Scribbler’s Saga #33 – Tournament of Death

Posted: May 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

© 2017 G.N. Jacobs

I don’t often get to name, or at least propose a name for a story/film genre. I mean, didn’t Blake Snyder already go there with his ten film genres that select for character interaction instead of setting and other factors? Yes and No. As you will see when I finally get around to reading the late Mr. Synder’s Save the Cat sequels to explain these storytelling threads to you, Dear Reader (post to follow whenever), I’m not sure my genre description completely fits in with the Restorative Three-Act story structure described by either Mr. Snyder or the earlier versions by Syd Field. But, there is nothing resorative nor redemptive about stories and films that might pick up my moniker of Tournament of Death

What is this Restorative Three-Act structure? A protagonist whom we find compelling for some reason meets various challenges that force emotional and personal growth that meets deep-seated needs. That covers Restorative. Three Acts? Well, it begins with key rules/guidelines to establish the character. It middles (ugly verb) with similar rules/guidelines for a Second (Middle) Act designed to heighten conflict both internal and external for the protagonist. It ends with a third act that resolves the majority of the dramatic themes and conflicts of the story resulting in a restoration of or positive improvement upon the protagonist’s worldview or life.

Basically, this thought process explains why Robert Altman so famously skewered Hollywood suits and their slavish devotion to the Happy Ending in The Player. On the surface, with regard to this story structure a careful reader should be asking – What about Tragedy? Not that it matters, but since the only tragedies Hollywood will even think about doing have the Shakespeare or Other Ancient Public Doman label on them, it’s just not going to come up very much. But, a more careful reading of the many works that assert Restorative Three-Act say that some tragedies do apply in category because a protagonist like Hamlet acts as a sacrifice for the redemption of others (Denmark abides despite all the royals being dead). But, still some stories just don’t fit this mainstream structure of which the Tournament of Death is but one.

Let’s list the examples to prove my point of a small subclass of narrative that defies other explanation. Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men and Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. What do these movies have in common? Six to eight really horrible shitbag lame excuses for human beings walk into a closed or semi-closed environment chasing either their dark personal passions for revenge, destruction and misery or an awesome McGuffin that causes those dark emotional states. None of these horrible characters have any remaining shred of humanity left to allow them to leave the tournament site. And so these representatives of the ‘tyranny of evil men’ all stay in and kill each other, either to the last man or everybody dies.

No one grows. No one has anything like an epiphany of any kind. Every single one of them behaves according to the preset directives beat into them by their harsh lives up to that point. Bullets fly once these competing needs conflict with each other. The audience watches a bloodbath secretly glad to not be anywhere near as evil as these fictional men. This vicarious extermination of Evil subconsciously serves a similar emotional point to Yahweh saying in Scripture – “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.” – or – “Ye shall know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” It’s good to know that somehow Evil will kill itself off down from eight bastards with whom we wish not to share oxygen to one or zero. A culling.

Tarantino first. Eight dudes find their way to a remote cabin on the frontier trapped by a lot of snow. We follow Samuel L. Jackson’s character, a bounty hunter that forged a letter from Abraham Lincoln to get a small amount of peace from white assholes that might otherwise kill him just as soon as look at him. Trained by Mr. Tarantino’s previous movie Django Unchained we’re pulling for this man to prevail. All of America enjoys seeing the really racist white assholes of our past get their measure of divine vengeance so we can skip over the echoes of that racism in our present.

What happens? Samuel L. Jackson’s character strips his enemy’s son naked in the snow, forces a blowjob and then lets the man freeze anyway. Masterful job, Mr. Tarantino, tricking us with a seemingly interesting character to make us think this is a mainstream movie. Once we see this moment and how Mr. Jackson gloats saying those lines, we know we’re done and we should’ve known because the title is Hateful Eight. No false advertising claims here. And everybody dies…thankfully.

Even Mr. Tarantino sort of admits to this type of storytelling. In many interviews, he repeatedly says “I was doing a sequel to Django where he kills everybody in the cabin until I realized that the only problem with this as a Django story was Django. I cut him out and just did a movie with these characters stuck in the same room.”

