A Dreamer Walking

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Character Studies

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on April 23, 2014

Scorsese #2One of the reasons movies like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and his latest The Wolf of Wall Street rub audiences the wrong way is because of director Martin Scorsese’s determination to not show the big picture. What Scorsese is interested in is the individual perspective. Almost all his films revolve around an individuals point of view and Scorsese is unwilling to leave that point of view for sentimentality or political-correctness. He has faith his audience will bring a broader perspective to the films they are watching, but Scorsese is focused on showing a world seen through the lens of his flawed characters. This is what makes Scorsese’s movies so interesting.

The first Scorsese film I chose to watch when I started studying him was Taxi Driver (1976). After seeing the movie I couldn’t believe how frustrated it made me feel. “Gosh”, I thought, “they said this guy was a good director!” What I saw was a completely unlikable character, in Travis Bickle, with little arc. I first thought I just picked the wrong movie. However, after watching Raging Bull (1980), The Aviator (2004), and Shutter Island (2010) I found the same problems arose: the characters were all hard to warm up to and there was little to no character growth. In fact, one of my first papers on Scorsese revolved around the problem I had with the lack of arc in his films (check out the paper here).

After listening to many of Scorsese’s interviews and commentaries I began to realize he was never interested in movies about characters who ended up overcoming their flaws and winning the day. I don’t believe Scorsese felt capable of telling many of those kinds of stories in an authentic way. Most of Scorsese’s movies don’t revolve around huge life altering events that send his characters on specific adventures. He is actually known for his lack of interest in narrative driven films. And, though I still hold to my point I made years ago about Scorsese not having much of an arc for his characters, I have come to realize that has never really been his intent. What he wants us to see is the effect a changing environment has on his unwavering characters. Again and again in Scorsese films we observe characters who are unable to change and adapt to the shifting world around them.

We see the characters in Scorsese’s films show their inability to adapt to a changing world in many different ways. In Gangs of New York there is Bill The Butcher. From most accounts audiences considered him the most interesting and colorful character in this Scorsese epic. Bill deals with a the world around him by demanding it stay the same. The story takes place in the city of New York during the Civil War. This represents a huge evolution in the United States, yet Bill refuses to acknowledged it. He tries his hardest to keep New York the same way it has always been. He ruthlessly undermines newly elected officials and continues to hold onto his hatred towards immigrants and African Americans. Bill represents the old New York. I believe this character most resonated with Scorsese because he also fell in love with a New York (the place he grew up) which has since gone away.

In the movie Goodfellas change is dealt with in a completely different way. The main character of the movie is gangster, Henry Hill, and unlike Bill The Butcher he is not in a position where he could force his environment to stay the same. The first half of the movie shows us exactly why Henry is the kind of guy he is. We see how enticing life as a gangster can be. Scorsese brilliantly displays the glamor, excitement, and power that comes with gangster life and then he pulls the rug out from under Henry. Soon the struggle for power puts friends against friends. Henry’s luxurious lifestyle and excessive amounts of money get him into drugs and allow him to support mistresses which in turn brings more chaos to his life. He soon finds he can’t support the glamorous life he and his wife have grown accustomed to and things begin to crumble around him. Though you can’t say Henry’s lifestyle ends up benefiting him in the end, there is no attempt to show Henry having regret for the life he lived. He doesn’t seem to feel remorse for cheating on his wife and helping to cover up the murders of several people. At the end of the story we see his situation change dramatically but he is no different.

If you enter a Scorsese movie wanting to see characters come to their senses or pay for their crimes I am afraid you will be disappointed. The latest Scorsese film, The Wolf Of Wall Street, is proof of just how little Scorsese cares about appeasing his audience byshowing any kind of justice or redemption. The protagonist of the film is one of the most despicable men you will ever see, Jordan Belfort. The film revolves around a team of stockbrokers, lead by Belfort, who cheat, lie, and double cross their way to the top of the Wall Street food chain. The film is based on a true story yet not even a second of the film is focused on any of the many thousands of people Belfort ruined because of his scams. Instead we are are exposed to an excessive amount of drug use, prostitution, and partying. Many asked what the point of the movie was. I don’t think Scorsese had a particular message he wanted to send. However, I think he made the movie because he wanted to get into the head of someone who could do such damage without thinking twice about it. Scorsese didn’t show any of the victims of Belfort’s schemes because Belfort didn’t care about his victims. As I said at the top of this post, Scorsese is relying on his audience to bring a bigger picture to his movies.  His job is to show us an unflinching example of what goes into the mindset of a character like Jordan Belfort. Scorsese isn’t interested in having us like Belfort, but rather he wants us to understand him. Like the movie or not Wolf Of Wall Street produced a huge amount of dialogue about the corruption of Wall Street. This dialogue was generated because of Scorsese’s unwillingness to create false sympathy for the character of Belfort and because of Scorsese’s ability to let us see through the eyes of such a corrupt character. The movie forced us inside the head of a man few of us would ever care to know in the real world.

