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Searching for the Meaning of Life on the Danish Island of Dr. Moreau: Men & Chicken, the Film

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H.G. Wells’ classic science fiction novel The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896) is a memorable tale of horror and misguided human aspiration to create a perfect race or, at the very least, an improved kind of human-animal. Moreau, a medical doctor forced to leave England because of questionable experimentation, lives on a remote Pacific island where he continues his morally dubious experiments trying to turn animals into humans — The Beast Folk — or turning humans into animals when they interfere with Moreau’s “research.” Whether or not such a thing is actually biologically possible, even with the introduction of human DNA into the animal surgeries as portrayed by the 1996 film version, the novel was published at a time when the discussion around the morality of vivisection (experimenting on living creatures) was becoming more vocal and public.

The Island of Dr. Moreau explores not only vivisection and Darwinian evolutionary theory but imperialism at its most rudimentary level. Though Moreau, an educated, white Englishman, is not colonizing the island or exploiting its natural products to enrich himself or his countrymen, he clearly considers himself superior to most other humans and certainly to any animal. His attempts to make the island population of beasts into “improved” human-like animals backfires, however, because he fails to take each species’ own inherent natures into consideration. For example, Moreau teaches his Beast Folk that it is bad to go on “all fours” and to hunt, kill, or eat anything else that goes on four legs, thoroughly ignoring the Beast Folk’s primary drives to survive. Though Wells himself called the novel “an exercise in youthful blasphemy,” it is a powerful exploration of human attempts to interfere with nature, cruelty to non-human species, and moral responsibility, especially in the matter of genetically “improving” a native culture or species.

Brothers Gregor, Franz, and Josef (back row), with Elias and Gabriel (front), Men & Chicken, Photo courtesy of Danish Film Institute

In the dark Danish comedy, Men & Chicken (Mænd og Høns, 2015), written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, viewers are taken to the island of Dr. Moreau’s geneticist counterpart long after he has successfully completed several experimental atrocities. Beginning and ending with narration reminiscent of a fairy tale, the film depicts five brothers’ unsettling discovery that they have the “most twisted family tree since Hamlet” (Variety). Though its premise is sinister and “suggests a cult horror movie,” Men & Chicken is, instead, a “staggering account of family dysfunction, secret-hoarding, and tragedy.”

The film has a “dry eccentricity that is entertaining and absurd,” with terrific ensemble acting. Though at least one critic found the film “creepy, weird, and condescending,” resembling The Island of Dr. Moreauvia Kierkegaard,” the film’s broader comedy eventually settles down into an intense investigation of the meaning of life, the purpose of civilization, and an exploration of what it means to be human. Men & Chicken begins as almost atrocious slapstick but ultimately becomes a poignant exploration of the meaning of life, family, community, and love.

Mads Mikkelsen as Elias and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken, © Danish Film Institute

The film begins on simultaneously tragic and comedic notes. Gabriel (David Dencik, above R) sits at his dying father’s side in the hospital, waiting for his brother. By the time brother Elias (Mads Mikkelsen, above L), arrives, talking more about his blind-date with a psychologist he met online than their dying father, the old man has passed on, leaving his two sons a videotape that reveals he is not their biological father.

As if that weren’t distressing enough, Dad tells them that they did not even have the same mother. Elias, a sensitive thought slightly dim-witted compulsive masturbator, is more concerned about being abandoned by his little brother Gabriel than he is about learning that Dad was not their biological father. Gabriel, a professor and author with an uncontrollable gag reflex who has just been abandoned by his latest girlfriend because he cannot have children, wants to go meet their biological father, who is said to be alive and working at a sanatorium on the island of Ork.

On the trip, we learn more about their personalities, including Elias’ short temper and hatred of being interrupted, and Gabriel’s loneliness for a wife, along with his seemingly infinite patience. When the two brothers arrive at the appropriately creepy sanatorium where their father supposedly lives and works, they meet three other men, all of whom have harelips,* as do Gabriel and Elias. In no time, the three other brothers prove that they are siblings in personality traits as well as biological heritage.

Søren Malling as Franz, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Franz (Søren Malling), who carries around his taxidermy animals, has the same type of temper as Elias. The only brother with pronounced facial scarring beyond the harelip, Franz is also the only other brother with enough education to be a teacher, as is Gabriel.

Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, and Nicolas Bro as Josef, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Despite having no formal education, Josef (Nicolas Bro, above R) is as intellectual and philosophical as Gabriel, but rather shy, more like Elias.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, and Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

And Josef (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, above L) is as affectionate and desperate to have sex with women as Elias, but as brave and independent as Gabriel.

