The Power of The One: Schindler’s List and The Little Girl in Red

“If I look at the mass, I will never act.  If I look at the one, I will.”  – Mother Teresa

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Sitting horseback atop a hill overlooking the Cracow ghetto, Oscar Schindler watches the Nazis mass-murder Jews when, amongst the massive atrocities, a little girl wearing a red coat catches his attention.  He watches as the little girl first follows other Jews in line, then seemingly walks aimlessly about, passing no less than seven pointblank shootings without so much as a flinch before slipping unnoticed into a building while gunfire continues to echo throughout.  She is but one amongst hundreds in the scene, yet her individuality, her specificity, humanizes the otherwise countless atrocities Schindler witnesses and she ultimately becomes the impetus for his change from German industrial businessman to sympathizer who spent his fortune to save over 1,000 Jews.

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In the book Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking, Randy Olson touches upon two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof’s article “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World” and its examination of the power of specifics when it comes to storytelling:

If I told you about a little girl in a village in Africa who is going to die from a disease in the next few months, you would find the story upsetting. If we could measure your level of upset as, let’s say 10 units of upset, then if I told you the same story, but this time it was about two little girls who would die from this disease, wouldn’t you expect that your level of upset would be twice as much, or 20 upset units? The sad truth is that it would actually be the opposite – meaning less than 10. And it would be even lower if it’s five girls — even less if it’s one hundred girls, and eventually hardly at all if it’s a million little girls. Kristof cites the famous quote from Mother Teresa that parallels this—” If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” And along the same line he points to the old adage: One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.

Olson, Randy; Barton, Dorie; Palermo, Brian (2013-09-18). Connection: Hollywood Storytelling meets Critical Thinking (pp. 76-77). Kindle Edition.

Oscar Schindler and the little girl in red represent a literal embodiment of Mother Teresa’s quote: had he not seen and followed her plight – if only fleetingly – and witnessed her eventual outcome, he would have only seen the death on a massive scale and never acted upon it.  The little girl was, in short, a human being and a face amongst a mass of casualties.

Because Schindler is the story’s main character and the little girl’s significance to the story paramount to both its meaning and structure, she’s colorized to stand out amongst the black and white to provide a more subjective viewpoint: the warm color provides a point of reference to Schindler’s perspective (what he’s looking at). Subjective gravitas is further given by intercutting Schindler’s bewildered reaction as he continues to follow her amongst the chaos.  As discussed in a previous article, this technique is what neuroscientists call “mirroring,” enabling a person (in this particular case “the audience”) to experience the emotions of another vicariously; we know what Schindler’s looking at specifically and understand his feelings as a result.

The scene also operates as a set-up with an inevitable payoff: when Schindler once again sees the little girl in red, her body is carted amongst other, “anonymous” victims to be incinerated in mass burning pits.  While many victims are unidentifiable at this point, her colorization once again stands in stark contrast to the black and white signifying “the one amongst the mass.”  Schindler once again watches her pass, his hand holding a handkerchief slowly falling from covering his nose and mouth as the emotional weight of bearing witness to her lifeless body now renders the stench of the dead less horrifying in comparison – and it’s at this very point that Schindler changes completely toward saving as many Jews as he can at any and all costs.

While Schindler’s List does not focus its story on the plight of the little girl in red – her two scenes comprise mere minutes of run-time – her inclusion and subsequent audience fascination indicate an understanding, at least from a subconscious point, of her thematic significance.  The notion of “one” comes up again when Schindler asks of Commander Goeth, “All you have to do is tell me what it’s worth to you.  What’s a person worth?” to which Goeth refutes “No no no no. What’s one worth to you?”  The same thematic thread resonates at the end of the film, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.”  In the end, the power of the one ultimately works twofold in Schindler’s List; the little girl in red becomes the singular driver of change for Schindler who, in turn, becomes the epitome of what one person alone can do when they take action.

 

 

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Going deep inside the underbelly of Sicario.

“Nothing will make sense to your American ears and you will doubt everything we will do. But in the end, you will understand.” – Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro in Sicario.

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The opening sequence of Denis Villeneuve’s thriller Sicario serves as a precursor of things to come as idealistic, by-the-books FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) finds herself in something entirely different than expected when storming a compound supposedly holding hostages.  After a brief shootout, Kate and her colleague Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) find bodies – 42 to be exact – hidden inside the complex’s walls, but it’s an explosion that claims the lives of fellow agents which sets her down a path as a volunteer with the peculiar Department of Defense contractor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the even more mysterious former prosecutor from Columbia, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), in their quest to “dramatically overreact,” shake the trees and create chaos in an effort to get the man at the top.  Little does Kate realize the trip down that particular rabbit hole will be equally unexpected… and cost her dearly when the approach ultimately presents the moral dilemma of whether the means justify the end.

One of the things immediately apparent with Sicario is its exemplary structure whereas the main character is separated from the typical protagonist function.  As discussed in a previous article, the main character serves as the perspective the audience sees the story through whereas the protagonist drives the plot – a concept many still seem in the dark about. Here the audience identifies strongly with Kate because we know just as much as she does, when she does, as the truth is slowly revealed. We are in her shoes and experience the story vicariously through her vantage point as part of the story’s design.

In one particular scene when Kate asks Alejandro if there’s anything she should know, she’s told “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now, just keep an eye on the time.”  Kate, and subsequently the audience, are kept in the dark as to what’s really going on.  She finds herself a fish out of water having been thrust into situations she readily admits she’s ill-prepared for – and a reality that’s exploited, along with her eagerness/willingness to volunteer, in order to get those responsible for the events in the opening sequence. 

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Emily makes the mistake of thinking her bosses have her back, but in reality, they acknowledge “these decisions come far from here, by people elected to office, not appointed to them.”

This, however, is not how Kate  operates, her core values set up concisely in the opening scenes.  Asked what should be said when she’s told the US Attorney wants a statement regarding the raid and horrendous discovery of bodies, Kate replies “The truth.”  In the following scene, she and Reggie sit like a couple of delinquents waiting outside the principal’s office as their boss, Victor Garber (David Jennings) discusses options behind closed doors. “You did this by the book?” Reggie asks to which she replies, “Of course.”  In assembling a team to go forth, Matt sees Kate as “a (by-the-book) thumper,” but Reggie, with his stellar record and law degree, as a liability when he retorts “No lawyers on this one.”

This sets up the clashing perspectives as Kate refuses to accept any other modus operandi other than standard procedures and protocols, always doing things by the book despite, as her superior gets her to acknowledge, there being little to no evidence of success on the streets as a result of such idealism.  “So if your fear is operating outside of the bounds,” Garber tells her, “you’re not. The boundary has been moved.”

Great storytelling finds conflict on multiple levels, never confining it to a simple protagonist vs. antagonist context, and Sicario is no different.  In fact, much of the conflict which occurs is between members attempting to operate together on the same team. Very little of the story actually deals directly with antagonistic forces (more so the effects of) which is apropos considering the film plays out as a mystery-thriller.

The real conflict comes from Matt/Alejandro’s perspective that refuses to accept doing things “within bounds” as the only means for achieving the objective.  Matt attempts to get Kate to understand when he says “you’re giving us the opportunity to shake the tree and create chaos,” noting how things are changing when he adds “This is the future, Kate!” As such, the by-the-book approach she evaluates everything against is  problematic to what the clandestine operation is really trying to accomplish. Their inability to be open without exposing ulterior motives furthers that conflict and creates doubt – particularly when Matt/Alejandro use understatement as a form of denying her the truth, giving her just enough information that she continues to go along (“We’re going to the El Paso ‘area’,” for example, understating the fact they’re actually going across the border into Juarez.)

The conflict arising between these two perspectives is what drives the heart of the narrative: they both seek the same thing, but have differing opinions about which is the right way to pursue it.  That Kate is continually kept in the dark is an effect of the relationship between the two centering on manipulation: her involvement is needed as an attached domestic agency (FBI) gives the CIA legal ability to operate within the US borders.

“I told you you’d be useful” Matt says when the cat’s out of the bag.  Realizing they’ve been used from the start, Reggie tries to persuade Kate to leave the operation – but Kate opts to stay the course and participate in the planned raid of the tunnels identified as a main point of entry for drug running by the cartel.  She’s been used, but now she is driven by the need to know why.

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A key sequence in Sicario is when Emily enters the darkness of the tunnels and literally emerges into enlightenment upon discovering the truth.

What follows is one of the story’s pivotal sequences: conflict comes to a boil, both physically and emotionally, when Kate separates from her group going through tunnels and sees Alejandro in action.  Her response is typical to her nature: she can’t accept what’s going down and wants to arrest him.  His response is typical, too: he shoots her.  Twice.  Shots that knock her down, but perfectly aimed at her protective gear and don’t penetrate.  Alejandro’s captive, a rogue state police trooper, utters a single word that will lead Kate to the truth: “Medellín?”

Picking herself up, a gasping Kate seeks out Matt and sucker punches him.  A short altercation ensues, handily won by Matt as he tries once again to get her to see their approach from a more objective view:

MATT:   You went up the wrong tunnel.  You saw things you shouldn’t have seen.

KATE:    What is Medellín.

MATT:   Medellín?  “Medellín” refers to a time when one group controlled every aspect of the drug trade, providing a measure of order that we could control.  Until somebody finds a way to convince 20% of the population to stop snorting and smoking that shit… order is the best we can hope for.  What you saw up there was Alejandro working toward returning that order.

KATE:   Alejandro works for the fucking Columbian Cartel.  (She laughs in disbelief, realizing…).  He works for the competition.

MATT:  Alejandro works for anyone who will point him toward the people that made him.  No us.  Them.  Anyone who will turn him loose.  So he can get the person who cut off his wife’s head and threw his daughter in a vat of acid.  (RE: another look of disbelief from Kate).  Yeah.  That’s what we’re dealing with.

Despite this and now knowing Alejandro’s family’s fate was sealed because of his actions as a prosecutor – Kate continues to evaluate everything against the rule of law.  

KATE:  He can’t do this.  He can’t.  I’m sure as shit not the person you’re going to hide it all behind.  I’m going to talk.  I’m going to tell everyone what you did.

MATT:  That would be a big mistake.

Kate has at last, as well as the audience, fully realized the level of manipulation that has occurred and why she was “chosen” for the role under the guise of volunteering: she’s a thumper.  She goes by the book.  And the only way the outcome will really be success is if she ditches her principles and lies about what really happened, giving the operation credibility.

Alejandro, meanwhile, as the protagonist, sets off to accomplish the story’s objective while enacting revenge with ancillary support from the team.  He is “Sicario,” a hitman made by consequence, and his vengeance is ruthless as he takes out drug lord drug lord Fausto Alarcón – the necessary step toward restoring some semblance of “Medellín.”

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Don’t ever point a gun at this man again.

As Kate stares from her balcony, puffing away on a cigarette with disillusionment from all that has happened, she’s startled by a noise from inside.

ALEJANDRO:  I would recommend not standing on balconies for a while, Kate.

Kate hesitantly enters the living room.

ALEJANDRO:  You look like a little girl when you’re scared.  You remind me of my daughter they took from me.  I need you to sign this piece of paper.

He hands it to her, her eyes searching, reading in disbelief.

ALEJANDRO:  It basically says, everything we did was done by the book.

KATE (softly):  I can’t sign this.

ALEJANDRO:  Sign it.

He takes her hand, comforting her as she tears up.

ALEJANDRO:  It’s ok.  It’s ok.

KATE:  I can’t sign this.

Even then, when Alejandro puts the barrel of the gun under her chin, Kate reacts with disbelief as she emits a gasp.

ALEJANDRO:  It would be committing suicide, Kate.

And she signs.

ALEJANDRO:  You should move to a small town, where the rule of law still exists.  You will not survive here.  You are not a wolf, and this is the land of wolves now.

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Heading toward the tunnels under the cover of darkness.

The pressure is at its highest for Kate to give in, which she does – her signature signaling a successful outcome to the story goal.  Her change is complete: she finally sees that while she can’t win the argument, by signing, she’s reevaluated the events and letting the Country “win” by regaining some measure of control.  There’s just one issue left to decide – has Kate overcome her personal problem?

