Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Rule of Escalating Action

While watching John Flynn's 1980 Defiance recently, I noted a storytelling pattern that has been honored almost without exception by commercial action films since the dawn of cinema. The duration and intensity of action scenes are generally allowed to vary somewhat over the course of a story, but filmmakers are expected to fashion a big action climax according to certain specifications:

1. The duration of the final scene is expected to be substantial. In most genres, a simple confrontation is not enough: the battle generally is segmented into multiple parts, if for no other reason than to achieve great length without tedium.

2. Whether or not any other action scene in the film has contained much suspense, the final scene generally should drag out a few moments in which the hero is on the brink of extinction, even though the audience usually cannot be expected to doubt a favorable outcome.

3. If at all possible, the final confrontation should come down to a hand-to-hand battle between the chief hero and the chief villain, no matter how military or large-scale the offensive.

A week prior to watching the Flynn film, I noted the same three elements in the climax of Hugo Fregonese's 1953 Blowing Wild, a considerably better film than Defiance. I also recall mentioning this pattern in a review of William Friedkin's 2003 The Hunted, a strong film made from an unambitious script. I name these few examples off the top of my head; I trust that the reader will acknowledge the dominance of this template, which I will call "the rule of escalating action."

The problems with the rule of escalating action are obvious. One can perhaps argue that it enforces a modicum of good dramatic practice; but too often the items on this laundry list are in conflict with the needs of the movie or with common sense. And, of course, any narrative structure that becomes a rule, however sound, is an obstacle to surprise and invention. Nonetheless, the pattern is going strong after a century, and probably precedes cinema in some form. I don't believe that it is merely a habit that has been retained out of commercial superstition: it's too old and too powerful to be an unmotivated sign.

There's an underlying principle that sheds light on this phenomenon. Fiction can always be considered on two levels: internally, according to the needs of the world being depicted and of the people who inhabit it; and externally, in terms of the audience's reactions, which are crafted according to laws of drama. With many issues of fiction - not just the rule of escalating action - we can observe that the prevailing approach, followed slavishly by conventional works and substantially even by most adventurous works, involves harmonizing the internal level of the fiction, by force if necessary, with a known and desired pattern on external level.

The implication of this convention is that a well-made film would be designed so that internal and external logic are worked out at the same time with the same gestures to generate the standard action climax in an organic fashion: no mean feat, but a valid goal. And the rule of escalating action, which becomes bothersome when this perfect structure cannot be achieved, is the result of a kind of automatism, a need to impose a default dramatic shape regardless of where the internal needs of the film universe might take the story.

(For another issue of fiction that involves subordinating the internal level to the external, look in the middle of this 1984 article I wrote for the L.A. Reader, where I discuss the rules governing audience mourning for the death of characters with different levels of billing.)

Obviously the rule of escalating action is a matter of statistics: some people are irked when a well-known, conventionally fleshed-out dramatic shape trumps internal logic; but the paradigm has enough support to flourish over the long haul. It's not surprising that hand-to-hand conflict should have an appealing symbolic clarity, nor that we should enjoy the same dramatic flow in a movie that we like in a sports event. And it would be too hasty to conclude that the internal existence of the film universe carries little weight: audiences are notorious for docking films when they perceive internal conflicts, even minor ones. It's easy to imagine many viewers finding the climactic Tommy Lee Jones-Benicio del Toro knife fight in The Hunted silly, and at the same time not really wishing for a more plausible but unconventional ending.

I'm willing to speculate only that there seems to be great comfort for many viewers in this kind of canonical dramatic structure - a comfort that is increased by, but is not entirely due to, its historical repetition and familiarity.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Hawks fans have always been divided on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: some rate it high, others have trouble seeing much of Hawks' personality in it. It's difficult to find a similar film for purposes of comparison, which is the first hint that Hawks didn't simply fill out a genre form. The closest I can come is the Mansfield-Tashlin collaborations The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957): films in which a new-to-market sex symbol plays a sex symbol, presumably a studio strategy to enhance the value of a brand name. All three films share an awareness that they are not only deriving comedy from the subject of the women's extreme effect on those around them, but also presenting the women for the audience's delectation.

Tastefulness is hardly an option here, but Hawks manages to combine audacity with analytical intelligence. The film's amazing opening shot sets the bar high: with no opening credits, Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe) and Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), in bright red sequined gowns, emerge from behind a blue curtain and begin their first song before a second of screen time has elapsed. Any story that follows must be subordinated to this startling abstract manifestation of hypertrophied femininity and clashing primary colors. As the women maneuver their way through a world of staring, wolf-whistling men, Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer (who apparently inherited little plot from the revue-like 1949 Fields/Loos Broadway play) take advantage of the project's parodistic tone to dodge or deflect the moral issue of gold digging, and preserve an amoral perspective right up to the outrageous ending, which scores Lorelei and Dorothy's double wedding with the gold-digging anthem "Two Girls from Little Rock."

