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by Heidi Hornbacher & Carlo Cavagna

Have you ever thought about how point of view affects your storytelling? At PageCraft we analyze your script from many angles, including the structures and arcs of the various stories and subplots. Another angle is point of view. Defining your point of view requires defining who your protagonist is. Whose story is it? We encounter writers who resist this. “I’m writing an ensemble piece.” Or, “Can’t I have two protagonists?” Well yes, two or more characters can have full journeys, but that will not be the strongest choice for your story, if that choice gives it a muddled point of view.

This year there are two award contenders that, in our opinion, ultimately do not succeed because of this problem—at least in part. In contrast, last year there was an award contender that showed absolute mastery of its point of view. [Note: spoilers follow]

Maestro movie posterMaestro

As has been written by more than a few underwhelmed critics, Bradley Cooper’s Maestro is basically a hagiography of Leonard Bernstein (Cooper) that oddly fails to cover many of his greatest accomplishments. Rather, it is more interested in the fact that he was a gay man who chose to present a heterosexual life. Maestro hints at some of his motivations for doing so, implying that marriage helped him achieve his ambitions in a homophobic world.

This isn’t exactly a surprising take. And, by centering Bernstein’s sexuality, the more interesting question for an audience becomes why his wife, Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan), went along with it. In the film’s big set piece, Bernstein conducts Mahler’s “Resurrection Symphony” at Ely Cathedral in England in 1973. At the end, Montealegre simply forgives him for the pain he has caused her.

The case Maestro ultimately makes was that Montealegre loved Bernstein for his talent, and that was enough for her. Ultimately, this demeans Montealegre as a self-sacrificing cliché of a wife, content to support her husband despite his failings. Later, the 1980s coda insults her further, with Bernstein dancing joyously in a gay club and the heavy implication that her death has set him free.

One can sensibly argue that any film about Bernstein should have Bernstein as its protagonist. But given that Cooper focused on Bernstein and Montealegre’s relationship, the film has a blind spot that could only have been addressed by considering the story fully from Montealegre’s point of view.

May December movie posterMay December

Todd Haynes’ May December is the story of an actress, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who journeys to Savannah to learn about a character she must portray: a former schoolteacher, Gracie (Julianne Moore), who at the age of 36 was caught sleeping with a 13-year-old student, Joe (Charles Melton), and subsequently, after a prison term and his 18th birthday, married him.

It should not come as a surprise to most viewers that Elizabeth discovers that their apparently happy marriage is deeply dysfunctional—as if it could be anything else given its origins. What may come as a surprise are the lengths to which Elizabeth goes to reach this obvious conclusion, which include sleeping with Gracie’s husband Joe.

In perhaps an implicit acknowledgement of this fundamental problem, Haynes works to convince that Elizabeth and Joe’s marriage could actually be happy and normal. It begins with Gracie’s point of view, instead of Elizabeth’s, attempting to establish a Norman Rockwell life that includes barbecues, a baking business, and a high school graduation. And, it attempts to sow suspicion of Elizabeth and her motives.

Then, it shifts to Elizabeth’s point of view as she explores Gracie’s life. Though Elizabeth is the protagonist, the film seems to understand that Gracie’s is the more interesting point of view, and so it keeps switching to it, but then switching back, uncertain of the most effective way to tell the story. When Gracie claims—utterly convinced—that Joe instigated their relationship by seducing her, yet Joe is revealed to be an arrested child, it’s meant as a big surprise. But of course it isn’t. Elizabeth learns the obvious truth; Gracie doesn’t change; and we leave underwhelmed.

A more rewarding choice might have been to tell the entire story from Gracie’s deeply unreliable point of view, until events finally cause her delusions to come crashing down… which is exactly the storytelling choice made by the next film.

Tar movie posterTár

Todd Fields’ Tár is a film so committed to immersion in its protagonist’s point of view that even the basic story structure is obscured. The story involves brash genius conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), who is days away from recording a huge Mahler symphony that will elevate her career, when complications at home and politics at work all seem to conspire against her.

