Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Perils of Preaching

All screenwriters have probably been bombarded with the golden rule: don't preach in your script - or, in (probably) Samuel Goldwyn's immortal words: if you want to send a message, use Western Union.

This is one of those rules which you don't want to be true, but when you break it you realize just how valid and universal it is. Yet some filmmakers still persist in doing so - and the finished product, whether film or TV show, always suffers as a result.

Case in point, the Dutch political comedy Vox Populi, which I watched yesterday.

Vox Populi is about a radical left-wing politician, leader of the fictitious Red-Green Party, who is doing very badly in the polls. Largely because of the presence of a populist right-wing party with an explicit anti-Moslem message.
He then meets the father of his future son-in-law, who is a blue-collar car salesman, politically incorrect, often aggressive but fundametally honest and warm-hearted guy. Though shocked by the raunchy humour and crass comments of his new near-relative, he realizes some of them have some merit and he starts parroting them to the media.

The result is that he becomes extremely popular (except with his parliamentary colleagues and his existing voters) and his party, which was on the verge of disappearing, shoots to the top of the polls.

The film actually muddles this set-up by having the politician be manipulated by an ex-Yougoslavian son-in-law of the car salesman, who has made a bet with his brother(?) that he's going to make the Red-Green Party the biggest political party in Holland come the election. There's never any real pay-off of this extra level in the plot.

Anyway, eventually our 'hero' is caught on tape telling a raunchy anti-Moslem joke, an extremist faction wants to kill him, and he has to go live in a safe house. Just before the general election, he decides to address the nation, and gives a long speech to the nation.

And here, of course, he stops being a character and becomes the mouthpiece for writer/director Eddy Terstall. He denounces his own behaviour, dissects the problems in contemporary Dutch society and declares he is leaving politics and the country, but imparts his wishlist of how Holland should face the challenges it is confronted with now, like a wise old man providing life lessons for his wayward pupils.

Of course, this is an inherently non-dramatic situation. That's one handicap. But more problematically, what the character says, does not correspond with how he has behaved throughout the movie.

He's been a hypocrite through and through (relentless womanizer, recreational drug user, liar, narcissist), and the audience has never got a really good handle on what he actually does believe in apart from his original ideals. And to have such a character suddenly declare the moral message of the film, without any clear indication of how he acquired these insights, just undermines whatever the filmmaker tries to say.

To attempt to make the turnabout of the protagonist slightly acceptable, the character declares before delivering his message that he's had a lot of time to think in his safehouse and has come to realize some things... and no, it doesn't work.

The regrettable thing is that, with a different approach to the plot, the same message could have been put across. In a far more convincing manner. How? By dramatizing the content of the message. By creating situations, dilemmas and conflicts which put the main character through the wringer, and force him to make a difficult choice, the result of which shows his true character and makes it clear to the audience what the filmmaker wants to get across.

Why, you can even have big message-laden speeches if you really want - as long as you put them in a dramatic context. Preston Sturges was a master at this - check the finale of Hail The Conquering Hero, for instance.

Or, sabotage the big speech, because of the dramatic context it is placed in, as is the case in The China Syndrome, when Jack Lemmon's character finally gets the chance to air the truth on television.

But whatever you do, don't get the character up on a soapbox, and definitely don't have him come to certain conclusions or assume the moral high ground when throughout the entire film his mentality and behaviour have been diametrically opposed to what you want to convey. You're just going to ruin whatever effect you're hoping to achieve.

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