Sunday, December 30, 2012

Three Uses of the Knife

I made time during my two transcontinental airplane rides in the last couple weeks to read two books. One was Michael Shermer's "Mind of the Market", which I will have to write somewhat extensively about at a later time... But the other was preeminent play-write, David Mamet's, "Three Uses of the Knife" - one of his numerous short books on dramatic writing.

The book is intriguing and brilliantly - if at times strangely - written, and I think it has a ton of incredible insights on the writing process and what constitutes good art, bad art, what happens to 2nd & 3rd acts when writers get lazy and run out of ideas and what audiences really get out of dramatic structure. It's a short book and worth reading... but I found one passage in particular that is highly relevant to what I do.

On page 21, Mamet writes:
"Stanislavsky says there are two kinds of plays. There are plays that you leave, and you say to yourself, "By God, I just, I never, gosh, I want to, now I understand! What a masterpiece! Let's get a cup of coffee," and by the time you get home, you can't remember the name of the play, you can't remember what the play was about.

And there are plays - and books and songs and poems and dances - that are perhaps upsetting or intricate or unusual, that you leave unsure, but which you think about perhaps the next day, and perhaps for a week, and perhaps for the rest of your life.

Because they aren't clean, they aren't neat, but there's something in them that comes from the heart, and, so, goes to the heart.

What comes from the head is perceived by the audience, the child, the electorate, as manipulative. And we may succumb to the manipulative for a moment because it makes us feel good to side with the powerful. But finally we understand we're being manipulated and we resent it."
I suspect David Mamet has hit on something quite profound here. To be fair, he does seem to do that a lot... But in this case, it's also tied to what I do for a living.

Some of this goes back to a point I've made dozens of times in the last few years... the more I try to use "reason" to try to make cogent arguments and convince people that there are better ideas than the ones they currently accept, the more it tends to feel manipulative to some people and turns a lot of audience members off - thus compelling them to reject the very ideas for which I'm attempting to make a supportive case. Rational arguments just aren't the way to go if you wish to use media to change the way people think.

It's a bit of a paradox though, because if you really think about it, presenting intellectual arguments is the least "manipulative" thing I could actually do.

What's actually far more manipulative is trying to get people to change their minds about something by appealing solely to their emotions. Mamet is talking about dramatic fiction, to be sure, but consider any Michael Moore documentary as a case in point - they are manipulative precisely because they present ideas through an emotional, rather than rational, lens. A film like "Sicko" is long on emotional appeals and comedy, while simultaneously being conspicuously light on facts or cogent arguments.

But of course, that is what is actually effective - in Mamet's words - at getting to people to think about something the next day, the next week and possibly for the rest of their lives, which is precisely what needs to happen for people to internalize a concept.

At least with the documentary form, most audiences enter a viewing with some sense of skepticism - the truly effective means of using emotion to manipulate people's ideas an sentiments is within the fictional dramatic arts. Consider a film like Nick Cassavetes' "John Q", in which a father (Denzel Washington) takes extreme measures to get a cold-hearted and possibly corrupt insurance company to reconsider their decision not to pay for his son's life-saving medical treatments. This film is undoubtedly even more effective at getting people to support the idea of state-run (so-called) "universal" health care than is anything Michael Moore could produce, if for no other reason than that the emotional appeal is much more powerful when audiences must buy into it as a pre-requisite for becoming immersed in the drama of the story itself.

Clearly what any father when his son needs an expensive heart transplant is march into
a hospital with a gun and take as many hostages as possible... 
The writer and filmmakers have presented their audience with a set of circumstances - namely that an evil insurance company callously allows a poor, sick child to die just so they can make a quick buck - and that set of circumstances must be accepted by all audiences as a condition for understanding and buying into the drama of the film.

Of course... That's just a fictional movie, right?

I suppose so, but this all winds up presenting a moral conundrum as well, of course. I'm not comfortable at all using emotional manipulation to force someone to think about what I want them to think about without any intellectual support - which to be perfectly honest, is what I think I tend to be up against in the world of idea-advocacy media.

