In Storytelling, Not Everything Must Go Wrong

I recently saw the movie Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Now, I’m not here to review the movie. I don’t feel I’m in a position to, given my passive knowledge of filmmaking. There are plenty of people better suited for that than I.

When it comes to movies, I only know what I like or dislike. In Gravity, I liked the discreet, yet enhancing use of 3D. One of the few times I’ve enjoyed 3D in this modern incarnation of it. Sandra Bullock struck me as believable and drew me in emotionally. And the overall look of the film was fantastic. It was beautiful to watch, and the shots from behind the helmet’s visor were unique and new to me. They made me think I knew what space looked and sounded like.

The only thing I didn’t like: the idea some writers seem to have that in a drama, to keep the tension high, everything that could go wrong, should go wrong. And, from a storytelling perspective, that I feel I can critique.

For anyone not familiar with Gravity, it’s the story of a woman stranded alone in space who must fight, via a precisely timed serious of events, to get herself back to Earth. Add to that the fact that she’s not a full-blown “astronaut,” just a doctor they sent up to install a new piece of equipment on the International Space Station, and you have the Hero’s thrilling struggle for survival. Will she make it home or die alone in space?

Now, take a second and imagine you’re in her position. You’re completely alone, in a spacesuit, floating around with the normal rules of movement, such as gravity dragging you down, not in play. If you start to drift away from your spaceship, and there is nothing manmade around to catch you, there is literally nothing to stop you from floating further and further away, as friction doesn’t exist. You can see Earth. It’s right in front of you, but you have no way to get to it. You’re just drifting around until you die. Terrifying, right?!

But wait! There is a way. There’s a capsule you can use to get back to Earth. The catch is it’s far away and you have a small chance of getting to it. Plus, if you do get there, remember you’re not an astronaut, and you’ve never flown a capsule before and have only a basic knowledge of how to fly one. Oh, and there’s no one you can talk to that can tell you how to fly it.

That, minus a few details, is the plot of Gravity. That is the tree our Hero Sandra Bullock is stuck up – will she make it down alive?

I don’t know about you, but for me that creates enough tension. The plan, as it was laid out, sounded nearly impossible to accomplish, yet she’d give it her best shot because, well, what else could she do? As a viewer, willing to suspend a lot of disbelief to be told this story, I was in.

But then the writers started adding in extra obstacles to “ratchet-up” the tension. I don’t want to give anything away, but here are a few hints: fire, tangled cords, Chinese. And that’s not all of them. The final one I can’t even list because it would give too much away, but it was the last straw for me. When it happened, I actually laughed out loud. It had all just become too much. The Hero had gone through an ENORMOUS number of obstacles, and when it looked like she was finally in the clear, they threw in this last, completely unnecessary obstacle that just made me shake my head and laugh.

Don’t get me wrong. I do think some additional obstacles are okay. There are always things ready to jump out of closets at the Hero. Just not every closet. And why not? Because, in my opinion, as a writer creating fiction you have to walk a fine line of the believable vs. unbelievable carefully.

As a viewer, I’m always aware that a movie is a work of fiction. (Unless it isn’t. Love me some documentaries.) I might be drawn in emotionally, to the point I forget the passing of time, but I’m never so enthralled that I forget I’m being told something someone made up. For me, the best movies never make me doubt that, while I know this story didn’t happen, it could happen. That’s true even with science fiction and fantasies, as long as the story operates believably in the rules of the world the writer has established.

For me, one of the ways a story can begin to become unbelievable is when a writer starts adding additional obstacles that are not really necessary to the main arch of the story and do little or nothing to move the story forward. At best, they make the viewer feel tenser, whether her or she needs to or not. But at worst, they are distracting and make the viewer question the movie. Then all you’ve done as a writer is swerve the story closer towards the implausible.

Instead, I prefer to see the writer allow the natural tension of the story he or she’s created to run its course. Trust that the basic premise of a woman stranded in space facing death is enough to carry a story. And in Gravity, it most definitely was enough for me. It didn’t need so many extra obstacles. The main one was big enough.

