Monday, January 13, 2014

"Another Thing I Do Not Entirely Understand"

Dictionary definition:

­ma-ni-pu-la-tive – a province in India.

No, wait.  My eye jumped on the page.  That’s “Manipur.”

ma-ni-pu-la-tive –  a province in Central Canada…no, it jumped again.  That’s “Manitoba.”  I need, like ruler or something, to stay in line.

One more try.  (And you know the third try always works.)

ma-ni-pu-la-tive – 1:  of or pertaining to manipulation.

Well that wasn’t worth the wait.  Let’s look at the next one.

man-ni-pu-la-tive – 2:  serving to manipulate.

Thank you, that was very helpful.  Can I get my money back on this dictionary?

Oh wait.  There’s a “3.”  (Here we go again.) 

ma-ni-pu-la-tive – 3:  influencing or attempting to influence the behavior or emotions of others for one’s own purposes.

Finally.  They couldn’t have put that one first?

WEBSTER:  We like to build up the suspense.  Otherwise, it’s just words and their meanings. 

Fine.  Have your fun.


I am watching a movie.  And it comes to a point where something’s going on on the screen and I find myself choking down sobs, rather than sobbing uncontrollably, because I’m a grown man, and it’s embarrassing enough to be sobbing in a movie theater at all. 

The thing is, looking back a very short time afterwards, I could not even vaguely remember what I had been sobbing about.  I could not, in fact, even remember the movie.  (NOTE:  We shall not include the “aging process” in this conversation.)

A week later, it came to me.   The movie was Philomena, an entertaining enough trifle about a woman (played by Judy Dench) teaming up with a somewhat cynical journalist (Steve Coogan) to try and find the son the nuns in the convent she had been banished to when she became pregnant had stolen from her and sold into adoption fifty years earlier. 

Not to give anything away, the two sob-inducing moments I experienced involved the woman’s initial discovery of something crucial and agonizing (every acting student should study the way Judy Dench masterfully pulled it off), and at the end, when she comes face-to-face with his name on a thing in a place.  I think I handled that “not giving away” thing quite skillfully.  And by the way, I almost teared up again recollecting that second one.  

So here’s the question.  Something happens in a movie, you respond to it effusively “in the moment”, and then that moment instantly disappears from your emotional “Memory Card.”

What was that?  What it simply a consciously constructed cinematic moment?  A deliberately manufactured empty jolt to the heartstrings?  Is that all there was to it?  Was the movie simply being

ma-ni-pu-la-tive, “Number Three”?

What is that about?  And when is it acceptable and even admirable and when is it shameless and unforgivable…


(NOTE:  Terkjerkery, of course, it only one form of emotional manipulation.  Fear is also an emotion, along with its brutalizing relatives, terror and dread.  I cannot discuss this matter with authority because I do not attend movies of that nature.  With the “Production Code” protecting delicate spirits like myself long gone, my first question to people who’ve attended a recent release is, “Is it scary?” and knowing me well, they can immediately inform me if that movie is for me.  With the now virtually unlimited possibilities available to them, today’s directors are entirely in control of whether I will die of fright watching a movie. 

Not long ago, I saw a Saudi Arabian picture called Wadjda where, against that culture’s anti-female injunctions, a young girl finally gets her dream bicycle, and goes out for a glorious solo ride.  Had the director so chosen, as the climax of the movie in a devastating ironic twist, the girl could easily have pedaled over an IED and blown up.  Fortunately, she didn’t, preserving the uplifting spirit of the movie, and preventing the necessity of calling for paramedics to resuscitate me with oxygen.)   

Help me with this, will you?  I realize all art is a form of manipulation.  The work, be it a painting or a poem or any other communicative medium is inevitably trying to elicit an emotion.  But when it that effort legitimate and praiseworthy, and when is it just crap?

In definition “Number Three”, the dictionary includes at the end of “influencing or attempting to influence the behavior or the emotions of others the phrase “…for one’s own purposes.”

