Theme & Scene: The Magic of Nuts & Bolts Week Nine “The nervous system of any age or nation is its creative workers, its artists. And if that nervous system is profoundly disturbed by its environment, the work it produces will inescapably reflect the disturbances, sometimes obliquely and sometimes with violent directness.” -- Tennessee Williams
Lecture Nine: Tone, Irony, Comedy This lecture will present a brief overview of: I. Tone II. Irony a. Definition b. Ironic Narrative c. Ironic Progression d. Ironic Characters e. Ironic Dialogue f. Satire I. Tone The tone of a film, play or television script can be described as the author’s attitude and assumptions toward the subject of the material as well as the audience. It implies directionality and is a critical factor in rooting the story. The tone can be comic (comedy), downbeat (film noir), realistic (thriller), and so forth, thus reflecting a particular quality, style or manner that holds constant throughout the story.
TONE CREDIBILITY Believability
ORIGINALITY Insight / Style
STIMULATION Interest / Excitement
INVOLVEMENT Concern / Empathy
Every good script engenders four main considerations for the audience: credibility, involvement, stimulation, and originality. The audience must first believe that the story is plausible. When they stop believing that an element in the story isn’t credible, they disengage. Next, the audience must care about the Protagonist; they must have someone to root for. The Protagonist’s journey must be exciting and suspenseful. If the character is colorful but the journey is flat or dull, the audience will step out. Finally, the story must have some stroke of originality or the reaction is: I’ve seen this before! Given that distribution devices for media have exploded, the need for original material has grown more pressing than ever. Tone establishes the direction of the components of story (e.g., character, dialogue, visuals, and narrative structure) and sets the stage for the audience when the curtain opens and until the curtain comes down. II. Dramatic Irony II. a. Definition of Irony According to Northrup Frye , “Irony never says precisely what it means.” A Wiki-quick lookup: “Irony, from the Greek εἴρων (eiron), is a literary or rhetorical device, in which there is a gap or incongruity between what a speaker or a writer says, and what is generally understood (either at the time, or in the later context of history). Irony may also arise from a discordance between acts and results, especially if it is striking, and known to a later audience. A certain kind of irony may result from the act of pursuing a desired outcome, resulting in the opposite effect, but again, only if this is known to a third party. In this case the aesthetic arises from the realization that an effort is sharply at odds with an outcome, and that in fact the very effort has been its own undoing. More generally, irony is understood as an aesthetic valuation by an audience, which relies on a sharp discordance between the real and the ideal, and which is variously applied to texts, speech, events, acts, and even fashion. All the different senses of irony revolve around the perceived notion of an incongruity, or a gap, between an understanding of reality, or expectation of a reality, and what actually happens.”
“…example of situational irony — the unintended aptness of the sign and its surroundings is ironic.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony In dramatic narrative, the perception of irony in a situation, language, visuals or structure results from a discordance between what is expected and what is. Because of this incongruence, the audience steps back from the situation in order to comprehend it. Irony causes a distancing effect between content and meaning.
The benefit of using irony for the storyteller: the ability to comment on the situation or character from a broader viewpoint. In ironic situations, the audience therefore probes more deeply into characters’ motivations and the forces that impact the characters’ lives in the story. Inner lives become more meaningful. The often subtle, if not paradoxical, machinations of society move to the forefront.
II. b. Ironic Narrative Regardless of genre, there are many ways to employ irony in dramatic narrative. Ironic characters, dialogue, visuals and situations can run throughout a conventional film and add complexity and meaning. Hence, the use of irony can be heavy-handed or lightly peppered throughout the material. Dramatic irony is achieved in narrative when the audience knows more than the characters re circumstances and outcome. Often narrative (films/plays) starts with glimpse of the Protagonist’s fate at the beginning, so that the question is no longer “what will happen?” but “why did this happen?” As well, content is either undermined or directly contradicted by style. This leads the audience to try and figure out what lies beneath the realistic veneer—i.e., what’s really going on here? Mystery Audience knows less than characters Interest – Curiosity only Exposition concealed – curiosity about circumstances/facts Mislead audience with red herrings and false information How did this happen? Murder mystery genre / Protagonist – ace detective (Think CSI.)
