Friday, August 29, 2014

The Great Scenes: City Slickers and the Best & Worst Days of Your Life

I first saw City Slickers when it came out, and I was either 10 or 11-years old. It's probably the first non-children's movie I ever recall seeing in theaters. It's also the first film that ever made me think about life, and actually ask questions about real things. It's possible this revelation could have happened with any film, but I'm lucky it was with such a great one. City Slickers is a silly comedy in a lot of respects, but the film is filled with moments of such startling emotional truth that they stay with you forever. I've found myself constantly going back to the film throughout my life, as each new phase of myself finds new lessons within the movie and new ways to feel about what it has to say. I just re-watched it a few weeks ago, for probably the first time in five years, and more and more as I get older, this is the single scene that resonates with me the most. In terms of filmmaking, it's nothing special. But simply as a written scene, it has some of the best dialogue ever. It's three minutes that, to me, inform on the totality of the male emotional spectrum.

Here's the set-up: Mitch (Billy Crystal), Phil (Daniel Stern), and Ed (Bruno Kirby) are all around 40-years old and experiencing major mid-life crises. Mitch is a pessimist who keeps dwelling on how much he hates every aspect of his life. Phil hates his wife, cheated on her with a twenty-year old that works for him, and is about to go through a messy divorce. Ed is a super-macho adventurer who is constantly testing the limits of his own manliness, and just got married to a model fifteen years younger than him. So to get away from their lives, they go to New Mexico for two weeks to take part in a real cattle drive.

Now watch the scene:

Even though the three main characters are all pretty standard archetypes (one hates being his age, one hates his home life, and one hates just about everything), the way they talk about the best and worst moments of their lives is nothing short of incredible emotional truth. Each answer feels perfectly true to each character, perfectly true to what real life answers men might/would give, and perfectly true to what it feels like to wrestle with the responsibilities of male adulthood.

Each of the Best Day answers the three characters give involves their father. For Mitch, it's a shared bonding experience with his father, for Phil, it's a moment where his father was visibly proud of him, and for Ed, it's a moment where he stood up to his father. Each of these different elements of father/son dynamics speaks to the set of expectations we have on ourselves as we relate to our parents. What special memories do we share with them? When did we most fulfill our expectations for ourselves and their expectations for us? Is fulfilling those expectations important, or is forging off on our own what's actually important to us?

Not only does each answer involve the character's relationships with their dads, but also involves the character's relationship with the passage of time. Phil hates his wife and hates everything about his existence, so his best day is the last time he doesn't remember feeling that way. It was a day before the onset of that feeling existed, when he thought he'd made it. For Mitch, who looks at the pessimistic side of everything, his best day was a day when everything seemed better than it could have been. He saw his first baseball game in color. The grass was so green. It was an occasion where he couldn't figure out how to be pessimistic, maybe the only one of his life. And for Ed, it was the moment he felt like he became an adult. It was, he believes, the most transitional day of his life, and a transition that he's proud of how he handled. It's a moment that's defined his idea of manhood ever since.

Each of their worst days involves the aspect of themselves they're most insecure with. Mitch knows he looks at the worst of everything, so his worst day is a day where the only possible conclusion he could see was breast cancer. It ended up fine, so Ed argues that it was a good day. But that's not how Mitch thinks. Things don't end up good, they just end up slightly less terrible. Because Phil's best day was the day he felt like a grown-up that had made it and his father was proud, his worst day was the proof that none of that could actually bring happiness: "Every day since is a tie," because every day since has been proof that happiness is not a status quo that sustains itself. Phil feels like his whole life is a failure, so how can one day be worse than any other? Better to just count them all. Ed's best and worst day were the same day because it was the moment he left childhood and became an adult. It's a struggle he's been reconciling for his whole life; how to be his age and be a man, but still seek out the childhood that he left behind too prematurely.

Six questions, six answers, six moments of perfect emotional honesty.

I often wonder what the rough drafts of scenes like this looked like. How many different possible answers to these six questions did the screenwriter cycle through and abandon before settling on the perfect six? What was the first version of Mitch's best day? Did all three best days always involve their fathers, or was that a commonality that only manifested in later revisions? Could the screenwriter initially not think of a good second answer for Ed, so he finally went with the "same day" answer that actually works perfectly, or was it always like that?

I also wonder where in the writing process scenes like this emerge. Did this scene just get written naturally as part of the high concept set-up for the movie? Like, of course three middle-age friends on a cattle drive would end up talking about their successes and failures in life? Or was it actually the opposite order of events, that the screenwriter wanted to write a scene like this--three middle-aged men being emotionally naked and discussing the best and worst days of their lives--and constructed a large story around which a conversation like this would seem natural? Does writing a scene like this help create for the writer who these characters were, or were they already fully formed enough that this scene was easy to write?

Great film moments always make me want to discuss them with their creators. Sometimes it's the choice of music to accompany a scene; sometimes it's the pacing or the use of specific camera angles and shot distances; sometimes it's the editing. With this scene, none of those formalistic elements of cinema are used in notable ways, but they didn't need to be. Formalism draws attention to itself, and this scene doesn't deserve to have our brains diverted from what's being said. With this scene, I'd just like to pick the writer's brain and ask him to recount every detail he could possibly remember. No scene in film history has ever provoked me to reflect more on the ups and downs of life.

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