Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The First 15 Minutes Project #5: Shortcuts to Sympathy

As I continue to examine the first 15 minutes of various movies and figure out why we fall in love with certain characters, I’ll start breaking out my results. Let’s look at some of the recurring elements of our first four movies:Lessons learned:

  1. Have your character high-five a black person (who may never be seen in the movie again). This was utterly fascinating to me. Even The French Connection, where Doyle’s racism is a major plot point, begins with him being friendly to a group of black kids! What is this shorthand for? First of all “not racist”, obviously, (though in the case of TFC we find out soon enough that we’ve been lied to) but also “cool”, “laid-back”, “friendly”. I think this partly falls into the “what do their friends see in them” category. Given that most white Americans feel a combo of guilt and fear when they encounter a black person, then we assume that a white person who has a laid-back friendship with a black person must have tapped into some hidden something that makes them an alright person.
  2. Show your characters physically exerting themselves right away. This was no surprise to me. Lots of jogging, bicycling, and swimming laps in the first scenes of movies.
  3. Remember Rodney Dangerfield in Back to School? His character runs a big and tall store whose motto is “If you wanna look thin, hang around fat people!” Well it’s beginning to sink in that movies use this trick all the time. If you want to make your hero sympathetic, rather than force them to do actively sympathetic stuff (like cat-saving), simply surround them with exaggerated people who lack the trait you want to highlight. In The 40 Year Old Virgin, they don’t have to make Andy over-the-top nice, they just have to make him nicer than his incredibly profane co-workers (even his older co-worker sagely advises him that “Life isn’t all about butthole pleasures.”)

More to come…


Jillian Schmidt said...

Fascinating series and summary. I was aware that many openings use physical exertion and the underdog effect (though maybe not aware of HOW MANY use them), but the high-fiving of random black people? That's a sneaky trick I'd never really noticed before.

Christine Tyler said...

This is genius.