Storylines In Review

[2018 Blog Posts continued]
Don't Forget To Save The Cat!
The just-ended National Pet Month is, for film buffs, or should be a reminder of scriptwriting guru Blake Snyder’s dictum, Save The Cat.

A hero who presents himself as a people's champion must be seen to save a cat in some sense, and this may be taken literally. In this case, President Trump (wearing his red Make America Great Again cap) is seen saving a pair of cats from floodwaters - with the help of Photoshop, his head being edited onto another man's body.

Blake Snyder used the ‘Save The Cat’ idea from 2005 on as the 'brand' title of a series of popular scriptwriting manuals and a blog-led resources website [details below]. However he did not originate it, saying he got it from the 1979 film Alien. It also appears as a parody motif in Lethal Weapon 3 [1992], where in the opening scene, the protagonist tells his partner, 'Grab the cat!' as they hastily exit a building about to be blown up, clutching a stray cat that had been nosing around their bomb-defusing scene.

An early example of the motif, created pre-Blake, can be seen in Roxanne (1987), adapted by its star Steve Martin from the famous Edmond Rostand play Cyrano. In this updated version, the big-nosed protagonist is fire chief in a US small town, and meets the object of his desire Roxanne when she locks herself out in the nude trying to lure her ginger cat inside for the night. He impresses her with his acrobatic skills as he climbs onto her roof to gain entry via an attic window. There's also a scene where he gets a cat stranded up a tree safely down by simply opening a can of cat food while his fire-department colleagues clamber around ineffectually on ladders etc. (Needless to say, there are no cats in the original 1897 play.)

Blake Snyder [1957-2009] took the ‘Save The Cat’ metaphoric instruction as a starting point since he felt too many beginning scriptwriters ignored the need for a character-defining intro to establish an audience identification figure, ie someone to root for so they would feel involved in the drama. This obviously applies most to the 'popular champion' storyline, but as we shall see it can also work with other storylines like the 'liberating relationship.

Right: Notice Blake's cat is ginger, or as Americans say, an orange tabby. It may be significant that this type has come to predominate in films, cf below:
Below left: [1] the unlucky stray, a ginger with white markings, in This Gun For Hire, and [mouse over] [2] the ship's cat in Alien.
 
Below right: [1] Bob in the fact-based drama A Street Cat Named Bob, and [mouse over] [2] the nameless luckless cat in Inside Llewelyn Davis. (Filmmakers the Coen brothers admitted they got the idea from A Street Cat Named Bob.)

Blake's output: Save The Cat!® The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need [2005]; Save The Cat!® Goes To The Movies: The Screenwriter’s Guide To Every Story Ever Told [2007]; and Save The Cat!® Strikes Back: More Trouble For Screenwriters To Get Into… And Out Of [2009]. As well as his website The Last Website On Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, he issued a software app on CD-ROM: Save The Cat!®The Last Story Structure Software You’ll Ever Need, and videos of his screenwriting workshops are on YouTube.



The basic syllogism is that
1. a hero is kind to the vulnerable, including helpless animals
2. an antihero or villain exploits the helpless
3. Therefore someone who saves a cat etc is is identified as the hero, while someone cruel to animals etc is identified as an antihero or villain
.

Of course the idea that the hero is by definition someone who instinctively comes to the aid of the vulnerable must go back to the oldest heroic tales. It was certainly codified in the chivalric romances of the Middle Ages, where rescuing a damsel in distress from a fate worse than death was de rigeur.

When film came along, the early movie cowboys, who signalled their virtue by wearing spotlessly clean white hats, inherited this code of gallantry. The later examples, typified by Clint Eastwood, were not cleancut but grudgingly helped when necessary.

