When the Street Lights Go On

header_streetlightsToday’s script comes to us from writers O’keefe and Hutton. It finished in the number two slot on the 2011 Black List.

I chose it for review because it was one of my first script finds back in my early days of internet script scavenging. I liked it a lot at the time, and I’m reviewing it now to see if my uninformed opinions from the salad days of my critiquing life still hold water.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Any script with a running voiceover is going to have to answer for a lot when it comes to exposition. This is because including a voiceover in your script is a VERY EASY way to lose all the exposition points.

Voiceover is exposition.

Occasionally, writers can strike a balance in the exposition that [necessarily] infests their voiceover, and not destroy the read by including the technique. In every case where the voiceover works, it does so because the writers imbue it with an offsetting mystery.

A narrator’s function is to provide you with a unique perspective on the story being told. Normally, this perspective is the protagonist’s. [The Coen brothers constantly upend this balance by NOT making their narrator their protagonist, but they are the exception which proves the rule.] If you cloud this perspective in mystery, readers can tolerate the facts spewed to them by their supra-knowledgeable narrator.

Does When the Street Lights Go On succeed in striking the mysterious balance needed for a voiceover not to grate on a reader’s nerves? The first thing to note on this subject is that the voice permeating the story is a couple decades removed from the temporal origin of the facts he relates. He is letting us know about a particular year in his life when events in his world conspired to make him the person he is today. All of that is great, but the real reason the voiceover [sort-of] works is because it is laden with regret.

If you’re telling a coming of age story, and your narrator/protagonist PINES for something in his past, you’ve immediately turned the fact based nature of your narration into a mystery. Your reader wonders: What is the source of the regret?

Let’s consider a few examples. The first is from page 4:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
–robbing us of our juvenescence
and spreading unshakable anxiety
like cyanide in the minds of those
who remember.

Let me contradict myself, slightly, by saying I actually hate this instance of voiceover. Everything from the juvenescence to the cyanide in the mind bothers me, stylistically. It reads like an abstract in an essay from an unoriginal lit major who always uses the word verbose when wordy will do. The previous three pages excuse it, barely.

However, it also captures the relationship the narrator has with his story… adroitly. (1) The words that perform this magic are: “robbing”, “anxiety”, and “cyanide”. We now know the protagonist is going to tell us he lost something, this something lost scares him, AND it is deadly. You see how this is exposition. We’re not inferring these facts about the protagonist from subtext, we’re just being told these facts about the protagonist. At the same time, you see how each of these “facts” is really a question—a mystery.

What did the protagonist lose?
Why was losing it scary?
Why did that lost thing conjoin in the protagonist’s mind with death?

This kind of voiceover based exposition makes you want to keep reading.

Let’s look at a few more examples to see if this trend continues. From page 16:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
The Monroe Family was a prominent
fixture in the community, the
Kennedy’s of Colfax. They were
perhaps best known for organizing
the most famous block parties and
cookouts the town had ever seen.

What do you think? Did I just pick a poor example?

I believe you would need large reserves of critical creativity to argue the quoted text is anything other than exposition. It just doesn’t have that flavor of regret and loss which punctuated the first example chosen.

Another sample, this one from page 30, to see if it tips the scales:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
It was the forest where I broke my
leg swinging from a tire swing when
I was seven. The forest that served
as the shortcut home on our
bicycles and divided the town into
rich and poor sections. The forest
where a month prior, Chrissy Monroe
and Mr. Pulaski were shot and
killed. And like that it was burnt
to the ground.

That’s much better. We are now giving facts which also act as buoys on the sea of a young life. It is easy for us to imagine how looking back on these buoys from a couple decades in the future could encourage feelings of loss. The regret in these lines isn’t as accentuated as the first example, but they are playing in the same league.

I’ll give one more [from page 89] and then sum up into a score:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
Becky and I became friends again
during that Midwestern winter. We
cruised around in my car beneath
newspaper skies and smoke stained
snow, listening to the Beach Boys.

This one is a lot like the first example. True, it uses a shortcut to achieve its result, but we aren’t measuring the length of the drive, we’re measuring the destination. So, yes, these lines saturate with regret BECAUSE we’re on page 88 of a 108 page script. We’ve known since page 3 that Becky dies somewhere before we get to fade out. We feel for our protagonist about the loss of this friendship.

