Get That Bag A Night Job

. Lani Diane Rich has this theory that everything in a story has to work all the time, do two or three jobs, or it’s not earning its keep. Since I have the same theory, it tends to crop up when we’re doing the Popcorn Dialogues analyses, but this week, for What’s Up, Doc?, we really bit down on it. (Please note: Massive movie spoilers ahead.)

If you haven’t see the movie (and you should, you should), it’s about a guy named Howard who’s trying to get a grant to study the musicological attributes of igneous rocks. The second scene in the movie is Howard with his humorless, micro-managing fiancee, Eunice (the magnificent Madeline Kahn), in a cab that stops suddenly so that he bangs his head on the red plaid suitcase that holds his rocks. It’s important that the viewer know that there are rocks in the bag, so Howard complains, Eunice tells him to suck it up, and the cab driver makes a “I hate it when somebody touches my rocks” joke. (Why yes this is similar to David and his prehistoric bones and humorless fiance in Bringing Up Baby. It’s an homage.)

The cab has stopped short because a woman named Judy (that would be Barbra Streisand) has walked in front of it carrying a red plaid bag just like Howard’s. Judy and Howard are going to end up together. In fact, that’s the central plot of this movie, getting Judy and Howard together even though Judy causes chaos wherever she goes and Howard can’t remember what day it is. It’s okay, they’re great together, you buy it, and although there’s a glitch in the beginning that Lucy and I would fix (easily) the romance is good.

The problem is that those damn bags pretty much sit on their zippers for the first hour of the movie. They each have only one job, to carry Howard’s rocks and Judy’s underwear. Now if they were just pieces of luggage and not major players, that would be okay, but there are two other plaid bags just like them floating around the movie and all of them are pretty much jobless until almost the end when they all start multi-tasking like mad, but by then it’s too late. If Buck Henry (great writer) wanted four identical bags floating around so he could use them an hour into the movie, he really should have used them from the beginning so viewers wouldn’t keep saying, “What’s with the damn bags?”

Here’s what’s with the damn bags:

Bag 1: The Top Secret Bag
The first scene of the film is a guy taking a plaid bag out of a locker, opening it to check the contents which are a pile of folders labeled “Top Secret” (loved that), and then being followed by a guy with golf clubs. Two guys in suits. How do you tell them apart? One guy has golf clubs. Why does he have golf clubs? So you can tell them apart. This is a problem. Also, don’t give the first scene in your movie to two characters who are so peripheral they don’t even have names. Also let your reader/viewer know what the hell is going on: the guy with the bag is a government whistleblower and the guy with the clubs is a government agent sent to get the documents back. When do we know this? At the end of the movie.

Bag 2: Howard’s Rocks Bag
We already talked about this one. It’s full of rocks.

Bag 3: Judy’s Bag
Yes, I know it’s a stretch that Judy has a red plaid bag just like Howard’s and the whistleblower’s. They were having a sale. Just go with it, the movie is a farce, it doesn’t need to be real, it just needs to make sense. But it would be nice if Judy opened the bag at some point and showed us that it was full of her underwear.

Bag 4: Mrs. Van Hoskin’s Jewels Bag
Mrs. Van Hoskins, a guest in the hotel where Howard and Eunice are staying, keeps her jewelry in a red plaid carry on. Why? Okay, look, we’ve been over this, just GO with it. Mrs. Van H’s bag is important because the Guy in the Suit in charge of the hotel desk is in league with the Guy in the Suit Who’s a Jewel Thief (but not with the Guy in the Suit Who’s a Government Agent) and they’re going to steal the bag from Mrs. Van H.

So we’ve got Guy in the Suit with the red plaid Top Secret Bag, Howard with his Rocks Bag, Judy with her Underwear Bag, and Mrs. Van W with her Jewels Bag. Got it? what are you going to do with this, campers?

The movie does nothing with it for an hour. Oh, the bags are swapped and stolen and hidden and traded, they travel more than a candidate the first week in November, but all you see are red plaid bags; nobody ever opens them until an hour into the movie, when you’ve forgotten what’s in them and then they all come together in one place, whereupon they cause a home invasion, one of the greatest chase sequences of all time, and a slapstick courtroom scene. We need the bags for that great screwball ending. It’s the hour of Musical Anonymous Bags that precedes their big number that does not work because everytime somebody moves, swaps, or steals another bag, the viewer says, “What’s with the bags?” not “Ohmygod, that’s the X bag and . . . ” The bags only have one real job and they don’t go to work until the end of the movie.

