Elvis is still everywhere

Originally posted on another blog on Aug. 16, 2010.  Reposting it here on what would have been Elvis’s 76th birthday.

PresleyPromo1954PhotoOnlyToday is the 33rd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. He was 42 then, so that means he would have been 75 today — the same age as the Dalai Lama and Woody Allen. That’s hard to imagine.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that Elvis changed the world.

Yeah, it’s easy to goof on Fat Elvis, with his sequinned jumpsuits and voracious appetite, but I’m not talking about Fat Elvis.

I’m talking about Skinny Elvis, the good-looking kid from Tupelo who walked into Sun Records in Memphis and basically invented rock’n’roll.

Of course, some people say Elvis didn’t invent anything, that he basically took rhythm and blues and made it safe for White America, but that isn’t quite right.

Somewhere in Peter Guralnick’s 2 volume biography of Elvis (if you haven’t, read it), he points out that Elvis was a sponge when it came to music. Elvis listened to everything — R&B, bluegrass, country, gospel — and processed it, synthesized it. He took all these musical strands and wove them into something else, something new.

Sure, odds are someone else would have done that if Elvis hadn’t, but Elvis did, so let’s give him credit.

He was sexy and dangerous, too, and that’s something teenagers hadn’t really seen before, at least not in one package. Girls wanted him, and boys wanted to be him. You wouldn’t have had The Beatles if you hadn’t have had Elvis.

John Lennon (I think) said Elvis died when he went into the Army, and I agree. Elvis’ music was never as raw as before he was drafted.

In the 1960s, he made a string of dumb movies and went Vegas, and in the ’70s, well, we all know about Elvis in the ’70s, but by then, he’d already changed the world by changing the music.

I think those early records — “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” — earned him a lifetime pass and more than made up for later songs like “Rock-a-Hula, Baby” and “The Wonder of You.”

“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” after all, was a bluegrass tune — in waltz time, at that — until Elvis got hold of it and turned into a rocker in 4/4 time.

I’d argue that is something close to genius.

The 17-minute rule

I learned about the 17-minute rule a few years ago when I was reading a book about screenwriting. 

The idea is that the first act of pretty much any movie ends around page 17 of the screenplay, or about 17 minutes into the movie (give or take a minute).

Act I is the setup. We meet the characters, figure out when and where we are, and then something happens that starts the ball rolling. The hero passes a threshold of sorts, and there’s no going back.

Here’s an example:

George Bailey tells his father he couldn’t face being cooped up the rest of his life in a shabby little office at his father’s building and loan 17 minutes into It’s a Wonderful Life.

The rest of the movie is about everything that happens that stops him from leaving Bedford Falls and drives him to consider jumping off that bridge on Christmas Eve.

It isn’t just old movies that follow the 17-minute rule:

  • Luke’s uncle buys the droids 17 minutes into Star Wars. The droids are what leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi and Princess Leia and, ultimiately, the Death Star.
  • Buddy leaves the North Pole to find is real dad 17 minutes into Elf.
  • The shark eats the little boy on the raft 17 minutes into Jaws. It’s the second attack that forces the town to close the beach and go after the shark.
  • The Iowa farmer is thinking about plowing under the baseball field he built in his cornfield until Shoeless Joe appears 17 minutes after the credits in Field of Dreams.

Of course, the 17-minute rule isn’t set in stone.

In the book I was reading, Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 424, the chairman emeritus of UCLA’s film school calls it the “floating page 17” rule, meaning the scene setting up the rest of the movie should come around page 17. There are plenty of examples of where that scene comes sooner or later — but only a little sooner or later.

How come?

Hunter says, basically, that 17 pages (about 17 minutes of screen time) is about how long it takes to set up the story and pull people in. Sooner, and we don’t know enough about the characters to care about what happens next. Later, we just get bored.

Ever since I read Hunter’s book, I can’t help but notice when Act I ends and Act II begins, and when I check the clock, we’re usually around the 17-minute mark.