the heart of the matter

I’m an emotional person. I admit it. And, I think, the older I get the more I accept that about myself and recognize that in books and in tv shows and in movies, I need to feel something in order to really connect to a story.

I’m also very analytical (if you haven’t figured that out by now, you haven’t really read this blog much). I can think about things and break them apart and examine the pieces and put them back together again and enjoy every minute of intellectually engaging with a story.

But cerebral engagement is short lived. Once the discussion is over; once the pieces have been identified and reconstructed I’m done. If you want something to last, if you want your work to leave an impact, I have to feel it.

DARK KNIGHT RISES | Christian Bale as Batman

Take, for instance, this summer’s superhero films (which really ignited this post anyway). Christopher Nolan is an insanely brilliant director. His story arcs are well constructed, his characters thoughtful, his dialog deep and willing to explore all parts of the human psyche. Joss Whedon is brilliant in his own right, but let’s be honest – The Avengers is popcorn compared to Batman.

And yet, I cried at least twice at The Avengers – both times I saw it. In fact, let’s dwell there for a moment: I saw The Avengers twice and I’d watch it another 2 or 3 times and I’ll own it and watch it another couples of times again. Not just because I cried, but also because I laughed and I cared about these characters and I wanted desperately for them to conquer the onslaught of destruction so I could feel that victory with them. Though I’ll probably still cry at least twice during the movie each time I watch it. The only reason I’ve seen Batman Begins more than once is because it’s on tv. I haven’t seen The Dark Knight since opening weekend and I’m not vying to go out and see TDKR again.

The most I felt in TDKR is slightly despondent and curious to see how it would all play out. And I thought about the different speeches by Alfred, Gordon and Blake about humanity and the choices we make. Maybe I felt a twinge of excitement in how John Blake’s story played out. And a little happy for Alfred. But it was all faint, especially in light of the grand canvas Nolan was playing with.

The Batman movies are smart movies, but The Avengers goes straight for the heart.

This phenomenon that doesn’t have a name yet – about the need to engage emotionally in a story – is probably the progeny of the Godzilla Factor (not the official name, I’m still working on it). Independence Day came out in 1996 and was awesome, and rocked the box office and is watched again and again and airs on tv all the time because people love it. They care about these characters and what happens to them matters immensely to the audience. Two years later Godzilla came out and I was so excited that it was another Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich movie. But about two thirds of the way through I remember thinking all of the characters could die at the hands of Godzilla and I wouldn’t care. Not one bit. Devlin and Emmerich never really made their way back to Independence Day but that disparity between the two movies has stuck with me ever since.

AVENGERS | Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Captain America
AVENGERS | Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Captain America

And they’re not exactly the same thing – being emotionally engaged by a film and caring about the fate of the characters. But they’re loosely intertwined. Because if you don’t feel anything at all then you don’t care. I think its possible to interact emotionally with a story and still not care much about the characters. But I think they work together more often than not and I think Joss Whedon gets that. Our emotional interaction with the story is through the characters; sympathizing with them, feeling what they feel, being drawn in because we’re attracted by them or fascinated by the things they say and do.

Which isn’t just about the characters being portrayed, it requires something of the actors; for them to put their heart on the line and make the emotional journey as real and poignant as possible. It requires the director to evoke that from the actors and use all the tools of their trade to relay to the audience. It’s not a skill Christopher Nolan has, and something Joss Whedon understands in spades.

In fact, now that I think about it, I want to make one more observation even though it’s narrowing the conversation to these two directors. Christopher Nolan seems like a clinical director; constructing his films the way someone would engineer a building or sculpt a statue: with precision and intention and then presenting it for display. Joss Whedon engages the audience from the beginning in his writing; taking their reactions and what they need into account in order to create his films.

I like smart stories and puzzles and being engaged intellectually as much as the next girl. But if you don’t also involve my heart in your story, how do you expect me to fall in love with it?

July 27, 2012 | Commentary , , | this post contains affiliate links

3 responses to “the heart of the matter

  1. kel

    with chris nolan, i think any sort of emotional connection with the story or characters happens accidentally. it happens if an actor gets it and does it themselves, not if nolan implants it in their souls and then squeezes it out of them. the way that, as you mentioned, whedon did in the avengers. which, on some level, taps into the fascination i have always had with the relationship between an actor and director, and how an overbearing director can make a great actor look terrible (star wars: phantom menace)…but that, at the same time, sometimes a great actor can overcome some of a director’s faults (marion cotillard when she works with nolan, and the emotion she brings to her scenes, especially against leo in inception). but that’s another topic. related, but separate. still, i agree, it’s a great skill to be able to have a complex, well-developed story (especially with action movies) while still caring about the characters and getting the audience emotionally engaged. that, whether people recognize it or not, is why the avengers is fantastic and had the highest-grossing weekend ever, and deserved to.

    • aj

      I totally agree that Nolan’s emotional connection is almost accidental, when an actor hits a note he wasn’t expecting – and maybe not looking for or even noticing when they do. I love that idea that a director implants emotions in an actors soul then squeezes it out of them – what a great picture!

      This is completely an issue of how a director handles their actors rather than how a script is written or how talented an actor actually is. So, I agree your fascination between director and actor is totally connected – though it can always be delved into deeper in its own right.

  2. Candace

    I 100% agree with you on your intro, I am the same way, and I also agree on this part also…”If you want something to last, if you want your work to leave an impact, I have to feel it.” When you talk about the actors portraying the characters they play and making the emotional journey I am reminded of Heath Ledger and his roll as the joker in the Dark Night. So I heard, he really got into the roll and invested himself when playing that character and it may have led to part of his death.