POX Americana (2)

oilEarlier this week, I looked at this script in terms of dialogue and its opening ten pages. It performed admirably. Today we will examine it for theme and originality.

Part One of the review can be found here.

I like breaking these in-depth reviews into two parts because it makes them less of a chore to read. I will continue this practice whenever the review length balloons to 5,000 words or more. (5)

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (parts a and d worth 10 points, parts b and c worth 5)

Part A) This script does not have a suitable number of reveals. The more time I spent considering it after I finished reading, the more I became convinced that this script is really two separate stories pasted together.

Story One centers on the hunt for Navajo leader, Babazorka. This story runs from page 1 to page 49. When:

Gus moves to Babazorka’s body and pulls off the sack to
expose the black hole between the chief’s open, still
fearless eyes.

Story Two runs from page 49 to fade out and has two parts. The first part has to do with the enormous treasure Babazorka has in his compound [and whether or not the assassins are going to steal it]. The second part of Story Two relates to the POX in the title [and whether or not the assassins are going to get it.]

It’s possible the author believes he connects Story One to Story Two by way of the metaphor in his Minor theme [invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the 2000’s were unjust]. I believe, however, that the metaphor, ultimately, fails. I will make this case in more depth later in this question.

Before leaving this part and assigning a score, I’ll also acknowledge that the POX is clearly meant to be a metaphor too. Our country has diseased its soul by its actions in the Middle East. I don’t know what to say about this. It seems, somewhat, confused? Either we humans are diseased by violence essentially, or we are not. We could catch it from other humans– that would be a way out of the violence disjunction– but then the Major theme falls apart.

If we catch violence from witnessing examples of violence, it would make sense to look for causes of violence in past and future human actions. Although this POX idea is interesting, I believe it is the least finalized premise in this script’s argument.

Overall:

5 out of 10 points.

Part B) If Burke is the protagonist, then the engine of this story is… ambiguous. Look, there are many things that Burke wants which can be summed into a tidy list.

List of Things Burke Wants:

1. He wants to get out of the army.
2. He wants to stop killing people for a living.
3. He wants his son to grow up to be ANYTHING but him.
4. He wants to be a decent, moral person.

The problem, as I see it, is that everything on this list was decided in Burke’s mind before he ever left to kill Babazorka. Burke’s character is overridden with listlessness. He accepts, before the script even begins, that [almost] all the things he wants are impossible. In other words,

List of Things Burke Knows About Himself:

1. He’s not getting out of the Army.
2. He’s not going to stop killing people for a living.
4. He’s not going to be a decent, moral person.

This leaves 3, as his engine:

3. He wants his son to grow up to be ANYTHING but him.

When does Burke do anything to support this goal? You can only find one example. The already quoted line from page 96:

BURKE
I’m resigning my commission. To
you.
(beat)
I don’t want to die a soldier.

Other than this lone symbolic gesture, Burke never acts to achieve his goal.

3 out of 5 points.

Part C) Since I’ve already faulted the script for having two stories instead of one, it can’t be true that it has a structurally succinct pinch point. Of course, were I too ignore the fractured structure and look for an example of a plot point which would also serve as a pinch point, I could make a case for Cuddy’s assault of the Navajo woman. This begins on page 77.

I actually think this is just the MIDPOINT of Story Two, but I’ve already deducted enough points in Part A for the lack of cohesion in the structure.

5 out of 5 points.

Part D) I will deal with the Major theme first. As I stated in the the first part of this review, I believe this is a success… at least in terms of being complete. My interpretation of that theme was:

Violence, everywhere, anywhere, and for all time, is morally wrong.

Knowing me as you do, you also know that I LOVE this theme. I believe that it is setup well, and all the citations in the subtext portion of the previous review prove it was intended. However, I will fault the script for two additional structural errors that prevent it from being a talented contribution to The Crucible genre.

Error One:

Burke is a passive character. In a lot of ways, he has been defeated by the fact that Human Life is Violent. He recognizes that it is. He recognizes that this means he, as a human, is already convicted of being Violent [and therefore morally wrong]. He can’t find an alternate solution, so he persists with Violence.

I understand that it would be tough to solve the ethical crisis which faces humanity. I know how hard it is to reconcile the Tyger burning brightly in the human mind (6) but, some attempt must be made. In line with my prior aesthetic positions, I will argue that it is morally wrong for a writer to uncover a problem and not offer a solution.

Like McCarthy before him, today’s author is content to record Human ills, and then leave us to eat from the scavenger’s banquet he has laid.

Error Two:

Most of the work done to support this Major theme plays out in the [unseen] relationship between Burke and his son. The author uses the archetypal relationship between father and son to demonstrate that abdication of one’s humanity is the answer [a nihilist’s answer for sure, but still the only answer available to us]. Unfortunately, for the author, he includes another example of the father/son archetype in Babazorka and his sons.

We would expect, for thematic completeness, Babazorka’s relationship with them to be unseen and defeated as well. It is not. Babazorka encourages them to be exactly like him. From page 47:

BABAZORKA (CONT’D)
(in Navajo)
[O’ Great Spirit hear me! Make us
always ready to come to you with
clean hands and straight eyes, so
when life ends our spirits can come
to you without shame! My precious
sons do not die afraid! Sing your
death song and die like a hero
going home!]

