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Borrego Springs - Film Festival


Last updated 1/22/2016 at 1:14pm

Borrego Springs FF - Mermaids on Mars

How many times have you said to yourself or others, "I don't know exactly how to explain it, but wow, I sure loved that film!" Much of the success of today's films is about the "buzz" generated during film fests and later theatrical release. In other words, word of mouth can make or break a film.

But how does one go about explaining in concise fashion to friends or family why a film either worked or didn't work for you, and why should they see or not bother to see this film? Look for the important structural elements, the treatment of which by writer, director, and actors makes a film good or bad. If you know the elements, you'll do fine in explaining it later.

Don't worry, you'll recognize them when they show up; a brief mark on a mental checklist shouldn't distract you from being pleasantly immersed in the film. First up is the look of the film. If you notice flaws in either image or sound that distract you even for a short time, other things about the film are probably not going to work either. It's the first thing you WILL mention to others.

Next is story. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? No matter if it's a five-minute short or feature film, we are almost genetically wired to enjoy a story with good structure, and virtually every film has the three-act structure. Act 1 is the set-up –- characters, plot, setting, etc. But then there's what is called the first act reversal. This is when something happens to propel a character(s) into a new situation: "Hey, Mary, we're broke and need money, let's take a road trip to Alaska to pan for gold!" She replies, "Are you nuts?" Act 2 ensues. Have you decided whether this is comedy or a drama? Doesn't matter, because key structural elements are contained within all film genres. Oh, and if you're not hooked on the story/characters by the first act reversal, it's a turkey fer sher.

I'm not going to be specific from here on out, but you can fill in the gaps if you think about what might happen on such a road trip, including John and Mary's backgrounds, attitudes, and approaches to life in general prior to their new experience together. Next are characters. Simplifying things into a two-character film with John and Mary on a road trip to Alaska to pan for gold, what are their respective "desire lines" in the film? A desire line is the character's goal, or what he/she wants. If that's not clear, you're gonna get lost and hate the movie. For audience interest, John wants one thing, Mary wants another. That sets up 'dramatic conflict.' Dramatic conflict is separate and distinct from conflict in the usual sense of the word. It's not about John somehow insulting Mary, and Mary in response going all "postal" on John with a frying pan full of salmon; that's film action. Dramatic conflict is simply a conflict of desire lines. John and Mary each have a different one with obstacles to overcome in achieving their respective desire lines (or objectives). How John achieves or doesn't achieve his desire line by overcoming obstacles in dramatic conflict with Mary and her desire line is what the film is really about. Both John and Mary must also have character arcs – they change/ adapt in response to the other character's words and deeds (desire line again) as the story unfolds. Supporting characters, played by character actors, don't change much, if at all.

The next element is plot twists. A good story may be predictable in certain parts, but it should surprise you, and do it more than once! Mary does something totally unexpected, and John must react to it. Perhaps he does something unexpected in response. Perhaps the re-e-e-ealy juicy parts of the film involve escalating action-reaction to the other character in different settings and situations. And finally, we have the film climax at the end of Act 2. Do they find the gold? Of course they do. (Or they find perhaps something of equal or greater value providing a surprise ending). The question is, was it worth your journey with them? Act 3 is the aftermath and ending – enough gold for matching rings, or enough to buy an island in the South Pacific?

So, let's review the eight structural elements discussed above: Look and sound of the film, story, characters and what they want (their desire lines), dramatic conflict, obstacles and how they're overcome, plot twists, film climax, and ending. Look for them in any film. If not present, or muddled, or too far-fetched, you're not going to like it and will tell friends and family to avoid it.

When you see a film at the Borrego FilmFest, at home, or in a movie house, compare your own feelings about these individual structural film elements tackled by the writer, director, and actors and see how the film succeeded for you. It's a thing of beauty when a film works, and does so on multiple levels. It's also pretty quick and easy (and perhaps even with eloquence) to summarize the film to others by structural element without giving away a film's secrets they should discover for themselves.

There are, of course, exceptions to the usual structure of films. Some work, some don't. For example, if you ever saw 'Memento' with Guy Pearce, he has no memory of recent life events, and the film starts at the end and works steadily back to the beginning. I had to see it three times to get the linear story and all the plot twists straight in my head, but it worked. I saw it more than once, and told others they had to see it. That helped on the film's bottom line. In conclusion, your enthusiasm for a film in support of your recommendation (or condemnation) to others is how Hollywood thrives and better movies get made.

It's all about the buzz.

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