The seven story points we teach at PageCraft are all present, but they take a subordinate position to an emphasis on Lydia’s egotistic, self-absorbed viewpoint. We see the story only as she sees the story, and must deduce the importance of events that are minimized or happen off screen, because those events do not matter to Lydia.

Lydia is by design a difficult figure. In Lydia’s Ordinary World we see her as she sees herself: a revered and feared conductor with an impressive track record. Her wife Sharon is her concertmaster, and they are a classical music power couple. Her lecture at a masterclass calls out a male student who questions her for not rejecting historic male conductors from the canon who are potentially problematic (establishing one of the film’s key themes: whether it is possible to separate art from artist). Lydia’s argument seems sound, but her response to the boy is a bit…off.

In the Inciting Incident sequence, she meets with the co-founder of her foundation to support aspiring female conductors. They need to replace her assistant conductor, and Lydia’s assistant Francesca assumes the post will be hers. They also need to fill a cello position in the orchestra. Lydia receives a book from Krista, a former fellow of the organization, and tosses it—a key event glossed over. At the cello auditions Lydia spots Olga, her next obsession.

At her Point of No Return, Lydia cheats her blind vote, ensuring that Olga gets in the orchestra. Lydia also tells Francesca to ignore Krista’s increasingly desperate emails. By now the implication that there were sexual favors is clear.

Then at the Midpoint Shift, Krista kills herself, which starts unraveling Lydia’s web. This isn’t very obvious to Lydia, and because the film sticks with her point of view, it isn’t always obvious to the audience either. Nonetheless, events unfold undeniably. Krista’s parents plan to sue. Lydia tells Francesca to delete all Krista’s emails, assuming Francesca will do as she is told. Unfortunately for Lydia, it’s now clear to Francesca that she is not getting the assistant conductor promotion. A small kindness could have kept Francesca on Lydia’s side, but Lydia is too self-absorbed to realize it, or even understand that she’s in trouble. Then, Lydia’s controversial lecture from the Ordinary World goes viral with a manipulated cut that makes Lydia look like a sexual predator—or rather, even more so.

We don’t see the Low Point, when the board removes Lydia as conductor. Because this drastic decision is inconceivable to her, we only see Lydia walking into the board meeting, and what comes after. Though we do see Sharon barring Lydia from seeing their daughter, Field largely forgoes a classic “All Is Lost” moment in order to stay true to his protagonist’s point of view. Lydia is in denial. What we do see is that Lydia’s behavior becomes increasingly unhinged.

For her Final Challenge, Lydia is still determined to conduct the Mahler symphony. As she waits backstage in her tuxedo, we believe, as she does, that this will be possible. It’s not until Lydia storms on stage and assaults her replacement that it’s clear she’s in fact been barred and has been ignoring reality.

After Lydia’s public humiliation, in her New Ordinary World, we finally see Lydia’s blue-collar Staten Island roots, carefully erased from her curated image. Later, she conducts an orchestra with just as much intensity and craft as always—except that she is far from home, in Southeast Asia, performing the score of a video game for a bunch of cosplayers. Lydia has lost everything but her talent.

Fields pulls a genius sleight of hand in making use of a standard story structure, and then misdirecting the audience. It is not a gratuitous trick, however. The commitment to Lydia’s point of view pays off in the end when the portrait of an abuser’s lies and self delusions comes into focus and answers the film’s central question: how does a person excuse and justify abusive behavior? Or better, what state of mind is required to do so? If only May December had dared such an uncompromising exploration. If only Maestro had dared to invest in the point of view that would have allowed such an exploration to shine.

For more on Point of View, the Seven Point Story Structure, or crafting your script in general, check out our Programs or take advantage of our Services. We have workshops, residential labs, and one-to-one coaching available for every level of writer.


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