Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Storyteller's Rulebook: Kid Logic in "Humans of New York"

After yesterday’s heavier material, let’s look at the gentler side of “Humans of New York”: the kids. Once again, what Stanton does seems easy (Kids say the darndest things!) but there’s more going on. Whenever I’ve had to write kid characters, they utterly defeat me, because I can’t resist the natural urge to simply write them as little open-hearted adults. The key to writing kids well is to understand their bizarre logic. Stanton focuses in on this aspect like a laser.

Kids are worried about things that only kids worry about.  Sometimes this causes them to overestimate their challenges...

And sometimes to underestimate them:
And whoops, here we are back in tragedy-ville, because utilizing kid-logic fears can also be a great way of making the horror of a situation feel more real:
Kids have almost all of the same worries and anxieties as adults, but they process them in strange ways. Good kid-character dialogue reflects our own fears (large and small) back at us in a funhouse mirror, allowing us to see anew in a fresh and startling way.


j.s. said...

Another great post. This comment is more of a general one, something that this whole series has me asking: If documentary, even in tiny snippets, can be so great at capturing the whole range of human experience and engendering empathy, what's the point of fiction?

When I think of Ebert's description of the movies as a "machine that generates empathy" my mind goes immediately to some of my favorite fiction films. (Though, of course, Ebert loved documentaries dearly, telling anyone who would listen that GATES OF HEAVEN was his favorite film).

I think especially of a little film like CHOP SHOP (one Ebert championed) about Willets Point in Queens. And of how this documentary/fiction hybrid film is more affecting for me than FOREIGN PARTS, the equally empathetic straight documentary portrait of that neighborhood made around the same time by the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.

I also think of arguments I've had over what kinds of stories ought and ought not to be permitted, are and are not of enduring value to the world. What's the point of dramatizing the suffering of the characters in a film like UNITED 93, COMPLIANCE (based on a real life horror story), THE SACRAMENT (inspired by the Jonestown massacre), MICHAEL (based on no case in particular but strongly reminiscent of many, like the Cleveland kidnappings), SALO (inspired by the entire history of crimes against humanity) or even the underrated Oliver Stone biopic W. (a comedy about how we ended up with 43).

I mean, don't we already _know_ what happened? Because hasn't nonfiction already told us? Aren't there already sufficient non-fiction chronicles of the failures of the Bush presidency, the Jonestown massacre, lurid true crime reports, the endless daily litany of human on human violence?

What's the point of narrativizing, dramatizing these events in a fictional context? Why do I feel like CHOP SHOP is a better movie than FOREIGN PARTS?

J.A. said...

Well, I'd submit that you think CHOP SHOP is a better film than FOREIGN PARTS because it is a better film. It is operating in a different mode, but CHOP SHOP is absolutely at the top of its game for what it's doing, while FOREIGN PARTS is somewhere in the (maybe upper) middle. But how did you feel when you saw that they were making a Cable TV version of GREY GARDENS? Set aside the fact that it starred Drew Barrymore, and I bet it was still disturbing to you, because the original film was so successful in every way. It didn't need dramatization. Imagine a fictional adaptation of SALESMAN. Did you see the TV movie version of HARLAN COUNTY, USA? I sure avoided it.

What can fiction do that documentary can't? I'd say the answer is, first and foremost, it can get at the heart of the story much, much easier. It takes an incredibly skilled, dedicated, and lucky documentary filmmaker to dig down to the real kernel of the story, to tell it in a dramatic and engaging way which makes the viewer feel that they've gotten into the interior space of the characters, and to catch the moments that relate it to the type of theme that's been written about on this blog. And a great documentary filmmaker is thinking about things on that level, not just the level of surface story. Isn't that what Herzog means when he says that he isn't interested in "the accountant's truth?" He wants to get inside the story, to understand it and convey it on a deeper level than the facts and figures of the material events it describes. And he's not the type to sit around for years waiting to catch that perfect moment that will reveal it all, so he sometimes creates it.

CHOP SHOP is so fantastic because it manages to capture what seems to be impossible verisimilitude in both place and character using non-professional actors, but still has a dramatic, compelling narrative at its core that is perfectly laid out for us, structured with a familiar arc, and feels impossibly intimate, showing us character detail that seems scripted and undeniably real at the same time. Thats tough for fiction, and even more so for non-fiction, whose authors, as Matt says, "must remember that everyone has some personal detail that will earn our empathy, if only we can find it." And that "if only" is not always attainable, never guaranteed, and never fully in the author's control.

I'm a documentary fanatic, but actually I'd reluctantly say most documentaries are pretty bad storytelling. Very few documentary filmmakers (if you take the entire spectrum into consideration) take enough care with story and character to touch the viewer more than a basic magazine article does, or at least don't have the time or resources to catch the moments that can make it happen. But when it does happen it's transcendent and magical, and feels like some kind of unmediated truth, even though that's a complete illusion.

I love Humans Of New York, but it's character snapshots. They are fantastic and sometimes very revealing, but don't have the element of time... And that's usually where things get really complicated.

Matt Bird said...

Certainly a great documentary is rarely improved by turning it into a feature (Clooney is making a feature out of "Our Brand is Crisis" but I doubt it'll improve on the amazing doc)

On the other hand, David Simon could have contented himself with his excellent non-fiction books "Homicide" and "The Corner", but instead he decide to create "Homicide" the TV series, a miniseries of "The Corner", and ultimately "The Wire", which is the culmination of all four. In that case, I'm glad that he chose to create a dramatized version of his books. He found even more meaning, and ultimately even more truth, by fictionalizing his journalism.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

Kid logic is a riot to behold. The operating principal of "they're not stupid, they just don't have a lot of facts in hand yet" is key to understanding it.

My four year old spouts a great many batshit things every day, but when you consider what she has seen of the world and how appears to her, most of what she says makes sense. For example, if you look at the sky from a moving car and your head is mostly clear of pre-existing ideas, yeah, it is logical to declare that the moon is chasing you.

This creates odd moments when you have an adult who has experience but is fundamentally a dullard alongside a young child who has little knowledge of the world but is fundamentally smart. That's a hell of a dynamic to watch.

j.s. said...

I love David Simon's fiction work too. But when it comes to the details of the world, like, say, the opening scene of THE WIRE (which is lifted almost verbatim from his nonfiction book HOMICIDE), they are pretty difficult to distinguish.

I suppose what I was after is something a little closer to what J.A. suggests, that fiction can more easily get to the heart of a story, because incisively written fictional narratives don't have to wait for someone to say or do that thing that reveals who they are. Fiction doesn't have to get lucky and be there at just the right moment. And fiction is uniquely positioned to deal with longer time periods and with inarticulate characters.

On a very good day, perhaps, a "Humans of New York" profile of Jake La Motta or, say, the fast food manager in COMPLIANCE might have gotten some telling little tidbit. But there's simply no way that even the best documentarians could get inside the heads of these characters the way that a fictional narrative can.

And that's where fiction's empathy advantage becomes most clear to me.

Beyond that, though, I do think there's also a very ancient, primal, collective urge to work through our stuff by staging and re-staging it, but abstracting, fictionalizing and dramatizing real-life events. Sometimes I'll get into disagreements with friends about films like COMPLIANCE or THE SACRAMENT or UNITED 93 and the best answer I have to "What's the point of dramatizing this?" is "Dramatizing it is precisely the point." Because we're able to see the characters making choices, step by step, to create a theory of their minds, in a way that a nonfiction account wouldn't allow.