Category: Badass Drama

Badass Drama: Punch-Drunk Love

INSIDE THE MIND OF BARRY EGAN
Written by Paul Thomas Anderson
2002

CONTEXT

Barry Egan is special. He has seven pushy sisters, a business that sells novelty plungers, a table filled with pudding to take advantage of a marketing gimmick, a harmonium, and a phone-sex operator trying to steal his money. Although his psychological quirks are never defined in the movie, many viewers suggest he has Asperger syndrome.

In this scene, one of Barry’s sisters attempts to introduce him to her friend Lena.

WHY IT’S BADASS

The drama in Punch-Drunk Love stems almost completely from Barry Egan’s awkward mindset; if he was a normal guy, there wouldn’t be a movie.

Barry’s disorder is imperative to the story, but it’s never explained in the dialogue or plot. So how do we know he’s crazy? And how does his mindset create drama in such a simple movie premise?

Although Paul Thomas Anderson is a brilliant writer, he is first and foremost a director. This means that he creates drama with filmmaking techniques more than plot. We aren’t told that Barry’s crazy, we experience it through the camera, lighting, soundtrack, design, and performances.

The most obvious device that puts us in Barry’s head is Jon Brion’s percussive, syncopated soundtrack (to call it “music” would be a stretch). It’s a jumbled mess of sounds and notes that rarely match the action in the scene, broken only by an occasional melody from the harmonium. What better way to show how a series of simple problems can become a nightmare in the mind of Barry Egan?

But there’s more to this scene than an awkward soundtrack.

Notice how Barry’s suit blends in with the stripe on the wall. Listen for the constant repetition of dialogue (“What’s that pudding, Barry?”). Watch for a disorienting mix of zooms, dollies, and swipes that keep us on the edge of our seats, and exploding anamorphic flairs that indicate Barry’s aversion to bright light.

In any other movie, it would be a sin to put the actor’s face in shadows, but there are several instances where Barry’s face falls into silhouette. Look at the way his sister walks; is she a Muppet? This odd performance choice adds to the chaotic rhythm of the scene. And during the first dialogue scene with Lena, the camera “crosses the line” making the couple appear disconnected while subtly confusing the viewers sense of space.

Even when Barry is alone in his office, he’s surrounded by moving shadows. No matter where he goes, he can’t escape the chaos!

HOWEVER.

There’s a beautiful moment of decision as Lena stands beside her car and considers going back inside. When she finally meets Barry away from his sister and his work, the music dies down, the camera settles, the shadows and flairs disappear… and thanks to brilliant filmmaking techniques, we know that Barry needs Lena in his life.

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Badass Drama: Six Feet Under

GEORGE AND BILLY CONNECT
“Time Flies”
Written by Craig Wright
2005

CONTEXT:
Billy (Jeremy Sisto) and George (James Cromwell) are “satellite characters” orbiting the protagonist family in Six Feet Under. Both characters have been plagued with numerous mental disorders which have been damaging their relationships with families and lovers.

A birthday party brings them together for the first and only time in the series.

WHY IT’S BADASS:
There is nothing more exciting in TV drama than interactions between unrelated characters. The writers of Six Feet Under know this and take full advantage of the moment.

For five seasons, we have watched Billy Chenowith grow and regress as he fights mental illness and the temptation to go off his meds. Because of the epic timespan provided by TV, we experience Billy’s struggle and pain as he cuts a tattoo off his back, creates and destroys his own art, checks into a mental institution, and kisses his sister on the lips.

This is a loaded character. Because of his tremendous performance in the first four seasons of this show, Jeremy Sisto barely needs to act anymore. We already know what he’s thinking. We already understand his pain.

But why is this scene special? What do we learn from Billy’s brief interaction with George?

We see Billy’s future.

Season five is the last act of Six Feet Under, and it’s almost time to wrap up our favorite characters in an interesting and satisfying way. As George talks about shock treatments and meds, Billy (and the viewer!) have a moment to reflect on the greater implications.

But the genius doesn’t stop there. Instead of ending the scene after the point has been made, the writers add a moment of heightened reality that will cement the scene in the viewer’s mind: Billy and George sing.

It’s an impromptu moment that would never work in a lesser show, but the actors, writers, and director pull it off exquisitely. It’s a song that George would have known as a kid, yet it’s famous enough to transcend the generation gap. It’s a song that demands a response from someone who understands. It’s a song with simple, poignant lyrics, and it provides an abstract moment in a brutally honest show.

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Badass Drama: Community

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons
Written by Andrew Guest
2011

CONTEXT:
The study group learns that “Fat Neil” is suicidal. Jeff (Joel McHale) rallies everyone together to play a game of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, rigged so Fat Neil will win and regain his self-confidence. The game commences in the study room, complete with sound effects to fully engage the viewer in the imaginary action.

But there’s more.

For the last several episodes, Pierce (Chevy Chase) has been popping pills, alienating his friends, and subtly transforming into a villain. His addiction has gotten so bad that the study group is making plans behind his back. When he learns that they organized a game of Dungeons and Dragons without him, he’s pissed.

