In a recent podcast, the custodians of Save the Cat! offered a very thin and unconvincing assessment of Birdman’s genre classification, the essence of which was this: “Look—Michael Keaton’s got a Life Problem! He goes about fixing it the Wrong Way! Clearly this is a Rite of Passage!”
In a serendipitously timed blog post, I argued that Birdman is, in fact, a Fool Triumphant, and even held it up for comparison, like two perfectly aligned sketches on tracing paper backlit against a lamp, with a recent (and accurate) example of RoP, Jon Favreau’s Chef, as proof that those stories don’t share fundamental commonality with respect to their genre conventions.
Because that’s ultimately what distinguishes the codified narrative models of the late Blake Snyder from one another: their conventional criteria—the requirements each particular genre is expected to deliver upon. A golf cart and a city bus both have wheels and seats and a motor (i.e., a similar fundamental underlying structure), but you’d never mistake one for the other; you’d never expect one to perform the function of the other.
Stories are no different. They all follow a common mythic pattern that we unconsciously and collectively recognize as narrative (Snyder arranged the monomyth into his own customized beat sheet), but the different (and finite) types of story models each serve a different function; those specific functions then carry with them their own set of expectations on the part of the consumer.
Genre is the tool by which audiences gauge their expectations of a given narrative, and by which storytellers fulfill those unconscious assumptions (the best ones do it artfully, the bad ones turn out cliché). There are ten basic models (if you subscribe to Snyder’s methodologies); each is expected to adhere to its own distinct (and defined) set of conventional criteria. Tone, style, subject matter—all irrelevant with regard to genre, which is strictly about story conventions. That’s the reason why movies as aesthetically diverse as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Philomena are both the same type of story: “Buddy Fleece.”
As I discussed in the last post, sometimes conventions from one genre can make themselves apparent in another. That is not a contradiction or a flaw in the broader methodology; Snyder addressed the issue in his first book: He specifically cites The Breakfast Club (Rites of Passage or Institutionalized?) and Zoolander (Fool Triumphant or Superhero?) as examples of this—and then demonstrates why each of those was definitively one over the other. Snyder wasn’t a biblical prophet: He didn’t issue some delphic decree from the mountaintop and then prohibit intellectual discourse on the matter; he trusted that his tools were sufficiently durable—and his mastery of them commensurably assured—to withstand scrutiny.
I would even argue that scrutiny legitimizes his principles. Certainly this site, I should hope, has played its small part in that.
So, in a ten-minute podcast (on the Save the Cat! website, no less), I would expect some substantive debate, some comparative analysis, some illustrative examples of Birdman’s ex cathedra classification as Rites of Passage. Instead, there weren’t any insights in the lecture that weren’t already perfectly clear from its content summary above the Play button: Birdman is RoP—because it is, that’s why.
Of all of Snyder’s genres, RoP is perhaps the one most subject to misapplication (and we’ll get to why in a minute); it becomes an easy catch-all categorization when a movie’s genre is ambiguous—when it requires a more measured consideration to properly discern. My aforementioned colleague—the one with whom I engaged in a friendly e-mail debate that inspired my own analysis of Birdman—even went so far as to say that “all stories are rites of passage” because “[a]ll characters have important stuff happening to them at critical moments in their lives. That’s sort of the nature of stories and why they get told.”
I won’t argue with that. But that doesn’t qualify all stories as Rites of Passage. Two different components of storytelling have been conflated there. But, again: We’ll get to that shortly.
I already made my claim that if you compare Birdman with an actual RoP—case in point: Chef—it becomes readily apparent that it simply doesn’t fit comfortably in that genre, despite the fact that Michael Keaton’s character may very well be grappling with a “life problem,” however that’s defined. Well, you say to yourself, that’s one down; let’s look at it beside another type of movie. Sensible enough—that’s how these tools are tested. My colleague—not me—selected Miloš Forman’s Amadeus (1984).
In the movie, young Mozart arrives in Vienna—the “city of musicians”—where his divine talent receives the recognition (and invokes the envy) of court composer Antonio Salieri, but fails to sufficiently impress Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II or his Italian sycophants. The movie’s central dramatic question then becomes, Will Mozart convince the Viennese elite of his genius?
