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.


James Baker said...

theme does beat logic. However, in the case of the PLANET OF THE APES the twist ending was lost on me because I had already figured out that he WAS on Earth. (I was a literal minded-child)

So I guess that there has to be enough logic there in the story so as not to get in the way of your theme (for us literalist nerds anyway!)

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Unknown said...

Thanks for this. I've been struggling with a story lately and this article has given great clarity on how and when to place thematic moments. Most inspirational line: "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." Thanks so much!! Great read. -Kefi Maxwell, the Red Pen Critic