I’m watching Enterprise, and I think I’ve figured out what happened to Star Trek. It wasn’t fatigue. There were things done right back in the Kirk Days, that were being done decidedly wrong in what came afterward. And I’m not referring to miniskirts the size of lampshades…although there is that too. You get rid of a good thing, you need to replace it with something else just as good or better.
No, you have to stop and ask yourself “What makes a scene good?” The answer is the same for teevee and big screen. And literature too. All storytelling, really.
To justify its existence, a scene has to define something. It can define a character, or it can define an event that moves the story along. A visual treat for the audience is good, but that’s just candy. Within a decade it will all be obsolete…the CGI…the special effects…the surreal architecture…an unusually grisly demise…Raquel Welch dancing around in her undies…the gizmo somebody is holding that does something and makes you go “hey, lookit that.” That could justify a scene for a little while, but it’s a weak foundation and if the entire product is built out of things like this it will certainly be a bad product.
No, a good scene confines itself to the first two. Character and story. A good scene defines both of these, not just one. And a truly great scene will leave the audience in a state of confusion about which one is primarily important. As the scene unfolds, after it is done, and for several minutes thereafter — a state of confusion should exist about what the audience was supposed to get out of it.
And to be a horrible awful wretched scene, it should exist for the purpose of defining some aspect of a character that has already been thoroughly defined.
Think of the scene where Michael tells Moe Greene that the Corleone family wants to buy him out. Conventional thinking says “Waitaminnit…it’s over five minutes long. It’s a crappy scene, case closed, because there’s no way a scene can be good if it’s five minutes long.” But this is, in fact, a piece of movie greatness.
As it starts out there isn’t even a hint that anything special is going to happen here. Michael tells Fredo to get rid of the girls, alright…we are being told Michael Corleone is all-business. Well, this is over two hours in. We already knew this. Oh no wait, now something is being defined about Fredo’s character. Now we’re defining something about Moe’s character. Now we’re being told a whole bunch of things about stuff that happened previously…complex plot points from the book are being shoehorned, in the movie, into this one five-minute scene. Which is a little awkward. Moe sums up the five-families situation with his “The Godfather’s Sick” speech, which defines a theme. Moe tells Michael to go stick it, which constitutes an event; the event will become important later. Michael ignores the remonstration and tells Moe to come up with a number. This defines something not quite so much about Michael’s character, as about the code by which he’s managing the family business. Moe storms off, Fredo says something that defines him, and Michael tells Fredo something that makes another entry into the archive of Great Movie Lines. Which defines the business.
The confusion about purpose is what makes the scene great. If there was a singular, unmistakable point to the scene it couldn’t be this good.
Bad scene? Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The one where Darth Maul is introduced, when he steps into view while Darth Sidious is talking to the Viceroys on one of those hologram communicator things. It was pretty awesome seeing Darth Maul introduced this way…but the Viceroy delivers the anticlimactic line “We should not have made this bargain!” or some such thing, and it’s over. Not only do you get this choppy feeling there was another minute or so that was tossed on the cutting room floor, but there’s too much clarity. We know too much about why we were shown what we just saw. It’s an attempt to revive the Faustian suspense of Lando Carlissian saying “This deal gets worse all the time!” and it fails. It fails because the audience understands, and feeling no uncertainty about it whatsoever, what they were supposed to learn from what they just saw. They’re put in the position of evaluating a complete list of what they just figured out, against how many minutes it took them to learn that — and the result is boredom.
An even worse scene? There’s one in Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life, in which one of her new allies who is just being introduced…follows Lara’s instructions on a headset while he’s driving a jeep. He is ordered to just keep driving in a straight line at the same speed and — surprise! Lara lands in the jeep on a hang glider! Okay. What did we learn, that Lara Croft is an adrenaline junkie who is full of surprises. But we knew this about her already. There is no new aspect of her adrenaline-junkie-ness that is defined outside of what was defined before…the hang gliding equipment notwithstanding…and regarding the fellow who was supposed to be introduced to us through this scene, we have absolutely no information at all other than he knows how to drive a jeep in a straight line.
This is one reason why, I would add, that girls can’t have adventure movies. When you create a James Bond adventure, you can define over and over again that James Bond is a cool guy who knows how to do stuff, but you can do it with finesse, elegance and balance. You can leave the audience wondering what the universality of purposes might have been with regard to a specific scene, by defining Bond’s character, the characters he meets & fights, and elements to the evolving story all at the same time. You can use that ambiguity as a weapon against the audience. Make them wonder what the point is. Give them a puzzle to work out as you tell them the story. Girls on the other hand…no. You have to constantly be pounding the message home over and over again: “She is awesome and bold and she knows how to do stuff.” If the scene defines that, but also defines something else, then you are a seeeeexist movie making guy. Wonder Woman can deflect bullets off her bracelets…but also…there was some hidden motive the guy had for shooting her, so there’s some mystery and we’ll be wanting you to pay some attention to that…out of the question. Wonder Woman has talents and abilities, and that’s the only thought that should be in your li’l head. So there can be none of this puzzle-working or ambiguity, which is so vital to making all good scenes good and great scenes great.
Now here is some irony: In the twentieth century, has there been any fictionalized character in any medium, electronic or print, more over-defined than Captain Kirk? Probably not. But in the old Star Trek, there were scenes that were ambiguous in their purpose. Here is Spock forming a theory about the alien, which defines Spock’s logic and superior intellect — but we’re also learning something about this week’s situation, something we’re pretty sure will become relevant later, so we’re fixated on that. Kirk being awesome, theatrically angry, oh-so-boldly protesting the death of his latest redshirt crewman, showing his Kirk-cajones…again, that is subordinate to this other purpose of figuring out what is going on, why the redshirt got killed, who’s keeping secrets from who.
With these newer shows, it was all about showcasing how awesome was Janeway, Sisko, Archer, et al. Another day another dollar: T’Pol shows no emotions because she’s a Vulcan, and Archer is awesome. That’s what you’re supposed to learn from this scene, now let us go on to the next one.
It’s often said that the perfect movie has a purpose for every little thing in it. Someone must have heard that, and taken it to mean the audience should understand that purpose, as each “little thing” makes its very first appearance. And that the purpose should be reiterated with each subsequent appearance.
And aside from displaying Sean Connery dancing around in a big red diaper, I think these are just about the worst things a movie-making dude can possibly do.