Screenwriting 101: a tale of two beginnings

With regards to yesterday’s animated discussion of prologues:free stats

I was in my local video store the other day. I found a copy of Oliver Stone’s 2004 bio-pic Alexander for $3. My wife is a sucker for ancient Greek history and I’m a sucker for biographical drama and I said “that’s my price!” and snapped it up. I took it home, put it in the machine, and what do you know? It starts with an elaborate prologue! About the history of ancient Greece!

Now Stone understands that this is complicated stuff and that the audience isn’t likely to know about any of it. He also knows that having a bunch of words against a black screen isn’t going to help.

So instead, he goes in the exact opposite direction with equally disastrous results. First, there is an elaborate death scene where we see someone, we’re guessing Alexander (although Stone does not show us his face) dying, having not made an important decision of some sort. Everyone around the bed pleads with the dying man as strong winds blow outside and the dying man stares wildly and flails his hands and then expires. Before we have any idea what the hell that was all about, Stone then jumps forward 40 years, after Alexander’s empire has collapsed, and there’s Anthony Hopkins in a toga on a balcony near the harbor at Alexandria (we can tell it’s Alexandria because we can see the Lighthouse of Alexandria in the background) telling a scribe the story of Alexander, but not about the mysterious death scene we just watched. We’re still waiting to find out what was going on during the death scene and Hopkins is giving us a history lesson.

Now, Stone doesn’t want to give us a history lesson so he renders the dialogue through Hopkins’s character, a guy who apparently worked alongside Alexander, although we don’t know how or in what manner. Hopkins speaks of Alexander with great love, so we get that Alexander was apparently loved, but the rest of it is still just a history lesson about a bunch of people we haven’t met yet. Hopkins wanders around his back porch overlooking the harbor, and the porch is covered with Greek statuary that Hopkins fondles as he walks past. We’re supposed to be taking notes on his history lesson, but instead we’re wondering who Hopkins is and why he’s telling us all this and why he’s got a back porch covered with statuary.

After he’s wandered around his back porch for a while, Hopkins then heads inside, where there is what looks to be an Alexander Museum in his living room. There are more statues, and elaborate displays and maps and mosaics. Hopkins launches into some serious history here gesturing to this statue and that map, telling us all the same things we would have read in the text-on-black version, but instead of understanding the information we’re more lost than ever, because we’re still wondering what the death scene was all about and then we’re wondering who Hopkins is supposed to be (since he’s obviously not the elderly Alexander) and we’re wondering why he’s telling someone the story of Alexander and we’re wondering why he’s walking around his Alexander Museum gesturing to things that the guy he’s talking to already knows about. We’re now about ten minutes into the movie and we’re still waiting for it to start.

Then, just as we’re catching up to whatever the heck Anthony Hopkins is talking about, we jump back in time and now Alexander is alive and well and he’s in a tent somewhere in a desert just before a big battle of some kind against some Persians, and he’s making battle plans with his team of generals. And we think “Finally! The movie’s starting!” But no. Instead of getting some drama, we get yet another history lesson, as Alexander tells his generals all about the upcoming battle and how they’re going to win it. We don’t know where we are, why we’re fighting, who anyone in the tent is or what is at stake, we’re just getting Alexander lecturing his generals on strategy.  

yesterday mentioned the “As you know, Bob” problem in narratives, and that’s what this scene is, one big long “As you know, Bob” scene. Except it’s worse, because there’s, like, six of them, and their names aren’t Bob, they’re Ptolemy and Hephaistion and Cassander and Antigonus. So you’ve got Alexander walking around the map room pointing at things and saying things like “As you know, Antigonus, you are my most trusted warrior…” These lines are there so that the Greek scholars in the house can nod in understanding and say “Aha, so that’s Antigonus, got it…” but the rest of us are just burdened with more and more information we have no idea what to do with. The scene is supposed to help us understand the big battle scene we’re about to see, but it does the opposite. Because we’re still wondering about the death scene and who Anthony Hopkins was and why he has an Alexander Museum in his living room and who all these people in the tent are supposed to be and the movie is already 15 or 20 minutes along.

We finally head out into the big battle scene, and it is very big indeed — enormous, sprawling, ridiculously elaborate. It is, in fact, so elaborate that each section of the army gets its own title card so we know where we are in the battle. Unfortunately, we’re still not following any of it because we couldn’t follow the strategy session in the tent earlier. So now there’s a hugely chaotic battle sequence featuring tens of thousands of extras in period battle gear, but we don’t know what the objective is or who they are really or what they’re fighting for or why any of this is important.

Compare this to the opening of Saving Private Ryan.

Saving Private Ryan opens with an old man in a military cemetery in France with his family. One shot of one French flag tells us we’re in France. The old man comes to a field of gravestones and collapses in tears. There is no dialogue, no museum, no scrolling text, no narrator telling us about the history of World War II, no newsreel catchingus up to the story so far, no history lesson, no room of generals discussing strategy and reminding each other of things they already know. There is an old man who is grief-stricken at the sight of a field of gravestones and that’s it.