As Alejandro walks away in the parking lot, Kate grabs her gun and aims it at him from her balcony.  Sensing this, Alejandro faces her as if to ask “even now… you’re still evaluating what the right thing to do is?”  Kate just stands there, full of angst and disillusioned, finally lowering her gun and letting him go.  While she’s able to change her nature to fulfill the story’s outcome, she’s unable to quell her personal problem that drives her, evaluating against the rule of law – and it’s a problem that we suspect will continue to haunt her long after the story is over.

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In the end, just as Alejandro predicted, Kate understands.

In addition to creating conflict on multiple levels, great storytelling is also able to present an argument and persuade its audience, challenging them to change their own beliefs over the course of its unfolding.  In Sicario, we’re thrust into Kate’s perspective and are asked to see things as she does – more so because most of us share the same values and beliefs in the rule of law and a just system.  It’s through her that the author presents their moral argument along with a separate viewpoint that is, more or less, diametrically opposed (a concept previously discussed here).  The more details that come to light, the more we question our own beliefs and values as seen through Kate.

There comes a point in the story when all the cards are turned over and we find ourselves questioning whether Kate is right or not.  The elements of the backstory are purposefully parsed out until we get the truth – which also provides justification from the opposite perspective – at the moment everything comes to an emotional (and physical) boil. Kate wants prosecution, but Alejandro serves as a symbol of that failed ideology having suffered greatly himself for it.

When Kate doesn’t take any of this into consideration, we not only fear for her, but come to detest – if only for a bit – her stubbornness when she says she’s going to rat her team out.  As such, the author has dramatically presented their complex, moral argument and made an impact on the viewer’s own perspective, challenging it and asking us a simple question every great story does: what would we do if we were in Kate’s position?

Author’s Note:  The concepts used in this analysis are based on the Dramatica theory of story without specifically referring to its various components which would have required going into much greater detail.  If you’re interested in a fully comprehensive Dramatica analysis, please check out Jim Hull’s excellent article on Sicario which humbles any attempt to speak authoritatively on the subject here.

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A Look Inside the storytelling of Pixar’s Inside Out.

“Feelings or emotions are the universal language and are to be honored.  They are the authentic expression of who you are at your deepest place.”  – Judith Wright

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The stars of 11-year old Riley’s inner journey.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead! 

Leave it to the storytelling gurus behind Pixar Animation Studio to come up with a relatively simple, high concept story dealing with a complex subject, yet wrapped in a context that is both easily understood in its universalness while appealing to the young and old alike. Accomplishing this is no easy feat, but the folks at Pixar know perhaps better than any other studio the power of a thematically rich narrative.

Theme, after all, is often thought of as “the heart” of a story, what it’s really about.  The heart therefore represents that inner journey whereas the plot (events) are typically external to the character, but Inside Out twists this notion and makes the inner (emotional) journey part of the plot while emotions themselves are characters who learn and influence one another, resulting in change that ultimately reveals a universal truth.  As Lisa Cron wrote in her book Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence:

“Since theme is the underlying point the narrative makes about the human experience, it’s also where the universal lies.  The universal is a feeling, emotion, or truth that resonates with us all.”

Thematically, Inside Out is a surprisingly close companion piece to last year’s Australian indie-horror, The Babadook, both films dealing with the destructive forces upon the family stemming from the suppression of negative emotions while also exploring narratives via the use of expressionism.  Inside Out begins with a brief prologue, associating us with the various emotions beginning with Joy quickly followed by Sadness whom she immediately tries to suppress, later declaring “I’m not sure what she does.”

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An expressionistic look inside Riley’s emotions that form her personality.

While the story that follows is a result of the family’s upheaval from Minnesota to San Francisco, moving is not, in itself, the narrative’s inciting incident as Riley does her best to cope with the a myriad of symptoms (stemming from moving) without ever consciously realizing what the problem actually is. Rather, the problem is set-up externally when Riley’s mother asks her to essentially put on a happy face for her father’s sake.  Riley makes the decision to oblige, at least on the surface, not wanting to disappoint her family – but sacrificing her authentic “sad” self in the process and suppressing her feelings leads to inner turmoil much in the same way Amelia did in The Babadook (but to much less horrific effect).

The internal portion of the inciting incident is when Riley is unable to sustain her happy-face in class, causing the struggle within that results in formation of a “sad” core memory as Sadness taints joyful memories with a sense of melancholy and longing.  By this point, the goal of the story has been established, to ensure Riley stays happy which requires the other emotion’s suppression of Sadness.  Alas, a struggle ensues over the core memory between Joy and Sadness, both being accidentally sucked out of Headquarters to leave Anger, Fear and Disgust in charge while Joy and Sadness embark on an inner-journey of their own in the form of a buddy narrative that’s indicative of the “Two-Handed Approach.”

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The calm before the inner-storm takes over.

Outwardly, Anger, Fear and Disgust display themselves in the forms of resentment, anxiety and sarcasm – mostly directed toward Riley’s father as she continues to deal with the symptoms of her actual problem. This, in many ways, works as much as an allegory for depression as The Babadook is an allegory for the suppression of grief and how those forces act destructively with the crumbling of each of Riley’s “islands.”

Inside, the journey that represents the heart of the story is only beginning for the mismatched Joy and Sadness who must find their way back to Headquarters through a maze of memories in order to prevent the destruction of Riley’s personality as they know it, one ultimately influencing the other to change in order to resolve the story’s problem… but which one? Conventional thinking would have one believing Joy saves the day, restoring the inequity that sadness has apparently caused – but this is a Pixar film and, looking back at the earlier statement regarding theme, they’ve had a knack for finding the universal truth we can all relate to which, in real life, often comes at the hand of defeat.

Early in the story, Sadness states when Joy asks why she’s crying, noting it’s the opposite of what they’re going for, that it “lets me slow down and obsess with life’s problems.”  For Joy, Sadness is a mystery who’s only value is negativity and making things worse.  It’s a perspective she holds onto for nearly half the story, until Sadness’s purpose is deftly illustrated through Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, who’s just lost his rocket to “The Dump” and seemingly inconsolable at the thought of Riley being through with him.

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Bing Bong and his rocket he hopes to take Riley to the moon with.

Given to what appears to be a mild form of depression that mirrors Riley’s own, Bing Bong’s unmoved by Joy’s attempts to stimulate and cheer him up – just as Riley was herself by her father’s attempts.  Sadness seizes the moment and does what comes naturally,  showing us an outcome/benefit to solving the story’s problem: Empathy.  Sadness listens to Bing Bong and encourages his feelings while Joy decries “You’re making it worse!”, failing to realize, at least initially, that she is in fact making it better.  When Bing Bong finally says “I’m ok now” and brushes away his candy-tears, a device that foreshadows of the story’s “bittersweet” ending, a mesmerized Joy is left asking Sadness how she managed to make him feel better.

It’s only when Joy herself experiences sadness at the prospect of being forgotten that she’s finally able to understand the emotion’s real value.  Stuck down in the dump with Bing Bong and all the other fading memories, she comes to a revelation when viewing what was once perceived as a “joyful” memory, only to now get an objective view of it and learning that the joy of having her teammates lift her up was actually born from a sad moment having missed the game winning goal.  “Mom and Dad… the team… they came to help because of Sadness.”  Indeed, facts and opinions can look similar when colored by our own perspective, something Joy had alluded to earlier.

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The moment Joy realizes sadness can be the cause for joy.

Arriving back at Headquarters to save the day, the other emotions are surprised when Joy defers control to a reluctant Sadness, telling her “Riley needs you now.”  Sadness sparks an idea/revelation for Riley, who, still chasing symptoms and not the problem, had decided to run away back to Minnesota where all her happy memories were. With newfound insight, she returns home where she let’s her true feelings out.

RILEY:   I know you don’t want me to, but, I miss home.  I miss Minnesota.  You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends and my hockey team.  I want to go home.  Please don’t be mad.  

Surprised by Riley’s pain, her parents listen, understand and empathize, telling her how they miss home as well.  Whereas asking her to put on a happy face caused the real inner-turmoil, allowing, and perhaps even more importantly, accepting her authentic feelings is what provides not only the resolution to the story’s central conflict, but growth as well.  As Sadness takes Joy’s hand and presses the button on the control panel, a new core memory forms. Equal parts sadness and joy, it’s a complex emotion that reveals the bittersweet truth central to the story’s theme: life is full of sadness and loss, but it’s just as important to experience and express those emotions as it is joy and happiness; they co-exist, sometimes even in the same moments like memories.

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A bittersweet moment where the family is restored, but with the understanding that life will not always be full of happy and joyful moments.

 

Posted in Allegory, Empathy, Expressionism, Inciting Incident, Journey, Perspective, Story Structure, Theme, Two-hander, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Babadook: when allegory meets expressionism in a therapeutic horror classic.

“I’ll wager with you.  I’ll make a bet.  The more you deny, the stronger I get.  You start to change when I get in, The Babadook growing right under your skin.  Oh come!  Come see what’s underneath!”  – Mister Babadook

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Warning: the following analysis includes spoilers!  

Early in writer/director Jennifer Kent’s Australian creeper The Babadook, widowed mother Amelia crawls onto the floor with her six year old son Samuel to check underneath his bed,  ensuring there are no monsters there before he turns in for the night.  The scene, repeated throughout the movie, has its roots in the seemingly every day life of a parent calming their child’s fears but also acts as one of the film’s many metaphors to dramatize the concept of “what lies beneath”.  Grounded in German expressionism, the film, like many great horror movies do, works on a psychological level as an allegory to convey the concept of suppression and repression, showing us the ill-effects – including cognitive dissonance – of what happens when emotions, particularly grief, have not been dealt with.

Before delving into the film further, let’s take a closer look at expressionism and allegory so we can understand how they fit into the bigger picture here.  Expressionism is at its bare essence taking the internal and making it external.  Expressionists seek to express meaning and emotional experiences – often radically to reflect mood and tone – rather than physical reality.  An allegory is used to convey complex ideas in ways that are more readily understood by an audience.  Its difference from a mere symbol is that an allegory, at least in story, is a narrative whose whole – much like a theme – has a meaning the author wishes to convey.  The use of these two together may explain why some viewers confessed to not understanding the movie (or its ending) – though to some extent, it’s a movie that’s aimed squarely at the real fears of an older audience – at least those old enough to have children of their own and suffered loss (for that’s what many of those who do will find relatable.)

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Arguably one of the most recognizable examples of expressionism.

Two things that distinguish The Babadook as both expressionism and allegory are its setting and titular character, Mister Babadook, himself harboring physical traits similar to those of Dr. Caligari of Robert Weine’s 1919 expressionist classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  As noted in a previous article, Setting as an extension of your main character’s mind, the inner turmoil and feelings of your main character can be “expressed” via a reflection in the story’s setting.  In this particular case, the film’s major setting – the home – has a minimalist feel to it with dreary tones of dark grey and cool, steely blues that effectively convey the empty sullenness Amelia still struggles with nearly seven years after the death of her husband en route to having their first child, Samuel.

As a single mother, Amelia is forced to raise her son on her own – a task that proves to be a challenge as Samuel seems to be going through a phase where he’s, to put lightly, more than a handful, suffering from anxiety and fears that she doesn’t quite understand.  These, in turn, spark her own anxieties as she’s no longer able to control them, setting off a vicious swirling of cause and effect until, much like the question of the chicken or the egg, we’re no longer sure which came first: his or hers.

As for Amelia’s own personal life, we’re shown several instances the effects of loneliness, the result of loss and not moving on, when she glances at other couples together.  Whether in a parking garage or on television, they serve as a reminder of what she’s lost as does the other, empty side of the bed she sleeps in (it’s even suggested at one point Samuel is the reason why Amelia is unable to have a relationship when a suitor from work stops over.)  Despite her insistence to her sister that she’s “Moved on,” it’s her following statement, “I don’t even mention him” that speaks to her growing problem of suppressing his memories and grief (suppressing being the conscious act of pushing memories/thoughts away).

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You never know when, where, or what form repressed impulses may “pop up”.

