Tuesday, May 27, 2008


I went to see The Life Before Her Eyes last night. It's Uma Thurman's latest performance, and it's well worth seeing. The script must be a fascinating read.

I'd actually wanted to go see one of the blockbusters -- Indiana Jones or Iron Man -- but Rafael vetoed that. So I dutifully sat down in my little independent cinema seat and... got swept up. While the script does start a bit slowly -- establishing the main characters as fairly standard high school friends -- it quickly finds new meaning and depth in ways you simply don't expect. It's one of those movies where you end up watching backwards and forwards at the same time, with new layers of meaning revealing themselves the deeper you sink into it. And I wanted to see Iron Man!

When I sat down to blog, I meant to write about how remarkable it is to find a script that has BOTH surprise twists and a great degree of emotional depth. That's certainly true of this movie. What's delightful here is that the writer, Emil Stern, took his time and worked out a beautiful web of truth that connects Uma Thurman's 30-something character to the 17-year-old who suffered the traumatic event that defines her life.

I've been extolling the virtues of the three-act structure as a heuristic guide on this site for a while now. It's time for me to eat some crow here. While it's absolutely present in The Life Before Her Eyes, I bet it's not that central to the creation of the piece.

I bet the key for Mr. Stern (a new writer, if imdb is any guide) was knowing why he wanted to write the script. He knows what's important to him. It matters. This is how you choose a good strategy. It's how you find the feel. It's how you make a piece your own.

Mr. Stern found the power of metonymy (basically a fancy word for association), and it allowed him to sew up the storylines of the Uma Thurman character as an adult and a teen seamlessly. It's masterful stuff. There's conscious metonymy on the part of the characters: a character encounters a reminder of the past, and the script moves to that moment. There's metonymy on the level of structure, as when the young Diana reconciles with her best friend in front of the house the adult Diana lives in. It's delicate, subtle -- and it provides all the structure and coherence the audience needs to engage the story on many levels.

Getting that metonymy working is no easy task. As with any kind of structure, you have to be consistent and you have to plan it out. I bet I caught about half the clues. But somehow I was still overwhelmed by the twists at the climax. I was still caught up in the drama right up to the end.

When you know a bit about screenwriting, it's not easy to get bored with climaxes. You figure that this, that and the other element is going to come roaring back. There's usually an obvious way to do it, and the end result is usually pretty close to that.

Every once in a while a movie wakes us up to what real storytelling is. We don't take a story somewhere. It takes us to where it wants to go. Listening and knowing what that path is is hard under the best of circumstances. In a world of emails and work and too much TV and thirty-two other distractions, it's nearly impossible. But it's worth it. Take half an hour. Write. Find something to hold with you through the rest of the day.

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