Saves the Cat...Commits an Unspeakable Act
Saves the Cat Writes a Screenplay is a book by the late screenwriter Blake Snyder. The book’s title comes from Snyder’s key concept for crafting effective screenplays: in order to make viewers care about your main character, you must do something to establish this character as in some way worthy of sympathy, or respect. Early in the first act, you should have your protagonist do something that highlights their humanity, or at least their chances for redemption if they start out unsympathetic.
The most obvious and elemental example is to literally have your main character rescue a cat from a tree, say, or a burning building. Thus our title, Saves the Cat.
The Saves the Cat format has been used to market books on everything from television writing to crafting novels. Each title is billed as “The Last Book You’ll Need,” on the subject. I’m always leery of such promises, but since Snyder was a very successful writer, it would probably at least behoove screenwriters to give his book a fair hearing.
Or maybe not. I mentioned the Snyder book to a screenwriter friend of mine recently, who simply sighed then said, “It’s not math, man. You study formula, you’ll write formula.”
The brilliant short story writer and allegorist Jorge Louis Borges once said words to the effect that art was “fire plus algebra.” In his formulation, then, the creative process does at least involve some math, as well as some fire.
Another screenwriter, William Goldman, is famous for saying “No one knows anything.”
Sounds like Snyder was advocating for the algebra and Goldman for the fire, or that Borges with his fire and math was advocating for a Hegelian synthesis. Or maybe it’s just too late at night and I’m talking out of my ass.
Where, you ask, do I personally place myself on the fire-algebra continuum?
Well, considering I’m writing this post, it means I’m still mulling it over, and not quite sure. Many times, though, I’ll watch a movie and see the beats that Snyder claims all films possess, whether by conscious intent or not. This monomythic arc also usually includes the cat saving scene early in the movie.
Last night, for instance, I watched Fort Apache, The Bronx. Released in 1981 it is, for all intents and purposes, still a seventies artifact in terms of its cynicism toward authority and entropic view of inner city America. The Bronx is depicted (or perhaps shown, as a lot of this is filmed on-location) as an open landfill encircled by crumbling, graffiti-scarred tenements. Callous pimps swaddled in chinchilla coats beat hookers out in the open and every building without bars on the windows is a shooting gallery.
And still, even in this bitter-bleak milieu, in the early going we see the grizzled old cop (played by Paul Newman) demonstrating great compassion. In an early scene, we see the cop waltzing into a rat-infested walkup apartment where a Puerto Rican family is screaming bloody murder. Using his little bit of pidgin Spanish he makes his way to the back bedroom, where a girl is sweating and hyperventilating on a bed encircled by religious icons.
The girl is pregnant, and being only fourteen, is terrified of how her family (especially her father) might react. The cop, after easing her fears, strips out of his duty coat, rolls up his sleeves, washes his hands, then sets to work.
Saves the cat delivers a baby.
So yes, saving the cat and remaining calculating in one’s approach to the creative can work. And playing with fire—tampering with ancient formulae going all the back to The Poetics—is a good way to get burnt.
Having said that, there’s still a part of me that wants the pure fire, that only wants to heed Goldman’s call, do the opposite of what I’m told.
And the evidence that this counterintuitive approach works is out there, in films where the protagonist not only doesn’t save the cat, but sometimes kills it. Or at least rapes it.
That’s a comment that needs some explaining:
Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is one of my all-time, top five favorite movies. Its epic chronicling of a life from childhood to old age is as ambitious as Kubrick’s journey through the farthest reaches of the universe in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It explores, celebrates, and then deconstructs the immigrant experience, the defining myth of the twentieth century. And, like 2001, the spell it casts is not only nonverbal, but in some ways preconscious, bypassing logic and lulling the viewer into a true trance.
I’ve watched it hundreds of times, waiting not to be astounded by it—to become acclimated to its majesty—and I’m still waiting. For whatever reason, the spell it casts works every time. Repeat viewings not only don’t diminish the experience, but deepen my appreciation for it.
I’ve heard it described as Proustian, which is not an adjective you usually see applied to movies, but here it’s apt. It has the feel, not of a film unspooling from a reel, but of a memory projected from the depths of the soul of a man who once lived. These ghosts haunting the celluloid, seem, like the shadow puppets in the opium den in the film’s first scene, to suggest life itself is a dream, a shadow play.