As a counterpoint to the suppression, repression in the unconscious act of pushing memories, thoughts or impulses that may conflict with our sense of self away. This is where the true horror of the story takes place: The Babadook as harbinger for repressed impulses and the dissonance from within.  Although Amelia’s sister confides she “Can’t stand being around” Samuel, she points out that Amelia herself can’t stand to be around him either – but won’t admit it.  Much like Beth in Ordinary People (“Mothers don’t hate their sons!”), Amelia reacts with disbelief having repressed the negative feelings associated with her husband’s death as an indirect result of her pregnancy – after all, if she weren’t to have had Samuel, none of this would have happened.  Thus Samuel becomes the lightning rod for all that is wrong in Amelia’s life, something she impulsively outright tells him, “You don’t know how many times I wished it been you instead of him that died…”.

What Amelia doesn’t realize is just how much her own inability to cope with grief is contributing to Samuel’s anxiety and behavioral issues: he’s aware of its effects on her and fears for her safety to the extent he’s literally built his own self-defense mechanisms – a small catapult and gun that shoots darts – declaring he will use to “Kill the monster when it comes,” if he only knew what it was.  That monster, Mister Babadook, is a personification of her illness manifesting itself externally, first in the form of a book that foreshadows impending dread – then the threat of illness as it manifests the suppression of Amelia’s pent-up grief of her deceased husband whose “memories” she keeps locked away in the basement and forbids Samuel to have any contact with.

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The wellness-institute.org’s diagram of repression shows a number of issues relevant to The Babadook’s storyline.

While the sister and Samuel are aware of repression/suppression’s ill effects, Amelia completely denies anything’s wrong.  When she replies “Fine” after being asked how she’s doing by a co-worker, he reminds her that’s it’s ok not to be considering what she’s been through.  Samuel, too young to understand the concept of suppression/repression and how they work, does understand their negative effects and the toll it’s taking on his mother as he pleads, “Don’t let it in!  Don’t let it in!” – thus its manifestation becomes known to him as The Babadook in an attempt to understand the negative impulses from the perspective of a child’s mind.

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The suppression of Amelia’s grief personified when unable to cope.

As for the relationship of Mister Babadook and Amelia’s late husband, there are several story attributes that draw parallels between the two: first, there’s the arrangement of the father’s clothes on the wall in the basement that echoes Mister Babadook’s appearance.  When Amelia later goes to the police station, she sees the similar arrangement of clothes – but they’re Mister Babadook’s.  Then when he makes his first visit, he enters from the basement.  Finally, he reveals himself to Amelia in the form of her husband telling her “You can bring me the boy” which harkens back to the book’s warning: “I’ll soon take off my funny disguise and once you see what’s underneath, you’re going to wish you were dead.”

This leads us back to the purpose of expressionism: to make the internal external, for in the end, when the disguise comes off and we see what’s underneath, we’re left with the realization The Babadook – being an external manifestation – is really the repressed part of Amelia’s identity.  In short, it is Amelia – the very worst parts, something that was recently discussed with the commonalities of a number of seminal horror films since the 1960’s (both identity and the disintegration of the family playing large factors.)  Once again we’ve looked into the mirror and discovered the monster is us; as Mister Babadook creeps into Amelia’s consciousness during moments of insomnia staring at late night television showing old silent film, The Babadook suddenly appears in several sequences to eerie effect.  It is, in essence, the point “he gets in” and under her skin, the repressed negative desires and emotions coming to the surface as if she were possessed by the entity itself.

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The Babadook materializes in a sequence of an old film Amelia watches, her subconscious, repressed desires coming to the surface.

One of the ways repression of emotions manifests itself is through disease or other physical maladies, The Wellness-Institute noting

The whole concept of disease or illness is often related to emotions which have been repressed. When a person holds in anger, that angry energy has to go somewhere. Some people hold it in their jaw, others in their chest and some in their stomach. Angry energy can actually be held anywhere and everywhere in the body. This energy, if not released, then does violence to the body itself, in the form of disease. So the person that holds in their feelings and does not say what needs to be said, may experience tension in the jaw which can result in TMJ or grinding of the teeth.

This is a trait Amelia demonstrates throughout the movie, first subtly, then growing progressively worse, as she continually rubs her jaw until finally pulling out a tooth as her repressed emotions boil to the surface in a flurry of anger and resentment during the movie’s last half hour – a showdown between a mother’s conflicting emotions and the young son trying to save her from herself (not to mention his own skin.)

As an allegory for grief, it should be noted there are five stages according to the Kübler-Ross model – each represented in The Babadook:

1) Denial.  This is expressed by Amelia’s telling her sister she’s coping and her refusal to believe in the manifestation of her illness as “The Babadook”.

2) Anger.  We see flashes of anger from Amelia toward both her sister, neighbor and in particular, Samuel.  She’s immediately conscious of it, to some extent, and tries to suppress it rather than deal with it in a constructive manner.

3) Bargaining.  We see this when The Babadook reveals itself in her deceased husband’s form, telling her “We can be together.  You just need to bring me the boy.”  There’s also bargaining between mother and son after some of her early outbursts in an effort to regain trust.

4) Depression.  It’s clear Amelia’s suffering from depression – it’s part of the environment and her sister’s daughter openly tells Samuel they don’t ever go over to their house anymore “because mommy says it’s too depressing.”

5) Acceptance.  This speaks to the movie’s conclusion, one that perhaps left a few audience members confused because they read it literally rather than as a metaphor within the context of the allegory itself: Amelia enters the basement where “The Babadook” has been repressed (or as we see, subdued), listening to its angry growls as she offers up food to it.  Though clearly still afraid of it, she says repeatedly, “It’s alright.  It’s alright.”

Upon returning to her son in the backyard, he asks, “How was it?”

“It was pretty quiet today,” she says with a smile.

“It’s getting much better, mom.”

The scene uses this last metaphor of coping via acknowledging and facing one’s demons as a way to impart meaning into the allegory – that we must acknowledge and deal with our repressed emotions in order to live a healthier life.  It’s this act of entering the cellar (the previous subconscious realm) and recognizing, facing, even “feeding” her inner fears and impulses – keeping them alive so to speak – ultimately allowing for direct communication with the source of her problems that allows Amelia to find some inner-peace and rebuild her relationship with her son into a healthier one.

In short, the trip to that dark cellar is therapeutic and an ongoing effort – something Amelia readily acknowledges now vs. being in denial before.  

The Babadook will be released in limited North American theaters on November 28, 2014 but is currently available on Direct TV.

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Two elements each of these seminal horror movies since 1960 have in common, Part II.

“I think of horror films as art, as films of confrontation. Films that make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.”  – Wes Craven 

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Norman has a little bit of his mother in him.

Part one of this article can be found here.

As far back as 1908’s first known film adaptation of Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (no longer in existence) and 1919’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, horror movies have found the psychological explorations of “identity” to be effective proving grounds for stories that unsettle the mind.  It is, after all, the major component of the self; whether attributed to a character in a story in terms of perspective, ideologies, beliefs and experiences, or the individual watching the film whose own experiences, perspectives and beliefs may be preyed upon by the storyteller manipulating their greatest fears.

The marriage of the two (character and observer) through the main character’s perspective can enhance the emotional impact by placing viewers in the shoe’s of another – something that many will attest to be one of the important virtues of storytelling: to safely experience predicaments of others without being directly exposed to them?  Why?  As Lisa Cron explains in Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Your Readers from the Very First Sentence 

Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to. Story is what enabled us to imagine what might happen in the future, and so prepare for it— a feat no other species can lay claim to, opposable thumbs or not. Story is what makes us human, not just metaphorically but literally. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience reveal that our brain is hardwired to respond to story; the pleasure we derive from a tale well told is nature’s way of seducing us into paying attention to it.

Whereas the best of Science Fiction explores what makes us human, the best of Horror asks what are we capable of doing and demonstrates how far we will go – whether it’s protecting through repression or the total annihilation to the complete loss of control amongst other things – when the self comes under attack.  That we may not be who we think we are, or as others perceive us to be, as well as being capable of horrors that evoke cognitive dissonance may very well be the most frightening things about the dark side of human nature that the ten films discussed in the previous article exemplify.

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“We all go a little mad sometimes…”

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is, at its essence, a modern take on the premise of dissociative identity disorder explored in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, both exploring multiple, distinct identities inhabiting a single body. Norman Bates, having killed his mother years ago, maintains the family’s livelihood, The Bates Motel, while his mother’s corpse stares oppressively with its blank eyes and wig…overlooking Norman from the house on the hill.

After the story disposes of whom we thought to be the main character – Marion Crane – we’re locked in with Norman’s perspective, seeing the world through his eyes.  As with Machiavellianism and The Usual Suspects, Hitchcock employs numerous techniques to keep the illusion that mother is indeed alive until the revelation at the film’s climax.  Once revealed, we find ourselves reassessing everything that came beforehand and see it in an entirely new context as to how far Norman Bates has gone to conceal his crime(s) not only from the public – but himself as well.

 

Note: Fans of Psycho looking for a surreal take on similar themes might find Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre a very worthwhile watch having been named to Roger Ebert’s Top Ten films (#6 1990) as well as his Great Movies list.

George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead explores identity in a manner that’s similar to Invasion of the Body Snatchers: the people who we think we know, love and trust aren’t what they appear to be – shells of their former selves, but taken a step further in that rather than clones, they’re reanimated corpses of the dearly departed.  As such, they’re void of characteristics and personalities that made them recognizable aside from their physical attributes.  They’re us, but they’re not – and as a metaphor for death, they’re coming to get us…all of us, sooner or later.

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“They’re coming to get you, Barbara…” Johnny teased, only to end up becoming one of them.

In order to survive, we find the characters disassociating themselves from the departed – something that, at least in psychological terms, harkens back to warfare of the era and the dehumanization of the enemy by various means (typically associated with objectifying some physical attribute).  Here the dead become an army of “things” or “ghouls,” that, much like the enemies in war, must be destroyed. Failure to see them as anything but a threat jeopardizes the living such as with Barbara when she’s faced with her brother Johnny’s “return,” hesitating just long enough – calling him by his name in hopes of some semblance of recognition – only to meet her own demise.

Much like The Walking Dead does on AMC, the film asks how far are we willing to go  in an effort to hold onto our sense of self, a bit of an irony since at its basic level our existence and survival is predicated on de-evolution and “losing ourselves” to a certain extent (in the case of Barbara succumbing to Johnny – psychologically it would require an act of fratricide for her to survive, but physically the Johnny she knew and loved is already dead.)

Rosemary’s Baby has a very different approach to the horrors of identity, yet echoes both The Exorcist and The Omen – not so much for their reliance on religious overtones, but from that perspective of the parent.  Identity here is a culmination of various parts of the equation discussed before: thoughts, attitudes and beliefs lead to behaviors which, in turn, induce action (or reactions) which ultimately define characters.  For Rosemary, being pregnant with a child that may be used as part of a sacrifice is one thing…but being a mother, regardless to whom, is another.  By the time she has her child and learns of its true fate, there’s no turning back: despite its identity as a child of Satan and her initial disgust, Rosemary herself – her identity – has changed to that of one becoming a mother, a role she seems to readily and willingly accept in the film’s final shot.

In The Omen, much of the horror from the parental aspect results from the mystery surrounding the Thorns’ adopted child, his origins and his subsequent identity as the antichrist after a series of disturbing deaths.  The chain of events point to a carefully orchestrated scheme suggestive of Machiavellianism: Robert was chosen because of his own identity, that of an American Diplomat, allowing Damian to acquire political influence later in life.

Robert cannot, however,  come to grips with killing his child at first, adopted or not.  When he finally does commit to the act, his beliefs changed by the culmination of events leading to the murder of his wife and revelation that their own natural child was killed at birth, his behavior is perceived as irrational by those who lack his subjective experience and knowledge.  As a result, they believe he’s acting erratic and wrongly in attempting to kill his child.  His own identity – his persona –  at this point perceived as broken for the lack of a better word,  Robert is shot and killed just as he raises the dagger to stab Damian.

