Violence, Writing & Postville

April 25, 2011

The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine has an excellent article called “Spilling Blood: The Art of Writing Violence” that as of this post hasn’t been reprinted online, but hopefully will be some time in the near future. The article addresses the role that violence plays in literature, defending its use, particularly anti-violence — the parts that we don’t see — as being most powerful in stretching our imaginations. One of the best examples used is the shower scene in Psycho,

shot over seven days and featuring seventy-seven camera angles and fifty cuts. Almost every shot is a close-up, each of them flashing on screen for the briefest moment, giving us a shutter-speed collage of horror. A screaming mouth. An outstretched hand. A bulging eye. Knife, knife, knife. You imagine you see the murder, but not once during these three minutes do we actually witness skin penetrated, an artery severed, a blade catching against a rbb–nothing that we would have observed had the scene been shown continuously or at a wider angle.

Hitchcock described this as “transferring the menace from the screen into the mind of the audience.” And isn’t that your goal? To make an audience feel? To turn the bystander into an accomplice? Hitchcock makes this possible by supplying minute particles, never showing us everything, only glimpses that anchor the moment and allow us to fill in the rest of the nightmare.

The article’s authors also describe examples of counterpoint within a story itself–where one scene depicts the violence in two pages of gruesome detail, where another is completely understated–and the effect that has on us, the readers.

One of the best lessons I learned in college was in one session of a playwrighting class. The TA had us each write the most offensive scene we could think of, and then we read them out loud. At first, we were all laughing. After ten or fifteen minutes, we were all sick. It wasn’t funny anymore. It was just grotesque. I learned that while there’s nothing wrong with including offensive material in your work, you want to be conscious of how you’re doing it, what effect you’re going for, and how you’re providing it. Is your goal to glorify and anesthetize, as in Natural Born Killers? To sadden, as in The Hurt Locker? To horrify, as in Se7en? To titillate, as in Silence of the Lambs? Each of these requires a different approach, a different treatment, and it requires a respect far beyond what is allowed by traditional “torture porn” with its buckets of corn syrup.

A month ago I wrote on this blog about the reading of Postville that I had, and I mentioned that “People argued over whether or not I should keep the scene showing the workings of the meat packing plant, because it was so graphic and visceral, it took them a while to get back into the story.” After 40 pages of comedy, right here is this scene of graphic violence: two pages of description that walk the audience through the slaughter ritual, describing the cows being funneled to their doom, manure everywhere, knife across the throat, the blood spewing out in the arc, and so on.

My intention here was to ask the question “Who is the hero and who is the villain?”; to juxtapose the cruel with the humane, the comedy with the drama. People have said the funneling the animals to slaughter reminded them of the holocaust, of Jews in concentration camps, with the corresponding irony that in this case the Jews are doing the slaughter. That symbolism was unintentional, although if art is about the viewer’s experience, I’m certainly happy to leave people with that one.

But whether or not a director will choose to depict this scene as graphically as I have is anyone’s guess. After all, does the depiction actually serve the story and the art, or does it take you out, as it did for this one reader? The authors of the PW article point out that if it takes you out of the story, then it’s not leaving you with an emotion, which is kind of the whole point of telling a story. They also point out that the violence must be earned — if “husband walks in on his wife in bed with another man” gets one paragraph, do we care about him, or his wife, or her lover when “torturing and killing wife’s lover” gets 15 pages? Which leaves me wondering whether I’ve earned the violence here in Postville. Another point: would it be more disturbing, as in Psycho not to show the violence than to show it? I generally feel no: my biggest problem with The Dark Knight was that they cut away and let us “imagine” the Joker slicing open that guy’s mouth, no doubt a casualty of the PG-13 rating; whereas my favorite moment was the first time we see Two Face, in all his glory. I think the graphic violence does leave us with a strong emotion, the question is whether that’s the emotion we want to leave you with.

It’s something I’ll have to consider as I’m working on Postville. But regardless, check out that article from PW when you can, and make sure all your violence — and the rest of your obscenities — are well founded.

Thoughts on The Cape

January 18, 2011

Many years ago, I was walking between my then-girlfriend’s condo and the grocery store across the street, and I thought, “It’s high time we had a Batman TV show.” This was some time between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, so in my daydreams I pictured myself writing the pilot, running the show, and even playing The Joker. For many months, anytime I walked that route I would dream the same dream, as I probably would now if I had occasion to walk the same route.

Then, two weekends ago, I was watching TV and saw an ad for The Cape. I told my now-wife about it, describing it as, “Well, it looks like someone said, ‘Well, we couldn’t get the rights to Batman, so we’ll do this instead.” On a highly anticipated Sunday night, we watched the premier.