The intrinsic exaggeration of Monroe's acting style makes it difficult to perceive that Hawks has engineered yet another of his comedies in which a powerful solipsist (Lorelei) is juxtaposed with an exasperated representative of the reality principle (Dorothy). This time the pair are allies instead of opponents (as opposed to, for instance, the teamings in Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday), but Dorothy's function is primarily to establish a realistic baseline from which Lorelei's departures from normality can be measured. Not that nearly everyone else in the film doesn't help build this baseline by butting his or her head against Lorelei's serene obliviousness - but Hawks likes to keep a character around the set that he would enjoy hanging out with.

Monroe's girly persona, which we enjoy associating with stupidity, is here inflected to accommodate Lorelei's mastery of every situation. As splashlessly competent as a Hawks action hero, she is only the more effective for being ignorant of, or unconcerned with, society's moral codes. From the early scene in which she uses Sherlock Holmes-like logic to suss out the gift she is about to receive from her beau Gus (Tommy Noonan), Lorelei is on top of every situation, whether exploiting a maƮtre d's exploitation of her shipboard popularity, or planning a multi-pronged assault on the detective Malone (Elliott Reid) who is hired to get the goods on her. In the end she bests Gus's disapproving father (Taylor Holmes) in an old-fashioned intellectual debate on the gold-digging ethic, after laying out the case in admirably extreme terms: "I don't want to marry him for his money - I want to marry him for your money." Playing up the usual style gap between Monroe's acting and everyone else's, and playing down her often-cited vulnerability, Hawks oversees a remarkable comic performance, with terrific line readings like beat poetry ("Sometimes Mr. Esmond finds it very difficult to say no to me") and bits of business that hint at a bizarre inner life (confronted for the first time with a diamond tiara, Lorelei can barely restrain her hands from pouncing inappropriately; after the tiara's departure, she happily improvises a scenario of future possession, using a napkin ring encircled by a necklace as a stand-in).

Hawks claimed to have had no interest in directing the film's two big musical numbers, "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" and "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," and apparently was not even on the set when Jack Cole shot them. (Presumably he had something to do with conceiving the numbers; and "Ain't There Anyone Here for Love?" was written for the movie by Hawks' friend Hoagy Carmichael, along with Harold Adamson.) But all the smaller numbers - "Two Girls from Little Rock," "Bye Bye Baby," "When Love Goes Wrong," and the courtroom reprise of "Diamonds" - are executed on the pleasingly intimate scale that Hawks uses for any group recreation. All four of these songs feature spectators clapping to lay down a back beat for the performer; the players provide verbal cues and gesture to each other to signal musical transitions, creating a mood of real-time collaboration, much as in the "Drum Boogie" number from Ball of Fire or the Bacall-Carmichael piano rehearsals from To Have and Have Not. In "Bye Bye Baby," Hawks uses an economical fast pan to pass from the Olympic girlfriends' four-part harmony verse to Russell's solo verse; when Lorelei and Gus sneak away to another room and take the tempo down to romantic ballad, Dorothy and the athletes spot her from the doorway, signal each other to prepare an intervention, then pound out a beat on the door frame to swing the song again. The film's musical highlight, "When Love Goes Wrong" (another Carmichael/Adamson composition), is a digressive mini-story in itself, with the women's dejected mood dissipating gradually during the song and dance, and a circle of friendly Parisians bonding so effectively with Lorelei and Dorothy that the last verse slows and quiets down for a melancholy farewell as the women's taxi pulls away.

A few unexciting scenes crop up as the film marks time between the big "Diamonds" number and the finale. Still, Gentlemen is too good to be relegated to the margins of Hawks' career. Our difficulty in coming to terms with Monroe's distinctive comic talent (odd that we are tempted to regard such a stylized performer as an authentic sexpot struggling with the rudiments of craft) impedes us from regarding Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as we do other Hawks films, where genre material and performances are purified, pushed to extremes, and mixed liberally with the director's distinctive ideas about what should and shouldn't be called entertainment. Coming as early in her starring career as it does, Gentlemen is generally regarded as a defining film for Monroe; if it is less rarely recognized as her finest moment - well, that's more or less par for the course for Hawks-directed performances.