Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook #204: Let Us Empathize with the Motivation, But Don’t Force Us to Empathize with the Logic

As I said yesterday, the original screenplay of American Hustle wasn’t just presenting Max (Irving in the re-write) as a flawed hero to feel for, it was aggressively cramming his worldview down our throats.  Thankfully, the rewrite by David O. Russell stepped back for some much needed perspective. One thing that the original really really drove home for me was the bogus appeal of the “I have an idea!” scene.

We all know you should maximize empathy between your audience and your hero, even if its an anti-hero…but what exactly are we empathizing with? One of many things that Russell wisely cut out in his rewrite are scenes where Mel has the brilliant idea to tap into anti-Arab sentiment:

Not only are these types of scenes way too on-the-nose, they put the audience in a rotten position, because they attempt to lead us by the nose until we to come to the same racist logic that the character does.

Let’s go back to Dallas Buyers Club and another benefit of its many leaps forward: What if we we had seen a moment where McConaughey was stumped: “Hmm, I can’t sell these AIDS drugs through my normal channels, hey wait just a second, I just overheard my buddy say that gay guys do a lot of drugs in their clubs…wow, flash of genius: maybe I should start hanging out there and dealing!”

Instead, Dallas Buyers Club and the final version of American Hustle just cut out those scenes, jumping ahead to show McConaughey in those clubs (which makes us roll our eyes at his bigotry and audacity) and showing Bale with his fake arab (ditto).

In both of these movies, we empathize with the characters’ motivation and goals, but we never identify with their bigoted and short-sighted logic. Just skip over the “I have an idea” scenes.  Jump ahead and let us figure out the hero’s next scene in action, then let us decide what we think of it.  This makes the plot and the theme more interesting, because in both cases it’s not leading us by the nose into one predetermined path.


j.s. said...

This feels like stretch for a couple of reasons. First, because the kind of cause and effect relationship that we see in those original pages, where we get to watch a character thinking through his problems -- even if it represents truly unpleasant trains of thought -- is the sort of thing that's usually held up as the hallmark of solid storytelling.

Second, because it would be just as easy to contend that David O. Russell's reason for leaving this sort of scene out of his version actually exemplifies his near total lack of interest with the historical details of ABSCAM, or even with the logic of the plot of his film, rather than any judicious judgment on his part that the characters' racist reasoning ought to be elided.

And lastly but not leastly, because the only other supporting example you offer up is one I've already taken issue with. So DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a humane and empathetic film because it leaves out a hypothetical scene of homophobic thinking out loud? That's an extremely odd thing to praise a film for when it sort of exists in the first place because of a rather serious and foundational erasure of its own two-faced homophobia.

Anonymous said...

JS, I think Matt has a valid point here, but he may not have described the difference clearly enough.

What we're talking about here is observation vs. identification.

A movie that's interested in identification will never skip the "having an idea" sequence. It will probably feature a heroic (or at least praiseworthy) protagonist, and the sequence will probably have musical accompaniment that builds the excitement to give the audience insight into the character's mental state and keep them thinking and feeling the same things as the character. See: almost any Hollywood movie.

Another type of movie is the observational kind. Often (but not always) the protagonist is inscrutable or reprehensible. The filmmaker doesn't heighten the moments of decision making and emotion - it's all taken in with a respectful distance, or skipped. Let's go over the top and imagine a film about Hitler's ascent. Do you create an exciting, breathless montage for the sequence where he comes up with the Final Solution? Yeah, I don't think so. Audiences are highly susceptible to manipulation, but there are lines they won't cross, and lines that filmmakers shouldn't cross either.

Not that it's always a moral issue. In Tootsie, there's no sequence where Dustin Hoffman sees a drag queen and says "hey, wait a minute… what if I dressed up as a woman?" Instead we go straight from learning that his name is burned around town to seeing him doing the full Dorothy. Why? Because it's an observational film, more interested in seeing how its characters behave in various situations than making sure we align ourselves with their logic. See: most films from the 70s. (also it's a great cut!)

