Oscars and Elbows
Without an elbow, an arm is basically useless. I believe good art also has an “elbow.” For example, an abstract painting arguably only “works” because of a specific splash of color or mark that makes it complete and memorable.
In film, I define the elbow as a key moment in the narrative. It isn’t the cinematography, production design, or casting. It’s something that happens, but it doesn’t have to be a complete scene. Stanley Kubrick films offer some good examples. In The Shining, Shelley Duvall’s character finds the stack of typed pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and it becomes clear that Jack has come unhinged, and it sets the viewer up for the horrors ahead. In Full Metal Jacket, the murder/suicide scene in the boot camp serves as the end of the first half of the film and an unforgettable prelude to the violence and madness the hero witnesses in Vietnam. If either of those moments were cut, the films would fall apart, but not only for structural reasons. These elbows are critical emotional markers, and are arguably the most important moments in the films.
So am I just talking about a first or second act turning point, the halfway mark, or the climax? That’s often where I find the elbow, but there are multiple turns in a movie, and by my definition, only one elbow (the arm is the movie). For me, finding the elbow is an exercise both for the viewer and filmmaker. It’s a way of looking at a movie. You definitely won’t find this elbow theory in any how-to screenwriting books because it is too subjective.
Since the Oscars are today, I thought I’d apply my theory to some of this year’s nominees. By the way, Stanley Kubrick got many nominations, but only one Oscar -- special effects for 2001: A Space Odyssey. From this year’s nominees, I’ve chosen Mad Max Fury Road (Best Picture) and Ex Machina (Best Original Screenplay) as my examples. They both have strong and complex female leads. I’m sure critics have analyzed the heck out of the way both films approach the concepts of “the feminine” and gender power dynamics. I’ll stick to the elbow.
Fury Road has many intense, full-throttle moments. However, the scene I consider the elbow comes in a break in the action, after the cult leader and his crew have accidentally run over one of his wives -- the one who is pregnant with his heir. She is close to death, but instead of trying to save her, he has the “doctor” cut the baby from her belly only to find that it is dead. The doctor handles the baby like a slab of meat and twirls its umbilical chord like a string. Our heroes, including Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa, never see this detail. It is there for the viewer, affirming something the characters already know – the cult leader is beyond cruel and ruthless. Like in The Shining, this elbow is as much about the villain as it is the hero.
The elbow in Ex Machina is also very dark and gory. But in contrast to Fury Road, it is focused on our hero Caleb. It happens right after he discovers that his boss Nathan has made multiple female AI prototypes. Caleb goes to his room and cuts into his own arm to see if he may also be an AI. This confirms that he can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is AI because he even doubts his own humanness. Ava has passed the test in a way that goes much deeper than just Caleb’s falling in love with her. She has won. This elbow is the second act turning point. In contrast, the elbow in Fury Road is at the halfway point. Ultimately, Ava can be seen as a villain in Ex Machina since she will lead to Caleb’s demise, so this elbow also illustrates a significant link between the protagonist and antagonist much like in Fury Road.
My examples happen to be pretty grim. I don’t think that’s always the case. However, elbows do seem to include a major shock or surprise that ties the opposing forces within the story together in a poignant way. This is pretty obvious in all of my examples except Full Metal Jacket. To me, the opposing forces in that movie are the young Army journalist and the Vietnam War. In the end, it is this elbow that brings all of the elements (narrative, thematic, and emotional) together and makes all of these films fully realized works of art.