Lani and I decided early on that the bags were a big, big problem, big enough to knock a point off plot and structure. Anything that makes a viewer say, “Huh?” is bad. Really bad. Throw the reader/viewer out of the plot bad. Lani said, “Get rid of the bags,” but that would mean getting rid of that over-the-top one-damn-thing-after-another climax. Her point is that you can’t knee-cap an hour of story because it’ll pay off in the last half hour. If you want those four bags to do their day job at the end of the story, you’re going to have to give them a night job for the first hour. My point is that they’re necessary to the story, so we have to give them a night job.

This is where we began to cogitate.

We’ve got four bags and six Guys in Suits if you count Howard, which we don’t because Howard is Ryan O’Neal, looking particularly tasty in horn-rimmed glasses so we know who he is, and Frederick, which we don’t because Frederick is played by Austin Pendleton who is extremely hard to confuse with anybody else on the planet, so we’ve got four guys in suits. It’s a bad idea to have four guys in suits swapping four identical plaid bags and never looking inside or doing anything with them, and an even worse idea because the movie never explains the two guys fighting over the Top Secrets bag, so they’re annoying and unrecognizable. They’re all the way through the movie, they steal Judy’s stolen room service, they mug Mrs. Van H, they hide on Howard’s window sill seventeen stories above a busy street, but they do not have identities beyond Guys in Suits Who Steal Plaid Bags. So we have this lovely complex screwball love story, and in the midst of that, every now and then, some guy in a suit dashes through with a plaid bag.

Our thoughts on fixing this were two-fold:

1. Make the four guys in suits different. Give one a mustache, make the guy with the golf clubs carry them everywhere, make the desk clerk and the jewel thief of a different gender, race, ethnicity, ANYTHING that makes them dramatically different from each other, not just four white guys in suits. Then make it clear that Guy One is a whistle blower, Guy Two is a government agent trying to get the stolen docs back, Guy Three is the desk clerk/mastermind of the jewel heist, and Guy Four is hired help who’s not too bright but willing to do anything. Now instead of Guys with Suits with Plaid Bags, we have the Government Plot and the Jewel Heist Plot with four distinctive characters we can tell apart so that when one of them ends up on a ledge, we’re not looking at each other saying, “Who is he again?” He’s the government agent, didn’t you see the golf clubs?

2. Of course we don’t care about the Government Plot or the Jewel Heist Plot, so how do we make them essential to the story instead of annoying and peripheral? We make them complicate the story we do care about which is Howard getting Judy and his grant to study igneous rocks. At any time in this movie, Howard has a bag, Judy has a bag, and Eunice often has a bag. None of them ever open the bags. But if it’s made clear what’s in the bags, then the wrong person opening the wrong bag can make life hell for Howard. For example:

• Eunice opens Judy’s bag (thinking it’s Howard’s) and see Judy’s underwear.

• Judy opens her bag and finds Howard’s rocks and uses them to make him buy her room service.

• Howard opens his bag to show his rocks to the man giving the grant and finds pounds of diamond jewelry which undercuts his “I’m penniless and need a lot of money” request.*

• The jewel thief opens the jewelry bag in front of the people who are fencing the stuff only to find Howard’s rocks, which makes them think he’s sold them out and leaves Howard without his rocks for his big presentation which is occurring at the same time.*

• Eunice opens Howard’s bag and find the jewels which she turns into the crooked desk clerk who has been scrupulous about not having anything incriminating to do with the jewels so now he must return them to Mrs. Van H. or do something about Eunice.

• Judy opens her bag and finds the Top Secret documents and reads them (she reads everything) and uses the information later to do something Judy-like that will probably upset Howard.

• The government agent stops the whistleblower, shows his badge, and demands that he open his bag so he can arrest him with the evidence on him, only to find that the bag is full of Judy’s underwear, which implicates Judy and Howard in the crime.