The soundtrack by Ennio Morricone is perhaps the most haunting aural work in cinema history, the pan flute’s whispers and the clarinet dirges becoming characters in their own right.
The characters are all “culturally Jewish” but rarely (if ever) reference religion. It’s up to the snaking klezmer music to infuse the scenes with deeper, religious significance, to suggest that these men are part of an ancient, wandering tribe. The pan flute (played by one of the characters) is at its loudest and most insistent when one of their companions is killed in the streets. As men they accept killing and the risk of their own deaths as occupational hazards. This death, though, was one they witnessed while still children, not yet understanding the stakes, or the lengths to which men go for money.
The sound of the pan flute returns throughout the film—weaves as a leitmotif— sometimes as a quiet echo, sometimes diegetically, but each time it means something. It reminds the men of poverty, the death of their innocence, the last lingering happiness of childhood, before they set out on their quest for wealth and power.
“There is only one reason to get rich,” the writer Celine once opined. “And that is to forget.”
The movie is ultimately about a world of people trying to forget. To forget their dirty roots in the Old Country, the lingering horror of the Great War, time’s cruel progress.
And in their midst is one man who lives only for his memories, to remember.
That sounds like a noble aim, yet at the heart of the film is a rotten pathetic man, living only to glut himself on sensory pleasure. He likes opium and he likes women, with his only redeeming (or humanizing) feature his abiding ache for the past. He is nostalgia made into an all-consuming monster, Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway beating his (bat)wings ceaselessly to reenter the past.
Early on we see the protagonist, David “Noodles” Aaronson, Lower East Side hood, flashing his penis at a local girl just trying to use the water closet. A little later he spies on another neighborhood girl through a hole in the wall at her family’s kosher restaurant. This latter girl, played in childhood by Jennifer Connelly, and in adulthood by Elisabeth McGovern, is Deborah, the love of his life.
Except that his desire to possess her is, like his desire to hold on to the memories and joys of his past, doomed to failure. He wants to buy her, imprison her with luxury like a bird in a gilded cage. And while he has opium to goose his time-deadened sensorium to let him reexperience those feelings of the past, if only for fleeting moments, he discovers he cannot buy love. Neither can he squash Deborah’s dreams to become a famous actress, to seek her own fortune and live her own life.
When she finally rebuffs him, he responds by sulking and brooding, half-resembling a petulant child and half a vampire contemplating the next vein to suck. And—much like a baby or a vampire—he is all appetite, so pathetic that when he rapes Deborah in the next scene, he’s as much pitiable as loathsome.
When she screams, clubbing his arms and begging him to get off her, he continues, not because he’s ignoring her, but because he can’t hear her through his dumb lust.
And yet our gaze follows him to the last frame, and never flinches. And when the film ends with him puffing his pipe in the opium den, staring up at the camera, and a smile breaks across his lips, the lingering emotion is joy.
The movie’s been around now for something like forty years, and its popularity has only grown through the decades. It enjoys a reputation as both a masterpiece of world cinema and one of the greatest films of all-time.
It received mixed reviews upon its debut, but that was as much due to heavy interference by studios in the editing process as anything else.
It definitely wasn’t due to the rape scene, though there were those who took issue with that in post-screening interviews with De Niro and Leone.
No one has suggested that this movie in which the protagonist rapes his love interest fosters rape culture or promotes rape, or that its distribution should be curtailed.
Some of this could be due to the film’s excessive runtime. People weaned on social media—especially the attention-sapping character limit of twitter—probably don’t even have the patience to get to the scene in question.
Some of it, though, is down to the quality of the film, its unassailably eternal appeal, its mystery and beauty of which the violence (sexual and physical) are a part. Once Upon a Time in America, like Nabokov’s Lolita, is too good, too timeless to cancel. Rail against it all you like, just know that it will outlive you and your grievance.
So what, ultimately, is my conclusion, now that I’ve extricated my hand from this tangled webwork which I was foolish enough to attempt to unknot?
Saves the Cat...rapes the love interest?
Sure, why not.
Or how about this? Art makes even the intolerable bearable, evil understandable, when it’s honest enough, and concerned more with fire than formula.