Friday, March 20, 2009

On The Evolution Of Reversals By Natural Selection

In a recent interview with The New Yorker, writer-director Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton fame, amongst other things, comments on the problem that audiences have become accustomed to “… an aesthetic of disorientation.”

Lots of mainstream movies now routinely play around with chronology and use sophisticated cutting in order to maintain suspense. Audiences catch on quickly though, forcing filmmakers to push the creative envelope again and again.

Take for example the wonderful tv drama Damages. I’m well hooked on the second series, although I have to admit, my attention is waning. And here’s why:

The series is all about deception, mistrust, and backstabbing, so it constantly has to reveal new, surprising information to remain suspenseful. Otherwise it would just be another trite (albeit stunningly acted) linear, legal drama. Although the series meets this challenge pretty impressively, I’m beginning to become immune to the following scene:

We see someone in a parked car, in profile, looking troubled. This is a character we’ve been following and have built up some sympathy for, as they’ve been portrayed as something of an underdog or a victim. Then we pull out and discover … shock-horror … one of the bad guys is sitting next to them in the car, and they’re in cahoots.

Sure, this increases our understanding of the character, perhaps we suddenly understand their moral dilemma, or their corruptness. The device certainly moves the story along, and it worked really well for me the first few times I saw it. However, now whenever I see anyone in a parked car looking troubled, I’m out of the narrative. I’m playing: “Guess the treachery” with myself, because the scene has been overplayed, it’s become predictable.

The essence of a good reversal, is its unpredictability. The more a reversal subverts the audience’s expectations (based on what’s preceded the reversal onscreen), the more effective it is. But surprise isn’t sufficient in itself. The surprise has to change the stakes in some way, in order to really hold the audience’s interest. Even better than merely changing the audience’s expectation of what is to come, is doing so while undermining their assumptions about what they’ve already seen.

One great way to achieve this, is what Tony Gilroy does a few times in the movie Michael Clayton. He deploys a ballsy combination of non-chronological editing and repetition. We see the same short scene twice at very different moments in the film. The first time might be a flash forward, or the second time a flashback. Either way, because of what we’ve witnessed in between, our interpretation of the film so far changes drastically when we see the scene for the second time.

It’s precisely this realization that we were fooled the first time we saw the scene, which is such a great “reversal” sensation. It’s strange that it’s so pleasurable to realize you’ve been hoodwinked, but that’s what it boils down to. The audience craves this sensation of been fooled.

Unfortunately, every time they are fooled they become a little harder to fool.

And so reversals evolve …

(Thanks to Andy Conway at Shooting People for pointing out the article!)

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