(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from April 4, 2006, slightly edited.)
Evan Hunter, who was the screenwriter on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds recalled an incident that occurred when he was discussing the screenplay with the director.
I don’t know if you recall the movie. There’s a scene where after this massive bird attack on the house Mitch, the male character, is asleep in a chair and Melanie hears something. She takes a flashlight and she goes up to investigate, and this leads to the big scene in the attic where all the birds attack her. I was telling [Hitchcock] about this scene and he was listening very intently, and then he said, “Let me see if I understand this correctly. There has been a massive attack on the house and they have boarded it up and Mitch is asleep and she hears a sound and she goes to investigate?” I said, “Well, yes,” and he said, “Is she daft? Why doesn’t she wake him up?”
I remembered this story when I was watching the film The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. The Kidman character accidentally overhears something at the UN that puts her life at risk. After she complains to government agent Penn that no one seems to be bothered about protecting her from harm, Penn puts her on round-the-clock surveillance. So then what does Kidman do? She sneaks around, giving the slip to the very people assigned to protect her and refuses to tell Penn where she went and to whom she spoke and about what, causing herself and other people to be put at risk and even dying because of her actions. Hitchcock would have said, “Is she daft?”
This is one of my pet peeves about films, where the female character insists on doing something incredibly stupid that puts her and other people at peril. Surely in this day and age we have gone beyond the stale plot device of otherwise smart women behaving stupidly in order to create drama? Surely writers have more imagination than that? Do directors really think that viewers won’t notice how absurd that is?
According to Hunter, Hitchcock was always exploring the motivations of characters, trying to make their actions plausible. Hunter says:
[Hitchcock] would ask surprising questions. I would be in the middle of telling the story so far and he would say, “Has she called her father yet?” I’d say, “What?” “The girl, has she called her father?” And I’d say, “No.” “Well, she’s been away from San Francisco overnight. Does he know where she is? Has she called to tell him she’s staying in this town?” I said, “No.” And he said, “Don’t you think she should call him?” I said, “Yes.” “You know it’s not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.” Questions like that.
(Incidentally, the above link has three screenwriters Arthur Laurents, who wrote Rope (1948), Joseph Stefano, who wrote Psycho (1960), and Evan Hunter reminiscing about working with Hitchcock. It is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how a great director envisages and sets about creating films. The last quote actually reads in the original: “Yes, you know it’s not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.” I changed it because my version makes more sense, and the original is a verbatim transcript of a panel discussion, in which such kinds of punctuation errors can easily occur.)
More generally, I hate it when characters in films and books behave in ways that are unbelievable. The problem is not with an implausible premise, which is often necessary to create a central core for the story. I can even accept the violation of a few laws of physics. For example, I can accept the premise of Superman that a baby with super powers (but susceptible to kryptonite) arrives on Earth from another planet and is adopted by a family and needs to keep his identity secret. I can accept of Batman that a millionaire like Bruce Wayne adopts a secret identity in order to fight crime.
What I cannot stand is when they and the other people act implausibly, when the stories built on this premise have logical holes that you can drive a Batmobile through. The latter, for example, is a flashy vehicle, to say the least, easily picked out in traffic. And yet, nobody in Gotham thinks of following it back to the Batcave, to see who this mysterious hero is. Is the entire population of that city daft?
And how exactly does the Bat-Signal that the Police Commissioner lights up the sky with supposed to work? You don’t need a physics degree to realize that shining a light, however bright, into the sky is not going to create a sharp image there. And what if it’s daytime? And if there are no clouds? (It’s been a long time since I read these comics. Maybe the later editions fixed these problems. But even as a child these things annoyed me.)
And don’t get me started on Spiderman going in and out of his apartment window in a building in the middle of a big city in broad daylight without anyone noticing.
As a fan of films, it really bugs me when filmmakers don’t take the trouble to write plots that make sense, and have characters who don’t behave the way that you would expect normal people to behave. How hard can it be to ensure this, especially when you have the budget to hire writers to create believable characters and a plausible storyline?
If any directors are reading this, I am willing to offer my services to identify and fix plot holes.
So please, no more daft women! No more ditzy damsels in distress! No more Perils of Pauline!
POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America
I saw this film (see the post script to an earlier posting), just before it ended its very short run in Cleveland. It looks at what history would have been like if the south had won the civil war. Imagine, if you will, an America very much like what we have now except that owning black slaves is as commonplace as owning a dishwasher.
What was troubling is that although this is an imagined alternate history presented in a faux documentary format, much of it is plausible based on what we have now. What was most disturbing for me was seeing in the film some racist images and acts that I thought were the over-the-top imaginings of the screenwriter about that might have happened in this alternate history, and then finding out at the end that theyactually happened in the real history.
Although the film is a clever satire in the style of This is Spinal Tap, I could not really laugh because the topic itself is so appalling. It is easy to laugh at the self-absorption and preening and pretensions of a rock band. It is hard to laugh at people in shackles.
But the film was well worth seeing, disturbing though it was.