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Posts Tagged ‘About Schmidt’

What in the hell is an “objective correlative”? And why do so many movies and plays have one?

There are things in your life that you’ve attached meaning to. When you see them they conjure up memories of people, places and events. If I give my wife Toblerone chocolate it’s a fond reminder of a train trip we took in Switzerland years ago. My office is full of things that remind me of special productions I’ve worked on over the years—a soccer shirt from Brazil, a bottle of wine from South Africa, a poster from Aspen. Just glancing at those objects reminds me of positive life experiences.

I have an emotional connection to those items that is not intrinsic to their being. And it’s not materialistic (total cost of those items was under $50.) but rather symbolic. The chocolate, the shirt, the wine, the poster all point to something beyond the common material itself. (Sometimes items of meaning are free. I have a matchbook from a place called the Beehive, a coffeehouse in Pittsburgh, where I did a video shoot 20 years ago.* I smile everytime I see that matchbook.)

Writers of books, plays and movies tap into that emotion when they give meaning to certain places and objects. It’s what T.S. Eliot called the “objective correlative.”

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”
T.S. Eliot/Hamlet and His Problems

In the movie Forrest Gump, when the older Jenny comes upon her childhood home an emotion is immediately evoked—upset, she begins throwing rocks at the house. And in the voice-over Forrest says, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.” The double whammy there is Jenny not only feels that emotion of remembering an abusive childhood, but the audience feels it as well. There’s a connection. An emotion that we feel for Jenny, but also an emotion that we personally know that, “Sometimes I guess they’re just aren’t enough rocks.”

One of my favorite examples of an objective correlative is the volleyball in (another Tom Hanks movie) Cast Away. Hanks’ character, stranded on a deserted island, befriends a volleyball, paints a face on it, names it Wilson and it becomes his companion. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. and director Robert Zemeckis knew exactly the emotional impact it would have when Wilson is tragically lost at sea. (Another tragedy is Wilson the Volleyball is uncredited in the film.)

Now audiences don’t look at Jenny’s childhood house or Wilson and say, “Oh, look, an objective correlative.” It’s an emotional reaction. Objective correlative is just the technical phrase of something that’s useful to have in your writer’s tool kit.

“Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie. Objective correlative: the glass unicorn whose horn gets broken in the second act by the gentleman caller. Yes, a fragile sensitive little glass unicorn figurine. Fanciful? Beautiful? Tragic? Poignant? Phallic? Call it what you will, but baby, it brings with it a host of emotions. When it happens on stage, it’s damn powerful.”
Richard W. Krevolin
Screenwriting from the Soul
page 71

The more a writer is fond of symbolism (as Tennessee Williams was) the more likely you are to find a objective correlatives in their work. I’m sure there are other writers who’ve gone their entire career without giving a second thought to the concept of  a objective correlative. (Though they probably instinctively had them sprinkled throughout their work.) But if even the basic concept of an objective correlative turns you off as a writer, consider that one of the mostly highly regarded movies in the history of cinema, Citizen Kane, is filled with objective correlatives; the puzzle, the snow globe, and, of course, Rosebud.

It’s the cherry orchard in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, it’s the Ferrari in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, it’s the compressed air and cattle gun in No Country for Old Men, and the list goes on and on and on. You get the point. Now if you really dig this kind of thing here are some additional thoughts and quotes on the matter:

“I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfshiem, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explains that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant.”
Richard Yate
Some Very Good Masters
New York Times Book Review, April 19,1981

“I borrow the term Objective Correlative from T. S. Eliot and adapt it to mean an external object that represents a character or a state of mind. Rocky’s locker is Rocky’s manhood. When it is taken from him, it is like a castration. In Truly Madly Deeply, the cello is Jamie. In About Schmidt (by Louis Begley and Alexander Payne), when he sees his carefully prepared reports in the garbage, it represents the entirety of his life’s work.”
Hal Ackerman
Write Screenplays That Sell
Page 207

In one episode of the great TV program Northern Exposure Chris (John Corbett) defends his master’s thesis and actually uses the term  ‘objective correlative’ and identifies T. S. Eliot as the source. Which led David Lavery to write,  “Though I cannot be absolutely certain, I would venture to say that this may have been the first, and perhaps the only, time ‘objective correlative’ was ever discussed in prime-time.”

