Perseveration of Design



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  • Perseveration of Design

    OK, I've posted about the insanity of letting critical concepts interfere with creativity...and sneered at jargon and phrases people make up and others accept. So I'm going to address that a little more formally...and create a jargon phrase of my own. Just as valid as "unity of event", I'd say.

    As design and technology progress--and concepts are very much a part of design and also products of design--it is inevitable that certain elements and concepts get discarded as new ones are adopted. But sometimes you see examples of old, completely useless design parameters hanging on out of intertia. Some might see an example of that in officials in a determinedly non-religious state swearing court witnesses in on the word of "God". One of my favorite examples was the design of the common 35mm SLR film camera during the height of its popularity and sales.

    When the SLR first appeared in the thirties and forties, it fell into a common-sense German design that we are familiar with. The lens, shutter and film are all necessary elements and have certain restrictions on their size and relative position to each other. But there was another consideration: the thing had to be machined out of steel. So it shows that machinist mentality in it's design, like the automatic pistol design from the twenties that is still with us today. But at some point they started making cameras out of plastic. At which point, they could just as cheaply be molded into any shape. In fact, Olympus brought out an SLR shaped like a beercan. You grabbed it an raised it to your eye just like drinking a beer or looking into a monocular. All controls were at the fingertips, giving one-hand operation. The wrist was in a natural position, not the contortions necessary to hold the old type of SLR. The design was brilliant and evolutionarily superior in every way. It didn't sell very well. The old machined design stuck around. This could have been because of designers, or because of customers brainwashed into what they think a camera should look like. But the point is, the old, inefficient, needless design stayed around. (Of course digital cameras came along and made most of the original design restrictions obsolete...but most digital cams still look like old viewfinder cameras.)

    The upshot is that people are buying and using cameras that could be much better designed, but aren't because they end up looking like old designs influenced by outdated ideas of structure, function, and manufacture. Look around and you will see examples of this in less physical concepts: in our "software" design as well as "hardware". The vestigial artifacts you see (and the eternal principles you know will never change) will not be the same ones your neighbor sees.

    Sometimes this sort of anachronism is harmless. We call streaming music programs from the internet "radio", though it obviously isn't. We think of Dan Rather as having something to do with a "press". But sometimes using this perseverated terminology does become a problem. It creates Myths. I'm not using that term to describe Greek Gods, or the more common modern corruption as synonymous with "lies" or "disinformation", but in the technical sense of expressing information about one field of knowledge in the terminology of another. (Creation myths, for instance, discuss cosmology in terms of agricultural or family dynamic concepts.) A good example of this use of the term...and the hazards it can Thomas Szasz' book "The Myth of Mental Illness". By couching mental and emotional problems in the language of "disease", we limit our understanding and worse, tend to take medical means to deal with us lobotomies and "therapy" by means of pills.

    Which, taken as a hifalutin introduction, is overkill to something that should be obvious...that taking concepts forged for the theater into the realm of motion pictures can have some pitfalls. If a critic refers to actions "beyond the proscenium" we know they are using a metaphor, and what they are talking about. When somebody refers to "acts" of a movie...are we so sure?

    There are a lot of myths (in the sense of propoganda and commonly accepted illusions) about theater versus movies. A common one is that stage actors are "real" actors and much better than movie actors. Well, maybe on stage they are. They can project their voices, move well in broad gesture, upstage others, etc. But can they handle an extremely emotional close-up? Examined objectively you end up coming to the conclusion that movie actors are much better at what so many of us think of as acting...emotional portrayal, facial innuendo, tears, tremors. AND, a guy like Mel Gibson is every bit as good at physical movement as some stage icon like Barrymore or O'Toole or whoever.

    So why is it assumed that "three act structure" would have so much to do with making a movie? The restrictions of stage and time are gone...replaced with other restrictions that require their own solutions and vocabulary. ("Vocabulary" in the sense of a response set, not necessarily more jargon.) Some of these restrictions are really bizarre by stage standards. As a simple can't just paint a flat for the ocean or a stadium full of have to actually go to the ocean or hire a bunch of extras. Digital film is changing that...and creating an entire new paradigm in which many of the realities of movies will change once again. The point is...slaving one's mind and creative process to outdated, and even mythical "rules" and "realities" is debilitating.

    To return to the example of the camera...the makers are trapped in oldtimey design. But users are still being taught things like "how to hold a camera" that apply only to the proto-tech cameras. As soon as somebody brings out an ergometric camera, that all goes out the window. And so does a lot of other stuff like shutter speed holds. The development of 1600 ASA film makes tripods almost useless...but you see people using them because they look cool or read a book recommending it. (What they do mostly is cause your camera to get knocked over and break). This affects the whole way people shoot. There are currently websites devoted to pictures taken with telephones. How much of what you learned in your "35mm SLR 101" course are going to help you there?

    But of course, rules of composition still apply to the finished product. (Though, they change, too. The advent of wide-angle lenses changed compositional thinking to an extent: a fisheye lens lays down its own compositional rules with an iron hand.) So let's dig a little deeper, into the old dramatic elements of story itself. Surely those rules still apply? Or do they? You still have a protagonist and antagonist, right? Except some films don't seem to (or some plays, anymore) and often nobody can agree on who the protagonist is and the writer isn't interested in the issue.

