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.


Anson Jew said...

As usual, with these last couple of posts, you've cut through the fuzz and really gotten to the heart of the matter when it comes to the things that make a story work. This last one really tackles the yin and yang of things. I really enjoy reading your insights into writing, and look forward to your posts.

Bobby Pontillas said...

Hey Brian,

Stumbled upon this blog and I love these posts and reading your insights.

Anonymous said...

Nice Page!
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