This analysis will contain spoilers about: Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), Trainspotting (1995), Das Leben der Anderen (2006)
Before the Spoiler and after it there will be a warning so you can savely skip the information and watch the specific movie unspoiled (which in 75% of the mentioned movies will be a better experience than this essay)
Less is more
Going into movies is no disconnected experience, when we decide if we liked a movie after the credits start rolling we won’t be able to look at the movie as something that has nothing to do with ourselves – quite the contrary, the reason a movie stays with us after it has ended depends on our emotional investment. If the movie triggers the emotion the director intended he can make us cry like little children while watching UP or make us cheer for the Ghostbusters.
Resonating with the audience demands a high set of skills which obviously means that a million things can go wrong if the filmmaker doesn’t use his tools correctly, the sentimental music in the background can suddenly reach a peak where the audience is no longer “in” the movie because of the things that should bring them into the story in the first place.
When discussing tragic scenes with a friend of mine we came to a strange conclusion: that the scenes which moved us most were the scenes that were not presented as such (or at least didn’t fit the cliché of “sad movie scene”).
Our two examples were:
At the end of Trainspotting Mark decides that he will no longer live the life of an addict – he changes and leaves the apartment, but changing your lifestyle is not without sacrifice. When Mark prepares to leave the room his friend Spud wakes up. For a short moment they look at each other in silent understanding – they will no longer see each other because Spud will remain an addict.
[END OF SPOILER]
Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)
Gerd Wiesler is spying for the governmant on an author named Georg Dreyman in East-Berlin (1984). During the course of the movie he develops sympathy for Dreyman and decides to fake his transcripts, not mentioning Dreyman’s activities against the government. After the fall of the wall in Berlin the author finds out about the fact that Wiesler saved him from persecution, so he decides to write a book dedicated to Wiesler. The final scene shows Wiesler going into the bookstore, reading Dreyman’s thanks. He goes to the cashier, who politely asks him if he wants him to gift-wrap it, to which Wiesler answers: “No it’s for me.”
[END OF SPOILER]
In both movies the emotion is presented in a very normal context, be it a simple look or a dialog we hear almost every time we go shopping. There is some music in the background, but it is not that loud or important. The actors themselves are not bursting into tears or tearing up, they either look or say their lines, yet we notice that there is more going on in this scene than what is on screen. This is the movie power, the scene is stripped down to contain barely enough information for us to reflect the movie and ponder about what this means. Of course there is more than just McGregor’s look or those three throwaway lines.
Discussing those scenes made us come to the conclusion that it seems like the movie refuses to work for us, but instead orders us to work for him. My friend poignantly formulated it this way: “If a movie is already sad, there is sad music, the actor is crying, the camera is focusing on the tears – well then what do I have to do? There is no reason being sad, the movie is already doing the job for me.”
The beauty of both sequences is that it connects to us and asks us what we’re thinking about this situation: Do we want to feel redemption? Is it a relief? Or a bittersweet ending to a story that could have gone way into the wrong direction?
There is no definitive interpretation, which means we have to get our own set of morals and let the movie take a place in the back – it is no longer about the movie it is about how I feel about a scene, how I would react – thus the moviejourney gets more intimate than simply telling the audience what to feel.
Having now discovered a very exciting and multilayered angle in a short sequence, this of course leads to the question:
Why don’t movies do this all the time?
The answer is of course simple: it’s one of the toughest jobs to do. Million things can go wrong, from shooting to acting. Just because McGregor and the late Ulrich Mühe don’t do a lot of oscarworthy courtroomcrying it doesn’t mean that it is a simple job – conveying this massive subtext in some simple lines is a tough job for the actor and if you don’t have actors like Mühe at hand your final scene might as well come around as a pretentious uninspired monolog.
Another advantage of not forcing onto the audience is that if the audience doesn’t connect, people won’t be as annoyed as they are when watching the dramatic death of a character that has cancer while the protagonists weep and the lights go out dramatically as the music swells to a melancholic climax. If this dramatic scene doesn’t work we will be angry, because if we are not connected to the movie and the movie insists on the fact that this is really really sad, than we won’t be able to look at it with a straight face.
So how do the big guys deal with this?
Warning! The rest of the review is detailing plotpoints of Avatar (2009) and Star Wars (1977) so it won’t be spoilerfree at all:
When making a multimillion dollar movie about the epic quest of a farmboy against a universe controlled by darkness or about a boy going on a lifetimes journey to destroy the most powerful weapon while wrestling with temptation and power, you will be well advised to sell your story as epic as it is. The language movie epics like Lord of the Rings use is by definition a different one based on the fact that the scale of the story and the stakes are of epic proportions. Choices in movies like Trainspotting deal with our own demons and mortality while choices in epics will eventually affect not only the person but the whole country, planet, universe, multiverse, batcave.
When watching James Cameron’s fantasy epic Avatar there was one very tragic scene
When the evil Colonel Quaritch decides to destroy the hometree of the Na’vi we witness military aircrafts aligning and firing their rockets into the tree. Burning the tree collapses and leaves a horde of crying and shattered Na’vi. After the massacre Neytiri finds her father lying dead on the earth. She sinks down, crying over his dead body.
When watching this scene the first time I involuntarily had to chuckle – not because I’m a deranged madman who takes joy in killing treehuggers, but because of the fact that this scene fell exactly under the category “The movie is doing all the work”. Everything in this moment screamed “SAD!”, the music, how the characters acted, how around them everything was burning down – the movie was well aware of its importance, yet it was overdone to a point where it wasn’t even funny anymore. It didn’t help that the characters who lost their life in this scene hadn’t been real 3dimensional characters in the first place so their death is not even felt as an emotional loss – to paraphrase: it’s not like Gandalf is suddenly gone.
So to me this sequence in Avatar was the textbook example of a movie trying to be sad, but because I was not connected I was annoyed by the fact that the movie dramatized everything in a way that made Pocahontas look like a subtle movie.
But what are examples of the right mixture between epic and subtle emotion?
After telling Obi Wan that he couldn’t join him to fight the Empire he heads home, being afraid that the Empire might have found out that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru have bought the sought after droids. When Luke arrives at the farm the Empire has already been here: the homestead is burning, we see the skeletons of Luke’s relatives, Luke is looking at them while John Williams’s score is swelling and we cut to three tie fighters heading towards the Deathstar.
Now I won’t argue that Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are characters with a Shakespearean depth, they are very much like the sidecharacters in Avatar just people with not much to do except die. Yet we had some interaction between Owen and Luke before that showed us their family relation and their mundane problems, we have a little profile in the back of our head “Owen: strict, concerned, Beru: understanding” and that’s it.
Before shooting this scene Mark Hamill proposed that Luke should fall down to his knees in front of the homestead and cry, but George Lucas refused to shoot it like this. Now Luke just stands there, looks down and then the music swells and we cut to the Empire. It helps that we have Williams’s magnificent score in the background which would automatically win us over any time, but very similar to the examples I picked in the beginning George Lucas knew that you don’t necessarily need to force us to be sad, Luke not crying means playing the ball to the audience, asking an emotional response from them, the figure standing immobile staring at the burning remnants of his relatives followed by a cut to the sheer infinite resources of the Empire is colossal in scope, yet the core emotion which makes this scene work has to be put into the movie by us – the audience.