Then, we cut to the past, where an army captain is on a boat with a bunch of other soldiers and is about to storm a beach. We think the captain is the younger version of the old man at the cemetery (the narrative, it turns out, hinges on this deliberate misdirect). The men on the boat are terrified and nauseous and the captain’s hands are shaking. A title card tells us that it’s June 6. 1944 and that we’re at Omaha Beach. It doesn’t say that it’s D-Day, an important turning point in World War II, nothing tells us who the soldiers are fighting, or why this beach is important — and it doesn’t matter. What matters is the simple physical predicament of the protagonist. The captain in the boat has a bunch of men in his charge and it’s his job to get them up the beach and kill the enemy. And that’s it. He gives no speech about the glories of freedom or the evils of Nazism, the information he gives them is technical and sparse. The tension is palpable, the concerns are immediate and physical, not historical and philosophical. Then, the front of the boat drops down and half the men in the boat are slaughtered by sniper fire, and the ensuing 25 minutes of insane, mind-shattering carnage go on to become the greatest battle sequence ever shot and one of the great opening sequences of all time. We still don’t know who anybody is (except that the captain is Tom Hanks and we like Tom Hanks), there is no dialogue where the captain says to a soldier “As you know, Billy, you are my most accurate sniper…” The captain and his team that we will follow through the rest of the movie are revealed solely by their actions.

Oliver Stone sincerely thought he was doing us a favor by giving us all this complicated information about the history of Alexander before we ever got a look at the guy, and he thought he was demonstrating his generosity and good will toward the audience by dramatising the exposition instead of just putting some text up on the screen. But instead he shot his movie in the foot before it even got started, he drew the exposition out to painful lengths and made us more confused than ever. We don’t learn anything from Stone’s prologue, our minds check out after the first minute and by the tenth minute we’ve forgotten why we came to see the movie. Spielberg knew that none of that matters — cinema is about the here and now, the simple physical predicament of the protagonist.


 points out in the comments that Alexander and Saving Private Ryan describe two different historical scenarios, one of which the audience might be expected to be familiar with, the other not so much.  I will go further: the two movies belong to two different genres — Alexander is a biographical drama and Saving Private Ryan is a war movie — and so perhaps should not be judged side by side.  Fair enough, let’s compare an apple to an apple.  Alexander begins with its elaborate history lesson and Schindler’s List begins with its protagonist getting dressed for a night on the town — again, little historical context (we know only that Jews are being concentrated into cities), no scroll of text, no narrator telling us who these people are, just the immediate physical concerns of the protagonist — he’s getting dressed up for a night on the town — we never even see his face! — and his ensemble is complete when he places his Nazi pin on his lapel.  The sequence that follows — Schindler impressing the local Nazi officers at the nightclub — lays out the information we need to know about Schindler and nothing else.  The result is that for the first 20 minutes of Schindler we lean forward, wanting to know more about the protagonist and what he’s after, whereas the first 20 minutes of Alexander make us lean back, wanting to get out of this classroom.


79 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: a tale of two beginnings”
  1. nearside says:

    In fairness, I think most viewers are more familiar with the historical context around SPR compared to Alexander. Some kind of history lesson was probably called for in order to create a context for Stone’s movie, even though he botched it badly.

  2. One of the worst prologues that I recall sitting through was for Lord of the Rings. It just went on and on… and I was “checked out” of the film before it began.

  3. Alexander was such an elaborate bloated failure, it almost pushed through to becoming enjoyable. Watching it reminds me a lot of the borderline-lunatic excesses of JFK, and makes for a nice mental arc in my mind of Stone’s capability as a director.

    As for Saving Private Ryan, I can’t help but cringe during those bookend cemetery scenes. I love the movie, always will, but I find those scenes completely unnecessary and way too schmaltzy. They’re the only false notes in the movie for me.

  4. popebuck1 says:

    I think the real difference is, Steven Spielberg understands concepts like “nuance” and “subtlety,” while Oliver Stone wouldn’t recognize “subtlety” if it clocked him upside the head with a sledgehammer.

    Also, I don’t think “Alexander is a historical drama about a period most viewers wouldn’t know anything about” is a valid excuse. Because what matters to the viewer isn’t the historical background – it’s the humanity of the people involved. Maybe most American viewers do know something about D-Day and its historical importance, but the point is, you don’t have to know anything about D-Day in order to empathize with Tom Hanks and his men, thrown into a chaotic and deadly battle situation.

    • Todd says:

      “I don’t think “Alexander is a historical drama about a period most viewers wouldn’t know anything about” is a valid excuse.”

      On this we are in agreement. I can think of one movie I’ve seen recently where the prologue helped a little bit, and that was Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur. The prologue informed us that Arthur and his knights came not from England, which I would have assumed, but from some place we’ve never heard of called Sarmatia, which seems to have been somewhere in central Europe. This becomes important later as it becomes clear that Arthur wants nothing more than to go home. He doesn’t set out to become king of Britain, he sets out to “do one last job” for the Romans and then go home. The prologue doesn’t tell us anything useful, except that it puts the word “Sarmatian” into our heads so that when the knights start talking about wanting to go home to Sarmatia we know what they’re talking about.