I’m not picking on this movie alone. Quite a few movies are guilty of this. Another that comes to mind is Precious. The protagonist suffers what would be for most of us an insurmountable number of tragedies. But, for me, a diagnosis she receives at the end of the movie, was one tragedy too many. After everything that had happened to Precious, this last thing made the story seem unbelievable to me. I didn’t feel sorry for her anymore because I felt the writer was trying too hard at that point to make me feel sorry. To be incredibly crass about it, it was as if I wanted to say to the writer: ‘I get it. I understand her life is tragic. This isn’t necessary.”

So does everything that can go wrong need to go wrong? No, I really don’t think so. Again, for me, it comes back to trust. As a writer, trust that your initial inciting incident that pushes your Hero down the path of struggle is enough to carry your story. Stop augmenting it. You only make it more unbelievable.

The Final Season: A Latin Player’s Journey

Braves 1 – Rockies 0; CJ: DNP

Recently I watched a movie called Sugar. It’s a baseball movie (not a stripper/hooker related flick, as some of you might have been thinking), but it’s not your typical happy-happy-joy-joy, Kevin Costner-starring romp.

Sugar is about one Dominican player’s attempt to play professional baseball. It begins with him as a young teenager being signed by a major league team to a “developmental contract,” meaning he has to leave home during the week and live at the team’s training facility in order to practice baseball every day, all day.

Probably, to a kid, that sounds better than a typical school, but I got to think, at 14, 15, being taken away from your family for the week might get a little lonely. And you’re in this camp with a whole bunch of other kids that are all trying to improve and to impress the team’s scouts that come down routinely to check on their progress. So you’re friends with the other kids, but you’re also always competitors. It did, however, show the pride theses kids have in being able to provide for their families, even if it’s just a little.

We then follow the protagonist, nicknamed ‘Sugar,’ as he gets assigned to the club’s single-A team. That means moving to a small town in America and adjusting to life there. That seemed to be, by far, the most difficult obstacle he encountered. He didn’t speak the language and knew nothing of the way of life. He’s confronted by racism and temptation, mainly in the form of women. The club does find him a local family to live with, so he isn’t completely on his own, but learning to live with them comes with its challenges, like learning to run a dishwasher or even just getting around.

Eventually he gets called up to double-A, which sounds good, but when he gets there, he starts to struggle. The film theorizes a possible reason for this is his lack of interaction with his teammates, with whom, again, he can’t really speak. When he was in single-A, he had a friend from his home country with him, but in double-A he’s alone.

Then comes the turning point, when Sugar speaks to his old friend from single-A. The friend tells Sugar that he found out he was going to be cut by his team, so one night he ran away so he wouldn’t get sent back to the Dominican Republic. Thus, when Sugar continues to struggle, he believes the same thing will happen to him, so he runs, too, to New York, where he finds other immigrants that help him to get a job and to start making a life for himself illegally.

The sad part for me, as the viewer, was that I wasn’t sure the team was going to cut him. In fact, they even attempted to get him to come back. So, to me, it seems like he got scared and threw his dream away because his nightmare seemed more real, the nightmare of being stuck in the DR, stuck living in poverty, stuck not being able to help his family.

Watching it, you can’t help but think about how many young Latin players have lived this exact story. The movies special features include interviews with DR-born major leaguers, like Pedro Martinez and David Ortiz, discussing their strikingly similar experiences.

Yet they made it. My thoughts are mainly with those kids that didn’t. Those that dreamed of playing in the major leagues and wanted nothing more than to be famous, successful and rich, yet never achieved it. It’s got to be such a struggle, and then when they don’t make it, I can’t even imagine the pain. The sense of failure.

But so many seem willing to take that chance. Maybe because the idea of the fame, the success and the money is too intoxicating. They see the guys that have made it and think they can, too. And who can blame them when you look at the alternative for most of them. That’s not to say this should stop trying. If they want to play baseball, play. I just hope they’re able to go back to productive lives if they fail.