 
Left: The Knight Errant by Millais (1870); Right: Two Mules For Sister Sara [1970]
In The Magnificent 7 [1960], the two main protagonists are mercenary gunslingers. However they identify themselves at the outset as good guys by driving and riding shotgun on a hearse carrying an Indian prejudiced townies don’t want buried on Boot Hill. (The 1954 Japanese film on which the film is based, Kurosawa’s 7 Samurai, does not have an equivalent incident.) This act of bravado and evident gallantry (they're more likely bored) gets them the offer which becomes the main story - a job fending off a troop of 40 bandits preying on a Mexican village.  
This obligatory scene gradually evolved to fit a more modern urban setting, so that however scruffy and foul-mouthed the protagonist might be, he quickly demonstrates his underlying goodness by, for example, casually despatching some street-corner thugs harassing an old lady. This also of course shows that he is handy with his fists (or versed in martial arts) and not to be messed with – as the plot’s heavies will discover to their cost, as with Billy Jack [1971], right. His sense of justice may lead to immediate action, or in a more complex slow-burn drama, to a delayed response, as in Schindler's List. There, the film's standout colour image amidst the b&w is a girl in a red coat being led out of the ghetto to her death; the implication is that witnessing this quietly resolves Schindler to embark on his list plan.
Blake Snyder intended STC as a metaphor, but said he was inspired by a scene with an actual cat - in Alien [1979], where the tough no-nonsense heroine still goes out of her way to look for the ship’s cat, an orange tabby named Jones, whom she takes with her in the end.
I’m not sure how far the use of an actual cat as an emotional token goes back, but I’d guess it emerged in the 1940s with attempts to give an otherwise hardboiled protagonist (basically an antihero) a 'soft' side.
In the film of Graham Greene’s This Gun For Hire, Alan Ladd's Raven, the remorseless hit-man protagonist, is an emotional cripple, due to his childhood, but he dotes on kittens. And in Greene’s The Third Man, Harry Lime, who doesn’t care if he creates brain-damaged children by watering down his black-market penicillin, has a kitten that ‘only liked Harry’ and which in a famous moment, gives his continuing presence away.
This is the motif in its embryonic form. Neither figure is being shown a hero in any sense, but rather an emotionally incomplete human being.

It’s not much different a setup to the white Turkish Angora cat that Blofeld, the head of Spectre, has in his lap, beginning with From Russia With Love. (To help explain his plot strategy there, he also has Siamese fighting fish, and he lets the first two fight, then feeds the loser fish to the cat.) The choice of the exotic breed implies a creature which is pampered, and which the tyrannical kingpin indulges as a way of demonstrating his indifference to human suffering, rather as one of the kings of old might keep a big cat by his side, to whom he might feed hapless victims brought before him, accused of treachery. In FRWL, the setup originated with the idea of not showing Blofeld’s face – implying he could be anybody, a famous man, or someone we meet later.
But it became an iconic touch in its own right. Brando improvised a similar setup for the first scene of The Godfather, using a stray tabby he found on the studio lot. Dr Evil in the Austin Powers films has an exotic breed Angora, later played by a Sphynx hairless cat, which for some reason he calls Mr Bigglesworth [the surname of the RAF hero in the ‘Biggles’ adventure stories].
 
A literal application of the STC motif can be seen in the 1961 Whistle Down The Wind, scripted by Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall from the novel by Mary Hayley Bell. In the opening scene, the 3 child protagonists save a sackful of kittens from being drowned by the local farmhand, and after trying to give them away, hide them in their barn. A bearded convict on the run is sheltering there, and when they ask him “Who are you?” exclaims “Jesus Christ” before collapsing in exhaustion - setting in motion the children’s misunderstanding which becomes the main story. Some claim the film was the inspiration for ET