    • nearside says:

      I think that, handled correctly, a movie like Alexander could have been done in the same way. You could have had empathy for Alexander and his situation without having to know a lot about the history. But the history and context of D-Day is so much more emotionally powerful to us, in our time, than anything related to Alexander’s setting. That can’t be discounted. The myriad subtle ways, the many cues and influences of WW2 that surround us impact our viewing of Saving Private Ryan in ways we might not be consciously aware of, much more than any treatment, no matter how exceptional, of a movie set thousands of years in the past.

      • Todd says:

        The opening I keep thinking of for Alexander is just Alexander in his tent, with his golden hair and good looks, buckling his sandals and putting on his mantle, getting ready for an undetermined meeting. Then, once he’s dressed, maybe he trades a few words of camaraderie with a trusted aide. Then he walks out of his tent and we see that the tent is on a hillside and below him is a vast army, cheering at the sight of him and awaiting his command.

        First you get to know who the man is, then you tell us that he is a mighty king in command of legions. The important thing is the guy’s personality and personal habits, then who his friends are, then where he stands in society. Then you can get on to the issues of what he’s fighting for and who’s against him and all that.

        • nearside says:

          That would have been a much better opening. The sense of scale is better, from the intimate to the grand, and it would have been very impressive. I think it would have maintained the “epic sweep” that was being sought.

        • popebuck1 says:

          Isn’t that essentially the opening of Gladiator? There may or may not be some kind of opening title card (“Old emperor Marcus Aurelius lies near death, and his creepy ambiguously-gay son is poised to take over…”); I can’t remember. But I definitely remember that opening battle, seeing Maximus for the first time (as he “unleashes hell”) as simply a leader and a man of action.

          • Todd says:

            The fact that you can’t remember should tell you everything you need to know.

            • popebuck1 says:

              Well, yeah, in that if there is a title card, at least Ridley Scott drops it in there and then, properly, gets right to the action.

              But I’m honestly still trying to remember whether there even was one, because I haven’t seen Gladiator in years. Does anyone remember whether or not there’s an opening title card or narration, or does Scott just drop us into the battle?

    • swan_tower says:

      You can’t separate the two, though; not completely. When we see Tom Hanks and his men in the boat, we know they’re the good guys — first because it’s Tom Hanks, but second because we know it’s D-Day and that they’re the Allies making their big push and the Nazis are evil and so on. The viewer brings all of that to the table, and is pre-disposed to sympathy because they know Tom Hanks’ character is fighting the good fight. If that were, oh, a bunch of sixteenth-century Japanese guys charging into battle, you’d be engaged to the degree of “okay, they’re in danger” — but you don’t know if they’re fighting for Oda Nobunaga or somebody else, and you don’t know if Oda Nobunaga is the guy you want to win or not, and really, you don’t know why you should care about these guys and their battle. It’s a bunch of strangers fighting over issues you know nothing about. (Unless I picked the wrong example, and you happen to be really familiar with the sengoku jidai. In which case, substitute a different culture and time period.)

      You don’t have to open with a big lecture, no, and you really shouldn’t if you can avoid it. But at some point, preferably sooner rather than later, you have got to get the information across, in a fashion that leaves the viewer comfortable with the conflict and its major players. The SPR approach would not work on a less-familiar event.

  5. robjmiller says:

    Oliver Stone loves this crap

    Oliver Stone seems to have a penchant for awkward openings in bio flicks, just take a look at the opening of The Doors.

  6. marydell says:

    Nice dissection. I agree with those who don’t think the “know nothing about the period” thing is a big deal. Star Wars throws us into the middle of a battle in an imaginary galaxy and there’s no history lesson needed there, either.

    • nearside says:

      I would argue that Stone thought that not knowing about the period was a big deal, which is why we had the clumsy info dump. Other movies, in other periods, either don’t need it (we’re more familiar with the period) or are handled more effectively.

    • swan_tower says:

      Uh, just what do you think the opening crawl-text is, if not a (brief) history lesson?

      • Todd says:

        It is a history lesson, but it has no impact on what we’re about to see. If we don’t get that Darth Vader is a bad guy and Princess Leia is a good guy and she’s got something Vader wants by the end of the opening sequence, no title-scroll is going to help us.

        • swan_tower says:

          The crawl-text and the first scene serve different but complimentary purposes. It would be pointless indeed for the crawl to tell us the things you just mentioned; likewise, the opening scene would be much weakened if it tried to explain to us the evil empire and the rebels and the Death Star and so on, because that would slow down the very enjoyable action.

          One gives you the macro picture; the other, the micro. From the cosmic to the personal, and it gets you interested in the connections between the two. It does, in my opinion, have an impact on what we see, because we know something (small) about the sides Leia and Vader are fighting for.

          • Todd says:

            I personally have never gotten any actual understanding of the Star Wars universe through its title crawls. I think the only thing they do for me is lay out the main players — Empire bad, Rebels good, Death Star plans maguffin.