Suspense Audience and characters know the same information Curiosity and concern Circumstances/facts known -Outcome unknown Suspense: Outcome up or down or ironic up-down How will this turn out? 90% of all films fall into suspense mode
Dramatic Irony Audience knows more than characters Concern only Circumstances/facts known -Outcome known Audience experiences dread when Protagonist discovers what they already know Why it happened? Compassion/empathy for the Protagonist heading towards disaster
Examples of film openings that employ dramatic irony:
SUNSET BOULEVARD Opening: The corpse of screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floats in the pool of Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). The entire film is a flashback of Gillis’ struggle to rise in Hollywood while entangled with the aging screen star Desmond.
AMERICAN BEAUTY* Opening: Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) tells us that in a year he’ll be dead. Meanwhile, the audience is treated to a sweeping view of pristine American suburbia. This film is a mix of irony and suspense because we know that Lester will die, but we still don’t know exactly how or by whom. * Please see handouts of the original versus the revised openings of AMERICAN BEAUTY. Ball sharpens the irony and adds the suspense factor by making a massive cut from the get-go.
II. c. Ironic Progression Often the dramatic narrative starts out with a realistic and conventional tone, but ends with an ironic upbeat or downbeat. This results in the audience combing backward through the entire film and digesting the progression of events on another level. Classic ironic endings that fly in the face of the narrative:
CHINATOWN Gittes (Nicholson) loses the case and the woman. The ghost repeats itself. Evil wins out.
THE GRADUATE Dustin Hoffman wins the girl. However, the fugitive couple stares out of the back of the bus on the parting shot, bewildered and incommunicative. A future Mr. and Mrs. Robinson in the making?
THE CRYING GAME Fergus ends up in jail, but still has Dil (symbol of love/redemption) visiting him.
The power of ironic endings and ironic progressions stems from the fact that these routes of dramatizing material capture the paradoxes in life. In contrast to the three-act Hero structure, ironic strokes defy the redemption-win equation and allow for a win-but-lose or lose-but-win interpretation of the story.
Situation Gets at last what the Protagonist’s always wanted, but too late to really have it. Throws away what is later indispensable to happiness. Actions taken to reach a goal become the steps that, in turn, lead Protagonist away from it. Actions taken to reach a goal become the steps that, in turn, destroy the Protagonist. Action taken to destroy something becomes what is needed to be destroyed by it. Takes possession of something that will cause misery/trouble, does everything possible to get rid of it or deal with it… only to discover the gift of happiness.
Example LEAVING LAS VEGAS – Alcoholic screenwriter and prostitute find love and connection on the screenwriter’s deathbed. FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL – Boy meets Girl; Boy decides he doesn’t want girl; Boy realizes he wants girl but she’s now married. TOOTSIE – Michael (Dustin) disguises himself as a woman and becomes a successful soap star, only to fall in love with an actress who thinks he’s a lesbian. CAPOTE – Writer pens an innovative tome that impacts literature, only to be destroyed by the subject matter of which he writes. MACBETH – In killing the King, MacBeth’s guilt does him in. Note: Stories where a ruthless course of action leads to self destruction implies an ironic ending. RAIN MAN -- Charley is a con. His father has left him a convertible, but given the family fortune to an autistic brother, Raymond. Furious, Charley kidnaps the troublesome Raymond and the brothers begin a road trip that ultimately bonds them.
Please note: This is by no means a complete list of ironic situations or endings. As you progress further in your careers as writers, you will develop your own list of ironic examples in dramatic narrative.
II. d. Ironic Characters Early in film, common ironic characters were sidekicks—e.g., Stan Laurel, Donald O’Connor, Jerry Lewis. Sidekicks
These idiot savants provided a running commentary on the serious initiatives of his/her partner. Audiences were entertained by an immediate and alternate viewpoint of the dramatic situation. In contrast, ironic protagonists or main characters are flawed innocents who unleash a course of events that “punish them” beyond what can be expected given their actions/intentions.