We know he’s going to lose Becky, thirty-something Charlie knows he’s going to lose Becky, but sixteen year old Charlie does not know. This conspiracy between us and thirtysomething Charlie is a heuristic to feeling sixteen year old Charlie’s impending loss.

As I read this script again, taking notes with a much sharper pencil than the one I used four years ago, it dawned on me that my impressions from that time were wrong. The voiceover in this script is not the good kind. Seventy-five percent of it [at least] is just fact-based exposition.

I found it interesting that, even though I recognized this the second time around, I still didn’t dislike the voiceover as much as I think I should. The reason has to do with theme. A topic we will address in question three. For now:

5 out of 10 points.

Part B) The subtext in this script centers on the effects of almost grown children making adult decisions. Some of it is not very subtle, like this example from pages 14-15:

HOFFMAN
Think hard now. Did you happen to
hear anything? Or maybe sense
something wasn’t right?

Charlie tries to consider the question. He is clearly overtired
and unable to concentrate.

CHARLIE
I don’t think so.

Hoffman SNAPS, SNAPS, SNAPS his fingers

HOFFMAN
Hey kid, c’mon, wake up. I have a
few more questions for you. Want a
water or a coffee or something?

Charlie thinks for a moment.

CHARLIE
You got Mountain Dew?

And it’s subtextual follow-up from pages 99-100:

SECRETARY
Can I get you guys anything from
the Rec room?

HOFFMAN
I’m fine. Chambers?

CHARLIE
Coffee. Black. Please.

And some of it is very good. Like these lines from page 88:

CHARLIE
Yeah, I mean it wasn’t “Annie Hall”
or “Manhattan” but the Gordon
Willis cinematography was great and
it had some really funny moments.

BECKY
I thought it was stupid. I mean a
black and white comedy in 1984
about some talent manager’s
misadventures. So pretentious.

CHARLIE
Yeah.

In which Charlie first learns that, as an adult, you will immediately give up your most valuable possession [your opinion of yourself] whenever it deviates from the opinion of the manic pixie dreamgirl you love. (1) It’s beautiful the way he stumbles through this display of intellectual peacockery, then caves without resistance. This is a pure example of adult-emergent behavior. When Charlie gets a little older, he’ll think of a few reasons why that cinematography pierces that pretentiousness before caving with his:

CHARLIE
Yeah.

Overall, I think the subtext is subtle more often than it is blatant:

7 out of 10 points.

Part C) Nostalgia stories in which a character presents in two wildly distant time frames are hard to write. You have to be careful to show how the younger character has the material within her to be the older character, without coming across as engaging in character didacticism. The older character can’t just tell us why she turned out a certain way, she has to lead us through the episodes in her younger self’s life that caused her to be a certain way. These scripts [if they’re going to work] exist within the topography of a cause and effect relationship. The younger self is the raw material; the events are the cause, and the older self is the effect. There must be similarity between the two, but still a wide enough difference for the younger character to arc meaningfully.

So, for this script, I will speak about character individuation as it relates to both versions of Charlie. (2) Can I trace the arc from younger Charlie to older Charlie?

You will remember from my Jim Morrison Challenge that I believe a character has arced iff:

[that] character […] has progressively come to trust herself.

The shift in Charlie is noticeable and designed into the script [whether the authors meant to put it in there or not]. We’ve already seen how Charlie goes from wanting a Mountain Dew at the police station to wanting coffee during his return trip. Another great example of this change is demonstrated by the following pair of scenes. The first is from pages 13-14:

CHARLIE’S FATHER
Where were you tonight anyway? I
thought your mother and I set some
sort of weekday curfew regulations.

CHARLIE
I was taking notes on football
practice for the newspaper.
Charlie’s Father flips a page in his book.

CHARLIE’S FATHER
Shame you can’t be on the field
like I was instead of reporting on
the drills.

CHARLIE
I know, Sir.

CHARLIE’S FATHER
Once you fill out a little. Next
year, maybe.

CHARLIE
Yeah. Maybe.

The antonym for this scene takes place on pages 46-47:

INT. COLFAX HIGH SCHOOL – NEWSPAPER ROOM – DAY

Mr. Bouque unlocks the classroom door and enters the
newsroom. He sees Charlie sleeping on the small loveseat
tucked away in the corner of the room. He clenches a stack of
paper in his left hand.

Mr. Bouque smiles. He puts down his briefcase and coffee and
takes a seat at the desk beside the loveseat. He types on the
typewriter key-by-key as loudly as possible.