            • swan_tower says:

              It’s impossible, at this late date, to judge how the movies would have changed for me without the crawls. I can’t re-create my initial reaction; it was too long ago. (Except for the more recent ones, which are so riddled with flaws that debating their crawls is kind of like debating whether that bloated, malformed Frankenstein corpse in the corner would have looked better without toenail polish.)

              • As a child, first time seeing, the single most important fact I gleaned from the opening crawl of Episode IV was that it was, in fact, the fourth part of a series. Post-movie (and post-mind blown), I immediately obsessed over trying to find out what happened before the movie, pestering my dad for weeks about how it was ridiculous and impossible that the first three episodes didn’t exist, that there had to be somewhere I could find out the story leading up to A New Hope. Those first three episodes had to exist.

                Probably the very first in a string of many, many disappointments tied to the Star Wars series.

                Anyway, I think the true value in the crawls is all about imparting that sense of classic pulpiness to the proceedings. Meaning other than that, it’s a confection. I can’t imagine the movies without them though. They definitely got juice.

            • dougo says:

              Well, duh, the important part of the crawl in Star Wars is that this all happened long long ago in a galaxy far far away, as opposed to in the future somewhere in our vicinity. Just so we aren’t wondering why they never mention Earth (or God).

      • marydell says:

        While I agree with Todd, below, that it’s not that essential, I have to smite my forehead and say D’Oh anyway because I totally forgot about the crawl. Because I’ve only seen the movie about 35 times. D’Oh!

  7. I’m trying to think of a movie (Star Wars aside, where the crawl is not about conveying information so much as setting it up as a movie serial/popcorn flick a la Flash Gordon) where there was an opening infodump that worked. The closest I’m coming is WWII again, and that’s “Patton”. And of course the “No bastard ever won a war” speech is not really an infodump. It doesn’t say anything about the war or the other characters. It’s more about showing us Patton’s mind in advance (and letting George C. Scott do a speech that frankly I wish I’d had the balls, figuratively speaking, to use for my senior drama monologue.)

    • Todd says:

      Francis Coppola, in the screenplay for Patton, took the best scene from Henry V, the “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, and put it at the beginning of Patton. It’s not an infodump, it’s a rallying cry — a dramatic beat. It’s staged in a way that’s so immediate, modern and startling that it’s become a cliche, but that’s what it is.

      • I just googled Patton’s real speech–and if anything what he actually said was better than what was in the film. I wish I could see Scott read it the way Patton actually gave it (though at the time I don’t think they allowed the f-word in a mainstream film.)

        I love that movie, though. Enough that I REALLY hate “The Last Days of Patton.”

        • Todd says:

          “I just googled Patton’s real speech”

          Me too. It could scorch the paint off a panzer division.

          • ndgmtlcd says:

            But only if they would have had somebody like George C. Scott to read it. Patton had a high-pitched voice that made him sound like an old grandmother, and he was conscious of it. The few minutes of the speech at the beginning are the greatest part of the whole film because they represent what Patton would have liked to be and would have liked to do.

    • dougo says:

      I’m trying to think of a movie where there was an opening infodump that worked.

      How about Cloverfield? (Or The Blair Witch Project for that matter?)

      • Never seen either one. Don’t want to. I actually don’t watch a lot of movies. The only one I’ve seen this year was “The X-Files” and that was more morbid curiosity.

  8. stormwyvern says:

    Hopkins wanders around his back porch overlooking the harbor, and the porch is covered with Greek statuary that Hopkins fondles as he walks past.

    The image this sentence conjures up in my head is probably far, far worse than what is actually on screen.

    I was going to make essentially the same comments that nearside made and that you responded with. Again, to be fair, I think the audience in “Schindler’s List” can be counted upon to at least recognize what Schindler’s Nazi pin symbolizes, though unfortunately, I’m having a tough time imagining how the film would play for someone who didn’t know anything about the Nazis or WWII. But going back to your original example, I think someone unfamiliar with WWII could still watch the opening of the film and get the general idea. The viewer would probably understand that the film opens in France though maybe not the significance of that fact, which wouldn’t really make much difference if the person is somehow totally ignorant of WWII. An old man is grief-stricken in a field of gravestones. That’s not confusing; the guy is mourning a person or people who are buried there. And I wouldn’t put it past our historically illiterate viewer to guess that a field of numerous identical gravestones might be a military cemetery of some sort. And if there’s still any hint of confusion in this person’s mind, the next shot is of soldiers heading into battle. Whether or not the viewer equates the captain with the old man, he or she will almost certainly get the idea that the old man is mourning for comrades lost in war, all without knowing squat about the war being portrayed.

    I have never seen “Alexander” and really don’t plan on it, so I’ve got to ask: is there any earthly point to Stone obcuring the identity of the dying man who may or may not be Alexander in the first scene or is it just another bit of unnecessary confusion?

    • Todd says:

      “The image this sentence conjures up in my head is probably far, far worse than what is actually on screen.”

