Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies

I thought it would be fun to respond to this post over at the Web of Lies and Deceit. Ignoring Greg’s most recent ranting about the progress of his movie (love ya, man), you can just skip on down to the place where he starts talking about me.

That’s what does my ego good.

First point:

I have been told twice in pitches that audiences don’t like to be manipulated or misled.

I take great exception to that.

There are few things I like better than to be misled and manipulated when I am watching a film. Especially if it is done well. To be misled and manipulated poorly - well… For that there is no excuse. But when it is handled correctly - it is a great great feeling.

Now, I can see Greg’s side of this point, but just to be a pain, I’m going to argue against him.

Manipulation is for only certain kinds of movies. Don’t write me The Game when I ask you for a RomCom. It just doesn’t fly. But even for movies that spin webs and trap viewers, there are two kinds of manipulation.

This is where I would normally warn you about spoilers to come, but we’ll only be discussing old flicks here, so it’s your own fault if you haven’t seen them.

Since Greg cites The Sixth Sense, we’ll go with that. The viewer is in the shoes of Bruce Willis’ character for much of the movie. We know things when Bruce knows them. Everything that feels right and true to Bruce feels right and true to us. So when everything Bruce has heard and seen comes together at the end of the movie to produce the colossal explosion of the realization of his own death, the same explosion is happening in our heads.

That’s some good manipulation, my friends.

But here’s a situation where manipulation is mishandled. And it involves a classic I know you’re all going to be upset that I’m attacking, but I don’t care.

In Rear Window, a moment comes early in the movie, after Jimmy Stewart has already begun to suspect the salesman across the way of harboring evil intentions toward said salesman’s wife, when Hitchcock opens a curtain, as it were, for the viewer. While Jimmy is dozing in his wheelchair, we see the salesman and his wife leave their apartment together. When Jimmy wakes up, the salesman is back sans wife.

Now is this or is this not a sure sign that, while Jimmy leaps to the conclusion that the wife is now lying six feet under, we the viewer are supposed to feel confident that something quite different has occurred? In every other mystery/suspense I’ve ever seen, such would surely be the case.

But not so. The salesman really did kill his wife.

Now, leaving aside all comment on the kind of movie where the thing the main character thinks is true really is true (Jimmy thinks the salesman killed his wife—and he did!), this is some mean manipulation on Hitchcock’s part and one of the only fumbles I’ve ever seen from him. And it’s a kind of manipulation that, in subtler form, you get with some frequency in poorly-written movies: tricking the viewer without tricking the hero.

There’s one type of movie in which this is acceptable, and that is the anti-hero movie. Greg is currently working on a movie in which the main character turns out to be a liar. Thus the viewer must be deceived throughout, just as the people to whom the hero is telling his story are deceived.

But in other genres, the viewer should only be as manipulated as the hero is. Don’t lie to me unless you’re lying to the person I have identifed with in the story. For as long as I sit in that seat, I am that person, so I should feel what they feel, and nothing different.

Next time, since I went crazy long with this post, I’ll respond to Greg’s other contention, with which I disagree much more strongly.