Wednesday, April 06, 2016

The Great Purge, Day 5: Do the characters listen poorly?

Thanks for your help in deciding if these questions should remain in the checklist!

On trial: Do the characters listen poorly?

Why it was added: This is a tricky one. I, personally, love scenes where neither character is listening to others, but my brother says that this is because I, personally, don’t listen to what others are saying. This is possible. Regular reader James Kennedy raised an objection to this one, pointing out that improv teachers teach actors to always listen closely to the other character in order to act better. So which is it?

How do the checklist movies answer this question?
  • Alien: Yes, they all keep ignoring each other’s concerns.
  • An Education: Yes.
  • The Babadook: Yes. Davis has a great “not really listening” face.
  • Blazing Saddles: Not really.
  • Blue Velvet: They’re fairly good listeners.
  • The Bourne Identity: Not really, they’re pretty good listeners
  • Bridesmaids: Lillian doesn’t hear that Annie doesn’t want to do it, etc.
  • Casablanca: Yes. Rick keeps asking Sam for advice and then failing to hear it.
  • Donnie Brasco: Yes.
  • Do the Right Thing: Very much so.
  • The Fighter: Very much so.
  • The Fugitive: Very much so.
  • Groundhog Day: Yes.
  • How to Train Your Dragon: Very much so.
  • In a Lonely Place: Very much so.
  • Iron Man: Very much so. Tony never listens, period.
  • Raising Arizona: Yes.
  • Rushmore: Yes.
  • The Shining: Yes, very much so.
  • Sideways: Very much so.
  • Silence of the Lambs: Sort of, Clarice and Lecter both listen very well, but that’s key to their characters, so it’s fine.
  • Star Wars: Owen and Luke talk past each other, nobody listens to Threepio, etc. 
  • Sunset Boulevard: Very much so. He and Norma never seem to hear a thing the other says.
Deliberations: All but three answer yes, and for many it’s enthusiastic (but for the three that don’t, it’s not a problem.) Obviously, I find this to be important, but is it possible that I’m wrong. If I cut it, is it implied anyway by the surrounding questions?

The verdict: Combine with the following questions to become “Do the characters listen poorly and/or interrupt each other more often than not?”? And/or is there a better way to rephrase it to eliminate James’s objection? What say you: Does listening generally help or hurt a scene/story/perfomance?


Mark said...

I started to agree with your last thought of combining the "interrupt" and "listen poorly" questions, but the more I think about it, the more I think you should drop this one entirely. I don't really see "listening poorly" as an essential element of a good character - it should be a choice based on their personality.

As your "no" answers show - it doesn't hurt those characters. And also, I'm not sure all of your "yes" answers are correct. Some of those characters listen fine, but make the decision not to take advice. In particular, I think your answers are strained on Casablanca, Star Wars, and Alien.

Brian Malbon said...

I don't think this one is really that important unless you're ginning up conflict. I don't have the checklist in front of me, bit I'm pretty sure there's a question that asks "is there a strong interpersonal conflict to you along with the physical conflict?" Or something to that effect. It seems to me that if you're creating a strong interpersonal conflict your characters will listen, or not listen, as the scene demands. For every situation where not listening would work better I can think of an equal number where the characters paying perfect attention to one another works better. Even in a comedy - the Simpsons got a lot of mileage out of Homer completely ignoring everything anybody said to him, but then think of all the comedies where the humor all comes from the fast-paced banter of two people listening perfectly to one another and having the best possible response?

If it's more a personal preference than a rule, I'd say cut it.

James Kennedy said...

Thanks for the name-check on this one!

This bit of advice definitely must be axed. In fact, it's almost the precise opposite of the truth.

A character prioritizing their own wants over their interlocutor's, and thus selfishly/stupidly/cluelessly interpreting everything their interlocutor says in light of what they want? That's great! But that's not "not-listening." A lot of the examples you cite don't ring true, and I agree with Mark that many of them are strained.

As for STAR WARS, just because nobody listens much to one character, C3P0, doesn't mean you've derived a general rule! And while Luke and Uncle Owen might be disagreeing with each other, they're definitely listening to each other, because each line pivots knowingly/ingeniously off the previous. ("I was going to go down to Tosche station to pick up some power converters" followed by "You can waste time with your friends later" -- Uncle Owen knows EXACTLY what "Tosche station" means, and he knows Luke knows he knows -- they are definitely people who have listened closely to each other, even if they don't UNDERSTAND each other as people, their priorities and personalities.)

At best, "not-listening" is ONE way to structure character interaction in a scene. But if it's the only way you use, then it's going to get old super quick. Sometimes characters might listen, or not listen, based on what the scene needs, and what the character needs.

I'm genuinely baffled that you list RUSHMORE as one of the movies where "characters don't listen to each other," because those characters listen to each other INTENSELY, and constantly use what was in their interlocutor's last line to advance their argument/interests. Watch this scene and tell me they're not all LISTENING to each other, REACTING, and rapidly USING what the others say: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qKuAl1QvuI8

In my next comment, I will break down that scene to show what I mean...

James Kennedy said...

