I’m glad a couple of people have commented on my first entry. By coincidence, I guess, two people wrote comments over the last two days. Rishi Kumar writes about another emotion triggered by movies, specifically anger that he felt at one of the characters in “The Fellowship of the Ring” who was behaving foolishly. I feel that anger sometimes, too, Rishi. I want to shout at the screen when characters walk into danger or don’t take good advice. That’s a good sign, I think, that you are involved in the fate of the characters. Even if it’s infuriating, the filmmakers have done a good job of getting you hooked into the story. You care enough to be mad.
I sometimes feel a different kind of anger when movies let me down or defy my expectations. I had a taste of this let-down recently watching “Julie and Julia”. I enjoyed the movie for the most part but was disappointed by what I felt was a structural failure. The movie is what we call a “two-hander” meaning that the dramatic interest is almost equally divided between two characters, so that you have two protagonists on parallel journeys. The journey for the Julia character (Meryl Streep playing the famous chef Julia Child) is fairly satisfying, dramatizing the obstacles she faced in writing and publishing her masterwork, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, and suggesting that she suffered emotionally from being unable to conceive children. But the journey of the other protagonist, blogger Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) is rather weak by comparison, and its weakness was infuriating. The Powell character is trying to enter into spiritual communication with Child by cooking all of the five hundred or so recipes in her book in the course of a year, and blogging daily about it. Although the character faces mild difficulties in mastering the skills called for by this effort, the only real dramatic problem she encounters is a slight disturbance in her marriage. Her husband feels neglected and unappreciated because of her obsession with her blogging and cooking project, and after an argument, he moves out for a brief time. Julie suffers alone for an evening or so, but DOES NOTHING to heal the wound. Her mate simply gets over his fit of frustration and comes back to her FOR NO REASON. Nothing is earned and therefore nothing can be learned, and there is no growth. This was presented as the major crisis in the young blogger’s life, the major emotional consequence of her choice to pursue her dream, but it’s a flimsy peg on which to hang her half of the story, and when I realized that was all we were going to get on that score, I felt angry, disappointed, and ripped off.
Julie is challenged in a couple of other ways (her mother belittles her project in a series of phone calls, and the cooking project creates minor ripples in her day job) but these are slight threats to her sense of well-being and once more she doesn’t really confront these obstacles with definite action.
Late in the movie Julie wonders how Julia Child is reacting to her blog, and is disappointed when she hears that Julia said something negative about her project. However, this setback doesn’t rise to the level of a real dramatic crisis. It wasn’t put forward as a strong wish or need for Julie early in the script, and it’s too late to introduce it as a heart-breaking defeat, or to put it in the language of my Writer’s Journey/Hero’s Journey model, a transformative Ordeal or Death and Resurrection moment .
Instead, the script tells us her hard work and dedication to her dream finally paid off and she is recognized by the same world of culture that earlier had embraced Julia Child’s work. She is given the magic blessing of being noticed and endorsed by the New York Times, which like the fairy godmother’s magic wand instantly grants her wishes for fame and recognition. Her mother now approves of her efforts. Offers of book contracts and interview requests flow into her phone answering machine. This is every struggling writer’s dream, but I could have enjoyed her victory so much more if her emotional subplot, the disagreement with her husband, had possessed more gravity, more real danger to the marriage, and if she had DONE SOMETHING or CHANGED in some way in order to win back his love. Instead it played as an empty dramatic distraction, a weak, boneless gesture in the direction of a real emotional crisis. Maybe, in the real life of Julie Powell, that brief separation seemed like the end of the world, but on screen it failed to fulfill the basic dramatic contract, and it made me mad at an otherwise enjoyable movie.
Best to Rishi and Frankie, film student from Hungary!