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The Torch: Your film’s emotional balance sheet

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Emotions arguably are the best a film can convey to its audience, inspiring laughter or sadness, causing horror or any form of entertaining bewilderment and touching us deeply. The balance-sheet – what appears on it should under no circumstances be a matter of surfaces.

thetorch.jpgShould you happen to think of putting on a mere show when trying to consolidate your draft with strong effects, think again – your audience is not stupid. Where emotions are concerned, all fiction ends right where it begins and must be grounded in real life and experience, even if it’s just second hand.

Maybe film is closer to life and the hidden sentimentalist in us, so we are willing to suffer more pathos with the moving image than with other art forms such as music or writing for instance. A film can be solemn and highly emotive, and it will be okay with most people to quite an astonishing degree. The impact is straight to the heart and can at times be so direct as to literally bypass your mind’s forefront and not awaiting brain feedback. As a filmmaker this puts you in an awkward position, because your film’s delivery will be swift and immediate, it will sink right in and be affectively absorbed; but naturally, this same mechanism will instantly backfire if the balance isn’t adequate.

To get it right, the first thing you should never lose sight of while preparing, then crafting your film is the golden rule whereby the emotional significance of a film should not exist for their makers alone. Instead it needs to be visually translated to (re)present an experience of like impact for the viewer. The idea behind any film as an idea is never romantic but practical, and that’s why it works – if it does.

The human element is rich, complex and contradictory, and it has a sheer endless repertoire of variations on offer that range from tormented soul and split character with conflicting loyalties, all the way to the most common and seemingly plain (but not shallow) personality. Their articulations and clashes as manifest in private conversations or when put on public display are ours as well, so we know them, we can relate to them for we all share in that life stream of trial and error causing, virtually, mixed emotions. On the dark side of things we have anger and rage, the fury locked up for the longest time, then coming to the surface in an outburst of emotion like a dormant volcano erupting, which makes for some of the most engaging stories and can form lasting pictures. But by no means does it have to be the most spectacular always; ordinariness has its wonders, too, which means you can discover your stories wherever you find them to explore the usually non-heroic nature around you with like virtue. There you may find some of the purest of emotions – and if simple, make it irresolvable for such is life and the state of human relations.

When dealing with human emotions it is of course about psychology and the labyrinthine ways and trappings of personality of which we are speaking, and when addressed in film, the showing (if not to say the exhibition) of what these, our emotions, can be and lead us to do, needs to be true to life, no abstraction. Heed the fact that what we feel is in no way stable and fixed, but may (and indeed does) vary and sway quite often, at times swinging all the way from one extreme to its exact opposite, or even, in case of getting stuck, undergoing slight subtle changes at a snails pace, only to resurface at some other time and in some other form (but with a vengeance). Such subliminal transformations are especially rewarding to watch and exceptionally challenging as a filmmaker or actor to capture and plausibly (credibly) bring across on screen. But as for character study, such is the material exactly that will keep us entertained as viewers and incite empathy on a scale which at times can match or even surpass what attraction we are able (and willing) to allow in real life; to me, that’s cinema.

It is true: film fosters empathy. But emotions need screen time to blossom into heartfelt identity and communication with the audience, they won’t suffer emphasis or explanation, don’t need a loudspeaker but rather a silent mode to take effect. To get an emotional tangent to your audience working, feelings and what internal processes and conflicts compel your film’s protagonists to action or inaction must be established visually – instead of a straightforward verbal motivation, which is just too plain and easy and invariably leaves you with the stale taste of a poor finish. And here, technically, so much comes down to good editing once more.

Who ever said that in telling a story you have to be conclusive always? Let me remind you that it was in Germany where Romanticism was first conceived, and thus I may speak on the matter with certain authority: symmetry and the strictly logical are for idiots only. Or at least they are declared favourites of those unlucky fellows blessed with insufficient fantasy and rather humble powers of the imagination. The province of narration is indeed a kingdom: wide and open and with many different landscapes in it. He who wants to limit these riches, narrow them down by ruling out the illogic and the counter-rational, would invariably kill all the fun and some of the deepest wisdom to be found in our books and cinemas. Therefore, do not treat your layout like it was a first-grader’s math doddle, we deserve better.

I’ve been talking about balance a lot in here (you may have noticed) and it is true, I do believe that balance is the underlying principle in everything we call beautiful, and important. Balance is the opening gate and passage which allows for higher inspiration and the upwelling of the profound deep to meet in their influx and coming; it is suspense and a promise; it is the pitting of an ideal and hope against the bland taste of the matter as nothing but substance. In balance lies the power of the charged moment before tilting: it’s the scales of Osiris and the fullest potential all in one spot – you don’t gamble with it or barter precious for trifle.

Yet we are so used to doing just that, and most insidiously of all when misrepresenting love for what it is not (as seen too often in films and television in particular), so emptying out this word until it becomes nothing but a shell, hollow and porous. In our movies this accounts for the common trappings of romance too often repeated, and we sure have had enough of these. Therefore my warning to whomever it may concern, that when all you want to tell is yet another love story, please, be extra careful and mind the balance of drama and likelihood. Given the pitfalls of flatness, why, there’s your love triangle in filmmaking prudence!

But even the grossly out-of-balance is dialectically related to what it shuns, and it forever remains its best-hated twin and natural ally-antagonist – and on the same page with it, still. This is to say that for any filmmaker to arrive at good drama they would have to know how to organize a cinematic story equation, regardless of its solution.

It is always like this in life, that where you find yourself limited to having to choose between but two alternatives, it will compromise the freedom of your choice and affect the quality of your decision. So here is my conclusion of the matter: The emotional balance sheet of your film – make it substantive rather than authoritative, since emotions always come out strongest when tinged with just a bit of doubt or ambiguity; the total resolving will only belittle the wonder in them and thus should safely be reserved for Hollywood’s happy endings.

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