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The Exorcist gives us every parent’s worst nightmare: discovering their young daughter has turned into something other than sugar and spice…taken to the extreme with a dash of heated possession and subsequent loss of control over oneself.  While Chris MacNeil watches helplessly as her daughter succumbs to a series of unexplainable maladies, what the story is really about (as explained here) is faith – specifically the faith lost and subsequently regained by the story’s main character, Father Damien Karras.

It is with Father Karras that audience experiences the story’s thematic message through, a priest who’s lost faith after the death of his ill and elderly mother…a priest who no longer believes in God. As mentioned earlier, beliefs play a crucial role in a person’s attitude, behaviors and ultimately the actions they take – so much so as we can draw parallels between Karras’s character and that of Regan’s: both suffer an identity crisis in their own way, Regan’s being physical versus Karras’s spiritual.

His attempts to find a traditional explanation for Regan’s malady failing, Karras eventually comes to believe she’s in need of an exorcism – the first step in his rediscovering faith: if demons do exist, then so must God.  But Karras is no exorcist, hence the need for Father Merrin.  In the end, with Merrin having succumbed to Pazuzu, Karras finds the only way to save Regan is to fully regain his faith, exemplified by “God damn you!,” and self-sacrifice, relinquishing his own identity and commanding the demon, “Take me! Take me!”

 

Carrie, like The Exorcist to some degree, also explores the changing of identity within a young girl: rather than focusing on possession, the story deals with a sexual awakening during a teen’s formative years made supernatural with the powers of telekinesis.  All Carrie wants to be is normal – at least within the context provided by life outside her home as defined by her classmates; home, as Carrie knows it, is wherein much of their perspective of her comes from as a misfit raised by a religiously oppressive mother.  The awakening Carrie goes through clashes with her mother’s beliefs so much so the events, minus the supernatural context, are atypical of teenagers breaking away from their parental ties in an attempt to form their own identities.

Going on dates with boys and to the prom, these are things teenage girls identify with and things Carrie very much wants for herself; not only does she believe they will make her normal in other people’s eyes, she believes they will make her feel normal as well.  When this sense of purpose to define oneself is confronted, we see how far Carrie will go in using her abilities to keep her mother at bay. But alas, much like Mrs. Bates, mothers seem to know best and Carrie falls victim to the cruelest of cruel pranks, resulting in her proving to be anything but normal.

 

Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining doesn’t deal with identity in an overt manner, rather it uses a bit of narrative blurring to keep the audience on edge.   Making numerous changes from the novel, the film is a bit more open-ended and somewhat suggestive – much of the horror seemingly coming from within Jack as opposed to a supernatural force.  As a result, Jack is a less sympathetic character who appears to be suffering a breakdown from cabin fever vs. being a victim and subsequent tool of external forces.

Nevertheless, there are certain characteristics of the plot such as Danny’s friend “Tony” who lives in his mouth whom Danny later uses self-referentially.  There’s also the case of the previous caretaker who developed cabin fever and killed his family which parallels the present with Jack, the Overlook Hotel July 4th 1921 ball and the the fact that “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” that lead to identity, or loss of it, playing a significant factor in the film.

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The Shining’s final image throws a little curve into the narrative.

The last three films, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Scream deal with antagonists that, on the surface, wear masks to conceal their identities.  On a psychological level, the purpose runs much, much deeper.

Leatherface, the most notable antagonist in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, proves the old saying to be true: you are what you eat.  As a cannibal, he sews the skin of his victims together to create a mask – presumably to hide his own grotesque self, “the monster within,” so to speak.  But upon closer examination, the late film critic and author Robin Wood points out the question of identity extends beyond the family of cannibals

…but in their midst is Franklyn, who is as grotesque, and almost as psychotic, as his nemesis Leatherface.  (The film’s refusal to sentimentalize the fact that he is crippled may remind one of the blind beggars of Bunuel.)  Franklyn associates himself with the slaughterers by imitating the actions of Leatherface’s brother the hitchhiker: wondering whether he, too, could slice open his own hand, and toying with the idea of actually doing so.  (Kirk remarks, “You’re as crazy as he is”.)  Insofar as the other young people are characterized, it is in terms of a pervasive petty malice.  Just before Kirk enters the house to meet his death, he teases Pam by dropping into her hand a human tooth he has found on the doorstep; later, Jerry torments Franklin to the verge of hysteria by playing on his fears that the hitchhiker will pursue and kill him.  Franklyn resents being neglected by the others.  Sally resents being burdened with him on her vacation.  The monstrous cruelties of the slaughterhouse family have their more pallid reflection within “normality.”

In the end, Sally’s ability to survive is predicated on breaking out physically while suffering a psychotic break mentally, one that rivals her captors as she’s pushed to the extreme and reduced to a state of fractured mind as much as they are.  Indeed, just as with PsychoCarrie, Night of the Living Dead and so many other seminal horror films, when we hold a mirror up to the monster it’s often ourselves we see reflecting back.

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Give this man a mask and a chainsaw and he may as well be Leatherface.

As mentioned in the previous article, Robin Wood also questions whether Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s Halloween is a victim of Dr. Loomis’s constant projection of evil over the last nine years.  Through Loomis’s eyes, Michael is evil incarnate – a force of pure malevolence who wears a mask on Halloween.  That the mask itself is pale white and void of emotion robs the character of an identity – the constant, neutral expression adding to the scare factor – while hiding his true self underneath.  In this regard, the mask makes Michael anonymous: he could very well be anyone underneath and it’s only near the end that we see the adult version lift it ever so briefly to expose nothing that resembles the possession of Regan in The Exorcist, but rather a normal looking person.

Fans of the movie who have read the screenplay know that Michael was referred to as “The Shape” in the script in what one can only assume to be a deliberate attempt to strip him of any humanity in the reader’s eyes, thus making him an omnipresent force – particularly on the screen when he’s heard breathing rather than seen.  While the mask initially gives Michael a sense of anonymity, it quickly – at least in the minds of Laurie Strode and the audience – becomes synonymous with “the bogeyman,” giving a face to the more traditional, imaginary figure used to frighten children.   In this sense, the film seems to form an argument as to whether the bogeyman actually exists – the final shots confirming that yes, indeed he does: Michael has evolved from a young boy committing fratricide early in the film to becoming a full-blown, walking incarnation of a myth.

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Michael Myers aka The Shape aka The Bogeyman; from sister-killer to becoming a persona for a mythology.

Last, but not least, is Wes Craven’s Scream – Kevin Williamson’s ode to slashers of his youth.  Half parody – half tribute, the film takes tropes in what arguably began with Carpenter’s Halloween in the 1970’s (itself somewhat stylistically reminiscent of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas from several years prior) which had become cliched by the late 1980’s/early 1990’s and makes them fresh again.  With regards to identity, the killers forge their persona straight from how-to-make-a-successful-slasher: in other words, the killers’ identity is an amalgamation of characteristics influenced from other movies, yet retains its own persona as an entity who knows a little too much about the history of the horror film. If Billy and Stuart weren’t psychopaths by merely killing people, they surely were by the means they took to cover their crimes.

The teens in Scream themselves seemingly have been weened on horror movies, so much so that their awareness aids in the film’s self-referential style (self-referential here being to the genre it identifies with).  As such, they’re aware of the cliches and rules of your typical slasher setting – but also allowed to toss film references left and right, or as with Randy, actually live and breathe horror to the extent it’s what, as a character, he identifies most with (as well as what makes him a credible, albeit expected, suspect.)

Ultimately it’s Scream as a movie and its identification with its genre’s expectations and cliches while both acknowledging and poking fun at them that enables the film to stand on its own merits – as well as its ability to take a stab at the growing debate involving the effects of media violence on “the self,” something which had been brewing as a topic of interest after a generation or so exposed to more and more violence.

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With that last point in mind, we’re brought somewhat full circle: As Robin Wood noted, horror in the 1930’s was foreign.  By the 1960’s it began invading the fabric of our society with the disintegration of the family – something very much reflected in cinema the following decade plus as we watched it enter the home, both literally with the advent of technology (Cable, VHS and DVD) and figuratively with the stories playing out on the screen.  Whether or not there’s any direct impact from one onto the other is an argument for another place and another time, but it is pertinent to note that it’s no coincidence the exploration of identity is so prevalent in these films featuring the disintegration of the family; the family is where we derive our sense of identity from.  From cultural norms to genetics to our upbringing, we’re a product of many factors and influences – none stronger than family and what happens in the home…and perhaps that’s what Wes Craven meant with horror films make you confront aspects of your own life that are difficult to face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Two elements each of these seminal horror movies since 1960 have in common, Part I.

“Horror stories give us a way of exhausting our emotions around social issues, like a woman’s right to an abortion, which I always thought was the core of ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ or the backlash against feminism which I always thought was the core to ‘Stepford Wives.’ ” – Chuck Palahniuk

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As the Sawyers would later say, “The saw is family.”

Here’s a list of ten of the most influential and critically acclaimed horror films released since 1960.  Take a look and see if there are any noticeable commonalities.

Psycho (1960)

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The Exorcist (1973)

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Carrie (1976)

The Omen (1976)

Halloween (1978)

The Shining (1980)

Scream (1996)

There are many more that can be added to the list, some of which may contain one of the elements about to be discussed (films like The Thing (1982), Poltergeist (1982), The Fly (1986) along with films that may have been spawned by these such as the Friday the 13th series, not to mention the numerous sequels and many other, arguably lesser films of the genre), but for the sake of talking points we’ll keep the discussion to this list.

Need a hint?  A number of the films listed center around, or have in the case of  Night of the Living Dead prominently figure into one scene,  a child which speaks to the presence of “the family” – or for the specific intent of this article, the disintegration or decaying of the American family and its ideology.  Whereas the 1950’s gave us television shows like Lassie and Leave it to Beaver with their wholesomeness, the 60’s film era ushered in a very different perspective of the family, particularly with regards to the horror film.  As Chuck Palahniuk suggested in his opening quote, much of horror is reflected upon social issues of a time and taken collectively, the list of films represents, to some degree, the family as a dysfunctional group that either is subsequently the cause for horror or subjected to it by one of its members.

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Rock-a-bye baby…the notion of what was once “foreign” is now inside.

In his excellent article, “An introduction to the American horror film,” the late film critic Robin Wood discussed “the process whereby horror becomes associated with its true milieu, the family, is reflected in its steady geographical progress toward America:

In the Thirties, horror is always foreign.  The films are set in Paris (Murders in the Rue Morgue), Middle Europe (Frankenstein, Dracula) or on uncharted islands (Island of Lost Souls, King Kong); it’s always external to Americans, who may be attacked by it physically but remain (superficially, that is) uncontaminated by it morally.  The designation of horror as foreign stands even when the ‘normal’ characters are Europeans.  In Murders in the Rue Morgue, for example, the young couples, though nominally French, are to all intents and purposes nice clean-living Americans (with American accents); the foreignness of the horror characters is strongly underlined, both by Lugosi’s accent and by the fact that nobody knows where he comes from.  The foreignness of horror in the Thirties can be interpreted in two ways: simply, as a means of disavowal (horror exists, but is un-American), and, more interestingly and unconsciously, as a means of locating horror as a ‘country of the mind,’ as a psychological state: the films set on uncharted (and usually nameless) islands lends themselves particularly to interpretation of this kind.”

While Alfred Hitchcock touched upon the family as a source of horror in 1943’s Shadow of a Doubt, it wasn’t until the release of Psycho in 1960 that American audiences began to truly see horror as entertainment through the context of the family.  Inspired by the Ed Gein murders, as was The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fourteen years later, the film stripped away the notion of horror being foreign, replacing it with the ideology of the disintegrating family making it much more immediate and frightening due to our new sense of vulnerability as we learn those closest to us are the ones who have the ability to hurt us the most.

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Norman says he has warm memories of his mother and home…but it’s what remains repressed that’s scary.

Aiding in this sense of immediacy with horrors of the family is the fact that, taken into account “the home” is generally perceived as a place of safety, there’s simply no place to run and no place to hide resulting in a sense of dread and claustrophobia. This is turn speaks to some of the elements discussed in the previous article about cognitive dissonance: the place that we believe to be the safest and full of love and warmth is proven to be filled with repressed secrets and horrors, especially in the case of Hitchcock’s Psycho in which case if home is where truly where the heart is, then inevitably horror resides deep within the fabric of our very souls…something to be explored in Part. II.