*(These two actually happen in the movie at the end when the bags begin to pay off)

I can go on like this for days, but my point is that once the viewer/reader knows what’s in the four bags, and once she or he is clear about what the three sets of people are trying to do–get the Top Secret documents, get the jewelry, get the grant with the rocks–then it doesn’t matter that nobody can tell the bags apart, that they’re everywhere in the story and the viewer/reader never knows what’s in any particular one at any time, because the reader/viewer knows the damage they can do and is waiting to see what’s in them when they’re opened, like Easter Eggs, creating chaos wherever they go. This would lead inevitably to the home invasion where people with guns say, “All right, I’ve had it, put all the damn bags in the middle of the floor and back away,” where Howard and Judy steal the bags and start the San Francisco-wide city chase that led the city to institute stringent restrictions on what film companies could do since it damaged so much of the town, and end in the courtroom where the dyspeptic judge could call them a foul and despicable lot.

If you haven’t seen the movie, it probably sounds like chaos on wheels, and it is, but it’s sublime chaos, or it would be if they’d fixed that damn bag problem.

Of course that wouldn’t fix the problem of the romance set-up, but we know how to fix that, too. Popcorn Dialogues: It Takes Us Awhile But We Can Solve Anything (except for Barefoot in the Park). (The podcast where we fumble our way through this problem, with Lani tanked on wine and me nauseous from overeating after not eating anything all day, is on the PopD site if you want to hear us circling those bags over and over again.)

But the bottom line is, every important element needs a night job that complicates the main plot. Especially those damn bags.

53 thoughts on “Get That Bag A Night Job

  1. I read the whole thing. And I get it because I’ve seen the movie. It’s worth seeing for Streisand alone. But I’m still stuck at this: “…back when we were doing PopD.”

    Did I miss something? Is PopD no more?

    I noticed you hadn’t started yet, but I thought that was just a delay from buying the house & stuff.

      1. I wondered the same thing. I’ll be looking forward to the mystery series. I agree re: the bags.

      2. Thanks for the clarification. Love the podcasts–or as I call them “Monday Morning Scriptdoctoring.”

        Although I don’t think the one I was rooting for made it to final cut: “Deathtrap.” But then, my choices re last year didn’t make it either (Butterflies are Free, Sunday in New York, For Pete’s Sake) so I don’t have good karma in that area:)

        For me, it’s all about the story analysis, so I enjoy all the podcasts but really looking forward to the mysteries.

  2. I saw the movie so many years ago. I’m pretty sure I don’t remember it being half as entertaining as this blog post.

    You made the bags work in this post. Completely.

  3. Saw the movie on first release. Loved it. Thanks for the reminder. I knew a reason lurked why I’m chary of buying a plaid bag.

  4. Funny, educational post about a funny entertaining film. Streisand was magical and she brought out the best in ONeal. Loved the plot lessons.
    The other movie I loved, loved, loved was The Owl and the Pussycat. Streisand was again magical and she really revved up George Segal.

    1. I think he was replacing two leopards with four bags and forgot that bags aren’t leopards and don’t carry their own meaning with them. (See Bringing Up Baby).

  5. Good comedy requires the use of all significant items. You don’t bring in something and make a big deal of it and then set it aside. You have to keep using it. IN a class I took, Connie Willis (an AWESOME writer of comedic fiction), Connie talked about how in comedy at least you needed to use the rule of three: you have to use an item 3 times, or repeat an idea or phrase 3 times, to achieve full comedic effect. I don’t know if further repetitions add to or detract from the comedy.

    1. The rule of three is pretty much across genres.
      If you mention something once, it has no meaning.
      If you mention it twice, it’s a coincidence.
      If you mention it three times, it’s significant and its meaning is in the pattern of its usage.
      If you mention it four times, you may be in anvilicious territory.

    2. Gotta say that Connie Willis is awesome. Wasn’t “To Say Nothing of the Dog” mentioned in Aargh recently? (Or was it 3 Men / Boat , Jerome?)
      Saw “Doc” back when it came out, loved it.

    1. You’re not in moderation. Jeez.
      You might be in the spam folder, though. I’ll go check.

      Nope. Carole was, but you weren’t.

