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.


Story, Plot & The King and I

December 3, 2008

I watch a lot of movies.  This is one of the great joys of being a freelance writer and a screenwriter; I get to watch movies whenever I want, and write it off as “research.”  And trust me, I take advantage of this opportunity.

My wife is a great movie partner, by the way.  We go see action flicks together all the time, I managed to talk her into Tropic Thunder – which she loved, and she stood in line for hours to see The Dark Knight in IMAX on opening night.

But a look at our DVD collections might tell you differently.  I tend to buy “modern marvels” – new movies that are tremendously unique and, to me, powerful: High Fidelity, Being John Malcovich, Adaptation, and Natural Born Killers.  Her collection, on the other hand, tends to focus more on films like Elizabeth, Pride & Prejudice, and the complete Rodgers & Hammerstein collection.

Moulin Rouge and Amelie made both of our collections.

We’re still in the process of moving in together, so this difference has become somewhat glaring as we combined and organized our collections this week.  But I’ve missed a lot of classics growing up so we decided to pop in The King and I for our Monday and Tuesday evening viewing.  I felt like it would’ve been better if it hadn’t been a musical, or if it had starred Jodi Foster instead of Deborah Kerr.

In all seriousness, I saw Anna and the King in the theater when it came out, and though I liked it, the only thing I remember 9 years later is a line where Jodi Foster is talking about how she’s falling for the king (or something), and “the way he looks at me, I feel like …” and then the person interrupts her and says, “One of his twenty-three wives or forty-two concubines?”

The thing I loved about The King and I is the fact that the love story between the two leads occurs purely in the subtext.  He is in love with her, and she with him, but to say that would cheapen their entire relationship.  It’s that undercurrent – that their relationship is so clearly different to any of his other relationships – that drives the entire film, but they both know that they could not be married, that it’s antithetical to either of their cultural beliefs.  The fact that their remorse of this is internalized, rather than externalized, is what makes it so amazing to watch.

To compare it to a more extreme example, Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs have the same problem – there is clearly something there, whether it’s sexual tension or some kind of emotional connection, but it’s clearly something that will never, ever be stated out loud.  Can you imagine how awful that would be, if they’d actually spoken that intimacy?  “You frighten me, Dr. Lecter, but there’s something powerful about you that I find intriguing.  It’s almost as if, under different circumstances, we could be together.”  Yuck.  Instead, it was internalized and made for tantalizing viewing.

Something to realize is that both of these movies featured Oscar-winning performances.  Although I, as a writer, would love to be able to give the writers all the credit for their brilliant work in creating these scripts, I don’t think that can discount the powerful impact of the actors and actresses who portrayed them.  Subtext is a difficult thing to write, but it may be an even harder thing to perform, and for that I can’t express enough gratitude to Yul Brynner, Deborah Kerr, Anthony Hopkins, and Jodi Foster.

There’s one other thing I noticed about The King and I, which is the extent to which the story takes its time.  Though there is a very clear plot, the focus isn’t there – it’s on the relationships.  This a theme that’s been recurring a lot for me recently.  I’m been taking improv classes, and one of the recurring lessons of this particular school is that if you focus on the characters and their relationships, the story will take care of itself.  I’m not sure how much I’ve liked this approach – I’m a very story-oriented kind of guy – but I’ve been taking the coaching and applying it.  It’s also something I’ve been criticizing my dad’s most recent play for.  Though it’s an excellent play, and far and away the best thing he’s ever done, I feel as though, as the play progresses, the focus turns away from the relationships and toward the driving points of the plot.  As a result, the third act ends very quickly and the theme and character arcs get lost.

This is what makes The King and I so amazing.  We spend fifteen or twenty minutes, toward the top of Act II, on the play within the play (a 1950s film interpretation of a 19th century Siamese theatrical interpretation of a 19th century American novel – brilliant!).  While it progresses the plot in a few ways, the elements of it that progress the plot don’t need fifteen minutes to be executed.  More importantly, it’s a huge thematic moment: it’s an opportunity for the king to be proud of Anna and of his country, and for Anna to be proud of her students and her work; we see awe and magic; the recurring theme of refusal versus acceptance of that with which we are unfamiliar; the struggle between power and subordination, king and subject, master and slave; and we see extraordinary beauty.

Why the play-within-the-play in Midsummer Night’s DreamHamlet?  Why is Les Miserables three hours long?  Why, in Waiting for Godot, do we watch our heroes do absolutely nothing … twice?  The answer to all these questions is the same: because the story happens not in the plot, but in the relationships and the thematic moments in between.


