Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Dr Jones, No Time For Blog...

By Jay Stringer

A couple of weeks ago I commented on Dave’s article that I could write essays about Indiana Jones. That set up a bit of a challenge, I suppose. I grew up as an Indy geek in the same way everyone else was growing up as a Star Wars geek.

But I’m not going to bore you with all the rants and in jokes. I’m keeping this on-topic. Well, as on-topic as it can be.

My obsession with the film has never really won me any punk points. It’s never been a hip film, it’s certainly not a ‘worthy’ film, and it doesn’t re-invent any wheels. But then, I don’t really think that great story telling has to be any of those things.

Breaking down RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK into its component parts is something I’ve done a number of times. It’s a good way to see what works and what doesn’t, and what lessons to take with you. When I was a film student I often used it as the textbook for how to pace and edit, and I outright stole a number of shots. As I turned to scriptwriting, I then began examining that side of the film; the script, the characters and the storytelling. And then, as I started taking the leap to writing full-length manuscripts, I found that I learned more from this film that from almost any other source.

So the main point of today’s blog is to look at a few specific examples of the lessons to be learned from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. But before I dive into that, I want to hark back to Dave’s original blog. What is it about Henry Jones Jr that we find so appealing?

The majority ingredient is something that can’t be planned or written. It’s that bit of magic that happens between the page and screen when the perfect actor is cast in his perfect role. Harrison Ford has a magic ability to ground whatever story he is in. It doesn’t matter what manner of crazy shit is going on around him, he somehow manages to keep the film, and the viewer, within the realms of some magic plausibility. Maybe it’s his wry smile. Maybe it’s his stoicism. Maybe it’s that he has the photo’s that each of us want hidden and we’ll go along with whatever he says. Who knows?

But there are things that the script does to help us love the guy. As Scott has pointed out before, Indy fails at almost everything he sets out to do in this film. He doesn’t get the golden idol. He gets Marion’s home burned down. He loses the ark TWICE. He lets Marion get ‘killed’. He’s tied up and helpless during the big finale, and he doesn’t get access to the ark at the end of the film. He’s a pretty crap hero, all round, but he keeps getting up off the mat for another go.

Anyway, onto some specific lessons.

That’s a phrase you’ll hear used a lot by crime writers. Hammett spoiled us, really, and we’ve been playing catch up ever since. The art of getting a story across without intruding, of SHOWING what is happening and why, rather than TELLING. I struggled at this for a long time. Hell, I still do. But I’ve got my foot in the door these days, and it was this film that finally gave me the way in.
Sure, there is one glaring moment of exposition. Indy gives that brief Sunday school lesson near the start of the movie where he explains what the ark is to the CIA men (and the audience.) Even then, the film stops short of drawing conclusions. He tells them that nobody knows what’s in it, or what its power really is. Aside from that, the film is a masterpiece of show-don’t-tell. The characters are revealed to us through their actions and conversations. Motivation is only discussed when the story needs to reveal it, and back-story is hinted at in dialogue, but never explained. The bar sequence is a perfect example. With one quick exchange an entire character history is given to us without actually revealing anything;

-I learned to hate you in the last ten years
-I never meant to hurt you
-I was a child, I was in love, it was wrong and you knew it
-You knew what you were doing
-I can only say I’m sorry so many times
-Well say it again anyway

Boom. The characters have told us everything we need to know and nothing more. And it’s done without the writer (or in this case director) stepping into the narrative and dumping a load of back-story on us. There were longer versions of this scene written, but they were not needed. Edit your scenes, be your own harshest critic. If something doesn’t need to be there, get rid of it.
And can’t you just picture that exchange being between Bogart and Bacall?

Another good example is Marcus. His character was butchered for the third film, turned into a comic relief character, but here his entire persona is put across in two simple steps. Firstly, one of Indy’s students had left an apple for him. Marcus picks it up and starts eating it. We’re given right there the relationship between the two. Indy is the teacher to the students, Marcus is the teacher to Indy. No explanations needed. And then in one simple line, “If I was five years younger, I’d be going with you,” we get a back story and a time frame for it. We know that, whatever we see Indy doing on screen, this Marcus fella used to have a go at it himself.

As much as I love all the other Indy stories; the films, the books, the comics, the TV show, they water down what was a perfect story arc. Everything that needed to be said about this strange grumpy character was said in the first film.
That’s it. Done.
In one incredibly compact narrative, we’re given a beginning, a middle, and an end for Indiana Jones that says everything about him.