Cormac McCarthy as interpreted by the Coen Brothers. In this movie and book, a down on his luck West Texas welder finds a bag of drug money that sparks a bloodbath when three or four different criminal entities all go hunting for the welder and the bag. In order to have a chance keeping the money, the wounded welder has to abandon key parts of his previous life while shooting it out with the bad guys. The story actually ends early in an indeterminate state where the welder and main assassin are wounded and waiting for the next shoe to drop whether the fight will continue into the future.

The extra villains in this West Texas bloodbath all die as if listed on a March Madness tournament bracket suggesting Javier Bardem might represent Duke in a year when they go all the way. In the same vein, Josh Brolin might be UNC coming up through the West brackets ready to deliver a cathartic showdown in the Finals. However, no one in this movie changes, grows or even expresses very much regret.

The lack of change is a major component of a Tournament of Death. Yes, if we were to take any of these characters and expand out their stories to highlight lives from birth to death the arcs would resemble traditional tragedies. We would see children figuratively and literally getting teeth kicked in by the harsh ‘tyrannies of evil men’ who then make a fateful anti-Restorative Three-Act structure decision to pick up a gun and throw away the sun. The filmmakers and storytellers involved all assume we understand that part going for characters similar to Clint Eastwood in Escape from Alcatraz answering the inevitable tell me about your childhood therapy question with – “Short.”

However, in the compressed timeframe of the stories presented to us Javier Bardem and Samuel L. Jackson are remorseless in the pursuit of their goal and simply can’t change. The die has been cast. Even if they could get out early as in No Country for Old Men, they can’t because character is destiny and these bad hombres just simply won’t pick up a cell phone and call Mom, Wife, or Former Best Friend for the money for a plane ticket to anywhere but here.

The above represents what a Tournament of Death is. But, please let’s not confuse this currently miniscule story genre with movies that fit traditional storytelling that otherwise use similar elements and motifs. Nothing about The Hunger Games comes anywhere close to a Tournament of Death, just because the tributes must fight it out for more food granted to their various homelands.

Katniss Everdine behaves as the heroine of what Mr. Snyder would refer to as A Dude (Lady in this case) With a Problem story. Katniss starts out as an ordinary archer in District 12 putting the odd rabbit on the table for her family. Then, her sister’s name comes up in the Tribute Lottery and she fatefully takes her place. Mister Snyder took the title of his treatise on practical screenwriter from moments exactly like this where Martin Riggs cuts the wrong wire on the bomb and says – “Roj, grab the cat!”

Once a writer goes for a Save the Cat moment, he or she is going for a traditional character who like Django getting cut out of Hateful Eight has no place in a Tournament of Death. The cat, sister or whatever is an attempt to engineer that we like the protagonist.

Another example of the possible confusion between Tournament of Death and this particular brand of Dude With a Problem storytelling: Rollerball (1975). First off, the 2003 remake doesn’t exist in my headspace; I come up punching if forced to talk about it.

Jonathan E of Energy’s Houston rollerball team is at the top of his game in a game where frankly ‘a man was not meant to grow strong.’ The Energy Board decides he will retire, but Jonathan wants one more year to go out on top. The Energy Board colludes with the Boards of the other companies that rule Earth to remove rules with each rollerball contest until he quits or dies. Jonathan digs in with his toe brakes to climb the wreckage on the track to score the only goal of the game. The crowd chants his name as he skates into history and a painted freezeframe to the strains of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D-minor. Not a Tournament of Death despite Jonathan being the last man standing.

So here we are with a new description for one type of rarely used story structure that doesn’t exactly fit the cookie cutter presented to us by our “required” storytelling books. As you may guess, I only like cookie cutters when I want a Santa-shaped Holiday Sugar Cookie with a red and green sprinkle motif. But, sometimes I want a slightly irregular pan-cut chocolate chip cookie that defies restrictive definition. I’m sure someone out there has an opinion that my analysis is total bullshit and will bring examples. Bring it. Better to discuss storytelling than to worry about anything coming out of Orange Man’s mouth.

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