Monday, November 28, 2005


So right near the beginning of Lawrence of Arabia, when Lawrence is on his way to the general's office to get sent off into the desert, he passes through the officer's club and stops to get harassed by a captain (?) playing pool. The guy asks Lawrence why he's going to the desert, and Lawrence, in reply, slams the cue ball into the carefully racked game balls, scattering them across the table. The obvious metaphor here is that he's going to stir some shit up, disrupting the careful order the British have arranged. I've seen LoA maybe a half dozen times, but not until yesterday's viewing did I pick up on what that particular action meant. I always thought he was just being an asshole. Of course, I'm stupid.

I think a lot of the time, the average moviegoer doesn't know why they liked a movie. They may be able to point at some lines of dialogue, or some cool scenes, but a lot of the things that can make a movie good are very subtle. Like, simple choices in a character's dialogue as that character evolves over the course of a movie. A protagonist who starts out selfish and greedy will use words like I and me and talk about what he wants and what he needs. Later, as he turns into someone who cares about the well-being of the group, or becomes interesting in risking himself to save others, he might start using words more like we and us and talking about what the group needs or wants. He'll still have the same Southern twang/British stiffness/casual profanity that he's always had, but what he's really saying will change.1

After you see the movie, you come out with the feeling (if you even think about it) that he was a well-drawn character, but you don't really know why. There's the big, memorable actions -- the scene where he rescues the damsel in distress, or the one where he reduces the villain to a quivering fury with a few blistering bons mots in the drawing room, or the one where Jar-Jar reveals that he's Luke's sister -- but those are only part of the equation. The subtle things are the rest. (Of course, the mathematical metaphor should be roundly kicked in the 'nads, since any attempt to reduce art to math is ultimately doomed, even if it may provide some insight along the way.)

And of what are these subtle elements born? To begin with, the anal-retentive efforts of the writer. The writer chooses the dialogue and the action, and even with the most literal interpretation by the actors and director involved, a great story will still come through.

Moving beyond the written word, actors, for example, can subsequently add their own subtleties; take a character who starts out nervous and unsure of himself, but becomes willful and strong throughout the course of the movie. The actor may decide, say, to blink frequently and rapidly during the early scenes, maybe cause his facial muscles to twitch every so often. But later on in the story, he blinks less, doesn't avert his gaze, and his face is smooth and impassive. Done right, you won't even consciously notice the difference, but it will register unconsciously and you'll think, "Wow, Bob really has come a long way since the beginning of the movie!"

1 This connects to the idea that a character is really comprised of two things: his core character and his outward characterization. I ruefully admit that the expression of this idea I'm most familiar with -- for it certainly didn't originate with him -- is Robert McKee's.