He starts the film as a shadowy figure, dark and moody. He travels the globe in search of relics, fortune and glory. He can say he’s doing it for the right reasons, but he’s getting paid by the museum to do it, and museums acquiring the history of other cultures is always a dubious idea. Even when he starts on his mission, hunting for the ark before the Nazi’s can get it, it’s not for the greater good. It’s because he has a personal stake in it, because it’s the greatest find in history, and because he’s being paid. Midway through the film this is put to him by his archenemy, Belloq. They are “shadowy reflections” of each other, both “fallen from the true faith.” Belloq says it wouldn’t take much to push Indy to where Belloq is, to that extra degree of corruption, and he’s right. From there the character begins making his choices about who he is and what his motives are. The film doesn’t stop to show us this, it just continues to move. Near the end he’s made his decisions. He knows what, and who, is important to him. He’s refound a relationship that makes him something better, and he’s refound the “true faith” in archaeology.

He’s travelled so far from the shadowy figure at the start of the film, that he’s willing to take a leap of faith when the Ark is opened, to close his eyes and trust in its power. Maybe heeding his friend Sallah’s warning that the power within the Ark shouldn’t be for mankind. It’s a marked difference from the man Indy was when he first took on the mission, wide eyed at the notion of finding the relic, but not believing in magic.

The opening of the Ark itself was an important lesson for me. How does it work? What it the power? How does it kill? These were all things that were explained in early drafts of the story. And these were all things that didn’t matter one single bit to the story. It had no bearing on who the characters were, how the story moved, and what characters motivations were. If it has no bearing on any of those, you can live without knowing it.

Ultimately this film asks us to accept some crazy, implausible stuff. No greater than the angry box made by the man in the sky that kills Nazis. But it feels grounded and somehow plausible. A large part of this is due to the way the film sets up cause and effect. Violence is shown to have consequences. Yes, sometimes its comedy. A few of the Nazi deaths are casual and comedic. But at the same time, they are at least being shown. If a man falls from a truck you’ll see him get run over. If Indy gets shot in the arm you’ll see the blood and the scar will remain. If the film shows an action, it follows through with a reaction, and that means that the logical parts of our brain can accept what’s happening.

So to sum up, here are the main lessons I take from the film into the stories I write. They work for me. Maybe they don’t work for anyone else.

-Show Don’t Tell. If something can’t be revealed through dialogue or action, then I’m not going to use it.
-Pacing. Come in with the story already in motion. Leave as soon as you’ve made your point. Don’t stick around just to throw in a bit of writing you’re proud of.
-Characters. Know who they are. Know where they are in the scene, and where they are in the story.
-Know what’s important. It’s more vital to me to know that character A will kill character B to get a box, then it is to know what’s IN the box.


Dana King said...

I live your definition of Show, Don't Tell. I belong to a critique group where a couple of members take others to task for telling anything. "Don't just tell us he went to the bathroom; show us." (Okay, maybe not the best example.)

I think what you're saying here is to show the important stuff. Smaller things can be told if showing them detracts from the flow of the greater story. ("He picked his nose," instead of "He extended his right forefinger and inserted it into his right nostril, making a twirling motion not unlike a toilet brush, then...")

I'm all in favor of the telling detail, but the flow of the story must be paramount. Your interpretation preserves this.

Scott D. Parker said...

I've always enjoyed Raiders and only recently learned what a truly great writing achievement it really is. Moreover, when I found the PDF transcript of the original brainstorming session, I was even more educated and blown away. It's fascinating to watch as geniuses create one of the most beloved characters in movie history. It's exactly what we writers do.

The pulp influences of Raiders is what I love so much. And, like you said, back story is only hinted at...and that's okay. There are so many people who want to know Every Single Detail that a story gets bogged down in detail. [See my SF blog for my laments on world building in SF/F books.] Get into the story, tell what I need to know, and move on. It's why I'm paying for the ticket or buying the book.

Dave White said...

Great post. You know, I never realized we never learned what really happened between Marion and Indy in that first movie. For some reason I also assumed we knew. Maybe I made up my own backstory, which is a pretty cool feat for the writers as well.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I have to admit that I love the Indy films and have never thought to look at them from the writer's POV...perhaps because they were something I fell in love with while growing up. The film has a lot of wonderful SHOW don't Tell moments and you did a great job of demonstrating them. Thanks for letting me look at one of my all time favorite characters and movies in a new way!