Robin Wood discusses this notion of home further in his essay with regards to the other Ed Gein inspired film, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre:

The image of the “Terrible House” stems from a long tradition in American (and Western capitalist) culture.  Traditionally, it represents an extension or “objectification” of the personalities of the inhabitants. Massacre offers two complementary “terrible houses”: the once imposing, now totally decayed house of Franklyn’s and Sally’s parents (where we keep expecting something appalling to happen), and the more modest, outwardly spruce, inwardly macabre villa of the monstrous family wherein every item of decor is an expression of the character’s degeneracy [which is another great exemplification of setting as an extension of character’s mind].  The borderline between home and slaughterhouse (between work and leisure) has disappeared–the slaughterhouse has invaded the home, humanity has begun literally to “prey upon itself, like monsters of the deep.”  Finally, what the “terrible house” (whether in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, in Psycho, in Mandingo, or here) signifies is the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation, the future–an idea beautifully realized in the shots that starts on the ominous grey, decayed Franklyn house and tilts down to show Kirk and Pam, dwarfed in long shot, playing and laughing as they run to the swimming-hole, and to their doom.

[It’s worth noting Robin Wood’s article was written back in the 1970’s, so the significance of the dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation is something that probably holds more truth today with the nation’s debt and prior generation’s decision making leaving many to fear they may very well be the first not to out-earn their parents (which calls into question why more films don’t explore this since of growing dread and indebtedness to the point it infringes upon free will to some extent, particularly to the endeavor of “enslavement” to various systems and/or lifestyles.)]

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Karen. Probably a parent’s single greatest fear aside from the death of a child is not being able to do anything about it.

George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, preceding Massacre by six years, takes Wood’s  notion of “dead weight of the past crushing the life of the younger generation” and makes it both literal – the dead coming back to life to kill (and consume) the still living – and ironic in one notorious taboo scene involving matricide where the young girl, Karen, comes back to life and murders her mother.  That it happens in what turns out to be the safest part of the house – the basement – only adds to the film’s many moments of irony as she was put there having fallen sick.  Though not the first film to feature the embodiment of an “evil child,” it remains perhaps one of the most powerful scenes due again to a bit of cognitive dissonance and what we tend to hold true of human nature, that the mother will go to the greatest lengths to protect their child from harm, here becomes inhuman and representative of the family’s destruction from within by what was previously considered “innocent” – a theme that weighs heavily with many of the films on this particular list from the 1970’s.

Of course this isn’t the only instance of the family “cannibalizing” one another in Night of the Living Dead: there’s also the iconic opening where Johnny taunts his sister Barbara about their days visiting the cemetery in the past.  Claiming one of “them” is coming upon them, Johnny mockingly flees, leaving a vulnerable Barbara to find out they really are coming to get her.  His attempts to fight the dead off unsuccessful, Johnny falls victim…only to reappear at the film’s climax when the house is under attack, surprising his sister in an otherwise nihilistic-attack (really, if having the house proven to be unsafe wasn’t bad enough, Barbara’s left with the realization that nobody – not even your loved ones – can help you.)

 

Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie, and Halloween all represent a motif of evil being born into the family – destroying it from the inside out – while also playing toward strong religious overtones though Halloween is certainly more suggestive. Dr. Loomis, as the story’s principle voice of authority, sounds much less a psychiatrist than he rambling lunatic himself spouting off about Michael Myer’s having “the blackest eyes, the devil’s eyes,” but this also happens to demonstrate the importance of perspective and imbedding your audience into a character’s shoes by having them experience the world through their eyes (imagine watching Halloween without the character of Dr. Loomis – would the scenes with Michael stalking Laurie Strode be nearly as effective without our knowing what she does not?)

Michael himself inexplicably kills his older sister at the beginning of the film, leaving the motif unanswered – something that makes the original film all the more creepier as opposed to all of the inferior sequels that try to rationalize and explain his origins; as noted in the previous article’s opening quote from H.P. Lovecraft, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Demystification works counter to involving the audience’s greatest asset: their imagination.

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The night HE came HOME.

As such, Halloween uses small doses of cognitive dissonance to explore whether “The Boogeyman” really exists in the form of Michael Myers.  Robin Wood’s essay further discusses Halloween‘s familial aspect with this interesting reading of the film:

The basic premise of the action is that Laurie is the killer’s real quarry throughout (the other girls merely distractions en route), because she is for him the reincarnation of the sister he murdered as a child (he first sees her in relation to a little boy who resembles him as he was then, and becomes fixated on her from that moment).  This compulsion to reenact the childhood crime keeps Michael tied at least to the possibility of psychoanalytical explanation, thereby suggesting that Donal Pleasance may be wrong.  If we accept that, then one tantalizing unresolved detail becomes crucial: the question of how Michael learned to drive a car.  There are only two possible explanations: either he is the devil, possessed of supernatural powers; or he has not spent the last nine years (as Pleasance would have us believe) sitting staring blackly at a wall meditating further horrors. (It is to Carpenter’s credit that the issue is raised in dialogue, not glossed over as an unfortunate plot necessity we aren’t supposed to notice; but he appears to use it merely as another tease, a bit of meaningless mystification.)  The possibility this opens up is that of reading the while film against the Pleasance character: Michael’s “evil” is what his analyst has been projecting onto him for the past nine years.

Rosemary’s Baby and The Omen take two entirely different approaches to the same topic of “devil child,” the former exploring the couple’s desire to have a baby, the pregnancy and the revelation upon birth whereas the later seems as though it could be a logical progression of the same storyline involving the child’s youth if it weren’t for the change in setting and characters.  Nevertheless, both continue Wood’s concept of horror intruding further not only into America, but the home and future (which children often symbolize.)

Likewise, the demon Pazuzu in The Exorcist befriends Regan after pretending to be her friend “Captain Howdy” via a Ouija board, opening the door to her possession.  Though the film is really a mediation on faith, that a seemingly healthy, young girl would become possessed and do some incredibly personal, horrifying things plays to the film’s point on faith itself – setting up an increasingly dreadful situation for Regan’s mother, herself agnostic and unable to do anything to help her child.  That sense of powerlessness in turn speaks to the film’s theme regarding the power of faith, particularly when examined via the story’s main character Father Karras, himself having lost faith after the death of his ill mother.  Pazuzu, in turn, uses both these familial weaknesses to attack both Karras and Regan’s mother psychologically while physically manipulating Regan herself.

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A memorable scene from The Exorcist.

Carrie meanwhile shows us the realistic horrors of being an outcast teenager during perhaps the most awkward phase of life, the teenage years, while also exploring an oppressive lifestyle at home thanks to an overbearing, abusive and religiously fanatic mother (a fact that undoubtedly casts Carrie herself as a misfit by association – much like Wood noted with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘s family home being an expression of the character’s malady, so is the case here.)  With Carrie’s sexual awakening comes an awakening of telekinesis…along with her mother’s further damnation of her daughter.  While this angle gives the story a supernatural presence that culminates in revenge, it’s the story’s mother/daughter dynamic that’s arguably one of its most horrifying aspects: just as bullying today is prevalent outside of school with little escape, so is the abuse for Carrie as we learn home, and subsequently the family, two elements that should provide a sense of support and sanctuary, prove to be in reality just as horrifying as school – if not more so.

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There’s just some things you’d expect a mother to tell her daughter.

Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Stephen King’s The Shining shows (yet again) what happens when the workplace enters home (or home becomes the workplace), this time exploring the literal effects of “cabin fever” on the Torrance family as Jack uses his job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel during the long winter months to work on his second passion: writing…the same thing over and over in different patterns.  While Jack slowly loses his mind, we’re provided contrasting perspectives of both son Danny – who harbors the supernatural trait for which the story is named after – and wife Wendy who becomes the target of Jack’s transgressions…all this after Jack is informed early on by the hotel’s manager that a previous caretaker went crazy and slaughtered his family.

Last, but not least, is 1996’s Scream whose plot stems from infidelity and the destruction of one’s family when Sydney’s mother had an affair with her boyfriend Billy’s father, leading to his mother to move out and abandon him.  One’s destruction of family deserves another, hence Billy’s (and friend Stuart’s) murdering of Sydney’s mother and framing Cotton Weary.

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Scream’s horrors originate from the family.

Half parody and half-tribute, Scream‘s self-referential style works  because, by the mid 1990’s, what seemed new and fresh in the 60’s – horror entering the American household and family – had become cliched…something that’s indicative of the lack of films on the list since the 1980’s (another, somewhat related factor being there’s fewer taboos to explore not to mention the studio’s reliance on regurgitating story lines in  countless, mostly inferior sequels and endless reboots.)

In each of these films’ cases, the family and its deterioration plays a significant factor in the horrors that unfold on screen.  Whether it be through some form of dysfunction (Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Shining) or incarnation of “evil” through birth or childhood (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, Carrie), the stories made the horrors of what once seemed foreign and “elsewhere” all the more immediate and personal by placing them in our very own backyards, home, and family.

Next up: Part II which will re-examine these same films and their other element they share in common which is closely related to “the family”: Identity.

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Who, or what, am I…really?

 

 

 

 

 

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Keeping your audience in suspense: cognitive dissonance, narrative blurring and the horror film.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” – H.P. Lovecraft

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Is that really a ghost on the shore in Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, an adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, or is it merely all in Miss Giddens’ head?

There’s something about settling down in the dark of night to watch a well done creeper-feature, the kind that builds its atmosphere in layers like thick fog that keeps one guessing as to what’s really going on.  As discussed here, much of a film’s success is dependent on the main character’s perspective on events unfolding with regards to how an audience is to interpret them.  As such – and particularly in horror – the main character’s perspective is increasingly important when fostering suspense, an element that drives uncertainty, anxiety and indecision in a prolonged sense of “what happens next?”.  But for that perspective to be effective and create the kind of suspense in the audience that will keep them on the edge of their seats, two approaches are most useful: creating cognitive dissonance and narrative blurring.

Merriam Webster defines cognitive dissonance as “psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously.”  Furthermore:

[it’s] mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information. The concept was introduced by the psychologist Leon Festinger (1919–89) in the late 1950s. He and later researchers showed that, when confronted with challenging new information, most people seek to preserve their current understanding of the world by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding the new information or by convincing themselves that no conflict really exists. Cognitive dissonance is nonetheless considered an explanation for attitude change.

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Dark Night of the Scarecrow is arguably one of the best made-for-television movies of its kind, originally airing on CBS network affiliates in 1981.

This really speaks to the heart of “perspective,” something I’ve repeatedly hammered the importance of on this blog as well as being the heart of Dramatica‘s theory of story (Dramatica seeing a complete, grand argument story as an exploration of a problem modeled after the human mind’s own ability to resolve it via four separate throughlines/perspectives: I, youwe, they.)  Perspective here is ultimately a character’s worldview, their beliefs, thoughts, attitudes, what motivates them, propagates desire, etc.  Simply put, it’s the psychology of a character, their schema (defined as “a mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli.”)

Narrative blurring is, as described by David Taylor, “a suggestiveness in description,” or as H.P. Lovecraft once said, “Never state a horror when it can be suggested.”  Fans of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre might be familiar with the notion from his explanation of the power of each individual’s mind to call forth their worst fears.  In one anecdote, King discussed “the monster behind the door” being better left unseen as the reader’s imagination is inherently more powerful – and personal – than anything that can be put in words on the page.  When the door opened to expose a ten foot (or however big) spider/bug, the previously quaking-at-the-knees character sighed in relief, “Whew, I thought it was going to be FIFTY FEET big!”

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Another underrated gem, 1972’s The Other directed by Robert Mulligan of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, stayed with many a viewer for years (just check out the reviews on amazon.com). Quietly creepy, the film, based on Thomas Tryon’s best-seller of the same name, uses a lot of narrative blurring effectively before pulling the carpet out from underneath viewers in one delicious plot-twist three-quarters way through the film, only to present new information resulting in a sense of cognitive dissonance that leaves audiences feeling quite disturbed.

