Archive for November, 2011

Aesthetic Emotion

“Aesthetics is for the artist as Ornithology is for the birds.”
Barnett Newman

“Aestheticism is a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science of the beautiful through which men seek the correlation of the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.”
Oscar Wilde

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “aesthetic emotion” or how long it’s been around, but this definition on Wikipedia is pretty good as I understand what it means:

“Aesthetic emotions refer to emotions that are felt during aesthetic activity and/or appreciation. These emotions may be of the everyday variety (such as fear, wonder or sympathy) or may be specific to aesthetic contexts. Examples of the latter include the sublime, the beautiful, and the kitsch. In each of these respects, the emotion usually constitutes only a part of the overall aesthetic experience, but may play a more or less definitive role for that state.”

Since I’ve been covering the topic of emotions in filmmaking and screenwriting for almost three weeks now I thought I’d throw aesthetic emotion in the mix. While the word aesthetic isn’t as popular a word as when philosopher Immanuel Kant and others kicked the term around in the 18th century, its origins go back to at least the Greeks who were concerned with the study of beauty. Ideals that had more to do with moral and spiritual implications of beauty than say the cover of Vogue magazine.

An article I found online about British art critic and philosopher Clive Bell reads:

“He claimed (in his book Art, 1914) that there is a certain uniquely aesthetic emotion, and that aesthetic qualities are the qualities in an object that evoke this emotion. In the visual arts, what arouses this emotion is certain “forms and relations of forms” (including line and color), which Bell called “significant form”. Aesthetic response to significant form is not to be identified, according to Bell, with other emotional responses. For example, a photograph of a loved one might evoke fond memories and feelings of love; the statue of the planting of the flag at Iwo Jima might arouse feelings of patriotism; the Vietnam War Memorial might evoke feelings of grief or lament (my examples). While these are all perfectly appropriate responses, they are not aesthetic responses. Rather the aesthetic response is a response to the forms and relations of forms themselves, regardless of what other meanings, associations or uses they may have. It is a strong emotion, often a kind of ecstasy, akin to the ecstasy felt in religious contemplation. The emotion, and the kinds of significant form that evoke it, are the same for cave art, Polynesian carvings, a Vermeer painting or a Cezanne.”

Robert McKee in his classic book Story dedicated a few pages to aesthetic emotion, including this passage;

“When an idea wraps itself around an emotional charge, it becomes all the more powerful, all the more profound, all the more memorable. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever… A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. In art, they are meaningful now, at the instant they happen.

In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual. It does not express ideas in dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather the exchange between artist and audience expresses idea directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion. It requires no mediator, no critic to rationalize the transaction.”

A movie scene that jumps to my mind of showing  aesthetic emotion is from The Shawshank Redemption written and directed by Frank Darabont, where Mozart’s music is played in the prison courtyards;

“I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is—I don’t want to know, some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful that it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.” 

(Go to the 3:00 minute mark of the clip below to get the essence of the scene.)

Scott W. Smith

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Cinematography & Emotions

“There was certain quality of melancholy that Connie (Conrad Hall) carried with him that he was very in touch with and you feel it in the films.”
Director  Glenn Gordon Caron

Melancholy can be defined as a pensive mood or depressing spirit. If you read many bios of artists across the board (painters, writers, musicians, etc.) you will find a common thread of melancholy. Apparently three-time Oscar winning director of photography Conrad L. Hall (1923-2003) brought that to his cinematography.

“He shot (Searching for Bobby Fisher) from the eyeline of the child. Chess was a distant intellectual pursuit and somehow (the movie) seemed visceral and emotional and suffused with a different kind of power and it was entirely with how it had been shot an lit.”

Director Sam Mendes

Mendes was a 34-year old director making his first film when he first worked with Conrad Hall who was then in his seventies. Both of the films that Hall worked on with Mendes (American Beauty and The Road to Perdition) earned him Academy Awards. They were also Hall’s last two features before he died.

Looking over Conrad’s long list of credits I recall certain scenes—emotional scenes. The fight scene in Cool Hand Luke (1967), the endings Electra Glide in Blue (1973), the ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), a visit to the dentist in Marathon Man (1976),  and the reflection of the rain on Robert Blake’s face in In Cold Blood (1967).
Obviously there was a team of talented professionals working in collaboration with Hall on those films, but in writing the past couple of weeks on emotions in regard to screenwriting I thought I’d touch on what a director of photography brings to the table besides just a camera and some lights.