I do think one of the best things MLB ever did was work hard to expand the game to Latin American, Asia and, to a lesser extent, Europe. (Oh, and mustn’t forget Australia, right Peter Moylan?) The changes they’ve brought to the game, along with the players that have made it (most of them), have had a hugely positive impact. They’ve certainly made it more entertaining, more exciting and more dramatic. Just that many more places a personality can come from, be it a flashy personality or a quiet, reserved one. It just proves there are so many great athletes all over the world.

My only worry is, because there are so many willing to give everything they have for their dream, MLB tends to treat them like a renewable resource more so than human beings. Or like dispensable commodities. If one kid doesn’t work out, they’ll just replace him with another that will. I’m sure MLB would say they offer these players as much as they can in terms of support and assistance, but I think they might be able to do more. (Translators in the minor leagues that aren’t their teammates would be one.) And I know they’re being afforded quite an opportunity, but I really hope they are being treated humanely. Truly as a human being and not just as a “prospect.” Latin players have done too much for the game to not be.

The Final Season: The Story of Baseball

Atlanta 8 – Florida 2; CJ: 1-4, BB

One day, if I meet Ken Burns, I have to thank him. His documentary had a profound impact on my life. Truly. It first made me stop and take notice of baseball. Watching it as a kid, I believe, turned me from a passing fan into a full-blown lover of the sport. (And for that reason, I should probably also curse him. Because, boy, does baseball take away as much as it gives sometimes.)

I was 12 years old when it first came out, and I remember, to this day, sitting with my dad and watching it and being absolutely enthralled and mesmerized by it. And that says a lot, because (and you’ll know this if you’ve ever seen it) it’s not exactly an action-packed, thrill ride. But it was successful in keeping this 12-year-old girls attention.

I also remember my Dad being absolutely enthralled and mesmerized. And as I watched it with him, I found it created as many questions as it answered. I knew virtually nothing of the game at that time. I didn’t really know who Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays were. I had heard their names, but I don’t really know what they meant to the game. So after the five bit snippet would finish on each of them, I’d turn to my Dad to tell me more. Was Mickey Mantle really as great as they say? Did he really hit homeruns that far? What does it mean to be a switch hitter? What do they mean when they say “tragic figure”? You know, in rapid fire section like young kids do. And my Dad would answer all of them. It’s the first time I can really remember us talking about baseball. Sure, I sat and watched the previous three World Series with him, but this was the first time we just talked baseball, not just about the game we were watching.

If I’m honest, I didn’t talk much when I watched the first two NLCS’ with him. He gets kind of ornery when he watches sports. He’s the kind of guy that yells at the TV and curses at the refs. So when the Pirates were losing, it wasn’t talking time. It was sit and quietly cheer time.

But, as I didn’t really start following the regular season closely until I became enamored with Chipper in 1995, I wasn’t rushing to the TV to watch games yet and, thus, wasn’t filled with questions about baseball yet. Ken Burns’ documentary was the first time and that’s why I love it to this day.

I own it and watch it at random times. A few weeks ago, a storm rolled through and the power went out, so I whipped out my portable DVD player and stuck in Inning Eight. What eight? Just because it was the one I had stopped on my last time through.

And, if I’m even more honest, it often makes me a little weepy, mainly because of what the people he’s interviewing say. The ones that speak so reverentially about their own baseball heroes, as well as their memories of watching games. I know what they’re feeling when they talk like that now. I didn’t know that when I was 12. I couldn’t know that. And I imagine that nostalgic feeling will only grow stronger as time – and more baseball – continues to pass.

In fact, the interviews are one of the things I love most about the documentary. They have such an honest, genuine feel, as if they are just friends of Mr. Burns, and they are just sitting with him and having a frank discussion about baseball while cameras roll. It brings a certain level of authenticity to the piece.

After Ken Burns’ documentary, I remember I wanted to know everything about baseball. And about every other sport, too. So my grandparents bought me a subscription to Sports Illustrated, which I read cover-to-cover every week. At 12. And I read sports books, including Joe Namath’s autobiography.

Really what I wanted to know was the history of every sport. I’ve always loved history. I think knowing the history of something helps you understand and appreciate it, and I feel knowledge of history is an important connection to the past. That sense of being part of something bigger, I suppose. And I think Baseball sparked that in me. I honestly do. And I think it played a part in my developing a love for all history – political, economical, entertainment, you name it. I love knowing what came before.

