As we age our tastes change, grow, deepen. In my teens movies didn’t interest me much. I was a firm book lover and the big screen wasn’t geared toward the teenager so much like it is today. A rarity, one movie really captured my imagination and started me on my love of character and plot.
Released in 1986, the fantasy adventure film was directed by Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas. The movie’s proponent stars are David Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King and Jennifer Connelly as Sarah Williams. The rest of the cast are played by puppets or a combination of puppetry and human performance.
15-year-old Sarah is struggling with the existence of her baby half-brother, Toby. She accidentally wishes him away to the Goblin King Jareth who will keep Toby as his newest goblin if Sarah does not complete his Labyrinth in 13 hours.
I first saw the film in my early teens when my parents bought the movie on laser disc. Today I’m not much of a fan of the muppets or musicals. I get restless and impatient, shifting and rolling my eyes. Yet even now I can take in the joy and boundless energy the muppets and music provided to Labyrinth. An integral part of the story and setting you can’t separate one from the other and it be the same movie. So not only is this my favorite film from my teens, it’s also my #1 muppet movie and #1 musical.
I loved the choices she had to make in the first half of the movie. She tried the lipstick to mark her way – it didn’t work but it was really smart. Every obstacle she tried thinking about it and using whatever she came up with as best she could. The logic puzzles seamlessly worked with the idea of a labyrinth and having to maneuver through a foreign place.
David Bowie enchanted as a stony-faced villain king set on seducing a young girl in any way he could manage. The choice of making the glass-ball juggling act part of the character’s mystery and allure worked, characterizing in such a visual way. I think he represented all the darker, more worldly choices a girl can make but in a way that is non-threatening to parents yet still calls to a teenager.
Anyone with a sibling, especially a younger sibling, can totally relate to Sarah Williams. As a child you are still trying to figure out the right and wrongs of situations. Many times it is not until you’ve already done something that you realize it was wrong to do. Sarah made a situation like this feel sincere and believable. David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly played off one another very well, the age difference wasn’t an issue and it could have been rather creepy.
Two of my favorite characters are Hoggle, a dwarf with a penchant for cheap jewelry and Ludo, a gentle giant whom Sarah rescues from being tortured by goblins. They are such polar opposites that they made the perfect traveling companions. When Hoggle first betrayed Sarah I was more heartbroken and hurt than mad and angry. And the fact Ludo could call rocks to him just seemed to fit who the creature was. For a bag of fur and a plastic mask on a stick they made these two feel real and significant.
Production wise I think they balanced between the plot which I love, the music which added mystery and allure and the muppets which added character and energy. If not done just so the whole thing could have been a cheesy mess. I think this says a lot about who was behind the film. Henson knew how to utilize his puppets in a way that made them relevant in the story. Lucas understood storytelling and that each element mattered. David Bowie’s songs in particular fit the subject and tone of the film to perfection. The writers really helped the balance because the plot worked and made a great background on which to hang the music and muppets. It’s this kind of balance that writers everywhere are attempting to achieve in their own writing. To make what potentially are the weaknesses (the music and muppets) into strengths really show how expertly this movie was produced.
The two best scenes in the film have all to do with the writing though. The first when Jareth takes Sarah to the ball and she’s an honest to goodness princess. And the second, a scene following when Sarah’s back in her room around all her belongings that make her feel safe. Such a one – two punch. The first tried to suck her in with her hopes and dreams, the hopes and dreams any young teenager has about the future. Perhaps unrealistic ideals though. Then Jareth follows up with total reality and the safety the present provides. It’s everything you know and want to hold on to so you don’t have to face the future. Both, equally could suck her in and Jareth would win. It’s this kind of struggle we want to see for our characters whether as a writer or as the audience.
As a teenager you are in a struggle between your hopes and desires and the reality of real life. Coming to terms with where you fall as an individual is when you really grown up. Even at my age this movie hits a core place inside me when I watch it again because it shows and reminds you of the decisions you’ve made to get where you are today.
With the internet and so much instant gratification, a reminder that life is about choices and motivations is good no matter what your age. Labyrinth ranks 4 reels to me because #1 it’s well written, #2 was well-developed, #3 all the elements come together in balance and #4 can be watched again and again.
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In my twenties, a character and a movie came along that represented all I desired in life and all the obstacles I needed to overcome. Working Girl embodied the balance many women in the 80s were trying to find between love and career.
Released in 1988 the romantic comedy film was directed by Mike Nichols and written by Kevin Spade. The movie stars Harrison Ford as Jack Trainer, Melanie Griffith as Tess McGill and Sigourney Weaver as Katharine Parker.
