Friday 22 July 2022

“Story matters because story is a metaphor for life…” Part Three - Tom Ryan revives screenwriting guru Robert McKee's memories - Image Systems and multiple viewings

Robert McKee is one of the greatest screenwriters of all time.
He was one of the educators that 
Homer Simpson 
met at 
Bourbon Verlander's private estate

This is the third and concluding part of an extended interview conducted by Melbourne-based film critic Tom Ryan when scriptwriting guru Robert McKee visited Australia in 2003. The first part can be found I
F YOU CLICK HERE The second part can found IF YOU CLICK HERE


 I notice that your Art Film seminar will deal with “image systems that will turn a good film into a great one”. 



The mention of the Wong Kar-Wai film (In the Mood for Love, see part two) makes me think of that. Would you care to elaborate? Is it possible to define an “image system” like that?


Of course. In Chinatown, there are four image systems that link and counterpoint and enrich the film enormously. In Through A Glass Darkly, there are two great image systems that divide the film between the positive and negative charges of life. Yeah, of course you can, and I will delineate them. 

Jack Nicholson, Chinatown

There’s nothing new about this. There are brilliant image systems in the works of Homer, and in the plays of Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes. The Greeks understood this. Shakespeare was a master of image systems and he had a different one in all 30-some of his plays. The great novelists, from Hawthorne to Dickens to Hemingway to Patricia Highsmith. The modern playwrights as well, through the whole hundred-year history of film.

It’s exactly the same principle as scoring a film with music, but this is done visually. Music does not require a cognition to have an affect. OK? 

When music is playing the background, the quality of that music – its rhythms and tonalities – subliminally goes in your ear, passes your conscious mind and gets into your unconscious directly. And it affects all of your senses and feelings about what you’re watching, as long as we do not hear it. As long as the audience is unaware of it, the score will work. But if the audience disengages from the story and listens to the score, it has no effect. Because, generally speaking, scoring does not have the kind of integrity that a symphony has. OK? Occasionally, films use classical pieces, but, by and large, scoring is there to slip into the unconscious mind of the audience and its most powerful effect comes when they’re not directly listening to it. 


OK, but part of me keeps wanting to say that one of the reasons I fall apart when watching Wonderland is Michael Nyman’s score. As soon as I hear it, it makes me cry. The same thing happens with Philip Glass’s swirling score for The Hours


Let me put it to you this way. If you heard the score without having seen the film, would it have the same effect? 


Um. I can’t answer that. It would certainly still have an effect.


It would have an effect because it’s good music, up to a point. Right? And I mean the King Kong symphony is part of the repertoire of most symphony orchestras in the world. OK? So it’s not as if it doesn’t have any effect. But its primary purpose is to deepen and enrich the meanings and emotions of the film.




Alright. Image systems work to the same principle: the subliminal repetition of a certain category of imagery with great variety, so that it never becomes redundant, subtly, and so the audience is unaware of it. Symbolism has tremendous power so long as you’re unaware that it’s symbolic. It works the same way in your dreams. OK? 

Symbolism in your dreams has enormous power because you’re unconscious and you’re not aware of it as symbolism. OK? And so symbols have enormous power when they’re slipped into the unconscious mind of the audience and that’s what an image system is. It’s the visual counterpoint of music. 

It’s another way to deepen and enrich the film experience without the audience being conscious of it. It sounds subversive, but it’s how we’ve always done it since Homer. It’s sometimes audible imagery as well because you can also put these images here and there in the dialogue. And so the repetition of motifs has enormous power.

Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, Chinatown

Now you can take a bad film and use an image system and think that’s going to make it a good film. That ain’t gonna work. But if you have a beautifully told story and wonderful work in the acting and all the rest of it, and an image system that takes everything that’s there and makes it somehow more deeply felt and indelible, then you have Chinatown

I mean, what is the difference between Chinatown and umpteen other good thrillers? It’s that every scene in Chinatown is impregnated with four brilliant image systems working together to take everything you’re watching and lift it up – not all at once, but little by little, over the course of two hours and 10 minutes – so that it hits you like a closed fist. And the same thing is true of Bergman’s masterpiece, Through A Glass Darkly. He understands this and he does it beautifully. 

Max Von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Gunnar Bjornstand
Through a Glass Darkly

And so, this Art Film day isn’t just for writers. It’s for – I hope – directors, designers, editors, everybody who makes films and who cares about taking something that’s good just that extra step further of power and richness that makes a good film great.


One part of me shares that view about these things working at a level below your consciousness and guiding your perception as you’re watching whatever’s unfolding on the screen. But another part of me thinks of my favourite filmmaker, Max Ophuls, and of the things that move me in an Ophuls film and that come from my reading of what it means when he moves the camera in a particular way…


I grant, I grant. On a second viewing. 