    But if that element of Greek drama analysis must stand forever, what about others. Do we still need a nemesis? In a romantic comedy? What about hubris? The Greeks had a pretty different view of the universe thann we did. It's one reason all their heros turn out to be tragic. The very IDEA of a hero in Greek drama involves a violation of the rules of God and Man. You start getting goddish and you end up getting turned into a spider of killing your mother or some such. No concept could me more inimical with modern American dramatic thought, in which then hero is almost always bucking the system. Furthermore, you don't have to go that far back...our attitudes about the Cosmos and society are very different from the attitude of the 1940's. As they are different from Chinese ideas on the subject. This might not even be evolutionary: there might be a time when the current mythos of individualism, state/god source of evil, shock value, underdoggism, and egoism might be looked back on as an aberration that got straightened out when the baby boomers finally died off. You never know.

    Now how about "catharsis"? Is that still valid? And in fact, is it still practiced? When was the last time you heard the word? But it was EXTREMELY important to the Classical dramatic theory. You still hear "If there's a gun over the mantel in the first act, it has to go off in the third act". Well, nowadays that artifact of the claustrophic closure of the stage world gets ignored a lot...but you hear it. Why don't you hear about catharsis...essentially, "If you raise an emotion, you have to discharge and gratify it?" Because it's a concept that is outdated (in the industry...not to me) and even antithetical to current vogues. The first time I noticed it was "Death Wish 3". The emotions raised by the violent rape of the maid were just too ugly to be catharted by the rapists getting a nice clean death. You walk out of the theater wanting to go shoot down creeps on the street. This wasn't an accident, wasn't a was an underlying point of the movie. Nowadays, makers WANT people walking out of the theater bubbling over with undischarged emotion. "Feelgoodism" is ridiculed. "Wrapping things up in a neat little bow" is declasse. The opposite of catharsis is, essentially, propoganda. And propoganda is an accepted, desired part of modern drama. Films should "make a point", should "take a stand", should leave a residue.

    So the point of this...or one point among that citing "the golden rules of drama" laid down by past masters" and enshrined on altars is not all that productive, and can be counter productive. What it comes down to, and more than at any previous point in history, is the need to sort these things out and take what works and discard the rest. Which is in itself an indiviual creative act. It may be good to have heard of these concepts (although there are a lot of foreign films and punk films and such being made by people who have never heard of them) but it is extremely unwise to be enslaved by them. The point of self expression is exactly that. There are plenty of "rules" out there in the perceptions of the audience, the social milieu, the credibility of behavior without spending money to go to school to get short-circuited by conceptual design that might in now way apply to you.

  • #2
    Re: That's a long-ass post

    I think alot of your theory is shot to @#%$ when "Hitch" makes over 100 million in two weeks. The biggest movie of all time is "Titanic." This proves out that the majority of moviegoers relate to the old fashioned way of looking at and telling stories. There have been auteurs trying to redefine and redesign and some have been successful in very limited circles. The notion of "catharsis" and other terms you use are still referred to and utilized in writing because these are elements from real life and capture the dreams and ideals of real life. They are things people can relate to. Hollywood makes movie like "Hitch" cuz people pay to see it. Although the movies can do so much like educate, the majority of people go to the movies to be entertained. People want to see real life turned upside down a bit. People like conventions and the box-office proves that out. In the end, it's all about the box-office because it proves what people wanted to see.

    Dood, for someone whose been shooting everyone down for offering up theories and opinions, you've managed to keep up with the Joneses. You deserve some sort of award for using "Death Wish III" as an example. I liked you better the old way and I think you're right. Shouldn't over-think too much of this.


    • #3

      You are missing the point entirely. I'm not saying forget old theory and get new ones....I'm saying theory is not what you write stories with and even if it was, it's too shaky to use for that purpose.

      So the success of any given film doesn't shoot anything to @#%$...that's not the question. The question would be something you think the writers of Hitch or Titanic (boy there;s a classic protag/antag story if I ever heard of one...boy takes on cold water) it's whether you think the guys who wrote them had any of this stuff in mind.

      For about the tenth time...theory is not for creating art, it is for discussing it. If you use theory to create art, it will show, and yea, it will suck.

      BUT, in point of fact, if somebody is going to yelp about how important it is to study theory, I have provided that little essay as an indication of the fact that they are going to, at the end of the day, have to end up thinking for themselves anyway.


      • #4
        Re: .


        Theory is valuable to the creative process, especially in terms of screenwriting, because there are certain elements, that have been analyzed by a lot of people, that are shared my the vast majority of successful stories. To disregard screenwriting theory is to say, hey, just because everyone else does something a certain way that has proven to be successful, that doesn't mean it's actually right.

