Predicting the Unpredictable

A letter arrived recently from Screenwriting Newsletter subscriber Ronald M. Sandgrund, a prominent Colorado attorney, law professor, and writer. (Full disclosure: Ron is also my wife’s brother.)

We had both read Erik Larson’s masterful bestseller Dead Wake, which recounts the history of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine during World War I.

Ron wrote: “Having read all your screenwriting books, I’ve come away with the impression that at the heart of all great stories lies conflict. Conflict creates tension. Tension engages the reader until resolution. Before we even start Dead Wake, however, we know the ending. What, then, makes it so riveting?”

I responded that we all know for certain how our lives are going to end: a banquet for maggots, worms, and bacteria, with us as the main course. All the same, we go about our day-to-day activities, both mundane and profound.

Ron continues: “What about seeing a movie for the second, third or fourth time? We know the story; we know what happens to the characters. Why do we still care? Why do we watch? Is it merely to experience once again the cinematography?”

It’s not the cinematography.

I’m reminded of an expression heard in the Broadway musical theater world: “Audiences don’t emerge from the auditorium into the street at the end of the play whistling the scenery.”

More from Ron: “If we know exactly what is to occur, must that not tamp down the stress? Must that not mean there is a fundamental difference between viewing a movie for the first time and the second?”

I say that if a movie is truly great, watching it a second time (and a third and fourth time ad infinitum) is not as engaging as the first time but even more so.

Consider music. Once you’ve heard a song, you know everything about it. Why would you want to hear it again? In fact, however, once you’ve heard a truly arresting tune you want to hear it again and again and again.

Will it sound as strong the second time as the first? It will not. It will sound stronger.

That’s the nature of classics across all platforms: music, painting, sculpture, literature, drama. A true classic, instead of exhausting itself via repetition, sounds new every time.

From time to time I’ve mentioned that my late dad was a musician whose early career was in the radio era: twenty years with the N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra under Arturo Toscanini. As a boy I was privileged to attend many of the symphony’s rehearsals. I recall one time hearing the maestro remark on a piece by Bach. “Hundreds of times I perform this score, and every time Johann teaches me something new.

I’ve argued in my books that dramatic narrative structure, first described 2500 years ago by Aristotle in his ragged little pamphlet called ‘Poetics,’ cites the three basic components that constitute narrative: beginning, middle, and end. These parts are not, however, equal to one another. The beginning is short; the end even shorter. The biggest part by far is the middle.

Is that not the model of an idealized, romanticized human life consisting of childhood, adulthood, and then a quick demise?

It’s natural to consider movies to be a voyeuristic experience in which audiences, seated in the dark, peer through the window of the screen into the lives of strangers.

Over the years, however, my view has evolved. I’ve come to consider the movie screen to be not a window but a mirror in which we see reflections not of others but ourselves.

Tony Soprano, for example, is as different from me as it is possible to imagine. Yet in Tony I see a guy who has conflicts from time to time with his kids, with his spouse, with his co-workers. I see him struggling with issues that befuddle not only him but also me. I feel not separate from Tony but connected to him.

Doesn’t everyone from time to time have a dream that seems absolutely real until we waken? The question arises: how do we know that this very moment is not a dream? How do we know we will not soon wake up? If that’s the case, why stop at the red lights? Why be responsible regarding what we eat? Why act morally, decently, and conscionably?

The earliest movie theaters, it seems to me, are the caves at Lascaux and Altamira, where ancient peoples painted on the walls images of antelopes and other prey featuring multiple sets of legs, as if to suggest the creatures are running.

These people’s very survival depended upon slaying such creatures. Success in the hunt was essential to providing themselves and their families with food, clothing, and shelter.

But wouldn’t a hunter, however, confronting a charging antelope, its head down, prongs homing in on his soft underbelly, turn and flee? Wouldn’t that be the normal, natural reaction?

Replicating in a secure environment a facsimile of the hunt, the huntsmen could experience their fear in a safe place. They could rehearse their terror. They could train themselves to stand their ground. Having survived the dread they experienced repeatedly in the cave, in collaboration with their brothers they could now bag their prey.

What are the dangers that confront us today? Not antelopes. The greatest dangers we face are: crime, war, disease. Probably our single most dangerous activity in which we engage is riding in an automobile. When a friend of mine recently expressed to me his worries about an upcoming surgical procedure, I pointed out to him that the most dangerous aspect of the operation was the ride to the hospital.

Is not the most perilous aspect of air travel the taxi to the airport?

What subjects do movies treat? Crime, disease, war. It is significant that so many movies contain spectacular car wrecks. YouTube has thousands upon thousands of real-life (and death) car crashes available for viewing on demand, many of which–the goriest–have been viewed millions upon millions of times.

The movie theater is a safe place to experience without risk those perilous – indeed lethal – aspects of our nature, so that eventually we’ll become inured to the emotions and be able to carry on in life when they occur not for reel but for real.

When I’m defending movie violence in the media, pundits complain that video games, movies, and TV render us numb us, desensitize us to violence in the real world.

Isn’t that its purpose?

We watch the best movies over and over again, even though after the first viewing we know their beginning, middle, and end. We need to experience and re-experience the emotions they provoke. We need to rehearse, to prepare ourselves for the inevitable tragedies that are a central and unavoidable aspect of the human condition.

Our lives depend upon it.

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