      Well, Hopkins doesn’t go so far as to fondle the statue’s genitalia, but I’m guessing his physical affection for the statuary is meant to reflect the whole man-love that parts of the narrative hinge on.

      “I’m having a tough time imagining how the film would play for someone who didn’t know anything about the Nazis or WWII.”

      Well, let’s think about that for a moment. What does one need to know? We see that the Nazis are rounding up Jews and, to put it mildly, treating them unfairly, and we see that Schindler is trying to work with the Nazis to get his military contracts, and we see that he’s willing to exploit the Nazi/Jew thing to his benefit. Then, fifty minutes into a movie that seems to be primarily about a business deal, he gives us the liquidation scene, which tells us just about everything we need to know about the Nazis through their actions. If anything, it seems to me that a lack of familiarity with the history of wartime Poland would increase the dramatic punch of Schindler.

      “Is there any earthly point to Stone obcuring the identity of the dying man who may or may not be Alexander in the first scene?”

      I could be wrong, but I think he’s going for a “Rosebud” moment — the Great Man shown only in bits and pieces in order to create a sense of mystery. Of course, in Citizen Kane Welles gives us a five-minute scene afterward of a bunch of reporters in a screening room talking about “Who the hell is Rosebud?” so we stick with the narrative.

      • swan_tower says:

        But we know who the Nazis are, and we know who the Jews are. If it was a bunch of Roman soldiers rounding up some villagers somewhere, we’d be inclined to glare, but all we’d really know is that some military guys are mistreating some group of people for some unknown but probably not-nice reason. It wouldn’t be until fifty minutes later that we would understand the motivation and stakes of that scene, whereas an audience for Schindler’s List knows before they even walk into the theatre what the meaning of that roundup is.

        I really don’t think you can present unfamiliar history in the same fashion as familiar history and get an equally powerful effect. Anything about WWII can use forms of visual and narrative shorthand that just aren’t available for other events, because of the extent to which the audience participates in fleshing out what they see.

        • stormwyvern says:

          I think the trick is that a good filmmaker dealing with relatively unknown historical events will find a way to get the audience immersed and interested in the characters, even if they don’t already know the situations, and a good filmmaker dealing with easily recognized events won’t rely on the audience’s familiarity with the situation too heavily. After all, Spielberg doesn’t just say to the audience “OK, here’s D-Day and Tom Hanks; now go empathize.” He uses other methods to make you understand how these men are feeling and what’s at stake for them personally. As Todd points out, in this case, it isn’t honor or ideals or even military victory so much as their individual survival. Had Stone made the effort, he could have used his screen time to really show us who Alexander was – a confident leader, an uncertain novice, a dreamy idealist, a cocky bastard – and what the battle meant to him personally – a chance to prove himself, an easy victory, another in a long line of endless fights, a grudge match. It’s not that hard to get an audience to understand a battle or a war. There are opposing sides and fighting and people we’re rooting for and people we’re booing. The difficult part is showing the audience why they should care, even if it’s a fight they already know about. I’m very hesitant o say this, but i almost think the opening scenes of “Saving Private Ryan” could have been equally effective if they were showing some battle that most people haven’t heard of, because the purpose of the scene is to show these soldiers in a fight that many of them will not survive. In fact, there could be cases where showing well-known history to the audience can be more of a challenge. Everyone knows how it ends already, so you have to work at keeping the audience engaged so they don’t tune out.

      • stormwyvern says:

        Yes, that’s what I was thinking. Could just be the way my mind works, or the fact that virtually the only thing I know about the movie is that at some point Rosario Dawson manages to lose all of her clothes (which certain friends of mine cite as the primary if not only reason to see “Alexander”.)

        The weird thing is that it sounds like Stone manages to pull of both the “As you know, Bob” and the reverse “As you know, Bob” in rapid succession. “As you know, Bob” is a case of a character saying something for no other reason than imparting information to the audience. Bob is already aware of whatever the speaker is saying and doesn’t need to be reminded of it. The speaker obviously knows it. It’s a good bet that most every important character in the scene doesn’t know it. The only people who aren’t already aware of what Bob and the speaker know are the viewers. So it’s exposition in its purest and most transparent form. The reverse “As you know, Bob” is when all of the characters in a scene are or should be aware of a particular fact but are working very hard to hide it from the audience. I’m guessing that everyone in that first scene knows that the dying man is Alexander and knows what his face looks like. They probably also know what the important decision Alexander hasn’t yet made is. But because there’s this audience watching and the audience isn’t supposed to know these things yet, all the characters are going to be very careful not to reveal any of this information, even though they would probably be doing things like using Alexander’s name or referring directly to his pending decision were this not a movie looking to keep something secret so it can be revealed later. Same goes for next scene. All the characters presumably know who the Anthony Hopkins character is (as – thanks to a quick check of imdb – do I) and why he’s telling a scribe about Alexander and why he has an Alexander museum in his house. But they’re going to make sure thay don’t say anything that might clue us in because that’s being saved for later.

        I still haven’t seen the movie, so if I misinterpreted from you summary and the film is not actually pulling multiple reverse Bobs, I sincerely apologize to the movie.

