The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Greatest Movie Ever?

I was recently presented with the outline for a television project. It consisted of a series of incidents organized in a non-linear structure. In other words, if a character remembered an incident from his past, even if he was currently under great stress and time pressure, the show had him remembering a fairly complex scenario. This was problematic on multiple levels. One, it was too scattershot: no time for development of a dramatic structure. Second, a flashback needs to be organic to the situation. In "Casablanca" it made sense for a heart-broken Rick to remember his Parisian love affair with Ilse. For him to remember it as he's dodging bullets or driving a car down a winding wet road being chased by Nazis would be quite another.

What is the difference between an incident and a story? Well, a story can be an incident, or a string of them. But the incidents must be selected and structured carefully to reflect the pattern of human life:

A steady-state situation, a character forced to change, a journey into the inner and outer worlds. The character must learn and grow and either align with his internal resources, or find new external ones. The character will face an opponent (internal or external) that will tax his resources and sense of self. Ultimately, if the character has don everything right (!) and has faith, he will win and move to the next level of his life.

Now, not every story will have every step of this process. But anything you write must be created with these steps in mind. Make a deliberate choice to minimalize one of these factors...but DON'T let it happen by accident.

Incidents do not a story make.


We should be able to guess the shape of this election by next Monday, after the debates. With this economy tanking the way it is, if Obama can't rake McCain over the coals, he doesn't deserve to win. Palin is, unfortunately, looking more and more like a stunt. My guess is that they're holding her back from the public to lowr expectations. Then she will perform decently at a couple of events, and they'll say: "see!"



Bought a collection of Alfred Hitchcock films that covers almost every major film. Yum. A cinema education in a box. Of course, if you want a cinema education in a single film, get "The Seven Samurai" by Kurosawa. A serious contender for greatest movie ever made.


What would be your vote for Greatest Movie, especially from the perspective of studying film?


Anonymous said...

I am no film student, but enjoyed Hara-Kiri at least as much as Seven Samurai.

B the II said...

Love Jones.

There was only one line in the movie where i thought it should have been different. Pacing great, soundtrack legendary, impressive acting and wonderful camera-shots and scenery.

Anonymous said...

Citizen Kane...just my humble opinion as a non-student of the arts.


Josh Jasper said...

I'm partial to "The Third Man".

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your comments on what makes a story. I enjoy that sort of thing even if I don't have anything to say about it.

Best movie? I couldn't say which is best only what I like and actually I don't think I could name just one movie I liked best but whenever someone asks this question the first movie that comes to mind, before I have a chance to think about it, is Second Hand Lions

Kami said...

Secondhand Lions would be close to the top of my list too! Really excellent writing and acting in that one. Casablanca has also already been mentioned.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) with Depardieu is masterful on so many levels--character focus, sets, lighting, acting, music, extras, choreography -- even the level of craft in the subtitles is incredible. I've probably watched it a hundred times and it amazes me every time.

I started to go on and on about other films but I decided to just blah blah on my own blog.

Great question!

Steve Perry said...

Too broad a question. Like asking, what is the best story ever?

If you narrow it into categories, that might be better.

I mean Die Hard was a perfect action movie, every bit of business worked, and stuff was laid in brilliantly.

Kind of hard to compare that to Citizen Kane, or Seven Samurai.

We all have favorites and some of them are pretty good -- Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was written by the same guy who wrote The Princess Bride, and both were brilliant in their own way, but you can't compare a buddy movie with a fantasy, or comedies with dramas, and expect to make sense.

Is Star Wars a great movie? Yes. Is the writing great? No. The acting? Um, no. The plot? What makes it great is that a whole lot of people loved it.

Is Titanic a great movie? I didn't think so. Impressive to look at, and it made more money than any other, but Casablanca was a better love story.

Good luck on sussing this one out.

Shady_Grady said...

My greatest would be "The Godfather".

A close second would be "Annie Hall".

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Steve Perry, a bunch of good points. More generally, criticism doesn't seem to have good tools for understanding what goes right with extremely popular art.

Why did so many people like The Da Vinci Code? How about Twilight? What's the basis of Stephen King's mysterious ability to get people to turn the page?

Star Wars might be a special case-- it broke new ground in special effects-- but there's also something about the story that hooks people, and I don't think it's just that it's a Joseph Campbell spin-off.

Marty S said...

When I go to a movie I'm looking to be entertained. I don't care how great the acting or writing if I'm not entertained. I think the majority of movie goers feel that way. I base this on the movie ratings I see. Quite often movies the critics give an A or A+ get much lower ratings from the public and those that get C or C+ from the critics get much higher ratings from the public. I don't have a most favorite film, but I do have a least favorite. 81/2 a movie which won a lot of awards, but which nobody in the audience could understand.

Anonymous said...

Greatest Movie Ever?

Gotta go with genre on this one:

Western: The Wild Bunch.

Action/Love: For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Suspense: Toss up. The Usual Suspects. The 39 Steps. Charade.

Comedy: Hands down ... Arsenic and Old Lace.

Honorable Mention in Comedy: His Girl Friday.

TV Movie: Lonesome Dove.

War: Toss up, again. Sam Fuller's The Big Red One and Steel Helmet.

Anonymous said...

For me it's either The Seven Samurai, The Searchers or The Godfather.

Michael E. Johnson said...

One movie above all others, that would be hard for me to do. If I had to come up with the list of the top four of five, that entertained me to know end while causing my brain to gush with deep, deep thoughts I would say: 2001:A Space Odyseey, Godfather II, Nashville, Do The Right Thing and A Clockwork Orange. Films that I viewed dozens of time, and read about and think about and will see again and again. Shoot, think I'll plug in my "A Clockwork Orange" DVD right now.

Christian H. said...

The Exorcist. I would say Citizen Kane but The Exorcist was a full-on kaleidoscope of images and emotions.
it showed the love of a mother, the thrill of the chase, the strength of human will and too much else.

Exorcist 3 is high on the list also along with The Godfather.

I guess there's a difference bewteen best movie and greatest though cause about the best movie would be The Incredibles.

Anonymous said...

Greatest Movie as far as impact on America- Birth of a Nation.

As racist as that film was, no one can deny its impact on america-even until now.

Anonymous said...

Secondhand Lions suffers from the Great White Hunter disease - a problem undetectable to most Caucasian Americans, since to them it seems only natural that white men should go around the world dominating the locals everywhere, and make off with their most beautiful females.

Anonymous said...

well i'd have to pick a few:

Legends of the Fall and RUSH for the tragedy and drama

Usual Suspects and Lucky Number Slevin for suspense

Cooley High and Elephant Man for their impact on my life

Sugar Cane Alley
School Daze
Cinema Paradiso...

CLEARLY i'm not able to answer the