Thursday, November 19, 2009

Logic in Films

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



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“Logic: The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.”
---Ambrose Bierce


The previous post, Ambiguity in Films, is an appropriate lead-in to the subject of this post, Logic in Films (as in: the lack of logic in some films). Sometimes, they are, both of them, ambiguity and a lack of logic, about narrative negative space. Sometimes they go further, crossing the line back into a non-logical, positive use of the narrative space. I use the terms, “negative” and “positive” space, because ambiguity can refer to unknowns, missing information, and a lack of logic amounts to something similar: insufficient support for the sense of the narrative content of the story. Let me re-state that I am in favor of such intentional use. Many of you out there may not be (Perhaps, in the comments, we can hear from them/you). But, let me tell you why I am in favor of it.


I’ve made the point that the presence of ambiguity in a narrative film enhances the film’s resemblance to reality - even in films that are fantastic or otherwise non-realistic in their stories – because reality, similarly, always carries with it unknowns. For our purposes here, let me give a working definition of two terms: non-logic is an absence of logic in narrative stories; illogic is an extension of non-logic in which the result is a deliberate lack, or even a reversal of the story’s narrative logic, a conscious non-logic. Deliberate use of non-logic in films (i.e, use of illogic) can have the effect of intensifying a film’s ambiguity, and therefore, paradoxically (as regards negative-logic), intensifying its resemblance to reality.


How can this be?


If one examines the notion of reality, one is eventually forced to concede that reality isn’t an objective state or phenomena, but rather a subjective impression held in the mind of the perceiving individual. Reality is simply the sense our minds make of the world we perceive. So when the mind is presented with unexplainable perceptions, they amount, simply, to other realities. When I have encountered in my life startling “implausibles” or unusual and unexplainable facts/data/events, I have joked, “This just goes to prove that reality doesn’t exist!” But, of course it does. All of them do. And my reality is not yours.


Black people have been known to tell white people to try, sometime, driving through town while being black. It’s a completely different reality; one that has joined OWI (operating while intoxicated), and DUI (driving under the influence), as DWB (driving while black). You won’t be getting home at the same hour. In fact, some realities of DWB have mistakenly ended up on Death Row.


When we are children, we know less about the world we perceive around us. Much that we perceive fails to be understood from the perspective of our limited experience of the world. The way we, as children, deal with this is to unconsciously ignore it. In effect, we don’t see it. We can have it pointed out to us. We can be questioned about our perception of it, whereupon we will attempt to understand it and produce some imperfect interpretation. But, otherwise, we, kids, simply do not see it at all.


When we are adults, we understand some portion of our world. However, when we are faced with elements outside our understanding, we either make some kind of sense of it (e.g., religion, atheism), we ignore it altogether (agnosticism, laziness), or we continue to explore it and we bide our time (science, philosophy). I guess, like The Dude in the Coen Brothers’ film, The Big Lebowski, I abide.


When it comes to the use of illogic and non-logic in films (the former being its deliberate use and/or the reverse of logic; the latter being the absence of logic), many film-goers view such use with a one-size-fits-all interpretation: as a lapse on the part of the filmmakers. In many poorly-conceived, commercial films this is accurate. They exhibit non-logical narratives. Many viewers revel in their discoveries to the extent that all logical discrepancies are deemed lapses. Yet, such a lapse can be deliberate, the result of excisions by the filmmakers from the original script (or the earlier edit of the film) for pacing, running-time, and budgetary reasons, though certainly not for story reasons. It can also be the result of narrative sloppiness.


An example of narrative sloppiness: In Peter Bogdanovich’s Who The Devil Made It, p.334, director Howard Hawks, discussing [the plot-line of Raymond Chandler’s novel,] The Big Sleep, had this to say about the subject: “We were arguing about who killed so-and-so and we couldn’t come to any decision. So we wired Raymond Chandler. He wired back a name, and we wired him saying, ‘But, it couldn’t have been him - he was at the beach at that time.’ Making this picture, I realized that you don’t really have to have an explanation for things. As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture—it doesn’t matter...” Chandler was known to have a drinking problem. But he was also known to render his fictional world better (read, non-logically and so, realistically) than almost anyone. So, while even the author couldn’t really explain his story, if the story works sufficiently on other levels, as Hawks said, “it doesn’t matter”! This was Chandler’s reality.


“...Making this picture, I realized that you don’t really have to have an explanation for things. As long as you make good scenes you have a good picture—it doesn’t matter...” Narrative sloppiness didn’t matter.


I once read a criticism of Blade Runner in which the writer pointed out that it all falls apart if you question why the Tyrell Corporation made the dangerous Replicants indistinguishable from real humans. Why didn’t they mark them in some way, make them blue, or all look-alikes, or something, so they couldn’t hide among humans? The only reason was so that we had a story! Another case goes all the way back to the original King Kong: If the natives didn’t want the giant ape to break into their part of the island, why did they build the gate so large? And, please, psycho-analysts need not weigh-in. This was a story, not a case of a mass, gender-confused Oedipal Complex.


