Monday, September 14, 2020

What have you learned, Dorothy?

Theme is often defined as, among other things: the argument, the thesis, the question, the answer, the author’s message, the lesson, the central idea, or the soul of a story.

It is unusual for a story to lay out its theme as up front, plainly and well-defined as does “The Wizard of Oz” in this scene near the end of the movie.

Safely back in Kansas, Dorothy’s final line that closes the film is, “There’s no place like home.” It is a more concise statement of her answer to the question posed by the Tin Man in Oz, but it remains and re-enforces the theme that rests at the heart of this enduring story.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

"8 1/2 " - A Beautiful Confusion

In 1960, “La Dolce Vita” was released and would become Federico Fellini’s most successful film. It signaled his deepening break with Italian Neo-Realism, an association established when he scripted “Rome: Open City” for Roberto Rossellini in 1945. If the Neo-Realists thought he had only veered away from their movement, they could not have been prepared for his next film, “8½,” the tale of a director in crisis whose dreams, visions and fantasies propel him through a psychological and spiritual minefield of memories, desires and regrets.

A Director's Visions

Guido is the director dealing with more than one crisis. Inspiration for the film he is about to shoot has escaped his grasp. His marriage is nearing the rocks. His extra-marital affair has lost its excitement and left him with an uneasy sense of guilt. He has arrived at the gates of midlife without the keys to his identity or purpose. He is a walking question mark, going through the motions, keeping up appearances with a sardonic smile masking a fear of impending failure.

The Woman in White

Guido is Fellini. Fellini is Guido. “8½” is about the making of “8½.” It is about the moment the filmmaker gained the insight and inspiration to make his eighth and a half movie. Until then, he had directed seven features and a short film for part of an anthology, which he counted as one half. The result is perhaps the most the most expensive and public act of self-analysis ever committed; a high-wire act of confession that could only be presented through storytelling.

Healing Waters

And that is where, once again, this self-propelled enigma resists being broken down into categories and acts. There is no rule that says every story must have three acts, although almost all of them do. Even those that flirt with experimental structures of time, place and the random order or dis-order of events, eventually reveal a beginning, middle and end hiding behind all the trickery. But here, there is no answer to questions of standard structure or the breakdown of story into an orderly system of acts and plot points. Three days pass chronologically at a high-class recovery retreat while our protagonist has multiple flights of fancy and streams of consciousness divided by scenes taking place in the real world.

In the Bedroom

Instead of three acts, it is a single, movie-length statement of one man’s confusion with the answer to his dilemma arriving just a few minutes before the end credits roll. In fact, Fellini’s original title was, “The Beautiful Confusion.” There is a thread, however, an anchor to the story if you will, of a woman who shows up as a recurring figure.

Bringer of Light

Guido’s first waking vision of her is of a Woman in White. She glides into view at the Springs, where healing water is dispensed to waiting lines of the infirm, the elderly and members of higher society who wish to be seen at the fashionable spa. Guido stops, in a silent interlude, and watches as she fills a glass and holds it up to him. She is offering a cure for his anxieties and physical distress. The image fades quickly, replaced by an impatient attendant dispensing the water.

Claudia Arrives

She appears again, in a dream, bringing him the promise of physical love. She moves around his bedroom as he sleeps, finally coming to the bed and kissing him gently on the forehead.

A Drive to the Springs

An agent for an actress named Claudia has been pestering Guido several times throughout the film as to whether he will make a commitment to a part for her. He says that she has many offers and can’t wait much longer for Guido to decide. With less than 20 minutes left in the movie, Claudia shows up in person. It is actress Claudia Cardinale, playing the role of Claudia, aka the Woman in White. Except when she finally arrives in the flesh, she is dressed all in black, framed by a neckpiece of midnight-ebony feathers.

The Director in Shadow

She drives Guido to the Springs, with him shrouded in shadow and her in the light. In their six minutes of scenes together, she gets him to admit there is not going to be a film and that he has lost everything, including his self-confidence. He talks about the confusion of his main character, how he can’t revive his creative spark. She then becomes what he wasn’t expecting: the bringer of truth.

The Bringer of Truth

She says, “Because he doesn’t know how to love.” She says it three time in succession in reply to each of his final attempts to justify his dilemma. Whether it’s the Candyman, Beetlejuice or St. Peter denying Jesus three times before the cock crows, words or phrases in three repetitions appear to have magical powers. This is the turning point which allows for the resolution in the final moments of the film. It’s the prompt Guido needs to make his final decision, which eventually results in a self-realization and a rebirth of spirit.

