Friday, September 02, 2005

Show Me. And Tell Me Too

got under my skin several months ago with his book, , and I’m still itchy from it. Today I got another chance to scratch when I saw a minor , Show Me, that Johnson would probably like. As I mull it over, my critique is taking shape in response to his esthetic.

I went alone to see this violent film, which my usual movie-going companions would have disliked. So did I, but the star, Michelle Nolden, is a friend of mine. (See photo.) More accurately, ours is what network analysts call a “weak tie.” I like her and respect her acting and her intelligence. And if Johnson is right, watching her film may even make me smarter by making me work hard to understand the plot.

Johnson sees dramas as increasingly complex. levels are increasing about three points per decade in the developed countries and he attributes that to television and other popular cultural products. He suggests that stories are so challenging nowadays that our neurons must go like popcorn, just to keep up. Intelligence is required to grasp the implications of what we’ve seen. And exercise keeps the fit, just as it does the cardiovascular system.

So far as he goes, Johnson is right, but he ignores certain other physiological consequences of watching , such as the harmful health effects of emotional . Thousands of studies have shown that stress makes people sick. We may differ in our responses to suspense and violence, but no one’s health benefits from it, so I generally avoid anxiety-provoking shows. Nevertheless, here I won’t dwell on the physiological effects, but rather on the diminished meanings of films and television: not the medium but the content. I discussed this trend a couple of years ago with Michelle Nolden.

We met when Michelle was starring in , a series about officers and their parolees. I was allowed to observe it in production and then I showed all the episodes to a group of my friends. It was the kind of sophisticated, complex show that supposedly makes you smarter. My friends couldn’t always figure out its surprising plot developments, though they liked trying to do so, and the actors loved working with its subtle scripts.

My question was, how much should writers spell out? Dumb scripts “spoon feed” us, whereas writers with artistic aspirations tend not to let characters articulate their motivations and assumptions plainly. The trend today, I think, leans too far toward the latter fault. The actors and the audience must reach their own conclusions about the many intentions that remain unspoken. Today’s prevailing esthetic prescribes that only through their actions may characters reveal their motivations. Viewers disagree therefore about the show’s meaning — especially in an era when few writers try to impart messages for us to draw upon in our own lives.

We may not notice the absence of insightful discussions, though, if we are watching fine actors; they can fascinate us even if we cannot see into their characters’ minds. However, on the whole I think we lose more than we gain by this excessive subtlety. (Recently I expressed my appreciation of ’s brilliant writing, which does explore psychological orientations and philosophical debates.)

Yet, regrettably, the dramas that usually win Oscars and Emmys are those that make audiences work out the meanings for ourselves without many clues. (Think, for example, of The Hours, Adaptation, and Lost in Translation.) Of course, an actor must figure out her character’s intentions, since the script often leaves viewers depending entirely on the clues she provides. As Michelle Nolden told me in an interview,

“If I am playing a character who turns my stomach, I need to know why that character is the way she is. Nobody is just that way for no reason. And that’s where the challenge is – in figuring it out…. I’d love to play a . They are always the most interesting. But the villain has to have some sort of redemption. He’s not being bad for the sake of being bad. You can’t have gratuitous violence. If there’s an arc to the character where he actually goes somewhere … then to me it’s worth it.”

Still, even brilliant acting cannot compensate for the script’s failure to articulate : Show Me proves that. The film is a thriller about a Toronto woman and two screwed-up street kids who jump into her car at an intersection and force her to drive to her cottage. The three actors are brilliantly expressive, but their characters’ interactions are constantly changing direction — inexplicably so. There is no coherence; their behavior makes no sense whatever. In her final lines, Michelle’s character is allowed to explain that she had wanted to save the two kids somehow. Of course, she failed.

Did this movie make me smarter? Certainly not, though I did work hard at figuring out the motivations of all three characters. The experience required much of me — a readiness to undergo unhealthy anxiety — for negligible rewards. The mental exercise of trying to comprehend a character may make us intelligent — but only our succeeding at that exercise can make us satisfied. And only the can enable that.


Anonymous rex said...

Good topic! I enjoy a good challenge, but, like you, I hope for a worthwhile 'reward'! I include 'puzzles' on my website because I myself really enjoy puzzles. That's how my "POW-word puzzle po'ms" came about. The puzzles consist mainly of 'sounds- like' transformations. For example 'BEAN ICE' sounds like 'be nice' when read aloud. I keep hoping that my playfulness with serious messages will not only make them easier to 'swallow' but may also implant them more deeply in our memories!
In telling stories cimatographically, directors are always treading a thin line; they have no way of knowing the 'struggle-threshold' of their eventual audiences. I often feel a need to watch a film again in order to 'get it', but I doubt that the struggle makes me 'smarter'.

10:53 AM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Thanks, Rex. I do actually create crossword puzzles for my magazine -- which is a lot of fun but takes as long or longer than writing a post for the blog. I don't imagine many of my readers would stop to work them! But it's an interesting idea.

11:11 AM  
Anonymous rex said...

I love the DVD's that have commentary by its participants. Watching the film again with commentary not only helps clarify the puzzling parts, it makes more real the reality that the film is not the reality that they try so hard to re-create (& often succeed quite well in re-creating!), but just another way of telling a story.

9:53 PM  

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