Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Life as it is... vs... as it ought to be.


A great quote from a blog by Daniel McInerny (Graham Greene on the Art of Storytelling) who quotes Graham Greene (talking about cinema) quoting Chekhov (talking about novels).  Thus, I quote McInerny so like a good chain letter you can pass it on and we'll all be remembered. Uh-huh.

Here it is (my emphasis):
‘The best of them (novels/movies) are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every line is permeated, as with a juice, by awareness of a purpose, you feel, besides life as it is, also life as it ought to be, and this captivates you.’ This description of an artist’s theme [continues Greene] has never, I think, been bettered…
Had I come across Chekhov's quote when I was writing The Moral Premise I would have included the quote at the beginning of a chapter. 

When Chekhov says "this captures you" he's referring to audience identification in the moral sense. That is, you are aware that the immoral actions, motivations, and words enacted by a character do not reveal the best of humankind, or even what the character is capable of. That sense of rightness and wrongness comes through in the context of the writing, whether it be a screenplay or novel. That sense of "life as it ought to be" is the moral conscience of the writer communicated to the audience, who knows in their heart (if not in their actions) the difference between moral virtue and vice. Such conflict is absolutely necessary to engage the reader or spectator. And notice Greene's use of the term "theme" which is the root from which a moral premise is derived.

We watched Gavin O'Connor's PRIDE AND GLORY (Hard-R) the other night on our Apple Box, which deals with a multi-generational family of New York's "Finest" who struggle with where the line is between right and wrong. They joined the police force for the pride and the glory. O'Conner's story, which he co-wrote and directed, reveals that when even a taint of corruption enters in a cop's life, the pride and the glory evaporate as fast as a bullet can leave a gun's muzzle. It's the writer's honest revelation of reality in the context of hope and goodness, that allows the audience to know what "ought to be." 

What Chekhov quote begins with these words "realistic and paint life as it is". There's a term for that, which O'Connor uses to describe his work: Verisimilitude (or truthlikeness)—the quality of realism in something (such as film, literature, the arts, etc). 

Verisimilitude's virtue reminds me also of a lesson that I saw in the making a few years back. This lesson reminded me that if you want mainstream audiences to see your movie (and hear your message) then you have to meet them where they are and reflect reality to them as they understand it.  If you don't, then they can't follow your story, let along understand the moral message in it -- if that's important to you -- and should be if you want your movie to be entertaining. (Yes, there's a direct connection between a film's moral message and entertainment. They are two sides of the same coin. See FIRST ENTERTAIN.)   

The lesson involved the movie BELLA which was suppose to be an anti-abortion film... which in my thinking probably involves some sexual content. (I don't need to spell that out for you,  do I?)  Because BELLA was a hit at the Toronto Film Festival with audiences, many people thought it was going to clean up at the box office. I didn't see the screening in Toronto, but some suggested that the producers (as offen happens at festivals), stacked the theater with supporters. 

Regardless, after an early promotional screening (between Toronto and the film's theatrical release) I met one of the producers and chatted. I was concerned because he had just apologized to the very conservative Catholic audience about something that evidently had been pointed out to them as "offensive" and they promised to remove it before the film was released to theaters. What was the "offensive" element? The sound of the protagonist urinating on a pregnancy test strip. There was ONLY the sound. No picture. And the fact that she was to discover she was pregnant was critical to the story's plot. It was a major turning point in the story. You have to SHOW such things. But the producer's didn't show it, they let you hear it. And then they were going to remove the "hearing" of it.  To me this attitude was the death knell of the movie; which explained why I thought the movie was modestly boring to begin with. This harkens back to Chekhov's observation.

BELLA's producers, in their desire to not offend anyone in the audience with visuals or dialogue (and also get grassroots support for the film when it hit theaters), screened the movie dozens of times with conservative Christian audiences. And they made changes based on the feedback from those audiences. They wanted to produce a "pro-life" "anti-abortion" film that didn't offend their conservative supporters. They cleaned and cleaned the edit -- until it was antiseptic of reality's edge. In their striving for truth, the missed verisimilitude or truthlikeness. The result? A box office bomb.

Here's some more evidence about that conclusion.

That same year there were two other "pro-life" "anti-abortion" films that came out. The films were KNOCKED UP and JUNO. These two films found the right balance. They realistically painted life as it is, but permeated the scenes with the juice of what it ought to be. Great balance, and great entertainment. Check out the worldwide box office scores, divide by $5 and you'll know about how many people saw each film:

BELLA (PG-13) -          $12,083,296  (02 M tickets)
KNOCKED UP (R) -   $219,076,518  (44 M tickets)
JUNO (PG-13)  -        $231,411,584  (46 M tickets)

Two of these films went mainstream, the other one was only seen by a very small niche, that had probably already seen the film during the screening tour.  You have to ask yourself the proverbial question:  "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it fall, did it make any noise?" 

One final note I found particular ironic. Notice that BELLA garnered a PG-13 rating. That baffled me. I would have guessed PG at most. Here's what the film rating board said:

BELLA - "PG-13 for thematic elements and brief disturbing images."

Now here's the ratings why for the other two films:

KNOCKED UP - "R for sexual content, drug use, and language."
JUNO - "PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and language."

Do you notice how one of these is not the same as the others? (I learned this watching Sesame Street with my kids. Okay, I was watching after my kids graduated from college.)

BELLA was suppose to be about sex. But sex, which the reality of American culture "worships", was evidently absent from the film -- at least to the point that the ratings board didn't think the film had any sexual content. So much for reality. 

To close, one more reminder of what Chekhov wrote:
‘The best of them (novels/movies) are realistic and paint life as it is, but because every line is permeated, as with a juice, by awareness of a purpose, you feel, besides life as it is, also life as it ought to be, and this captivates you.’
In other words...when you do this, there's chance that people will see your movie.

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