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For just over two weeks I’ve been writing about the role of emotions in filmmaking and screenwriting and somehow I missed that Richard Walter has a whole chapter in his book Essentials of Screenwriting simply titled Emotion. Here is part of what the Professor of Screenwriting at UCLA’s MFA program wrote:

Film is for feeling.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but first and last there is that. Moreover, what audiences feel need not be pleasure. Frighten the folks, make them cry, make them angry; they will stand in line to see your movie. Human beings need regularly to experience strong emotions; it’s how we know we are alive. As surely as muscles atrophy from disuse, so also do feelings.

Consider the movie theater a gymnasium for the senses. It is an arena not for serenity and logic, not for intellect and reason, but for passion.

…The hard fact is that our daily lives are racked not so much with pain as with tedium. Our hours overflow with trivial chores. Sadly, the predominant feeling experienced by most people most of the time is no feeling at all but rather the absence of feeling: numbness, boredom. If art is first and foremost concerned with feeling, it should come as no surprise that artists are people who experience feelings intensely. When they feel bad they feel despondent, even suicidal. When they feel good they feel ecstatic. 

Screenwriters should embrace screenwriting for what it is; the business of feeling.”
Richard Walter

Earlier this year I did several posts from an interview with Richard:

The Enemy of Creativity

Screenwriting’s Great Divider

Keeping Solvent and Sane

The Death of Originality

The Advantage of Being from ______

Filmmaker as Artist/Entrepreneur

Finding Your Voice

Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter

Scott W. Smith

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Edward Dmytrk on Emotion

The following quote from the Oscar-nominated director of Crossfire  (and more than 50 other films including The Cain Mutiny) seems like a fitting quote to follow yesterday’s post Emotional Manipulation;

“Today, many film-makers are afraid to deal with sentiment, dismissing it as sentimentality. But the ability to properly handle sentiment and its underlying emotion, to get the most out of it without going over the line into mawkishness, is the trademark of the true dramatist. The greatest dramas ever written or performed have been ‘love stories’, concerned with the emotional contrasts and conflicts of human beings. If the characters in a film do not ‘touch’ each other, how can they possibly touch the viewer?”
Edward Dmytrk
On Screen Writing (first published in 1985) 

Movie Maker Article Edward Dmytryk, Odd Man Out

Scott W. Smith

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Emotional Manipulation

“Isn’t the whole point of making a trip to the movie theater that you’re actually hoping to be emotionally manipulated? Because you want someone to tell you a story that will then make you laugh or cry?
Jim Hill 

“Our results suggest that film-makers manipulate sounds to create non-linear analogues to manipulate our emotional responses.”
ABC Science, Movies manipulate our primal response 

Since I’ve been writing positively about emotions in screenwriting and filmmaking, I should give a little time to the other side of the coin.  Not everyone is a fan of movies that have a more emotional bent. The chief argument is usually that they don’t like being manipulated.

We’ve all been to movies where we roll our eyes at certain scenes because it just seems that the filmmakers were going over the top for the tears to flow. Scenes that come off more corny and sentimental. Of course, we are in a subjective minefield here. Try telling some people that Love Story or The Bridges of Madison County is emotional pornography and you’re stepping on some people’s favorite films.

Complain about a scene where a couple are kissing in the rain and you may invoke an emotional rage if their favorite film is The Notebook…or Enchanted, Sweet Home Alabama, Breakfast at Tiffany’sCast Away, Street of FireDear John. (For the record, I think George Stevens got in right in A Place in the Sun (1951) when the young couple runs for shelter from them rain and that sparks their first kiss.)

Here’s what animation historian Michael Barrier is quoted as saying about the beloved Pixar movies:

“I think they are emotionally manipulative in a fundamentally dishonest way. I dont think the people making the films are necessarily dishonest, but they don’t seem attuned to what their stories are saying. One example, in the opening montage of ‘Up,’ you’re essentially being strong armed into shedding tears about Carl and Ellie… to me, it was grotesquely sentimental and a lot of people were looking for an excuse to break into tears, and obviously this was for them. And ‘Cars’ has, there’s a sentimentality in most Pixar pictures that are very manipulative and completely unconvincing to me. They are congratulating their audience for feeling these synthetic emotions and, to me, that’s offensive.”

To paraphrase Police Chief Marge Gunderson in Fargo, “I’m not sure that I agree with you on your analytical work there,  Mr. Barrier.” (Though I know many do.)

