Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Plot Points: The Character Lie


In any movie there's bound to be a collection of plot points that serve as the backdrop, or perhaps a driving function, of the story... it's really a requirement. As such Hollywood has grown over the years to fall in love with a handful of these basic points because they work. One of the ones I most often notice is the basic character lie. This past year we saw it many times, with films such as Whip It, and The Invention of Lying. What it is is that in order to get what they want the main character lies about a key piece of information about themselves that allows them to get to where they want (or closer to who they want).

It happens a whole lot, and while I know I should be used to it by now I have to admit I always hate this device. It's not that it's the most over predictable plot point on the planet: "I lied to you, been lying to you, and have always lied to you" - "I can't believe you, just go!" - ...some time later - "I know you lied to me but I forgive you..." (especially in romance films - see: What Women Want) or the film ends and it's never resolved or the main character is *finally* able to move on with their life... Yet that is not at the crux of my annoyance over its use.

During these scenes I tend to feel more uncomfortable than anything. Throughout these scenes, and in some cases the film entirely, I have the growing annoyance that this has to be a plot point. What possible layer could it offer except to show that our character is willing to lie to get what they want, or is it that they secretly believe that this is going to confuse us? Only in rare occasions have I seen it add noteworthy depth to the character (such as their willingness to escape the confines of their own life), but to me it often shows a moral regression rather than a complete fulfillment, or growth.

As a kid I'd often leave the room to go to the "bathroom" during these scenes because I found the lies too unbearable, conflicting with my moral beliefs. I'm not saying I never lie, but that it's such an important driving device pushes against my very nature. It's a strange thing to find a situation so uncomfortable, I've avoided entire films at times because I know it's at the center of the story. Yet it's not necessarily a bad plot device. It works to establish relationships, but I'm not sure it establishes as well developed ones as films lead us to believe. What makes these relationships (romantic, platonic, etc.) founded on a lie (or collection of) so stable that we are to leave the theater thinking there's been a true connection developed.

Much like I said though, there are occasions when I feel this device works. Last year one... well, several, of the central characters in An Education built an entire world based on a series of lies. While I found the film a bit difficult to connect with, its handling of this revelation is extremely well done. It helps to develop the moral of our main character, and we see her growth through the handling of these various revelations (both in her personal and relationships).

I suppose on some level it's a personal test to see it to the end, and see how it is handled. The constant uncomfortable feeling is perhaps the intention of the director (despite my utter dislike of that feeling). When handled well I feel it can be one of the most useful plot points in the development of a character or story (such as the finale in The Great Dictator). But I still must ask of myself: does the benefit of seeing this lie unfold well outweigh the distaste for when it unfolds very poorly. In the end it's a bit of a risk assessment. One I'm willing to admit I'm not always going to take. It's just one of those rare cinematic occurrences that constantly repeat, much to my disdain.

So I ask, what constantly used plot devices in film bother you? Does this bother you?

4 better thoughts:

Karen said...

Good point! But I liked the character lies in both Whip It and An Education. However, I get what you're saying though. Cool blog.


The Mad Hatter said...

I know there's a device that I hate...I just can't think of it right this second (me=fail). I just wanted to leave a comment though and mention that this is a great post! Really thoughtful insight into the movie-watching experience.

I'd go so far as to say to look for its mention on Friday in "Everybody's Talkin' :)

Univarn said...

@Karen thanks for the comment! Like I said sometimes it works, I've yet to sit down and watch Whip It so I'll see if it pans out alright there.

@Mad *jumps for joy* though now that you mention it, if it's not there I'll go into severe depression :P. Thanks for the comment though, I was in one of those "need to spill a bit about myself" moods :).

TJMAC510 said...

Yeah totally I agree. There are plenty of ones I hate like the "get asses handed to them for the first part of the fight/game/match then come from behind" thing because it almost is ALWAYS the case. It never makes me think "Wow will he/she/they fail?"

As for this one I am getting pretty sick and tired of it. I didn't mind it in Whip it but in other films it really does bother me.

Good job as always

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