Scorsese is completely focused on transporting his audience inside his characters head. In fact, what almost all Scorsese films have in common is they are deep character studies. Scorsese wants his audiences to be consumed by his characters. And once we are in his characters heads, he refuses to let us out. We end up seeing the world of Scorsese’s protagonists rather then the world we know. In the commentary for Taxi Driver the film professor Robert Kolker talked about how we don’t know what is real or not in the movie because Travis Bickle isn’t seeing the world in a realistic way. The same could be said to an even greater degree for the movie Shutter Island. (SPOILER) At the end of Shutter Island we learn the whole story we just watched isn’t real at all but was simply imagined by the protagonist, Teddy Daniels (END OF SPOILER).

Scorese’s focus on the psyche of his characters is obsessive. Scorsese wants us to question what we thought we knew about people in this world. Repeatedly he refuses to give us characters we can completely root for or against. Instead he shows his audience a much more colorful world, filtered through the eyes of his protagonist. We can see ourselves being entranced by the same demons that send people like Travis Bickle, Howard Hughes, and Jordan Belfort into madness. And, we are never given any easy answers as to how to fix their problems. Instead we are made to come up with the answers for ourselves. In many ways it would be easier for Scorsese to create an out for himself by giving into the audiences desired outcomes for the characters in his films. But it is by forging his own path and taking an unflinching look at the people he concentrates on that Scorsese has become one of the most admired filmmakers in the world.

Puss In Boots- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 2, 2011

Puss in Boots is a movie full of beautiful locations, fantastic animation, and above par action sequences. At the beginning of the film it even feels like we have a more charismatic main character then what we had for the original Shrek series. However, Puss did not go very far in the movie. He is basically used in the same way he is in the Shrek films, as a character who entertains through some clever and some sub par jokes and a lot of action. The characters around him are given the responsibility to carry the arc of the film and sadly they don’t do much with it.

From the beginning of the film I realized that the character with the greatest arc was not going to be Puss. The reason being Puss was already a very developed character who showed no signs of going anywhere. This is one of the problems that comes with making a sidekick become the star of a film. The majority of sidekicks are created to be one note characters. Their job is to enhance the depth of the main character. In the Shrek series Puss’s job was to entertain while helping to develop the arc of the main character Shrek. Now sense in this film Puss is the main star, the creators needed to either figure out a fatal flaw in Puss that could be worked out through a story, or keep Puss as a one note character and have him be the reason for change in one or more of the characters around him. The creators chose the latter.

In Puss in Boots Puss’s story isn’t much. There is nothing inwardly unique about who he is as a character. He is  the typical misunderstood hero. His main goal is to reclaim his honor and help out the mother and town that adopted him as a kid. The arc of the story laid entirely on Puss’s childhood friend Humpty Dumpty, voiced by Zach Galifianakis. Zach did nothing to make Humpty likable for me. Humpty seemed like a shallow sidekick for most of the movie and an even (spoiler) shallower villain when he betrays Puss in the third act of the story. Through a ten minute flashback showing Puss and Humpty’s childhood, we see that Puss and Humpty were once good friends. Both had a sense of adventure and both were treated as outcasts. Humpty’s ambition was to get away and find the magical beans that would lead to a great amount of treasure. I saw that Humpty was a smart guy and dedicated to his mission, however this did nothing to attract me to his character. Humpty is nothing but greedy through the majority of the film, he even has a hard time allowing Puss to be friends with him as a kid. Eventually his friendship with Puss goes sour when Puss is accepted into the community. Humpty turns to crime and based on some unfortunate events Puss is mistakenly caught as an accomplice to Humpty. This leads to Puss becoming an outlaw while leaving Humpty to get caught by authorities and thrown into jail.

We hear about Puss’s childhood through him telling it to Kitty Softpaws. Kitty Softpaws is an accomplice to Humpty who tries to recruit Puss to help them get the treasure up the magic beanstalk. Kitty falls to sleep while Puss tells her about his childhood. I wonder why the film creators thought we would care about Puss’s back story if the character he was telling it to didn’t even care? We get the feeling something is up when all the characters come together. Puss shows resentment because Humpty gave him a bad reputation. Humpty doesn’t seem sorry and still seems to resent Puss’s charm. Kitty doesn’t seem like she cares for any of the characters, just the treasure at the top of the beanstalk. None of them have very admirable reasons for doing what they are doing. Even Puss wants to get the treasure so HE can get his reputation back, not because he thinks the town or his mother really needs the money.