  6. I love, love, love this movie. I’ve seen it enough times now that I usually know which bag is which, but they are a problem. Now, I was always clear on who the desk clerk and the house detective were, and what they were doing (and didn’t Fritz the Desk Clerk have a distinctive accent?). It was just the golf club guy and the whistle-blower that confused me the first time. Like your ideas for making them work. I especially like the idea of Eunice finding Judy’s underwear and going after Howard with it.

  7. This post is why I’m hiring Lani to look at my plot. Although the current WIP isn’t necessarily commedic. I’d hire you too, Jenny, if you were available.

    I’m always amazed by what I learn on this blog. By now I should be used to it. I REALLY NEED to live with someone who understands story and structure and the need to write!

  8. Judy is checking into the hotel, so she has a bag, except Judy is actually broke, thus Judy is stowing away in the hotel and moves her bag from hiding place to hiding place.

  9. I remember the movie. I remember I saw it when it came out…never miss Streisand. I remember I loved it. I DON’T remember a thing about the movie…and I’m still trying to catch my breath from reading all of the above.

  10. I forgot to mention last night that when I first read the blog post title Give the Bag a Night Job, I thought it was a follow up to the kerfuffle post and that some Internet troll had dared to call you a bag and state that you needed a job to keep you busy on top of your writing. I was ready to breathe fire at the insult to you, then I read the post, laughed, and forgot the anger.

  11. Goldfinger by Ian Fleming- Goldfinger to Bond “once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, third time is enemy action.” I kid not, it’s in the book – more or less, my memory of it may vary.

      1. Fleming could turn a phrase, but . . . he’s so very, very vile about the women in his books. Hard to believe the same guy wrote Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I actually started to read the books again to see if they were so horrible. And they were. But, James Bond is a cultural icon, so Fleming did something right. (Oh, but his voice is so inane. Ugh. Hate the Fleming.)

  12. Ha ha, Mary Stella, I thought, “What? How dare they?”

    Then my thoughts flashed to Jenny, wearing a black leather mini skirt, fishnet stockings and red stillettos, and standing beneath a dim light say somewhere near Hollywood and Vine.

    I read the blog and added a red plaid bag to the vision. Big question, what’s in it?

    1. I have trouble picturing Jenny in that outfit with a red plaid bag. Garbed in updated, modern Wonder Woman-wear, maybe. Red plaid? Nah. A black bag on which she has drawn bejeweled, bedazzled pigs, maybe.

      What’s in it? Candy, because she took Sweetness and Light out trick or treatin for Halloween.

  13. In spite of my deep passion for anything cinematic, I’ve never seen this film for the simple reason that my mother despises Streisand and banned all of her music & movies from our house growing up.

    Since then, I’ve been busy. Now I have to start watching Streisand movies, but without letting my mother find out, because then I’ll have to listen to another anit-Babs rant.

    Not only have I learned about plotting & the rule of 3, now I’ll feel like I’m committing a crime by just watching a movie in my pj’s. Thanks, Fake Aunt Jenny!!

  14. For a good bag farce, you should definitely check out Oscar. It’s an under-rated (and under-the radar) movie that came out in the early 90’s. 3 bags, slamming doors, identity mix-ups… it’s great fun.

  15. What’s Up Doc? – one of my favorite movies evah. Although I must say, up to now I kind of saw the different bags as a mystery element to keep the audience curious, I never felt there was something amiss. Now that you mentioned it though… Maybe I’ll watch it again, I’m sure I’ll see it differently now. Must find it first, though. We just got rid of two boxes of video cassettes because our recorder broke and we’re not going to replace it since nowadays, it’s DVDs only.

  16. I don’t remember being bothered by the bags, probably because the first time I saw this my parents were with me and my mom was grabbing my dad’s arm at pointing at the screen, talking in a stage whisper: “Look, Hank! We stayed at that hotel! I recognize the carpeting! And it’s the same lobby!” and so on, through the whole bag-exchanging opening scene until my brain was numb and I didn’t really care who had what bag.

    But I liked this movie enough to watch it again and again over the years. I LOVE Madeline Kahn as Eunice almost as much as I loved Barbra Streisand. (And I loved the ending of the court room scene, even if it was contrived.) I even kind of liked Ryan O’Neal in this, and I’m not much of a fan of his normally.

    Now where the heck did I put that DVD? I think it’s going to be a movie night tonight!