Note: I haven't seen American Hustle and probably won't.

Matt Bird said...

I agree with anonymous that "I have an idea" scenes are more problematic in anti-hero movies like AH and DBC than they are in straightforwardly-heroic movies, but I rarely like them in any movie.

That said, I'm sure there are some great examples of such scenes that work that I'm not thinking of. Are there any examples of good "I have an idea" scenes that occur to you?

j.s. said...

Maybe "I have an idea" scenes work better in comedies, where you can make light of the silliness of thinking out loud?

I think there are two issues here that are being confusingly conflated. There's the idea of not spelling everything out, of letting the audience do a little work, of allowing a cut to the next scene to answer questions and provide solutions -- usually a very good thing.

Then there's the other idea and what I take to be the main gist of this post: That thinking with an unpleasant protagonist is especially unpleasant and strains identification. Perhaps, but then why tell that character's story in the first place. If you have to sort of cheat and smooth out the grossest aspects of their personality, then aren't you already looking down on both your characters and your audience?

Idk, Anonymous, if I'm not free to make my Hitler biopic complete with Final Solution lightbulb moment, then I just wouldn't bother at all. If you're not prepared to look Evil in the face down to an almost molecular level of detail, then what are you doing making (or watching) a Hitler biopic? Which is sort of how I feel about in general about some of these whishy-washy awards contenders that desire so desperately to trumpet their so-called authenticity -- but just not so much that it really challenges or scares the audience -- even at the expense of crucial details in the true stories they claim to champion.

Matt Bird said...

I disagree. I think that "I have an idea" scenes are phony, not looking the matter in the face. The point is not to gloss over the icky stuff, it's to make a movie about the characters' (real) actions rather than their (imaginary) ideas.

Hitler's train of thought doesn't really explain his actions: he was a psychopath. Would you really want to make a movie from his warped perspective in which we see how badly he was supposedly treated by the Jews until we decide along with him that the holocaust is a good idea?

If I'm going to watch a Hitler biopic and empathize with him, (which is probably a bad idea, but let's go with it) it's going to be out of pity for how he suffered due to his upbringing, WWI, and his mental illness, leading me to have pity for his warped mind (along with my greater pity for his victims). It's not going to be because his actions now make sense to me.

I guess I once wrote about a "Breaking Bad" scene with a good "I have an idea" moment, where he figures out how to use a wire to escape form the plastic. It can work with short-term physical stuff (Keaton and Chaplin also did it well.)

I'm still trying to think of inoffensive "I have an idea" dialogue scenes. The best I can come up with is in "Milk", when they decide to win people over by going after dog poop. That scene was fine, but it still felt a little clunky.

Anonymous said...

I'm not conflating them, but they are related. Movies that respect the audience's intelligence enough to skip pedestrian beats are far more likely to also allow the audience to maintain a critical distance from the protagonist. Forced identification is the opposite of respect. It says "here's what you're going to think."

That's why it's the wrong path to take with our imaginary Hitler biopic. There's no need to put us inside Hitler's brain to tell his story. Simply observing him acting in a variety of well-chosen situations should tell us everything we need to know without asking us to go through a dramatic cathartic Blake Snyder experience with one of the worst humans of all time.

Not to mention that to suggest the Final Solution emerged from a lightbulb moment is the worst lie a filmmaker could tell. It would be taking something that has deep and varied roots and pretending it all comes down to a generic character beat. That's where so many of those wishy washy award contending true stories go wrong - the phony oversimplified moments of change or realization. Which brings to mind, like, every scene in the shitty Ashton Kutcher Steve Jobs movie. No, I didn't pay to see that!

j.s. said...

Well, my favorite Hitler biopic so far is Sokurov's MOLOCH, wherein we see a Hitler mountain vaca, complete with Eva Braun and other supporting players. And he just seems like the sort of aloof neurotic goof you might imagine. Braun tries to humanize him, but her empathy is ultimately misplaced.