Call it a plot point if you wish. In this uniquely structured film, it is the end of a very long first act, leading into an extremely short final act. The end of a Beautiful Confusion.

Monday, April 13, 2020

A COVID-19 ENCOUNTER by Lauren Karwoski

(Ed. - Here is your classmate, Lauren Karwoski's recent experience with the virus. Deepest thanks to her for sharing this with us. I'm sure this will bring it home for many of you. It certainly has for me.)

March 7th: It’s spring break week, finally. My friends and I have been planning our trip to Barcelona for a few months now. Lately we’ve been hearing warnings and watching the news as COVID-19 is beginning to spread worldwide.
“Spain only has 2 confirmed cases, you’re just as safe there, as you are in Tampa” our families rationalize.
We stock up on hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes and head to the airport.

March 10th: We take turns getting up to wash our hands before sitting down to eat at a local restaurant. We wipe down the table, as everyone grows increasingly more uneasy.
“Confirmed cases in Spain reached 500 today,” one of my friends announces, reading from Twitter. We discuss our fears but try to enjoy the rest of our day.

Later that night, we sit around a table in our Airbnb, getting ready for dinner. In sync, all our phones chime with a notification; The University of Tampa is switching to online classes indefinitely.
“Should we be worried?”
“Our flight home is in a few days. We’ll be fine.”

March 11th: We meet up with fellow UT students for a drink before preparing to experience Barcelona’s nightlife. We’re anxious but keep reminding each other that we’re young. It's just a cold. The media says we’ll be fine.

We taxi to a nightclub and wait in line. In a single moment, the entire atmosphere changes. Everyone around us seems to take out their phones at the same time. The tension in the air is palpable.

President Trump has announced a 30-day European Union travel ban, effective in 48 hours. The details are unclear.

We look around and begin to lock eyes with fellow American students who we do not know. There is an understanding in the looks of fear exchanged. My friends and I immediately rush to a taxi.

I pull out my phone to see multiple missed calls and texts from friends and family. The details of the travel ban are so vague that we believe we will be stuck in Europe for 30 days, if we cannot get back to The United States before the order starts.

The taxi ride is loud as we all call our parents, frightened and seeking guidance. For the first time in my life, I hear panic and desperation in my mother’s voice. She puts me on speaker phone and types furiously at the keyboard trying to find me a flight back to the US. The websites repeatedly crash, as prices skyrocket.

The 20-minute phone call feels like an hour. I hold my breath, feeling helpless and childlike, waiting for my mother to figure out a plan.

$2,700 later, I am booked on a flight to London, and then Tampa, leaving in 4 hours. I feel fortunate and a tad bit guilty, as I know booking this emergency flight home is a luxury, many cannot afford. I return to the Airbnb in a daze, quickly pack my belongings and get in a taxi with a few members of our group who were able to get flights home as well.

March 12th: We arrive at the airport just after midnight. There are massive lines of people, primarily American students, sprawled out with their phones and laptops, many of whom came to the airport without having a flight booked. People murmur among each other, trying to figure out paths home. 

My flight to London feels like a blur as I’m frightened and going into my 24th hour without sleep.

I arrive and walk through Gatwick Airport passing countless signs detailing COVID-19 prevention. Over the intercom they repeatedly ask people who are traveling from China or Italy to identify themselves. Everyone is on edge.

I breathe a sigh of relief as I finally board my final flight to Tampa alone, wipe down my seat, and buckle my seat belt.

My friend group has dispersed. Two are meeting me back in Tampa, others are on flights back to their home states, and a few remain in Barcelona, unable to purchase sooner return flights.

I arrive back in the Tampa airport and am surprised at the lack of screening or preventative measures. I go through customs with ease, meeting up with 2 of the friends I had traveled with. Despite not being given any information at the airport, we return to my home and decide to home quarantine together for 14 days.

March 13th: As soon as we wake up, we call a COVID-19 helpline to ask for guidance as we are unsure of the proper measures we should take. Our instincts were correct, we’re told to home quarantine for 14 days. We order groceries online and settle in.

March 16th: I wake up late, and feel an ache radiating from my back through my neck. I feel fatigued and weak. I take my temperature; 98.6. I assume I’m worn down from my travels, take some Tylenol and continue with my day.  I skip dinner, as I have no appetite and head to bed early.