Jeff takes Pierce aside and explains that Fat Neil is suicidal and that the game could save his life. Pierce doesn’t care. When he discovers a copy of the Dungeons and Dragons handbook, he learns every secret to the game and uses his knowledge to take Fat Neil down.

WHY IT’S BADASS:
To explain the brilliance of NBC’s Community in a single blog post would be like explaining the punch-line to a great joke. If you’re already a fan of this show, you don’t need an explanation. If you haven’t seen it (or gave up in season one), go watch it. Now.

There’s one phrase that sums up the genius of this particular episode; one phrase that writers hear again and again and again; one phrase that is fundamental to good drama: raising the stakes.

It’s nearly impossible to find high stakes in a primetime comedy on network TV. Usually one friend wants to sleep with another… or a father won’t let his daughter date a certain boy… or Uncle Jesse needs to make it to his wedding on time so Becky knows he’s the right man… and comedy ensues. In this episode, however, Dan Harmon and his team decided to make an impact. I imagine they began with an idea for a Lord of the Rings parody, then searched for a way to bestow the episode an epic quality without recreating Mt. Doom.

They succeeded by raising the stakes. Fat Neil is genuinely suicidal. If this game goes poorly, we know he could end his life. Despite the silly pretense of a dated roll-playing game and a comedy about community college, these are stakes we understand, identify with, and fear.

Enter Pierce Hawthorn. Just when it seems like the study group will save Fat Neil’s life, Pierce returns to the game. He knows the stakes, but he doesn’t care. Normally, his insults are lame and childish. But not tonight. To underscore his true transformation as the villain of season two, the writers give Pierce an unrelenting string of hurtful taunts that push Fat Neil to the edge. Nothing is watered down for the sake of accessible primetime comedy.

As if the insults weren’t enough, Pierce takes his villainy one step further: he destroys Fat Neil’s faith in his new (and only) friends.

The camera movement, sound effects, and music all play their part in giving this “parody” an epic feeling, but none of it would work if the game was “just for fun.” Because the writers raised the stakes and created a believable, heartless villain, this game of Dungeons and Dragons feels more epic than Lord of the Rings itself.

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Badass Drama: Heat

MCCAULEY’S DECISION
Written by Michael Mann
1995

CONTEXT:
Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) is a professional thief. For two hours, we’ve watched him outwit police, cheat death, pull off one of the greatest heists in movie history, banter with Al Pacino… all while falling in love with a girl named Eady.

In this scene near the end of the movie, McCauley is driving to freedom with Eady at his side. His boss calls him, tells him he’s safe… then gives him the secret location of one loose end…

WHY IT’S BADASS:
Out of context, this scene is simple. McCauley is driving with his girlfriend, learns of his enemies hideout, and turns around. But there’s something vital burning beneath the apparent simplicity: a decision.

Whether you’re a novelist, screenwriter, director, or actor, show your audience the moment of decision. It’s at this moment—more than any other scene in the movie—when the viewers has the most important questions going through their minds. What will McCauley do? Will he give up his life of crime, ignore the single loose end, and escape with his girl? Or will he turn around, put himself in danger, and sacrifice his guaranteed freedom?

In fact, the scene poses an even bigger question: Can a career criminal like McCuley truly escape a life of crime?

If we’re not yelling at the screen, we’re tapping our feet, holding our breath, pleading with the likable criminal to take the woman and run. Even the cinematography spurs the dilemma: just after McCauley says, “Home free,” white light bathes the frame. But it’s not enough.

When the moment of decision is done right, the actors barely need to act. The audience knows what’s brewing beneath the surface and their minds fill in the gaps. Out of context, De Niro’s performance is bland. He’s just a guy driving with a girl. But when we know the dilemma raging in his mind, his performance seems nuanced, and every twitch of his eye is shows the decision weighing him down.

When discussing the movie Heat, there are at least twenty scenes that are more memorable. This one doesn’t have flashy acting; there’s no witty banter or awesome shootouts… just drama.

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Badass Drama: The Wire

DISCUSSING HAMSTERDAM
S03E05 – “Straight and True”
Written by Ed Burns
2004

CONTEXT:
A rouge police chief has legalized drugs in certain districts of Baltimore.

Bodie is scooped up by the cops with the other small-time dealers. They’re carried to one of these “safe zones” and told that if they stay in the special districts, they won’t be arrested for selling heroin.

When he’s released, Bodie approaches boss-man Stringer Bell to tell him the news.

WHY IT’S BADASS:
This is a straightforward scene and probably goes unnoticed in the context of this epic third season. However, I chose this brief exchange between criminals as a fantastic example of the show’s hard-core realism.

How would you react if you had to tell a drug lord that you were picked up by the cops and told it was now legal to sell drugs in certain zones? Bodie shows a genuine mix of confusion, concern, and “How the hell do I explain this?” Although I’ve never been in his position, I imagine I would have approached the situation exactly like he does. A lesser show might have ignored this vital exchange, but “The Wire” takes the time to do it right.

