Wednesday, July 12, 2006

SUPERIOR POSITION









 From an interview with Alfred Hitchcock: "There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise,’ and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story."
—Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s definition of superior position is about the best there is. It is when the audience knows something that the characters do not know. Most of the time it’s used for suspense, but not always.

In Chuck Jones’s hilarious animated cartoon Feed the Kitty, a huge bulldog adopts a sweet little kitten. The problem, or conflict, is that the woman of the house has forbidden the dog from bringing anything into the house, so he must keep his new pet a secret.

At one point in the film, the woman starts to make cookies, and unbeknownst to her, the kitten climbs into a bowl of batter set under an electric mixer. When the woman flicks the switch to mix the cookies she finds that her dog has pulled the plug. She doesn’t know he’s trying to save his pet and just thinks he’s causing trouble. She puts the dog outside so that she can work uninterrupted. While the woman is putting the dog out, the kitten climbs out of the bowl and wanders off.

This all happens when no one is watching—except the audience. We now have superior position.

The woman returns to her cookies unaware there was ever a cat in her mix. Worried about his pet, the dog is outside looking through the window as the woman flips the mixer on. He is mortified as the beaters go to work on the batter and, he thinks, his little kitten.

I have seen this film in a movie theater and I have rarely heard such uproarious laughter than during this scene. The poor bulldog looks on in abject horror as the cookie dough is rolled out with a rolling pin, then cut by cookie-cutters, then put into an oven to bake.

Outside, the dog is a wreck. He blubbers like a baby and lies in a pool of his own tears.

Why is this so damned funny to an audience? And believe me it is funny.

It’s funny because we know the cat is okay. Imagine how people would react if they thought the cute little kitten had been beaten, cut up, and baked. It wouldn’t be very funny. But just letting the audience in on the joke allowed the storytellers to put that poor dog through hell.

Even frightening experiences in our own lives can be funny in the retelling because we have a superior position over our past selves. We know everything turned out okay.

Remember that you have this tool, and it can frighten or amuse an audience depending on how you apply it.

This kind of invisible ink is often overlooked by storytellers, but if you want to keep readers turning pages, or viewers watching, you would do well to master this technique. Alfred Hitchcock used it to engage filmgoers throughout his fifty-year career.

4 comments:

fredland said...

There is a scene in Pixar's "Monster's Inc" which is heavily derived from "Feed the Kitty" when Sully thinks Boo has been sent through a trash compactor. It seems like Sully's expressions of horror were copped from the bulldog. Still funny, but Chuck Jones's drawings were even better.

R.Dress said...

Hitchcock on Hitchcock. Great Book.

I'm glad to see some bogs that lean more towards cinima rather than (if I dare say) Comics. Great Work!

elliott said...

"Even frightening experiences in our own lives can be funny in the retelling because we have a superior position over our past selves"

Yes! And here's a perfect (condensed) example of that: On the first week of my first big job out of school, I got trapped inside my bathroom while I was getting ready for work. The doorknob actually broke on me and there was basically no way for me to get out. The hours passed as I made numerous McGuyver-like attempts to get out with what little I had in the way of tools in my bathroom- (these attempts included a failed scheme to start a fire and trip the fire alarm with a broken lighter and creating an odd tool with the towel rack to try to pry open the door but succeeding only in cutting my hand.) I finally realized that I could bust through the dry-wall very slowly, but surely, to create a hole big enough for me to crawl through. Can you imagine the look on the apartment manager's face when I came walking into her office, covered in drywall dust?
It's funny now- hell, I laugh just thinking about it, and it's a great story to tell at parties, but at the time I was terrified. I even came to the conclusion that I might die in that bathroom. I mean, I lived alone and was at least a thousand miles away from any close friends or family who would ever think to check up on me. Top that with the fact that my family doesn't think anything is out of the norm if I don't call them in a couple of weeks and...ehhsh, it still makes me kind of uneasy thinking about what would have happened had I not escaped...
Anyway, that's exactly what you're saying in this blog, Brian- Every time I tell this story I get a laugh, because my audience knows the outcome isn't going to be gruesome- Me being there to tell the tale is enough to let the audience in on the joke.

Jeff Pidgeon said...

I've always loved Feed The Kitty - for the reason that you wrote about, but also because I love being able to react to Marc Anthony's devotion to Pussyfoot, and the comedy of his reactions to the cookie preparation. An amazing blend of humor and well-earned sentiment!