Thursday, July 07, 2011

Two Sides of an Argument

I was watching "High Noon" the other day and it reminded me of a concept that people don't talk about very often.

Many times a good film presents two sides of an argument and the film's hero is caught between the two viewpoints, trying to navigate their way through and choose between the two competing philosophies.

"High Noon" (SPOILER ALERT) starts with the Sheriff of a small western town (Will Kane, played by Gary Cooper) getting married to Grace Kelly on a Sunday morning. She's a Quaker (a religion that, at least as the movie explains it, prohibits violence against others) so Will is going to "hang up his guns", give up being a lawman and move away to another town to open a store. The town's new sheriff is set to arrive tomorrow.

 However, just at that moment, three criminals ride into town and go to the train station to wait for the noon train to arrive. It turns out that they are the gang mates of Frank Miller, a notorious criminal who used to run the town until Will Kane cleaned up the town and sent Frank to prison. Frank was supposed to be hanged, but was pardoned instead. Now he's headed back to town on the train (set to arrive at noon, hence the film's title) to take his revenge on Kane for sending him to jail.

So Will has about an hour and a half before the train arrives and the four gunman ride into town to kill him. He's caught between two bad choices (which brings to mind the old expression "caught between the horns of a dilemma").

On the one hand, he could ride out of town with his wife (which is what she wants him to do). But Will can't bring himself to do that, because he knows that the gunmen will chase him wherever he goes, and he'd rather fight them here, in town, where he knows the townspeople. Will figures the townspeople will give him a hand in his fight.

The downside of this choice is that his wife has made him promise never to use violence again (because of her strongly held religious beliefs) and she threatens to leave him if he doesn't go away with her immediately.

Against her wishes, he chooses to stay. But as he tries to gather townspeople to help him defend the town, he has more trouble than expected. The townspeople are terrified of the Miller gang, and they know Miller's vendetta is against Kane. Why should they put their lives on the line when this is Kane's problem? When Kane asks them to help, they encourage him to run (so they can have a clear conscience) and they ask him questions he can't answer, like "If I get gunned down in this fight, who will take care of my wife? My kids?"

So what gives the film its powerful intensity is this tension between different points of view (and the tangible, pressing deadline of the arrival of the noon train). The brilliance of the film is that it gives equal weight to both sides - Will has really good reasons why he's convinced he has to stay and fight, his wife has good reasons why she won't stay if he does, and the townspeople have good reasons why they can't really help him and why he should run away.

 The key is that you have to present both sides as honestly and attractively as you can. That way, it's very hard for your character to choose between them and this creates a lot of conflict, tension and emotion.

This is where many films fall down (in my opinion): they make one side obviously "good" and one side obviously "evil", so that there's no real tension about which way the hero will jump. You know they'll never pick the "evil" path so you're just waiting for the hero to figure out what the audience already knows.

To really make your hero caught between "the horns of a dilemma", the two sides should seem equally valid possible choices for your hero.

"Toy Story 2" is an animated film that does it very well. Woody is caught between the choice of going back to be with Andy until he gets too old to play with Woody anymore, and then facing an uncertain future, or going to be preserved in a Museum forever, but never being played with again.

 Even when making a film that's a fairy tale, or one that is set in the past, I think it's really important to make the choices in the movie ones that are universal and relateable to everyone and reflect problems and issues faced by all people, not just people who lived in the past (or princes and princesses, for that matter).

As we were making "Tangled", I always saw the two viewpoints that Rapunzel had to choose between as either staying at home with her Mother, where life is safe and predictable, or going out into the world and making her own way, where she runs the risk of being hurt and having her heart broken.

Both are valid viewpoints and you see people who have to choose between those two options every day. It's one of the biggest choices we face in life.

Anyway, the point is: as the film maker, you have to look at both sides and make them as valid as you can for your hero. The goal is to make the audience sit on the edge of their seat, stressed about which one the hero will pick, wondering which way the hero will jump. If you do it right, they'll be fascinated by watching it all unfold, but relieved that it's your characters (and not them) having to make the excruciating choice.


ScotlandBarnes said...

I always liked that about "Bridge on the River Kwai" - Guinness could do build a weak bridge - or build a strong bridge - and the rest of the film deals with the consequences of his actions. Great post Mark!

Ian said...

Hi Mark - I haven't seen High Noon in decades and have been trying to remember the ending. Do the film makers ever even right at the end make it clear which choice the hero should have made? I just think of how in Toy Story 2 they create that tension of choice, but then right near the end reveal new stuff about Stinky Pete's character that suddenly makes it very obvious which way Woddy should go. In your opinion is this something needed to make it friendly for children or just a creative call?

