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Sunday, March 27, 2011

WRITING EVIL: THE NEED FOR THE “LIFERAFT” OF LIKEABLE CHARACTERS

I’ve long been fascinated with the darker sides of human nature, and disappointed to know that few commercially “successful” films share that fascination with me. Or if they do, they pass various shades of moral judgement that tend to support what most Westerners really want to believe in their hearts: Good will prevail, justice will be met, and hard work will be rewarded. We watch movies with certain sets of very ingrained expectations, which if not met, leave us feeling oddly empty. Good must prevail somewhere in the story. Bad guys and gals must be punished in some manner. But does this reflect reality? You’re dumb if I have to answer that question for you.
            Fascinated with the idea of giving an audience only a set of characters as dark and unpredictable as real live breathing human beings, I took it upon myself to adapt (very very loosely) Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s “Venus in Furs” into a contemporary screenplay. I did so not only because I was tired of hearing how screenplays needed to have characters who face almost insurmountable problems, that the narrative must have a complete arc, that there should be a protagonist and an antagonist, and other various dogma of “write-by-the-rules-of-my-best-selling-Hollywood-screenplay-book!” If technology for filmmaking changes at such a rapid blinding rate, why does the core of the film, THE STORY, remain stuck in some stiff Grecian tomb?
            I was also equally tired of hearing people tell me, “Yeah, but I want a likeable character that makes active choices.” What about an unlikable character that is passive and gets all kids of shit dumped on him and he NEVER does anything about it but sit on his new Ikea couch and play Wii? Because we all know those types exist in the world and why should we exclude them from being scrutinized and emotionally mutilated on screen? And, as is quoted from Herbert Spence in the introduction of the Sacher-Masoch book: “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” So...if we silly humans aren’t talking about and exploring all aspects of our crazy natures, all the fucked up shit we like to do to ourselves and each other, then where else are we going to talk about it if not in the films we make and watch? Avoiding our various neuroses in our arts does not make them go away, it only forces us into ignorance and judgement on others and ourselves.
            Back to the adaptation. It began simple. “Venus in Furs.”  A contemporary look at the Battle of the Sexes. Men generalizing about negative qualities in women. Women generalizing about negative qualities in men. Blah blah...As I wrote, I found myself delightfully disgusted with the characters, but unable to take my thoughts away from them and what little shits they all were. I loved to hate them. Then, as things progressed, I noticed something very interesting happening. I started to cling to one character as I continued to dislike the others. One character who, at the beginning, was the biggest shit there was, making some of the most sexist remarks I’d ever had a character say. I found that suddenly, I could not keep up the attempt to keep him unlikable.  I started to pity him, and hate those who were mean to him, even if he really deserved it. I felt sorry for him and his weird sexual perversion. At the end of the script, I had a character that had been so emotionally and physically abused, that I wanted to pick him up, hug him, give him some chamomile tea and tuck him into bed with a sweet good night kiss and some Vicks VapoRub.
            Essentially, I had failed.

beat his ass
I could not keep it up for this adaptation: the challenge to create and maintain completely unlikable characters. I wondered how it was that as a writer, I found myself gravitating towards one character whom I pushed to act more rationally and perhaps humanely than any of the others, despite my initial challenge to do the opposite. This says perhaps a lot about any number of things: how ingrained in our psyches are the structure and expectations of story telling? Do we have an innate need to identify and remain with at least one character? Why is it that "bad" or "evil" characters are more interesting to watch than good characters, even if we are rooting for the good guy to ultimately triumph? Perhaps we just need that reassurance that evil isn’t all around us, that even if that stinky robber-guy nabs your purse and runs, some piano is going to fall from the 10th story and land right on his head (but not your purse of course).
            I am not sure what my opinions are exactly on these ideas. I still want to revisit that challenge I had initially set out to do, but for this particular adaptation, it will have to wait.  And by the way, yes...I should read more Joseph Campbell and Rollo May. I know, I know.

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