How and why do good stories compel us as they do? For the answer, let’s cut to the chase – actually it would be shortly after the obligatory chase scene – to that part of the story where, finally, the source of meaning and satisfaction is found – at the climax.
When we buy a ticket to a serious movie, we’re really paying to watch vicariously as characters suffer through life-changing ordeals. The protagonist is typically forced into a dead-end where she must in some way become super-human or die. We know this moment is coming. We count on it. Most stories are designed so that we can participate by anticipating this showdown.
In Moonstruck, for instance – Loretta (Cher) is destined to ditch her emotionally flat fiancé in favour of his much more feral brother, Ronnie (Nicholas Cage). We all know what’s coming. Loretta’s lonely little life as a bean-counter is characterized by a lack of romantic courage. She seems content to stick to the puny path of least resistance, but you better believe she’s going to abandon it or audiences will be howling for their money back. It’s only a matter of a few stormy encounters with Ronnie before Loretta connects with her long-lost passion. We don’t know exactly what she’s thinking, but Zorba the Greek’s famous speech is probably dead on: “Life is trouble – only death is not – to be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.”
What Ronnie said was this: “Loretta, I love you. Not like they told you love is. Love don’t make things nice, it ruins everything, it breaks your heart. We’re not here to make things perfect. Snowflakes are perfect. The stars are perfect. Not us. We are here to ruin ourselves and break our hearts and love the wrong people and die!”
Now, here’s where viewers find their satisfaction – we’re watching Loretta up on the screen, making up her mind – to follow Ronnie to his bed, or go home. Her fiancé is returning tomorrow. She’s shivering in the cold; they’ve just been to the opera; she looks like a million bucks. The director (Norman Jewison) calls for a slow zoom into her face. He’s unashamedly milking the scene because he knows the audience has paid the price of admission to identify with this ‘arresting’ moment. The director is arresting the moment cinematically, slowing it down so that we can appreciate just how damn hard it is for anyone to permit their organizm to be rewired for a brand new way of being. When it comes to ‘change or die’, most people prefer the latter. Cutting the ties that bind us to our old habits is a death. That’s why we applaud and cry and join book clubs in order to discuss what we find so hard to do in real life.
In my next dispatch, we’ll take a look at the climax in ROXY. I know, I know…the anticipation is killing you.