But there is also a body of films that do not fit into such assessments of author/filmmaker lapse. Their narratives are illogical, intentionally non-logical. Consider Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ernest Lehman’s, North By Northwest: The film is composed of a succession of Hitchcock’s favorite bits from his idea-file, strung together into a narrative line in which the characters travel in a “north by northwest” direction. But some might see the narrative as having gone strictly south. For me, the intriguing thing about these bits or scenes has always been how very intentionally absurd they were. The idea that someone would arrange for a man to travel far into the countryside to allow for him to be murdered by a crop-dusting plane, somehow equipped with machine guns; for an auction, presumably with security on-scene, to go as far as it does with a bidder bidding successively lower; that an international criminal owns a house on the backside-top of Mt. Rushmore, complete with landing strip; for adversaries to scramble on and across the presidents’ faces on the Rushmore Monument in business suits, with leather shoes, and without all of them falling; all of these are ridiculous in the light of the merest critical review. And yet, not only does the film get away with them, it becomes one of the capstones of one of the greatest directorial careers in Hollywood! For his part, responding to a woman critic’s comment that the film is “unconsciously funny,” reported in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who The Devil Made It, Ballantine, 1997, p. 475, Hitchcock said “Well, my dear, the film is sheer fantasy.” This was Hitchcock’s reality.


In Francois Truffaut’s book-length interview with the director, Hitchcock, Simon & Schuster, 1967, p. 69, they discussed his film of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Hitchcock commented, “‘What I liked in (the film) are the swift transitions...’ and he described the succession of elaborate sequences in the film. Then he said, “‘The rapidity of those transitions heightens the excitement...’” Truffaut responded, “‘It’s a style that tends to do away with anything utilitarian... (a style) that’s extremely satisfying to audiences and yet often irritates the critics... they will analyze the script, which, of course, doesn’t stand up to logical analysis... a thoroughly casual approach to the plausible.’” And Hitchcock replied, “‘I’m not concerned with plausibility; that’s the easiest part of it, so why bother?’”


Then, he described the scene with the ornithologist in The Birds, wherein she just happens to be there at that moment, and he said, “‘I could have made up three scenes just to give that woman a logical reason for being there, but they would have been completely uninteresting... Aside from the waste of time, they make for gaps or flaws in the picture. Let’s be logical [The Last Reveal’s italics], If you’re going to analyze everything in terms of plausibility or credibility, then no fiction script can stand up to that approach, and you wind up doing a documentary.’”


“I’m not concerned with plausibility; that’s the easiest part of it, so why bother?’” Hitchcock’s work epitomizes the notion of fiction as the truth within the lie.


In Patrick McGilligan’s Backstory 1, pp. 276 – 7, screenwriter, Richard Maibaum, described working with Hitchcock on Foreign Correspondent: “I was writer number thirty... primarily I rewrote the...part of the old statesman who was kidnapped. (Hitchcock) said to me, ‘Did you read what we’ve got?’ Which was half-a-screenplay. I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘What do you think about it?’ I replied, ‘It’s not very logical.’ He grimaced and said, ‘Oh, dear boy, don’t be dull. I’m not interested in logic, I’m interested in effect. If the audience ever thinks about logic, it’s on their way home after the show, and by that time, you see, they’ve paid for their tickets.’”


“I’m not interested in logic, I’m interested in effect.” By “effect” and by excluding logic, Hitchcock refers, to the emotional response in the audience to the dramatics of his film. This is where the use of illogic operates: on the emotional level. If the filmmaker can win over the emotions of the viewer, the filmmaker has won the viewer. In nearly every argument between emotion and logic, emotion carries the day.


“If the audience ever thinks about logic, it’s on their way home after the show, and by that time, you see, they’ve paid for their tickets.” Ever the showman, Hitchcock recalls for us P.T. Barnum who, after exposing his audience of “rubes” to one freakish display, tantalized them with… what, (a bird?), saying, “This way to the Egress!” and, making way for the next bunch, ushered them out.


And in his interview in Screenwriters’ Masterclass, p. 24, Silence of the Lambs screenwriter, Ted Tally, responding to a question on the need for logic, echoed Hitchcock’s reference to “on their way home after the show”: “No, I never worry about that kind of thing, what (director) Jonathan (Demme) called ‘Refrigerator questions’... he said, ‘You’ve seen the movie, you’ve enjoyed it, you get home and open the refrigerator and say, ‘Wait a minute, how could that guy have done that?’... If it doesn’t occur to you until you get to the refrigerator, it’s not important enough for us to worry about.’”


The plot-hole is where you find it. Sometimes it’s in the refrigerator. Sometimes it’s only in your head.


“Logic, like whiskey, loses its beneficial effect when taken in too large quantities.”
---Lord Dunsany


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FADE OUT


Lee A. Matthias

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