A lesson in basic narrative structure, courtesy of “Stairway to Heaven”

Last week I revisited James Cameron’s “Aliens” for the umpteenth time and marveled at its slow burn structure.  Like its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” it takes a whole hour for the titular critters to show up.  But this storytelling model has fallen by the wayside.  We rarely see it employed, and it’s rewarded even less.  Instead we shovel money at Michael Bay and his Transformer movies…upwards of a billion dollars domestically to a franchise with more explosions than stakes, tension, or story.

I don’t mean to sound like an angry old man shaking his cane, but how do you determine the end of a story if not by the climax?  A climax is something you have to build toward, so if your film is nothing but climaxes, then your ending is going to feel as meek and tepid as limp chestburster.

chestburster

But let’s consider this strategy from a different angle, from a smaller and more easily digestible approach: Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

It’s pretty much unanimously regarded as one of the great rock songs and maybe the greatest rock guitar solo.  And for good reason, but I would argue a critical element to the song’s power is its construction.  It builds to that solo.  Were the whole thing wallpapered with Jimmy Page’s virtuosic playing, we would be desensitized to it.  I don’t think we’d be as enamored with that version of the song.

”Stairway” clocks in at 8:03.  During the first 2:13, we get Robert Plant’s vocals, an acoustic guitar and some recorders.  Led Zeppelin is laying the groundwork.

In the first 20 minutes of “Aliens,” a salvage crew finds Ripley floating in deep space.  She makes a report to the Powers That Be, during which, she learns that while she was in hyper sleep, a colony was established on the alien world.  We also witness Ripley’s nightmares of an alien exploding from her chest like a grotesque jack-in-the-box.

At 2:14 into “Stairway,” we get a little electric guitar.  Now the song is taking shape, rooting itself more firmly.  This is rock ‘n’ roll after all!

Ripley learns from Company Man, Burke, that communications with the colony have been cut.  A team of marines is sent in.  Hoping to silence her fears, Ripley agrees to tag along.  When they arrive, they find the colony in shambles — the only survivor is a young girl named Newt.

ripley and newt

Now, we’re 4:19 into this roughly 8 minute song, and here come the drums.  This is what we signed up for!

Likewise, halfway through “Aliens,” we get our first look at the creatures.  Having stumbled into a hive in the basement of a power planet, the marines are ambushed by dozens of xenomorphs.  They regroup, only to discover that during the fire fight, the plant was damaged and is ready to explode…like a 40-megaton thermonuclear weapon.  Complications arise.  It’s revealed that Burke is trying to sabotage the mission by bringing creatures back to his company’s bio-weapons division.  The aliens launch an attack on the marines, resulting in Newt’s capture.

And at 5:56, we arrive at the famous guitar solo!

Ripley goes on a one-woman mission to recover Newt from the aliens’ nest.  She rescues her, and the two come face to face with the Alien Queen.  Ripley torches her eggs.  They take off, escaping an immense explosion, but then discover that the Queen has boarded their ship.  Ripley drives the creature into an airlock and finds herself in its clutches.

alien queen

“And as we wind on down the road, our shadows taller than a soul…”

She opens the airlock, which sucks the Queen out into space.

At 7:46, the solo draws to a close, and we come back to where we started with Robert Plant’s eerie vocals.

Ripley returns to hyper sleep with Newt.

“Can I dream,” the young girl asks.

“Yes, honey.  I think we both can.”

This model isn’t just meant for creature features.  “Die Hard” isn’t plastered with wall-to-wall action.  Indeed, it’s also a slow burn.  A fair amount of time passes before the first shots are fired.

And obviously, this template isn’t going to apply to every film.  “Raiders of the Lost Ark” opens with a bang.  Though it’s a film that’s generally thought of as unrelenting, things quiet down after that initial set piece.  I also think there’s something to be said for dynamic range.  Yes, the opening of “Raiders” is exciting, but the ending is literally — as far as our characters are concerned — face melting.

But back to “Aliens”…You’d be hard pressed not to find a pantheon-level monster movie that doesn’t follow this structure — from “Alien” to “Aliens,” from “Jaws” to “Jurassic Park,” from the original “King Kong” to the original “Godzilla.”

If you’re firing at 10 nonstop, eventually 10 loses its luster.

Agree or disagree?  Comment below!

What you can expect from this blog

I wanted to give you an idea of what you can expect from me when I’m evaluating a film.  There are a lot of theories about what constitutes criticism, but for me, it comes down to this: a film is a film.  And I’d love to expand on that… 

A movie needs to stand on its own.  Deleted scenes, early drafts and on-set drama are all well and good – I get a kick out of that, myself – but 30 years from now, most of it will be forgotten.  All that will be left is the film, so it better work.

Conversely, a movie is not a book or a comic or a video game.  An adaptation isn’t a failure if it doesn’t rigidly adhere to every detail of its source material.  Don’t get me wrong, if a filmmaker is going to adapt a piece of work, s/he should maintain its essence…otherwise, why bother adapting? If Harry Potter isn’t an orphan, is he really Harry Potter?  Of course not, but what I’m talking about are the little things: “That line doesn’t belong to Harry!  It belongs to Hermione’s second roommate’s sister’s boyfriend!”

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I’m not a fan of the following argument:  “You just don’t understand Y movie, because you’ve never been exposed to X thing that happened in it.”  X could be any number of things — divorce, being a parent, a particular occupation, etc.  One, that argument is inherently condescending.  Two, when we take that line and run with it, the whole argument is invalid if Joe Movie-Goer has experienced X thing and still didn’t respond to Y movie.  It’s great when you can look at a film and smile or frown knowingly at a particular plot development or character quirk, but that alone does not a good film make.

Films set up their own rules, and they set up their own means through which they should be evaluated.  Broadly speaking, if you don’t laugh during a comedy, that’s a problem.  It might not be a big problem, if the characters are vivid or it’s thematically resonant, but it is a problem.  Along the same lines, a heavily plotted film, to my mind, is under a greater obligation to feel cohesive and held together than a film that isn’t so heavily plotted.

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Films aren’t under any obligation to tell stories or certainly to tell them conventionally.  Granted, a film should engage its viewers, but it should not be confined to the small box of traditional narrative structure. If Woody Allen wants to offer a 90-minute personal essay of sorts on relationships, more power to him.  If Terrence Malick wants to spend 150 minutes ruminating on man’s place in nature, so be it.

And finally, I’m going to end on a quote from Roger Ebert.  “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it’s about it.”  Thousands upon thousands of decisions go into making a motion picture.  What color should her shirt be?  What lens do you want on the camera?  Should we trim four frames off this shot?  How are those decisions working on you, the viewer, to produce a reaction?  You may have a preference for a film that makes you feel good or a film that makes you feel bad or a film that embraces one philosophy or another, but that doesn’t make all other films inferior.

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It’s not as if I have a checklist when I sit down to watch a film.  I’m not arguing that you can’t just enjoy a movie, and I’m certainly not trying to prove or disprove anyone’s taste.  As I’ve discussed film with friends over the years, these are some of the arguments that have reared their heads. So if you want to talk constructively about movies, I feel this is a pretty good framework.