However where the protagonist lives alone, their only domestic companion a pet [or semi-stray] cat, this is a signal to the audience that he/she is emotionally inhibited or commitment-shy and needs to get out more and be more of a risk-taker - a development which the plot quickly forces on him or her. In this case, the setup is not simply STC but rather save the slightly sad character from themselves. It's similar to the old screwball comedies, where the inhibited protagonist has their quiet life knocked aside by the 'screwball' character. These comedies (eg Bringing Up Baby 1938, which has a terrier and a 'tame' leopard in it as disruptive elements) represented the 'liberating relationship' storyline, and the inhibited protagonist eventually comes to enjoy the disruption.
In The Late Show (1977), written by director Robert Benton, the neurotic female protagonist, a nonstop talker played by Lily Tomlin, is in danger of becoming Crazy Cat[less] Lady after someone kidnaps her cat Winston, but she successfully drags her neighbour, a retired PI played by Art Carney, into the case, where they form a platonic relationship.
Right, top: In Romancing The Stone, the romance-novelist protagonist played by Kathleen Turner lives with and dotes on her cat, whom she calls Romeo.
Right, bottom: In Peter's Friends, the initially mousy spinster character [she's later transformed by a sexual fling] played by Emma Thomson makes a fuss about leaving her cat Michael for the weekend, and puts up framed photos of herself around her flat so he won't be so upset, though the cat seems oblivious to all this.


In the 1960 film version of Truman Capote’s story Breakfast At Tiffany’s, scripted by George Axelrod, the female protagonist Holly Golightly lives alone, with just a formerly homeless cat (whom she refuses to name) for company. (He's played by two cats.) There's more cat symbolism when she puts on a cat mask during her affair with her neighbour Paul, who has written a book called Nine Lives.
In the finale, she reveals her petulant refusal to take responsibility when she takes the ‘no-name’ Cat who lives with her, and puts him out in the pouring rain. The male protagonist Paul tells her off and leaves her to go find ‘Cat.’ Influenced by his words and example, she then returns to help find him, and (this being a Hollywood film), all ends happily, with cuddles all round. (This is not in the Capote story, and may have been suggested by the story Cat In The Rain by Ernest Hemingway, who was a cat fancier.)
 
It’s not always the female protagonist who Lives Alone With A Cat. Right are a pair of examples with male protagonists [mouse over image]:
Philippa Hawker of The Age is cited in its Wiki entry that the 150-minute Jacques Rivette film Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003) "has one of the best sequences involving a cat on film.” Here, the clockmaker and blackmailer Julien lives with just his cat Nevermore – until Marie comes back into his life as a mysterious revenant.
And [mouse over image], written by Paul Logan, Manglehorn's love-lorn protagonist lives a reclusive life with his white angora cat Fanny ('I got nuthin’, you got nuthin') until a new woman comes into his life.
With either male or female protagonists, living alone with a cat [so to speak] is a signal to the audience the protagonist lacks a suitable human companion, as the illlustrated examples below left and right show.

In the Paul Mazursky film Harry & Tonto, the protagonist and his cat are evicted from their NY apartment, and embark on a cross-country journey to LA to visit his son, driving overland as the cat is not happy going by plane or bus, where he will have to be caged up. (You can tell by the look Tonto gives Harry, cf above.)

In The Big Bang Theory's 2010 ep The Zazzy Substitution, one of the group is cause for concern when he gets multiple cats to compensate for the loss of his girfrlend. And in Frankie & Johnny (1991), from Terrence McNally's play, Johnny's onetime squeeze is at the end still spending nights watching tv with her cat as her relationships are limited to one-night stands.

Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film of Charles Portis's novel True Grit takes Mattie home to the store where he sleeps, to meet his 'family', which seems to consist of a cat called General Sterling Price. (The cat, omitted from the 2010 remake, plays a part in the novel's plot when it fails to go after a rat, and Rooster uses Mattie's pistol to shoot it but fails to reload it properly, leading to her capture by the outlaws.) The scene demonstrates his lack of any normal family life, and hence his protective attitude towards Mattie.


To demonstrate how they always put work before private life, onscreen contemporary urban 'loner' heroes like private eyes or contract killers tend to have a spartan bachelor existence, their lifestyle being incompatible with other domestic arrangements; but they often share it with a stray, to demonstrate they are not totally selfish. In Shamus (1973), written by Barry Beckerman, and its made-for-tv followup A Matter Of Wife... And Death (1975), we see the protagonist [played by Burt Reynolds and later Rod Taylor] waking in the converted pool-room apartment he shares with a stray ginger cat. In both instances, the woman the shamus has taken home for the night remarks she doesn’t like cats – which means she’s not for him, and we won’t be seeing her again.

