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Posts Tagged ‘T.S. Eliot’

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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“I was the worst writer in my seventh grade class. And when I went to college I was the worst writer in my college class. But each time somebody told me to stop writing, I never stopped…When I went to graduate school and tried to get  a degree in creative writing they told me to stop because I wasn’t that good. And I didn’t stop writing.”
Akiva Goldsman
2007 WGA Rally

It seems every step of the way Akiva Goldsman has had someone tell him that he wasn’t that good of a writer. It’s a good thing that he has an Oscar to remind himself otherwise. But perhaps it was Goldsman’s naysayers that best prepared him to write the screenplay for A Beautiful Mind (2001).

As he told the story based on the life of John Nash and Sylvia Nasar’s bio of the mathematician who suffers from schizophrenia, Goldsman had to know he was also telling his story. A story of a man who knew that he could achieve something greater than what he had accomplished up to that point in his life. (By the way, that story or theme will resonate with every man, woman, and child that’s ever walked on this earth.)

Goldsman was raised in a group house where his mother, a child psychologist, lived and worked with children diagnosed with childhood schizophrenia.

“I am no expert on mental illness, but I am sure of one thing: the children who shared my home were not without reason. Their behavior made sense to them. They had reasons for everything they did. We just couldn’t understand their reasons. So, the idea of writing a screenplay about John’s life and the way he saw the world was tremendously exciting to me.”
Akiva Goldsman
A Beautiful Mind, The Shooting Script

An the team at Imagine Films (Brian Grazer, Karen Kehela, Ron Howard) got behind Goldsman’s vision of writing the story from the perspective of someone who has schizophrenia. Much of the time we see the world as Nash saw the world.

“It’s not a literal telling of Nash’s life. I tried to take the architecture of his life—his genius, his schizophrenia, his Nobel Prize—and construct a semi-fictional story.”
Akiva Goldsman

One of the pieces of the Nash’s life that became an anchor for the story was the relationship with his wife Alicia.

“It’s kind of a grown-up romance. The relationship was intensely complex, as where the challenges that Alicia and John faced together. John Nash’s story is incredibly heroic, but so is Alicia’s.”
Ron Howard
Director, A Beautiful Mind

One of the ways that Goldsman visually showed that bond comes at the 40 minute mark of the movie when Alicia puts a handkerchief in Nash’s tuxedo pocket just before he has his picture taken. On the DVD commentary this is how Goldsman explains the importance of that moment :

“Here’s where we set up the handkerchief. The sort of talisman, the ‘objective correlative’ as Wallace Stevens said. The object that represents emotion—in this case the handkerchief is the object that represents their love and will carry throughout the piece.”
Akiva Goldsman

The handkerchief becomes a motif throughout the film. And in the closing speech at the end of the film, John Nash is wearing the same handkerchief that she gave him—a symbol of their love and endurance.

And speaking of endurance. Goldsman not only endured the years in school where he was discouraged from continuing to write, but he was by his own admission a “failed novelist for ten years” before turning his hand to screenwriting. And screenwriting is where he started winning awards, unfortunately his first award was a Razzie which honors bad acting, writing and filmmaking. And he actually won two; the 1997 Batman & Robin (Worst Screenplay) and the 1996 A Time to Kill (Worst Written Film Grossing Over $100 million.) It must have good felt five years later to walk up and receive his Oscar for A Beautiful Mind.

And Goldsman has gone to write many other screenplays that have made him one of the highest paid screenwriters in the history of motion pictures.

P.S. I’m going to start throwing that phrase”objective correlative” around, because that really makes it sound like you know what you’re talking about. Not to mention that T.S. Eliot used it as well.

“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

Objective correlative. Hence the presence of some outward object, predetermined to correspond to the preexisting idea in its living power, is essential to the evolution of its proper end, — the pleasurable emotion.
Washington Allston around 1840 in the “Introductory Discourse” of his Lectures on Art

A few “objective correlative” examples off the top of my head are the volleyball from Cast Away (WILSON!), the fish from Jerry Maguire, and the Heart of the Ocean necklace from Titantic. Can you think of others?

Scott W. Smith

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“A thorough knowledge of Eliot is compulsory for anyone interested in contemporary literature. Whether he is liked or disliked is of no importance, but he must be read.”
Northrop Frye

“I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land

St. Louis born writer T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is best known for his poem The Waste Land, but he also won a Best Play Tony Award in 1950 for the Broadway production of The Cocktail Party. (He would have been 62 years old at the time.)  He won two more Tony’s for his poems that were used in the musical Cats. Less remembered these days is he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. He also wrote the screenplay (based on his play) for the 1951 movie Murder in the Cathedral.

The legendary literary editor Robert Giroux (who worked with Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, Jack Kerouac and many others) said of Eliot’s death that, “the world became a lesser place.”

I’m always interested in the writing habit of writers and think it can be a helpful guide for others. Knowing that Stephen King’s goal when writing a novel is 2,000 words a day allows you a glimpse of how he can write a first draft in three months. It’s a nuts and bolts way of demystifying the writing process.

“A great deal of my new play, The Elder Statesman, was produced in pencil and paper, very roughly. Then I typed it myself first before my wife got to work on it. In typing myself I make alterations, very considerable ones. But whether I write or type, composition of any length, a play for example, means for me regular hours, say ten to one. I found that three hours a day is about all I can do of actual composing. I could do polishing perhaps later. I sometimes found at that I wanted do go on longer, but when I looked at the stuff the next day, what I’d done after the three hours were up was never satisfactory.”
T.S. Eliot

And just in case you’re thinking, “Well, Eliot didn’t have a day job.” Before he made a living as a writer he worked as a banker by day and wrote poems, essays, and reviews at night. (He did this for eight years while at the same time taking care of his wife who suffered from migraines and depression.) He was 34-years-old when The Waste Land brought him fame and some financial rewards, but it would still be a few years before he quit his banker position.

Scott W. Smith


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“It is self-evident that St. Louis affected me more deeply than any other environment has ever done. I feel that there is something in having passed one’s childhood beside the big river, which is incommunicable to those people who have not. I consider myself fortunate to have been born here, rather than in Boston, or New York, or London.”
T.S. Eliot

The St. Louis Walk of Fame on The Loop honors those who have ties to St. Louis who have made a name for themselves in various fields. It’s a long eclectic mix from Charles Lindbergh, Chuck Berry, and Yogi Berra to Miles Davis, Bob Gibson, and William T. Sherman.

And, of course, there are those with ties to film, TV and theater including Vincent Price (House of Usher), Redd Foxx (Sanford & Son), Shelly Winters (A Patch of Blue),  Harold Ramis (Ghost Busters),  William Inge (Picnic), and Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire).

We often don’t connect Williams with St. Louis but that is where he moved as a youth and lived for 24 years, and where he is buried. His feeling of being an outsider (which dominate many of his plays) was developed growing up poor in St. Louis. (Or at least he felt poor compared to the rich people he saw.)  His play The Glass Menagerie is set in St. Louis. The character of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire is said to have been based on a man he worked with in a shoe factory in St. Louis.

Just another reminder that talent (and inspiration) comes from all over. It also reminded me of a few post I’ve done in the past touching on Missouri.

Screenwriting from Missouri

The Spirit of St. Louis & Screenwriting

Screenwriting Quote of the Day #54 (Walt Disney)

Scott W. Smith

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