Thursday, 28 February 2008

Stuff They Won't Teach You in School

A 10 year-old girl from Montana named Maryn Smith won a National Geographic contest for creating a mnemonic to remember the order and names of all 11 planets in our solar system.


I thought Pluto was cancelled as a planet, and it seems unfair that National Geographic would throw dwarf planets Ceres and Eris on top of that.

So what did Maryn Smith come up with?

"My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants."

I'm sure Ms. Smith is a nice person, or whatever, but her mnemonic is making the cosmos more confusing.

First off, it has a clear Earth-bias which I feel is inappropriate for the subject matter. As a mnemonic line, it's hard to remember. This may be remedied, as the mnemonic is now being made into a pop song by Lisa Loeb (best known as the girl who encouraged geeky guys to come out about their glasses fetish with the Ethan Hawke directed Reality Bites video "Stay").

Until the day when Loeb teaches us how to sing about sailing under palace elephants, Smith should be proud of her win. She just hasn't yet convinced me she's a great writer.

I know. She's 10. I'm jealous. I never got anything published at that age.

Smith isn't alone in her lack of mnemonic poetry giftedness. Most people talk in a way to reveal that they're their own bad writers. Their concept of good writing is generally wrong too. I believe Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody can write well. She just doesn't consistently. That's what fuels her irrational haters to block out the bits of Juno that are well-written.

The exchange (scratch that, monologue) that strikes me as most awkward has the title character quipping that she'd give Jennifer Garner her baby earlier, but it would look like a seamonkey. It's the strangest thing, because nobody in the movie prompted Juno to begin this routine. It's a mistake on Cody's part--for the record, she wrote a better script than Tony Gilroy's overpraised Michael Clayton--and the clip is even in the trailer. This moment of a writer's indulgence rejects the natural flow of the situation.

I'd lend you $300, but I'm employed by The Coast.


For all the Maryn Smiths out there, with bright futures ahead of them (perhaps writing films), here are some lines that should never be heard in a movie again.

"I'm ____, by the way."

This is how characters often introduce themselves in movies. I used this in The Killing of Kings, and then started noticing how prominent it was in everything else. It's a way to make the mandatory meet-and-greet exposition of two characters who the viewer is already aquainted with seem more casual. The "by the way" doesn't work. If you ever say this in life, it means you're narcissistic enough to consciously talk like you're in a movie script.

"God has nothing to do with this."

I was watching a season 1 episode of Battlestar Galactica last night, and this line came up. I've heard it in dozens of movies before, almost always following another character exclaiming, "Oh my God." When one writes, "God has nothing to do with this," it must look pretty badass on paper. When it's verbalized, it sounds like you're insincerely referencing a 1970s giant insect movie. The most hardcore line so far this year is in the otherwise uninspired Rambo. "Fuck the world!" It doesn't get more nihilistic than that.

"I'd like that."

Please, no.

"It's not what it looks like."

I've heard that one before.

Be careful not to try making every line of dialogue iconic, either. You'll end up writing Jerry Maguire.

"Good to meet you."

This one looks benign, just beware. Only ever write this in a Canadian film. Last time I was in LA, I kept shaking peoples' hands and saying "Good to meet you." They'd respond with, "Nice to meet you," and I was one-upped by their moral superiority.

I'm interested in where people get their voices from. I'm not gonna be an asshole and try to take credit for inspiring anything.

But influences are revealed through the things one says.

A couple of Fridays ago, I went to a matinee showing of The Eye, a rote American remake of a Hong Kong thriller. It stars Jessica Alba as one of those blind violin prodigies that are all the rage.

The theatre had only about 25 people in it. Among them was an average-Shmoe middle aged dude, who sat by himself. I took note of this because while walking into the auditorium, I was whistling something and he shot me an incriminating look that suggested, "This guy's gonna be trouble." I felt bad for the guy anyway, because I had a scenario in my mind that he was going to a teen-skewing Jessica Alba flick alone to distract himself from a divorce. He sat on the aisle.

The real teens in the theatre sat still and watched for about 45 minutes before announcing their boredom. Two of them raced from the back of the theatre to sit in empty seats in the front. Their friends, still at the back, laughed.

Then, another one of them ran to the front of the theatre, making sure each step hit the ground as loud as possible.

I looked over at the middle aged dude. He was making some movement like he was shadowboxing the air.

The stompy kid immediately decides he liked his old seat better, and run-stomps back to it. This requires him to pass by the middle aged guy's aisle seat. As the sporty hooligan passes him, he stands up from his seat and bodychecks him. It did happen! The kid falls down.

Now pay attention to the naturalism of the resulting dialogue exchange. This great situation brought out the best in everyone's inner-writer.

Stompy: "Fuck! Someone bodychecked me."

Right off the bat, you know they're inspired. That would make a great opening line to a screenplay. You can't use it.

Middle-Aged Dude: "I didn't see you."

Stompy's Friend: "What's your fucking problem, man."

Stompy: "I got knocked the fuck out."

Middle-Aged Dude: "I was just going to the bathroom."

Stompy's Friend: "Oh yeah. You totally bodychecked my friend."

Angry man at the back of the theatre: "Shutup, you idiots! Shutup or leave!"

Middle-Aged Dude: "Now, I told you I was just getting up to go to the bathroom. I didn't see him there."

Stompy: "You decided to go the second I walked by."

Middle-Aged Dude: "It's very dark. But now that you mention it, you guys have been running around like a bunch of... MANIACS. People are trying to enjoy this movie."

Stompy's Friend: "Let's step outside."

Middle-Aged Dude: "Yeah, we should go talk to the manager. Maybe we won't have to get 9-1-1 involved."

They leave. Stompy limps out. I don't know if he was faking.


Angry man at the back of the theatre: "SHUT THE FUCK UP!!"

This is a close approximation, to the best of my memory. I replayed it in my head many times so I wouldn't forget. The situation would have normally pissed me off, except it was by far the most exciting part of The Eye.

The passion and fury of their exchange was tight, motivated, and exciting.

When all else fails, throw in another photo of Jessica Alba.

Writers take note.