Seem too naïve and honest so that the first impression is that they must be deceptive/manipulative Ingenuous characters “are” what they represent Often misguided actions opposite of the traditional heroic action Course of events undermine protagonist’s intentions with often tragic results Ironic Main Characters
Tom Hanks as FORREST GUMP (Dir. Zemeckis) John Turturro as BARTON FINK (Joel and Ethan Coen) Writer, Fink, of social realist plays in the early 1940s-- whose raison d'être is to “create a theatre of the common man”-suffers from writer's block. “The film's enigmatic story has been interpreted as an examination of the creative act, a satire on Hollywood, a Joseph Campbell-like heroic quest, or
“The film tells the story of a simple man (or gump) and his epic journey through life, meeting historical figures, influencing popular culture and experiencing first-hand historic events while largely unaware of their significance, due to his low IQ of 75.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Forrest_Gump)
Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) in AFTER HOURS (Dir. Scorsese)
Comedy thriller that depicts a word processor, Hackett, who experiences a series of bizarre adventures while trying to return home from SoHo. Tagline: When it's after midnight in New York City, you don't have to look for love, laughter and trouble. They'll all find you!
even an allegory for the rise of Nazism.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Barton_Fink)
Result: Gump seems disconnected from the events and people that he affects. Detachment juxtaposed to tremendous impact screams irony.
Fergus (Stephen Rea) in THE CRYING GAME (Dir. Jordan) Max (Foxx), running from Vincent (Cruise) (Dir. Mann) Crime thriller. A nihilistic, erudite hitman uses a taxicab to carry out a series of contract hits in a single night in L.A. The taxi driver, Max, learns what his passenger is up to when Vincent's first hit lands on the roof of the taxi. Max's situation then turns into a series of escape attempts and exchanges between the two. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Collateral_%28film%29) Ironic situation: Max’s life opens up due to a one-night cab ride with a psychotic hit-man.
Romantic thriller. About Fergus' experiences as a member of the IRA which often employs deadly methods to achieve its missions, his brief but meaningful encounter with Jody, held as prisoner by the group, and his romantic relationship with Jody's girlfriend, Dil, who Fergus promised Jody he would protect. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ The_Crying_Game) Ironic situation: An IRA hitman finds redemption in protecting the transexual girlfriend of a British soldier.
Sellers as Chance, the gardener. BEING THERE (Dir. Ashby)
Black comedy. “A simple-minded gardener named Chance has spent all his life in the Washington D.C. house of an old man. When the man dies, Chance is put out on the street with no knowledge of the world except what he has learned from television. After a run in with a limousine, he ends up a guest of a woman (Eve) and her husband Ben, an influential but sickly businessman. Now called Chauncey Gardner, Chance becomes friend and confidante to Ben, and an unlikely political insider.” (IMDB) Ironic situation: A gardener becomes an influential political advisor in Washington.
Because the ironic main character isn’t in control of the course of events, the audience experiences a sense of doubt and unease. Is this real? Is this person insane? Is this person an idiot? Can this be happening? In turn, the distancing—the discordance between overt content and subterranean meaning--allows the audience to take a more reflective stance to the story-telling. See Ebert’s review of BEING THERE:
http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/19970525/REVIEWS08/401010303/1023 Excerpt: “When I taught the film, I had endless discussions with my students over this scene. Many insisted on explaining it: He is walking on a hidden sandbar, the water is only half an inch deep, there is a submerged pier, etc. ``Not valid!'' I thundered. ``The movie presents us with an image, and while you may
discuss the meaning of the image it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier--a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more,'' etc. So what does it show us? It shows us Chance doing something that is primarily associated with only one other figure in human history. What are we to assume? That Chance is a Christ figure? That the wisdom of great leaders only has the appearance of meaning? That we find in politics and religion whatever we seek? That like the Road Runner (who also defies gravity) he will not sink until he understands his dilemma? The movie's implications are alarming. Is it possible that we are all just clever versions of Chance the gardener? That we are trained from an early age to respond automatically to given words and concepts? That we never really think out much of anything for ourselves, but are content to repeat what works for others in the same situation? The last words in the movie are, "Life is a state of mind." So no computer will ever be alive. But to the degree that we are limited by our programming, neither will we. The question is not whether a computer will ever think like a human, but whether we choose to free ourselves from thinking like computers.” II. e. Ironic Dialogue Ironic dialogue can whip off the page and snap, sparking interest and delight. As in all samples of irony, it distances the audience from the narrative as we race to bridge the dissonance between content and meaning. Ironic dialogue can widen the gap between:
Character and language Characters within a scene Information the characters know relative to what the audience knows
Example of an ironic exchange from SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (Preston Sturges).* Scene background: A struggling actress buys breakfast for a bum in Hollywood. She doesn’t realize that the bum is the Hollywood director, John L. Sullivan, in disguise. (Note: not in screenplay format.) GIRL: Say, who’s being sorry for who? Are you buying me the eggs or am I buying them for you? SULLIVAN (AS BUM): I’d like to repay you for them. GIRL: All right, give me a letter introducing me to Lubitsch. SULLIVAN: I might be able to do that too… Who is Lubitsch? GIRL: Eat your eggs. SULLIVAN: (with mouth full) Can you act? GIRL: What did you say? SULLIVAN: I said, can you act? GIRL: Sure I can. Would you like me to give you a recitation? SULLIVAN: Go ahead. GIRL: Skip it. My next act will be an impersonation of a young lady going home… on the thumb.
SULLIVAN: In that outfit? GIRL: How about your own outfit? SULLIVAN: Haven’t you got a car? GIRL: No. Have you? SULLIVAN: Well… no… but… GIRL: Then don’t get ritzie. And I’ll tell you some other things I haven’t got. I haven’t got a yacht, or a pearl necklace, or a fur coat, or a country seat or even a winter seat. And I could use a girdle too. SULLIVAN: I wish I could give you a few of the things you need. GIRL: You’re not trying to lead me astray, are you? You big, bad wolf! (Sullivan laughs sheepishly.) GIRL: You know, the nice thing about buying food for a man is you don’t have to laugh at his jokes. Just think, if you were some big shot like a casting director or something, I’d be staring into your bridgework… * From Alternative Scriptwriting by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, pp. 269-270.
II. f. Satire In terms of style, the most extreme use of irony is satire or farce. Writers are free to take wild leaps from reality, violate tone, and make savage, humorous indictments on society.
Vehicle used to indict human or societal foibles Targets—e.g., person, group or class of people, idea/attitude, institution, tradition/custom/practice—ridiculed mercilessly with a subterranean prod to reform Extreme case of tonal violation Qualities: irony, sarcasm, irreverence, ferocious humour Devices: parody, exaggeration, double entrendre
Peter Sellers: Dr. Strangelove, President Merkin Muffley, Captain Lionel Mandrake. “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (commonly shortened to Dr. Strangelove) is a 1964 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. Loosely based upon the Cold War thriller novel Red Alert (also known as Two Hours to Doom) by Peter George, the source material was refashioned as a black comedy by screenwriter Terry Southern. Dr. Strangelove satirizes the fragile nature of the Cold War conflict
and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dr_Strangelove “Brazil is a dystopic black comedy feature film directed by Monty Python member Terry Gilliam. It seems to be totally unrelated to the actual country of Brazil. Instead it evokes the melancholy, dreamlike quality of its theme song, an old English translation of 1939 Brazilian song, Aquarela do Brasil. Jack Mathews, movie critic and author of The Battle of Brazil (1987), characterized the film as ‘satirizing the bureaucratic, largely dysfunctional industrial world that had been driving [Gilliam] crazy all his life.’” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil_%28film%29
The Point: Using Irony to Challenge Genre Expectation Tone is that beam of light that guides your choices re character, dialogue, and structure for your story. It reflects your attitude towards the subject matter and establishes the relationship between the story and the audience. Conventional tone—i.e., the classic Hero, three-act structure (film only), functional dialogue, and relevant genre—may not serve every story that you want to tell. Using irony to upset genre expectation and thereby craft more complex stories that reflect life’s realities may be a better route. Points to remember:
Use of an ironic narrative often distorts or even inverts the cause and effect relationship between character actions and events Distanced relationship between the viewer and the character is achieved Audience is forced to reflect upon the actions of the character Audience seeks out alternate meanings for the character’s role/purpose in the narrative Use of an ironic character can yield different, more complex results than the traditional Hero Ironic dialogue can yield additional meaning Ironic dialogue often results from genre violations and mixed genres Tonal shifts alter meaning as well as the audience’s interpretation of the story
Week Nine Assignments
ASSIGNMENT A: The “Ironic” Scene Write a scene that employs either an ironic character or an ironic situation.
5-7 page – DS, PQ, need 2-3 characters Stage or screen format
ASSIGNMENT B: Continue progress on longer work: rough draft or outline. Try and nail the key plot points.
NOTE: Since we are not all using the same hardware or software, please make sure to post your submissions in Rich Text File or PDF.
Good luck! Dakota