March 17th: I wake up around 3:00 A.M. with sharp pains radiating from the center of my back, down towards my hips. I cry from the pain as I pull myself out of bed and take Tylenol. I lay awake until the medication kicks in and I can finally fall back asleep.

I awake again around noon, feeling shaky and exhausted. I force myself to drink electrolyte fluids, as I have no appetite. I spend the entire day falling in and out of sleep on my couch, a heating pad pressed to my back, attempting to soothe the debilitating body aches. My temperature again is normal, 98.6. I take DayQuil as I start to think I may have the flu. I feel a tightness and mild pain in my chest, and assume it is from anxiety. I keep reminding myself that I do not have a fever or cough, therefore it cannot possibly be COVID-19.

By the end of the day my worries get the best of me as I watch the news. I call a local urgent care facility, and the staff informs me that I cannot be seen because I have traveled internationally. They refer me and my quarantined roommates to one of the drive-through testing sites that are opening the following day across South Florida. We decide to go the following morning at 9:00 A.M. when they open.

March 18th: My alarm goes off after another sleepless night. My roommates and I drive to a testing site where we are met with a line of roughly 15 cars, police presence and various workers in full face shields and protective wear. It is reminiscent of a cinematic scene.

We are given masks as we roll down a single window to speak to the healthcare workers. We tell them of our travels and my recent development of symptoms. Our temperatures are taken, and once again, we are relieved to all be fever-free.

One by one the bristled swabs are thrust into our noses. To my surprise, the discomfort only lasts a few seconds. We are told we will be receiving our results in 2-5 days. We drive home and I yet again fall asleep, exhausted and riddled with body aches.

That night we receive an email that our graduation has been cancelled and that the remainder of our senior year will be online. It feels like the least of my worries in the moment.

March 19th: For the third night in a row, I awake in the early hours, however this time it’s different. I feel paralyzed by the pain radiating through my body. I have never in my life felt pain on this scale before. My chest is tight and aches, as I lack the strength or energy to even cry. I feel scared and alone. I lay awake until morning on my heating pad, taking Tylenol exactly every 4 hours. I consider going to the Emergency Room but fear if I do not have COVID-19, I could contract it there.

Around noon I get myself out of bed and return to my spot on the couch. My chest feels hot after walking down the stairs and attempting to take a deep breath. I have developed a mild cough as well. It’s been 3 days since I have eaten a proper meal, so I force myself to have a few sips of a smoothie, only to discover that my sense of taste and smell are completely gone. My attempt to start limiting my contact with my roommates. For the first time I start to believe I have contracted COVID-19.

That night before bed, I read a New York Times article about a new symptom people are reporting: a loss of taste and smell.

March 20th-22nd: The days blur together. My roommates and I continue to be fever-free. When I am not sleeping, I lay awake on my heating pad attempting to soothe my aches and cough. I take peace in knowing I should receive my test results any day. I am frustrated by friends and family who insist young people do not “get that sick”, that I must be “overreacting.”  I step on a scale before bed to see that I have lost 7 lbs. since becoming ill.

March 23rd: For the first time in days, I can sleep comfortably through the night. My body aches finally begin to ease, giving me slight relief. I am grateful that my energy and appetite have returned, however my sense of taste and smell have not. I am still coughing throughout the day, while having mild chest pain, however I am certain I am almost near full recovery. My roommates have luckily remained healthy and fever-free.

March 24th: It has now been one week since we were tested and have not received results. I am extremely fortunate to finally consider myself symptom free, however my anxiety remains. I fear spreading it to others and am desperate to hear back regarding my status. I think about those who are still sick and awaiting results, and the fear they must feel as well.

I call the drive through testing site, and the staff informs me the labs are backed up. Results are now taking 6-10 business days. They refer me to the CDC website to see the protocol on recovery. 72 hours symptom free and 7 days from first symptom are required to end home isolation. Even though I have not received my test results yet, I decide to follow this guideline as a precaution. My roommates continue to home isolate.

March 27th: It has been two weeks since we returned from Spain. I am over 72 hours symptom free and finally feel comfortable leaving the house to take a walk and go to the grocery store wearing a mask. I have a newfound appreciation for being able to comfortably breath while taking a stroll outdoors.

March 31st: An unsettling 13 days after being tested I finally receive my results; positive for COVID-19. I do not feel surprised, or afraid, but rather consoled knowing that I have already fully recovered.