Because the reason for the adventure is shallow, the action and danger of the adventure doesn’t seem nearly as thrilling. They do go up the magical beanstalk and they do run into trouble while trying to find the treasure in the castle in the sky, but who cares? Yes, these sequences will entertain you a little while they unfold because of the talented animators and background artists at Dreamworks, but the thrills are gone as soon as the scenes are over.

The crude humor in the story seems to constantly stop us from connecting to the characters. There are several shallow sexual oriented jokes in the film, obviously targeted toward the older audience. One of Dreamworks’ greatest problems is the people in charge never trust their story enough to avoid making fun of someone, using sexual innuendo, or throwing in an absurd comment that only gets a nervous or shallow laugh. Kitty Softpaws makes fun of Humpty while he changes clothes. Puss gets a old man aroused when cleaning himself. And, Puss constantly boasts about his ability to attract woman. The shallow humor did nothing to further the story and only made us think less of the characters.

The ending of the film is extremely predictable and unbelievable. Humpty Dumpty ends up betraying Puss. The whole adventure was set up by Humpty so he could get his revenge. However, the back stab is seen a mile away. There is no reason given for why Humpty apologizes and he is obviously still angry at Puss. The most outrageous part however is Humpty’s sudden change of heart at the end of the film. After the years of planning in prison and spending most of the movie getting Puss to fall into his evil plan, we have ONE scene where Puss talks to Humpty and convinces him to change his ways and not destroy the town they both grew up in. Humpty is suddenly sorry and sacrifices himself at the end to save the town. The problem is Puss was not a strong enough character in this film to really create a believable change in Humpty Dumpty, let alone to do it in just one scene. The ending was cliche and completely unearned. Of course it needed to happen because someone in the movie needed to express some type of growth. However, because the ending was not earned the audience leaves the theater with hardly any impact by the one and a half hours they spent watching the movie.

If you are interested in vegging out, I would suggest you watch Puss In Boots. It has enough humor and talented enough artists working behind the scenes to satisfy the audience who just wants to sit down relax and not really think for ninety minutes. But for someone who wants to be stimulated and think while watching a film, Puss In Boots is hard to bear. Dreamworks Animation has some of the greatest artists in the film industry at their studio. Many of their talents are wasted in this film. They have the talent to inspire and influence generations of kids, but instead are made to create mediocre storylines designed to make the quick buck. The story is weak and much of the crude humor dates the film. There is nothing in Puss In Boots that hasn’t been said before, and in better ways. I want to see films from Dreamworks where the visionaries behind the story are as talented as the creators bringing it to life.

No Arc?

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on September 14, 2011

Is it okay for the main character in your story to have no arc? An “arc” in storytelling is the change you as the audience member see the characters go through.  Whether it is learning to share, getting a lesson in responsibility, or understanding what it means to truly love, there needs to be some kind of journey or arc in your film that makes the movie experience worth while. The arc does not always need to be oriented toward a good result. An arc could be represented through showing the corruption of innocents in someone. It is sometimes even more thought provoking when you make the arc of a character point to evil. Usually the character that changes the most and goes on the greatest inner journey in any given story is the protagonist. He or she is usually the character the audience gets most attached to. However, not always is it the case that the protagonist of the story changes the most. There have been some great movies where the protagonist has had no real arc.

You do not need to have every character in your story change. Usually you need to have one or two characters that represent a solid foundation. In most stories there usually are characters who are already developed. These characters represent a solid belief in order to change the characters around them. Most villains in the movies don’t go through much development, their job is to test the protagonist of the story. A good example of this is the Joker in Batman Dark Knight. The Joker represents chaos. He has this foundational belief, if pushed enough everyone will drop all morals in order to survive. The Joker tests the protagonist Batman to the limit. Batman is forced to go through a change and understand who he is because of the solid belief the Joker holds.

There is usually a good character with no arc in stories. Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid is a good example. Other examples are Sam from Lord of the Rings, Izhak Stern from Schindler’s List, John Keating from Dead Poets Society, and almost every secondary character in the Disney Animation movies. I am not saying these are character who don’t feel emotion or go through trauma, but they all have foundational beliefs that usually end up changing the protagonist of the story. Usually the characters with no real arc are the characters we enjoy the most. It is comforting to know exactly who a character is from beginning to end without needing to worry about his or her arc. This is one of the reasons so many secondary characters in Disney movies are so endearing. They are confident in who they are and they only have two jobs, guide the protagonist in their journey and entertain the audience. It is always risky for a storyteller to have a quality that the audience likes in a character be taken away from the character in order to create an arc. Many people would say for example they liked Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story franchise more when he was under the delusion of being space ranger then when he actually realized he was a toy. This is one of the reasons why the toys in Toy Story 2 run into another delusional buzz, and why Buzz is changed back into a delusional Buzz in Toy Story 3.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post not all stories have the protagonist change. There are some movies where we see no real arc in the main character. It is alright to have these types of protagonists as long as they are able to create an arc for the characters around them. Two great movies that represent main characters with very little inner arc are Forrest Gump and Wall-E. I find it interesting that these two films both have the main character represented through the title. It might be because the characters are so well liked. Both Forrest Gump and Wall-E are characters audiences through out the world have come to love. Both represent a very innocent point of view on life and both characters connect immediately with the audience. They represent perspectives and hold beliefs that are already developed and can’t help but change the characters around them. Forrest for example brings about a change in almost all the characters he interacts with. His story concentrates on two character changes in particular; One with Forrest’s love interest, Jenny, and and the second with his lieutenant, Dan. Dan is saved from dying in battle by Forrest, the only problem is Dan loses his legs and is angry at Forrest because he wanted to die. Dan is ashamed of how people look at him but eventually finds strength in Forrest’s consistent love for life. Jenny is an emotional train wreck and feels she is unworthy of love, yet Forrest’s love for Jenny is strong and consistent all the way through the film, and at the end his love wins Jenny over and brings her clarity.

