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Posts Tagged ‘No Country for Old Men’

What in the hell is an “objective correlative”? And why do so many movies and plays have one?

There are things in your life that you’ve attached meaning to. When you see them they conjure up memories of people, places and events. If I give my wife Toblerone chocolate it’s a fond reminder of a train trip we took in Switzerland years ago. My office is full of things that remind me of special productions I’ve worked on over the years—a soccer shirt from Brazil, a bottle of wine from South Africa, a poster from Aspen. Just glancing at those objects reminds me of positive life experiences.

I have an emotional connection to those items that is not intrinsic to their being. And it’s not materialistic (total cost of those items was under $50.) but rather symbolic. The chocolate, the shirt, the wine, the poster all point to something beyond the common material itself. (Sometimes items of meaning are free. I have a matchbook from a place called the Beehive, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, where I did a video shoot 20 years ago.* I smile everytime I see that matchbook.)

Writers of books, plays and movies tap into that emotion when they give meaning to certain places and objects. It’s what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.”

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

In the movie Forrest Gump, when the older Jenny comes upon her childhood home an emotion is immediately evoked—upset, she begins throwing rocks at the house. And in the voice-over Forrest says, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.” The double whammy there is Jenny not only feels that emotion of remembering an abusive childhood, but the audience feels it as well. There’s a connection. An emotion that we feel for Jenny, but also an emotion that we personally know that, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.”

One of my favorite examples of an objective correlative is the volleyball in (another Tom Hanks movie) Cast Away. Hanks’ character, stranded on a deserted island, befriends a volleyball, paints a face on it, names it Wilson and it becomes his companion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis knew exactly the emotional impact it would have when Wilson is tragically lost at sea. (Another tragedy is Wilson the Volleyball is uncredited in the film.)

Now audiences don’t look at Jenny’s childhood house or Wilson and say, “Oh, look, an objective correlative.” It’s an emotional reaction. Objective correlative is just the technical phrase of something that’s useful to have in your writer’s tool kit.

“Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. Objective correlative: the glass unicorn whose horn gets broken in the second act by the gentleman caller. Yes, a fragile sensitive little glass unicorn figurine. Fanciful? Beautiful? Tragic? Poignant? Phallic? Call it what you will, but baby, it brings with it a host of emotions. When it happens on stage, it’s damn powerful.”
Richard W. Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul
page 71

The more a writer is fond of symbolism (as Tennessee Williams was) the more likely you are to find a objective correlatives in their work. I’m sure there are other writers who’ve gone their entire career without giving a second thought to the concept of  a objective correlative. (Though they probably instinctively had them sprinkled throughout their work.) But if even the basic concept of an objective correlative turns you off as a writer, consider that one of the mostly highly regarded movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane, is filled with objective correlatives; the puzzle, the snow globe, and, of course, Rosebud.

It’s the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it’s the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the compressed air and cattle gun in No Country for Old Men, and the list goes on and on and on. You get the point. Now if you really dig this kind of thing here are some additional thoughts and quotes on the matter:

“I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant.”
Richard Yate
Some Very Good Masters
New York Times Book Review, April 19,1981

“I borrow the term Objective Correlative from T. S. Eliot and adapt it to mean an external object that represents a character or a state of mind. Rocky’s locker is Rocky’s manhood. When it is taken from him, it is like a castration. In Truly Madly Deeply, the cello is Jamie. In About Schmidt (by Louis Begley and Alexander Payne), when he sees his carefully prepared reports in the garbage, it represents the entirety of his life’s work.”
Hal Ackerman
Write Screenplays That Sell
Page 207

In one episode of the great TV program Northern Exposure Chris (John Corbett) defends his master’s thesis and actually uses the term  ‘objective correlative’ and identifies T. S. Eliot as the source. Which led David Lavery to write,  “Though I cannot be absolutely certain, I would venture to say that this may have been the first, and perhaps the only, time ‘objective correlative’ was ever discussed in prime-time.”

