Sunday, December 7, 2008

More on Symmetry

I saw Quantum of Solace the other day. Can't say I was terribly excited about it -- it was just the only reasonable choice given time and companionship constraints. But there was something there.

The script is by Paul Haggis, who wrote Million Dollar Baby, Crash, and Casino Royale among many others.

Screenplays, for better or worse, run like clockwork. It might sound like a paradox at first: you have to create an audience expectation before you can exceed it. You have to mark your starting point before you can mark distance away from it. This is why symmetry is important in a script. This is why you'll usually find symmetry built into a story even when you don't consciously experience it. After you hit a midpoint, you start finding scenes and moments that bookend what you've experienced so far. As the mirror effect brings the audience back to the beginning of the story, the dramatic distance increases and the audience has a good subconscious gauge of where they are in the story -- allowing them to settle in for the long haul.

Haggis is routinely adored and reviled for his straightforward approach to this. He pulls no punches. He isn't afraid to be obvious or even manipulative. For some, this means his stories are powerful. Others love to accuse him of false depth. (Many of these accusers have a tad bit of jealousy regarding Mr. Haggis' incredible success.)

Now, a Bond film is not really about emotional depth. Generally you'll get farther with assorted car chases and a shirtless Daniel Craig than 007 walking alone on a beach, cursing seagulls for their ability to fly. The depth is secondary, but it does play a vital role. It allows you to sit down and watch 90 minutes of improbable and impossible developments without looking up and wondering whether the plants need watering.

It takes a really good movie for me to put aside my structure-head and simply enjoy a film. Quantum of Solace is not one of those really good movies. I marveled at how carefully it was put together -- watching the clockwork spin around. What struck me is that the movie did in fact shoot for a bit more than I was expecting.

I've talked about how knowing the climax of your script can usually lead you to the inciting event, or vice versa. You look for what's the same, and what's different. You want the two scenes to resonate, to set each other up. But Haggis went a bit beyond this. The climax doesn't have much to do with the inciting event. Instead, it resonates with the backstory of Monica, the Bond girl. It resonates with a story she tells us at the low point. It allows us to go a little bit deeper with her, and therefore with Bond as he helps her and frees her from her demons. There's something there that matters, if only for a while.

The resolution actually resonates with Casino Royale (which I never saw). He solves the problem of his earlier betrayal, and the fact that he actually fell in love with someone who's now gone. There's an attempt to build something here -- to make Bond not just a dashing fellow with a troublesome libido and a penchant for throwing people off buildings. He changes. He undergoes growth. And he grows from story to story. I think Ian Fleming was aiming for something like this. It's not exactly The Lives of Others, but it does toss a bone to old romantics like myself.

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