Perhaps, Babazorka and his sons represent the solution to Human Violence? If this were a modern day example of The Crucible, the answer would be yes. The answer is not yes. The author did not take enough time with his script and his themes to ensure that he was giving consistent weight to the ideas he had raised. Babazorka does renounce violence, and offer a treaty, but then ends his life by telling his sons:

My precious
sons do not die afraid! Sing your
death song and die like a hero
going home!

Final words complete with so much of the John Wayne Mystique, two exclamation points are required.

It is unfortunate the author rushed his story. I actually believe the “Crucible” metaphor chosen as subject matter was sufficient to do the work the author wanted done.

We will now move on the Minor theme:

America’s invasions of Middle Eastern countries in the early 21st Century was unjust.

Before I get to the issues I have with how this theme gets realized, I want to state that I think the original idea is no more than a half step from brilliant. There are so many similarities between the events detailed, and the actual history of our Government in the years immediately following 911 that one wonders if the 1859 US History has been altered for a better fit (7). I’ll summarize those similarities.

1. There has been a massacre of innocent US citizens on US soil. [Yes, I write that US soil knowing that, in 1859, US ownership of the soil was a matter of debate.]
2. The people responsible for the massacre are not held responsible.
3. Instead, the government goes after an easier target. A nation it can evade with little military cost.
4. Babzorka [as Bin-Laden] is holed up in a nearly impenetrable mountain enclave.
5. The 1859 version of Seal Team Six is sent to assassinate him.
6. Babazorka has a war chest which the assassins want to steal. Of course this war chest is a symbol of Middle Eastern oil.

These similarities are properly defined and expertly rendered. They, in other words, put POX Americana into the discussion concerning the justness of the wars [caused by America] in the Middle East. I do not, however,  think people will still be discussing POX Americana 50 years from now. This is because of two DISsimilarities.

1. Babazorka is not a good [or even an adequate] substitute for Bin-Laden. I take it as granted that our invasions of Middle Eastern countries during the 2000’s were unjust. However, Bin-Laden was an asinine human being. As a moral philosopher, he is about as advanced as Chris Kyle of American Sniper fame. The Babazorka depicted in this script is a good man. The historical metaphor wobbles, dangerously, by overreaching.

2. That the Apaches committed the “act of terror” and the Navajo are punished for it is fitting. It brings into relief the difference between al-qaeda and the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. To be completely perfect as a metaphor, however, it would have had to have been the Navajo nation which was invaded, while the Apache Chief was hunted down for assassination.

All in all, I like what this script did with its Major and Minor themes. It is a good beginning into [what I hope] will be our culture’s examination of our culpability. As someone with my beliefs would expect, it is through The Arts that this examination [if it happens] will unfold.

7 out of 10 points.

4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) I think the points made about the use of historical metaphor are enough to grant all the uniqueness of story points.

Although, I think the execution falters, there is no doubting this was an impressive attempt.

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) I also think the problems in metaphor completion, and dialogue rendering, demonstrate that this author hasn’t mastered his craft yet. He is, however, better than average:

3 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script? Did it make us want to be a better person? (10 points)

As I mentioned when reviewing The Counselor, it is hard to take anything away from a script that ends in a complete defeat for the human species. The opening address to the reader tells us that no violence is redemptive. A setup like this leaves the reader expecting the script to explain what is redemptive. Unfortunately, no attempt is ever made at any explanation. If Burke is the example, then we are all stuck in Camus’ Myth. Violence is our burden and, no many how times we push it up the hill, it will always roll right back down. Oh, and it will also crush everyone we know before it comes to rest.

The score on this question is higher than it ought to be because I appreciate the truth in the Minor theme [and feel it deserves to be widely acknowledged]

6 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 72

Footnotes:

5. Unless, I don’t.

6. I appropriate Blake’s critique of God, and level it against Humanity.

7. If one is not knowledgeable about US History circa 1859. I am not knowledgeable. Therefor, I wonder.

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2 responses to “POX Americana (2)

  1. I have little to add as I agree with the above. As you know, Pox is absolutely material in a genre that would resonate with me. I wrote a script recently that has some thematic similarities to say the least. The writing in Pox is generally above pro-average…evocative at times, KILLER first 4 pages (although some of the metaphors in the script felt a little undercooked). More importantly, this story is in the correct medium…some cinematic stuff going on in here.

    When I read a script for pleasure, I have one rule: When I get an urge to stop reading, I follow it, and I never go back.

    I stopped reading POX at page 73…which is pretty deep as far as quitting goes, and made me feel that this script could still be great with a rewrite. It was clear that the script was struggling to achieve unity. As you say, felt like two different stories that were merged…and I was feeling it up until the death of the chief. But being that I’m a quitter, my opinion of this work as a whole is invalid.

    The lesson for me, if one wants to draw one — writers, know what your script is about! In the bones of the thing! You don’t need any fancy structure guides as long as you know! Lucky for you, I found this useful link on the internet: https://searchingforcharliekaufman.wordpress.com/2014/10/28/the-primacy-of-theme/

  2. That is a great link! I quite like that stuff about literary factorial machines, given that my approach to aesthetics is severely mechanistic.

    I agree with you, too, that this could have been a fantastic script. The first 49 pages are very, very, good. It is sad [for scriptwriting in general] that an author came so close and yet remained so far.

    Every time I read a script that doesn’t finish what it started, I’m reminded of There Will Be Blood– a script that still manages to be in my personal top 10, in spite of the fact that Mr. Anderson did not quite finish it.

    Had he, the name of this site would have been Searching for Paul Thomas Anderson.

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