Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Choice Among Fathers

Drama often involves decision, choice.

  • It's the terminal point of conflict--and the origin of consequences.
    • Two people are fighting over something--until one decides to give up.
    • Or someone decides to do something--and then all the consequences ensue.

One of the choices we sometimes see in feature films is: a choice among fathers.This is not biological fathers, as there's seldom a choice involved there.

It's more symbolic fathers or father-figures. But you could almost see the relation between the two as causal, not coincidental.

  • That is: no one has a choice over his biological father. It is who it is.
  • But we have a choice over whom we decide to pay attention to, to heed, to take moral guidance from, to model ourselves upon.
  • The latter is a choice, a moral choice: it usually shapes us morally, and we can be held responsible for it.

And terms like "choice" and "moral" and "responsible" are key in drama. (It seems obvious when you say it that way, but it's often overlooked.)

  • Drama is made up of actions.
  • Ethics and morality deal with the values that attach to actions--what is good or bad in the way of action.
  • So we experience drama through ethics:
    • We experience the actions we watch as bearing values: goodness, badness, well-timed, ill-timed, happy, unhappy, etc.

There's something compensatory here.

  • We don't have a choice who our biological father is.
  • So the choice among symbolic fathers makes up for the earlier lack of choice.
  • Our chosen father comes to take more weight than our actual father.

I'll mention Star Wars here, because it's a movie everyone knows, and because it's constantly used as a benchmark for discussing screenwriting.

  • You don't have to be terribly sharp to see the Star Wars series, especially the first three that were produced, as being about the choice of fathers.
  • Even the first film involves Luke deciding--though it's a forced decision--that the farmer who bosses him around is not to be preferred over the wise old Jedi knight in the long robe.
  • In the second of the two films made, there's a more important decision between father-figures--or between a father-figure and a father--but I won't belabor that, as it's probably obvious.

Recently I saw a film that's much less well-known than Star Wars but is pretty terrific. And like Star Wars, this less-well-known film is about the choice of fathers.

Prince of Foxes is a finely made historical film about the Borgias.

  • It's directed by Henry King, who was saluted in the silent film era as the successor to Griffith.
  • King ended up making tasteful, often historical or literary films for 20th Century Fox.
  • No one really called Henry King terrific or important after a certain point. But his films are quietly remarkable, and Prince of Foxes, based on fine source material, is like that.

In Prince of Foxes, a crafty young man is sent by greedy, murderous Cesare Borgia on a mission to seduce a beautiful young woman who's married to an old man. It seems like easy pickin's, as the crafty young man is played by Tyrone Power, and even a middle-aged Tyrone Power could probably seduce just about anybody.

It turns out the old man is not crafty but wise. And his wife loves him with a daughter's devotion. The crafty young man becomes entirely converted to admiring the old man--at the very same time he falls in love with the old man's wife.

On paper, the old man is the husband and the young woman the wife. But they're more like father and daughter.

And so the story cleverly switches.

  • Instead of a comedy about a doddering old husband being cuckolded by his young wife, it becomes more like a man falling in love with a young woman and wanting permission from the father--really falling in love with the woman and simultaneously coming to admire the daughter.

When the old man dies, in a sense, it's a wish come true: the young man gets the wife! But he's come to admire the old man greatly, and the old man, on his death bed, being no dummy, gives the wife's hand to the young man! It sounds creepy, but it's less so while watching the movie. (The difference between what happens and how we feel watching it happen is a very interesting aspect of movies--and somewhat a sign of the power of the story, as opposed to the bare events themselves.)

The point is: the young man is given a choice between two fathers.

  • He can continue working for the murderous, scheming, evil, power-hungry Cesare Borgia.
  • Or he can take arms against that powerful opponent, in essence betray him, and work for the wise and kind old man whom he had at first set out to betray.

It's a fine, richly emotional plot--all hinging on the choice between two fathers.

Once the choice is made, there are of course consequences, because "choice" and "consequence" go hand in hand.

  • Although morally superior, the battle against Cesare Borgia is not easy, and it is lost.
  • The crafty young man is punished for his betrayal.
  • But the young woman still loves him, and various friends and rivals still admire him and so help the defeated and injured young man to escape and to rise up and strike against the Borgia clan.

The assumption is that admirable behavior is admirable, and even scamps can admire goodness, so when push comes to shove, people may turn out to be on your side, even if you started out by being not-so-nice yourself.

We can find this unrealistic, but it's enough to move the film along. (This again shows something interesting about how movies justify their actions--which is rapidly and based on things the audience can recognize. Aristotle called those topoi.)

The young man has to take his lumps. Why?

  • It's a Hollywood movie, and he started as a bad guy, so he has to suffer a bit to be redeemed.
  • And now he's part of a young couple, and there's a ritual aspect (seen in Mozart's The Magic Flute) in which a young couple must go through a trial and be tested to be shown worthy.

The test-and-trial-to-be-shown-worthy bit goes back to the folk tale, and it shows how our moral intuitions--the "worthy" part--are tied up with story structure--trials and being tested.

In short:

  • Drama is made of actions, and actions are tied up with our moral intuitions.
  • The actions can be justified pretty rapidly if the audience recognizes the motivation.
  • Drama uses conflict and choice.
  • The logic of compensation--we had not control over A, so we fuss a lot over B, we did a poor job on X, so we try to do a better job on Y--plays a special role in fictions.
  • The choice amongst father-figures is one such compensatory symbolic structure. And it's a pretty potent one, however it's dressed up.

--E. R. O'Neill

No comments: