I had planned to write about some important differences I noticed in the Beckett on Film version of Krapp’s Last Tape and the play itself, but I finally got around to watching Lars and the Real Girl and I had two thoughts about it: one emotional and one technical.
No Third Acts
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in The Love of the Last Tycoon, “There are no second acts in American lives.” And ever since it has been fashionable for people who don’t know a lick about dramatic structure to say he was wrong. They usually assume it means that people don’t have second careers—that is how simplistic the thinking goes. It is never mentioned that this quotation is not from some party that Fitzgerald attended and thus is his opinion, but from the half-finished first draft of a novel. Should we assume that Melville preferred to be called Ishmael, because that’s what he wrote in Moby Dick? Of course not. And the same logic should be applied to Fitzgerald, especially given that he might have removed the whole line had he lived long enough. (This is highly doubtful; it is a great line.)
There are first acts in our lives: things go wrong. There are second acts, too: things get more and less complicated. There are not third acts in our lives: there is never any resolution. Much of the brilliance of Waiting for Godot is that its structure is life: every day is a minor variation on the day before. There are no conclusions; nothing is ever resolved. In this way, life is one long second act: complication after complication; we do better sometimes and worse others. Even on the most trite level where we try to cram birth, life, and death into the three acts, there are no third acts; birth and death are not acts—they are events. Fitzgerald’s life itself shows this. Yes, he died. But did he have a massive heart attack just as he typed that last period of that last novel? No. He died having almost half his planned chapters undone: 14 out of 31. It was second act all the way up to falling dead off that armchair.There are no third acts in real life.
Which brings us to Lars and the Real Girl. What are we to make of such a movie? The first half of the film is very funny. Nothing can quite compete with a sex doll in a wheelchair, holding a prayer book in the middle of a church. That is effortless comedy. The second half of the film is a tragedy. The film is basically Love Story with a sex doll and a fourth act tacked on to make everything work out. Since I knew this was the course the film would take from the moment the sex doll arrived (the filmmakers had to lay a little—surprisingly little—groundwork for the fourth act to work), I found myself sobbing throughout the second half of the film—certainly as much as I did during Love Story.
Did the happy fourth act ending make me happy? Of course not. It was just a cheap trick, anyway. And if I don’t think there are third acts in real life, I certainly don’t believe in a follow-up. In real life, far from getting the girl, Lars doesn’t even get his sanity back. Some days are better than others—just like it is for the rest of us.
Modern Films Are Too Long
Lars and the Real Girl is typical of modern films. It comes in at about an hour forty-five, and yet has only about an hour’s worth of content. The first act is way too long, the second act barely exists, its third act is interminable, and its fourth act is just silly. It helps that all of these acts were extremely well done: the dialog and scene construction, art direction, lighting, acting, even editing in as much as it was allowed. I’m sure the editor could have made a near perfect film with the material she was given: it just would have been, as usual, about an hour long.
The first thing one learns as a novelist—even a failed one—is that some stories just don’t lend themselves to a novel. A novel requires a lot of material. Well, so does an hour forty-five film. I wish filmmakers would learn that.