Thoughts On: Cinderella
The Disney Classic we all know.
Cinderella is, weirdly, probably one of my favourite films of all time. I’ve written about it before. You can find that post here. I would advise reading that as I’ll be heavily referencing everything discussed in that post. If you don’t care to read that, but are still here, well… fine. Cinderella is essentially a psychological thriller. The mice, birds and so on are a projection of her hidden psyche which evolve the narrative into an exploration of inner strength. In the previous few posts we’ve essentially discussed how to manipulate your narrative, to inject something exciting and revelatory into your story. What has then been discussed across all of these posts is both what art is and a narrative is. The two major take aways are that art is about a communication between an audience and artist, and that a narrative is there to facilitate that communication by building off of the bones of a plot. In this I want to bring everything together under the idea of plot, which we haven’t really gotten into yet, and so discuss what Cinderella being a psychological thriller can teach us about screenwriting – maybe writing or creative production in general.
To start, I’ll essentially repeat the title: there are 3 plot lines in your film. To clarify, there are 3 types of plot lines in films, but you don’t have to really appeal to all of them. You’ll hopefully have decided what you think the point of writing/making films is before this, and so be able to determine if you agree with this philosophy of script writing. Ok, so the first plot in your film is going to be the obvious one: what happens. Let’s look at Cinderella to expand. If you were to note down all of the major plot points of the first act, you’d get something like this:
1. Introduce the film through Cinderella’s back story.
2. Open on Cinderella singing her song, getting ready before showing her morning routine.
3. Introducing all the characters of the film, establishing the conflict between the mice and Lucifer before demonstrating the control the evil stepmother has over Cinderella.
4. Introduce the second act via the end goal of the movie (the Prince finding a bride) before linking that to Cinderella herself. To complicate matters, remind everyone of the conflict to come.
From here, you could imagine the major plot points extending through the rest of the film. Here, we have screenwriting 101, it’s as simple as it gets and no one really needs to be told about it. This kind of plot is there to ensure some kind of movement. You also here this expressed as ‘change’, but plots don’t always need much change as would be demonstrated by the likes of:
We’ll to why these films work in a moment, but they firstly express that narratives don’t need ‘change’, which implies a spatial movement or a large arcing plot demonstrated by epics such as…
Plots of this type need to get you from A to B. They are completely dependent on external, physical conflict. If you look back to the first 4 plot points of Cinderella you see the major points of conflict. Firstly, there’s Cinderella’s past and how it relates to her current situation: a slave to her step mother. The second and third show the conflict between the animals and the cat – as well as between Cinderella and her ‘family’. Lastly, we see the way out of the conflict (the Prince). However, in this we only find more conflict – and that’s what the second and third act will echo until Cinderella overcomes all conflict. Seeing this, you can recognise that, like Clerks, Before Sunrise, The Shining and Lost In Translation, conflict can come in small doses, that it’s not attached to different locations, and the expression of that physical conflict doesn’t have to be war. Having said that, we move to the second type of plot.
The second kind of plot is a much harder concept to demonstrate on screen. It’s the plot of your character arc, of internal conflict. We’ll demonstrate again with the first act of Cinderella:
1. The emotional torment Cinderella has endured in her young life is exposited.
2. Cinderella as an adult demonstrates her emotional growth, her ability to carry on under duress as well as hold on to hopes and dreams.
3. Emotional stakes are added to the film by demonstrating the fear the mice have over Lucifer as well as the stress Cinderella is under because of how much of a bitch her stepmother is.
4. The emotional stakes are juxtaposed with a route towards happiness, putting Cinderella’s emotions in a precarious position; her hope is somewhat realise, her way out of the house shown, but all under the jealous eye of the family keeping her slave.