I later receive a call from The Florida Department of Health, asking me to detail my experience, timeline of symptoms and testing. I am asked to identify any person or place I have had contact with during my incubation period, and illness and l am relieved to only report my roommates. Even though it was difficult and emotionally taxing at times, I am reassured and proud of our decision to home quarantine for such a long period of time. I hang up the phone, and am finally able to take a deep breath, knowing that my COVID-19 experience is finally over. However, again I am met with guilt, knowing many will not be as lucky.

Aftermath: Since contracting COVID-19 I have physically recovered but am still dealing with the mental repercussions. When watching the news and seeing the death toll rise, I am met with a feeling of guilt and unease. I see reports of healthy young people, falling fatally ill and it is difficult for me to process how I was able to fully recover from the same exact illness. I have since signed up to be a plasma donor to aid recovering patients. I often feel confused and alone as I do not have anyone to speak to who can relate to what I have experienced.

I grow increasingly frustrated watching my peers neglect social distancing guidelines, working out in groups and having house parties. I hear many talking about how young people do not have to worry, and am reminded of the painful, frightening hours I laid awake in bed, feeling more ill than I ever had before. Every single person has a responsibility to help control the spread of COVID-19. Young people are not invincible. I will never again take my health for granted.

Monday, April 6, 2020

The Point of Plot Points

I have noticed that some of you are having difficulty identifying the Plot Points of a story. It is much easier to spot them when you visualize the three acts as being of usually standard lengths. The First Act is one quarter of the whole. The Second Act is one half or 50%. The final quarter is the Third Act. The Plot Points mark the ends of the first two acts. These lengths are suggestions and not strict rules.  The First Plot Point is an incident or a reveal that throws everything established in the First Act (set, setting, characters, relationships, etc.) into the Second Act or the general conflict of the story. The Second Plot Point is an incident or a reveal that forces everything that has happened thus far towards the final resolution of Act Three. There are exceptions, but most stories, especially mainstream movies, adhere to this generally accepted, basic structure.

Many of you are referring to the very end of the film as the Second Plot Point when that has most likely occurred 20 minutes to a half hour earlier, at the end of the Second Act. References to the First Plot Point are often also misplaced.

A film that many of you have probably seen is the first “Star Wars,” now known as Episode IV. The story follows the exploits of Luke Skywalker, a dis-satisfied young man who dreams of becoming a pilot and leaving the dull life on his Uncle’s farm. Circumstance puts him in touch with Obi-Wan Kenobi, an aging Jedi Knight and reveals a rebel plot to overthrow the evil Empire. Initial fear causes Luke to turn down Obi-Wan’s invitation to join this quest, but the murder of his Uncle and Aunt at the hands of the Empire motivates him to declare his intention to follow the old knight into danger. This decision is the First Plot Point and it comes about one quarter of the way into the story (25%).

The Second Act is filled with plenty of rising and falling action as the quest is undertaken to rescue a Princess and get vital plans to the rebel alliance for the destruction of a Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon. The perilous journey to the Death Star, the rescue of the Princess and the escape from the Death Star make up Act Two. The death of Obi Wan at the hands of arch villain Darth Vader and the intense battle as they barely escape is the end of Act Two and thus, the Second Plot Point. All this takes up the middle hour of a two-hour film (50%).

The action then shifts to the rebel stronghold where plans are made to destroy the Death Star and the final assault that ends in victory. This is Act Three and takes up roughly one-half hour of the two-hour story (25%).

I hope this clarifies an approach to story analysis as you complete your worksheets. As always, contact me with questions.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Viewing Assignments

Here is a list of 32 films. Please select one to view for each of the next seven weeks. There should be something here for everyone. The choice is yours. I do, however, encourage you to try out titles you might not normally choose and ones you have not seen. 

These movies represent a wide variety of genres and time periods. They cover a broad range of styles and storytelling approaches. All of them are well worth watching.

Aside from completing our standard worksheets, these assignments will play an important role in our weekly one-on-one Skype sessions.

8 1/2 (1963)

Adaptation (2002)

Annihilation (2018)

The Apartment (1960)

Arrival (2016)

Bowfinger (1999)

Casablanca (1942)

Chinatown (1974)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Ex Machina (2014)

Fight Club (1999)

Hereditary (2018)

High Noon (1953)

Joker (2019)

La La Land (2016)

Lady Bird (2017)

The Lighthouse (2019)

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006)

Parasite (2019)

Psycho (1960)

Sacario (2015)

Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Samurai (1954)

The Seventh Seal (1957)

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Stagecoach (1939)

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Tropic Thunder (2008)

Unforgiven (1992)

The Witch (2015)