What’s important with the notion of narrative blurring is it engages the audience with the use of their own imaginations – and as noted, that’s as powerful as it gets – but it also, by its very nature, creates a sense of doubt and uncertainty because it’s merely a suggestion.  Doubt, in turn, harkens back to cognitive dissonance: when new information is presented that contradicts previously held beliefs, we’re likely to dismiss it, rationalize it or justify it in a way that preserves what we thought to be true.  While a character may do this on the page or the screen from their own subjective perspective, the process – the story’s unfolding – itself is viewed objectively by the audience who now perceives two contradictory pieces of information which creates a certain level of uncertainty because of competing possibilities – thus “What happens next?” or…suspense!

With regards to The Innocents, The Other, and Dark Night of the Scarecrow, several similarities appear that help to create an atmosphere of dissonance through suggestion: like many supernatural stories, the emphasis on “the natural” in the setting is paramount.  Each of these movies takes place in what could be considered the real world, or at least grounded in reality where the supernatural is often hinted at, or suggested, but dismissed by key characters – if not outright the main character – where an alternate perspective rationalizes events and strange occurrences.

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A key flashback scene in The Other.

The world the characters inhabit in these movies also tends to be gothic in nature: a large mansion on an estate, a farmhouse in 1930’s Connecticut and a small, rural farming community – each presenting many of their subtle horrors in sun-drenched daylight, but always within the framing of dark shadows that give way to the unknown.  This dichotomy is a result of narrative blurring, creating a sense of unease – that all is not right – within an otherwise picturesque context, whether it’s a bug crawling out of a statue’s mouth in The Innocents, the foreboding sense of a locked basement room in a barn or a severed finger kept tucked away in a tin box in The Other or a wide open, unplanted cornfield with a scarecrow tied to a stake in Dark Night of the Scarecrow.  The horror is therefore is never overt, but strongly hinted at despite their seemingly innocuous settings.

All three films also have children who may – or may not – be deviant in nature, something evident in The Innocents very title.  The idea that children may not be as innocent as they seem is certainly fraught with a certain amount of dissonance in real life – but one of which has become fodder for a good many “bad seed” films.  Nevertheless, there’s the suggestion within each that the children themselves are not, despite their wholesome initial appearances, entirely “natural” themselves.

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Are Miles and Flora evil, or are they possessed by Miss Jessel and Peter Quint…or or are all these events just the products of Miss Giddens’s own imagination?

All the narrative blurring is set up to give the stories and settings a sense of ambiguity, another important element, but what’s also important is the perspective of the characters which leads to the cognitive dissonance, either within themselves or the audience.  In The Innocents, Miss Giddens is presented with conflicting information and perspectives right from the moment she meets Flora, her reflection in the pond as someone from afar calls her name – only Flora denies hearing anyone.  Later on, when Miss Giddens experiences the first sighting of Peter Quint’s ghost, she rushes to the top of the mansion’s tower to find Miles playing amongst the pigeons, also denying anyone else’s having been up there.  Miss Giddens initially dismisses her sighting as a result of having not slept well and imagined it, but she can’t let the thought go and further inquires Mrs. Grose about the history and the children.

Factoring into the dissonance is Miss Giddens belief that the children are angelic, but events are presented with such ambiguity – such as when Flora recites her prayers and inquires if she shall go to heaven someday as well to which Miss Giddens replies, yes, because she’s “good.”  Flora, however, responds that she may very well be bad and further asks if she weren’t to go to heaven, would the lord leave her there to walk around?  On one hand this could very well be a natural question for a child to ask at that age – but given the greater context of the story, the dialogue is unsettling – particularly for Miss Giddens – as she is continually presented with new evidence that suggests the children aren’t as angelic as she believed them to be.  Dissonance continually happens as she tries to find rational explanations, her options dwindling until she comes to believe the children are not acting on their own accord and are, in fact, possessed by the spirits of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel.

 

From an objective viewpoint, the audience sees the events unfold and is never presented with evidence anyone other than Miss Giddens sees or hears the ghosts – but again, the ambiguity of the dialogue from the children seems to suggest their knowing more than they let on, leaving the audience in suspense as to whether the ghosts are real.  In fact, part of the movie’s charm is that, upon its ending, we’re still unsure whether the ghosts were real or not.

From Miss Giddens perspective – and perhaps some of the eeriest moments in any ghost story committed to film – every time the apparitions appear there are stylistic touches where light consumes the lens and all diegetic sound (noises from within the story’s setting) fall ominously silent.  But we’re completely in her shoes as the main character and experiencing the story from her point of view.  That she’s something of an authority figure only adds to the audience’s dissonance as she’s educated (the only other relevant cast members are the children and an admittedly uneducated Mrs. Grose).  The children themselves, and even Mrs. Grose to a certain extent, question Miss Giddens sanity, but she continues to rationalize and justify her beliefs to tragic consequences.  As a side note, Robert M. Pirsig discusses The Turn of the Screw in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and how his own perspective of the story’s protagonist was challenged by a professor who noted the story’s ambiguity was so deep, Miss Giddens herself very well may be seen as the antagonist, imposing her perspective onto the children to fatal results.

 

In Robert Mulligan’s The Other, there’s less emphasis on cognitive dissonance as the story of twins Niles and Holland unfolds on their quaint farm – though a sense of   the supernatural permeates scenes thanks to their grandmother Ada who plays a game with Niles in particular, letting his imagination run amok.  Holland, meanwhile, appears to be the embodiment of “the bad seed” or evil twin and it’s apparent he’s behind the number of unfortunate accidents plaguing the family’s farmstead resulting in a series of tragedies.

It’s not until the story’s twist that we delve deeper into the Jungian concept of “The Shadow,” from which the book (and film) gets its title.  Once it’s revealed Holland is in fact dead and Ada has been playing along with Niles’ inability to move past his brother’s death by accepting his constantly blaming everything on Holland, we suspect Niles to be suffering from a form of psychosis – but just when it appears she has gotten him to accept reality, Niles continues to “see” and converse with Holland leading to further tragic results.  The ending is one of which leaves the viewer haunted for days as we’re presented with yet more information that alters our perception to actually believe in the supernatural aspect of the story and twins and the very nature of evil itself.

 

A slow building film, The Other is one of those rare PG movies that leaves one feeling somewhat disturbed and haunted for days, if not years (seriously, check out the amazon.com reviews).  Robert Mulligan, as he demonstrated with To Kill a Mockingbird, was wonderful working with children and demonstrated a sensitivity to the story’s subtleties and nuances – everything seemingly having its place by its end.  It’s one of those films one can truly say “they don’t make them like this anymore,” which is a shame because it’s these kinds that linger longer than most with the viewer.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow provides something of an inverse from The Innocents in that its main character, Charles Durning’s Otis P. Hazelrigg, is a staunch disbeliever of the supernatural and believes the mother of the mentally challenged man, Bubba (Larry Drake) – whom was wrongly accused of hurting a girl and subsequently slain for – or someone else (the lawyer?  The little girl?  One of his accomplices?) is enacting revenge.

Once again the setting is natural and the supernatural presence is “blurred” with the narrative as we see the majority of the story unfold from Hazelrigg’s perspective – an interesting change of pace considering he’s the story’s true villain, allowing a measure of satisfaction for the audience in watching him squirm as his accomplices die, one by one, in mysterious ways.  But we’re also afforded the objective view of the story outside of Hazelrigg’s perspective, feeling the fear first hand from his friends as subtleties such as a scarecrow appearing in the middle of a barren cornfield induce fear and panic.  We also privy to the perspective of the little girl who was friends with Bubba and seemingly believes he’s still alive, despite the contradictory perspective of his very own mother (much like Ada in The Other, the alternative perspective creates dissonance in that we’re unsure if  Marylee is in fact unable to move beyond her friend’s death).

 

All of these elements contribute to a growing sense of dread as Hazelrigg proves he’ll stop at nothing to keep the truth from being revealed involving Bubba’s death (they framed him to make it appear as self-defense), but we’re never quite sure who’s actually responsible for the killings – the supernatural element always suggested, but alternate explanations plausible (and believable through the eyes of Hazelrigg), grounding the story in reality while keeping its intentions ambiguous until the final reveal.

The Innocents, The Other and Dark Night of the Scarecrow prove to be stories where cognitive dissonance and narrative blurring perhaps work best because of the supernatural angles involved that are based, or at least heavily influenced, by their character’s various perspectives.  This harkens back to the notion of “suggestive horror” in that much of what is deemed as such comes from within the character’s own mind and what they believe and, as also discussed previously, tapping into an audience’s emotions is dependent on putting them squarely into the shoes of the main character.  As a result, and to create suspense, we have to create uncertainty – something that springs forth from ambiguity as a result of blurring the narrative cognitive dissonance and creating an atmosphere of suggestion where anything can happen as we vacillate between the safety net of a sun-drenched reality and the possibilities of something much darker lurking in the shadows…whether on the screen or more importantly, in our own minds.

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Analyzing the farce and its reliance on character perspective

“Comedy is unusual people in real situations; farce is real people in unusual situations”

 -Chuck Jones

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Some may argue whether Tootsie is a farce vs a situational comedy. Sydney Pollack himself stated they downplayed the exaggeration found with some farcical elements, but at its heart – a farce is a farce is a farce – and Tootsie has many of the elements in play, particularly coincidences and choreography.

Farce is one of the most difficult, challenging forms of writing.  Perhaps more than any other genre, it relies on the writer’s complete understanding of many of the things discussed here in previous posts, from the author’s Machiavellianism to its inherent use of dramatic irony, to its most essential ingredient, perspective, all used to great effect.  It is, however, also one of the more misunderstood forms of writing from the reader’s perspective.  With an emphasis by some readers on traditional story structure, there’s a tendency to completely miss a farce’s raison d’être centering not on the goal of the story itself, but the rising complications stemming from it.  Coupled with other inherent elements not always en vogue (a large cast, typically longer set-up and deliberate use of coincidences among others), the farce can seem almost counterculturist in some story analyst’s eyes – but lacking in structure it is not.

So what exactly is a farce and how does it differ from other forms of comedy?  On the stage, it’s a genre that is full of high-energy and very physical stage directions, often “choreographed” – something that still translates to film though perhaps less obvious because of editing.  Typically, the plot of a farce is a series of highly improbably events or coincidences that has a tendency to become incomprehensible due to the many twists and turns.  The characters are often, but not always, larger than life and the humor is derived from mistaken identities or misunderstandings resulting in deliberate absurdity or nonsense.  Farces often take place in a singular location with a large cast, too, but it’s not a necessity.  In farce, anything goes – which typically means any and all types of comedy are utilized to fulfill the story’s main objective: keep the audience laughing...but the trick is, like a five course meal for ten, everything has to be prepared and precisely set up.

As for how it differs from other comedies, writer Ken Levine states, with some irony:

I recently was asked how we constructed farces on CHEERS and FRASIER. I’m sure fifty different comedy writers would give you fifty different approaches but this is mine.

First off there must be jeopardy. Something the characters need very badly and are willing to go to the greatest lengths to achieve. The situation can be totally absurd to us but to the characters themselves they’re very real. In fact, the greater the jeopardy the crazier they can act.

Secondly, a farce is built on a lie. A character lies and then to keep from getting caught must lie again. The lies multiply, the character digs himself into a deeper hole. And generally, there are several characters forced to lie. Often the lies contradict each other.

Needless to say, this takes careful planning. The structure of a farce is critical. Things have to happen with exact precision. The pressure must never let up. Constant roadblocks must be introduced. Complications on top of more complications. The vice tightens…and tightens…and tightens.

These are but a few of the reasons why an unsuspecting reader walking into a farce is more likely to be overly critical of the writing – especially in this day and age when many scripts aren’t read beyond ten pages, certainly twenty if the writing itself doesn’t conform to some specific prerequisites they may have – and doubly so if the unsuspecting reader doesn’t know what a farce actually is and how it deviates from traditional storytelling.

