Yves Lavandier’s book Writing Drama currently rates as the absolute favorite of our book reviewer Jack Brislee.
To give you the opportunity to delve into Lavandier’s amazing knowledge and insight, we will be publishing a weekly excerpt from the book.
iv) the spectator feels that the writer is taking a sadistic pleasure in burdening the character with ever greater obstacles.
He will regard the character as being victimised, pitted against impossible odds, and suspect the writer’s motives for making life so difficult for him.
The rape scenes in A Clockwork Orange, the chainsaw scene in Scarface (the 1983 version) and the torture scenes in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction fall into this category, in my view. Tarantino, the writer-director of these last two movies, has defended himself vigourously against charges of sadism, saying that his only responsibility is of an artistic nature and consists of being consistent in his treatment of the characters.
If a character is an odious criminal, it is normal, he said, that the character should be seen acting odiously. That’s a fine excuse! In Die Hard 2 and 24, a particularly unscrupulous villain blows up an airliner in midflight.
If a character is an odious criminal, it is normal […] that the character should be seen acting odiously.
In King Lear, Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes. In Psycho, a mysterious killer carries out a sudden, brutal murder.
In Misery, Annie (Kathy Bates) cripples Paul (James Caan) by breaking his ankles. In each of these cases we may feel that these are abusive acts, that there was no need to go so far, but we do not suspect the writers of self-indulgence. They leave the spectator little time to draw any satisfaction from the crime and its representation even if he should be inclined to do so. In fact, the violence in the screen version of Misery is watered down compared with the violence in the novel in which the nurse actually hacks off the protagonist’s feet. As William Goldman [83b] notes of the film’s audience: “They hated her but they loved the movie. If she had cut his feet off the audience would have hated her and hated the movie.”
Take two other famous examples: the dentist’s drill scene in Marathon Man and the rape scene in Deliverance. They leave us feeling queasy, to be sure. But in the first case, the violence is suggested rather than shown, conveyed in a preparatory scene and through the words of Szell (Laurence Olivier). The actual torture is never seen.
It is not simply a matter of artistic coherence,
it also has to do with dramatisation, with duration,
with the way a given act is represented.
In Deliverance there is a kind of trade-off insofar as we know that the victim (Ned Beatty) may pull through: two of his companions, Lewis (Burt Reynolds) and Drew (Ronny Cox), are absent but could return at any moment and put an end to the rape. In short, and notwithstanding Tarantino’s views on the matter, it is not simply a matter of artistic coherence, it also has to do with dramatisation, with duration, with the way a given act is represented. It is not enough to say simply that human barbarism exists, I’m doing no more that showing it. Broadly speaking, we can say that there are two ways of representing human barbarism: the humanist way and the barbaric way. Writers—and, incidentally, spectators—should have the courage of their convictions, even if these are very often (to a large extent) unconscious.
There are two ways of representing human barbarism:
the humanist way and the barbaric way
Note too that there is a significant difference between the examples of Scarface and Reservoir Dogs and those of Misery, Deliverance and Marathon Man. In the latter three cases, the victims are the story’s protagonists. When a writer wishes to indulge his sadistic tendencies, it is better that he should do so on a secondary character rather than the protagonist.
When a writer wishes to indulge his sadistic tendencies,
it is better that he should do so on a secondary character
rather than the protagonist.
The issue of obstacles—getting the right balance between the difficulties the protagonist faces and his ability to overcome them—is one of the most crucial for the writer of drama to resolve. These obstacles should be as forbidding as possible, and yet not too much so. There is one work in which the obstacles are too strong, and where it is precisely the insolubility of the problem—the writer having refused to resort to any miraculous outside intervention—that lends meaning and power to the story. This is No Man‘s Land. I shall refrain from discussing the film here so as not to spoil the pleasure for anyone who has not seen it, but clearly it provides an exception to the above rule.