I also love that I keep learning from the documentary. As I watch each installment now, I always get something else out of it, something I didn’t catch last time. Or maybe something I didn’t truly understand but now do. And it always makes me thing, ‘Man I love baseball.’ I don’t know if I can ever articulate why, but I do. It’s its own character in the drama that’s played out through it over the years.

The 10th installment was difficult to watch, only because it covered a lot of darker days in baseball, such as the steroids scandal, and remembering that just makes me feel sad. It also included the ’96 World Series. Being reminded of it, I literally had a physical reaction. I was shaking my head, tensing my muscles. I knew what was coming and yet it was as if my body was still trying to will it away. Painful it is to remember, really. I suppose that makes me silly, but it’s true. But it also reminded me of some of the great World Series and playoff series I’ve got to witness over the years. And the Red Sox winning. That was enjoyable to see.

But mostly it just reminded me how prominent a position baseball has in my life. A position I hope it never relinquishes. Man, I do love this game.

The Final Season: Baseball Movies

Boston 9 – Atlanta 4; CJ: DNP

Lazy Sundays are perfect for watching baseball. But if that’s not an option, they’re also perfect for watching baseball movies. Hollywood seems to love to make movies about baseball, and, for the most part, they’ve done a pretty good job of it.

What’s my favorite? Probably Bull Durham, although the Sandlot is a close second. But I think Bull Durham is the most realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be a baseball player, or at least a minor league player. I like that there’s no fantastic Hollywood ending. The team doesn’t suddenly start winning and bring home the Minor League World Series trophy, or whatever it would be called. They win some, they lose some. Their star gets called up. The other star gets cut as a result. There is a cutesy, romantic ending, but for the most part it’s just about the daily grind of being a ballplayer. The bus trips, the small town bars, the girls, and the rundown stadiums. Nowadays, some minor league parks look as nice and comfortable as big league ones, like the Round Rock Express’ Dell Diamond, but I’m determined one day to find a dusty, old ballpark and to watch a bunch of kids play their tails off trying to make it to the next level. Just because of Bull Durham and its portrayal of that environment. As the opening monologue says, I view those parks, and all parks really, as the “church[es]” of baseball, and their only ones that feed the soul day in and day out. So, yeah, I like Bull Durham a lot.

My favorite movie as a kid, though, was The Sandlot. I thought it was hilarious. Still do. I loved its nostalgic undertones, the way it depicted how kids all over the country got together to play baseball at that time. I know my dad loves the Sandlot for that reason. It reminds him of being a kid, getting into trouble with the other boys in his neighborhood and playing on their own sandlot. On the surface it’s about some kids playing baseball and getting into a pickle, but it’s more about the role baseball, and sports, can play in a kid’s life, how they’re an opportunity to make friends and to learn what you’re capable of. It’s about the confidence you can gain from sports. Even if you’re horrible at them, it’s the tiny victories – the one hit, the free throw – that can still make you feel invincible. But what I like most about The Sandlot is how it reminds me of being a kid.

Other baseball movies I like…. The Natural. How great does Robert Redford look in that? And how about that last scene? (Spoiler alert) He hits that homerun into the lights, and the sparks are raining down on him as he’s finds redemption and cleanses his soul through the big hit. Beautiful.

Also love Field of Dreams. I know some people loathe it, but I love it. All of it. Minus, if I’m honest, the last scene with his dad. When Kevin Costner gets choked up while asking to have a catch, it doesn’t ring true with me, doesn’t strike a genuine tone, so I’d just as well do without it. But James Earl Jones’ monologue in that movie is one of my favorite monologues ever. Not just him telling Ray that people will come, but what he says about baseball, how it’s what ties us to our past and how we’re unconsciously drawn to it – man, can I relate! I’ve often thought about printing out that monologue and hanging it up somewhere in my house. It’s just so wonderfully written and, of course, impeccably delivered. Great movie.

