If you were here Monday, you know I’m using Hollywood screen-writer Christopher Vogler’s structure paradigm to deconstruct one of my favorite movies. I just bought Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, and haven’t read it yet, but he taught our Early Bird course in St. Louis this year, and I don’t think I quit taking notes until the final applause for him hit.
Monday, we went through the prologue and opening scene of City Slickers–“Act 1″ according to the paradigm. Others call this the “set-up,” where we learn the cast of characters and how they interact, and we discover the “Ordinary World,” hear the “Call to Adventure,” and “Meet the Mentor.” Now, we’re going to “Cross the Threshold.”
Here’s the chart Mr. Vogler used during the course (click on the chart to enlarge it):
We’re moving into the second quadrant, going clockwise. This is where we thrust our character into the “Special World.” This world, according to Mr. Vogler, is always polarized, and to a certain extent, Mitch’s special world is: it’s the Ranchers/Cowboys vs. the City Slickers.
Now our story starts escalating. I wish I’d taken a picture of Mr. Vogler’s visual, but this one will have to do:
Mr. Vogler’s chart was more wavy, illustrating more time allowed in the peaks and valleys, but the idea here is the same: ups and downs in a progressively upward direction. This is what the story line is like from here. Tests increase in intensity, valleys allow time for introspection and reevaluation.
The transition from the ordinary world to the special world (Crossing the Threshold) was as simple as changing scenery. One moment, we’re in an apartment in New York, the next, we’re on a ranch in New Mexico. When writing a novel, all we’d do is turn the page and start a new chapter.
More characters are introduced and divided into two camps: other thrill-seekers and the ranchers. Then there’s “Curly” (Jack Palance). Gruff, tough, gritty. In the beginning of Act 2A, he’s the one most admired, and most feared. Nothing fazes him, no one crosses him, everyone obeys him. He’s leathery, like “a saddle bag with eyes.”
So, is he “ally” or “enemy”? We spend much of Act 2A finding out. He’s ever-present during the tests in this part of Mitch’s Special World–and he doesn’t seem too friendly.
The tests start out simple enough. The guys have to learn to rope and ride. Mitch stands up to the ranch hands. Then comes the “Yee-Haw!” scene, with everyone saddled up and ready to roll ’em. Catch those strays, boys!
We have further exploration into the characters. Ed, for example, is forever looking for a loophole to fidelity. Mitch is honest and wouldn’t dare take advantage of an opportunity to cheat. Phil and Ed bicker. Mitch plays peacemaker, the voice of reason.
Next morning, Mitch wants coffee, and we face our first “big” test. The noise from the coffee grinder starts a stampede. Cattle trample everything in camp and head off to parts unknown, until Curly stops the frantic herd with a single shot in the air. Then, with a sneer on his lips, he chooses Mitch to help him round up the strays. Just the two of them. Alone.
In the next several scenes, we’ll engage in a reassessment of who the allies and enemies are, starting with the harmonica scene.
By the time this is over, we have a shift. Curly no longer falls in the line of “enemy,” though he’s not exactly “ally” either. He becomes a mentor, telling Mitch that all he needs to do is to identify “one thing.” One thing that’s more important to him than anything else. Next scene presents the birth of “Norman,” the bull calf, which results in a “good job, cowboy” from Curly, further emphasizing him as a mentor and affirming Mitch on his quest.
Not long after, Curly dies, and the city slickers are left in the hands of T.R. and Jeff, the cowboys who’ve already shown themselves to be volatile. But they give logical orders, so everyone feels fine about it. And this begins the “Approach“: the place where the hero decides just how far he wants to go into his “Special World.”
At first he’s fine with it. They’re traveling along, chatting with each other–we viewers get more clues about their characters, deeper hints of what makes them the way they are.
Then Cookie gets drunk and drives his covered wagon over the cliff.
Cookie jumps from the wagon, breaks a leg, and necessitates a separation of some of the allies from the rest of the group.
Then the cowboys get drunk, nasty, and mean. This is the beginning of the Ordeal. All three of our heroes get to find out what they’re made of. Mitch, the peacemaker, tries to step in and reason with the guys. Ed, the thrill-seeker, jumps in with fists flying. And Phil–who has been on the verge of cracking all this time–finally comes unglued. It’s intense. And it’s followed by an insight into just how far over the edge Phil has leaned.
During the night, the cowboys turn tail and run, leaving our heroes and the rest of the city slickers to fend for themselves.
The crew has to decide whether to leave the herd behind and return to the ranch house, or to move the herd to its destination. At this point, there are six slickers in all, including our heroes, Mitch, Ed, and Phil. Two others have already left to take Cookie back. There are no enemies at this point, just an enormous task and the decision of whether or not to undertake it. Mitch is all for moving the herd, even assuming the role of leadership by telling them which direction to go. But then he discovers half of the city slickers want to go back, and he’s no longer sure of himself.
Ed says, “I’ll take ’em. You all go back to the ranch.”
Phil says, “We need this, Ed and I. I’ll stay with him and move the herd.”
Mitch says, “You guys are out of your minds. I’m going back.”
Of course, he won’t.
Friday, we’ll cover Act 2B and move into Act 3.