*Quirky fact: The cameraman for that shoot I did in Pittsburgh 20 years ago was related to Geroge Romero who directed the original Night of the Living Dead.
Quirky fact 2: Just went to the Beehive website and learned that according to one of the owners Scott Kramer, “The name Beehive came from a place in France where all the artists were living in the 1930s. Artists can come here and ideas can flow.” Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh, or the next time you go there.

Update 5/15/13: According to the The Writing Barn post Craft Talk Tuesday with Carol Brender, “Term [objective  correlative] first coined prior to 1850 by Washington Allston , but later given its more literary meaning by T.S. Eliot in an essay about why Hamlet is a failed play.”

Scott W. Smith

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And the winner is… Minnesota.

Minneapolis Convention Center

If someone wanted to make a point about talent coming from outside Hollywood the 80th Academy Awards would be a great place to start. (The above photo is not from the Oscars but gave me an excuse to highlight the Minneapolis Convention Center from a production I worked on a couple years ago.)

I can’t recall a more eclectic (and foreign) group of winners than this year’s Oscar winners. Has Hollywood has caught on to outsourcing? And as far as screenwriting is concerned this year’s Oscar’s were distinctly Midwestern, specifically Minneapolis, Minnesota.

First Joel and Ethan Coen who began making films in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park won for best adapted screenplay for No Country for Old Men.  And then Diablo Cody won best original screenplay for Juno. Congrats to all three.

I couldn’t be more happy for them because they are at the core of what Screenwriting from Iowa is all about. True it’s not called Screenwriting from Minnesota, but that wouldn’t cause any snickers or even raise any eyebrows would it? But both Iowa and its connected neighbor to the north represent a place far from Hollywood.

For the curious, the drive from my office in Cedar Falls, Iowa to downtown Minneapolis takes 3 ½ hours, unless you stop at the Spam Museum in Austin, Minnesota near the border. (If you stop in Forest City for the Winnebago tour as well it’s a full day trip.)

When the Minneapolis Star Tribune picked Cody as “Artist of the Year” last year they said that, “she became a professional writer for City Pages and banged out Juno in the Starbucks annex at the Crystal Super Target.” Though raised in the Chicago area and a graduate of Iowa Cody said, “I became a writer in Minneapolis; that’s why I call myself a Minnesota-based writer.”

The Coen Brothers gave a nod to Minneapolis when they won their third Oscar for the night for Best Picture (they also picked up best director). Joel talked about when they were running around as kids making 8mm films like Henry Kissinger; Man on the Go then said. “What we do now doesn’t feel that much different from what we were doing then.”

They have slowly built a wider and wider audience with their quirky film style beginning with Blood Simple in 1984, through Raising Arizona, Fargo and O Brother Where Art Thou? Their Oscar sweep was impressive but they also made the only film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes along with the Best Director and Best Actor awards for Barton Fink. They are American originals.

Speaking of America, I think JC Penny’s creative team hit a home run with their Oscar commercials introducing the American Living brand featuring the song “Killing the Blues” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss. I’m not sure I’ve been in a JC Penny since I was nine but I’m ready to go back. (And they get bonus points for the barn shot. Everyone knows you can’t show/sell Americana without a barn shot.)

juno-1.jpeg

Another American original is Cody who has been mentioned on just about every blog I’ve written. There’s a good reason. This blog began as a response after seeing Juno in January. In fact over the weekend Screenwriting from Iowa turned one month old and I must thank Cody for the nudge.

My notes on film had been collected over a 20-year period and were just looking for a place to blossom. I began giving screenwriting workshops in 2004 and approached a publisher at the end of ’07 about the concept of Screenwriting from Iowa.  A chapter was requested, then another until I had sent him four chapters. Ultimately the deal didn’t happen but I spent a good deal of last December continuing to write the book.

Then in mid-January I saw Juno and was blow away by the movie. I read that Cody had attended the University of Iowa and was discovered while blogging and I just kind of put two and two together and jumped into the blogging world.

May all you bloggers be encouraged by what Cody told Wired magazine about her unusual rise to fame, “It’s been fun, and I’m enjoying it while I can. I think there’s room for more talented bloggers to break into Hollywood. It seemed like a fluke when I did it, but I won’t be the last blogger to have a film produced. There are so many talented people that exist in the marketplace. So don’t look for a plan. Put your blog into the world and hope that your talent will speak for itself.”

