The highest form of dramatic art, if you ask my ass, is when there is a visceral transfer between the protagonist and the audience. The creator of the experience intentionally creates a scarcity within the structure of the storytelling and uses this to force the audience into willing certain things to be.
For instance, in the movie Memento, which rang us like a clarion bell into the new millennium, Jonathan and Christopher Nolan create a scarcity of understanding what’s going on in the audience by moving backwards through the plot. In short, through the storytelling, they gave the audience the disease the protagonist himself has.
This is the final and oft-forgot piece of the puzzle in our craft: the use of the style and structure of the storytelling to mainline the emotional magma of it into the bloodstream of the audience. If the main character feels impatient, make us impatient with your storytelling. And don’t wimp out. Make us actually impatient with the story. Make us WAIT, Godot Damn it! Takes balls.
And it’s an old idea. Virgil and Ovid were no slouches with the quill (chisel?). Virgil once wrote “Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum” or “The horses’ hooves with four-fold beat shake the crumbling plain.” Now, say the Latin out loud (sound it out, there’s a hard G in “ungula”). Repeat it a couple of times until you can say it well and at an even pace. Do you hear them? Say it in a James Earl Jones voice. Hear them now? It’s the horses hooves on the plain! They’re embedded in the consonants of the words themselves. FaBAM.
Discussing Where the Wild Things Are with cinematographer Emily Topper, we were mutually reminded of what it was actually like to be nine (horribly upsetting, traumatizingly emotional, an almost non-stop bummer, but for brief periods of exhilarating fort-building), which suggests a story about an irrational person, told irrationally. The structure of that movie–let’s do this, now let’s do this, now I’m upset, now I’m psyched–transfers to us the viscera of that which is to be nine.
She recently pointed me to an article called Humans Have Three Brains by James Thornton, who refers to the theory of the triune brain of Dr. Paul D. MacLean (boola, boola), saying essentially that we humans have three brains: the lizard brain (age 200,000,000) which fights, fucks, flees, feasts and falls asleep; the dog brain (age 100,000,000) which feels love, sorrow and seeks a sense of belonging; and the human brain or the neo-cortex (age: 240,000), which allows us to make varied sounding honks with our face trumpets which are then interpreted by our fellow upright crust dwellers as, say, directions to In-N-Out Burger (try a double-double animal style, trust me). We essentially took about 200 million years to get to the top of Maslowe’s pyramid.
The neo-cortex, or the human brain, Thornton posits, can convey things in language and remember where the car keys are, but only the dog brain and the lizard brain feel emotions:
So imagine the man with a cheating heart. He’s married and loves his wife, but feels lust for another woman. He cheats on his wife with this other woman. While lying in tousled sheets afterward and staring at the ceiling, he can simultaneously enjoy satisfied lust, feel sad because of his disloyalty, and come up with a justification for his conduct.
Therefore, when we tell stories, we are operating on three tracks, and appealing to three different levels of evolution. When we tell stories, we tell them in images because the emotional centers of our brain do not understand language. We use rhythm and surprise to stir the lizard and the dog.
Alligators will eat their children without remorse, Pomeranians just want to be loved, and we can’t find our car keys.
The conveyance is also the cargo. We can not separate the relating from that which is related.
Every time we tell each other a story, we must hurl emotional lightning bolts at the ancient parts of our brains that do not use language to communicate. We must use the structure by which we assemble the story to awaken those beasts within us and make them pay attention.
That makes for one hell of an afternoon at the cinema.