the battle of wills and interiority

This blog has given such an emphasis to pulp that I think it’s time to look at good writing.  Studying pulp is fine for examining the “minimal standards” of fiction, especially because it has clear rules.  But good writing doesn’t have a formula you can follow.

With no formula to examine, let’s take a look at a piece of good writing — in this case, a play-made-movie.

One of the things narrative can deliver, which really can’t be found in non-narrative art forms, is compelling representations of the battle of wills.  There are a lot of different kinds of moves that people resort to in interaction, and battles of wills are interesting because, as the stakes are raised, the characters push themselves to the limits of their resourcefulness.

So they do things with conversation other than exchange information:  they make promises, they win one another’s confidences, they mangle logic, and so on and so on.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a great film, and not only because it’s bound to make you feel your relationships are compartively functional. The characters are each out to advance or protect their own interests.  Those interests are well understood and navigated by the writer, and well telegraphed by the actors, giving them a great sense of interiority.

–Or, three of them do.  One of them gives very little sense of interiority, I would say, and I think that’s a deliberate choice in characterization.

So, this is a study in conversation and action, which, as I think you’ll see, can’t always be neatly separated, and how saying and doing things can establish and reveal character.

(It was because of this movie that I fell madly in love with Sandy Dennis, the actress who plays Honey.)

Taylor and Burton were married to each other twice; this was early in their first marriage.  After careers of playing the hero and heroine, it seems they got these roles and really cut loose.  In its day, the movie was considered pretty shocking.


Notice the way the script uses symbolism.

Symbolism is commonly used to talk about sex and religion, through innuendo or scriptural references.  But really symbolism is just an encoding process that allows the invisible to become physicalized, and the distant near.

The talk between the men about what departments they’re in is neither about  sex nor religion, but rather about their characters, their talents, and the basis on which they best compete.

This is the mature way to use symbolism for whatever narrative purpose you happen to have in mind.  Another movie to watch for its symbolic ingenuity is A Taxing Woman, a Japanese film, which uses physical symbolism to put across very abstract stories about finance.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 6:25 pm  Leave a Comment  
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