A distinction of many independent and foreign films is they are more cerebral than a typical Hollywood main stream hit film. They appeal more to the intellect. (And professional film critics and film scholars tend to be on the intellectual side.) But if some emotional films come off sappy, it’s fair to say that many intellectual films come off cold. It’s a balance. And in a world that just a couple of weeks ago passed the seven billion people mark—there are seven billion personalities.

I personally think there was a head, heart and soul to Toy Story 3. And Toy Story 3 not only made over one billion dollars, it won the Academy Award for best Animated Film, and earned a rare 100% at Rotten Tomatoes from top movie critics. That won’t sway people like Barrier, but I think Toy Story 3 is a great film to study that works on many layers without going over the top.

The simple truth is we go to films to be manipulated. A lot of time, effort, skill and money go into picking the right sound effects, the right music, the right lighting, the right camera moves, the right wardrobe, and putting the right props in place so that actors wearing make up and saying made up lines will capture an audience with a story.

While manipulate is often used in a derogatory way, perhaps it’s wise to step back and look at the first definition of manipulate as found at the Merriam-Webster website:

1: To treat or operate with or as if with hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner.

May all of you screenwriters and filmmakers out there be skillful manipulators.

Scott W. Smith

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“Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time. It doesn’t matter what emotion it is, but make damn sure he or she feels something. “
William M. Akers
Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 ways to make it better

One of the 100 Ways to make your script better in William M. Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks! is this:

22. You don’t give the reader enough emotion!

Emotion can be anything. Laughter. Fear. Compassion. Heartache. Lust.

One of the illustrations Akers’ mentions in his book is the scene in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial when Elliott and E.T. fly for the first time silhouetted against the moon. Earlier this year Filmclub voted another scene from that movie as cinema’s most powerful moment.;

1. ET: the Extra-Terrestrial (PG, 1982): ET says goodbye to his friends and heads home in a spaceship, leaving a rainbow trailing across the sky.

2. Toy Story 3 (U, 2010): The toys hold hands and face their fate.

3. Rocky (PG, 1976): The emotionally-charged climactic fight.

4. Bambi (U, 1942): The moment when tragedy touches the young life of Bambi in the shape of his mother’s death.

5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (PG, 1969): The scene in which the besieged cowboys leap out of their bunker, all guns blazing.

6. The Wizard of Oz (U, 1939): When Dorothy opens the door of her grey house to behold a world filled with colour.

7. Battleship Potemkin (PG, 1925): The influential “Odessa steps” massacre scene.

8. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (U, 1939): The filibuster scene makes a powerful case for justice: “I’m going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause.”

9. Network (15, 1976): When news anchor Howard Beale announces: “I’m as mad as hell.”

10. Miracle in Milan (U, 1951): Final scene when Toto and his friends rise into the sky on brooms.

Is it even possible to have a memorable scene that isn’t emotional? (This is why I’ve been on this thread for two-weeks. I think it’s the most overlooked aspect in screenwriting circles.)

Also note that there is a mixture of joy and sadness in the above list. And in the cases of E.T. and Rocky, the filmmakers pulled off a mixture of joy and sadness in one scene. Two emotions for the price of one.

Related  Post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9)

 Scott W. Smith

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Emotion & James Cameron

“(James Cameron) gets a lot of points for being a techno-brat, but he is a very emotional storyteller.”
Steven Spielberg 

“James Cameron has made the two biggest movies ever made, and say what you will about his dialogue or his characterizations, but every single one of his movies obviously have resonated with a HUGE audience across the world. They all back up the eye-melting spectacle on display with an emotional story, and that is absolutely no accident.”
Nate Newton

“Cameron has long claimed that Titanic was at its core a love story. Or at least that’s how he approached the venture. It’s great to have a story with huge scope and stakes, but writers have to provide points of emotional connection for the reader in order for them to become invested in that bigger story.”
Scott Myers

“I think its interesting you can have a film like Inconvenient Truth, which actually gives you a lot of facts but it’s not a particularly emotional film, it’s not emotional at all. Avatar is exactly the opposite it doesn’t give you the facts at all – it assumes you know the facts or you know the issues – it gives you an emotional context – it gives you a sense of – let’s say – a moral outrage when you see the tree destroyed and when you see the people gassed and displaced from their ancestral home and so on, and out of that sense of outrage then you evolve to a sense of triumph and hope because good conquers evil at the end of the film. I think you put those two emotions together and it could be effective in galvanizing people to actually do something – in a way in having all the facts triggers a sense of denial.”
James Cameron 

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