        Number 1, citing Death Wish 3 is never the road to a compelling argument. I have not seen the movie, and am more than willing to assume that it did not provide a cathertic experience for you, but it's an obscure work that did not really influence anything. If that's the best movie to illustrate your point, your point is poorly illustrated. Oh, and water wasn't the antagonist in Titanic.

        From what I've gathered reading your posts, you think theory and screenwriting books are of little practical use, and I disagree strongly. I've read a lot of these books, and some of them have actually helped me develop my story. Probably the book that has most influenced me, along with a lot of others, is McKee's Story. Now, McKee has never made a story idea enter my brain, or made me invent any characters, or anything like that, but his book has helped me shape and develop my screenplays. His book also has its fair share of bullshit, and I'm certainly not worshipping at the alter of McKee, but his book has helped me write more focused, more dramatic, and more cinematic screenplays. Since I want to write for Hollywood, and have not one drop of shame in that, I consider that help a good thing. I'm curious if you've read any of these books that you despise, or if you're just dismissing them because they conflict with your theory of creativity.

        Your point seems to be that theory and creativity are mutually exclusive, that creativity is an organic thing that shouldn't be influenced by academic discussions of act breaks and the such. You seem to state that if you just write a good story, than there's no need for theory.

        But what is a good story? That's an issue for theory, isn't it? In order to have a serious discussion of what makes a good story, you have to codify the elements. You can't just say a good story is something that moves me. That does nothing for someone writing a story, because it doesn't discuss the story, it discusses the reaction. You have to say what makes someone have an emotional reaction to a story.

        You say three act structure just means there's a beginning, a middle, and an end, which, in it's simplest form, is true. But where does the beginning end? Where does the end start? What happens in the middle? If you're writing for a commercial, mass market in this industry, you have to know those things, and that does not mean that thinking in those terms, of act breaks, midpoints, etc, hamper creativity. The reason you have to know these things is because using act breaks properly improves your story.

        Now I think that theory can be misused by people who don't see the forest for the trees, and that the terms, such as protagonist, can be defined to a silly, impractical point. But for you to say theory doesn't work anymore is to ignore or disregard reality, and shows a shallow reading of screenplays and movies.


        • #5
          Re: .

          If we just agree with you, will you shut up and stop trying to impose your theories about theories on us?


          • #6
            Well thought


            Your new theory is well thought out. Has it served you? Have you written a screenplay using this? Did it turn out the way you wanted it to? Just would love to know what happens when you put pen to paper... or finger to keyboard as it were...


            • #7
              Re: Well thought

              some people light a candle, others merely curse the darkness -- and yet others, apparently, are working at the edges furiously with a black crayon.


              • #8
                The ideal approach to writing screenplays:

                Drink 'til you can barely see your computer screen. Open up Final Draft. Type right up to the point when you're about to pass out. Save your work. Read it two days later. Polish it up, fixing all the drunk typos, but do NOT rewrite.

                Next night. Open up Final Draft. Open your file. Drink 'til you can barely see your computer screen. Type, starting from where you left off. Save. Two days later, polish.

                Do it again.

                And again.

                And again, 'til you have around 110 pages. Print it. Send it out. Repeat 'til you're a pro.

                Where does theory fit in?

                My theory: the higher the proof, the more you consume, the better your screenplay will be.


                • #9
                  Re: .


                  In point of fact.


                  • #10
                    Re: .

                    There you guys go using them big words again.


                    • #11

                      Your theory is just as valid as any other, pal. And has been used by a LOT more successful screenwriters than any of that Old Greek Queers stuff.
                      Argumentun ad Jose Cuervo

                      Most of the rest of these twits have no idea what they read or what they are talking about. My favorite stark declaration of cluelessness was the one about "Death Wish 3" is hardly an argument. Ignoring that idea that one usually doesn't cite a successful film to refute a theory........that wasn't an argument, you dumass!!!!
                      I said it was the first time I NOTICED the anti-cathartic ending and identified it. If you have seen films that did the same thing, you know what I mean (well, maybe not). You either understand catharsis and the effects of its violation, or you don't. The main point was the way that part of those Grand Old Eternal Masters That Must Be Obeyed is being largely disregarded in modern films, and is of zero prestige value critically.

                      But why bother with this. Tell you what, you want to be "right"? You want to impress your boyfriends? Go find a top writer who says he works according to drama theory. Get back to us.


                      • #12
                        Re: .

                        Most of the rest of these twits
                        You're such an endearing fella, El Catrin.

                        Why are you so angry?


                        • #13
                          Re: .

                          El Catrin.

                          Bud. Seriously. Take a deep breath and lose the aggression.

                          A wise man once said, "You want to convince me? Show me. You want to infuriate me? Argue with me."


                          • #14
                            Re: .

                            Drink 'til you can barely see your computer screen. Open up Final Draft. Type right up to the point when you're about to pass out. Save your work. Read it two days later. Polish it up, fixing all the drunk typos, but do NOT rewrite.

                            Finally, a theory I can get behind and endorse.


                            • #15
                              Re: .

                              I'd love to read one of latrine's scripts and see how amazingly unique and brilliant it is. It must blow away the mediocrity that populates Hollywood and these boards. His success is inspiring.