Friday, September 28, 2007

Movie Plot: Old Maids

The idea for this exercise was to distill a movie plot down to its essence (you may have seen these in the theaters: "A burn victim tries to reconnect with his two children" as "Star Wars" boiled down), then write a scene from that boiled down plot. It was a fun little two-part exercise, but I'll reverse it here: the writing first, then the plot summary, and last, the movie I used as inspiration.

  Victoria's hearing wasn't so good these days, but Madeleine's was, so it was by Madeleine's liver-spotted hand suddenly lifting from her shoulder that Victoria knew that Jerrold had entered the room. She turned to her left and adjusted her wire-rimmed spectacles until the black-and-white skunk came into focus. “I'm leaving,” he said, looking down his long snout at the two humans, which was impressive for a five-foot creature even though Victoria was seated.
  Madeleine had taken a step back and folded her arms, her creased face now blank of emotion. Victoria carefully closed the photo album, keeping her finger on the page of their Bermuda holiday. “What do you mean, “I'm leaving”?” Madeleine's voice tended to shake, so Victoria did the loud talking when loud talking was to be done.
  “Just that,” the skunk said. “I've collected my things. I've cleaned the upstairs this morning and I've just now finished the kitchen. This room,” he waved a paw at the floor-to-ceiling shelves crammed with treatises, tomes, trinkets, and tchotchkes, “you can clean yourselves.”
  “Now, see here,” Victoria said, though she'd heard most of her words, “do you mean to say you're just up and leaving, without even the courtesy of giving notice?” She looked to Madeleine, who nodded.
  “This is my notice, and it's more than you deserve.” He smoothed down the wrinkled tan shirt he was wearing. It took Victoria a moment to recognize it as the one he'd been wearing when they'd hired him.
  “Just a moment, just a moment.” She pushed herself to her feet, still keeping her place in the photo album. “We have treated you as well as you could ask for--”
  “Ha!” The vehemence of Jerrold's sharp interruption was like a slap in the face. She recoiled, blinking. “You think I don't know what's going on? The tomato-juice bath oil? The 'special' cleaning products you insist on me using? Your house rules about my friends and family?”
  “What on earth are you talking about?” Madeleine cut in. Victoria wished she hadn't. She sounded like a frightened old woman.
  “I don't know why you're doing it, but I won't have any more of it. I can barely recognize my own scent anymore, there's more and more fur left behind every time I take one of your baths, and I swear my claws are getting softer.”
  “You're imagining things.” Victoria had no trouble hearing him now, his words shrill in the relative quiet of her world. One of the reasons she didn't wear a hearing aid was that she liked the muted quality of the world. Sounds only intruded when nearby, and she was attuned enough to Madeleine that they never had any trouble communicating.
  “Well, then, all the more reason for me to leave. You wouldn't want a delusional skunk in your house, living in your tiny servant's room. Who knows what I might imagine next.” He snorted and turned to leave.
  “Wait, wait!” Victoria lost her place in the photo album in her haste to move forward.
  Jerrold shook his head. “No, I don't think I shall.” He turned in the doorframe.
  “Where will you go?” Victoria called. “Back to the Kennel?”
  “If they'll have me.” Jerrold lowered his head. “That's what you've wanted, isn't it? To tear me away from my people.”
  “To elevate you above your station!” Victoria took another step forward. She lifted her arms as though raising the skunk's body.
  “My station.” Jerrold laughed. “What do you know or care about my station? What would you have me do once I've been 'elevated,' as you put it?”
  “Everyone should aspire to rise above their circumstances,” Victoria fixed his eyes with hers. He wavered; she pressed her advantage. “Think of that gutter where you live, the squalid houses, the filthy streets. Don't you want something better?”
  He looked back at them for a long moment. “Better? To sit in this ossified museum—yes, I've picked up some of your words, how could I not?--and hide your feelings under layers of dust and varnish, to pretend you two are only old friends? Is that 'better'?”
  Victoria heard Madeleine's sharp hiss behind her. She ignored it. “Jerrold, these personal insults are better than you, we thought. If you want to leave behind all we have to teach you, then by all means, walk out that door.”
  He hesitated, so that for a moment she thought she'd reached him. “I don't want to know any more of what you think is worth teaching,” he said finally. “I'll miss your money. That's all.”
  “Stop!” Madeleine called, but her voice no longer had the power it once had, something she still hadn't grown used to. Victoria couldn't think of anything more to say, and in the space of her indecision, Jerrold left.
  “Well,” she said, turning to Madeleine. “I think we'll agree that that was inconclusive.”
  “Inconclusive?” hooted the taller woman, her palm out. “Victoria, my darling, he was going back to his wretched hole despite all our efforts to make him completely unsuitable. I believe that means I win.”
  “We didn't finish,” Victoria argued. “You could hardly tell he was losing fur.”
  “He could tell.” Madeleine said. “And he was still going back. Come, come, Victoria, you won the wager on dear old Callahan's consumption. Don't be a poor sport now.”
  “You didn't pay that one until we were at the funeral,” Victoria grumbled, but she dug her small wallet out of her purse.
  Madeleine's wrinkled hand closed over the bill. “Callahan was a trickster. It would be just like you and him to fake his death. I wanted to be sure.”
  Victoria watched the bill disappear into Madeleine's purse. “You know,” she said, “the greengrocer said the apples will be in late this year.”
  Madeleine's bright eyes fixed hers. “How late?”
  “Well,” Victoria said, “he thought September 22nd. But I think it might not be until October.”
  Madeleine smiled. “I trust the grocer,” she said. “Would you like to make a small wager?”
  Victoria sat down in front of the photo album again, and smiled. “Of course, darling.”

Recognize the movie yet? Okay, the plot synopsis was:

A stuffy professor and his live-in colleague decide to ruin a woman's life on a bet and are surprised when she objects.

(I switched the genders around for the story.)

The movie, of course, was "My Fair Lady," though I realized while I was doing this that "Trading Places" has essentially the same plot. Both of them also share the distinction of being terrifically entertaining movies that come slightly unhinged at the end, though in different ways. In "My Fair Lady," I think they found they'd written themselves into a corner and needed the two main characters to get together somehow even though the story basically demands that they don't. In "Trading Places" I think they just got a really good batch of, um, inspiration and snuck the scene past the director by saying "we have two brilliant comedians in this movie, we have to let them Be Funny!"

Regardless, both of them have endings that are better than the previous scene.

1 comment:

"Z" said...

Ha ha ha! Very novel, though I think the Star Wars thing is extending it a bit. In any case, giving spoilers to those who live under a rock and haven't seen any films from yesteryear may just collapse the proverbial rock.