Mmm. Perhaps…


If you’re sitting there and watching a film for the very first time, going, “Oh, beautiful tracking movement!” the film means nothing to you. If you’re actually aware of the colour saturations, of the quality of the acting, of the witty dialogue, if you’re aware of art as art on the first experience, you’re completely uninvolved and having nothing like an aesthetic experience. But on the second viewing and the third viewing and as a professional studying the arts, you ask yourself, “How’d he do that? How’d he get that power?” And then you see and it’s great. But you can’t do it on a first viewing.


You don’t think audiences actually know so much about the process of filmmaking that they can actually hold these two things in balance, the response that draws the tears and the awareness of something being done to make that happen?


You know the Hindu symbol for the human mind?


Von Sydow, Ullmann, Through a Glass Darkly



It’s a chattering monkey, ‘Yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak!’ That’s the human mind: Yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak-yak! Their whole notion was that in a deep experience, via meditation, via art, or even tantric sex – right? – you silence the chattering monkey. Because as long as that monkey is chattering, you cannot have a deep experience. The chattering mind is a barrier to experience; it is rationalising, explaining and separating you from the deep emotional experience of that work.

I collect paintings. OK? I like beautiful art. I have a very simple test. If I walk into a gallery and I’m thinking, “Mmm! Interesting solution to that problem in the upper left-hand corner there. Nice colour contrast down to the lower right. I know that symbol! I wonder what period he pinched that from, yak-yak-yak,” I know in a flash that that painting does not work for me. 

I was lecturing in Madrid a couple of years ago. There are three great museums there and I spent one day in each of them. And I stand in front of an Antoni Tàpies, and I sit there for half an hour, an hour, more, staring at the work, my eye just travelling the surface of it without thought until, finally, I have what I call an “art headache” because there’s too much beauty. Then you’ve had an aesthetic experience. 

Now if I want to go back to the Prado and stand in front of the Guernica (above) and think, “How did Picasso do this?” – right? – that’s another thing. But if the first thing you do when you stand in front of the Guernica is start analysing technique, then you’re not allowing the artist to do anything with you.

If you’re looking at that great painting for 15 minutes – OK? – just looking, and then you finally break away, you’re not quite the same human being you were 15 minutes ago. So if you’re sitting there and watching a film and, on the one hand, following the story and, at the same time, critiquing it and analysing it and enjoying it at the level of technique, I’m sorry, but from my point of view you are having less than a true experience of that work. And you are not experiencing that film at the richest level. As long as that monkey is chattering, you cannot feel deeply.

Now, I know, you’re right, there are audiences who have been trained by the goddamned universities of this world over the last 30 years to treat the film as if they’re gonna have to pass an exam tomorrow. And they sit there studying the film so that they can go to the post-film ritual of café criticism and impress their fellow intellectuals with how much they saw in the film in terms of technique. The universities have taught people not to sit in front of a work of art and have an aesthetic experience but to sit there and have a critical experience. It diminishes them as human beings. 


How does a film critic do his or her job then? Because a film is previewed, you’ve got a deadline, the distributors don’t want to have to go through the expense of an extra preview to show you the film again. How do you do your job in this case? Or should the job not exist?


Bad films, fine. Once is enough. But, if I were a film critic, I would insist on seeing a good film a second time. If I’m sitting in front of a film like The Talented Mr Ripley and I get swept away as I do in that film, how can I write a review? All I could say is “Ah, I loved it.” End of review. Right? If I’m Kenny Turan at the LA Times, I’d get them to let me see it as many times as I wish. I guess I wouldn’t be a very good critic in that way because I wouldn’t be able to remember a quality film. I’d have to go back to see it again and take notes. It’s not easy.

If that’s the situation where a film critic has to write a review on one viewing…


It’s pretty much always the situation, though…


Well, I know Kenny Turan and I know he doesn’t see films only once.


He’s lucky then.


Or Kevin Thomas. I guess it’s LA too as well. I appreciate the comment because I don’t think that if a film is of real power, of real quality, that you can take notes at the same time on the first viewing and be getting it. And so, something’s gotta be missing. Fortunately the audience for the arts is not critics.


That’s true. They are and they aren’t. Yes.


A certain generation has been raised to watch critically and I feel sorry for them, I really do. Because if that’s how you watch good work, you’ve missed something. 


One final question. What do you do for relaxation?










[whispering] It used to be four.


You have a real competitive streak, even if the opposition is yourself?


Yeah. I can go out on a golf course all by myself and enjoy it thoroughly: me against the course. But I like to have a little money on the game. You know, a token, not enough to make anybody rich or poor.


I shall alert the people of Australia as to what lies ahead if they play golf with you.


I’m gonna bring my sticks. If I have a chance, I’ll play. I’ve played here and there in Australia. There are some nice courses there…



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