Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: Telling vs Showing in Raising Arizona

Deviation #1: The movie begins with a massive 10 minute voiceover montage in order to introduce its characters and launch its plot. This is the definition of a showing-not-telling: an undramatized info dump.

The Problem: This should be boring, stultifying and off-putting, denying the audience a chance to decide for ourselves what we think of this world and the characters in it.

Does the Movie Get Away With It? Very much so. Why? The short answer is: for the same reason that the Coens have been able to get away with breaking the rules ever since.
  • It’s so funny it makes you weep. Cage’s monologue is marvelously droll and witty, and the little snippets of what other people say are just as funny.
  • Cage’s performance is mesmerizing. He becomes a star in front of our eyes. Hunter as well. She has a lot to sell here: convincing us, with almost no dialogue, that she, as a cop, will gradually fall in love with a crook over the course of a few bookings, but she beautifully pulls it off.
  • In the same manner as an absurd “shaggy dog story”, the Coens always have an element of audacity: intentionally tapping into our sense of “Movies can’t do this!” in a way that excites us instead of annoying us. This montage, more than anything in their previous feature Blood Simple, establishes the sort of refreshingly-bizarre narrative sprawl that has lasted them throughout their careers.
  • Crucially, there’s only one piece of (fantastic) music used throughout, to let us know that this is all prologue to the story. They’re not dumping the actual story on us, they’re just getting us to the starting line, which is more acceptable. When the music finally ends, we are subtly assured that they’ll start playing by the rules now and dramatizing each scene in real time.
But let’s look at one last problem: in the very first Storyteller’s Rulebook, I talked about how audience are actually willing to have you tell them the plot (which this does in abundance) but they’re far more insistent that you show them who the characters are: Let us hear some dialogue and decide how much we like this guy, stead of being told to like him. As I put it then:
  • In real life, if someone tells me, “I’m a doctor,” I’ll probably believe him. If that doctor then tells me “I’m well-known and well-liked and very honorable,” I get suspicious. I don't want them to tell me that. I’m not going to believe them anyway. The only way I’ll believe that is if they show me. It’s the same way with writing. Audiences don’t mind being told what’s going on, but they’re not going to let you just tell them which characters to like or dislike.
So why, in this case, are we willing to have Hi describe not only the plot but his character as well? Here it’s useful to look at the script. The Coens are famous for their meticulous scripting, and indeed this entire montage appears verbatim in the script …with the exception of one very funny line that was cut:
  • “I was in for writing hot checks which, when businessmen do it, is called an overdraft. I'm not complainin’, mind you; just sayin’ there ain’t no pancake so thin it ain’t got two sides.”
That’s a great line, so why was it cut? Because, in its attempt to make Hi more sympathetic, this line makes him less so. In the final film, we assume that he is going to jail for stick-up work, a more serious crime for which he offers no mitigation, but because he isn’t telling us that he’s not so bad, we’re more likely to reach that conclusion for ourselves.

So while this is clearly an example of telling-not-showing the plot, the Coens made the smart decision to show-not-tell character.

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