Summary: A. Mitta “Cinema between Hell and Paradise”

Alexander Mitta is a graduate of VGIK, a Soviet film director, screenwriter and actor in such films as My Friend Kolka, Open the Door, Dot, Dot, Dot, Comma, Lost in Siberia and many others. His book “Between Hell and Paradise” appears on many writer’s reading lists, and I decided to read it too.
In this synopsis I give the main and relevant ideas for blogging.

  • dramatic works (which we began to talk about in the outline of Aristotle’s Poetics) are constructed according to the general principle
  • One simple action (for example, a flight to another country) is the beginning of the story; then comes the “rise to happiness”; then comes the “dramatic peripeteia from happiness to unhappiness” (things got bad) and then there must be a “first turning point” (even if things got bad, but something good must happen), and then more “turning points” that change the course of the story in unexpected ways.
  • History must have a beginning, a middle and an end.
  • Drama is interested in a character who overcomes obstacles to achieve his goal

  • Prose – a picture of the world in words (style and language are important – for example, Chekhov’s short stories); drama – a fascinating story (impersonal descriptions, functional dialogues, but an interesting plot, where characters find themselves in difficult situations – for example, Chekhov’s plays)
  • Tolstoy’s novels are movies in book form with detailed descriptions of each “frame”; for example, in Anna Karenina the heroine throws herself under a train… a seemingly too simple plot, but if you realize that at that time there was one railroad from St. Petersburg to Moscow for all of Russia, the plot becomes “spectacular” as if today the heroine were burned in a hadron collider… superfilm; you watch a movie based on this work and think. “it doesn’t look like it, it was better in my imagination.”
  • a playwright writes not for readers, but for performers… the play is then taken and put on in the theater or made into a movie, each in its own way; the playwright invites writers, actors to co-write his work so that his work can be put on theaters and movies made that are “better than described.
  • A strong dramatic plot – a clash of extremes
  • reality does not create drama – otherwise we would be reading the news papers and crying in catharsis instead of watching movies; drama is life, from which everything boring is cut out
  • start like Shakespeare, end like Tolstoy: that is, create first a story whose heart beats around a cardiogram between hope and despair, happiness and unhappiness (Aristotle’s peripeteia)… and then add details
  • the initial event is something without which the work will not exist (where it all began), this initial event the director needs to invent
  • as a film director: 1) define the actor’s actions (but do not control his emotions) 2) show the cameraman where to put the camera 3) smile and inspire everyone to realize their talent
  • task: to arouse emotions, maintain and develop them to the maximum extent (catharsis)
  • jam for the beholder – information that satisfies curiosity, it should be divided into small portions and smeared all the way around; one is curious and wants to know the clues to all the riddles
  • the piece contains questions, and as the story progresses the answers are given out drop by drop, but with each answer the viewer gets a new question; the hero must fight for every piece of information, and withhold the most tidbits of information until the very end

  • Empathy grows out of curiosity and generates self-identification (the hero is like me)
  • suspense (according to Alfred Hitchcock) – the tense unbearable expectation when the hero with whom we have self-identified and fallen in love is in mortal danger – and we as an audience know this better than the hero himself; as Hitchcock said, “It is not the characters of the characters that concern me most, but the stairs that creak… as these ladders may collapse under the hero.”
  • Suspense is the opposite of surprise: if we know more about the hero, we are not surprised at what happens to him, but we are more worried about him.
  • editing can stretch time by showing the same shot from different angles
  • The key scenes of the suspense are built on the “hunting principle” – he gets caught up, but runs away or vice versa;
  • people need stress (adrenaline release, concentration increases), and the movie satisfies this need, otherwise there will be distress (sluggish unproductive stress-background); strong joy as grief causes stress

  • people automatically “connect” to those who are stressed and become stressed themselves (while watching the movie), because the movies show people experiencing the extremes of the human experience
  • “suddenly”, “and it’s not mom” – such words trigger stress and mobilize attention
  • the alternative factor is the immediate threat to the hero here and now, the antagonist, the one with whom the hero fights, this is the main factor of the hero’s motivation
  • The conflict and struggle should be between people, not between people and the forces of nature, ideas, concepts, etc.
  • pain -> motivation -> intention -> action to overcome the dramatic situation;
  • drama structure: danger (misfortune) -> evaluation -> salvation (happiness);
  • Alternative factors by their degree of drama (from lesser to stronger):
    1. A blow to self-respect (the code of honor of the Japanese samurai)
    2. Professional failure (including retirement)
    3. Physical harm (fighting)
    4. Threat of hero’s death
    5. Threat to the life of the family
    6. Threat to the life of the group (country)
    7. Threat to humanity (end of the world)

