Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tell Me No Lies

What does truth on the screen look like?

My mantra has long been, to paraphrase a line Billy Wilder wrote for Betty Schaefer in "Sunset Boulevard", that I think pictures should say something, not just sit there like an abstract piece of art waiting for individual interpretation. Oh sure, there is subjectivity and interpretation in everything we watch and read and a little mystery is a good thing but a film shouldn't leave us feeling like we're watching an old episode of Mark Goodson's "Match Game" where Gene Rayburn holds up a card and we've got to fill in a crucial element of the story.

You remember that show, right? Well, I do and it usually made me mad.  Gene Rayburn asks a question like "Dumb Dora is so dumb. She has been in Kindergarten so long, she's the only girl in class with  _______" and the OBVIOUS answer is boobs. Seriously, BOOBS. But do they say boobs? No. They say grandchildren, maternity dress and hysterectomy. You know what the matching answer turns out to be? Gray hair! WRONG. It's BOOBS, you morons! At which point, I threw my popsicle at the television and got yelled at later because when I was a kid televisions got really hot after they had been on for awhile and if you forgot to pick up your popsicle AND didn't dust behind the television like you were supposed to before you went swimming and then your step-father found cherry hairballs on the floor when he got home from work, you would get yelled at. And grounded from swimming which wasn't fair because my sister didn't fold the clothes either and guess who did NOT get grounded from anything because she was younger (18 months younger, big whoop) and I should help her and remind her to do her chores?

That, my friends, is truth. Stuff you can relate to - frustration, anger, making a mistake, feeling cheated, being justly punished, being unjustly punished, not being punished at all, feeling loss, abandoning responsibility, unfair expectations. People know what that's like. They can identify. Maybe they can empathize a little. They know who that kid is. Maybe they know that kid as an adult. Maybe they ARE that kid.

The "lack of truth" is any story that comes across like Dumb Dora. We're told she's dumb and still in Kindergarten. Who can identify or understand her in any way? We don't feel anything because we're left to our own devices to fill in the blanks. I'm not saying that we need every single answer. What happened to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"? Do we really know? Yes, we do and no, we don't. But we do know Butch and Sundance and not because we have robbed trains. We know them because we understand love and loss and grand dreams and not knowing how to swim and all the things about the film that make if feel "true".

The Black Board recently tweeted an old discussion where they quote Terry Rossio as saying:
"Call it truth, wisdom, insight, epiphany, revelation, or theme… truth always works up there on screen. It may never show up on a response card, but an audience hopes for the story to be ‘right,' for it to resonate within them, for it to be ‘about something.' The audience eats up truth whenever it's presented — truth about the human spirit, truth of the world, truth of a particular character, or the truth of an ideal. It's never overlooked; in fact, the audience is searching for it. And when they find it, it's the ultimate way for the audience to connect with a story."
Having presented to your my argument that truth on the screen is basically that which makes your story feel real, I also fully acknowledge that truth, much like love, is recognizable to all but defies explanation.

In his Wordplay article, Deep Thoughts, Terry Rossio also has this to say about truth:
It is nearly a universal quality of human beings to be able to recognize the Truth -- and that's Truth with a capital 'T' -- nearly always when it is presented to them. Yet it is a rare quality to be able to define the Truth, and to make those presentations.
So, basically, what I'm thinking here is that we better recognize when the truth is missing from what we have written because although readers may not be able to verbalize what exactly that big blank is they're feeling while they're reading our screenplays, something deep in their guts is telling them it should have been boobs instead of gray hair.

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