It’s amazing how much we can learn about the craft of writing from watching films. A great movie is about visual impact, but it’s also about storytelling, atmosphere, dialogue, action, and most of all, silence: what is left unsaid or spoken not with words, but with a gesture or facial expression. The many ways in which a film creates drama can be so instructive!
Just tonight, I watched a strangely affecting film called Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. It was made in the early fifties and stars a gorgeous Ava Gardner as a modern-day Pandora who wreaks havoc among the men she meets. In the film the old story of Pandora and the woes she unleashes upon the world intersects with the legend of the Flying Dutchman — an old tale about a ghostly ship whose captain is doomed to wander the earth forever unless he can find a woman willing to die for him.
When these two stories collide on a mythical island called Esperanza, sparks begin to fly. One of the most effective dramatic devices in the film is the use of a story within a story. At one point, the Flying Dutchman lands on the island in the present day and ends up reading an old manuscript that is actually his diary to the narrator, an archeologist. As he’s reading, the narrator realizes what we already have figured out: that the author of the manuscript and the man reading it are one and the same. It’s very dramatic — and haunting. I’m going to be thinking about this film for a while and deconstructing it in my head in order to figure out why it worked so well.