  • Four types of dramatic heroes:
    1) Our acquaintances are just like our usual neighbors, sluggish, apathetic, lazy, and not too goal-oriented, having ordinary human problems
    2) Underdog (in dogfighting it’s a dog that’s crushed by an opponent) – people who want to change their social status, careerists, “new Russians”, dodgy minds, aggressive courage… as well as people with innate physical limitations who overcome this
    3) Lost Souls – “our acquaintances” who have lost their moral compass and laws and gone on to crime and murder.
    4) Idols – heroic killing for the sake of salvation, they are superheroes who can do anything

  • In drama the bad hero looks like a bad hero, but in life it is not so, because in reality we can not guess the thoughts and intentions of people by their appearance or face
  • The scriptwriter is a creator of catastrophes
  • the hero shows himself not through words, but through actions; clever words in drama are only necessary to make the audience feel that the hero is a smart guy (the audience does not have to understand the meaning of the words he says)
  • the essence of the character’s character:
    1) what does he want? (in general and right now) – the hero’s external motivation
    2) why does he want it? for whom? – internal motivation, we can only guess about it
    3) against whom does he want it? (who is the antagonist?)
    4) what kind of pressure does he feel?

  • in the character of the hero is:
    – will (touched cold water with his foot and goes in slowly; concentrated)
    – emotion (touched cold water with his foot and rushes to swim; uncompromising)
    – intelligence (touched cold water with his foot, splashed himself, gets used to the cold, then goes into the water; compares and assesses risks)

  • Answer 10 questions about the character to understand him:
    1) intelligence (how he makes decisions)
    2) physiology (health, age)
    3) social base (background, religion)
    4) economic base (how rich)
    5) talent (what sets him apart from others)
    6) outside interests (hobbies)
    7) sex life
    8) family (what kind of relationship)
    9) education
    10) dislikes
    *How does the character get in and out of conflicts?
    This is information the screenwriter should know, but there is no need to dump it on the viewer. The rest of the questions can be answered by “it doesn’t matter.”
  • the character manifests itself under the strong pressure of the dramatic situation (tears off the mask) as an ethical choice of the hero; it is most important to know the main character trait of the hero
  • The actor’s internal gesture (visualize in your mind the next step before you play it)
  • Conflict is something that stands in the way of desire
  • the script scheme is a three-act development of the conflict: 1) the problem is described 2) the problem becomes more complicated 3) the hero is on his way to disaster (and here less new information, more battle with an obvious antagonist)… and 4) the end (the hero either escapes or dies)
  • the film is a frame-by-frame story (you don’t need to tell the story in words)
  • there are 30 to 50 events in the film (according to Stanislavsky), one event is 2.5-5 pages long in the script (an event is a fight, reconciliation, etc.); each event has only one conflict and the event itself is the high point of that conflict
  • film script 105-115 pages (world standard)
  • We need to identify the center of good and the center of evil (in “The Godfather” the center of good is the family, the center of evil is those who want to destroy it); any person identifies himself with the good
  • We need to determine heaven (the best situation) and hell (the worst situation) for the hero
  • ways of developing plot complications (from weak emotions to stronger ones):
    1) increasing the drama of the situation (the antagonist hero does more and more “crazy” things),
    2) expansion of the conflict (more and more people are involved)
    3) 1+2 mix (the stakes get higher)

  • the obligatory scene is the maximum outburst of the viewer’s emotions, followed by the culmination (climax) of the plot, where the answer to the main dramatic question is given; in the climax the cardiogram of the dramatic peripeteia makes the biggest leap; at the same time subplots are better “unleashed” before the climax in turn from less important to more important
  • At the climax all the hero’s goals become clear
  • in the finale you need to show a key image
  • shot realistically on the screen often looks unconvincing, instead of literally shooting the action, you can shoot something that gives the viewer a sense of action, especially – details!

  • the climate of the scene (wait for the snow), the truth of the hero’s body (a drop of sweat on his face if the hero is lying)
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