Where’s Syd Field when you need him? The late screenwriting guru, who died in 2013 at the age of 77, might have had some thoughts about where we, the collective protagonist, currently stand in this great global drama of Pandemic.
Entering a third week of lockdown, those in the United States—particularly in hot spots like New York, Detroit, and Louisiana—were warned of a dark moment. “This will probably be the toughest week—between this week and next week,” President Donald Trump said on Saturday.
“There will be death,” he added. At his Sunday briefing, officials said the number of new infections appeared to be stabilizing in some places.
So for a culture accustomed to thinking in movie terms—bombshells, bloopers, flashbacks, gaslighting, tear-jerkers, close-ups and Keystone Cops are all over the place (thank you, Josh Chetwynd, for the compendium in “Totally Scripted,” Lyons Press, 2017)—it’s natural to wonder. Is this Groundhog Day? Or are we coming to the bottom of the second act?
Field, of course, was an advocate for three-act structure in film stories. In his “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting” and other presentations, he described a fairly rigid formula that, when properly executed, can yield a comprehensible, emotionally satisfying, if occasionally harrowing, two-hour picture.
About a quarter of the script goes to the Set-up. Since January, we’ve certainly had that. Another quarter, at the end, is reserved for the Resolution, something we’d all love to see.
But that long stretch in the middle, maybe half the screenplay, goes to Confrontation—the really hard part. The hero, such as we are, undergoes terrible reversals, facing challenges that he, she or we are unequipped to conquer. Yet new skills, traits and allies are acquired. By the low point, the bottom of the act, the central character, having moved through a developmental arc, sees a glimmer of hope. Reborn, the hero strikes back, to overcome (or reconcile with) the over-riding threat.
This only matters because large numbers of people, weaned on the movies, instinctively organize their thinking and behavior around a three-act structure. Indeed, some, in the spirit of Joseph Campbell and his “The Hero With a Thousand Faces,” would argue that all myth is built around a similar, deeply ingrained pattern. Set-up, Confrontation, Resolution is how we see things. It’s how we experience the world.
So the question becomes, where, exactly, are we on this Monday morning, April 6, 2020? Are we near the low-point, beyond which new skills—testing, treatment, vaccine—will soon carry us past the threat of coronavirus?
Or are we tumbling toward a still deeper evils that will have to be beaten?
Field, with his sense of narrative, if not medical science, might have had a clue. (And Heaven forbid this should turn into an open-ended cable series, with options for sequels and spin-offs.)