  17. That was a fun movie. Being originally from San Francisco, I especially enjoy movies shot there. Just now, thinking about it, I realized that Ryan O’Neal is kind of the Keanu Reeves of his generation. No, not the Cary Grant, in spite of the homage factor here.

    Rather than setting up multiple, additional bag openings, which let’s face it can become contrived and a waste of screen time, I thought each bag should have had something to differentiate it, e.g., a scuffed corner, a slightly loose handle, a bit of lace sticking out etc. Or, same idea, but show the bag with the Top Secret folders being carried by the guy in the conservative suit with the loud tie, followed buy the agent in the pink polo shirt carrying golf clubs. You don’t even have to see their faces — conservative suit and loud tie, you know the bag should contain Top Secret papers, yet it has a bit of lace sticking out, and you know he’s got the wrong bag.

    You could get an awful lot of bang for that buck just showing sholders down walking along with the bag that doesn’t match the outfit. And, second job for this little bit of business — the viewer is going to know Judy has the wrong bag, too.

    I wish it weren’t so many years since I saw this movie, and i saw it on television, too, so who knows how much was edited out. So, can’t say how sensible my ideas are, but based on your description, that’s what comes to mind.

    It’s a visual medium, and they should have taken more advantage of its benefits to establish the framework of the various “stories” and give the viewers pointers when hijinks are about to ensue.

    I don’t remember who directed this. Depending, it may not be Buck Henry’s fault that it wasn’t handled better. Although I liked it, it was typical Buck Henry, and IIRC, his movies were pretty much all fun, but they fell down a lot in the execution. Again, not necessarily his fault, the money men may have been of the car chases = good box office receipts frame of mind and didn’t particularly care how they got there, as long as they did, and it was long and destructive. And funny is good, too.

  18. I remember watching this with PopD and thinking there were so many things I just didn’t get and the bags were just one of many. I appreciate the rewrite work here. This helps make sense to me now. I’d also like to recast some of the movie. Personally, I’m not a fan of early Babs movies. She just walked through those roles and in this case it just helped confuse me some more.

  19. Too many years have gone by since watching this movie. I see a rental in my future with renewed interest!
    Thank you for the reminder of the Rule of 3.
    I look forward to your mystery podcast. I hate to say, but I’ve never listened to one and this would be a good one with which to break new ground.
    So glad to have found your site, thank you!

  20. I am not really a film fan, but this one has always been one of my favourites, and I have seen it many times. Although intellectually I agree with Jenny’s analysis, I am simply not bothered by the undoubted confusion of the multiple bags; I don’t find it necessary to be able to follow what is going on with the crazy sub-plots. They form the out-of-focus background which emphasises the main strand of the story and throws it into higher relief.
    Visually, a complex and detailed picture can have every part equally sharp (like most 18-19thC historical paintings), so that the eye can light anywhere, move in all directions, and pursue each element of the picture separately, an interweaving of multiple stories. Or it can have an obvious, clearly focused, subject, with secondary elements that are deliberately more blurred, so that they give context, but do not compete directly with the centre; that is a common approach in photography. I see ‘What’s up, Doc’ as the latter. The confusion and deliberate silliness of the sub-plots with the peripatetic bags make a single coherent point: the whole atmosphere of chaos and confusion over which Judy presides, and which reaches its farcical climax in the law-court scene. To me, clarifying the details of the bags, their contents, and the various characters pursuing, stealing and switching them, would very easily detract from the central story, diffusing the viewer’s attention.
    A minority view, evidently. But I like the film as it is, and I suspect that the bags sub-plots were deliberately kept blurred and confusing. 😀

    1. What Ag said. Besides, I like the word ‘peripatetic’. Didn’t even have to look it up because the little Greek I know contains the word ‘peripatou’ for ‘walk’.

    2. Yeah, I like that focus vs background idea. I thought that was WHY all those guys were in suits.

      But a suit with a mustache and a suit with something else would have been nice. And I like the lace sticking out of the bag, especially if we see it when we first see Judy with the bag. — So what about a medium-focus layer, some hints but make it clear you don’t have to really keep track of all of them.