What Ken describes sounds like it should pertain to any form of storytelling, but a farce – which means to literally stuff – takes a certain amount of set-up in motion pictures where audiences normally don’t have the benefit of already knowing characters and relationships as they would with television sitcoms.  As such, where another story may develop several key characters and their relationships, a farce does it to a much greater extent and cast – like a juggler tossing a dozen balls in the air as opposed to three.  Dare I say a script such as Some Like it Hot, as classic a farce to ever exist, would be taken to task being read beyond its first twenty pages in today’s climate because its set-up takes nearly twenty-five minutes before Joe/Jerry, in their attempt to elude the mob and play into the story’s conceit, become Josephine/Daphne (not to mention the stark difference in its tone.)

Furthermore, the goal, eluding the mob, becomes completely lost for the majority of the remaining story, the subsequent complications resulting in Joe and Jerry’s chosen methodology – dressing as female musicians – leading to more and more based on the growing cast and their respective perspectives and individual goals.  The same rising complications from both Tootsie and Arsenic and Old Lace also prove the story’s ultimate goal elusive: in any given scene one can get lost in what the actual story is about, what the goal is, and who’s actually pursuing what (as demonstrated in this scene from Some Like it Hot.)

In Tootsie, rarely are we reminded of Michael Dorsey’s attempt to raise $8,000 to star in and produce his roommate Jeff’s off-Broadway play.  We understand the motivation because it’s brilliantly conveyed with Michael’s perspective on acting in the opening credits, but once Michael becomes Dorothy, it’s ALL about the complications stemming from the web of character relationships to both Michael/Dorothy.  Michael is, in fact, earning that money as Dorothy but with each new character introduced – and there are MANY – comes a complication to the means of that end (and eventually the end itself.)  Michael ends up pursuing a relationship with Julie and when he’s not doing that, he’s avoiding all the complications his prior decisions have caused.  When it all becomes too much, he ultimately pursues a way out – a way back to “normal,” essentially having accomplished his original goal once he became Dorothy and earned a paycheck.  

This is where farce becomes inherently different from other forms of storytelling where characters exist as archetypes and/or functions of the theme and what an author is trying to convey. In farce, a character’s existence is to provide complications via their relationship to the main character – something that needs to be set up by their differing perspectives.

Julie:  Michael’s romantic interest, but also Dorothy’s co-star, she doesn’t take to him and his pickup lines but thinks warmly of Dorothy.  Complicating matters, she’s Ron’s love interest which provides a bit of a mirror to the Michael/Sandy relationship.  Julie’s perspective can be summed up in her scene with Dorothy where she confides being a woman in the 80’s is complicated with all the pretenses and that a little honesty would go a long way (of course, how it comes out is a bit different and results in Michael later getting slapped when he tries the direct approach.)

Sandy: Michael’s friend who he feigns romantic interest with as a result of a complication.  Michael convinces her to try out for the part of the hospital administrator on the soap opera, a role that Michael lands himself…as Dorothy.  Sandy subsequently dislikes “Dorothy”.  Complicating matters further, she really wants to believe in Michael’s interest for her, but it’s hard to after seeing a “fat woman,” Michael dressed as Dorothy, in Michael’s apartment.  Sandy’s perspective, particularly when it comes to relationships, is defined after she has sex with Michael and says “Sex changes things.  I mean I’ve had relationships where I know a guy and I have sex with him and then I bump into him someplace and he acts like I loaned him money.”

Ron: The show’s womanizing director who’s using Julie, who, as noted, is Michael’s romantic interest.  Naturally Michael as Dorothy takes exception, leading to an ideology of feminism in the workplace as Michael’s aggressive style as Dorothy is seen as empowering to woman. Psychologically, Ron is an extension of Michael who begins to see how he treats women himself as a result of the way Ron treats both Julie and Dorothy.  Ron’s perspective can be summed up in one word: the title, “Tootsie”.

Les: Julie’s father who’s romantic interest is…Dorothy.  Michael, believing he’s going to spend a weekend with Julie (as Dorothy), ends up being courted by Les. When Michael, as Dorothy, makes an inopportune pass at Julie, she mistakes her for being a lesbian and pleads with her to tell Les the truth.  Les’s perspective is “Bulls are bulls and roosters don’t try to lay eggs,” a layer of irony added considering the situation.

John Van Horn: The soap’s other slightly less overt womanizer who’s managed to kiss all the women on the show…and also in pursuit of Dorothy.  Thank goodness for Jeff’s impeccable timing.  John’s perspective is, well, it’s actually conveyed by what the other, real, female cast members refer to him as: “the tongue”.

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Spsh! Spsh! A disconcerting sound if there ever was one…well, if you’re a heterosexual male dressed in drag on set with the man known as “The Tongue”.

Jeff: Michael’s roommate who’s caught in the middle of Michael/Dorothy and having to placate Michael in his moments of crisis with both Sandy and John Van Horn. Jeff’s perspective is shown when he confronts Michael after the phone rings and he’s pleaded with to not answer it.  “You know, when you were playing Cyrano and you stuck a saber underneath my armpit through the couch, I didn’t say anything.  When you were hopping around, ranting about your hump, saying that this was a bell tower, I didn’t say anything.  But I don’t see any reason why I should just sit here, pretending I’m not home just because you’re not that kind of girl.  That’s weird.”

George Fields: Michael’s agent who, along with the audience and Jeff, are the only ones privy to the truth of what’s really going on.  It’s George’s perspective of Michael that segues the story into its spiraling complications when he says “Michael, you’re not going to raise twenty-five cents.  No one will hire you!”

Those are the primaries of a rather large cast, all of whom do nothing in terms of conventional storytelling to stop Michael from his goal, but rather complicate matters stemming from his decision to become Dorothy in the first place.  What makes this difficult for the writer to achieve is that those complications all stem from the various characters and their perspectives, each having their own belief system that impacts the way they interpret, or is often the case, misinterpret, the unfolding of events – and it’s here that we can probably come to one truth that often goes unrealized:

The key to “funny” isn’t necessarily what has happened on the screen; rather it’s what the characters think has happened.  

For this to work, the writer has to, in the farce’s particular case, invest in their character’s a bit deeper in order to set up the story and its rising complications.  I liken this to a slow, laborious tight winding of a top that takes both effort and time, the payoff being when you finally let it rip and watch it spin, bouncing off other objects and unsteady surfaces as we wonder how long can it go? (the “it” being our laughter in this metaphorical case.)  Perhaps no scene shows this to be truer than in Tootsie where all the various plot-lines come together upon Michael’s revelation during a live broadcast of the show, leaving one question unanswered: does Jeff know?

In Frank Capra’s savory black comedy adaptation of Arsenic and Old Lace, Mortimer Brewster marries sweetheart Elaine Harper despite his perspective that marriage is an “old fashion superstition.” His goal, to get on with honeymoon.  Providing complications are his insane murdering family whom he makes the mistake of stopping by and seeing.  Of course the audience is provided a different perspective, that from the policeman during his beat describing the Brewster sisters as “two of the dearest, sweetest, kindest old ladies that ever walked the earth.  They’re out of this world.  They’re like pressed rose leaves.”  But from Officer O’Hara’s perspective, they must be awfully hard up to have to rent a room.  Little does he know…

Much like Tootsie and Some Like it Hot, Arsenic and Old Lace‘s set-up in providing the story with a goal really amounts to little more than an excuse to cause all sorts of complications when Mortimer decides to break the news to his aunts before leaving for their honeymoon. There’s nothing at first other than Mortimer’s conscious that keeps him from going – until he finds a body hidden in his aunts’ window seats, shifting the focus to getting brother “Teddy Roosevelt” Brewster, who he believes responsible, consigned to a sanitarium.  But once brother Jonathan arrives, he who is also a murderer and looking to stash his own body, the focus shifts yet again as Mortimer is subsequently drawn deeper into the mounting complications stemming from a growing cast and, much like the other films, their own distinctive perspective, set of values and beliefs that tend to clash with one another.

As one might imagine, an uninformed reader sitting down to read a farce may find it confusing with so many characters to set up – something by today’s standards would leave many wondering “who is this story about?”  Furthering the complication from that perspective is the seemingly shifting nature of what the goal actually is and the farce’s tendency to follow its own course of story logic (it’s been said writers are allowed one coincidence per script…but farces are inherently dependent on them).  Sure, there’s still three (or four, depending on whom you ask) acts in many cases – Tootsie providing a strong argument for this overall structure, but the misperception of lack of structure stemming from pursuing a strong story goal comes from the preconceived notion that every story fits into some particular formula to begin with.  In that regard, it’s a bit silly to criticize a work that’s accomplished what it set out to deliberately do.

Simply put, pages have to be devoted to each of these characters and their identities which means laying out the beats for their motivations, desires, attitudes and beliefs which – as noted numerous times before – results in their world view/schema that, in turn, dictates their actions, reactions and behaviors, elements which make the reaction to a scene more important to the audience than the action (something discussed at  length here.)

As such, a writer is forced to build all this around some kind of framework or theme in the most expedient and efficient means possible.  Sydney Pollack once stated in an interview that the challenge with Tootsie was setting Michael alone up within the first eight minutes so that the audience believed he was not only a great actor capable of playing a woman, but unemployable as well.  With this and the notion we’re supposed to be laughing at what otherwise might as well be a tragedy to the characters themselves, the laughs tend to come fast as the writer attempts to pull all the right strings at the right time to keep the story moving along at a clip that continually introduces complications on top of complications – most stemming from the power of perspective – as the author does double duty, pulling the strings of both character and plot to a degree John Mortimer once stated farce as being “[a] tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute.”

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Setting as an extension of your main character’s mind.

“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”  – Eudora Welty

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Her’s Theodore Twombley, feeling cold and lonely when his relationship with Samantha, the operating system he’s fallen in love with, takes an unexpected turn.

We as writers all know that setting is one of the main literary components to storytelling, providing a specific time and place to give the story itself some form of context.  It’s also well known that, in certain circumstances, the setting can become a character in and of itself – 12 rooms, 12 vacancies anybody?  In other cases, a story’s setting can provide a dichotomy of contrasts for rich exploration such as a troubled, but poor genius working as a janitor at one of the most prestigious technical institutes in the world who’s smarter than the professors teaching there (Good Will Hunting.)  But there’s another element to setting that often goes unnoticed – and subsequently unused – by many writers: setting as an extension of the main character’s mind, or more specifically, as a representation of their inner conflicts and struggles.

In a previous discussion regarding The Shawshank Redemption, it was discussed how the world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations.  The dark, cold place is a reflection of Red’s worldview with regard to the theme, but also a mirror to his personal problem of conformity.  By conforming to the system in an attempt at some form of self-preservation, Red has given up any semblance of his authentic-self.  He, in essence, has become a prisoner in both mind, body and spirit – problems that continue to not only exist, but magnify, once he’s plopped down into a different setting altogether: the free world.  As a result, the prison – albeit a very real setting – acts as a metaphor for something larger than just physical imprisonment that Red must overcome.

In every scene that there is a ray of light, of hope, metaphorically or otherwise, it’s due to Andy’s presence.  It’s these sepia-toned moments – and their settings, drinking suds on the rooftop or “missing one’s friend” that clash and contrast with the bleakness of the daily prison existence, heightening Red’s inner conflict between the safety of institutionalism he’s come to know vs. the uncertainty of freedom he’s come to admire through Andy:

 

Christopher Nolan took the notion of imprisonment and made it both figurative and literal in his mind-bending film Inception, trapping his main character Dom Cobb inside his own dreams.  Physically, Cobb is a prisoner in the sense that he’s barred from seeing his children in the United States because of a murder charge – but it’s much more complicated in that he’s also prisoner to his feelings of guilt and the role he played in his wife’s death which results in his subconscious having a big impact on the story’s numerous settings.  The clip where Cobb explains the machinations of the setting to Ariadne below  exemplifies the very nature of the setting as an extension of one’s mind:

 

The world Cobb and Mal created together in the past from shared memories has turned into a crumbling sea-side paradise in the present representing their state of decay in his mind as he’s built a prison of memories to keep her locked away in.  Ariadne questions this, asking Cobb if he truly believes it will contain her – the runaway train Mal and Cobb discussed in their dreams from their time in limbo repeatedly manifests itself in various settings as a reminder of Cobb’s internal struggle:

Cobb:         “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can’t be sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?

Mal:            “Because we’ll be together!

