The other evening I finally found time to watch the 2010 movie Kick-Ass on Netflix streaming.
I’m not going to write a review of it, though I did enjoy the film. It’s the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.
I’d like to talk about a bit of the film, a single scene, and why it’s there.
This all has to do with believability – with generating the proper suspension of belief in the viewer. It’s a real problem for a writer. If he’s writing about vampires, or magic, or little prepubescent girls who massacre criminal goons like the rest of us swat flies; you have to find a way to get the reader/viewer to buy in to your own little personal fantasy.
An example – many, many years ago I took a (useless) fiction writing class in college. I wrote a character sketch modeled on a person that I knew well. The other members of the class rejected (rightfully so) my work because it, “wasn’t believable.” I objected to their rejection, explaining, “But.. but it has to be believable, it’s true!”
I didn’t understand the difference between believability and truth (the class was useless because it didn’t explain this to me, I had to figure it out myself a decade or so later). That’s the big advantage non-fiction has over fiction – non-fiction simply has to be true… it doesn’t have to be believable. Fiction, on the other hand, is always a pack of lies, but it has to be believable lies. That is much more difficult than simply telling the truth.
The key to believability is to make a deal with the reader right up front. If you tell your audience immediately, at the very beginning, then they will willingly suspend their disbelief and go along with you. They will gladly accept all the blood-drinking, invisibility spells, and jet-packs with Gatling guns, even though they know it is impossible in the real world, as long as you have told them this is what you are going to do. Be honest, be upfront, and they will gladly go along for the ride.
The best example of this?… easy, Gregor Samsa. You know, Kafka, The Metamorphosis, one of the greatest opening lines in all of literature.
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from a night of uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”
There it is. The only question is what kind of insect. Some translations use “Cockroach,” but if you read the rest of the story carefully it is obvious that he is not a cockroach, but something like a round dung-beetle, about the size of a large dog….
But I digress…
It is, of course, thankfully impossible to have some bad dreams and wake up squirming in your bed, late for work, and wondering where those extra legs and that jointed carapace has come from. But yet, that doesn’t take away from the emotional impact of poor Gregor and his hopeless predicament. We read on without any question and with nary a concern that the story never explains how this has happened (Was he bitten by a radioactive dung beetle? A Slytherin curse gone horribly wrong?).
The answer is that Kafka has made a deal with us in the first sentence. He has stated the rules (Gregor Samsa, giant vermin, no explanation, hang on) and we accept them or stop reading right there with no harm done.
It is critical that this is done right away. In the course of the story we learn a lot about Gregor’s life before his transformation. Kafka could have written the story with a handful of pages illustrating Gregor’s gray existence, pre-vermin, and then sprung the change on, say, a third of the way through.
That would suck. We would hate it. We would think that the author made a cheap turn and changed the story from a drab description of hopelessness to a supernatural tale of witchcraft or something. He would have to explain why that had happened or we would throw apples and then toss the tome in the garbage. But since Kafka knew to strike his bargain while the iron is hot, a classic is born.
Well, what the hell does all this have to do with Kick-Ass?
The movie does the same thing.
When you read reactions to the movie, surprisingly, the biggest complaint isn’t the murderous little girl, the buckets of blood, or the feel-good ending. People complain that the movie made a right turn partway through. They gripe it starts out as a typical light teenage angst comedy, with a nerd struggling to be more than he has been, trying to get the hot girl, doing stupid stuff. After a bit of this it changes completely into… what it changes into.
These people weren’t paying attention.
Like Kafka, the screenwriter(s) told everybody, right at the beginning, exactly what was going to happen. They made a bargain with us (if we saw it) and that’s why the subsequent activities, while shocking, shouldn’t come as a complete surprise – they fit neatly into the bargain that is struck, we were warned.
Remember the first scene? Maybe you don’t. It’s an interesting bit. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. The single character is never mentioned again. I think the action takes place after the rest of the story has run its course and has no relationship with anything else that happens.
The Credit Clouds part – a man wearing a superhero outfit stands at a corner protrusion of a high office building. Far below, bystanders watch as he spreads bright red wings and then fearlessly pitches forward, head first, winged arms outstretched, plummeting toward the sidewalk at increasing speed. The heroic music swells as the crowd of onlookers smiles, cheers, and claps as the hero moves faster and faster.
Then, with a loud thump, he crashed into a Taxi, crushing it, and killing himself instantly. The real hero, in voiceover, explains that this is a person with a mental problem and has nothing to do with the rest of the story.
And there it is. The movie will be an exploration of everyman’s fascination with the Superhero myth, and how, when put to the test, the hero will be found wanting, with horrible and inevitable death the only possible result.
The entire movie in a nutshell. The violence. The sick humor. The theme of innocence lost in the face of a monstrous and dangerous world filled with evil.
Pay attention. You were warned.
Great insight. Enjoyed very much.
Helen referred me to your blog. I like your argument that it’s important to the reader to be aware of the promises that we’re giving to a reader. However, interestingly enough, it seems that even when we do, that doesn’t mean that the viewer or reader will catch it.
With that in mind, is it critical to make the deal upfront? Or is the true issue not turning away from what the viewer/reader thinks that they’re getting? And with that interesting note, I think it’s pretty clear that we can’t control what they think is going to come. We can just make the promise of the story we want to tell and then tell it. It’s up to the viewer/reader to interpret it however they feel. Just hope it’s well enough written they don’t miss it I guess!
Great blog! (You can check mine out at http://bsailors.wordpress.com if you want!)
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