From Script to Celluloid: The Foundation of Great Film
Over a century ago, motion pictures came to be, and quickly developed into a part of the mainstream, bringing in a revenue of $38.6 billion in 2016 (EFE World News Service). According to Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature, “American motion pictures begin in 1893 with the brief films made at Thomas Alva Edison's Black Maria Studio in East Orange, New Jersey, by W.K.L. Dickenson.” Starting out as monochrome and silent, the advance of celluloid technology over time has produced the sound and color spectacles of today.
As with all forms of art, the question of what characteristics make a good film has been asked, defined and answer evolved over time. Critics have argued which qualities are of greater importance to good film-making, and which qualities merely support and enhance them. As demonstrated in films like Pleasantville, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Edward Scissorhands, and Thelma and Louise, the vital components necessary to great film-making are plot, character, and dialogue.
The plot is the framework on which the film is built. Plot is the storytelling of the picture; all movies begin on the page. A good plot will involve the viewer in the plight of its characters, cause them to think or view something differently than when they came in, and take them on a journey. The film Pleasantville is the tale of two modern day teens trapped in the idealized world of a 50’s television show. When they inadvertently bring change and knowledge with them, it is both embraced and resisted. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the story of two people who love each other deeply, but decided to have the memories of their relationship erased, as they can’t handle the pain of their breakup. Though not a story line often followed in a love story, it’s a universal theme of wanting to delete a former lover from memory as a quick fix to unbearable heartbreak. Edward Scissorhands is told in the style of a classic fairy tale; one in which young man hidden away in a castle is brought into the world. During his short time there, he experiences the beauty and ugliness it has to offer. The simple weekend vacation of Thelma and Louise goes awry to become a desperate attempt to outrun the law, as well as their previous lives.
Characters are the heart of a movie. When performed well by an actor, they can become as real as any living person when on the screen, and the audience relates to them in kind. The spectators celebrate their victories, commiserate their failures, care for them, and morn their passing. They can inspire. As the viewer take the voyage through the film, the characters will be their companion and guide. In Thelma and Louise, the audience is presented with two female leads, each representing the effects of men’s various abuses of women. Yet, they are more than the standard stereotypical tough woman and meek wife. Edward Scissorhands offers up a sweet, innocent, childlike lead character. This is a role that could have been performed as a caricature, but is made touchingly human by Johnny Depp. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s characters are well written and multifaceted. The two main individuals, Joel and Clementine are well-rounder, and the audience can perceive them as believable and their attraction to each other plausible. Even the secondary characters are more than just background or flat. They are fully developed; their stories and actions intertwine with our couple’s. Mary, as an employee/client of Lacuna, is possibly the most dynamic character of the film. Dynamics is also visualized in Pleasantville, as the characters become physically colorized as they go from being lifeless and idealized, to becoming human and realistic. Betty demonstrates the most dramatic change, as she grows from the picture perfect portrait wife and mother, to wanting to know if there more to her beyond that. David and Jennifer, though not as drastically as the television folks, even mature and become better versions of themselves.
There are many good movies moved along by dialogue. This works due to a couple of factors. First, bad dialogue can take one out of the magical reality the film has created and make one very aware they are watching lights and pictures. Second, it can function in the script to cover background, knowledge and other details an audience may need without slowing down the film. The dialogue in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is used to achieve the later point. As most of the movie either takes place in Joel’s memories or in his apartment with the employees of Lacuna, this does not leave much time for physical action. The employees watching a sleeping Joel would be the definition of boring, so the story is moved along by their conversation. Joel is introduced by voice-over narration as he is getting ready for his day. The viewers meet Clementine the same moment Joel does on the train. Their conversation here establishes their characters, why they would be attracted to each other while their banter sounds natural. There’s more action in Edward Scissorhands, yet dialogue plays a big part as well. From the topics and the quantity of the housewives’ gossip, much can be derived about these characters, signifying how the neighborhood feels at any given moment. Also, it gives the film many of its subtle humorous moments. When not shooting a rapist, robbing a gas station or teaching rude men a lesson, many scenes in Thelma and Louise consist of meaningful conversations. One scene in particular is between Louise and Jimmy in a hotel room. It’s quite obvious to anyone listening they have a great love for one another. Through the dialogue in Pleasantville, viewers come to understand George’s inability to express his emotions for his family, though he does love them immensely. It is the spoken word that helps to change the black and white television world they live in, whether it’s David telling Mr. Johnson he can do things he’s never done before, or simply questions being asked with childlike curiosity.
To try to narrow a motion picture down to just a few things that take it from good to great is not always an easy task. This is mainly because a great film has many aspects that go into making it the accomplishment it is. Cinematography, sound, location, direction, music, when all done to the highest-quality, are just a few of those things that make a film spectacular. When everything falls into its proper place and each piece fits right with the others, what’s left are moving pieces of art to survived the ages. To get there, the foundation built of characters, dialogue and plot must be firmly intact.
Burton, Tim, dir. Edward Scissorhands. Pref. Johnny Depp, Wynonna Ryder, Dianne Wiest, Anthony Michael Hall, Alan Arkin and Vincent Price. 20th Century Fox, 1990. DVD.
"Global box office reaches record $38.6 billion in 2016." EFE World News Service 22 Mar. 2017. General OneFile. Web. 27 June 2017.
Gondry, Michel, dir. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Pref. Jim Carey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Elijah Wood, Mark Ruffalo and Tom Wilkenson. Focus Features. 2004. DVD.
Konigsberg, Ira. "Motion pictures." Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia of American Literature. George B. Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Phillip Leininger. Vol. 1. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. 735. General OneFile. Web. 27 June 2017.
Ross, Gary, dir. Pleasantville. Pref. Toby McGuire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, JT Walsh and Jane Kaczmarek. New Line. 1998. DVD.
Scott, Ridley, dir. Thelma and Louise. Pref. Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Kietel, Michael Madsen, Brad Pitt and Chris MacDonald. MGM/UA. 1991. DVD.
© 2017 Kristen Willms