*Quirky fact: The cameraman for that shoot I did in Pittsburgh 20 years ago was related to Geroge Romero who directed the original Night of the Living Dead.
Quirky fact 2: Just went to the Beehive website and learned that according to one of the owners Scott Kramer, “The name Beehive came from a place in France where all the artists were living in the 1930s. Artists can come here and ideas can flow.” Check it out if you’re in Pittsburgh, or the next time you go there.

Update 5/15/13: According to the The Writing Barn post Craft Talk Tuesday with Carol Brender, “Term [objective  correlative] first coined prior to 1850 by Washington Allston , but later given its more literary meaning by T.S. Eliot in an essay about why Hamlet is a failed play.”

Scott W. Smith

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Our screenwriting quote of the day comes from Skip Press on the benefits of gathering actors together to do a reading of your script:

“If you live in Keokuk, Iowa, and write a screenplay, you might find that actors will flock to you for the chance to participate in a reading. I don’t know much about the actors in Iowa, but I do know the Iowa Writers Program is one of the best in the world. And if the movie About Schmidt is any indication of what you can do in Iowa, there’s great work to be done there.”
                                                     Skip Press
                                                     The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Screenwriting
                                                     Chapter 19 What a Reading Can Show You
                                                     Page 241

Notice how Iowa always gets picked on as the last place you’d expect anything to be happening in the film world? Hence, that’s why I chose the name Screenwriting from Iowa.

Now I have been to Keokuk in the southeast corner of Iowa (on the Mississippi River) and they actually have a film festival there called the Keokuk Independent Film Festival so, yes, my guess is you can find actors to read your script in a remote place like Keokuk. (And just for the record Keokuk is about two hours from Marceline, MO where Walt Disney spent time part of his childhood and about an hour away from Hannibal, MO where Mark Twain was raised.)

But I do have to correct Skip on one thing and that is the script for About Schmidt was written by Nebraska native Alexander Payne and filmed in Omaha, Nebraska. Granted just over the Missouri River from Iowa, but I wanted to make that clarification. (It’s kind of like that distinction that folks in Southern California like to make between LA County and Orange County. Or 213 and 818 area codes. Similar, yet different.) But he is correct when he says that there is great work to be done here in Iowa. And I’m guessing wherever you live and write.

To learn more about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop that Skip said “is one of the best in the world” read my post The Juno-Iowa Connection.

And I am planning on following Skip’s advice by doing a reading of a new script I hope to complete this month, so if there are any actors interested in the Cedar Valley please contact me via email at info@scottwsmith.com. (I could arrange something in Minneapolis, Des Moines, Chicago, or even Keokuk if there is a group of actors interested.)

And for the record, Alexander Payne who won an Academy Award for best adapted script for Sideways (written with Jim Taylor) shows that you can come from Omaha and do well in Hollywood. And I don’t know how many actors there are in Omaha now, but that’s where Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando came from so they have a good heritage. (To read more about Nebraska please read Screenwriting from Nebraska.)

Speaking of Nebraska, if anyone knows where I can get a copy of Robert Duvall’s 1977 directorial debut We’re Not the Jet Set please let me know. (It’s a documentary about a rodeo family in Ogallala, Nebraska.) And speaking of We’re Not the Jet Set, here’s a song by that title recorded by Tammy Wynette & George Jones that I’m guessing you’ve probably never seen or heard. (I hadn’t until yesterday.)

7:36 PM Update: I just came back from seeing Jim Carrey in Yes Man where even he had a blast in Lincoln, Nebraska.

 

Text Copyright ©2009  Scott W. Smith

 

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