David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Because Gabriel is injured in the initial meeting with the three siblings at the sanatorium, he and Elias are invited to stay, at least until Gabriel recovers. Though the two brothers cannot see their father, ostensibly because he is ill, the two quickly become interested in staying on.

Bedtime stories with (L-R) Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, Nicolas Bro as Josef, Mads Mikkelsen as Elias, and Søren Malling as Franz, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Elias becomes emotionally attached to the three siblings, playing badminton in tennis whites, and hunkering down in beds pushed close together so the brothers can listen to bedtime stories.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Gregor, and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

Meanwhile, Gabriel becomes obsessed with discovering why all the brothers look so much alike, despite their having different mothers, and why there are so many animals living in the sanatorium with the younger three brothers who were raised by the biological father. Gabriel is determined to meet their father, Dr. Thanatos, and to learn about his genetic research, despite Franz’s warning that Gabriel will end up “in the cage” for misbehavior or other infractions of the rules.

Ole Thestrup as Mayor of Ork, Bodil Jørgensen as daughter Ellen, and David Dencik as Gabriel, Men & Chicken © Danish Film Institute

When the brothers finally do learn about their biological heritage, along with their father’s mysterious and terrifyingly illegal behavior, their fragile emotional connection to each other is strained to the breaking point, causing the island’s fellow residents to get actively involved in the brothers’ personal drama.

Absurd, darkly comedic, and ultimately surprising, Men & Chicken is a poignant exploration of what it means to be human, to be in a family, and to truly love others. Though the ending might be considered happily-ever-after by some viewers, the conclusion of the film has very tragic undertones. After all, what goes on in the basement is the dark lining that makes this film a drama rather than a comedy of grotesque errors.

In Danish with English subtitles, Men & Chicken was one of three films shortlisted for Denmark’s entry to the 88th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Films: its ensemble acting is outstanding, as is its satire and irony.

Available for rent ($1.99-2.99, SD/HD, but $4.99 from iTunes) from Amazon (free for Prime members), iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.

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* The harelips caused some viewers to remark that Jensen was mocking people with disabilities or different appearances.

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Filed under Absurdity, Actors, Dark Comedies, Drama, Film Videos, Films, Films/Movies, Movies/Films, No Spoilers Review, Official Film Trailers, Official Movie Trailers, Official Trailers, Review, Review/No Spoilers

How to Watch a Movie to Become a Better Writer

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Children watching Charlie Chaplin film, 1951 (from teara.govt.nz photograph:21963)

In case you’ve never visited my blog before, you may not realize what a big fan I am of movies. I love films almost as much as I do books. When I was young, the concept of premium movie channels didn’t even exist, and there were only three networks, with commercials, and with heavy editing of any films they did air. Sometimes, when my newly divorced mother was first dating, my siblings and I got dropped off at a local movie theatre on Saturday afternoons, where the theatre showed many different films all day long, not just the same one all day, so we got to see at least two or three movies without leaving our seats.

We didn’t even have color television for the first decade of my life, so books became more important to me than films if only because I had easier access to books. There was a library in the school, and the Bookmobile came around to our neighborhood once a week, enabling me to get as many books as I could read. Still, I watched as many films as I could.

When I first became a writer, I wrote poetry. I’d fallen in love with TS Eliot’s poems when I was 6, although I certainly didn’t understand them. I loved the music of his language, and I wanted to write words like that myself. Gradually, over the years of writing and publishing poems, my poems began to get longer and more complex. More of my poems became narratives, with distinct storylines. Some had multiple protagonists and different perspectives. Editors at journals where I submitted my work began to write notes on the rejection slips, asking, “Are you sure you’re not writing fiction?” I thought the editors were just being obtuse. Eventually, though, I began to wonder if I should write fiction instead of poetry, if only because my poems were getting too long and complex for most poetry journals.

But how to write a novel? I got as many books as I could on novel writing technique, but they said things so simplistic that I wondered what pre-school class they’d been written for. Have a plot, have characters, make something happen. I knew all that from years of reading books, getting degrees in literature, and from teaching literature. But I was at a loss about how to move from writing poetry to writing fiction. Then, one of my favorite movies aired on Turner Classic Movies, without commercials — Gone with the Wind — and I wondered if I could learn to write fiction by watching a classic film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

I hadn’t read Margaret Mitchell’s book at that point, but I was a huge fan of the film based on her book. I watched Gone with the Wind once again, but that time I tried to pay attention to what made the film a good story. In particular, I wondered how the film managed to tell its story – with the American Civil War and its Reconstruction period as its setting – without ever confusing its viewers. I first saw Gone with the Wind when I was 5 or 6, and though I’m certain I didn’t understand it all, I understood enough of the story to fall in love with the film.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

As an adult, and as a writer who wanted to move from poetry to fiction, I watched Gone with the Wind over and over, paying special attention to the storytelling techniques, and I learned enough to feel confident enough afterward to write my first novel. All writers can learn good storytelling from great films, and camera angles and acting techniques can also teach something about writing fiction, but you have to know how to watch a film in order to become a better writer.

Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, Roman Holiday ©

The Plot
To learn good writing and storytelling techniques from a movie, re-watch a movie that you’ve seen several times. If you’ve never seen the movie or if you’ve only seen it once or twice, you’ll probably be paying attention to the plot only, which includes all the story’s conflict. Obviously, it’s imperative to have a strong plot in your story, whether you’re writing a short story, novella, or novel, but there’s more to fiction than plot. All good writing has Urgency, which keeps the reader turning pages, but plot Urgency has solely to do with what happens in the story, and that means conflict.

Traditionally, conflict has been divided into four major categories, and you should be familiar with these if you’re writing fiction. For details, you should see my post on Urgency, especially conflict in plot. An author can have as many categories of conflict in fiction as he wishes, but the first time most of us read a book or watch a film, we are most interested in what happens so we are only reading or watching for plot. To learn fiction-writing technique from any book or a film, you should already know what happens in the plot, i.e., you should be intimately familiar with all the conflicts, so that you can concentrate on storytelling technique.

James Dean and Natalie Wood, Rebel without a Cause, 1955 ©

The Protagonist
Once you know the plot of the film, pay attention to the character who is the focus of film. Who is most often on camera? Who has the most lines? Who do all other characters in the story congregate around? That is the protagonist. Now imitate that technique in your own story & writing by making sure that you view the protagonist as if you were the camera. Make sure you focus on your protagonist consistently.

If the film has more than one protagonist, notice which is the major protagonist around whom the minor protagonists rotate. The minor protagonists are satellites or moons to the planet that is the major protagonist. Notice how the camera and all the other actors concentrate on the major protagonist all the time. That is how you want to tell your story: around the major protagonist. Use that technique when writing your own fiction. Keep your own camera focused on your protagonist so your readers should find it easy to follow your protagonist through the book.

Watch the film at least once without sound while paying attention to the protagonist and his relationship with the camera. Notice how the camera is directed toward and focused on the protagonist. Note camera focus on the protagonist in every scene: you want that kind of focus in your own story. No matter what’s happening in the film, notice where the camera is in relation to the protagonist. Even in action sequences, the camera often returns to the protagonist to show his reaction, however brief, to the events around him. Learn from that. Use that technique to improve your own writing.

Joan Fontaine and Dame Judith Anderson in Rebecca, 1940 ©

The Antagonist
All characters in fiction need to be fully developed, not just your protagonist. Watch the film once more, concentrating on every person or thing that causes conflict for the protagonist. This could include the protagonist’s own behavior, doubt, hesitation, etc. Anything that causes conflict with the protagonist becomes an antagonist in the story, and, obviously, there can be lots of antagonists. Watch the film at least once listing every single conflict that happens. Identify antagonist(s) that are the cause of each conflict. Group all the conflicts that go with each antagonist together. This helps you become hyper-conscious of conflict, which is important in good storytelling.

Just as there can be more than one protagonist in any story, there can be multiple antagonists, though one is usually dominant. After you have listed all the conflicts and all the various antagonists, determine which is the major antagonist. In Moby-Dick and Jaws, for example, the whale and the shark are the major antagonists respectively in each book, but the sea is also an important antagonist in both stories, as are fellow sailors. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort is the major antagonist, whom Harry encounters even before he is conscious of doing so, but Harry also has conflicts with family members, teachers, supernatural creatures, and himself throughout.

Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh, Gone with the Wind ©

The Dialogue
There’s more to writing effective dialogue than just the words characters say, and film can teach you what else to put in talking scenes. Take a few weeks or months off from watching the film because you need it to be fresh the next time you play it. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen while the film is playing. Instead, listen to it closely, and try to recall what the actors are doing when they say their lines. Don’t worry if you can’t actually remember what each and every character is doing while you’re listening to the film: instead, try to imagine what each actor is doing if you can’t recall his actions. When you are writing your own story, you will have to imagine what your characters are doing without having any actors to provide the action that accompanies the dialogue, so this is good practice.