Characters should be created to tell a good story. They shouldn’t be created to flesh out your world or because you just find them interesting. They need to drive the arc of your story. You shouldn’t worry about making all the characters change. It is usually good to concentrate on the arc of just a few characters. Better to have the audience really buy into one character arc then be half sold on several. A story like A Christmas Carol is just about one man changing, all the other characters have no arc. Yet, this does not make the other characters the main character Scrooge encounters less enduring. We like the secondary characters, like the ghosts Scrooge runs into, because we can see the change they are making in Scrooge. Wall-E is one of those characters we ended up liking all the more because he had this solid belief in love and life all the way through the movie. I personally liked him because he helped give me joy and change my perspective. All the way through the story Wall-E’s only goal is to find love. Because of his unwavering dedication he finds love at the end and brings joy to all of us.

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Where is the Arc?

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on January 20, 2011

martin-scorsese_M_jpg_627x325_crop_upscale_q85After recently watching three of Martin Scorsese’s most critically acclaimed films, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas, I have noticed one key factor that seems to be true with each one of these films. The main characters stay the same. This is very different from the normal Hollywood film. Or at least the normal critically acclaimed film. Usually we are taught to create an arc for the main character. We need to see them start one way and through their journey learn something new and change because of it. Not really the case with these three Scorsese films.  (If you continue you will hear spoilers for all three of these films).

I am not saying the characters don’t change at all. But all the change we see seems to be a outward change. The soul of the characters stays the same. A good example is Henry Hill in Goodfellas. At the beginning Henry loves the life of being a Gangster. We see how Henry was introduced to the Gangster life and his voice over gives us all the details to why he likes this way of living. At the end Henry rats the gangsters out. However, it has nothing to do with him not liking the gangster life anymore. He even tells us strait up that he misses it. The problem for him is the circumstances changed. He needs to leave the gangster life to save his own neck.

In Taxi Driver the movie ends the same way it began. In fact this was the filmmakers intention. We are introduced to a paranoid man in Travis Bickle. The paranoia becomes so great Travis goes on a killing rampage. Somehow he is hailed as a hero in the public’s eye and starts the cycle all over again. The reason why we know the cycle is going to start all over again is because on the inside nothing has changed with Travis. In Raging Bull the only change in the main character Jake LeMotta is he goes from a famous boxer to a washed up showman.

To be honest, Martin is being more honest to reality in showing these characters with faults that do not really change. For the most part we are unwilling to look at ourselves and make the changes needed to transform who we are on the inside. Martin also is a skilled storyteller and is able to tell intriguing stories even though the his main characters don’t have an arc.

It is interesting to see how the characters life styles and who they are on the inside effect how they deal with outside situations. Seeing Travis’s self loathing and paranoia effect the way he judges situations was interesting to me. Seeing how Jake LeMotta’s mistrust and his obsessions took a hold of him and caused him to lose everything, was also intriguing. For me however these things by themselves leave me unsatisfied.

No matter how good the filmmaker is a story still needs an arc both in the the plot and the characters. I am not nearly as interested in the outward alterations as I am in the inward change. If you are not going to have any change on the inside you should be able to get done with the story much sooner. I knew Travis was crazy in the Taxi Driver thirty minutes into the film. I knew Jake was a good boxer with relationship issues fifteen minutes into the film. I realized that Henry liked the life of being a gangster within the first five minutes of the film.

We only need to go outside to see people who don’t have any inward change. Sadly, the world is full of those kinds of people. However, for me the movies should be different. They should show us growth, both good and bad. I am fine with films that have good people choose to go bad based on the circumstances. That is a interesting observation that if told right will make me think. I also am fine with films that have bad characters change for the good. I am not saying there needs to be a huge change. Not saying  they should go from completely bad to completely good. Just, I want to see a difference the story made on the character. I want to see the inner transformation that takes a master filmmaker to express.