        • swan_tower says:

          Yeah, that’s a point-of-view cheat. Which is a topic that fascinates me in film, since I have a harder time determining pov in that medium than I do in prose — but if everybody in the scene knows something directly relevant to what’s going on, then doing backbends to avoid giving it away to the audience is most definitely cheating.

  9. johnnycrulez says:

    I’m going to repost this on this entry, since the old one is now old and I had posted it right before you made this one.

    “I want you to know that you convinced me to order Primer.

    Also, I’ve never been a big fan of Requiem for a Dream. I like Pi, but Requiem just feels really heavy handed.”

    My copy of Primer should show up tomorrow, I’m going to watch it with a group of people.

  10. perich says:

    there is no dialogue where the captain says to a soldier “As you know, Billy, you are my most accurate sniper…”

    Laughing out loud here.

    I don’t have much hope for Peter Berg’s upcoming remake of Dune, but I hope – I hope, I hope, I hope – that he ditches any sort of opening narration and just launches right into the story.

    Dune has always struck me as one of those stories that everyone thinks needs a lot of expository text, and yet doesn’t actually. Witches with mind-control voices and poison needles! Sandworms! Force fields and laser guns! Desert ninjas and spice orgies! What else do you need?

    • swan_tower says:

      Good god, a third one? Maybe it will keep what was good about the first two, and avoid making their pointless mistakes. I keep thinking that if you could hybridize best parts of the movie and the miniseries, you would get the Dune I’ve always wanted to see.

      • robjmiller says:

        Wait, you’re saying there was something good about Lynch’s Dune? It was pretty much crap the whole way through. It was completely unfaithful to the book with a lack of political intrigue and somehow turning mind control and super abilities into a lame shout/gun. The only redeeming part was Sting.

        The Sci-Fi Channel miniseries, however, was pretty fantastic. Yes, some of the acting could have been better, and the backdrops were sort of a throwback (although I think that was intentional), but overall it did a great job. I’ll say nothing of the Children of Dune miniseries.

        • swan_tower says:

          Well, I imprinted pretty firmly on that one first, which does skew perceptions. But I thought they got the Dr. Yueh stuff pretty well (in the miniseries, he’s Traitor Not Appearing In This Story, more or less), and their Reverend Mother kicked the ass of the miniseries Reverend Mother six ways from Sunday. Other things, too, but those are the first that leap to mind.

          Most of what the movie got wrong, I thought, was the crap they added in. The stuff actually taken from the book wasn’t bad.

        • dougo says:

          Without Lynch’s Dune, there would be no Eon, and that would make me sad.

  11. nearside says:

    First, I wonder if Stone knows he was making a biographical drama? Because at times, Alexander slipped between genres – it was a war movie, a historical epic and perhaps something else too that escapes me. That could be one flaw right there.

    The intimacy of the opening of Schindler’s List is a nice point of comparison.

    Perhaps too, interestingly, you have some things going on with the medium being used (maybe not the right word) in those two movies. Spielberg was using the medium of black and white in SL, while Stone was… well, I don’t know. Trying “epic sweep” or something. Failing.

  12. curt_holman says:


    While I’m not disputing your points about the weaknesses of prologues and opening crawls of text, can we think of more examples of films that have strong, prologue-free openings that take place in the remote past or far-flung fantasy environments? For the former, maybe films that take place before the 20th century, or before the 19th century for the U.S.A. and England?

    I watched ‘Captain Blood’ two weeks ago, for instance, and it’s got a text-prologue that was reasonably helpful in setting the scene of English unrest. I’m actually having trouble thinking of historical films that DON’T have text-prologues. Did Gladiator have one? I don’t think Lawrence of Arabia had one and it worked very well (although it’s still 20th century).

    • Todd says:

      Re: Challenge

      Unless I’m very much mistaken, Lawrence opens with a man we’ve never met dying in a motorcycle accident. Then we meet Peter O’Toole and get to know him a little, and after a while he announces that he wants to go conquer the desert.

      • Re: Challenge

        That is probably one of my least-favorite movie openings. I knew what was going on as I’d already read The Seven Pillars of Wisdom at that point and was familiar with Lawrence (I was an odd, odd twelve-year-old) but it still didn’t seem to have anything to do with the remainder of the film or the reason I was watching it.

        • swan_tower says:

          Re: Challenge

          I’m with you. Who’s this guy? Why should I care? Oh, he’s dead.

          I mean, I know it’s Lawrence because I recognize Peter O’Toole, and I care to precisely the extent one could expect out of a viewer who knows nothing about the man (as I did not when I first saw the film). But engaging it was not — not until later on, when I actually got to see him doing something other than driving a motorcycle.

          • Todd says:

            Re: Challenge

            Yeah, I’m stuck on the motorcycle opening too. It seems to me that it could only be effective if, throughout the movie, Lawrence constantly complains bitterly about how what he really wants to do is drive his motorcycle through the English countryside, and everyone around him keeps asking “Really Lawrence, do you think that’s wise?”