But why is it so important to keep the show realistic? Because it asks us to accept unrealistic scenarios. In season three we’re expected to believe that a cop can get away with legalizing drugs. This would be a joke in any other show! However, because the writers built an unwavering foundation of TRUTH in the first two seasons; because they included scenes like this that depict every minute effect of such an unrealistic storyline… we buy it.

From its core to its surface, The Wire never loses its grasp on reality, even when we’re knee-deep in craziness.

Badass Drama: Arrested Development

Proposing to Rita
S03E05 – “Mr. F”
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz and Richard Day
2005

CONTEXT:
Michael has been dating Rita for five episodes. He believes that she’s a kindergarden teacher; viewers believe that she’s a British spy. In reality, she’s retarded.

WHY IT’S BADASS:
The final season of TV’s greatest comedy is a juggling act of perception. Let’s start by discussing a classic device that is the foundation of all drama.

The following example is usually attributed to Alfred Hitchcock in the context of “suspense” versus “surprise”: consider a simple scene with two men discussing the health benefits of coffee in a diner. Boooooring. Now picture the same scene, but add a shot of a ticking time bomb hidden beneath the table BEFORE the dialogue begins. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the characters are talking about… dialogue becomes drama.

Surprise, Hitchcock says, is short-lived. Sure, if we don’t know about the bomb, we might jump when it explodes. But then it’s over. However, if we show the bomb first, we prolong the emotion for the length of the dialogue.

We have two layers of perception in this example:

Layer one: the reality that the viewer AND characters know. In this case, the dialogue.

Layer two: the reality that only the viewer knows… the bomb.

The bomb keeps our attention. It heightens every word the characters say. It raises questions and involves us in the story.

How does this relate to “Arrested Development?”

Two layers is enough for most writers, but not for Mitch Hurwitz and his writing team!

Michael Bluth believes that Rita is a kindergarden teacher and falls head-over-heels in love with her. Booooring. However, the writers reveal to the viewer that Rita is actually a British spy on a mission to uncover information against Michael and his family. Now we’re engaged in the story as we ask ourselves a thousand questions: when will Michael discover that Rita’s a spy? What will he do when he finds out? Could Rita fall in love with him anyway? Comedy ensues.

BUT. There’s something else at work in this six-episode arc, and we don’t get the answer until the end of episode five: Rita is mentally challenged. Surprise!

Now we have three layers of reality: great dialogue (the reality known to the characters), suspense (the reality known to the viewer), and surprise (the reality that no one knows).

Because they’re brilliant, the Arrested Development writers refuse to drop the ball before squeezing every possible laugh from this storyline. Now that the viewer knows the truth and Michael is still in the dark, they can sustain the drama for one more hilarious episode.

Re-watching Rita’s storyline with the new information provides the cherry on top. Did you notice the finger-painting on the wall behind Michael? The tutu? The play on words with Rita’s name? Her disability is so obvious, we can’t believe we missed it. We find ourselves re-watching two-and-a-half hours of television just to see what we missed. THAT’S good writing.

I’ll conclude with a conundrum: what did the writers come up with first? “Wee Britain” or Rita’s “Wee Brain?”

I suppose we’ll never know.

Badass Drama: The Time Traveler’s Wife


MEETING MOM
Written by Bruce Joel Rubin
Based on the Novel by Audrey Niffenegger
2009

CONTEXT:
When he was five years old, Henry witnessed the car crash that killed his mother. Now Henry is a time traveler, but he can’t control when or where he travels. In this scene, he jumps back twenty years and runs into his mother on a train, two years before her death.

WHY IT’S BADASS:
Like ninety percent of book adaptations, The Time Traveler’s Wife is better as a novel. The movie would be watchable if the ending was kept in tact, but that’s a discussion for another blog.

I credit the subtle genius of this scene to Audrey Niffenegger. It is proof that good writing trumps ALL other aspects of film. Screenwriter Bruce did a poor job translating the book to screen, but the novel’s drama is so powerful on its own that it shines through this simple exchange between mother and son… proving that even bad movies can have great moments.

The drama works because the character is placed in a position that raises questions in the viewer’s mind. We are active participants in the film. What will Henry say? Will he cry? Will the woman recognize her son? We forget about the popcorn and the texting douche-bag in the front row because the writers involved us in the drama. They established Henry’s relationship with his mother early on, now we understand his struggle when he meets her as an adult.

We feel the drama because we know something the woman doesn’t. We feel Henry’s longing to hug her, to tell her that he’s her son, to warn her about her impending death. He’s been given another chance to talk with her, and he knows (and WE know) the moment is fleeting.

When drama is properly established, the characters could be talking about YouTube videos of cats and it would still be riveting. Any actor could play this scene and it would still keep the viewer’s attention. The drama that Ms. Niffenegger established in her original writing is so solid, it might be impossible to ruin this scene.