Also I thought of True Grit while reading this. I guess its not always about what's attractive about both sides. In that case there are two law men, but both are deeply flawed in their own way, so the girl and we as viewers find it hard at times to know who or if we should favour either of them.

Jesse Hamm said...

I totally agree with the "two sides" point. I think stories are stronger when you feel caught in the hero's own dilemma.

That said, I've gotta be honest and say I never for a moment felt that it was an attractive option for Rapunzel to stay in the tower. Was that supposed to come across as a dilemma? I enjoyed the film, but it felt a lot more like The Rescuers: "Get her the heck OUTTA there!"

TheLittleBlackCat said...

"Attractive" option, no, but "compelling", I think so. Given Rapunzell's character (sweet, naive, eager to please) and lack of knowledge about Mother Gothel, I could see why she would vacillate between the two choices at a given point in the story, especially since her goal at the outset was not as imperative as a typical "Save the kingdom/princess/world" hero's journey. It was smaller and more personal, and so she reasonably could feel guilty and selfish about wanting it. The rapid cuts between "Best Day Ever" and "I'm a horrible daughter" scenes brought her thinking on the dilemma home for me.
Of course, we the audience know the whole time what she must choose to keep the story rolling, just like we know what Gary Cooper must choose, so we may not feel as caught as the character does.

West said...

Hi Man,

Excellent post. I normally don't comment, but what you've said is so damn true.

netta said...

That's why I love Miyazaki's stories. There is no good or bad - only human choices.

solutionsby said...

very nice, please do more of these, many thanks....

Joon Kim said...

I agree that the story in Tangled never really convinced me (the audience) of Rapunzel's dilemma either.

I can intellectually make sense of why it would be, but it never worked dramatically. Her cute bi-polar montage was played more as a gag. Otherwise, there was never a question of what she should want or which life she should choose.

The dilemma in Toy Story 2 was nearly perfect. So is Indy's in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A lot of movies don't seem to know how to do this. Granted, it's very difficult.

Ian, I don't think Stinky Pete's villainy invalidates Woody possibly choosing a life of immortality. It's not as if Jessie and Bullseye turned out to be jerks too.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is such an awesome example of this as well. It so expertly puts you into Nicholson's head that you can understand his motivation in aiding the enemy.

Joon Kim said...

Toy Story 3, as entertaining as it was, also had a flimsy dilemma for Woody.

At some point, it half-asses a moment where Woody has to choose between making it back to Andy before he goes to college or saving his friends from the daycare.

OV! said...


great post.

RISK and DILEMMA are what defines a characters true desire. making those choices under pressure is what draws and audience and moves them to feel one way or another.


GW said...

It's an interesting concept, but my gut tells me that you're taking a good concept and stretching it too far. It's a good idea to have two equally valid sides to choose from, but since you've provided no alternatives to this equality of viewpoint scenario to compare and contrast, I can't take your word for it.

mark kennedy said...

Scotland - thanks for the post

Ian - I think it's always clear in High Noon that he'll stay and fight. If he runs, there's no movie. Also his character is so strong that you know he won't chicken out. In Toy Story 2 I think the Pete stuff helps to "up the stakes" and make things more exciting at the end - if Pete doesn't have a huge stake and isn't pushing at Woody to go to the Museum, you have a problem: Woody would have to decide on the plane that he can't go to the Museum and that's pretty's much better, dramatically, to have Woody make the decision but then be trapped and unable to flee.I think even in Toy Story 2 you know Woody will return to Andy, but still, they made the Museum idea as attractive as they could.

Jesse - It wasn't about tricking the audience into thinking Rapunzel might return to the tower, because the audience knows that will never happen - all Disney movies have happy endings, of course. And I don't really think the audience is ever fooled into thinking Gary Cooper will run or that Woody will go to the Museum. The point is to do your work and make those options as attractive as you can. A lot of films don't, and then the dilemma feels false, and the audeince is asking, "why is he even considering option B?"

Black Cat, West, Netta, Solutions - thanks for the comments!

Joon - as I said above, the point wasn't to fool you into thinking she'd go back, because the audience knows she won't really, but it was about making the tower a safe place for her, as attractive an option as it could be. The alternative - a dark scary tower where she's kept as a prisoner - wouldn't make for a film where she has to make a choice. That's just a film where she escapes her imprisonment.
Did you mean Alec Guinness in "Kwai"?

OV! - thanks for the comment

GW _ don't really understand what you're asking...?

ramonwx7 said...

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