. 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.