Well, well, well—we just may be on to something here. Riggan in Birdman is also an underappreciated talent seeking to win the approval of an inhospitable audience. Let’s have a closer look, then, at how closely Amadeus conforms to the criteria of Fool Triumphant:
- Mozart is considered a “trained monkey,” not a prodigy; he’s viewed as a paternally groomed novelty act, and he struggles throughout the story to emerge from the shadow of his father’s stern disapproval. Throughout the film, he is dismissed as a “servant,” an “obscene child,” someone trying to “impress beyond his abilities.” The fool in a Fool Triumphant is often—usually—an underdog, so Mozart fits the bill here. Remember: fool doesn’t necessarily mean “incompetent,” only underestimated. Consider the cases of Forrest Gump, Elle Woods, Axel Foley.
- The city of Vienna, as emblemized by Joseph II’s court, is the establishment Mozart seeks to win over—“musical idiots,” he deems the Italians, who would rather see endless operas about recycled legends (shades of contemporary Hollywood)—and they don’t make it easy on him, offering petty critiques of his work and taste, and attempting to censor his magnum opus The Marriage of Figaro. He is also subversively undermined by the envious Salieri, a member of the court (the “establishment”), who tarnishes Mozart’s reputation to the point where he is no longer able to solicit pupils, enflaming his dire financial straits.
- In the end, by Salieri’s appraisal, God kills the gifted Mozart “rather than letting a mediocrity share in the smallest part of his glory.” Even though Mozart proves too weak of character to withstand the attempts by the establishment (as personified by Salieri) to destroy him, he achieves immortality through his music while Salieri is doomed to watch, over the course of his lifetime, his own symphonic accomplishments recede into the obscurity of history. Mozart dies, in other words, but he is deified—he achieves transmutation.
When we look at Amadeus at its most basic—and Snyder himself conclusively identified the film as FT in his published works—its genetic parity with Birdman is undeniable. In both stories, a fool (a washed-up actor; an unrecognized musical prodigy) takes on an establishment (Broadway; Vienna) and achieves transmutation (Riggan innovates a new form of stage performance; Mozart’s unconventional music achieves a timelessness that eludes the work of his scornful peers).
So, why, then, the impulse to classify either of these movies as RoP?
What we have here is a case of semantic confusion. Screenwriting is filled with myriad ill-defined terms—“character arc,” “fatal flaw,” “theme,” “subtext,” “genre,” “concept,” “premise”—that are often used interchangeably and/or incorrectly. For the most part, Snyder took a very plainspoken approach to labeling his techniques—I think we all have a sense of the innate requirements of movies in the genres of Monster in the House and Golden Fleece without ever having studied his principles—but Rites of Passage is a more, shall we say, malleable piece of terminology.
Let me clear up this issue if I may: There are Rites of Passage, the story model as Snyder defines it, and then there are rites of passage, which, I suppose, is another way of identifying a character’s transformational arc. Ideally, protagonists in every genre undergo some kind of character arc; that’s what gives a story emotional resonance. It is, as my colleague observed, “the nature of stories and why they get told.” Let’s look at some examples from a random sampling of genres:
- Tom Cruise’s arc in Minority Report (Whydunit) is to recover from the devastating disappearance/death of his son
- Christian Bale’s arc in 3:10 to Yuma (Golden Fleece) is to learn to have dignity
- Neve Campbell’s arc in Scream (Monster in the House) is to come to terms with the fact that her mother’s promiscuity didn’t make the woman deserving of murder
All of the above exemplify powerful transformational arcs—rites of passage, if you like—but none of those films qualify as RoP. Rites of Passage is a story model in which a character is struggling to come to terms with an issue of internal conflict or torment—like separation (Her), death (My Sister’s Keeper), midlife crisis (Chef), addiction (Don Jon), and adolescence (Boyhood)—who travels a circuitous path of “wrong turns” before arriving at acceptance. Does that sound like Birdman or Amadeus to you?
And that is exactly the point of today’s post: Tools and technique take practice to master. So, challenge your first impressions and preconceptions. Test Blake Snyder’s principles—and those of all your mentors—against the vast library of movies that have been produced in the last century. Snyder himself didn’t wake up one morning with a comprehensive vision of the storytelling methods now collectively known as Save the Cat!; he developed those techniques through years upon years of study and practice (he was a working screenwriter with produced credits and many script sales under his belt). Anyone hoping to become proficient in his methods needs to log just as many hours studying them as he spent innovating them; you won’t “get it” from a single reading of the book (though I certainly know development execs who think a mere halfhearted onceover qualifies them as storytelling masters), or even six months of practice. It takes time, it takes application, and it takes debate. The first two are up to you, but you’ll always have a forum for the third right here.