Thursday, December 20, 2007

Turn up the contrast (or why we like crazy astronauts)

I often hear people say how much they love a film because it is “dark.” They wax poetic about dark films because they feel that they are more true-to-life than one that is lighter (or “sappy,” as they might say).

I feel as if I have asked them what they see in an inkblot. Over many years I have noticed that these people tend to be gloomier people all around. They believe anything good or happy is false -- a lie. This is the filter through which they view both life and art.

On the other hand, or inkblot, there are those people who don’t want to see any of the dark side of life in their films. They ignore these things in life as well. This group might see two people kissing in their inkblot, while the first set sees one person strangling another.

As is often the case the truth in somewhere in between -- light and dark, good and bad are polarities that don’t exist without the other. One is no more real or truthful than the other.

Frank Capra, one of my favorite filmmakers, was often accused of being too sweet and sappy. When he was making films some critics dubbed them “Capra corn.” That put-down has stuck. What people seem to forget is that his films get as dark as they are cheery. In It’s a Wonderful Life, we learn George Bailey is about to kill himself. This is a “feel-good” film, and yet the good-guy main character has a suicidal breakdown.

Watch the film again, and see how dark it gets. Sure, it ends on a high note, but if you remember, George Bailey has always wanted to travel the world. When the film ends he still hasn’t gotten to. He probably won’t. He never gets what he wants; he simply learns to appreciate what he has.

In an argument about Schindler’s List, a friend of mine voiced the opinion of many people (and maybe even a few of you) when he said, “Leave it to Spielberg to make a feel-good movie about the Holocaust.” Yes, there were moments in the film that were lighter in tone, but there were also moments in that movie that are as about as dark as things can get: children hiding out in a latrine to save their lives, the entire Kristallnacht sequence where the Nazis cleared the Jewish Ghetto.

If these things make you “feel good,” seek therapy. You would be hard-pressed to find anything as dark in a popular American film.

It seems, as with It’s a Wonderful Life, that if the story ends on a high point it is perceived as all light, no matter what has happened prior. And the same is true in reverse, a down ending leaves people feeling as though the entire story was dark, when it may in fact have had several lighter moments.

But light and dark define one another -- one cannot see one without the other. Having all dark is like typing black letters on black paper: it obscures your point. In her insightful book Picture This -- How Pictures Work, author Molly Bang puts it like this, “Contrast allows us to see.” This is a design principle that works for designing stories as well as anything else. Contrast is the best way to make your point clear.

In another Christmas classic, A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is seen in his office. It is a cold place, both literally and emotionally. Scrooge would rather let his employee, Bob Cratchit, freeze than put another lump of coal on the fire. The story later shows Scrooge earlier in life when he worked for someone else, a man named Mr. Fezziwig. Fezziwig’s place is full of life, warmth and joy -- the exact opposite of Scrooge’s. Seeing these two environments in contrast allows the other to be seen more clearly.

This idea of contrast is why drama works well in the world of extremes. In a well-told story, a very rich man becomes very poor or vice versa. But if a rich man looses just a little money, it is of little interest to an audience. It illuminates nothing. If a poor man finds a nickel, it is not as interesting as if he wins the lottery. We have a term for this kind of contrast: Rags to Riches.

Aristotle referred to this as a reversal of the dramatic situation (peripeteia). He said that simple plots tended to have no such reversals, where as complex plots do. A change of fortune for the hero engages and entertains an audience, he pointed out. What he did not say is that seeing something one way than the other gives us a kind of measuring stick.

If we see a homeless man eating garbage, we might have a passing interest -- but if we were aware that three weeks earlier he was as rich as Donald Trump, our interest would increase because of the stark contrast. David and Goliath is a story of this kind of contrast. So is The Tortoise and the Hare, and The Prince and the Pauper.

In each of these stories, one element defines another: large and small, slow and fast, rich and poor. Each condition increases the other’s visible. A giant cannot be a giant in a vacuum; he needs something to be bigger than, or he is no giant at all. In the same way, a story needs both light and dark if one is to tell it clearly and honestly.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Theme Beats Logic

“Don’t give me logic, give me emotion.”
— Billy Wilder’s instructions to his writing partner, I.A.L. Diamond

Let’s start to explore this idea of theme versus logic by looking at the film Raising Arizona. Nicholas Cage and Holly Hunter play a couple desperate to have a child. They eventually resort to stealing an infant from a couple with quintuplets.