Thinking Through the Stakes

October 28, 2008

I read in Save the Cat! today that your needs to have something at stake, and what’s at stake needs to be primal – that is, something connected to survival or reproduction.  He offers a number of “example ideas,” one of them being a company retreat in which people suddenly start getting murdered, as a means toward “downsizing” the company.  He says that this is more compelling than playing pranks, which I guess, in this example, is true.

Naturally, I began looking at Charisma, and started asking questions about the stakes that my character has.  The second act is about Charisma getting out of jail (or rather, getting acquitted) for a crime she didn’t commit – a primal stake, to be sure.  We can all relate to a character in that situation, because if we were in jail for a crime we didn’t commit, we’d want the same thing.

But I’m afraid the stakes after that are a little weak – she tries to convince teachers to change her grades so she can stay in school.  Much less compelling, in comparison to the drama that preceded it.  Ultimately, this will prove to be a fruitful exercise and the villain will put her life (literally) on the line, which gets us back to the primal stakes (which have been appropriately raised), but I’m wondering whether this second half of the second act is too much of a back-pedal from what happened before it.  Should this portion come earlier, maybe, so the stakes are raising linearly, rather than going up and down?  Or is that dip a necessary component to the drama – it’s the valleys that make the hardest mountains to climb.

I’ve wondered before whether Snyder’s goals aren’t a little different from my own.  And besides, how much can you trust his advice – according to IMDb he’s only had two movies made, one of which one a Razzie award for “Worst Screenplay,” and though he’s surely doctored dozens of others, that’s not exactly a gleaming resume.  Maybe his attachment to the formula is part of the problem.

So I started looking at other movies for the hero’s primal urge.  Movies I’m intimately familiar with that are also highly revered screenplays.

Aladdin – At the start, he just cares about finding food (survival) and getting the girl (reproduction).  When he gets out of the cave, there is no more immediate threat to his survival, so he turns to reproduction, asking the genie for something that will get him the girl.  Then he gets the girl … and gets captured, escapes … and realizes he needs to tell the truth to get the girl, gets ready to tell the truth … and then Jafar comes back, and he has to both survive and get Jasmine back.  It’s an exhausting zig-zag of attention, but it’s important, because when we’re focusing on one, the other is always in the background waiting to rear its ugly head.  The triumph of one always leads to the fall of the other, until the very end of the movie.  So there’s lesson #1 – intentions can play off each other, as long as they climax simultaneously.

The Shawshank Redemption – Physical survival and escape from prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  Sounds familiar.  The physical threat of death dissipates very quickly, but the theme is more about  emotional survival, and those stakes continue to get heightened.  Lesson #2 – the survival doesn’t have to be physical, as long as the theme is consistent with that.

The Usual Suspects – Verbal is the hero, and he’s constantly trying to “survive” and “make it in the big world.”  Lesson #3 – the survival can look like “making it,” as in “being successful” or “being famous.”  The character would have to be someone who associates riches with survival, subconsciously if nothing else. Of course, this theme kind of turns on its head with the twist, but that doesn’t change the fundamental lesson at all.

The Silence of the Lambs – In all the interactions between Hannibal and Clarice there’s the sense of personal threat, as well as a hint of sexual tension.  Of course, the sex will never be consummated, and Clarice says toward the end that he wouldn’t come after her, because, “He’d consider it rude,” but by that point it doesn’t matter because it’s not about her physical safety, it’s about saving someone’s life.  So there’s lesson #4 – the survival doesn’t necessarily have to be the hero’s own – if her interest is in saving someone else.  We simply must be made to care about that someone else, and our sympathies then move with the hero, whose job is to save that person.

Of course, all of these films carry something in common that we haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the subtleties that make a good movie great.  The Usual Suspects was good, but those last five minutes made it the 21st best movie of all time, according to IMDb.  The Silence of the Lambs was an outstanding screenplay, only made better by a pair of brilliant performances by our two stars – at every interaction between the two characters there’s a physical threat, but over time we realize that the threat is more internal than external – that he’s inside her head, and also inside ours. At every moment there’s a tantalizing sexuality there that just can’t be explained.

So here’s lesson #5: It’s all in the subtext.  In the greatest movies ever made, the quality lies in what wasn’t said on screen.  What the characters weren’t saying when they talked to each other.  What we go away thinking about when we’re done.

And lesson #6: The urge to write a successful screenplay is primal.


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