When a secretary’s idea is stolen by her boss, she seizes an opportunity to steal it back by pretending she has her boss’s job. Along the way she learns about love, lies and the hows to taking risks in life.
I believe right from the opening you are exposed to just what she’s up against: a male dominated management where women are secretaries and little else. I think this environment really worked because it wasn’t personal. There was no vendetta, ulterior motive or manipulation. Men honestly thought women should remain secretaries and their place was in the bedroom. The movie’s setup went quick: we knew the story’s main focus was in the workplace and her career. When Mick was eventually introduced you knew he wasn’t as keyed into her as he ought to be and that this didn’t bode well. The secondary plot line of her love life and where she’d live quickly trotted along and you knew everything was on the line now.
Tess really captured the feeling that she was playing everything by ear. You knew she wasn’t afraid of risks or trying out an opportunity even if it didn’t end well – that was the beauty of the opening scenes. I loved Melanie Griffith. To me it doesn’t matter what else she’s done or will do. She’ll remain an actress to watch due to this role. Sometimes freedom to act on instinct is just what is needed for a role to come together.
Harrison Ford though really added so much from his end as Jack Trainer. Right from his first meeting to his defense of her at the elevators he had this humor and earnest appeal that can’t be faked…I know how much irony that holds but it’s true. His character felt genuine with equal measure to her gutsiness.
Sigourney Weaver really outdid herself as the manipulative boss who steals her subordinates ideas and set back women everywhere by several generations. She took Tess under her wing and made the woman bloom into awareness of her un-career worthiness. She even provided Tess an opportunity to grow by breaking her leg and loving it instead of hurrying home to work and boyfriend. Weaver embodied career women everywhere and her negative traits took her down.
There were so many good scenes in Working Girl. From subtle moments like in the elevator scene I mentioned…Or when Tess had the chandelier cleaned in Katharine’s apartment…To edge of your seat is she going to carry it off like in the wedding crasher scenes or the morning after meeting where she pitched her idea. Much of this movie stands out in my mind due to the dialogue. Every interaction snapped with tension and emotion. Here is a list of some of the best lines:
Cyn: Sometimes I sing and dance around the house in my underwear. Doesn’t make me Madonna. Never will.
Mick: Tess, will you marry me?
Mick: Ya call that an answer?
Tess: You want another answer, ask another girl.
[the morning after Tess passed out from drinking]
Tess: What did happen, exactly?
Jack: The earth moved. The angels wept. The Polaroids are, are, uh…
[gropes about in his coat pockets]
Jack: are in my other coat.
Jack: Nothing happened. Nothing happened!
Tess: You can bend the rules plenty once you get to the top, but not while you’re trying to get there. And if you’re someone like me, you can’t get there without bending the rules.
Oren Trask: You’ve got a real fire in your belly, or was this just a one-time stunt that you pulled?
Tess: I’m not quite sure what you mean, sir. I’ve got something in my belly, but I think it’s nervous knots.
Jack: You’re the first woman I’ve seen in one of these things that dresses like a woman, not like a woman thinks a man would dress if he was a woman.
Tess: Thank you I guess.
[about Jack's chin scar]
Tess: How did you get the scar?
Jack: Some guy pulled a knife in Detroit.
Jack: No. No. I was nineteen and I thought it’d be cool to have a pierced ear. My girlfriend stuck the needle through and I heard this pop and fainted and hit my chin on the toilet.
Cyn: Can I get ya anything? Coffee? Tea? Me?
[Looking through Katherine Parker's wardrobe]
Cyn: Six thousand dollars? It’s not even leather!
[in the bar]
Tess: I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?
Jack: Uh, no. No.
Tess: You know, maybe I just don’t like you.
Jack: Me? Naaah!
Tess: [to Katharine] Look, you, maybe you’ve got everyone around here fooled with this saint act you have going, but do not ever speak to me again like we don’t know what really happened, you got me?
Katharine: Tess, this is business. Let’s just bury the hatchet, okay?
Tess: You know where you can bury your hatchet? Now get your bony ass outta my sight!
Oren Trask: Now get your – what was that you called it?
Tess, Jack: Bony ass.
Oren Trask: Yes – your bony ass out of my sight!
Tess: I am not steak. You cant just order me.
Cyn: Why does it do that?
Cyn: Are you kiddin’ me?
Katharine: Ugh! What a slob.
Tess: You were so smooth with him.
Katharine: Never burn bridges. Today’s junior *prick*, tomorrow’s senior partner.
