I learned two useful pieces of information this week. First, I learned how to structure a comedy. You build it like this: “They’re going to lose! Oh no, they’re going to lose!…they win.” Now, here’s how you structure a tragedy: “They’re going to win! Oh boy, they’re going to win!…they lose.”
Modern people don’t like tragedy very much. Maybe we have enough of it in our own lives. A movie with a ‘downbeat ending’ is a hard sell in Hollywood, but back in the old days it was different. Theater-goers lapped it up. “C’mon, Willy. Give us another one where the beautiful fourteen-year-old stabs herself to death because her hot but sensitive seventeen year old lover poisoned himself when he thought she was dead but she’s really not. That was your best play so far!”
I will never, ever forget walking out of the Larkin Theater into the rain after seeing the Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet. My date and I were stunned. We couldn’t speak. Our fellow moviegoers stumbled out at the steady, slow pace of people who’ve heard some ghastly news about their loved ones’ sudden and untimely demise. There was no after movie chitchat – just stunned silence. Yet, when they saw us, the people jammed outside waiting for the next show didn’t start running the other way. They could hardly wait to get in and eat some of that stuff we just ate.
And that movie remains one of the high points of my Sixties movie-going experiences, right up there with that other full-bore tragedy, Bonnie and Clyde, where Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway and Michael J. Pollard, a trio that we’ve grown to care a whole lot about, go down in a shocking and unforgettable blaze of machine gun fire as the credits roll.
Aristotle, before he married Jackie O. and settled down, used to say that watching fictional characters we cared about go down in a blaze of gunfire made us feel better. We were ‘purged’ of a lot of emotional crap that was building up inside us and left us free to build up some new crap.
I don’t know, myself. I’ve read that Charles Dickens couldn’t decide whether or not to kill off his heroine Little Nell. Then, one afternoon he was hanging out with his illustrator and old Cattermole pointed out the structure of The Old Curiosity Shop so far had been, “They’re going to win! Oh, boy, they’re going to win!…”
Dickens answered something like, “Oh, maaan! Why you tell me that now?”
The whole world wept. People in New York crowded at the docks waiting for the next ship from London. Before it even docked, they shouted at the sailors, “Is Little Nell alive? Say she is!” But of course she wasn’t. The whole city went home in stunned, cathartic silence, and stared at the embers of their little fires. But then they thought it might be nice to roast a bit of cheese. And perhaps a wiener. Because, all in all, it was Little Nell in a book who died. And their own little Nell was sitting right beside them enjoying the fire.
I’m going to make sure Walrus, Sylvie and Paulie lose, lose, lose. If Sylvie gets shot down at the end, it’ll be her own darned fault – I want nothing to do with it.