Not all baseball movies are serious. There are some funny ones, too. I love Major League. I don’t think it’s particularly accurate, but its goofiness always makes me laugh. Maybe it is accurate, as far as day-to-day life in a clubhouse and dealing with a crazy owner. It does get Hollywood cheesy at the end, though, with the team pulling out the miraculous victory. That’s my only beef with it. Bob Uecker has some great lines, though, as do some others. To this day I have the urge, when someone hits an obvious homerun, to say, “Too high.”

I also love The Bad News Bears, particularly the language the kids use. Another movie with great, great lines. And I know this will sound strange, but Walter Matthau can teach any kid I have to play baseball anytime he wants (RIP). It’s another one that, unlike Rookie of the Year or Little Big League or Angels in the Outfield, keeps the story close to reality, and it’s what I imagine most Little League teams look like. They can’t hit, they can’t field, but with a little love and support and beer, they manage to pull off a few victories. That and they have one player who is head and shoulders above everyone else. Tell me that’s not what real Little League teams have. My favorite part is at the end, after they realistically loose, and the shy, booger-eating spaz tells the team they just lost to (named the Yankees – bonus points filmmaker) to take their trophy and stick it straight up their a**. Perfect ending.

Baseball seems to lend itself well to film, more so than any other sport, I think. The tension that builds and builds and builds in games is so dramatic, and there’s no release through the constant movement and collisions of other sports. It’s a game that lends itself to the quite turmoil so popular in cinema. And that’s why I love it. And most movies about it.

Worthless Movie Reviews: The Hunger Games

I had the chance to see the The Hunger Games last night. (Which, by the way, is the right way to do it. Instead of the crazy crowds I imagine were at the theatres this past weekend, there were maybe 20-25 people in the huge theatre I saw it in. On a Tuesday night. Just two days after the hordes. So much better than crowd fighting and line waiting.) I have to say, I really liked it. I had some trepidation about seeing it since I enjoyed reading the books so much, and I’m always reluctant to see something that has the potential to supersede the images I created while reading – after all, I like my ideas better – but that turned out not to be a problem. Overall, I thought it was a very good movie and a very good book adaptation. Story was clear, easily understood, and the dialogue, for the most part, was crisp and authentic, although, I attribute a lot of that to Suzanne Collins being a screenwriter by trade and participating in the adaptation. That always helps the cause.

But I really liked the edgy feel and appearance to it, particularly the close-ups and the use of the handheld camera. I thought it fit well with the tone of the story. I thought Jennifer Lawrence did a really good job, too. And I liked Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. And to their credit, somewhat ironically, I liked that I didn’t feel much chemistry between them, except at the rare, intended moments. My sister, who hasn’t read the books, went with me and also noted that she did feel much chemistry between them but still wanted them to end up together, and I thought to myself, ‘They nailed it!’

There were a couple things I didn’t think they nailed, just to throw in my hat amongst all the critics. I’ll try to stick to the film aspect because I know I could easily comment about the things that were changed or added to the movie, but those are common in book adaptations. Things change. It’s just part of the game. I will say, briefly that I do wish the movie didn’t glaze over a few key moments: Rue’ relationship with Katniss (it made her death less impactful for me), Katniss and Peeta’s time in the cave, and their decision to eat the nightlock. I wish they had spent more time on those, but, hey the movie was already 2.5 hours long. They couldn’t add too much more. And as far as additions, which probably took away from the above moments, I didn’t mind the inclusion of the riot scene and the expanded version of Seneca. Including the riot speaks to the progression of the story and creates an interest in seeing the next film, and the use of Seneca as a conduit for backstory and exposition was effective, I thought. He was able to convey necessary information nicely woven into the story in an interesting way.

As for the film, I think, naturally, a lot of people will compare it to Harry Potter. If I do that, then, for me, it lacked what I can only describe as a shot-in-the-woods/reeds-specialness-quality. (And I think that’s an official term.) My favorite scene in all the Harry Potter films, from a purely artistic stand point, is the scene in HP 5 when they’re running through the weeds outside the Burrow fighting the Death Eaters. The editing is exceptional, in my humble opinion, as is the editing throughout most of that movie. It brings such a sharp urgency to the scene, and I felt the look of The Hunger Games overall lacked that polished, yet frenzied fine-tuned quality, if that makes sense.