  21. Prefer reading and imagining your rewrite to seeing a movie—this one or any movie. I do have to watch some movies, but not much beats curling up with a book or a good blog post such as this. And I don’t think I finished watching the movie years ago, nor could I even with your fascinating rewrite, if the cast were the same. Now, if they appeared as old as some are now, perhaps. Without Botox or facelifts.

  22. The fabulous Popcorn Dialogs!! Which I had to give up for NaNo, and then never quite got my life together afterwards.

    I did watch that movie, though (I think in March). It really was fabulous, and a definite “must see again.”

    I’d like to say two things before reading everyone else’s discussion. One, I know you guys hate a prologue, but there are so, so, so many books that have them. Books that are absolute classics, too. I have to wonder if the “deliver them to the action Right Now” is just a trend in writing. I mean, “Deliver Now” works great for you, because you’re a great writer. But with some writers, they “Deliver Now” and you open up the box/book and say, “what the hell are these dwarves doing in here?” Some books need a set-up. And sad to say, but some set-ups are more interesting than the so-called action, and you forgive the book just because it has interesting characters and/or ideas.

    Second . . . it’s been a few months since I saw the movie, but the suited guys were an extension of the suitcases, and the suitcases were a whatchamacallit for the “hide the pea under the cup” game. In the middle of the cup game, you don’t look under the cup. Your mind is a little dazzled by the action, and instead, you start concentrating on the huckster’s prattle, rather than the cups and the pea. I didn’t have a problem with plaid bags; I figured it was a trend of the times . . . if it happened today in Japan, they’d use those butt-ugly Louis Vuitton bags to cart secret papers, diamonds, etc. (-: but instead of guys in suits, they’d have to have ladies in ruffly tops and business skirts . . . .

    I don’t have any problem with your guys’ version; I think that could be a lot of fun, too. But, I don’t think the bags were a bad thing, per se, with the movie. The ending was a big pay-off. Although, because they were concentrating on being cute during the whole movie, the romance was a little dry. Much better than the romance in Bringing Up Baby, but a little dry.

    BTW, doing the Popcorn Dialogs just really opened my eyes culturally. For example, y’all probably knew that they redid The Apartment into the Broadway Musical, Promises, Promises. And some of the music from that was very popular — I’d never understood that song about Say a Little Prayer (for You) until I started making these connections.

    Also, I believe I heard that they are re-making (have re-made?) Born Yesterday . . . which really fits right into the current political atmosphere, but I hope they weren’t so ham-handed about the whole thing. (Then again, what feels really cool today will probably look ham-handed tomorrow . . . .)

  23. (-: Just wanted to add one thing: if everyone carried hand-decorated bags, this kind of plot would probably be too far-fetched to ever make it into fiction. Speaking of identical bags, I bought a kind of Mari Mekko-ish bag at K-mart, thinking I’d never see another like it at the airport . . . and then I saw two more in my same line!! So, maybe those red plaid bags are not so far-fetched.

  24. I still smile when I think of the scene under the banquet table. Something about it just tickles me.

    Thanks for this blog post… it’s given me a lot to think about. So, everything in a story has to earn its keep. Which means, if I’ve put something into book one–a personal object that is unique to the main character–and mention it in book two, then I bloody well better make sure that it’s plot pivotal in book three.


    1. Not necessarily. The rule of three is internal to stories, not across series. Although people do have a way of remembering things, as we learned with the Venus de Milo in Agnes.

  25. Be careful when you let the dogs out – I heard there’s a bunch of wild animals on the loose in Ohio. Might make a good story, but in reality, I wouldn’t want to experience it.

    1. That’s up in Columbus, but thank you. I told Alastair that there were lions, etc, loose in the state and he e-mailed back:
      “Come to Ohio, they said. It’s awesome, they said.”
      It’s a good thing he really loves Lani because Ohio is turning out to be a death trap.

  26. It’s Spirit Day (20 October) – wear purple in support of LGBTQ youth.

    Also – animals loose in Ohio! Even George Takei posted about it. Follow @GeorgeTakei on twitter. Because he’s funny, not just ’cause its Spirit Daya and he’s gay.

  27. It’s Spirit Day (20 October) – wear purple in support of LGBTQ youth.

    Also – animals loose in Ohio! Even George Takei posted about it. Follow @GeorgeTakei on twitter. Because he’s funny, not just ’cause its Spirit Day and he’s gay.

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