Monday, July 18, 2011

The Importance of Pants

A writer friend once pointed out to me one of the greatest cinematic moments ever. It's a bit of business from the 1958 Western The Big Country, a movie I never much liked because I disagree with the overall theme. But this moment is so packed with meaning, everyone needs to see it. Trust me. This is relevant to writing, I promise.

The bit in question is a lead in to what is considered one of the greatest Hollywood fights ever filmed. (Maybe so. But again, I disagree with the message.) But the fight isn't important. What we're looking at here is a point in the lead-up to the fight.

To briefly set it up, Gregory Peck is an Eastern "dude" who has come west to marry the daughter of a wealthy rancher. There he locks horns with Charlton Heston, lead ranch hand who also has the hots for the rancher's daughter. They've been on the verge of fisticuffs the whole movie, only Peck's character doesn't believe in violence. At least, not in front of other people. But this night, he goes to Heston's bunk house to wake him up for their long-overdue confrontation.

Now again, it's not the fight that's interesting. It's this one tiny moment where Charlton Heston puts on his pants. No, really. I'm going to steal my friend's description of this moment because I love it so much:

"CH gets out of his bunk and, in about one-and-a-half seconds, Puts On His Pants before heading outside to fight. By g*d, it's the manliest, toughest putting-on-of-pants since men have had pants to put on. Charlton Heston is not messing around. This guy is mega-macho, and he's ready to kick Greg Peck's @ss."

You don't have to watch this whole clip. The putting-on-of-pants occurs around 2:32 and lasts only a scant few seconds.

There it is. In just a few seconds, the actor and director tell you so much about the character and his state of mind. He doesn't have to say anything. Nobody needs to explain anything to you. It is all done in one and a half seconds of pants-putting-on. The fight itself goes on for about four minutes, only to underscore the larger theme of the movie. But this business with the pants is such a beautiful expression not only of economy of characterization but also of knowing when and where to use "business" to inform character.

That's where this gets back to writing. I think this scene perfectly illustrates an important writing issue. Sometimes you put on your pants and sometimes you Put On Your Pants. And a writer needs to know if his character is putting on pants or Putting On Pants and treat it accordingly.

See, if William Wyler had shown Charlton Heston putting on his pants like this in every single scene, it wouldn't mean anything. If he'd shown Heston Putting On His Pants in the very first scene--before the tension had built between the two men--it would mean something totally different. But in this moment, in those few seconds, it brilliantly lets you in on who Heston's character is and what he is feeling at a pivotal point in the movie. What would we miss in that scene if it had cut from Heston telling Peck that he'd meet him outside as soon as he put on his pants, thank you very much, right to the fight? The whole balance of the fight would be lost because we wouldn't understand Heston's character as well as we do now. That's how you use pants in fiction.

Think of the difference between a stage play and a movie. In a play, your eye is free to wander across the stage and look at any character at any time. It's different in film (though it took filmmakers a few years to figure this out.) In film, the director "directs" the eye of the viewer to what is important in the story. And the writer is the "director" in the book. You decide where to turn your key light, where to let the "camera" of the narrative linger or zoom as aids to telling the story. But if you pull your camera in on something that doesn't do something, that doesn't move the story or inform character or build tension or portend or something, you risk losing the attention of the reader or even annoying them.

Example: In the British serial Larkrise to Candleford, there is a lot of Putting On Pants when they really should just be putting on pants and mostly keeping that private. The problem with this is that it's extremely distracting because I keep waiting for Stuff to Mean Something and it never does. A recent episode included a number of dramatic shots of unattended blacksmith forge fires, and so I kept waiting for something to burst into uncontrollable flames, but it never did. So why call my attention to the unattended fires? Why say something so loudly when it has nothing whatever to do with your characters or the story you're telling? What do these blacksmith fires have to do with anything? Nothing beyond the fact that this character is a blacksmith, which we already know. Therefore, they don't require this level of notice. It's not only a waste of space, it is a distraction from the real story.

So it's something I'm trying to think about when writing. Am I showing my character Putting On His Pants when he is really just putting on his pants? Or am I missing the opportunity to have him Put On His Pants and tell the reader something very important about him?

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