Sunday, July 27, 2008

Folk Whatever.

In psychology they're playing with this idea of "folk psychology."

That is: people, in their heads, have certain ideas, about what other people are like, what's in their heads.

Folk psychology.

Folk psychology is what people think about how people think--unscientifically, so to speak.

And folk psychology is a functional part of psychology: people think and act certain ways based on assumptions about how other people think.

So folk psychology, unscientific as it is, is an object of psychology 'proper.' (Psychologists distinguish themselves from these lay theories, which are their objects--but forget about the hangup's of psychologists, their insistence that they're scientists, and we're not.)

Screenplays, I believe, are informed by folk psychology--and folk sociology and folk metaphysics.

I teach an online course on screenwriting, so I have to develop ideas that help students fill in what's missing in their stuff. And often it's 'perspective' and 'logic': what is this universe like? what do you think of these people?

Writers are often great believers in "this is just how people are." So every screenplay has some implicit sense--often clear very quickly--about: this is what people are like, this is the way they think and reason, these are the kinds of motives they have, this is what happens when they interact, and this is what the universe is like.

These folk theories are embedded in the script. They underwrite it. They don't have to be true for all time. They just have to be convincing.

  • All people care about is sex.
  • Everyone's out for himself.
  • It's a dog eat dog world.
  • People are their own worst enemies.
  • Everyone gets what he deserves.
  • What goes around comes around.
  • If something can go wrong, it will.

These are not very sophisticated ideas. But everyone can vouch they've thought them at one time or another. And we could all probably provide stories that 'bear them out.'

And screenplays don't just set forth any old theories of life, but probably the more dramatic ones. The folk theories I listed are ones that will tend to lead to harsh consequences--because we sense that such more 'dramatic' cases are more worth watching, more consequential, so to speak.

The difference between these ideas and stories are those of the screenwriter, is that the screenwriter's are more 'worked over,' more elaborate. They're subject to more of those Freudian processes like condensation, displacement and secondary revision--the unconscious processes Freud saw in dreams.

Screenplays are like elaborate daydreams, carefully worked out in the conscious mind and subjected to all kinds of logical criteria--commercial viability, formatting on the page, ability to be acted and shot, and the like.

It's vulgar reductionism to say at the end of Nights of Cabiria, 'Gee, I guess she's a survivor' or 'Well, life goes on,' or (more elaborately) 'She thought shes couldn't get any lower, but she was wrong, but she's still okay, so there's hope for all of us.'

But Fellini had some idea like that in the back of his mind. Or at any rate, such verbal inferences can be drawn from the series of images and events on the screen. The writer creates that dramatic series of events and actions, and a good writer leaves it for the audience to work out the inferences. But some of them are fairly clear.

Somehow we need to get some sense from stories of what it's all about, why we bothered watching. (A philosopher named Grice wrote about something called implicature that's related.) It's not exactly a lesson or a moral, and it need not be true. But it must ring true. It must jibe with one of those bits of folk psychology or even metaphysics: the world, or a world, is like that, I can believe that to be the case, for some patch of reality, small or large.

And the writer has to decide: What are people like? What is the world like? And these questions require some conscious articulation and elaboration in order to be consistent.

In Bergman, people even say them out loud: 'men are fools and women put up with them because of their weakness and need to take care of someone, and men should be grateful.' The characters practically say it!

But if the writer doesn't have a folk psychology, sociology, metaphysics somehow worked out, the chances are the results will be incoherent.

I risk the hypothesis that good movies have folk theories you could clearly state, just as good photographs have clear meanings that can be verbally expressed. That is also (backwards) a criterion of value, a definition of 'goodness' and not just an observation about the class of all good movies or photographs.

And so, clumsy as it may seem, working out one's own inmost sense of how people and the world are--well, it's a good idea as part of the screenwriting process.

--E. R. O'Neill

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