Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Curious Case of John McCain

I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the other night. It's one of those gorgeous movies that makes you sit through plodding, pro forma scenes every 20 minutes or so. Ah, Hollywood. I'm not sure how I would have approached a project like that. The story sounds like it's best left on a page. Benjamin Button is born an old man, and dies a newborn. Through most of it Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are aged digitally. If you're thinking it's not a good idea to stick two of the most beautiful people on the planet in a mask (digital or no) for a long (very long) movie, you're thinking what I was thinking. But they pulled it off reasonably well.

There's a great deal of bravery even taking on a tale like this. The writer, Eric Roth, is an old hand. He's written everything from The Good Shepherd to Forrest Gump to The Concorde...Airport '79. He writes well, and he writes to industry expectations.

Forrest Gump is a textbook case of what many screenwriters refer to as misbehavior. There's one trait that defines a character throughout a story. It's how we know we're watching that character. It's how we place bets or worry or otherwise engage in what's about to happen. American audiences view a story vicariously through the main character. If that misbehavior isn't clear, they can't see the drama clearly. New writers often look on the misbehavior as the root of all evil in screenwriting. My characters are too complex to be summed up like that! That's why movies are too predictable and safe! It's also why their stories tend to be completely impenetrable. They don't leave a clue for how an audience should approach the story, so the events lack the significance the writer intends.

Benjamin Button is another classic example of misbehavior. Because it follows one man from birth to death, it offers a good way to explain how misbehavior works in a complex, real-life situation. Just about any trait you can think about will play out differently in an adolescent than it will in an old man. Quick to anger. Gullible. Dogmatic. Cowardly. Choose your own. Now you understand misbehavior. And now you understand the charm of Benjamin Button. He never looks his age, but the misbehavior reads as it should for his chronological age. We see a development. We're constantly looking under that clever but inevitably annoying digital mask. When the misbehavior does get murky the story lags.

The story held a strange resonance for me with the tale of John McCain. Campaigns these days are all about establishing narratives. This is not news. So much of our perception of John McCain was taken up with the task of lining up the POW in grainy black and white with the elder statesman of 2008. There are innumerable elements that make John McCain John McCain. And at the base of them is a misbehavior (in the screenwriting sense) that makes him immediately John McCain.

I was fascinated by an article in the New York Times magazine entitled The Making (and Remaking) of McCain It gets to the heart of why the poor guy went down in flames. Quite simply, his campaign made some rookie screenwriting mistakes. They started writing before they'd mapped out the story. They ran up against plot point after plot point that might make reasonable drama in their own stories, but failed to line up with the one the electorate had tuned into the week before. If you liked McCain in 2000, you'd almost inevitably be turned off by the McCain of 2008, when he hired the demons who slew him eight years previous. If you liked the experienced McCain in August, you'd have trouble with the same guy in October. This may be a sign of complexity or lack of focus. I'll let you decide. The article documents some shifts that are fairly clever (and others that, uh, weren't so clever). What they inevitably failed to see was the context that they themselves created. They looked at what wasn't working about the narrative, rather than the narrative itself.

It's worth noting that a campaign that failed to develop a compelling narrative can itself become one. The journalist was able to stand back and find that misbehavior. He found the quest and the obstacles and the rest that would illuminate and develop out a beautiful misbehavior. There's something to be learned from this. It's probably essential to a tragedy that the players can't step back in time to see the potential that their mistakes opens up. We all know that a good setback makes a bigger victory possible. Screenwriters are supposed to make it darkest before they let the dawn in. Campaigns, not so much. Or, well, who knows. Maybe this is what Karl Rove has in mind.

No comments: