Tuesday, September 05, 2006


When was that last time you felt anything in the movie theater? I mean really felt something for the characters. Did you care who lived and who died? (I don’t mean intellectually, but deep down in your gut.)

When a film is really working people come out fired up. They are still giggling at the funny part, or still worked up by exciting part. Or they are still sad because of the melancholy part. But more often than not when I leave the theater I don’t hear people talking about the film at all. They just file out quietly, unless they have something clever to say about what they have just seen. Just as often, they talk about getting lunch or dinner.

Part of what has happened is that academics have hijacked cinema. For them, emotional drama is cheap or manipulative. If it makes them cry, that’s the worst kind of story.

But also, filmmakers have fallen in love with spectacle. These are the amazing special effects, or stunts, or scenery, or sexy stars that create visceral, albeit superficial, emotions in the viewer. These cost a lot of money, but are what I like to call “creatively inexpensive”—not hard to think up. And they have no lasting effect on the audience.

Aristotle put it like this: “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry [he means playwriting]. Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place.”

That’s right. Thousands of years before computers, Aristotle in fact said, “Hey, don’t go nuts with the special effects.”

We screenwriters have all but forgotten that our job is, fundamentally, to evoke emotional responses in the audience in order to make our point. Is this simply manipulation? No. This is the nature of drama, making people feel things deeply, and that requires more than cheap manipulation. This is, after all, what all art strives to do—to stir people.


James Baker said...

yeah, I know what you mean Brian. It seems that the most emotional I get in regards to films these days is the excitement I feel BEFORE the movie, rather than any involvement DURING the movie. I just cant tell if it is because i am getting old and jaded, or if it is really because of a decline in the craft...

I am so confused.

son of lim said...

I know what you mean. Though there is a distinct feeling of *dread* before I watch some movies in the theaters, and sometimes during the movie as well. Does that count? No? Hmm...