Monday, December 31, 2007

Conflict

by Michael Dymmoch

Conflict, the cliché goes, is the essence of story. Movie slug lines follow the formula: (protagonist) vs. (antagonist) in a world where... Fictional conflict tends to be glorified and hyperbolic. In his last blog, Sean confessed that bullets ripping through inanimate objects in slow motion was “utterly beautiful.” He didn’t show a video of bullets tearing through human skulls (or as shocking—and to some, more horrifying—through live animals) but we see it happen frequently in movies, and we read vivid (if inaccurate) descriptions in books. (Who, after all, would find the odor of putrefaction entertaining, or the smell of shit—as when the sphincters loosen and the bowels let go? Where’s the romance in scraping splattered brain tissue off a wall, or scooping human road kill from a highway?)

Violence has replaced conflict in most popular fiction. It’s easier to throw in a fight, car crash or gruesome murder than to convincingly simulate a gut-wrenching marital conflict, or the subtle but systematic verbal abuse that occurs every day, all around us. Everyone “gets” Jason Bourne, not many have the stomach to watch, much less appreciate the genius of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.

In real life, most of the conflict is subtle or banal. It makes us uncomfortable so we avoid it or tune it out. And most conflict takes place inside the protagonists (us, of course, the heroes of our own stories), often unnoticed (even by ourselves until the ulcer perforates or the heart seizes). In art, conflict must be externalized—the artist must behave oppositely in art as in life, must seek conflict out as diligently as he avoids it in his daily dealings, must study every subtle squirm and grimace. And he must understand conflict’s genesis.

So what? The Bourne Identity is entertaining. So is Pulp Fiction. And Shoot 'Em Up. What’s the point?

The point is what’s the point? When conflict exists purely for entertainment, it doesn’t satisfy. It’s like a diet of popcorn. You may keep consuming it—even past the point where you’re full—but it hasn’t much nutritional value. Conflict in art, leaves you sated. And wrung out. Unable to consume more until you’ve digested what you’ve just experienced. Great conflict has you revisiting a story for days, often for a lifetime. And great stories rarely allow for sequels. Can you imagine Two Hundred Years of Solitude? Hamlet III? Or Mystic River VII?

On a lighter note: Best wishes for a healthy, prosperous new year. And may all your serious conflicts be in fiction.

6 comments:

Fiona said...

THANK YOU. This is why I watch so few movies and almost no television.
I am tired of everything having chase scenes, explosions and multiple murders.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Thanks for the great post. Mary Shura Craig used to say "Action is not necessarily just kinetics." And she was right.

Maryann Mercer said...

Perhaps the reason people opt to watch violence rather than conflict is that conflict(as in your example of Virginia Woolf) hits too close to home. We're able to distance ourselves somewhat from violence because we've seen it all too often on film or in the media. The "I'd never do that" syndrome or "It couldn't happen here" belief doesn't work well with most conflict because we know the possibility (the'could' or 'does' if you will) exists within each of us given the right circumstances. Violence may as well, but for most of us the conflict comes first rather than last. And conflict can be resolved without violence. Violence (except perhaps in nature) doesn't resolve much of anything. Just my opinion of course.
I wish all of us a Happy and Peaceful New Year! :o)

RJ Mangahas said...

I think the point of Sean's blog was missed here. I didn't see the post as glorifying violence.

I looked beyond that one statement of bullets ripping through inanimate objects as "utterly beautiful." There was also the statements on the videos of the popcorn kernel and the water balloon.

Further down the post, Sean mentions that there are some writers that can use the tiniest bit of detail and make it interesting. To me, the point of the slo-mo videos was that often times, people tend to overlook the small details in things and the power of vivid details.

I think these two short paragraphs are the essence of the post, NOT violence and the beauty of bullets ripping through stuff.

"For me, watching these videos is a reminder of the power of showing details that normally fly by unnoticed. Like that scene in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle becomes mesmerized by the fizzing Alka Seltzer in a glass of water, and disconnected from the people around him in the diner."

"By zeroing-in on an unexpected detail, we slow down time, just like a high-speed camera, and we gain insight into the mind of the character doing the observing."

Maryann Mercer said...

I'm not sure Sean's blog was misunderstood, it's just that violence such as an exploding bullet or an erupting volcano seems in a different category than what most of us equate with the term these days. Dangerous beauty might be a good alternate...such as in the contrast of the sky and land at the formation of a tornado. Deadly but fascinating. Or the "perfect storm". Mesmerizing but only from a distance. Or at least that's my take on it.

Anonymous said...

Nice post!

I'd rather watch INTERIORS five times in a row than watch PULP FICTION once, but I thought that was just me.