More films than I can count are made now explicitly with a message and a goal of changing the world... and of those, few are at all libertarian and banking on none show anything but contempt for markets and sound economics, which is one of the things I care most about. Dating back at least 50 years, the film industry has been inundated with film after film that uses every tool of emotional manipulation there is - with deliberately political intent or simply as a byproduct of the writers' beliefs - to push an agenda of social change, nearly always dominated by support for statism and/or an overt rejection of many key classical liberal concepts. Ever since I was a kid there's been a huge number of ostensibly environmentalist films which pit ordinary, sympathetic families (usually with sick children, poisoned wells, dying wildlife, etc.) against powerful business interests often irrationally motivated to destroy the environment "for profit".

Avatar, Erin Brockovich, Fern Gully, Captain Planet, The Informant, Michael Clayton, The Lorax... Even the  new Matt Damon film, "Promised Land" about hydrolic fracturing ("fracking"), which opens this Friday... All of these employ the now-standard evil corporation vs. lovable natives/homeowners/children/animals archetype. Corporation/business vs. life.

It's so common today that it would be far easier and less time-consuming for me to list all of the films that weren't depicting business as evil and destructive.

Naturally, the state is never mentioned at all except occasionally as the benevolent protector of "the people", in spite of the reality that virtually anytime a corporation does something other than add value to the world, the state can be quickly found at the core protecting and subsidizing them at taxpayer expense. Even "The Informant", which is a pretty funny movie about illegal "price-fixing" activities is all about the agri-business conglomerate Archer Daniels Midlands - which, dating at least back to 1995, the Cato Institute's James Bovard called "A Case Study in Corporate Welfare":
"At least 43 percent of ADM's annual profits are from products heavily subsidized or protected by the U.S. government--"at least," because the substantial gain derived by ADM from various domestic crop support programs and export subsidies is virtually impossible to quantify.
ADM's political strategy has long been based on the ideas that politicians should control prices and markets and that ADM and Andreas should control politicians."
But hardly anyone in the film industry cares a bit about that... if they even understand it at all.

Meanwhile, the hatred of business itself, the mistrust of markets and spontaneous order and even of individual liberty on the whole is virtually ubiquitous.

Indeed! While in Los Angeles I also bought another book which I should be reading very soon entitled, "Filmmaking for Change: Make Films That Transform the World" by Jon Fitzgerald, who created and runs CineCause. I'll go out on a limb and bet that not a single example to be used in that book will be a film which suggests that markets are good or that people should be more free from government interference in their economic decisions... I'm certain no examples to be used want to "transform the world" in the same way I hope to.

I suppose there's more than a bit of poetic irony in this purchase made all the more ironic in light of this other passage from a couple pages later in "Three Uses of the Knife":
"Dramatists who aim to change the world assume a moral superiority to the audience and allow the audience to assume a moral superiority to those people in the play who don't accept the views of the hero.

It's not the dramatist's job to bring about social change. There are great men and great women who effect social change. They do so through costly demonstrations of personal courage - they risk getting their heads beat in during the march on Montgomery. Or chain themselves to a pillar. Or stand up to ridicule or scorn. They put their lives on the line, and that can inspire heroism in others.

But the purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don't think its purpose is to enlighten us. I don't think it's to change us. I don't think it's to teach us.
I don't believe reaching people is the purpose of art. In fact, I don't know what "reaching people" means."
Interesting, no?

Mamet suggests here that plays (and books, and movies, etc.) which set out to "change the world" aren't really viable as "art" any longer. I'm not certain that he's right about that, but I am certain that he's right that dramatists who aim to change the world are assuming a moral superiority to their audience, and that can easily become condescending and wind up counter-productively turning people away from the message - particularly when that message is politically polarizing in some way anyway.

Notable examples of this would include the non-liberal reaction to Michael Moore's movies, or the non-conservative reaction to Dinesh D'Souza's recent, "Obama 2016"...

