Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Day 13: Meaning = Emotion

Five years ago, I had a subscription to the Sydney Film Festival and found myself sitting in a cinema seat at the State Theatre watching two films a night for something like 17 or 18 nights. Three or four nights in, waiting once again for that most special of moments when the lights go down in the cinema, there was a delay. As we sat together in the dark, the delay forced upon me an inquisition that went along the lines of "what is it I want every time the lights go down, what do I want from this film?". This introspection was prompted by the fact that at only eight films into my 50-60 movie mini-marathon, I was already jaded by what I'd seen.

My answer came back loud and clear: "I want to be moved. I want to be taken to the end of my emotional line. If it's a comedy, then make me laugh until my ribs hurt and the tears are streaming down my face. If you're going to make me angry, then have me on my feet, fist clenched, shouting at the screen. If the story is tragic, then make sure that the credits are long enough for me to gather together what's left of my dignity so that I can reassemble myself before the lights come back up or I feel I can move (whichever comes first)".

Robert McKee says that if he could send a telegram to Hollywood, it would say something like this: "meaning equals emotion". Am I on the same page of that hymn book or am I on the same page of that hymn book?!

When I find myself admiring cinematography, marveling at an actor's bravura performance or being entranced by a choice of music in a film, then I'm no longer in the story or the film, I'm outside of it. When I'm loving a film, I'm on the edge of my seat (or behind it in a horror flick) hanging on, by the thread of what's going to happen next. Once I start to think about anything other than the character's plight, you've actually lost me.

I'll pause here and tease for a moment and ask "am I the only one that started to look at his watch during The Hurt Locker and Slumdog Millionaire (last year and this year's best Academy Awards' Best Film)? I'll save The Hurt Locker question for a day soon to come.

Back to meaning. Great story produces great meaning, wonderful meaning, heart-shredding, visceral, hose-me-off-the-floor meaning. I cannot bang on about this long enough. Yes, there is always room for exceptions and contradictions (I love A Space Odyssey 2001...still actually think there's meaning in there) but we human beings love a story that MOVES us.

Sydney Lumet, the veteran New York film Director at the helm of such wonderful movies as Twelve Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Hill, Failsafe and many many others was, in my opinion, a champion of meaning equalling emotion; nothing flashy about his work. For me, his finest hour (or two) was in his collaboration with screenwriter David Mamet and the wonderful Paul Newman on The Verdict. It's my third favourite film of all time, and along with the The Hustler, Paul Newman's tour-de-force (and what did he win his Oscar for.....The Colour Of Money...absurdity runs riot, yet again, in California).

Watch The Verdict; a great director, a great writer and three great actors (Newman, James Mason and Charlotte Rampling) at the top of their respective games and watch all of Sydney Lumet's films to grasp the art and skill of spartan screen storytelling that yields such meaning and emotion.

Giuseppe Tornatore (writer and director of Cinema Paradiso) said this of his tender and poignant hymn to the movies: "The love that often evades us in life, is always there for us in the dark embrace of the cinema"..I'd add "meaning" to that too.

Day #13 Tip: Read The Great Writers
Nothing will improve writing and storytelling skills like reading. And I mean, reading the great storytellers: Dickens, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, Alexander Dumas, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Flaubert, Balzac, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Wilkie Collins, Jane Austen, Victor Hugo, Cervantes, George Eliot. These are just some of the novelists, for starters.

I envy you if you've yet to make inroads into some of these writers. Run to your nearest secondhand bookstore or garage sale, Penguin Classics are virtually two-a-penny. Delay no longer, put aside any prejudice (and pride), watch what they did, seek to not get to the end of your days having never read Thérèse Raquin.

1 comment:

  1. Thérèse Raquin was the first Penguin Classic I ever read at 16. Like The Rougon-Macquart series and Crime and Punishment that followed, I hold it close to my heart.
    I really disliked Slumdog and was totally underwhelmed by The Hurt Locker...can we be friends?