Alice Baxter: Uhm, Ms. McGill?
Alice Baxter: [pointing to private office] That’s your desk… in there…
Tess: I don’t think so.
Alice Baxter: Oh, yes.
Tess: Sorry, I thought the secretary would sit out here…
Alice Baxter: That’s right, I’m the secretary. If you don’t mind, I’d prefer assistant.
Tess: [from her new, private office] Hey, Cyn. Guess where I am.
Tess: What if he doesn’t?… pop the question?
Katharine: I really don’t think that’s a variable. We’re in the same city now, I’ve indicated that I’m receptive to an offer, I’ve cleared the month of June… and I am, after all, me.
Cyn: Whaddya need speech class for, ya talk fine!
[Upon reading Tess' day planner]
Katharine: Why that little… slut! Bitch! Secretary!
Tess: [pretending to be her boss] I know what I’m doing.
Cyn: Yeah, screwing up your life.
Tess: No, I’m trying to make it better! I’m not gonna spend the rest of my life working my ass off and getting nowhere just because I followed rules that I had nothing to do with setting up, OK?
Tess: [Mick has bought Tess some lingerie for her birthday] Y’know, Mick, just once I could go for like a sweater or some earrings… something that I could actually wear outside of this apartment?
Tess: [after taking several shots of tequila, on top of Diazepam/Valium recommended by Cynthia] Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy… mmm…
Jack: You ok?
Tess: Mmm… fine… I took an “antihistamine” before and it makes for a nice little buzz.
Tess: Shoot me, shoot me.
Cyn: Will you cut that out, they didn’t throw you out did they?
Tess: They don’t exactly have bouncers at these things, they’re a little more subtle than that.
Personnel Director: Tess, Tess, Tess, Tess. You don’t get ahead in this world by calling your boss a pimp.
Tess: Well, he is.
Katharine: Never burn bridges. Today’s junior prick, tomorrow’s senior partner!
Tess: [on the phone] Cyn! Guess where I am…
Cyn: [stands up, screams to secretaries] She got out! Oh my god! I can’t believe it, she’s out – she made it out! She got out! She has her own office!
Cyn: [trailer] How ’bout you?
Tess: I’m flat broke, I’m crazy about a man that I will probably never see again…
Cyn: Well, *besides* that!
[Tess laughs sadly]
Personnel Director: Been lookin at your file here. This the third time in six months I had to place you.
Tess: Wasn’t my fault.
Personnel Director: Where’ve I heard THAT before?
Tess: Ruth, lookit – I’m thirty years old. Took me five years of night school, but I got my degree and I got it with honors; I *know* I could do a job. I mean, you ask any of my bosses – even, even Lutz! – if Tess hasn’t called a few.
Personnel Director: YOU ask ‘em. I don’t think they’re gonna sing your praises, Tess.
Katharine: Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman – Coco Chanel!
Writing wise I hearken after the skill utilized to make each scene important to understanding the characters, to moving plot along and foreshadowing why and what is coming. To this end each of the main characters: Tess, Jack and Katharine, were treated as protagonist in their own stories. They each had setbacks to their plans, both good and bad sides to their character, triumphs, and goals they worked toward. What makes the protagonist in our story is simply a matter of outcome and maybe screen time.
As a women in her twenties it’s hard to know what dreams to pursue and what to let the universe and God decide. Overcoming obstacles and pursing opportunities are the choices you make that define who you are and how you’ll turn out in the end. Working Girl is a prime example of how things work out when you have worthy goals and a gutsy attitude. Even today I can watch this movie and feel it’s rightness, that life does fit together like a puzzle and part of the fun is putting it together through thick and thin.
With divorce fracturing our families and homes, it’s great to have an example for us that with the right outlook things will come together in our lives, no matter our history or backgrounds. As a child of divorce I find myself questioning motives and pondering actions to see if they need a light shone on them. This movie helps give me hope that I’m just being paranoid.
Working Girl ranks 4 reels to me because #1 the problem fit the time of the film but illustrated timeless truths, #2 is so well written, utilizing each and every moment to further the film as a whole, #3 the actors were well cast and spot on in each of their roles, and #4 I can revisit Tess and her journey with my daughter, when I have her someday.
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My twenties fostered a love of movies and their characters. I wasn’t a fan of war pictures though or really anything I couldn’t readily relate to or identify with. As I move through my thirties I find I have a veracious appetite for any genre of movie. It’s true though I want to be so moved that no matter the subject I become entranced watching the characters play out their lives.