Is manipulation always, as the dictionary asserts, self-serving, and nothing else?

Is there a scale of worthy and less worthy examples of manipulation?  I am thinking about Peter Pan, when Tinkerbell’s light’s going out and Peter entreats the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies, to bring the fast-fading “Tink” back life.

Was that good or was it “Gimme me a break!  (And if it “works”, is that all that matters?)

Consider that closing moment in Field of Dreams, when the Kevin Costner character asks his now returned-to-life ballplayer father, “Hey, Dad…you wanna have a catch?”

What would you call that, legitimate or hooey?

I really don’t know.  What I do know is that I do not like being manipulated and at best I want to know, not that everyone else felt manipulated too, but that there was a sincere intention in the communication.  I once saw a Jackson Pollock painting that made me cry because it appeared that, through the painting, the artist was saying, “There is something deeply disturbing going on in my brain!”  That didn’t feel like a manipulation.  It felt like he couldn’t help himself.  That, in writer’s parlance, was where the story was naturally going.

If that doesn’t cover it, perhaps the closest I can come to a glimmer of an observation is through a story I once heard about the comparison of two actors who played the role of “Cyrano de Bergerac”, which went like this.

“When Christopher Plummer played Cyrano, he cried.  When Jose Ferrer played Cyrano, the audience cried.”

Maybe it’s in there somewhere.

Or maybe Jose Ferrer was just a more gifted manipulator.

Any ideas on the subject?


Wendy M. Grossman said...

I think the sense of being manipulated has a lot to do with how much freedom a given show/movie gives you to choose your own reaction. Most people now are very sophisticated consumers in the sense that they've seen dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of movies and TV shows, and they resent being told what to think (character A is always good, character B is always evil, children are always innocent, and cue for audience tears because small soulful dog is killed). One of the things I like (on shows like THE GOOD WIFE, JUSTIFIED, and even FRIENDS, in its heyday) is conflicts where both characters are at least partly right and you can agree with either or both of them. Or dramas (BUFFY, BREAKING BAD) where the characters *do* have choices, sometimes make bad ones, and change as a result of the consequences that happen to them and others. (I didn't love a lot of BUFFY's later seasons, but the character's sadness under the losses piling up for her was absolutely right.)

One use of manipulation you don't mention is to get the audience rooting for a character by essentially color-coding: underdog, small child, cute dog, etc.


Canda said...

I saw Christopher Plummer do the musical version of "Cyrano". He was extraordinary. I think I preferred his version to Jose's.

Saw Robert Klein play it, too, and his was the most real Cyrano. You could see the poetry forming in his mind as he played it, rather than hearing these incredible phrases fly out of Cyrano's mouth, as if they'd been memorized.

Rob Bedford said...

I think everything written is in some way manipulative. I can't prove that since I'm not really familiar with everything that's been written, but I'll still make the assertion.

Speaking of Philomena - which I have not yet seen...I happened to see the movie, "The Magdalene Sisters," recently. Quite a story (one from which Philomena was likely culled).

pumpkinhead said...

Your question makes me think of horror movies. There are cheap scares, and earned scares. Cheap scares tend to consist of easy scares like something jumping out suddenly, and graphic gory sequences. Earned scares are when, for example, the movie cleverly and subtly taps into some universal fear, especially if it is in an original way.

I think that distinction can be expanded out into all the different types of movie/tv manipulation you are referring to. Cheap manipulation is the easy stuff like making the audience feel sadness by killing off a beloved character in a hackneyed way. Earned manipulation is, for example, making the audience feel sadness by having them watch look at the sadness in the eyes of a character that is just now realizing the ironic truth about his life.

I feel like it's similar to the difference between static characters and complex characters. The cheap manipulation is the dramatic equivalent of the stereotypical two dimensional character we all know as soon as we meet her. The praiseworthy manipulation is the dramatic equivalent of the full-rounded complex character.