Wednesday, December 9, 2009


MGM co-founder Louis Mayer famously quipped, "Movies are for entertainment. If you want to send a message, send a telegram." It's easy to share his cynicism towards stories that go heavy on theme. Who doesn't think Atlas Shrugged or Left Behind would've felt less forced in a more didactic form? But even though propositional pronouncements sit uneasily in narratives, we writers often have abstract ideas we want to communicate. How can we do so and still keep eye rolling to a minimum? One true and true technique is the association principle.

You see it front-and-center in the 1987 slasher flick The Stepfather. Jerry Blake loves the suburban family life. He loves his colonial-style house with the picket fence around the yard. He loves his job as a realtor, helping settle fathers and mothers and children into quiet, friendly neighborhoods. But most of all, he loves his new wife Susan and her daughter Stephanie. "I sell houses," he proclaims to friends and neighbors during a backyard cookout. "That's my job. But sometimes I think it's more than that. Sometimes I truly believe that what I sell is the American Dream." His dedication to home and country is so intense it sometimes baffles. "You really are a cheerleader for the old traditional values, aren't you, Jerry?" a prospective buyers asks during a showing. But perhaps his dedication is a little too intense. Because when his family disappoints him, when it falls short of perfection, Jerry finds himself eyeing the knives on the kitchen counter. Susan and Stephanie haven't been his first family. They may not be his last.

In his book Influence, Robert Cialdini states, "The principle of association is a general one, governing both negative and positive connections. An innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about us." Or not so innocent when it comes to narratives, because most authors make these associations intentionally. Say that the family-values ideal is morally bankrupt and potentially dangerous, and people will line up to either affirm your proposition or take a swing at it. But their feelings about the subject may shift after watching Jerry beat a man with a two-by-four and deck his wife with a vicious jab. Stories engage both the intellect and the affections. Of course, the technique requires caution. Push too much, and your character becomes a caricature. They need roundness. Interestingly, The Stepfather grants Jerry some in a single, haunting scene where he watches a family disappear into their cozy cottage after playing in the yard. The door swings shut, cutting him off from the sort of home he'd always longed for and somehow never achieved.

(Picture: CC 2008 by
Christopher Saccaro)

1 comment:

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Good point.

I may be (no, on this subject I *am*) a bit of an outlier, though, because I often liked stories that contained long philosophical digressions. I remember being blown away the first time I read Starship Troopers, not because I thought its action was great (it was, but there wasn't enough for my taste), but because it gave me the sort of broad, overreaching ethical pronouncements that I could argue against. Heinlein said stuff that was controversial, which was refreshing when most adventure writers seemed to only offer the same old truisms.

My current preference is for art that doesn't back down from didacticism, but separates it from the author. Battlestar Galactica is a wonderful example. Who is more correct: the religiously orthodox cigar-smoking screwup Starbuck? The morally serious athiest Adamo? The former atheist, who comes to believe she is receiving messages from God through her cancer treatments? The self-interested Marxist revolutionary Zarek, who is willing to die for his beliefs but not to be forgotten?

Each character--even the most hated or self-centered--gets his or her moment to put fort propositional pronouncements. The result is a film that can preach without being preachy. Whatever the political and religious views of the team (and at some points, the iconography may make them blatantly obvious), they don't allow the reader to be complacently happy with anyone's views.

The film challenges your views, but it doesn't offer any clear and all-solving answer of its own. Even moral relativitism, the smug go-to of intellectual types answering hard questions, doesn't get off easy--in the desperate world of BSG, those who aren't willing to make hard decisions with moral conviction often end up in the worst place of anyone.