In 2007 my Mom and I happened upon a foreign film that did just that. Now every movie I watch I’m looking to rival how I felt watching:
The film is a 2006 German drama, released in Germany on March 23rd, marking the feature film debut of filmmaker Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck. At the same time, the screenplay was published by Suhrkamp Verlag. The film won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 64th Golden Globe Awards. It stars Ulrich Mühe as Stasi Captain Gerd Wiesler, Ulrich Tukur as his boss Anton Grubitz, Sebastian Koch as the playwright Georg Dreyman, and Martina Gedeck as Dreyman’s lover, a prominent actress named Christa-Maria Sieland.
In 1984 East Berlin, an agent of the Stasi conducts surveillance on Georg Dreyman, a successful drama playwright and his longtime companion Christa-Maria Sieland, herself a popular actress. Both were huge intellectual stars in the former East Germany, although they secretly don’t always toe the party line. One day, the Minister of Culture becomes interested in Christa. This is when Hauptmann Gerd Wiesler is instructed to observe and sound out the couple but finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by their lives.
I’ve only seen this movie once compared to the countless times I’ve seen Labyrinth and Working Girl. Yet I find myself thinking on this film more than the other two.
Unfortunately, I can’t understand German, in spite of living there in my youth, so I had to read the subtitles. I understand why many people don’t like them, sometimes the dialogue is so long winded you don’t even get to look up before the picture that goes with the words has moved on and you’re back to reading again. This movie wasn’t like that. The main character Wiesler, or the Watcher as I call him, spoke so infrequently that much of the time could be spent watching him. I believe it was the secret to my bonding so strongly to his character. I got to watch the Watcher, feel his emptiness, to the point he fell in love with the woman he watched, much like I fell in love with him as I watched.
Part of our job as writers, whether screenplays, books or teleplays, is to create a bond between our audience and our characters. Many try to do this by figuring out their viewer- or reader-ship and writing to that kind of person. For example you write a book about a teenager and your audience is a teenager. Many times you create a bond by putting the character in like circumstances to real life. In the Lives of Others the likelihood of a movie watcher being a member of the Stasi isn’t very likely. So we as an audience had to be won over another way.
By plumbing these alternate connection techniques we as the writer can develop bonds our audience will follow anywhere. Ulrich Mühe played the Watcher, Gerd Wiesler, so well I couldn’t separate the actor from the character in my mind. Since he didn’t speak much it wasn’t so much what he said but what he emoted.
This isn’t the only well-executed element in the film though. In fact there are two more: the playwright, Georg Dreyman, and the actress, Christa-Maria Sieland. I really fell in love with the Playwright as well. Not at first, like the Watcher, but gradually over the course of the story like Wiesler did. The actor really represented here a flawed man and his skill lay in me loving the character in spite of those flaws. He was kind of a coward, understandably, but with a desire to be bold, to rebel. At the end when you realized he already was with another woman, you weren’t surprised, and in fact if he hadn’t been your belief in him would have been shaken. The more you got to know the Playwright the more flawed he became and the more you liked the man.
Cornerstone to the Playwright was the true love he felt for the actress, Christa. While watching the Actress, the Watcher came to love the Playwright because of the love they shared. Because she loved the Playwright. It’s this relationship that made the Watcher’s trip possible and allowed the audience to share his journey. I didn’t bond with the Actress, in fact, just the opposite. I understood her position between a rock and a hard place, she had an addiction and a career she wanted to maintain. Like the men, I too found her beautiful and chase worthy. But it’s actually my lack of connection to her that I found rather poignant. I’d much rather she die than either of the men and yet both would have preferred to take her place, even if the other man would have gotten her. There’s something human and real and true about that kind of dichotomy. It makes the Actress as a character love worthy.
One critic I read mentioned perhaps there were too many epilogues, another mentioned the big white shorts of the villain. Part of the actress’es effect on these men were how they proceeded in the future. We needed to see the satisfaction of the Watcher in the choices he made, to know those years of steaming envelopes was worth it. We needed to see the Playwright’s boldness bloom and prosper in it’s own way. In this we can see the actress’es true and lasting impressions. The big white shorts don’t play into it at all.
I’m haunted by this movie. It’s not the dialouge or the plot, though these worked together in perfect harmony to make the film the knock out it is. As the years pass, we as human beings seek relationships like these three shared, ones that aren’t transient by nature but if they end it’s a tragedy. No matter in what media we find it, these are the kinds of experiences we seek to read or watch or….write.
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What movies have effected you over the years? Are they the ones you loved or hated? Was it the characters? The plot? The snappy dialogue? Let me know!! Comment now…