When the hapless couple brings the baby home, they all pose for a family photo. This snapshot of the new family is followed immediately by a shot of a man’s head popping out of a small mud hole. The man screams at the top of his lungs as rain pours down upon him. In the background, we can see a prison wall and searchlight. This man is escaping from prison. Is there any logic at all that says that a man escaping from prison should or would scream as he makes his escape? In fact, logic tells us just the opposite—a man escaping prison would be as quiet as can be. So why is it in the film? It’s because theme beats logic, and the mud-soaked screaming man makes a thematic point.

Look where the scene falls in the film—right after the snapshot of the happy family. So what? Think about it: Everything in the scene about the screaming man is made to resemble a birth. The man pops up headfirst. They could have started with his fingers pushing up out of the mud. That would make more sense, logically, if the man is digging, but this scene is not about logic. The head, covered with dripping mud, emerges from a small hole. The man screams and screams and screams as he is “born” into the world. This is an ugly birth; there is something wrong with this birth. That’s the thematic point that beats logic. Nothing good happens for the Nick Cage and Holly Hunter characters after they steal the child. In fact, the escaped convict, along with another, seek refuge at the couple’s home. Hunter and Cage have no choice but to house them, because the criminals know about the kidnapping and threaten to expose their secret. The couple has no end of trouble until, at the film’s conclusion, they return the child to his rightful parents.

This is a situation in which the armature is not spoken, but is evident in every decision made by the storytellers. The armature could be stated: It is wrong to deprive others of their happiness to gain your own. Or it could be stated: Nothing good can come from a bad deed.

You may have your own way of putting the film’s armature into words; make sure you can back it up with solid, consistent evidence in the story’s structure.

Groundhog Day and Tootsie have similar armatures: When the protagonists use their inside information to get the object of their desire into bed, it doesn’t work. In both cases the plan should work, but doesn’t, because it isn’t right thematically.

In Tootsie the armature is set up very well. What you see in the first act is that Dustin Hoffman’s character is a good actor, and what makes him a good actor is that he can’t lie when he’s acting. He has to be true to his character. In life, he is a liar, particularly to women. Through living the life of a fictional woman, who can be nothing but honest, Dustin’s male alter ego learns to be honest with women.

One of my favorite examples of this is the story of Groundhog Day. I read somewhere that the studio wanted some kind of explanation as to why Bill Murray’s character was reliving the same day over and over again. They wanted a gypsy curse or something along those lines. From what I understand, it was written and then cut because it didn’t work. The reason, I think, is that it doesn’t need a logical explanation. The audience understands why it is happening. It is what is supposed to happen thematically to teach Bill Murray a lesson. When he learns his lesson, the phenomenon stops and we all know why. We understand that “ever since that day” Bill Murray is a better man.

Remember that dramatizing the armature is a way of getting an intellectual idea across emotionally. If you learn to do this you’ll move more people more often and more deeply.

Another favorite example of mine is in the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes. Here the armature is that “Man” is a violent and self-destructive creature. This point is hammered home again and again, topped off by the surprise ending, which reveals that humans destroyed their own world.

Near the middle of the film, before the audience knows that the planet is indeed Earth, there is a courtroom scene. Humans on this world are mute, but the sentient apes of this world have discovered that Taylor (Charlton Heston) can speak. The courtroom scene takes place following this discovery.

Until then, Taylor has been kept in a cage. There is no logical reason to have this scene in a courtroom. Why not have the scene at Taylor’s cage? It all goes back to the armature that Man is a violent and self-destructive creature. This scene, thematically, is about needing to put humanity on trial. The storytellers even make a point of stripping Taylor of his clothes to make him appear more Adam-like. And it is no mistake that this scene immediately follows the discovery that Taylor possesses speech. Just being human, it seems, is crime enough. It is a beautifully crafted scene that abandons logic for theme to support its armature.

My favorite “logic flaw” of all time is also in Planet of the Apes. It is my favorite because it is so obvious and yet almost no one notices or cares about it. Again, Planet of the Apes, co-written by Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling, has a mother-of-all-twists ending. Taylor believes that he is on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes only to discover that he has been on Earth all along. Here’s the big flaw – the apes read and write English. This is a huge flaw. But no one cares because THEME BEATS LOGIC.