The only other thing that didn’t work for me in the movie was the love triangle. That probably has something to do with the fact that it isn’t my favorite part of the books. But, watching the movie, I was reminded how hard love can be to recreate in art. It’s such an intimate, unique experience for people that I think it’s hard to represent in a way that speaks to a broad audience without coming off as corny or cheesy, which the “love” scenes in this movie did to me. And to bring up HP again, it reminded me how I always appreciated that J.K left the love story to the subplot. I realize I’m probably alone in this, as the love story seems to draw in many, many readers, but, for me, the movie was more effective when it was dealing with other emotions, such as the concept of hope vs. fear.

So, to sum up – it’s really good movie in my opinion, and an even better book-to-movie adaptation. I highly recommend.

And the winner for Best Picture is…

I finally finished my annual goal of watching every movie nominated by the Oscars for Best Picture, save one. I always give myself the okay to miss one, either because I can’t find the time, or I simply don’t want to see it. (Sorry 127 Hours, but watching James Franco cutoff his own arm, even with his good looks, doesn’t interest me.) This year I missed Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Just couldn’t get it in.

So, with the ceremony only a few days away, I’ve been thinking about which film will win. Seems the odds are on The Artist,  which surprises me because I didn’t think it had the mass appeal necessary. Seemed too trendy. And, while Hollywood seems to like making movies about itself, it doesn’t seem to like awarding such movies.

But back to things I’m more qualified to discuss. Which one do I think will win? Not an easy question. My obvious choice would be Moneyball, given my obsessive love of the national pastime, but, while it was entertaining, it wasn’t ‘Best Picture’ material. It was too much fun, too inspiring, too straightforward. And it had a happy ending. Let’s be honest, Best Picture winners tend to be serious and challenging, and not all that happy. Not always, but often.

Another obvious choice: Midnight in Paris. It’s about writers for goodness sake. And not just any writers but Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Stein – all writer’s I looovve and admire. Hemingway in particular. But I think it’s my love of Hemingway that put me off this movie. Sure it was funny and quirky, but the portrayal of Hemingway was, to me, uninspired and flat. And the movie, as a whole, seemed too small to win the big prize.

I did love The Artist, but my objections to it are above. Hugo was cute, and a great way to learn film history, but it was… cute. War Horse was heartbreaking and inspiring in a tragic way, while The Descendants was the same in a darkly funny way. But neither really stood out to me. War Horse was too sentimental at times, while The Descendants seemed to meander and fail in its attempt to portray big themes.

So I guess that leaves The Help and – gasp – The Tree of Life. I really enjoyed The Help. The performances were great and the story had a good mix of heart and tears and laughs. It certainly challenged me to look at that time and place differently. And I think it has a decent chance of winning. And The Tree of Life, while ambitious and pretentious, beautiful and confusing, was not as terrible as I think people want to make it out to be. I’m still not sure what I was experiencing, and Malick might have aimed farther than he could reach with what he was trying to encapsulate on film, but I was certainly moved by it. And I do think it’s more than just a series of pretty pictures, as some are trying to dismiss it as. At the start, I was pulled out of the film by the cinematography. It was less of an aid to the storytelling and more the storytelling itself. But, eventually, the two came together, and I was able to let the amazing shots wash over me as I became immersed in the story. But I do think, while one of my favorites, it has little chance of winning.

With all that being said, I’m back to my original question: which one do I think will win? Honestly, I have no idea. I enjoyed them all to varying degrees. And disliked different aspects of them to varying degrees. But none – or even two or three – really stood out. So I guess I’ll just have to wait for Sunday.

The Wonderful World of Books on Film

Saw this great short film the other day. It worked for me on a few levels. First, I love the quick tributes to silent film. There’s a little Harold Lloyd moment and of course some Charlie Chaplin.

But mainly I love the message of it. The idea of books being able to lift us up and take us anywhere we want to go. And that they truly come alive when we read them. I wish everyone felt this way about books.

It’s a little long, for a web video, about 15 minutes. But it’s worth watching. The full-circle ending is inspiring and will probably make you smile.