true” it may be.

It’s fun, invigorating and satisfying – the good guy wins.

While largely a fun ride, Hidalgo is about a man discovering himself. It’s a film about redemption. In native terms, the horse Hidalgo acts as a kind of spirit guide for Hopkins, often simply by its presence and tenacity.

I really enjoyed this movie. If I had my way, I would of toned down the action-adventure aspects and played up the western since it captures all the best elements of the genre – the simplicity and the moral tale of a man finding himself, his honour and nobility.

But that’s kind of quibbling. The movie is fun and Mortensen demonstrates that not only can he carry a movie, he is made to carry them.

Say goodbye to Roger Ebert gone

For me, Mr. Ebert was a writer who happened to also be a great film critic. And he did what the best writers do: produce. A lot! I also loved how he was engaged with technology for all the right reasons: to create, to communicate, to connect.

I’m not certain, but this may be his last published review:

And here is the saddest, yet most wonderful, story:

Yes it was bad and the problem is the Academy

A remarkable human accomplishment was recently achieved. In a field of very tough competition, last night’s Oscar ceremony (to inappropriately use a word) was the easy winner of most tedious, worst conceived and executed, and just plain bad shows. My roommate went to bed halfway through the opening monologue (another inappropriate use of language – it wasn’t a monologue, it was a mash up of bad ideas).

The question that screams for an answer is, “Why?”

I think the problem is the Academy itself. It doesn’t understand so many things. Let’s make a list:

Youth: they equate youth with stupidity and vulgarity. If I were I a young person, I would find this hugely insulting. Young people probably do find it hugely insulting and this is probably why they avoid watching the annual train wreck except for the opportunity it affords to make smartass comments about it on Twitter. (And that assumes anyone young is even on Twitter.)

Sexuality: they think gay means annoyingly flamboyant and an exasperating obsession with show tunes. Mind you, Hollywood is famous for trading in social stereotypes so this isn’t entirely unexpected, just very tiresome. They also think straight men have the sexual maturity of thirteen year olds and women, either lesbian or straight, are very cranky with all things male and … well, everything else too. But that’s okay because, hey there’s cleavage and ya gotta put up with the gals’ crabbiness if you want to have the cleavage. Only the desperate attempts of the Academy to be relevant could manage to be insulting to gays, straights, men, women, and everyone in between – while at the same time pretending to embrace them all.

The Academy: some things aren’t meant to be hip and it is always embarrassing when those things that aren’t meant to be, try to be. Simply put, you cannot be the lofty “Academy” you aspire to be and be hip at the same time. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes the world wants old and boring because, as much as a yawn as it may be, it is what we expect of respected institutions. You want to be a respected institution? Don’t sing denigrating and childish songs about boobs. And if you do, don’t put the First Lady in the same show. (By the way … what the hell was that about? I wanted to see Jack!)

Far from being the celebration it was intended to be, last night’s Academy Awards were simply dispiritingly wrong-headed and sad.

Just like a romantic comedy

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How one romantic comedy could have been fixed

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The brusque and harebrained Illegal

Edward G. Robinson was one helluva a good actor. He even makes this exercise in the absurd and perfunctory a crime drama you can watch, even enjoy at moments. Often found in film noir collections, it isn’t noir. In a way, it’s screwball comedy without the humour.

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The bland and the beautiful

Such a study in contrasts! On TCM the other night there were a few William Holden movies running. I tuned in as they were running the marvelous Sunset Boulevard, one of my favourite movies. It was followed by the movie below and … oh my!

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