The response based on the  Word Press stats chart and links to this site have kept me pumping these out and I hope the comments have been helpful. I also hope the  contents can be in book form by this summer.

So I not only thank Cody for the inspiration but to everyone for stopping by. My goal all along is to inspire screenwriters and filmmakers who feel like they are in the middle of nowhere. Now that Cody has an Oscar on her shelf (along with the indy award she received the night before) she can get back to her day job working on The United States of Tara for Steven Spielberg.

“I feel like I’m living The Wizard of Oz,” Cody said. “There was a day when I cracked a door open and everything was Technicolor. It was a very frightening place but a very beautiful place, too, as Dorothy says.”

I’m glad she mentioned The Wizard of Oz because when you come up I-35 from the south and begin approaching downtown Minneapolis about an hour past the Iowa border you’ll see downtown appearing on the horizon like the Emerald City.

I’ve always wondered if Minneapolis was the inspiration for Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz book series. Baum spent time in Aberdeen, Dakota Territory (now South Dakota) and that’s said to be the inspiration for Dorothy’s Kansas. So it’s possible he came off the flat prairie land into Minneapolis on his way to Chicago where he would eventually write his wizard books. Regardless The Wizard of Oz movie– many people’s favorite all-time film, has its roots in the  Midwest.

Minneapolis’ twin city St. Paul is where Charles Schulz was raised created Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang, and where Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion is recorded when he’s not on the road.

Over the last couple years I’ve been able to do several video productions in the Twin Cities and they have a solid production base of rental equipment houses, studios, talent as well as a thriving music scene. It’s always fun to work with people who’ve been involved with shooting Prince’s music videos at his studio Paisley Park or on the films Grumpy Old Men, The Mighty Ducks, and Fargo.

Creativity flows from the music scene in Minneapolis as well as the more than 100 theater venues (in fact, they have more seats per capita than any other U.S. city outside New York. “Cutting edge museums, arty hotels and edginess expand Minnapolis’ cool culture reputation..over the past two-year Minneapolis has taken its underground cultural destination status to a new level. (USA Today Dec. ’06)

Minneapolis Sculpture Garden

(I took the photo of The Spoonbridge and Cherry artwork by Clas Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen  at the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden)

In The Guerilla Film Makers Handbook (Genevieve Jolliffe & Chris Jones) Gail Silva mentions the production scene in New York and San Francisco but adds, “If I had to go anywhere else I’d go to Minneapolis & St. Paul. There is a chapter there of the IFP (Independent Feature Project) where they’re more like the Fine Arts than anywhere else and they’ve been able to do incredible things, including funding films. They have a fund that they got  through the State Legislature fund features.”

Let’s not forget that The Mary Tyler Moore show was based in Minneapolis. It also has long history in advertising and I’m told where the Jolly Green Giant and  Betty Crocker were created.  Rocky & Bullwinkle and Paul Buyan also have a Minnesota roots as does Academy Award winning actress Jessica Lange, Winona Ryder, Josh Harnett and iconic figures  J. Paul Getty and Charles Lindbergh.

I don’t know if there is something in the water in Minnesota but I have to conclude that long streches of cold weather warp the mind and are fertile ground for screenwriters, musicians, actors and filmmakers. Terry Gilliam who co-wrote Monty Python and the Holy Grail as well as co-wrote and directed Brazil was born in Minneapolis.

And concluding our connecting the Oscars with Minneapolis let’s not forget to mention Cate Blanchett’s nomination for Best Supporting actress for playing Bob Dylan in “I’m Not There.” Dylan was raised in Duluth and  the small mining town Hibbing, Minnesota, but began his rise on the music scene in the Dinkytown area of Minneapolis.

I don’t think the spotlight on Minneapolis is going to fade anytime soon. In fact, right now I’m sure there are screenwriters fighting to write in the exact spot at Starbuck’s where Cody wrote Juno.

Photo & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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