Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Ten Percent Solution

For my subtext, or the hidden 90 percent, assignment, I put together a few teaching aids that I'd used separately, and it made for a pretty effective unit.

I started with a unit I've used in the past, the soap/Bogie unit. I play a short segment from a soap opera, and when it's over, I ask the class what they know as a result of watching it. And what they know is that the Wheelchair Bitch (as they dubbed her) is in a wheelchair because Babe ran her over, that Babe's boyfriend is a rich boy, that the boyfriend thinks she's lying, that in fact she is lying, etc., etc. How do they know all this? They know all of it because the characters tell them. It's all in the dialog. In a soap opera, everything is. There's no subtext to speak's all laid flat out for you. This is one way of presenting a scene, and it works in a soap, because they have to bring the viewer up to speed who maybe only gets to watch once a week, and they have to play to the viewer who's half paying attention while putting the clothes in the dryer.

Then I use a scene from the Hawks/Bogart/Bacall classic, To Have and Have Not -- a scene which has virtually no dialog -- and ask the same questions. What do you know, and how do you know it? It's the scene where Bogart (Morgan) and Bacall (Slim)'s eyes meet across the nightclub, when she gets up to sing "Am I Blue" with Hoagy Carmichael (Cricket). What do we know? We know she's being ironic and mocking about the lyrics to the song, but she means them, too. We know that there's something happening between the two of them, but we don't know what. We know that she doesn't want to be with the man she's with (Johnson). We suspect there may be a business connection between Morgan and Johnson. We know Johnson drinks too much. And more. The scene opens with a black waitress moving through a cordon of men, some of them in uniform. We know it's an exotic Caribbean setting, and maybe wartime, maybe a dangerous setting. We know it's a mostly male setting, and a woman has to know how to negotiate her way through it. Then, as the camera catches sight of Morgan over the waitress's shoulder, it seeks him out and comes to rest on him, first in a two shot with a waiter, then quickly to a medium closeup. We know he's a loner, and we know he's a figure of authority. His eyes look up, and we know that everything we see thereafter will be from his point of view. He lights a match, and Cricket's piano starts at the same moment -- Morgan is setting the scene into motion.

There's a shot of the drummer in Cricket's band reading a newspaper. He puts down the newspaper, picks up his brushes, and starts to play. What's it doing there? What do we know from it? We know what the whole scene is about. It's about what Hemingway writes about, and Hawks makes movies about. It's about being in synch, about being hip, about being one of us. The drummer is in synch, Cricket is, Slim and Morgan are. Drunken, pawing Johnson is not. Frenchy, who enters to the new, nervous, ricky-tick tune Cricket starts playing after "Am I Blue," is not, but he's OK anyway. He comes to tell Morgan that the men who want to rent his boat are there - the men who are in danger. He makes the camera shift slightly, so he can share the space with Morgan, but the camera doesn't like it. It's glad when Frenchy leaves, and it can put Morgan back in the center of the frame.

What I added to the unit this time -- I've used it before, but in a different context -- is the Moe Green scene from The Godfather. Michael arrives in Las Vegas to buy the casino from Moe Green. Green doesn't want to sell. Fredo is obviously on Moe's side. What's the scene really about? It's about power, control...and loyalty. Moe makes the first power play, by not being there when Michael arrives -- letting Fredo greet him with temptation, girls and a band. Michael makes his first test of loyalty, when he tells Johnny Fontane, the Sinatra character, that he'll be buying the Hotel from Moe, and he wants a signed commitment from Johnny to appear at the club five times a year, and convince some of his Hollywood friends to appear as well. Fredo hovers in the background, giving Johnny an out with his protestation that he's sure Moe doesn't want to sell out. Johnny hesitates. It's a tough spot. Is Michael bluffing, playing from weakness? Should he take the safe route, and say "Let's wait and see what Moe says"? But he comes through. "Sure, Mike, you know I'll do anything for my godfather." Maybe it's not as total an expression of support as "Sure, Mike, you know I'm with you." But it's the best Michael can expect.

What would the scene be like, if it had been written like the soap opera? If at the end of the scene, Michael had gone over to Tom Hagen and said, "Well, Johnny's with us, and Fredo isn't." "That's true, Mike, but maybe you should give Fredo a pass because he's your brother." "No, I can't do that, because with my father's illness, I have to show more ruthlessness than I would have otherwise." As one of my students said, "We've come a long way from the soap opera."

And in fact, Moe does talk a little like the soap opera characters, when he tells Michael that the Corleone family doesn't have that kind of power any more, the Godfather is ill, and he can get a better deal from Barzini. His dialog is better -- "I buy you out -- you don't buy me out!" but he's leaving his whole game on the table. He's like Johnson, the lecherous drunk.

Like writer, like character. Morgan and Michael both reveal their strength by what they don't reveal, what they hold back.

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