Tuesday, January 19, 2010


In his marvellous book, On Love, the philosopher, Ortega y Gasset, writes: “…desire automatically dies when it is fulfilled; it ends with satisfaction. Love, on the other hand, is eternally unsatisfied. Desire has a passive character; when I desire something, what I actually desire is that the object come to me. Being the center of gravity, I await things to fall down before me. Love… is the exact reverse… for Love is all activity… It does not gravitate toward me, but I toward it.”

Without intending to, Gasset articulates a rather unexpected and startling insight concerning the nature of drama and dramatic storytelling.

Several years ago, a writing student that came to me complaining bitterly about the screenwriting course at AFTRS with its emphasis on miserable characters loaded down with problems and fears. She couldn’t understand why so much importance was being placed upon what she termed their “nasty behaviour”. “Why can’t we write about happy things?” she asked. “Why can’t we write about what’s good in the world, and about people who love one another and get along?”

It wasn’t the sort of question I had ever been asked, let alone one I would’ve ever anticipated. But there it was. And though I can’t remember exactly what it was I said in reply, I’m sure it had something to do with the primordial nature of human existence – that final fact of being, which is pure anxiety.

Fact is, “things fall apart” – we fall apart, or merely fall - from grace, from youth, from one relationship into the next, from jobs, from health, from life itself. To exist is to encounter hazards, and what one does in the face of hazard seems to be eternally fascinating and entertaining to most humans.

Drama cannot exist if characters aren’t involved in hazardous activities, whether they be physical, emotional, intellectual or spiritual. To be is to be anxiously (and urgently) engaged in the pursuit of something that carries risk; this is the essence of dramatic action. But it can’t be thoughtless or stupidly reckless. When the pursuit is motivated by something that allows us to feel emotionally connected to the characters, the drama becomes real. And the bigger the risk, the more we care, the greater our involvement.

You don’t have to be Australian to be drawn to characters who make great efforts in the face of eternal hopelessness. That’s what great dramatic characters do, even when – sometimes – they are their own worst enemies.

The acts of characters are almost always eloquent and attractive to us when they are acts of love. Not love in any conventional sense, not romantic love – but the kind of love of which Gasset speaks when he talks about love as “…power, a vestige of energy”; the love that weeps for humankind's unnamed, unrealised possibilities, that encourages neither indifference nor passive repugnance in the face of deception (evil), but a conscientious striving to recollect that which has been forgotten, to reform that which has been fragmented, to revivify that which the eyes no longer see and the ears no longer hear, even unto death. Such a love cannot be equated with simple-minded happiness. Dramatic characters will sacrifice life itself for their love of country, family, friends.

Love is the gravity by which all things fall to earth, giving back to the source that which was taken from it. One merges into the other, and the other merges into us. It is a merging that happens both inside and outside the script.

The dramatic journey within the script is the merging of the characters with one another and with their objectives or what stands in the way of their objectives; and echoes the merging that takes place outside the script, in the intricate matrix of empathetic action and interaction operating among the screenwriter, the audience and the tribe, and their relationship with the dramatis personae and their story..

It is all right for a dramatic story to end in satisfaction, but it cannot proceed by it. When everything is happy and all are contented, we tend to metaphorically curl up and go to sleep.

If a character is to be genuinely and credibly provoked into action, then his or her heart's desire must be compelling, focused and frustrated; the wish must be heartfelt and withheld, or at least misunderstood by those who should know better; and the dream must unexpectedly revert to what it really is: a nightmare in disguise. The frustration of desire – in whatever form it takes – is the catalyst of every dramatic story. It forms the basis of every dramatic problem.

In considering character, Michael Shurtleff often asked of his acting students: “where is the love?”. It is a question every screen storyteller must grapple with, whether he or she is a screenwriter, a director, a cinematographer or a designer.Who answers that question is important – but What answers it is crucial. What in YOU is answerable to it? If you are to avoid mediocrity as a storyteller then you must not answer it in purely intellectual terms.

Love is not only a condition of openness, but an active involvement with ALL of the characters – a quality of engagement in which the storyteller’s identity is an active and creative force, in resonant relationship with all of the characters necessary for finding the story. The love that enables that is the purest act of the mediumistic filmmaker, who understands that “…splendid triggering of human vitality, the supreme activity which nature affords anyone for going out of himself toward someone else.”

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