            • swan_tower says:

              Re: Challenge

              And that’s retroactively effective at best. It doesn’t make the opening scene any cooler on a first viewing.

              This is my problem with Babylon 5, of which I have seen only the first season. My friends tell me those episodes are chock-full of Really Important Hints and Setup for later plot, but until you’ve seen the later plot, all that stuff means jack. In the meantime, it failed to engage me with the parts that did mean something.

              • marydell says:

                Re: Challenge

                B5 gets instantly better in the second season, when they ditch the extremely wooden Sinclar and replace him with the gee-whiz, sparkly-teeth, roundhouse-punch-throwing Sheridan. The expository lumps continue but they go down a lot more smoothly.

                • swan_tower says:

                  Re: Challenge

                  Sinclair was definitely an additional problem. (I lied; I’ve seen about two eps from the beginning of S2. They did seem better. But I haven’t really gotten into the show.)

            • curt_holman says:

              Re: Challenge

              For me there’s something jarring, in an interesting way, about LoA’s opening scene that really gets my attention.

              It pays off in the last scene of the movie when Lawrence is being driven off in a jeep through the desert, passes some guys on camels and he stands to look back at him, and then a motorcycle zips past him, so he has his past and future laid out neatly.

            • pseydtonne says:

              That misses the point, too.

              I think the motorcycle crash at the beginning is meant to tell us something in a cultural context. Lawrence has massive effect on people in a massive, frontier place. Then he goes home and can’t scale.

              He’s like a sports car. Sports cars are amazing on long open roads and expressways in the middle of nowhere. They’re also impossible to parallel park in a tight spot because the seat is so low. They typically have nasty contact plates in their clutches, which make stop and go traffic a stalling festival. They don’t belong in town but they make country driving the most thrilling thing ever.

              He gets on his motorcycle — his tiny camel, his tiny engine of power in a tiny nation of tight turns — and he’s road pizza.

              We open here because the director is really talking to Britain in 1961, not Americans of any time. Britain would soon start turning back into England, shrinking and shrinking. Men of action and men of decision would have to get out of the nation-building business and focus on corporate exploits or turn into frustrated shop keepers. We can’t put those men of giant scale back into small scale or they just look like nutters.

              • Todd says:

                I think you’re correct, that the opening of Lawrence is speaking to its time, and its national moment, not ours. The death of Lawrence provokes an examination of his life, and thus of Britain’s past. In that context it makes perfect sense. swan_tower’s observation of “What? Who’s this guy on the motorcycle?” is, in one way, intentional. It’s meant to be cruelly ironic that a man who achieved so much should die in such a mundane way.

                Good movie, that Lawrence of Arabia.

        • marydell says:

          Re: Challenge

          I hate the framing stuff in LoA (which I otherwise utterly love) because it’s so reductive…”look at the sad little man with his sad little joyless existence.” Yeah, yeah, he’s only really alive when he’s in Arabia, I get it.

      • curt_holman says:

        Re: Challenge

        I believe that after the motorcycle accident there’s a short scene of Lawrence’s funeral in England, which introduces some of the character’s we’ll get to know later, and then we flash back to young Lawrence.

        • johnnycrulez says:

          Re: Challenge

          I though the opening of Lawrence was great. It also shows that the audience doesn’t have to be familiar with the history of a movie to be able to follow and enjoy it.

    • stormwyvern says:

      Second Challenge

      Since the responses here seem to have largely gone the historical route, I’m issuing a secondary challenge. Find an example of a movie (no TV shows, as I think they have a somewhat easier time with this task) that fills the following criteria:

      – Science fiction or fantasy genre
      – Does not take place in a world very much like our own. For science fiction, this means it has either be set on a different planet or to be reasonably far into the future with more differences between that world and the present day than a couple of technological innovations. For fantasy, you want to avoid films about worlds that start out mundane like ours and then turn out to have a hidden magical aspect (“Harry Potter” being a prime example.)
      – Does not start in the “real” world or a recognizable time period. No normal people from the normal world who travel to a fantasy world, as in “Labyrinth” or the Narnia films, and no time travelers who come from our present or recognizable past into the future.
      – Does not employ a text crawl, narration, or exposition filled introduction to explain the nature of this world or time to the audience.

      Though I’m guessing there must be more, the only film I can think of right now that meets all of these criteria is “Princess Mononoke,” which uses the much more plot friendly device of giving us a main character who hasn’t had much reason to travel too far beyond his own backyard so that when he starts his adventures, both he and the audience are seeing the world for the first time.

      • dougo says:

        Re: Second Challenge

        Fantastic Planet.

      • curt_holman says:

        Re: Second Challenge

        These probably fail to meet your criteria, but Serenity slips the future history exposition into an opening scene at a children’s classroom, and Starship Troopers into propaganda-style newsreels*, which at least introduce tone and/or character amid the narration, without text.

        * It’s actually been so long since I’ve seen Starship Troopers, I can’t remember if the night time battle scene comes first.

        I don’t recall if Legend, Willow or Dragonslayer have text prologues, but I hope Todd watches them so we can find out.

