Prompt Night
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Prompt Night

One Film is Never Enough

Photo by Jake Hills on Unsplash

On a Saturday night in the beforetimes, I was in a London pub with Derek — a friend and fellow cinephile — after watching a movie of niche interest. Then something caught my eye. Scrawled on a chalkboard above the bar, an Eleanor Rosevelt quote in perfect cursive. It read, ‘Small minds discuss people; average minds discuss events; great minds discuss ideas.’

Having spent the evening raving about actors and mocking cliches, Derek and I realised that not once had we mentioned ideas. Not the types to be insulted by the decor, we rose to the challenge.

If only it were so simple.

Our conversations started going in circles: based on people and events, and often ending in “Just because!” But then we had a breakthrough. By comparing tropes, settings, character types, etc. we were soon talking directly about ideas.

I want to use surface details in a way that allows me to more easily talk about what’s going on under the hood. It’s a bit like the large hadron collider of film themes: smack things together and see what happens. Okay, so maybe more like the conkers of film criticism…

Warning: there may be spoilers ahead.

Bowfinger (1999) x Dolemite is my Name (2019)

Bowfinger’s titular Hollywood bottom-feeder has a script but no lead. When he fails to cast the biggest star in town (played by Eddie Murphy), Bowfinger settles for a look-alike (also played by Eddie Murphy).

Dolemite is my Name tells the story of Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy), an aging ideas man who finds late-in-life success as a stand-up comic and filmmaker through the sheer force of will of his new persona: Dolemite (also, obviously, Eddie Murphy).

Although released twenty years apart, these films are cut from the same cloth. Both start with the exploitation of black entertainers who find themselves marginalised in their own work. Then across two decades, Eddie Murphy’s characters progress from being mere pawns in the moviemaking game to creating, starring in and distributing their own films.

But both characters find success by putting on a persona. Compare this to Eddie Murphy’s other multi-role comedies (eg. The Nutty Professor and Coming To America) where his characters learn to drop their facades and be themselves. Because these characters exist in worlds that don’t accept them as they are, they need to pretend to be someone else. Underlying the action is a hope that by changing how you act you can change who you are.

So you see that the factors that connect movies can span over various levels and be expressed in numerous ways. With that in mind, I’m going to move on to some other films that relate in content and context.

Bowfinger and Dolemite are two films that share a continuity of ideas by echoing characters in similar settings, but what the opposite? What does it look like when two otherwise similar movies diverge in their ideas?

Small Soldiers (1998) x Transformers (2007)

Life quickly turns upside-down when a shipment of action figures embedded with military microchips winds up in the hands of the son of a toy store owner. Soon the whole neighborhood is swarming with Small Soldiers.

After a 16 year old’s birthday present turns out to be a robot in disguise, America (and consequently the world) is caught in the middle of a war between alien Transformers.

These two titles may not seem like the most obvious double-bill, but both feature toys coming to life with the help of military resources. While part of Small Soldiers’s plot, Transformers was only possible due to state-subsidised access to military consultants, vehicles and troops.

The cherry on top of the crossover is the actor Kevin Dunn, the father in both films. He highlights the subtle genius of a good casting director by excelling as a suburban curmudgeon who finds himself overwhelmed by CGI robots.

But the biggest irony in all this is that while both movies are about sentient machines, only one of them is self-aware enough to be more than another brainless action flick (and it’s not the one that makes a hero out of a sword-wielding truck).

At first the title ‘Small Soldiers’ refers only to the mini-animatronics, but by the end it describes the entire cast as they’re dragged into suburban warfare. The movie calls out how a military mentality has seeped into every part of life (entertainment, technology, and so on), while the toys inject absurdity into what’s otherwise a slice-of-life fable about consumerised violence.

While Small Soldiers steeps viewers in cynical pessimism, it would be a mistake to assume that Transformers isn’t just as snide. While more upbeat, Transformers is peddling cynical optimism. It’s precisely the type of film that Small Soldiers satirises. A world where violence is both everywhere and consequence-free. A world where exploding buildings aren’t somebody’s neighbourhood, but just another firework.

Two films with two takes on military fantasies, and two main characters whose reactions to living out these dreams display their movies’ ideals. Small Soldiers’ child protagonist ends up shaken and scarred while Transformers’ kid hero fuels his ego with adrenaline.

Both films get to where they end up by giving that main character what he wants (toys and a car, respectively), only then to turn the tables and confront them with what they really wanted (small-town mayhem and enough personality to entice a love interest). So with that in mind, let’s next look at two films which dial desire up to the max; when want becomes need.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) x Willy Wonka &/Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1971/2005)

On the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, Ofelia’s mother is about to marry a fascist officer. Salvation comes in the form of a faun who offers to return Ofelia to her father, the Fairy King, if she can make her way through Pan’s Labyrinth.

On the front lines of the Spanish Civil War, Ofelia’s mother is about to marry a fascist officer. Salvation comes in the form of a faun who offers to return Ofelia to her father, the Fairy King, if she can make her way through Pan’s Labyrinth.

Somewhere in Europe, legendary chocolatier Willy Wonka is holding a competition to find a worthy heir. How will it all end for poor but hopeful Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that promises to make his dreams come true?

Both main characters’ childish preoccupation with childish things (fairies and chocolate) soon becomes essential to a better future. Desire is amplified, trivial turns urgent, luxuries become vital. It’s not enough to believe in fairies, Ophelia must become the fairy princess; Charlie can’t just eat a chocolate bar, he needs to own a chocolate factory.

