Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Good, the Bad, and the Untruthfully Ugly

I’ve been interested in polarities lately – the key idea being that apparent opposite sides of an argument can each have a good case to make, hence the fact there’s a clash in the first place. I think polarities are rich for storytelling and expect I’ll talk more about my fascination with them in later posts.

For this post, I want to focus on an element of storytelling that isn’t quite this type of polarity but is still based around opposites. My focus is this – that as a storyteller, I can tell a story about the ‘Good life’ through portraying the good, or through the total inverse, portraying the bad.

I’m working on a science fiction movie called The Gap. A key aspect of this project is portraying the ‘Good life’ – as in a better way to live, which I admire – through the struggles of the two main characters. I want both of them to be heroes, by struggling their way through adversity and embodying virtues that I think are admirable.

Pretty standard, right? But not the only way to talk about the ‘Good life’.

Think about ‘Requiem for a Dream’ (spoiler alert for anyone who hasn’t seen it). The characters in that story are terribly damaged by the end – perhaps not irrevocably – but still, as a friend of mine put it recently, in a state of suffering. It’s a traumatic movie, but I believe for good purpose. I believe the story is all about showing how bad life can get, and giving me (the viewer) a warning – this what life can be like. Avoid the abyss. Appreciate what I’ve got. In other words, value the Good life.

I’m fascinated that both approaches are effective. How can a writer do two opposite things and yet achieve the same overall effect?

I sense that a key concept at the heart of all this is authenticity. If a story is convincingly told, and rings with the truth, then I am encouraged to consider the relation of that story to my own life through the force of my engagement with it. Basically, if I care about the characters and believe in them, then I’ll compare their life to mine, and make my own moral judgements accordingly.

If, on the other hand, the depiction is shallow or cliched (a Goody-Goody-Two-Shoes character who I neither like or believe in), then that work can turn me away in horror. I’ll recoil from the depiction, but hopefully not from my own moral values.

Thinking about this has helped me articulate a problem I have with censorship. If a storyteller uses their work to challenge something repugnant by its truthful depiction (the rationalisations of Humbert Humbert in Lolita spring to mind), then the work should be celebrated for its moral effect rather than condemned or held up for censorship. Whereas a work that more falsely glamourised the actions of Humbert Humbert (simply by not ‘nailing’ the truth of the character) could be a nasty piece of work.

It’s a risk we run as storytellers. We’d better get it right, or it can get ugly.