The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Torture, West Point, and "C"

I heard a couple of things that I cannot verify...maybe some of you can do so. The story is that the Dean of West Point flew to California to speak with the creators of the television series "24." He told them that their positive depictions of torture in a fictionalized context were influencing the moral environment at West Point. That because the infallible CTU could do these things, his students wanted to know why they couldn't, as well. This would be laughable, but didn't one of the Republican candidates, in response to the "ticking clock" scenario during a recent debate, say he'd "send for Jack Bauer"?

I've now had conversations with two people who are actually trained in interrogation techniques. One has actually been involved in torture situations. Both say pretty much the same thing:
1) that the stream of information is likely to be corrupt.
2) That psychological techniques are superior to physical coercion.
3) That the use of such techniques can be extraordinarily corrupting to those who use them.
In addition, at least one of the people asked me to pay careful attention to the TYPE of person who believes in the use of torture. That it is quite easy for sadists to slip into this sort of position,and act as if they want information, when what is really desired is the sense of total control over another human being.

Or that you have frightened people who want revenge...even if the torturee has no information.

Or to note that the same people who advocate torture are likely to consider the ones to be tortured not as fully human as they are. In other words, are more likely to be racist, sexist, or culturally elitist.

Neither of these fellows suggested that there were contexts in which torture was the ONLY way to get good information, although one did say that good information had certainly been acquired in this fashion.
here's the third installment of my "ABC of writing" thingie. Sans ad.
You know something? I didn't want to write this,
but my subconscious kept telling me I had to do it.
The reason? Comedy is my weak suit. I've written
and sold only one piece that was really intended
from the get-go to be humorous. It was an
episode of the animated 'Real Ghostbusters' and
I wouldn't consider it a Yuck-Fest. Rather like
the original film, the episode, ('Moaning Stones')
has a very serious basic structure, hidden
beneath humorous image systems.

We have to understand our limitations. This
is one of mine: I've just never learned how to
write fall-down, side-splitting hysterical. But
look again at 'Ghostbusters' and examine
the basic structure. It is NOT funny. A
woman's apartment is haunted. She goes to
a group of disgraced paranormal investigators,
asking for help. They find that her problem is
linked to the return of ancient gods, who are
bent on triggering the apocalypse.

Wow. Really funny stuff. What makes
Ghostbusters funny is the IMAGE SYSTEMS,
dialogue, and Bill Murray's absolutely
phenomenal comic timing. That is very
different from, say, Mel Brooks' 'The
Producers,' where the actual plot twists
themselves are funny, even without
singing 'Springtime For Hitler.' It is a
STRUCTURAL comedy as opposed to a
film made humorous by execution.

But however you find your way to humor,
it is critical that you learn to incorporate
it into your own work. In fact, the darker
and more serious your piece, the more
important humor becomes. An audience
simply cannot take a steadily increasing
descent into hell. The mind rebels and
revokes its suspension of disbelief. They
start noticing the special effects, and
looking for boom shots, or any other
flaws--as a means of escaping the intensity.

On the other hand, if you sprinkle in laughs
here and there, you are lessening the
tension, allowing the reader/viewer to
relax and recover before SLAMMING them
again. And they'll love you for it. Look
at the fabulous use of humor in Casablanca,
or more recently, 'Casino Royale'--easily
the darkest Bond movie ever made. It
really earns its laughs, and the audience
is instantly ready for more thrills!

This is a subject worthy of a course in itself.
I'm not the one to write it, though--like I
said, this is my weak link. So seek out the
films that have made you laugh. Study
them. Ask yourself 'why' and 'how' it
worked. Develop your own theories.

And then test them in your work!

No comments: