Friday, September 30, 2005
RITUAL PAIN part 1
“EVERYBODY WANTS TO GO TO HEAVEN, BUT NOBODY WANTS TO DIE.”
—Blues song lyric
A few years ago, when I was working on a spec screenplay that involved gangs, I visited a school with a lot of gang activity and asked the kids about how gangs worked. One of the things that I found out was that in order to join a gang you had to be “jumped” in. What that means is that you let the other gang members beat the crap out of you for a proscribed amount of time, anywhere from two to five minutes. After that, you are a member of the gang.
This sounded so barbaric to me. I didn’t understand why anyone would allow himself or herself to be abused in this way.
A couple of years after that, I was writing a comic book that had an Australian Aborigine as one of the main characters. While doing research, I read about one tribe that would knock one or two teeth out of adolescents as part of their initiation into adulthood.
I thought back on years earlier when a good friend of mine was rushing a fraternity. I could have never let myself be humiliated the way he allowed himself to be.
I began to see a pattern—groups of men or boys all have some kind of harsh initiation into their fold. It doesn’t seem to be anything that has to be taught; it appears to be inherent behavior.
Later, I was talking with an African shaman who lived in my neighborhood and he began to talk about the manhood ceremony in his village. He talked about tribal peoples all over the world having similar ceremonies that involved what he called “ritual pain.” Sometimes it is ritual scarification or tattooing. Sometimes it is a solo hunt for a ferocious beast. Other times it is to survive alone in the forest. In some cultures it involves a circumcision. Blood or the possibility of bloodletting is almost always part of the ritual. Like the street gangs say, “blood in, blood out.” Meaning that you must undergo the pain to get into, or get out of, a gang.
In all cases, the purpose of this ritual seems to be about tearing the individual down and then transforming them from boyhood to manhood. At the end of the ritual they are considered full-fledged members of the group with the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of an adult of said group.
I asked the shaman about women, and he thought that women don’t usually have these kinds of ceremonies because they have a natural bloodletting that signifies their transformation from girls to women. Plus, they often have blood and/or pain when they lose their virginity. And we all know that there is pain in childbirth, and that does certainly change a woman. There is female circumcision, but it is imposed by men on women; therefore, it is not included here.
I started to think of this idea in story terms. The second act is a kind of ritual pain that changes your character. Usually your character has what has been called a fatal flaw. There is something they need to learn before they can be transformed into a better, more mature, person.
What is it that Elliot’s brother says to him in E.T.? “Why don’t you grow up and think how other people feel?”
We are all resistant to change. There is an old blues song that contains the lyric, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
There is more than likely something about yourself that you would like to change or that you should change but it is too difficult. I don’t know why the world works this way, but the things we should do are always the most difficult. So we rarely run toward change. This is true of your characters as well.
In Toy Story, Buzz Lightyear won’t believe that he is a toy and not a space ranger. Also in Toy Story, Woody has to learn to share the affection of his owner with Buzz. When you see the film again, you’ll see that this transformation is not an easy one for them, but they are better “people” when they do change.
In Toy Story 2, Woody is in danger of being discarded and meets Jesse, a clone, who tells him what his fate might be. It is painful for both of them, but they both realize that they have value.
Understanding story allowed Pixar to make one of the few sequels that measures up to the original. John Lasseter and the people at Pixar understand story as well as anyone. Study these films.
Look at Jaws again. Take a man afraid of the water, subject him to the ritual pain of doing battle with a shark, and that pain transforms him. Cures him.