So regardless of whether or not "message movies" constitute good art, the practical lesson here is that good drama makes people feel something the dramatist wants them to feel, and that in turn often compels them to internalize and think about the issues involved long into the future. Unfortunately... It seems to be that the dramatists who are by far the best at creating the kind of "from-the-heart" writing that Mamet discusses in the book are all to some degree opposed to the kind of philosophical ideas that come from intelligent reasoning. So all the moving, emotional drama that gets people to think is being expended on convincing audiences to think what I rather strongly believe are the wrong things!

This too is hardly surprising to me.

Recently, I've started thinking a great deal about creativity and why precisely it is that the best writers and filmmakers - and artists broadly - seem to be those who are the least capable of also doing the intellectual work necessary to come to accurate conclusions about the parts of human life which are somewhat counter-intuitive, like economics. One hypothesis I have for this comes from recent neuroscience research which shows that the parts of the brain responsible for empathy cannot operate simultaneously as the parts of the brain which are responsible for logical thinking.

In November, Popular Science wrote:
"A new study published in NeuroImage found that separate neural pathways are used alternately for empathetic and analytic problem solving. The study compares it to a see-saw. When you’re busy empathizing, the neural network for analysis is repressed, and this switches according to the task at hand."
It seems to me that the tools it takes to be a great creator of heart-felt drama, one needs to exist nearly all the time in the "empathetic" part of the mind. Certainly one needs to be using that part of the brain when actively engaged in the process of writing great drama in order to fully understand the humanity of what's being written. Meanwhile, if you want to understand the way societies best function, you need to be critical, analytical and use logical reasoning skills to assess what is true. This is because - particularly in the humanities, but in most of science - all the stuff that's right out on the surface and easiest to see tends to be highly deceptive.

To quote Russ Roberts' favorite F.A. Hayek quote:
"The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."
...and from Frederic Bastiat, one of my favorite quotes from the introduction of "What is Seen and What is Not Seen":
"There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen."
But of course, it's very hard to see the less-visible effects in life if you don't step back and look at an issue somewhat dispassionately. Using an example from earlier, in the John Q movie, what's not seen is the scarcity of hearts available for transplant. Nor does the movie depict all of the adults & children who were better or more viable candidates than Denzel Washington's son, or all those individuals who could afford the transplant surgery and thus provide compensation to all the hundreds of other people directly and indirectly involved getting that heart from the donor to the right patient.

The compelling story is to look empathetically at Denzel Washington's character and the actions he takes on behalf of his family. The insurance company makes a great villain, and a child dying makes a great motivation for the actions of the protagonist.

In short - all the elements that make a great story are nearly antithetical to the skills needed for good analysis.

It's hard to know where to go with all of this. It's not very satisfying to point out a bunch of paradoxes and run away, but that's kind of what I have to do here.

  • Audiences find directly presented rational arguments to be "manipulative", yet emotionally-driven drama that pushes a message is perceived instead as a good story worth internalizing. 
  • Writers who produce great drama get better at creating powerful stories almost directly to the extent that they are worse at using reason to analyze the world - virtually guaranteeing that the best story-tellers are (in some ways) the worst thinkers. 
  • The dramatist's job is not to bring about social change, but through the act of delighting and entertaining audiences, good drama can get people to think and feel new things - thus producing social change.

Clearly, in spite of it being such a short book, David Mamet's "Three Uses of the Knife" gave me a lot to think about.


Andrew Malone said...

Well, to me the next question is; how can you influence the source? What blogs or media do screenplay writers pay attention to that might meaningfully impact their worldview before they write the next blockbuster? How can you get at the assumptions at the source?

Geoff said...

"It's not very satisfying to point out a bunch of paradoxes and run away, but that's kind of what I have to do here."

Still, I'm kinda absurdly grateful that you did even that much. With this post you've concretized (or started to, at the very least) a whole mish-mash of abstract thoughts and philosophical loose ends that have been floating around in my mind for years. For as long as I've been aware, the conundrum you describe has bothered the hell out of me: Why does so much of the very best and most compelling art tend to be representative of some of the very worst and most destructive philosophy? The possible neurological explanation is an angle I'd never even considered.

Anonymous said...

what are the 3 uses of the knife?- not the writing as a whole, but actually each use solo.