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How we feel.


Sunset Boulevard (1950) dir. Billy Wilder

A slew of modern shows & movies share the same big problem. You see it a lot with award-bait, the hottest Netflix Originals, and in generally unsatisfying content. In short, they fundamentally misunderstand how audiences process and experience emotion.


I’ll state my pretty common-sense hypothesis. We feel emotion based on a comprehension of a unique set of circumstances around us. We process information, form a mental model of what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, and based on our assessment and our own value systems, we feel a particular emotion. Simple scenarios can stir simple emotions, like someone running at you swinging an axe. More complex and nuanced scenarios can invoke complex and nuanced emotions, like the death of an estranged sibling.

Great shows & films understand this. It’s not rocket science; if we’re presented with an interesting scenario full of interesting people, and it’s well communicated, we will be interested. When we understand the mechanics of a situation - the objective, the stakes, the ramifications - we can participate in it. When we recognise a character as human, with ambitions and anxieties, and they behave in a way we understand, we can empathise with them and go on that journey. When we understand enough to have expectations, we can be surprised. Executing this sort of quality requires good taste, an understanding of human nature, and clear, precise writing.


Lesser shows & films often try to achieve this kind of engagement through style alone. We’re presented with big blubbering faces, doused in sad music, and we’re expected to feel sad. We hear lingering, discordant jangles, and see everyone acting vaguely suspiciously, and we’re supposed to be intrigued. We see people do childish, illogical things and we’re expected to feel invested in their subsequent woes. But we’re not wired like that.


I think this can happen for two reasons. Firstly, the filmmakers misunderstand how audiences process emotion. They believe that by creating a vague sense of sadness or tension that the audience will someone absorb this. Secondly, and more importantly, they do this to make up for a lack of substance. If a scenario just isn’t dramatic enough, they’ll bring out the big guns. Characters become more childish and emotional, the music becomes more brash, to convince us that the scenario is more interesting than it is. Characters behave illogically to contrive a plot so the story can progress.


The point is, if you want an audience to be intrigued, you have to present an intriguing scenario so that the audience understands how intriguing it is. Simple, isn’t it? If you want them to feel heartbreak, they have to understand how genuinely heartbreaking the scenario is. And brute force tactics like exaggerated performances and sweeping scores will never make up for a lack of substance.


Maybe I’m flogging a dead horse here, but I really think this is crucial for the next generation of filmmakers to understand. There’s too much emphasis on how to tell a good story, and very little emphasis on what constitutes a good story. We’re not discerning enough about what we’re putting up on the screen. We’re too focused on the effect we’re trying to achieve and not enough on the real-life experiences that genuinely enthral and move us.

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