Next, watch the film against without looking at the screen. This time, pay attention to the inflections (stress or accent on words or their syllables) and intonations (rise and fall of the voice in speech) of everything the actors say. You will not be able to imitate this in a written story because they are attributes of spoken language, but you should still become aware of the role that inflection and intonation play in speech. Listen also to the pauses and to the silences. Think about these things in reference to your own writing. You may have to re-arrange sentences or choose your words more carefully to imitate inflection or intonation. You may have to insert dialogue tags to mimic pauses, like this: “Are you trying to tell me,” she said when her husband remained silent, “that you’re seeing someone else?”

But whatever you do in writing dialogue,

Do. Not. Do. Something. Like. This. In. An. Attempt. To. Imitate. What. Actors. Are. Doing. In. A. Film.


Don’t do this either.


Those are just examples of really bad writing.

Find more imaginative ways to imitate in writing how a character is speaking. Use silence and action as well as direct speech. You are not writing a screenplay. Even if you were, actors do not have every single movement and facial expression written out for them. They interpret. They ACT. But if you’re writing fiction, you need to supply this information to your readers. Don’t overdo it with bad writing or grotesquely incorrect punctuation.

You are not trying to slavishly imitate film by trying to write down every single thing the actors are doing with their voices: that would be impossible. You are trying to learn from the film’s storytelling and from the actors’ acting. You are learning what a visual art form does to tell a good story. You will have to learn how to translate those techniques into a different art form: a written art.

James Cagney and Mae Clarke in The Public Enemy, 1931 (Cagney added the grapefruit in the face) ©

The NonVerbals
After you’ve identified the major protagonist, any minor protagonists, all the antagonists, and all the conflicts, and you know the story well, it’s time to watch the film again, without sound, paying very close attention to the actors’ facial expressions and body language. You may have to do this several times, concentrating on different characters each time. This is where you get ideas for description and behavior in your story. Notice what the actors do with their hands, eyes, lips, mouths, eyebrows, feet, etc. whether they’re talking or not. (In the photo above, James Cagney improvised the grapefruit-in-the-face action during an argument with Mae Clarke’s character, so her intense frown and raised hands were honest surprise and outraged shock at his actions: they were not in the script.)

Note the actors’ bodies when they’re walking, sitting, standing. Become aware of how you determine what the actor is feeling without hearing what he’s saying. Use that knowledge to describe your own characters and reveal what they are feeling by showing what they are doing instead of always having them tell the readers (or other characters) how they feel.

Joan Crawford (in fur) in Mildred Pierce, 1945 ©

The Setting
After you’ve watched the film about a trillion times and think you’ve got absolutely everything you can get out of it, you have more to learn if you want to become a better writer. Watch the film again, without sound, and notice all the costumes, hairstyles, makeup, furniture, buildings, night, day, weather…

Setting is more than just a place: it is the time period of the story, the society, the government, the religious background, the environment, the weather, etc. Notice all of that in the film.

Look at the characters’ fingernails (something often overlooked, as when a poor sharecropper has finely manicured nails), the soles of their shoes, how their clothes move when the actors walk, fall, run, embrace. This may all affect what characters do, and you can learn character behavior and description from closely observing how the actors move in their costumes.

Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle and Joseph (Buster) Keaton in The Bellboy, 1918 ©

Watch carefully and note every single time an actor interacts with something in his environment, whether he’s sitting on the edge of a desk, clutching a handkerchief, picking up a coffee cup, turning away from another actor, holding onto someone’s arm, or petting a cat. Look at how they move across carpet, bare floor, a sandy beach, around bodies lying on the ground, up a steep hill. Learn from every single thing in the film’s setting with which the actors interact. Learn from the setting and how it affects the actors’ behavior. Use it in your own story.

Gary Cooper (in white shirt) and Barbara Stanwyck in Ball of Fire, 1942 ©

Keep in mind that you can’t learn to write a book from only watching movies. You also need to read, all the time, in your genre and outside of it, and you should read short stories and novellas, stand-alone novels and series. After all, writing is a job, not a holiday jaunt, and all sorts of fiction can help you learn to write better.

When you watch films to become a better writer, you’re not copying everything the film does: you’re learning from the actors, who inhabit the characters; from the director, who determines scene and camera focus; from the setting, especially if setting is an antagonist; from the conflicts, which are plot. Most good films can teach you how to become a better writer, but you have to become conscious of film techniques, and then learn how to translate those visiual cues into written languae.

You don’t have to worry that this exercise will make you hate your favorite movie. If anything, it will give you a greater appreciation for all the artistry involved in making a good film. You can learn from that to make art in your own way, by telling a good story. Learn how to become a better storyteller and writer by noticing all the fine details of your favorite movie(s). Learn to translate actors’ actions and camera angles into written language. Then go out and tell a good story, and tell your story better than anyone else could do it.

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