The Torch: Death or Humour?6 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
It’s not an option, in real life anyway: What splendour it might offer comes mostly in just so many shades of grey (and the palette so limited), you need a break from time to time.
Then, on making your preferred choice of temporarily suspending all daylight acting duties, you expose yourself to the quickened pace of cinematic levity — only to immerse yourself in action-packed drama? Why is that, I wonder? Apparently we are not seeking solace or a tranquil safe haven to relax our senses, but quite contrarily, we tend to opt for something at least as bursting full of energy, positive or negative, as the factual world we leave behind. It has to be a different challenge, for sure, that interests us for its un-commonness, but a challenge we want nonetheless.
It is of course an escape from self, not so much reality that we crave for, the kind of forgetfulness we can only have in a sufficient load of exhilarating stimuli to match our super-charged nervous system. Who would there be nowadays to take the time or invest the effort to read a book or meditate? Call it a civilizational syndrome, a side-effect to the dog-eat-dog times we live in, but you can’t ever really break away from your own conditions, nor the entertainment they breed. To film: is there a choice, actually? A choice between the redoubling of that thrust into saturation (which is consumption) and a retreat into spareness, the simple fullness which is also a zero (any form of concentration, but also a focus)? Looks like I am digressing again, but no, it is movies that I’m talking about (not Buddhism), and that which I presume to be the fundamental aesthetic paradigm any quality-conscious filmmaker has to be aware of.
What this means in practical terms is gaining a basic understanding of what you want to tell, how you need to frame your narrative and by what means and codes the visual translation is supposed to work; and this effects everything that pertains to editing, art direction and all questions of proportionality in a motion picture. The decisions you make here will in effect determine the level of audience involvement, of emotional proximity and impact of your film. Seriousness and thoughtfulness, enjoyability and sensation are all being generated in accordance with the space between what is seen and what is meant. Involvement or detachment — these are parameters on a scale that measures distance. Knowing that it takes the human mind some time to travel from A to B, it is exactly the point of pacing which I’m speaking of, the controlled flow and tempo in a movie, whether it accelerates and when, or if it has a certain pulse and breathing rhythm to influence the viewer’s engagement.
Everybody wants their film to impact, and certainly death being the most fundamentally affecting fact of life, someone’s dying will do the job to fatefully charge whatever plot is laid out for them. But your story should be strong enough to do without the effect alone, I reckon, your subject matter gripping in a “liveable” way and told with suspense, in order for the audience to stand a realistic chance to build up empathy and involvement with the fictional characters. Cinema seems to have more death in it than life, fortunately, or is more likely to trigger and produce such lethal twists; knowing that we have hardly any choice to make in this for real, we instantly understand such delivery in a movie to supposedly tell us about a destiny; but it also carries with it the weight of something forced, something willed for a reason and with a climactic intention at the bottom of such unfolding. Film sure is allowed to add pathos where necessary, certainly in those scenes that carry the most import and which are crucial for narrative development. But in this act of emphasis, more than anywhere, it depends on how you do it if you don’t want to spoil the effect and lose your audience.
So it’s a balancing act — and Shakespeare himself did this: killing off in a near frenzy where he deemed necessary, then handing out comic relief the next scene, all to keep us entertained and make for a good story performance (and according to scholars he knew a few things about drama). The right distribution is key, and I would even go so far as to openly advocate moderation in everything that isn’t meant to be deliberately silly. After all, only the most advanced in stoic bearing might be capable to laugh right in the face of death itself, however much good wisdom there lies in doing just that (at which point I’d like to wholeheartedly recommend Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” to anyone who hasn’t yet seen it). Humour grants us such respite as, obviously, we are humanly in need of — for we are all but groundlings in our own life performance, are we not?
And to the writing credits thus concerned: to kill your protagonists is easy, comedy much harder to achieve…
Humour is arguably one, if not the most specific characteristic in any culture (and therefore hardly translatable), and there exists in any given context a uniqueness to some types of irony, parody or punning, which is also, sadly, exclusive. It means walking the tightrope to attempt and export comedy internationally if you don’t want to go for the plainest of slapstick only, but aim for a little bit of entertainment finesse in provoking a happy crowd (so you better know how to). Herein my stance is clear-cut and simple: I want to see what is the most intelligent and surprising, the most memorable on-screen ingenuity — or else feel grossly insulted in both, my judgement and taste. Right then, such can only be visual humour, the kind of humour that is generic and imagistic and nothing but film!
Whatever you throw in, high-mortality drama or the comic treat, these are two very delicate spices in any film indeed and ask for an expert handling, a skillful and adequate measure if they are not to backfire and undermine or weaken your story’s credibility and compelling punch. At the end of the day it is not either-or, but we want both: be entertained by tears and laughter; so let it be convincing with a taste of real life, heightened for the cinematic effect which makes an impact and will truly be an experience to watch.
In closing, here’s a wish: Please, whatever you choose to do, be extra careful with using fatal illness as a narrative device. I have the acute feeling that I’m not the only one who’s grown a bit weary of such rogue plausibility ploys over the years. The kind of bumper stop to your storyline this provides — any original idea deservers better, and remember to always treat your actors’ talents as gracefully as you can in order to get the best results for your film.