        • Todd says:

          Re: Second Challenge

          Gosh, I just watched Willow a few days ago and I can’t remember. It does have a prophecy, however. Oh, does it have a prophecy.

  13. marydell says:

    I’m trying to think of historical movies that aren’t WWII, and that don’t start with a big expository lump. IIRC, Master & Commander starts with ships in the fog, not a history lesson. Of course, by the end of the movie I don’t know if I’ve really learned much about history; it’s more of a war movie.

    I don’t remember if Ben-Hur(50’s version) starts with exposition but it’d just HAVE to, I guess, given the style of moviemaking at the time.

    • swan_tower says:

      M&C gives you some opening text about the current state of the Napoleonic War. It’s a small expository lump, but it’s there. The story, however, is ultimately about the duel between the Acheron and the Surprise, for which the Napoleonic War is really only a very distant backdrop; if the plot depended more heavily on the greater context, the film would need more exposition somewhere along the line.

    • Todd says:

      Ben-Hur begins with a narrator telling us about the state of Judea under Roman rule. Like Schindler’s List, it’s a piece of information we need to understand why there’s tension between the Romans and the Jews, but I can’t help but think there must have been a way to explain that through the action.

    • curt_holman says:

      This might be a good example: Amadeus. I don’t recall any expository prologue text except for probably the city and the year. Salieri attempts suicide, is taken to a hospital/asylum and shares his story/exposition with a priest. The infodump aspects of his narration are tempered by the way Salieri’s character comes through.

      • marydell says:

        Oh, that is a good example. And doesn’t Salieri yell “MOZART! MOZART!” right at the beginning? That frames the setting a bit without really being exposition.

  14. jey says:

    Ah, but which of the three versions of Alexander did you get?

    • the original theatrical cut (2 hrs., 55 min.)
    • the DVD “Director’s Cut” (2 hrs., 47 min.)
    • Alexander Revisited: The Final Cut (3 hrs., 27 minutes, plus intermission)
    • Todd says:

      Oh, I got the long, long one. Uh-oh.

      • johnnycrulez says:

        I haven’t see any of them, but I’ve always heard that the shortest cut is the best on that one.

        • marydell says:

          I think I saw the shortest one, and it seemed endless. I don’t remember if the opening was long and talky, because the entire movie was long and talky and filled with suck. I’ve read all of Mary Renault’s Alexander novels and I still could barely care about what was happening on the screen. And for someone who’s supposedly universally loved by everyone, Alexander sure was a tiresome, mopey prick.


  15. johnnycrulez says:

    I’ve already left several comments here, so I’ll try to keep this one brief. I just found your LJ recently and I’m reading through the backlogs and I got to the Seven Samurai entry, and I just wanted to comment on that. I’m just really enamored with how well that movie conveys the passage of time. Often I feel that movies seem to take place in a static universe, with the only indication of passing time being changing actors or increasing injuries, but in Seven Samurai you can watch the character’s hair grow and the wheat is growing and it just really feels like you are watching a year’s worth of time in the movie.

    Also, I like your blog a lot and think you are really cool.

  16. a121arthur says:

    I don’t believe Stone as a director could handle the “weight of History” when it leaves a world he knows and has experiences of, as anyway, in the end, it’s all about his ego. Spielberg seems to convey a security of investing in types that the audience knows or feels certain about, and then in the best of cases, does something. Stone plays from the beginning to some degree in his choice of topic, controversy, star selection, or…well, let me put it another way:

    Perhaps if Stone had just treated Alexander (and not only his blonde highlights) as another Jim Morrison, i.e. really like the young rock idol and his short life, amazing yet brief story, friends, encounters etc.. he could have relaxed and got on with the necessary narrative devices of a film.

    I would have paid to see a “Saving Alexander”.

    I also don’t think it’s of any assistance to try and compare setting up the audience for the history of Alexander vs WWII or Nazi-Germany era. WE all know what the set-up is from the star leads, the publicity and from the fact it’s in that era.

    I would ask if it’s not better to compare Alexander to those many A to B Hollywood Westerns, that involved in the story actual living people as characters, that managed to also include quite some vivid information about the machinations of railroads, robber barons, gold and land-rushes, or so on. And while managing to also have a movie plot. Usually one-sided, inaccurate, bias or so on? Sure. And in the end, did the epic “Alexander” get around that as well? Did the audience care even?

  17. Anonymous says:

    I found this journal when I was searching for Venture recaps, and have always found them entertaining and thought provoking, though I sometimes disagree with your conclusions. Your further entries on cinema, Urbaniak, and music are unexpected bonuses. Thanks for writing.


  18. What would really be the symbol that brings the audience to the realization that oh… this white… irish dude, leading a bunch of other white dudes into battle, is duh, alexander the great. Somehow the history lesson is the only thing that made sense to me in that movie, and everything else was just very Oliver Stone.

    While I could’ve watched saving private ryan in almost ANY context, if the scene had played out the same. It could’ve been a Martian flag and I would’ve been watching with the same intensity just because of how well it was done.