What we are seeing here is the plotting of Cinderella’s character arc. She transforms from a girl in a terrible situation, but with hope, into a princess. The first plot is then clearly interweaved into this second one in that we see the physical journey towards Cinderella as a princess paralleling her emotional journey. The crux of having these two plots speak to each other well is in showing how one type of conflict affects another. In other words, you show how Cinderella reacts to things around her, but also how he actively works to change her physical surroundings. It’s recognising this that we can come back to these four films:
These films work by having very little happen in respect to physical conflict (like that seen in epics like The Lord Of The Rings or Lawrence Of Arabia) by having a huge pool of internal conflicts. This doesn’t mean you have too construct a low-budget drama with high emotional stakes though. In fact, almost all of these films show the opposite. Before Sunrise capitalises on a slowly growing romance, a simple idea of emotional connection. It translates this through conflict. The dialogue between Jessie and Celine is the physical conflict as it can literally pull them together and push them apart, but it is also the expression of a internal conflict as it demonstrates how they are feeling, how they’re internally changing. This is great writing as it has the pure balls to present conflict in such a subdued manner – such is also present in Clerks. Clerks is a special example though as the emotional stakes are very, very, low. The conflict presented through dialogue between characters is quite superficial. There’s a bit of relationship stuff and disagreement, but it’s not heightened and melodramatic – but such is the beauty of the movie. The most poignant parts of the film are when Dante and Randal argue about Star Wars, cigarettes and customers. The conflict here is almost invisible, but we feel it just like we would in a court room drama…
These films are all about a heightened disagreement between characters that imply a physical conflict – a guy going to jail for the most part. Clerks presents a very similar kind of narrative, just with different pacing and a more comedic tone. Coming to Lost In Translation and The Shining we are seeing the use of a location as a fundamental expression of a character’s internal feelings. The Shining uses the Outlook Hotel to essentially drive Jack mad, to turn internal conflict external. With Lost In Translation we see Tokyo as a foreign place that drives two characters together, daring them to let that become physical conflict – a sexual relationship between two married persons. Through this we are seeing the crux of most great films. They use character plotting as well as incident plotting to tell us a good story.
This is such an important thing to do because it echoes everything about narrative covered in the Legacy Series so far. Narrative is all about the whole of a movie, is about communicating ideas to an audience. To do this you need subjects: characters, themes and points. Themes are there to frame the point your trying to make with a story. Coming back to Cinderella we see the themes to be of isolation, dreams and hope. The purpose of the story, it’s point, is to talk of perseverance. So, by using character, Cinderella, as a vessel to stream through themes, we see the tangible means by which the point of the film is made: if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish can come true. What this all does is set up a resonance chamber. With each frame you are echoing through theses points, themes and ideas of character, and you know when they hit your audience, when the points really resonate, when the film does this thing called entertain. This is the point of the first two plots, they are there to find a way to engage your audience in your story through conflict so that they can be taken on a journey, an emotional progression, and come through having felt they experienced something worthwhile, that they feel the point you were making and that they like/agree with it. This, for many, is the core reason why we watch movies, why we want to make movies. We want to be able to be entertained, to have our attention captivated, our emotions manipulated. What this says about cinema is that it is, quite literally, a roller coaster ride. Instead of experiencing what it means to be physically tested, with movies we are experiencing an emotional and perceptual test.
However, there’s still one more plot line. As you may be questioning right now: why has he used Cinderella to tell us about these mediocre concepts? Well, the point is in the fact that Cinderella’s first two types of plot, ones of events and of character, aren’t incredibly strong. The plot of events is quite clunky, showing a rather straight forward movement from the home, to the ball and back to the home again before Cinderella can try the shoe on. Moreover, the film is full of what seem like plot filler – almost everything with the mice. There’s just not that much physical conflict in this film, and because Disney wouldn’t just have Cinderella talking to the mice for 75 minutes, they seemed to have added in everything with the mice. It’s here where I’ll stop momentarily to say that, yes, the action with the mice would often be defined as a secondary plot line. In many films we see numerous sets of events, or plots, coming together to produce a narrative…
Pulp Fiction would probably be the most obvious example of this. Whilst you would refer to all the different sets of events in this film as plot 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, what I mean to distinguish with my different plots is that there’s different types of, or layers to, a plot. That clarified, we come back to Cinderella. The second type of plot in Cinderella, just like the first type, isn’t that strong either. Cinderella’s character arc is often criticised as being too reactionary and bland – the manifestation of this point normally being that Disney films are somewhat sexist in their portrayal of female characters as needing a man to solve their problems. Whilst I see the argument for this, I don’t think it’s the end of the world, neither do I think it entails a complete reading of the film. Before moving onto that, yes, this is a kid’s film, which means most of its audience won’t be delving too deep into it, which upholds the initial criticism to a certain degree. That said, the third plot line.