Interestingly enough, the movie – about dreams and memories – opens on a beach and features the deteriorating dreamworld on its shores, giving it not only a sense of time working on physical elements, but spiritual as well (and of course, “Time” is perhaps the most popular track from the Hans Zimmer soundtrack – something that’s also an important element to The Shawshank Redemption.)

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When we wound up on the shore of our own subconscious, we lost sight of what was real.  Limbo became her reality.

Going from limbo to permanently erasing one’s memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also uses its settings to represent its main character’s state of mind – often to unique and hilarious effect – in a movie that seems almost the antithesis of Inception: whereas as Christopher Nolan’s film was about a team creating an idea by infiltrating someone’s dreams, Michel Gondry’s take on Charlie Kaufmann’s original screenplay somewhat inverts the notion by having a team specializing in erasing customer’s memories.  Of course things don’t go as planned and Joel Barrish attempts to hold onto at least one good memory of Clementine, the resulting story just as much a labyrinth of plot and character as Nolan’s Inception.

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There’s something about trains and beaches as a reoccurring motif in some of these movies. Here, Joel Barish’s voice over marries with the bleak February setting in his desire to connect with someone who’s at a distance. “It’s God damn freezing on this beach. Montauk in February. Brilliant, Joel!” If only he could meet someone new…

Opening with Joel heading to the beach in Montauk on a train after having his memories of Clementine erased, the setting is bleak and cold – kind of reminding one why Valentines Day falls in the middle of the grey beast known as February.  The journey compelled by his subconscious and last words of Clementine, “meet me in Montauk,” as he desperately tries to hold onto his remaining memories of her, Joel admits to being in a funk – but not knowing why.  The rest of the film examines how he and Clementine got to where they are in terms of their life together and apart, the setting becoming increasingly more important as it takes on physical attributes of Joel’s memory much like Cobb’s dream world did for him in Inception.

 

Even the smaller moments in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are filled with subtext via the setting.  In one particular scene early on, Clementine goads a wary Joel into having a “honeymoon on ice”.  Joel, trekking like a penguin out onto the ice, laments that he should go back, worried that the ice may break.  Clementine asks, “What if?  Do you really care right now?”  What we don’t realize yet is that Joel’s subconscious is impacting his present: the ice isn’t the only thing he’s worried about breaking and his reaction to the setting with Clementine is a result of having been in a relationship with her previously that left both erasing their memories of one another.

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“It’s not going to crack. Or break, or…it’s so thick.” Relationships often leave one feeling like they’re walking on thin ice…

Though not quite as cerebral in setting as Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spike Jonze’s Her is nevertheless firmly rooted in science fiction and uses its story world to help shape Theodore Twombly’s inner conflict as a writer struggling to move on after a failed marriage.  Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film was also filmed in Shanghai to give it a futuristic, if not altogether alienating feel that helped to establish Theodore’s loneliness.  Whereas a beach in the middle of February with two people at opposite ends of the frame connotes a feeling of disconnect, so too does a man in a stark red coat lost in his melancholy thoughts and flanked by couples.

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A city of high-rises and millions of people, yet no one to connect with.

Theodore is another example of a character imprisoned by his past, unable to let go and move on from his failed marriage. The story’s setting, particularly the technology and surroundings, help to convey the feeling of disconnect he has with others.  From playing video games by himself, calling into a char room service, or his work creating emotional cards for others, Theodore lives in a world that strangely seems to mirror our own with society’s increasingly reliance on technology for communication needs – and much to our own detriment.

Granted, the film’s story is not about technology per se, but about relationships and their inherently complex nature.  Theodore, through Samantha, experiences the ups and downs of a real relationship and the vulnerabilities that come with it (vulnerability being one of the key hurdles to Theodore’s inability to connect).  The story’s settings factor throughout his emotional journey: the sun-drenched scenes on the beach where he walks happily amongst the masses with Samantha in his pocket vs. the stark cold, snowy scene in the mountains when everything starts falling apart both serve as a reflection to what Theodore thinks and, perhaps more importantly, feels.  Despite how their relationship turns out, Theodore is able to grow from it and reconcile with his ex-wife and make an important connection by the end of the film.

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By film’s end, Theodore sits on higher ground with a better view of his world after having finally reached a level of awareness that allows him to be vulnerable and connect – or in this case reconnect – with another damaged soul.

Last but not least – and far removed from science fiction overtones – is Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, black comedy Harold and Maude.  The main character, Harold, is a young man obsessed with death who falls for a 79 year old who’s equally obsessed with life.  Both share an odd passion for attending funerals, but for very different perspectives.  Harold’s infatuation with death causes him to enact any number of pseudo-suicides in an effort to obtain an emotional response from his socially affluent yet emotionally unavailable mother.  As we find out later in the film, it was Harold’s supposed death and bearing witness to his mother’s emotional reaction that seemingly gave him any sense of truly being loved, hence is “reenactments” to garner a similar reaction.

The setting for the film explores some of the counter-culture of its time, perhaps being one of the reasons it became the cult classic it is today.  As one might expect from a character obsessed with death, many of the film’s settings involve funerals and cemeteries – not to mention couch trips to the psychiatrist for Harold – all in an effort to help convey his inner sense of malaise.  Harold is, in essence, to The Shawshank Redemption‘s Red as Maude is to that film’s Andy Dufresne, a character imprisoned by his thoughts who’s drawn to another who provides a counterpoint.

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Though never explicitly referenced, one quick insert shot of Maude’s arm gives us all the information we need in order to understand her perspective. The tattoo itself provides a rich sense of backstory, of time and place – of setting – without the need to go into further details.

Through Maude, the film’s settings take a different context via her attitude, beliefs and actions – all of which Harold finds himself drawn to.  In one memorable scene rich with symbolism, the two discuss flowers and which kind they each would prefer to be.  The contrasting settings – along with their answers – allow us a peek inside each of the inner workings of their minds:

 

Just as Harold falls in love with Maude, she informs him of her intention to die – something briefly hinted at early on – leaving him crestfallen in an ending that’s very reminiscent both tonally and structurally to Her: as with Theodore’s learning to be human and vulnerable through Samantha, so to has Harold with Maude.  Both are faced to make a choice to learn from their painful experiences and losses and to move on – and of course both end up physically, and metaphorically “at a higher level” as a result, Harold peering over the cliff to his destroyed “Jaguearse” below on the shore of the ocean – the motif reappearing once again as a symbol for renewal.

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The last faux-suicide proves It’s better to be up there playing a banjo than down below, crashing amongst the waves.

In each of these instances, the films’ settings not only give its story a strong sense of time and place, but also a reflection and sense of the character’s inner struggles, too.  Some settings, such as those with Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are part of their story’s conceit as they take place directly in the mind itself.  Others, such as The Shawshank Redemption and Harold and Maude, use various settings in a more subtle ways through symbolism and subtext.

Whatever your setting may be for your own story, looking at it as an extension of your main character’s mind, perspective and inner conflict will enable you to more readily find those opportunities for subtext and symbolism, adding another level of richness to your story and making it a more cohesive work.  As Eudora Welty alluded to in the opening quote, make your settings count!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Zen and the art of exorcising bad story analysis.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”   – Ernest Hemingway

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Some writers need this guy on their side.

In a prior article, Cracking A Beautiful Mind’s schizophrenic inciting incident, the distinction between goal and methodology to achieve it was briefly touched upon and how oftentimes one is confused with the other.  Misidentifying the story’s goal – either too broad or too narrow, if not completely – can skewer one’s interpretation of the story as a whole, something that would result in my 10th grade English teacher’s reaction: slamming a book onto the desk to emphasize each word, “No.  NO.  NO!  NOOOO!”  If only the rest of the world had the same English teacher…but I digress.

To borrow an analogy from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – if you want your story to run on all cylinders and perform smoothly, you can’t be a romanticist who’s merely enamored with what’s on the surface and relies on others to perform maintenance when it’s not working properly.  You have to be part classicist and immerse yourself in its underpinnings, its structure and how each piece contributes to the whole – and just like Phaedrus, the narrator in Robert Pirsig’s aforementioned book, you’ll become better adept at diagnosing, and resolving, problems with regards to your own story.  But you’re not going to get there unless, like Phaedrus, you take the time to metaphorically tear the engine apart and rebuild it – or in this case, stories.

A couple of years ago, a discussion with a fellow writer regarding The Exorcist ensued on a popular screenwriting blog.  While we agreed that the main character in the story was Father Karras, the other writer believed the character wasn’t very well executed and that  he was rather inactive towards pursing the story’s goal for most of film.  The goal, as they believed it to be, was to perform an exorcism on Regan.  The problem with this analysis – and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it for this particular story – is that it negates the entire journey for Father Karras’s character which connects his personal problem with the story’s resolution, giving us what William Peter Blatty admitted the story’s “secret message” to be about: faith.

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I’m outta here. This girl, she needs an exorcism – not a priest who’s lost faith. Oh wait a minute, I better go back because a priest rediscovering his faith through the existence of evil is what the story is REALLY about.

It’s one thing to look at a film with a posteriori knowledge, knowing what happens and that an exorcism is required as the solution – it is, after all, called “The Exorcist,” even though it does not actually accomplish the goal.   We need to keep in mind the solution is not readily apparent to the characters in the story, otherwise an exorcist would have been called in early on and saved us from the experiencing the journey toward understanding the problem – particularly through the eyes of the main character, a priest, who himself has lost faith and has become reliant and psychology as a means to resolve problems. In simple terms, we cannot merely say the goal is the solution.  The solution is the act that’s taken to accomplish the goal.

In The Exorcist, the goal is not to perform an exorcism because the characters themselves don’t know what’s wrong with Regan.  As the Dramatica Theory of Story notes, much of a story is dedicated to characters dealing with a particular problem’s symptoms before they can ever address the problem itself.  Much like Phaedrus riding a sputtering motorcycle, a certain level of diagnostics is required – sometimes testing hypothesis to assess and try to ascertain what the true problem is.  What are all the things that might cause an engine to sputter?   This is why in the health care profession, doctors are said to be “practicing” medicine, for they don’t know how to treat an ailment until they know what the underlying problem is for sure – and as we all know, problems often share numerous symptoms but require vastly different treatments.

Likewise, we cannot say the story goal is to find out what’s wrong with Regan, for that’s merely half the battle.  The goal therefore needs to be somewhat specific – yet be the basis for the journey and actions taken pursuant to accomplishing it.  The trick is it needs to be such that it encompasses the main character’s flaw/personal problem in a way that ties their journey thematically to the actions required (plot) to satisfy the story goal.  In this case, “saving Regan” requires not an exorcism at all, but a literal leap of faith on Father Karras’s behalf after being possessed himself  (It should be noted that not all stories end successfully.  Those that result in failure often do so with the intent of showing us how/why via a character’s refusal to change or, in rare cases, making the erroneous decision to do so when he was on the right path all along.)

 

By allowing the story to explore the nature of Regan’s malady, the audience – as well as the main character – are afforded opportunities to see the problem from various perspectives: is it an illness?  Is it psychological?  Is it demonic possession?  All of these are touched upon, forcing Father Karras to confront his own lack of faith after the death of his elderly mother.  The evidence mounts while other explanations are exhausted, leaving Karras with only one choice: to accept it as a demonic possession, which, in turn, as Blatty exclaims in his op-ed, spurs the notion if demons exist, then so too must God. To forgo all these prerequisites would be to strip the story of its meaning – particularly through Father Karras’s struggles – leaving us with a story that sputters along until it stalls on the page with the author (reader or even viewer) kicking dirt, left only to cherish a romanticized view without any inkling how to get it up and running again.

As Pirsig ultimately realizes in his book, both romanticism and classicism are needed – just as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needed both the force and an x-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star.  To become proficient at anything, one must develop their own analytical toolbox – constantly seeking to know details, understand inner workings and master the mechanics – but marrying that knowledge with their creative inspiration and intuition. Sure classicism sounds dull and tedious, much like like motorcycle maintenance itself does, but the notion is applicable to so much more – including writing.  Being a better “story mechanic?”  That was ultimately my English Teacher’s goal for our class despite the methodology (bang bang BANG BANG!) she often applied on our journey to get there.

Posted in Dramatica, Journey, Story Structure, Theme | 3 Comments