Saturday, December 29, 2007

The deal with the audience

Many people put their faith in charismatic individuals who embody a value they wish they had themselves. The strong leader, the wise guru, the energetic motivator, the happy-go-lucky celebrity, etc.

The same can be said of the way believers find strength in religious images or personalities. It’s also true of the positive side of the therapeutic relationship.

All these situations have in common that an individual vicariously experiences the love, strength, determination, courage or whatever it is they feel they lack. Of course this vicarious experience is a bit of an oxymoron. You can’t really have an emotion without … well, having the emotion.

By attributing the feeling or trait to an external figure, an individual allows that repressed or underdeveloped aspect of themselves to express itself safely. It’s not them feeling brave or loving, it’s God, Saint Bono, their yoga instructor, etc.

Does this sound a little like what happens when you see a really great movie? No coincidence. It’s the same mechanism at work here too. Which is why a main character has to be designed in such a way that the audience can experience their emotions while keeping up the pretence that it’s the character on the screen who is being brave, loving, terrified, etc.

Whether the audience does anything with the emotions they permitted themselves to feel, is their business. But if the film makes them experience compassion, courage, self-confidence or whatever else, it proves the film was well-made and that they have that potential within them.

Which kind of sums up the unspoken deal between audience and filmmaker: The audience pays to be made to experience emotions they normally keep under wraps.

Next time you re-read one of your scenes, imagine yourself in the audience watching it. If you don’t feel anything, uplifting or otherwise, you’re not keeping your side of the bargain.

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