Cinderella, as said, is about an independent growth, an introspective and psychological journey of a girl/woman overcoming her stepmother. What Cinderella then best defines is a subtextual plot. This is the third kind of plot which elevates a movie from simple entertainment to more serious art. This is probably the hardest part of filmmaking/screenwriting to grip as it’s not something you can really communicate with a beat sheet, set of diagrams or terms. To construct this kind of plot, to give your film that artsy finish, you need to have something to say, you need to be able to implement visual metaphors through various cinematic outlets. Having the ‘something to say’ part isn’t that hard. You already need this to construct a basic plot. To get from A to B, you usually have to give reasoning for why we’re going through the trouble. With Cinderella the point of the plots is to talk about hope, dreams and perseverance. Even films that look like they’re just the bare bones of a single basic plot with no character…
… have a point. With Mad Max you have a film that is essentially about feminist and socialist ideals. The expression of this though is pretty stupid as…
… WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU WASTING ALL THE WATER!?!?!? This is how you put across your point stupidly. You find simple images like a guy not giving everyone much water and then end on an inconclusive and painfully simplistic one such as: let the women take over and give the people all the water. However, with The Raid we see an equally simply plot, but one with a more coherent subtext about loyalty and a brotherly bond. Whilst neither of these films have very solid subtext worth paying an awful lot of attention to, they’re still there – and that’s the point.
Recognising this, it makes sense to not let the third plot of your movie be an unconscious byproduct of having a narrative. Why not use that third plot to say something more? It’s here where your philosophy of what a film is will determine whether or not you take the third plot line seriously. If you think films should just entertain, not really try to say something pretentious and grandiose, that audience don’t care much about meaning, then it’s fine to overlook this. However, because I enjoy this third layer of a story and I see a huge chunk of reasoning for writing behind this, I like to concentrate on it. So, for the last time, let’s delve into Cinderella’s first act looking the subtextual meaning:
1. The characters are shown to us and set up in their most basic format. The father is kind, the second lost love of Cinderella’s young life – her mother the first – and the stepmother is a gold digging whore with two assholes for kids.
2. We see Cinderella as a developed persona, but one with scars. These scars are expressed through the animals around her – they essentially demonstrate how Cinderella sees herself. There’s all the mice and then the birds that cite her work ethic and ability to get on in life with some optimism and tenacity. Moreover, the birds are figures representative of Cinderella’s mother – as established by the opening. In addition, we see the horse, Major, and dog, Bruno, as projections of Cinderella’s father. This is also set up by the opening.
3. With the conflict between the mice and Lucifer we see the subtextual conflict between Cinderella’s projections of self and how she perceives the evil step mother (she’s the cat). This sets up the psychological battle between Cinderella believing in herself (in part, because of her parents) and doubting herself (because of her stepmother).
4. Cinderella, a girl who wishes of being loved, of having a family of good standing who will be compassionate and freeing, is confronted with an opportunity to fight for a dream.
This is the rough subtext provided by the third plot of the movie. What we see here is the external conflict presented by the first plot interacting with the internal conflicts of the second. To justify this, to weave together the physical and emotional worlds as to say something concise and profound to the audience, the third plot works with metaphors, self-referencing and commentary.
The third plot line pretty much speaks for itself, demonstrating its own importance and draw. I believe seeing the subtext of a movie in terms of an actual plot you could (if this is who you work) write down on cards is so important as it makes an ‘artistic’ concept of ‘meaning’, ‘subtext’ and ‘layers’ tangible. Understanding what these three plot types are, both as an audience member and writer, you are employing new dexterous techniques that allow you to see cinema as something much more complex and beautiful that a time filler.