After being thrown into the deep end of these characters’ awful lives, we accept that what they want will solve all their problems. But we don’t get to watch how. The movies end almost as soon as the characters’ quests are over. This suggests that neither getting the desired thing nor its in-film function is what the movie is really about, they’re just a reason to show us the chase. In other words the purpose is to display the desire of desire itself; to explore the consequences would undermine the point (see Transformers, above).

But this assumes that getting what you want always ends well. What if the thing you desire makes life worse? In what kind of story does winning look like losing?

Hamlet (1996 but really you can take your pick) x The Lion King (1994)

Hamlet, prince of Denmark, investigates his mother’s marriage to his uncle. What he discovers leads to betrayal and heartbreak, and the death of everyone he knows.

Simba, prince of the Pride Lands, flees the kingdom after seeing his father die. Years later he returns to overthrow his uncle and reclaim his throne as The Lion King.

Maybe you’ve heard that The Lion King is a rehash of Hamlet in an animated Africa. While not wrong (they both feature evil uncles, abandoned love interests, dim yet lovable sidekicks and paternal ghosts), their tones couldn’t be more different. They demonstrate that how you treat a premise determines the ideas you can take from it.

Some characters, like Ofelia and Charlie above, endure arduous trials unaltered. For others, like Hamlet and Simba, the opposite is true. Early on the pair fulfill a desire (learning his father was murdered and exploring the off-limits elephant graveyard, respectively), the consequences of doing so trigger identity crises for the characters: Hamlet free-falls into paranoia and Simba goes into hiding. By this point both characters are crippled by doubt — did they really want what they thought they wanted?

Doubt is presented as the ultimate obstacle, but this inner conflict provides story texture. It proves fallibility, and not just in the protagonist but in every character. If it is possible for the hero to doubt their very essence and change for the better, then so too can villains (in this case the heroes’ uncles), and this lack of self-doubt further cements their villainhood.

So far so similar. Where the films start to differ is the fathers’ ghosts; when they pop up and the function they serve. They are voices of authority that disrupt the status quo — propelling the protagonists and thus the story in a new direction. Hamlet meets his father’s ghost early, while Simba sees his father’s spirit towards the end of the story. This matters because Hamlet senior reveals the treacherous undercurrents of Elsinore while Mufasa (re)builds a faith in the world that allows Simba to forgive himself.

This then determines the ending of these stories; for there is no counter-authority beyond the dead fathers to change the status quo again. This reveals that in contrast to the previous double bill, the desired here is not an object or status by a special sort of knowledge — that presumably must be earned when the time is right. The result of this new knowledge too quickly attained is that it fundamentally changes the world forever.

While not necessarily ending well, there is a sense of poetic justice to both endings. The truth is uncovered and the world is set to rights. Presumably the opposite is equally possible. That is, characters can get what they want by glossing over painful truths.

Election (1999) x The Breakfast Club (1985)

It’s time for the student president Election. Unfortunately, the teacher overseeing the process is set on undermining the ambitious student who’s otherwise running unopposed.

During an all-day Saturday detention, a group of school kids who would otherwise never talk are forced to confront their ideas of one-another. This earns them the nickname, The Breakfast Club.

These films deal with characters’ perspectives of themselves and the world around them. Election does this mostly through inner monologues while The Breakfast Club uses conversation, mockery and threats.

Despite sharing similar settings, these films offer radically different perspectives of the conflicts in high school life. Election’s background of extras suggests a peaceful normality that is interrupted by the main characters being at loggerheads, while The Breakfast Club suggests that this very normality of cliques is the source of the conflict, with it’s characters ending the movie vowing to make a change come Monday morning.

Because The Breakfast Club is set during a single day, there are only the characters’ accounts of life to compare against each other, building towards a consensus of experience. Election, on the other hand, pits character self-narratives not only against each other but against a backdrop of reality — the effect is that hypocrisy looms large.

For all their differences both movies end as they began. Election’s epilogue shows the teacher still resenting the pupil years later despite supposedly moving on. The Breakfast Club’s ending shows the characters all going their separate ways, much as they arrived — but now upbeat and hopeful despite no material change.

It’s tempting to compare this pairing to Transformers & Small Soldiers. Much like Small Soldiers, Election encourages the audience to take a step back from the onscreen action to critique from. But like Transformers is Breakfast Club’s viewpoint too limited, too naive? Are its characters more like the teacher in Election than first meets the eye; willfully blind to their circumstances, telling themselves a story about who they are instead of really changing?

A better comparison for this double bill is Pan’s Labyrinth and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Unlike Ofelia and Charlie whose happy endings are guaranteed early on by a potential reward, there’s no promise of a better life for the characters of The Breakfast Club. In fact it’s only during the movie’s ambiguous ending that the characters find any semblance of a goal beyond sitting through detention. Perhaps whether or not the characters carry out their promise to be friends is irrelevant. It’s optimistic tone reflects the author’s hope — a hope to convince the audience to inspect our own hypocrisies a little closer so as to change for the better.

Unlike Election, The Breakfast Club comments on its characters without undermining them. While both movies underline how the stories we tell ourselves can justify choices we otherwise might not make. Only The Breakfast Club shows us the first steps in the journey to become someone new. And it doesn’t take a ghost of the dead king to do so!

Given that these two films are about characters struggling to get unstuck from their biases, what might people trying to be someone new look like? Probably something like Eddie Murphy’s Bowfinger and Dolemite…

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Prompt Night is ​a podcast about writing prompts. Each episode, Daniel Green & Rhys Davies-Santibanez present 3 news headlines, stories, or quirky tales that caught their eye, debate them & choose which prompt the other person must write an article about. These are the articles.

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Rhys Davies-Santibañez

Rhys Davies-Santibañez

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