Emotional Events

“Something palpable is happening that the audience perceives and that is not the words.”

–Mike Nichols


“It is inside, around, and under the words of the script.”

–Sydney Pollack

In life, even the smallest, most insignificant gesture can change our lives.  The storyteller- in this case, the director- isolates and elevates these moments, infusing them with the desires and needs of the characters.

In this sense, an event is an emotional transaction. The central event of any scene is the emotional impetus imbedded in its course of events.  The two simplest examples of this emotional impetus are arousal and anger.  These are the most obvious and unmistakable emotional events.    A confrontation is an event; so is a confession, a seduction, and a betrayal.  One way to pinpoint the event is to ask ourselves how each character has changed by the end of the scene.  We may also want to consider how any character relationships may have changed by the scene’s conclusion.

Each film is a succession of events, one after the other. The most effective type of event  for shaping subtext is the emotional event.  Events are not just incidents in the plot; in fact, the event is truer than the actual text, existing beneath the surface and announcing itself through emotional shifts in the characters.  To put it simply, it is what happens in the story.

The director is primarily responsible when choosing to employ an emotional event.  Morgan Freeman has stated that he prefers for the director to direct the film, not the actors; however, this has more to do with his desire to avoid micromanagement.  The event and its creation are the director’s responsibility, as the event will  impact each and every participant involved in the film’s production.  Whenever key players-writers, actors, cinematographers, and editors, for example- lose their bearings, they can always get back on track by asking the following questions: What is the emotional event?  What emotions does this event inspire in me?  How do I use this in order to do my job?

Central Events, Individual Events, and Personal Events: Chinatown

Each scene has a central event that drives the action.  Additionally, each character can have an individual or personal event which drives their behavior but is usually influential only from that individual character’s point of view.  This means that personal events can be different depending on the character; these events may also be unrelated to the film’s central event.

When considering a scene from Robert Towne’s Chinatown, which is reprinted at the end of the chapter, it is important to take stock of the facts that are true before the scene begins.  The two characters- Jake Gittes and Noah Cross- are meeting at Cross’s ranch for the first time.  Cross’s daughter, Evelyn, has hired Gittes to investigate the death of her husband, Hollis, who was one of Cross’s former business partners.  Gittes is in possession of a photograph showing Hollis and Cross arguing a few days before the former’s death.

Having taken stock of the facts, now we turn to the events of the story.  An event represents wins and losses for the character, depending on how they choose to manipulate it.  When Cross initiates his meeting with Gittes with his observations on the smell of horseshit, this can be seen as a “win” for Cross, which is then followed by a second win as he charms Gittes into revealing facts about his reputation and his reasons for accepting Evelyn as a client.  Jake, however, begins to even the score when he indicates that he and Evelyn believe that Hollis was murdered.  Cross changes the subject, commenting on the fish that Gittes has been served; the fish have intact heads.  Gittes scores a second “win” as he quips that the fish are “Fine, as long as you don’t serve chicken that way.”  This second “win” ties the men with a score of 2-2.

Each of these “wins” constitutes an event.  In the next beat, Cross asks a series of intrusive questions about the case, ending these questions by asking Gitte if he is sleeping with Evelyn.  Cross provokes Gittes into leaving, which constitutes another event.  As Gittes is leaving, Cross informs him that he “may think you know what you’re dealing with, but believe me, you don’t.”  This stops Gittes in his tracks, as he responds by saying that’s what the D.A. had told him about Chinatown.  At this point, Gittes stays to finish the conversation.

If the viewer has never seen this movie before, then this moment would raise a big question: why does Gittes change his mind and decide to stay?  In other words, what is the event?  Does hearing these words carry Gittes back to Chinatown and cause him to drop his guard?  Is he making a strategic choice that makes it appear that he has dropped his guard?  Or is it Cross who has dropped his guard first?  This brings us to the subtext of what Cross has said.  Is it a warning, a threat, or an invitation?

While we are considering the subtext of the previous event, we are given what appears to be another fact:  Cross offers to hire Gittes to find Hollis’s girlfriend.  Gittes responds to this request by laying a trap:  he asks Cross when he last saw Hollis, testing Cross’s honesty.  Remember, Gittes has pictures showing Cross arguing with Hollis.  Cross avoids the question, instead focusing on a nearby parade.  When Gittes presses him for an answer as to what he and Hollis were arguing about, Cross utters two words: “my daughter.”  That is the next event; Cross has given in by acknowledging the emotional content of the evidence held by Gittes.

The next event occurs when Cross places the suspicion on Evelyn, stating that she’s an extremely jealous person and that he didn’t want her to find out about the girl.  Gittes responds by asking whether Cross is worried about the girl, or what Evelyn might do to her.  This could be viewed as another event, whereby Cross has to admit his own involvement because he has insinuated that his daughter might be involved.  The last formal event, however, is a challenge from Gittes when he tells Cross that he is “going to check out some avocado groves.”  He’s looking for evidence and wants Cross to sweat because of it.

Let’s tie these individual events back to the central event.  Gittes has held his own against Cross’s insinuations, announced that Hollis was murdered, revealed the existence of the photos, and nailed Cross for his attempt to accuse his daughter of foul play.  The central event, at first glance, seems to be a victory for Gittes and a humiliation for Cross; but let’s keep looking.

This is a very complex scene, with multiple layers of subtext.  By casting suspicion on Evelyn, Cross has revealed the extent of his own ruthlessness.  He has also manage to control the conversation, giving Gittes only as much information as he wants Gittes to know and manipulating the situation in order to intimidate Gittes.  Cross is a man who sizes people up and adapts his tactics in order to control each individual person.  Sometimes he does this with his charm; at other times he uses veiled threats.  When he is backed into a corner, he reacts with vitriol, perhaps expecting Gittes to cower.  Instead, Gittes responds with venom of his own.

Perhaps Cross doesn’t care whether he dominates Gittes, as long as the situation gives him the information that he needs in order to regroup.  Cross is able to obtain a great deal of information from Gittes: the existence of the photos, the investigation of the avocado groves, Gittes’s temper, and the knowledge that Gittes is ruthless enough to throw his own daughter to the wolves in order to protect himself.  Even though Gittes thinks that he has seen through Cross’s attempt to frame Evelyn, the seed of her possible complicit or guilt has still been planted.  Cross’s question (“Are you sleeping with her?”) verbalizes a desire that may have, until that point, been unconscious for Gittes, and which is realized in a subsequent scene.  Has Cross put all of this into action?

From a storytelling point of view- that is, the perspective of the director who is weaving elements of the film together- Cross is a man who turns every loss into a win.  While the personal event for Cross in any given scene might be viewed as a humiliation or a loss, it can also be seen as a way for him to control Gittes.  Developing Cross in this manner allows the actor to humanize an otherwise difficult character by presenting him with this obstacle.  It also provides the story with a feeling of suspense, lulling the audience into believing that the antagonists are evenly matched.