Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Villains Can Create Fake “I Understand You” Moments

Well, folks I thought we were all done with Frozen, but I got an interesting comment on the original checklist post and I thought it deserved its own post. Jane says:
  • I feel like one major problem with Frozen is that Hans and Anna actually have way better ‘I understand you’ moments than Kristoff and Anna do. They both connect over feeling ignored by their siblings, and their song is full of lines where they intuitively understand one another's way of looking at things (‘Jinx!’ ‘Jinx again!’). Every time they talk about finishing each other's sandwiches, I think, Maybe those two crazy kids can work it out.
I would go further to point out that Hans even “understands” the expectations Anna had before she ever met him: “I suddenly see him standing there, a beautiful stranger tall and fair…Then we laugh and talk all evening, which is totally bizarre, nothing like the life I’ve lived so far…”

Then she meets Hans and, as Jane says, they seem to be in total synchronicity. The filmmakers know that we’re primed to respond to “I understand you” moments, so they pile them on here, not just tricking Anna into falling for Hans, but tricking the audience, too. (“Aha, they understand each other’s childhood insecurities, and in movies that means we’ve found the real love interest.”)

But of course it’s all a lie. Hans is a psychopath, and he’s “mirroring” Anna: reflecting back to her magnified, fake versions of her own thoughts and feelings. He’s “reading” her to find out what she wants, deep down, and then instantly transforming himself into her ideal, in order to steal her throne.

The Frozen filmmakers are playing chess while we’re playing checkers. They understand our narrative expectations better than we do, and they’re masterfully manipulating us, just as Hans manipulates Anna. They know that we and she both crave “I understand you” moments, and they’re warning us against too-easy storytelling choices just as surely as they’re warning girls against psychopathic guys.

It’s interesting that there’s no one moment that we revisit in retrospect and say, “Aha, that was the clue that he was evil!” Even when we know the twist, the foreshadowing is almost invisible. But it’s there. In their duet, Anna is talking about love, but Hans is saying “I’ve been searching my whole life to find my own place,” which turns out to have a different meaning: He’s been looking for a throne to steal.

When we watch the movie for the first time, it all seems real, and we’re happy for Anna, but we’re also a little deflated: It was too easy, so there’s a suspicion in the back of our minds that maybe this isn’t really the one.

As we said before, Elsa’s love is hard, closed-door love and Hans’s “love” is easy, open-door love, and the movie is making it clear (eventually) that easy love is usually a bad thing.

And this is true in real love and real life: If it comes too easy, it’s probably fake. I noticed this when pitching screenplays: When I walked out of the meeting saying, “That could not have gone better!”, then it was always a pass. They would puff me up, tell me exactly what I wanted to hear, and then whisk me out the door so that they never had to see me again. When a meeting actually went well, it was grueling, as they picked at and poked and prodded my work, trying to figure out why they kinda maybe liked it. When you’re pitching, you want tough closed-door-open-a-crack love, not easy open-door love, which means you’re being blown off.

In movies, life, and love, if someone really understands you, then they’re not going to tell you everything you want to hear.


Jane said...

I think you're right that, in life as in art, if someone understands you, they won't tell you everything you want to hear.

I've been mulling the fact that, in fiction, we expect the love story to be, well, a Story--which means conflict, no easy solutions. Another reason why Hans can't be "the one."

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