First Acts: RIP & the goddamn first 5 pages

Me: ‘What the hell happened to setting up a story?’
P: ‘Yeah, that’s over.’
Me: ‘Since the hell of when?’
P: ‘Dunno. But they just skip most of Act One these days.’
Me: ‘Goddamn first five pages!’
P: ‘Fashizzle!’

That’s pretty much how my conversation went – minus the Fashizzle (the world would be a funnier place if P used such never-cool expressions) – when P and I were discussing some of the scripts and movies we’d come across as of late.

In the ever-increasing desire to speed shit up and get anyone’s attention, the beginnings of stories are getting hacked to pieces. For example, it seems that many people are racing to resurrect a youth adventure cult hit with unrelated, updated copies. Imagine that. I’ve personally read two such scripts that are circulating. Now, the original movie isn’t the most brilliant thing in the world. But it’s fun. It’s as propelled as a Wright brother. And they SET UP THE WORLD. These new scripts accomplish none of these feats.

Just days after my talk with Fashizzle-less P, another friend was telling me about Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, which I’ve been avoiding because I’m not 14, and all things video games don’t give me a Comic-Con boner. My friend enjoyed the movie, but he couldn’t get past the fact that they didn’t even lift a finger to accomplish the crucial aspect of the film’s first act.


In a movie about a girl – and as Jim Joyce of Pittsburgh likes to say, every story is about a girl – you need to, I don’t know, SET UP THE FRIGGIN’ GIRL. But instead they drop her past the camera like candy from a piñata and expect the audience to do the heavy lifting. Sure, she’s as fuckable as all hot neon-haired indie rock girls are. I get that. But an adoring look from Michael Cera playing Michael Cera isn’t enough to seal the deal. Casting doesn’t preclude storytelling. (I know I know!, but it shouldn’t.)

But whatever. It’s prepackaged fan boy stuff. It’s bate-and-switch. It’s a prize in a cereal box. I shouldn’t be losing sleep over it. I’m already losing sleep as it is, as I now behold progeny. But I have a blog (sort of) and a paid electricity bill.

And this Act One butchery seems to be spreading, much like in a far superior Edgar Wight movie. The death of Act One, the new zombieism.

But now for the point:


We’re all aware of the first whatever number of pages. It seems to shrink all the time. Maybe it’s really just the first page – especially on Mondays, Fridays, or in the last minute before a meeting with said writer. We have precious little time to get someone’s attention. And I get it. Anyone who has to read a lot of scripts has a lot on their plate. And with all the crap out there, one really needs to out the time wasters and fast. And a script SHOULD grab someone quickly.

But whatever happened to setting up a story? Why does starting with a hook right off the bat – with style and verve the intro’s to the push into Act Two? Billy Wilder is often quoted as saying that in Act One you put your character up in a tree, in Act Two you set the tree on fire, and then in Act Three you get him down. As of late movies seem to want to start with the character finding themselves in the proverbial burning bush, forget the tree, forget any climbing. It’s like you start the movie with a “Previously On…” portion and then burst into Act Two.

Is it immediate gratification? That gets thrown around a lot, like jumping the shark – no one seems concerned with what it actually means anymore. And audiences are better than ever at picking up on story forms, and they’re used to coming in late to movies on TV and Lakers games, blah blah blah.

But whatever happened to seduction? Beginnings are fun. P and I, for two, like them. I like that building of a world. The establishment of rules and character. The dance, the choreography. Maybe the anorexic state of the first act has to do with all the thin characters, the franchise cannibalism, the derivative referencing and mimicry, stale plots points, etc. Chicken or the egg, I don’t know.

I just think about the beginnings of movies that take that time to build up the first act. Lethal Weapon. Romancing the Stone. The Dark Knight. Raging Bull. The Red Shoes. Bottle Rocket. The Godfather. And on and on. Isn’t the beginning supposed to be exciting? Of movies, relationships, sporting events, parties…

So maybe we just get back into the beginnings. Put on some weight, eat something dammit. Seduce. Set up the girl. Proper introductions. Give me the first part of the story. Make me revel in the idea of the next hour or so I’ll be in the theater.


Ps. Belated happy 25th birthday Mario.

1 comment:

Cacophony-g said...

It is an interesting phenomenon. I was a geek in junior high and high school and I always felt like an outsider, so now, arriving at stories without set ups, I feel right at home, like "What the f*ck is going on?" But I spent so many of my formative years in that state, I never realized that everyone else (you & P) were feeling the same way.

I just finished listing to a book on tape. It was about healing back pain and I was listening to it in the hopes of (guess what?) healing my back pain. It's a three CD set, and as I listened to the author read his book, which is about how back pain is really caused, in most instances, by repressed anger rather than physical abnormalities or injuries, I kept thinking, this is all pretty interesting, but what I really want to know is HOW DO I HEAL MY BACK PAIN? By the time I got to the end of the third CD, I realized that there wasn't going to be a section that covered HOW to actually heal the pain. The HOW was in the understanding of the concept, and just by listening to the philosophy and understanding it meant that I was actually healing myself.

We're so trained to dissect and figure something out and triage through the load of sh*t in our lives since we can't see, do, watch, hear, make, cook, eat it all. It is sad to lose out on the telling of the beginning, the set up. Now, the hook is usually some unimaginable, startling, heart stopping, someone's head being blown off and pieces of it landing on the windshield kind of sequence that has to stun us into compliance so that we will stop what we're doing and a pay attention and then the story worries about making us care later. Which is sad. We don't watch because we care, we watch because we were literally bullied into submission.

But on the other hand, storytelling is such an amazingly old art form, and we've all been taught that there are only a few real stories that just keep getting repeated with different characters and locations, etc. We've heard it all before, and we really have, so perhaps it's okay to assume we innately understand the set up. It's been programmed almost into our DNA. We get it. So, perhaps it's making way for some other element that will emerge and revolutionize the art of story. Maybe. Maybe?

Excuse me, I've got to take off these rose colored glasses. They're giving me a headache.....