CLICK. CLICK. CLICK. CLICK.

The typewriter’s carriage reaches the end and it RINGS.
Charlie shoots up and out of sleep.

CHARLIE
(mumbling)
It’s done.

He extends the typed article to Mr. Bouque and collapses back
down into the loveseat and back to sleep.

CHARLIE (CONT’D)
It’s like the best thing I’ve ever
written.

Charlie’s desire at the beginning of the script [represented by the scene from pages 13-14] to be a journalist is passive. He goes to report on the football practice because his teacher told him too. Maybe he wants to be a journalist [writer], and maybe he just wants something to do with his time since he’s not “filled-out” enough to play football like his book reading dad.

In the middle of the script [the scene from 46-47] Charlie has just turned in an article that he chose to write himself. He thinks it’s the best thing he has ever written, an indication that he is learning to believe in his special ability or unique motivation. Namely, that he is a writer. The world validates this opinion he has of himself too. From page 48:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
I won the Illinois student
achievement in journalism award for
that article. As a matter of fact
it’s still framed in my childhood
bedroom.

In similar fashion, his relationship with Becky hinges on his literary ability. They rekindle their friendship over a request for books. From page 83:

BECKY (CONT’D)
I was just wondering if I could
borrow some books. I’ve read all
the ones at my house like three
times over. Even my Dad’s boring
stock market books.

Of course, in perfect pre-adult style, Charlie peacocks again. He chooses books to give to her that he thinks says a lot about him. In other words, Charlie may not be “filled-out” enough to play football, but he does think he has literary talent. He uses his SUMA (4) to try and attract Becky. From page 85:

INT. CHARLIE’S HOUSE – CHARLIE’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

Charlie tears apart his bookshelves trying to find the right
books to give Becky. Books that he thinks say a lot about
himself.

He puts them in a small cardboard box.

And the books work. Charlie and Becky bond because they’re smart and they enjoy being smart together. Sixteen year old Charlie becomes the thirtysomething year old Charlie [who tells this story of regret and loss] because sixteen year old Charlie found a way to trust his special ability.

7 out of 10 points. [I can’t completely ignore the cardboard nature of some of the mid-minor characters.]

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

The first 10 pages of this script are exceptional. I think there would be very few readers who weren’t inspired by these 10 to give the script a full read. The first reason why comes on page 2:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
In June, the eighty year old Frank
Lloyd Wright house by the library
burned down.

Then, on pages 2-3 we learn:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
Olivia Cooper, a Catholic school
chick, apparently got drunk on
boxed wine shortly after midnight…
Went skinny-dipping—
–and drowned when her foot got
caught on a buoy chain.

Followed by the already quoted:

NARRATOR (V.O.)
Our town was put under a dark spell
in the summer of 1983. I observed
it all from my Schwinn Sting-ray.
It began with a fire and didn’t end
until six months later when the
Monroe sisters were finally dead–

The street lights flicker on.

On page 7, Chrissy [Becky’s big sister] and her English teacher get surprised at the beginning of an illicit date:

The back door opens on the driver’s side and a FIGURE enters
the vehicle. Chrissy and Mr. Pulaski both turn in confusion.

The Figure’s face is obscured in shadow.

FIGURE
I have a Smith & Wesson .44 Caliber
pointed at the back of your head.
Now drive the car.

A car-jacking which is concluded on page 10:

The Figure walks up to Chrissy. He stands above her, cocks
his gun and points it at her face. She thrashes about on the
ground helplessly trying to escape the barrel.

BANG!

Again.

BANG!

Stillness. She is gone.

with the car left idling and the bodies left bleeding.

So, yeah, I’m pretty sure this is an impressive 10 pages.

20 out of 20 points.

Questions 3-5 of the review to follow later in the week.

Footnotes:

1.  Yes, “adroitly” is me poking fun at the unoriginal philosopher [who doubles as screenplay critic] and also is author of this particular piece of criticism.

2. I always have to note, after a comment about MPDG’s, that I am convinced they come in both genders. I don’t think it is the psychological cesspool it is often made out to be in literary criticism. Basically, it’s just a depressive person’s attraction to a manic person. Mania and depression come in both male and female flavors.

3. This is good news for the script’s score because a lot of the characters who are of minor-middle importance are marginally differentiated.

4. SUMA= Special Ability or Unique Motivation.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s