My thoughts: meh. In fact, it was so meh that I barely thought about the fact that the next episode would be showing last night. I happened to switch to the show about halfway through, but found it only barely more tolerable than the increasingly obtuse Lie to Me, so I switched it off after about ten or fifteen minutes.

My biggest problem with the show is that it doesn’t seem to know what it’s supposed to be. Mostly it has this brooding tone to it, but then it sticks in these moments of comic relief that come out of left field. “I’m the Cape.” “But you’re not wearing a cape.” “I’m aware of that.” Funny, but out of place. I have no problem with moments of humor in an otherwise serious script, but it has to fit what’s gone before it. Alley McBeal, The West Wing, Grey’s Anatomy as a rule all do (or did) a great job of mixing humor into serious situations. But this is more like a writer from Family Guy came in to punch up Monster’s Ball. It doesn’t exactly work.

Aside from that, it’s excessively melodramatic. The few moments I watched last night included the hero’s son reading a comic book out loud to himself (who does that? really?) and a poker game in which the players, with eyes growing ever wider, talk about the person they’ve seen wearing this so-called cape. As we approach the climax, one of them says, “He doesn’t kill people — he’s a HERO!” which would’ve been just a crappy line of dialogue if the actor hadn’t said it like a middle schooler in a production of The Wizard of Oz.

Shame. We could use a good superhero story on TV. This won’t be it, though. Ratings show that The Cape posted 6.2 million viewers last night, down a whopping 31% from its 2-hour premier 8 days earlier. Numbers like that don’t get you picked up for a second season. My prediction: canceled before the fifth episode airs.

Drama: The Absence of Action or Results

March 18, 2009

There’s a personal development program I participate in, and as part of that, I was today looking at my most recent “training issue” and the structures I’m putting in place to have a breakthrough around that.

My most recent training issue is Give up drama and arrogance.

On reflection, I find this very interesting.  I am a very dramatic person.  It makes perfect sense.  I grew up as an actor, I’m now a writer, and so for most of my life I’ve been trained in how to add drama to everything I do.  It’s a strong suit; being dramatic is, in a sense, what I rely on to produce results.

The irony is that for me, as with most people, my strengths and weaknesses are very closely related, and this area is no exception.  Because the way this translates into life is it’s all about me and how difficult it all is and how I’m suffering and failing and as I look at all of that, whether it’s around work or relationships or my marriage or cleaning my effing house, it’s all kind of silly and gross.

So now that I’ve distinguished it I can be responsible for it, and I can be dramatic where it serves me (in my writing or performing) and I can give up the drama where it doesn’t.

Where it starts to get even more interesting is when I started to look at the structures to put in place around giving up the drama.  What everyone keeps telling me is that I’m addicted to insights, and that I need to stop “seeing things” and start doing and being in action.  Which led me to the following structure for having a breakthrough: “…instead of looking for insights and talking about it, I am getting into action. Being in action in all areas of my life is an access to giving up the drama, since drama only exists in the absence of action or results.”

Let’s look at that last sentence again: Drama only exists in the absence of action or results.

I’ve long been revering McKee for his insight that story exists in the gap between expectation and result, and I think I’m on to something else here, too.  Because where drama occurs in a film or a book is in those moments when there is no action or when results are not being produced.

Think about it.  When are the “dramatic” moments of a film?  It’s not when someone’s blowing up a car or getting chased down an alley, it’s when there’s a pause in the action; when people are talking to each other about themselves or others.  The drama in The Dark Knight occurs when Bruce Wayne is sitting in the penthouse saying, “She was gonna wait for me, Alfred,” or when Alfred tells him “Some people just want to watch the world burn.”  Crashing into a skyscraper in Hong Kong and then returning to the plane while it’s in mid-flight isn’t dramatic, it’s just cool.

To take it a step further, there’s a whole genre of movies called “drama.”  These are the movies that come out in the fall, and are the ones that win Oscars because they’re deep and moving and meaningful, but when you look at the plot of these movies, typically speaking, not a lot happens.  The Shawshank Redemption is not a high concept flick filled with people doing stuff or producing results.   It’s a story about what happens to our hero between the decisions he makes.   The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is clearly dramatic, but when you talk about that movie, you’re not talking about the things he  does.  In Star Wars on the other hand, you do talk about the things they do – blowing up the Death Star or using the Force.  Where’s the drama?  “No, I am your father …”

Which means that if you’re looking to create drama, have the characters slow down and talk.  Have them fail to produce the desired results (save Rachel Dawes’ life, kill Darth Vader, get a new trial based on Tommy’s testimony). And if you’re not looking for drama, then don’t – have them be in action and actually causing something and producing results.

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