OK, here's the breakdown of the scene from RUSHMORE at dinner with Blume, Flynn, Max, and Rosemary, to show that RUSHMORE is the kind of movie where everyone is listening to each other -- and such listening makes for great scenework and dialogue:

I like your nurse's uniform, guy.

DR. FLYNN [can obviously detect the condescension from this teenager, moves to put him in his place.]
These are O.R. scrubs.

MAX [only by listening carefully to DR. FLYNN'S words can he pivot off them to do this meretricious wordplay.]
Oh, are they?

[BLUME, listening in the same way one might gaze at a car crash, can hardly believe what's happening, both mortified and kind of delighted, nearly does a spit take.]

[ROSEMARY hears and does not approve of either MAX's transgression or BLUME's kinda-sorta appreciation of it. She's alive socially to everything that is happening at the table, she's listening!]

MAX [encouraged by BLUME's reaction, which he takes as acknowledgment of his superior wit, and not his social cluelessness, addresses FLYNN]
*Well,* they're totally inappropriate for the occasion.

DR. FLYNN [echoes the last thing MAX said by also prefacing it with "Well."]
*Well,* I didn't know we were going to dinner.

MAX [listening carefully, he finds and uses the opening of FLYNN's admission "I didn't know we were going to dinner" to cast DR. FLYNN as an outsider to their group]
That's because you weren't invited.

[MAX is staring right at ROSEMARY when he says this. The line is meant for ROSEMARY, not FLYNN, even though it is addressed to FLYNN. We see ROSEMARY hear this. She doesn't speak, but her eyes say it all: You are going over the line, Max Fisher.]

BLUME [listening closely, he now detects that it has gone beyond amusing brattiness into a real social catastrophe]
Take it easy, Max.

ROSEMARY CROSS [listening, she sees that BLUME's is trying to position himself as the responsible adult with that last comment, but BLUME is not entitled to that role because he got MAX drunk. She's not going to let BLUME off the hook]
You were the one who ordered him a whiskey and soda.

[BLUME looks sheepish. He's heard her point, and reacted to it. He acknowledges that she's right.]

MAX [even though ROSEMARY'S aside was meant for BLUME, the careful listener MAX catches it, realizes that ROSEMARY's aside implies he is drunk and making a fool of himself and being socially offensive, so he defends himself to ROSEMARY by reminding everyone of his earlier triumph]
So what's wrong with that? I can write a hit play, why can't I have a little drink to unwind myself. [now addresses himself to FLYNN] So tell me Curly, how do you know Miss Cross?

FLYNN [baffled at the cheek of this kid, a bit irritated, but fundamentally unruffled]
We went to Harvard together.

MAX [He hears that FLYNN has gone to the top school in the country, AND has a previous relationship with ROSEMARY that predates himself! FLYNN is a doctor who went to Harvard! Listening to this, MAX realizes he needs to claw his way back to the top of the pecking order that he occupied for one delirious moment when he said "Oh, are they?", and prove that he is a man of achievement too.]
Oh that's great. I wrote a hit play and directed it, so I'm not sweating it either.

BLUME [having listened to enough, realizes it's completely gone off the rails, tries to terminate the whole thing]
Can we get a check please?


The only way that scene works -- and it's a great scene -- is because everyone is intensely listening to each other and reacting. You know the old actor's adage, "Acting is reacting?" If your characters aren't listening to each other, they can't react!

Ax this bit of advice. I've always felt ill at ease with it. And on consideration, I think it's the opposite of the truth.

Matt Bird said...

Mark: You're right, it was a stretch with those three.

James: Very impressive work. You've proven your point. The question will just be taken out entirely.

There's no better example of "acting is reacting" than that show "The Blacklist". I only watched the first half of the first season, but before I stopped watching I noticed something: the actress could hold her own in scenes with Spader when she was actually saying her lines, but whenever we would see them listening to *each other's* lines, the difference was enormous. He would listen intently to her with his wheels turning the whole time, while she just gave him blank looks.

Jesse Baruffi said...

I can see where you're coming from on this one, as people often do talk past one another in pursuit of what's in their own heads, but I don't think it's necessary all the time. After all, the last thing you want in a story is something that could be easily resolved if both parties just explained themselves like rational human beings. That tends to feel like the conflict is forced and unnatural.

Fred Salmon said...

Personally, one of the best tips you ever gave was to do with this rule, although I think it might be covered in another rule... but I always took it as, when writing a scene no one should be waiting for someone else to speak, they should be waiting for a chance to make their point. Changed the way I look at scenes. I realised that I was writing from the POV of the character that I, the writer, needed to say something for the plot; now I look at it from everyone else's POV first. Makes every scene feel more real and hides whatever it is you need to happen for the plot.

Unknown said...

I would phrase it differently. For example... Is a character focused on their own agenda (goal,want) in the scene rather than for filling the other characters wants and desires? Do characters have agency in the scene?

If the characters have their own agenda than they most likely want listen well because they are focused on what they want more than what the other person wants Sooo they tend to have selective hearing. Hearing only what will help them get what they want and rejecting everything that opposes their goal.

Food for thought