The Obligatory SceneComplications Ensue
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Monday, April 09, 2012

I started rewatching BAND OF BROTHERS because I've been rereading Churchill's history of World War II. ("History will not be kind to Neville Chamberlain," Churchill said. "I know, for I shall write the history.")

Just watched episode 3, "Carentan." And there's a particularly brilliant scene that sums up all the carnage that Easy Company has been through.

(Spoilers, obviously, though just regarding the scene.)

What's brilliant about it is that it doesn't come during any of the battles. It's not a moment after the battle, surveying all the men lying on the field. You expect that after a battle scene. No, it comes when Easy is back in England after being pulled off the line in Normandy. They're going back to the war, so Sgt. Malarkey goes up to pick up his laundry.

He pays the woman -- he doesn't know what to make of English money, so she just picks the coins out of his hand. And he's about to leave, when she asks if he knows a certain Lieutenant, who hasn't come by to pick up his laundry. And we can see from Sgt. Malarkey's face why the Lieutenant hasn't come by. But he pays for the laundry. And then the wash woman asks about a few more soldiers from Easy who haven't been in to pick up their laundry. And she calls off their names. And of course she's naming the dead. And there are a lot of them.

It hits you harder because you're not expecting it. You don't expect to meet death when you're safely picking up your laundry.

I've heard the phrase "the obligatory scene" a few times. It's the scene that goes with the territory. The scene that the audience knows it has to see or they won't have a complete experience. As a writer, you try to figure out how to write that scene so that it's fresh and convincing and surprising, not merely obligatory.

The all-time most amazing obligatory scene I've ever seen, I think, is in ROME. It comes after Caesar's murder. Marc Antony has to give a speech, you see.

The problem is, he's going to give a speech that another writer has written rather memorably. "Friends, Romans, countrymen," it begins. "Lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."

How do you rewrite Shakespeare?

You don't, of course. And what the screenwriter of that episode chose to do, instead, was to have a fellow come into a bar and tell everyone about Antony's speech. Of course he doesn't remember the words. He barely heard them. He talks about how Antony came out with Caesar's bloody toga, and kissed it, and how he played the crowd.

The writing fills in around the famous speech. It's like jazz: you don't hit the beat, you hit around the beat, trusting the audience knows where the beat is.

The audience of BAND OF BROTHERS knows where the beat is. It knows where the dead are. They're lying in the hedgerows of Normandy. So you don't talk about death there. You talk about fear, and fearlessness, and fatigue, and stupid mistakes, and cowardice, and hysterical blindness. You talk about everything except death.

And then after the beat, you play that note -- afterwards, you have your obligatory scene.



Great post. I'm a musician, not a writer and the jazz analogy was actually occurring to me whilst reading the first few paragraphs.

There's always a good way to communicate a feeling or a phrase without being too on the nose about it, and the audience gets a little something more out of it because they contributed to the end product in some way.

By Blogger Martin Cavanagh, at 9:46 AM  

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