Below: The 1973 Leigh Brackett adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye uses this setup as the springboard for the film. In a lengthy opening sequence (which is not from the novel), we see Marlowe's rather sad and lonely routine. He lives alone with a cat, which wakes him one night to be fed. He is out of its favourite brand of cat food and has to go to the all-night supermarket (where the clerk rudely responds to his cat-food query with ”What do I need with a cat, I’ve got a girlfriend.”) The cat refuses the substitute brand, runs out on him for good, and the film ends two hours later with him shooting his onetime best friend for involving him in a case, he says, that cost him his cat.



The 1973 Leigh Brackett 'revisionist' adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye: Marlowe as anti-hero - he can't even feed a cat properly (you know how fussy cats are), never mind save one.

In The Glitter Dome (1984), scripted by Stanley Kallis from the Joseph Wambaugh novel, we see the cat-human relationship at its nadir. An alcoholic LAPD detective sergeant played by James Garner lives with a ginger cat, at whom he points his gun when he comes home drunk to make it get off the sofa so he can sleep there. He obviously needs to meet someone - which of course he does.

The creature-companion doesn't have to be a cat to make the point that the protagonist is leading an insular existence. In the cult Jean-Pierre Melville film Le Samourai (1967), the hitman played by Alain Delon projects a cool, iconic image in his trench coat and fedora, but in fact lives in a dingy single room in Paris where his only companion is a caged bird. This setup helps explain why he is willing to sacrifice his future to protect a woman he meets on a case.
The STC Code
These days, the 'STC code' motif seems to have worked its way into the routine action film. In The African Game (2009) aka Il Cacciatore Di Uomini, written by Luca Biglione and Michael E. Lemick [=director Michele Massimo Tarantini], the total-loner hitman protagonist is subject to the usual massive doublecross. Fatally wounded, he tells his companion he’s worried – about his cat, which he left in his London flat with only a few days food. He gives her his keys and she returns after his death to feed the cat, discovering the cat food tins are full of rolls of currency.
This 'code' is not just happening in films but novels as well. The first of David Baldacci's John Puller series (2011-), Zero Day, has him living with just a cat (named AWOL, as it comes and goes). When on a VIP murder case, the Jack Reacher style Army CID MP [Puller v Reacher, geddit?] still has time, amidst the violent mayhem all around him, to help feed the local motel owner's cat when she is in hospital. This is obviously meant to show, despite his tough-guy manner, that his heart is in the right place.
The latest wrinkle to the purely metaphoric, chivalrous approach arrived with the special-forces tough-guy thriller, like Bravo Two Zero, Lone Survivor, Killer Elite and Strike Force. This is the setup where the hero’s failure, while on assignment, to shoot a local Muslim youngster who may be a terrorist accomplice is regarded as a fatal weakness by his colleagues, but shows the audience he is more sensitive; in the last two examples, he quits or is forced to resign over this (cf in Strike Force, his SAS CO tells him “The lads won’t work with you any more”).
   

... In the recent hit Gone Girl, written by Gillian Flynn based on her 2012 novel, Flynn ‘noted with delight that her hero endears himself to the audience by literally saving the cat.’ Of course his going home to fetch his locked-out cat is not especially heroic but it is a character testimony, a clue that he is not the villain in this marital-breakdown story.
When a cat becomes part of a couple's household, it assumes a different role, of domestic content rather than social isolation. In fact, a pet can become a child substitute, or at least a shared love token in a liberating-relationship storyline. I
n Children Of A Lesser God [1986], by Hesper Anderson and Mark Medoff, from Medoff's 1979 play, the male protagonist lives alone with an orange tabby, but it later becomes part of the couple's domestic scene, cf images right.


 
 
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