Are you surprised that I actually kind of like your elevator pitch for a Hitler film?

Making a movie entirely from his warped perspective almost seems unnecessary, since he already kind of did that many times over with the help of Leni Riefenstal. But, sure, somebody with the chops of a Scorsese could conceivably pull that off too. Such a film wouldn't be the kind of insidious propaganda you fear, but instead the ultimate horror film. (There's already one kind of like that about the murderous Russian secret police's early purges called THE CHEKIST. Or what about Pasolini's SALO?).

In the end of course nothing "explains" Hitler which is why Errol Morris friend Ron Rosenbaum's book EXPLAINING HITLER is such a fascinating read. Hitler's sort of the ultimate Rorschach test.

I like that BREAKING BAD example, especially because it doesn't rely on dialogue. There are several of those moments in ALL IS LOST. I have one from another film you really need to see, but I'm not going to recommend the film because it's deeply unpleasant and can't be unseen. It's called MICHAEL and it's by Haneke protege Markus Schleinzer.

Psychopaths have their own internal logic, specific to each one. I don't think that dramatizing it necessarily means the audience is susceptible to supporting it. Which is different from saying that I think writers can or should create empathy with a psychopath. Precisely my problem with DEXTER, which has to kind of lie about what a psychopath is.

Just yesterday I heard an awesome WTF interview with Jon Ronson and what he had to say about psychopaths nudged me a little bit. He's working on a new book about public shaming, especially crazy in the Internet Age, where one little thing you say -- like, for instance a Von Trier like expression of empathy with Hitler -- can destroy your reputation. He connected that to his book about psychopaths and said he viewed his longer term project as working toward a more inclusive empathy for all. He recounted a conversation with an prominent expert in the study of psychopathy who, when asked if he felt sorry for any of his patients told him: "They don't care about us. They can't really. So why should we give a shit about them?" A tough position to argue with, but one that Ronson was definitely resistent to accepting.

AD said...

btw, to distinguish myself from other anonymousers, I will now go by AD in future posts.

Elizabeth said...

First, I have never commented but want to say that I am a huge fan. I recommend your blog to all my students, most of whom are writing novels or even memoir.
Second, I love the "how do we write about Hitler" conversation in this context. Makes me think of The Producers, where the irony is, in fact, the pleasure the audience takes in the uplifting musical about Hitler. Says so much more than forcing the actual audience to empathize--and yet we recognize our own silly humanness in the success of "Springtime for Hitler."
Finally, I've been reading about the brain. The brain lights up in one area when it is going to, say, move a finger. Some milliseconds later, the idea is delivered to the conscious mind ("I have an idea!"), and finally, after more milliseconds, the finger moves. The brain plants both the "I have an idea" thought and the movement--the conscious mind thinks that the thought caused the movement, but actually the brain caused both. I think this says something about the problem with "I have an idea!" scenes--they don't convince us they're the cause of the action.

MCP said...

This is really interesting conversation. I completely agree that most "I have an idea" scenes in movies are terrible. I think in general most screenwriters will include them in early drafts for logic purposes (I know I do), but they are definitely a good place to cut. It lets audience members fill in gaps.

I feel these scenes are akin to exposition, which needs to be hidden in arguments or some other masking agent.

Writing novels now (after years of screenplays) I think the "I have an Idea" scenes are way more common and useful and empathetic in books.

The Hitler example is probably a bride too far to examine for me, but I am thinking of Gone Girl (NO SPOILERS) - where a reprehensible character goes through their logic. It is fascinating. I hear they are making a movie and I am guessing they will cut those scenes (unless the filmmakers come up with an interesting way to hide them).

James Kennedy said...

Any love here for Mike Leigh's TOPSY-TURVY? That has an "I have an idea!" scene that worked for me (the samurai sword dropping from the Gilbert's lintel).

J.A. said...

THE BLUES BROTHERS- best "I have an idea" moment ever.

"The Band!"