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.
Conflict versus spectacle
Most works of drama, particularly in cinema, seek to blend conflict and spectacle as a means of attracting spectators. Spectacle is clearly a more trivial, more superficial and less enriching component than conflict, but it continues to be regarded as important.
From its earliest times cinema has sought to awe the spectator with the power of its images, constantly stepping up the octane with regard both to form and content. To some extent this reflects commercial pressures as well as the limited abilities of the screenwriters involved. But it also reflects a quality that is inherent in the spectacular itself: it requires ever greater effort merely to achieve the same impact.
Spectators soon grow tired of a given stunt or landscape or special effect, and if that happens to be the movie’s main selling point, the doses have to be constantly stepped up to maintain its appeal. The days have long passed since an audience could be panic-stricken at the sight of a train pulling into the station. A great deal more is needed to impress today’s seen-it-all audiences.
The days have long passed since an audience
could be panic-stricken at the sight of
a train pulling into the station.
This constant raising of the ante in the provision of spectacle is often matched in regard to the level of conflict, and in particular of physical conflict, to the extent that some feature films have started to resemble snuff movies. At the present rate, the only difference between such films and a snuff movie will be that the former is legal because it is fictional.
But cinema does not have to resort to such escalation: the sight of a human being experiencing a conflictual emotion, whether in a serious or a comic context, has provided effective drama for some 25 centuries and it is quite unnecessary to lay it on thick. Emotion and humour are closer to the reality of our lives than hyperrealist images produced with the aid of liquid crystals.
To be fair, conflict and the spectacular are perfectly compatible in the normal course of things. Among the innumerable examples I could quote are the aircraft scene in North by Northwest, the attack on the lorry in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the pie machine in Chicken Run, or the closing sequence in Mad Max 2.
Conflict and the spectacular are perfectly compatible.
Think also of the numerous bravura scenes in Shakespeare, including duels, storms and massed battles. In each of these cases, the visual display enhances the show’s appeal: it would be wrong to dismiss spectacle out of hand, depriving spectators of a legitimate pleasure. But emphasis on the visual can at times cause the writer to neglect the dramatic essentials— I shall return to this point with reference to, among others, The Music Teacher (page 156). Or it can distort what a work of drama is trying to say.
The spectacular qualities of Apocalypse Now, for example, turn the movie into a show, if not actually an apologia for the military. This is not to say that the makers of Apocalypse Now intended to promote militaristic impulses. But the film may well have that effect whatever their good intentions.
The Battle of Algiers, a film made to denounce torture and summary executions by the French army in Algeria, was used in anti-subversive training courses by dictatorial regimes in Latin America. An unfortunate side-effect that the filmmakers obviously did not expect. Having said that, a work can also be militarist (or racist, sexist or perverse) because the writers allowed their reptilian brain (the part of us which, among other things, harbours our capacity for human barbarism) to affect their writing unconsciously.
Nevertheless we must hope that conflict, and the emotions that it engenders, will continue to be the main point of interest in any work of drama. This point is illustrated with extreme clarity by the film Itinéraire d’un Enfant Gâté. Director Claude Lelouch was astonished to find that the scene that most moved spectators was that in which Sam (Jean-Paul Belmondo) teaches Albert (Richard Anconina) how to say hello and not appear surprised. While most of the film takes place against a succession of lavish backdrops, the film’s most effective scene is set in a hotel room and involves two people sitting in chairs. Lelouch attributed the scene’s success to the skills of the actors. The truth almost certainly lies elsewhere: it struck a chord with spectators, ahead of all the picture-postcard scenes, simply because it was the most conflictual, the funniest and the best-written scene in the film.
A recent viewing of a big-screen documentary on Canada geese drove the point home to me forcefully. The huge images, hundreds of metres across, were grandiose. But the moment that had the audience on the edge of their seats came when a small gosling, tottering on its frail legs, attempted to walk along a muddy bank—will it, won’t it, fall over? Spectators held their breath. There were even a few laughs when the young bird did indeed slip and fall into the water, head over feet. Here was a striking example of the superior ability of drama to move an audience. “Fear and pity may certainly arise from spectacle, but they may also arise simply from the system of the facts itself; this is the procedure that matters most, one that reveals the better poet,” Aristotle  noted.