In Part Three I return to Maine and have a terrific week with Fancy Pants, FPS (Fancy Pants’ Sister), and their assortment of very large dogs. I really like those girls. They’re smart and goofy and kind of ruthless; they’re full of odd personality combinations. They love the outdoors and have cynical senses of humor. They love their dogs.
We left Canada and headed back over the border. At the border checkpoint, I sat in the passenger seat. Both times. Both times I passed my identification over, and both times the border guard—up in a booth on the driver’s side—examined it and waved us through without looking at my face. I could have handed them some other dude’s ID while smoking a joint wearing a turban and they’d have given me a gift basket.
Marshmallow Fields Forever
The thing that surprised me most this trip was that in Maine they grow marshmallows on farms. They’re lined up in rows, in field after field, each one the size of a cow.
I spent a lot of time in Camden, sitting on benches and in their spectacular public library overlooking the harbor, and at picnic tables near ice cream stands, and always surrounded by greenery, walkways, and flowers. I carried the laptop and worked on the screenplay. Later in the week, the girls and I went to Acadia National Park, where we camped for three days. We climbed 2 or 3 mountains, watched the Perseid meteor shower, visited Bar Harbor, swam in ponds, and saw a bald eagle hunting and perching 50 yards away. (Bald eagles actually exist in real life. Did you know that? I bet you didn’t.) At night in my tent, I’d use up my laptop battery writing, and then charge it by day in the bathroom.
The Dreadful Mr. Darcy
I wrote in my tent with the hot computer on my lap. I wrote in a study carrel in the Camden library, and in a cozy bedroom at FPS’s house. As I mentioned in Part One, I had characters with whom we could not sympathize, because I had characters whose lives were not yet rich. If you have seen The Departed, you have seen the result of what I consider to be one of the great screenplays of the last five years. There’s hardly a man or woman in that movie who doesn’t make your skin crawl, and yet it’s hard to see any of them hurt because we have gotten so close to them. We hate in them what we hate in ourselves, and must forgive them to be forgiven. How do you achieve this in a screenplay? The simple answer is to make your characters likeable—for which you will receive the punishment you deserve: a drawer full of unsold screenplays. A slightly more nuanced solution is to deepen your characters by having them show a sympathetic emotion you don’t expect, like tears from a bodyguard or the bad guy’s love for his dead wife — for which you may be able to score a job writing for NBC’s Heroes or a movie starring The Rock. The most painful and rewarding solution, however—and the only one I ever strive for—is the one invented by the Greeks and mastered by Jane Austen with Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice: the quality called pathos.
1. A quality, as of an experience or a work of art, that arouses feelings of pity, sympathy, tenderness, or sorrow.
2. The feeling, as of sympathy or pity, so aroused.
via The Free Dictionary
If you have seen Good Will Hunting, you know it in action. Will Hunting is such a prick, and yet your heart flies to him like it would a wounded child. It is, after all, what he is. What does this have to do with Pride and Prejudice? The profound misunderstanding and redemption of Mr. Darcy only occurs because of the unsparingly brutal condemnation we are all made to feel in the early stages of the novel. He is not merely thought haughty; had Austen spared us the true apprehension of his pride we would never have enjoyed the shocking relief of its surrender. If you had the profound good fortune to see The Queen, then you know that heroic tragedy still lives in the modern world, and when perfectly written, directed, and performed, the pathos hums softly beneath the surface of the film and begins to resonate in the audience like a note making hundreds of crystal glasses vibrate. If the note is maintained at just the right pitch, and a low enough volume to keep from turning away the audience too soon, then it will slowly amplify inside them until their hearts are singing in tune and in some cases (like mine, for The Queen) made to shatter. The screenwriter (like the director and the actor) must not spare his audience the awful glare of his characters’ failures.
Tip #2 We hate in others what we hate in ourselves, and must forgive them to be forgiven.
Our inner lives are not pure. Most of us idealize our own intentions and criminalize others; the same fault in ourselves we downplay—even under the same circumstances—that we would bitterly resent from a boss or a lover. You must not spare your characters the effects of their own folly. They may escape the consequences during the timeline of the film, but if you let them escape the audience’s judgment, they will escape the audience’s sympathy as well. The viewer must be allowed to doubt his own heart, must be challenged to forgive, dared to forgive—but allowed to forgive. This is the double difficulty in achieving this: the writer must show her characters’ flaws, but not so much that the audience is disgusted beyond pity; the writer must show her characters’ virtue, but not so much that the audience is insulted by too obvious an appeal. In this difficult effort, the highest achievement is pathos. It is a dreadful sympathy. We are frightened by our own capacity to forgive, threatened by the possibility we cannot; challenged to love, torn. We feel. This is painful. This is pathos.
Unless you count English teachers in high school, it was Fantasy Scribbler who first pointed this out to me, while helping me with my last screenplay. It’s stuck with me to the point that I have my own deep opinions on the subject. Understanding this mature emotion is different from understanding glee or simple disappointment. I watched Taxi Driver again this year and was devastated by the emotion that years ago I completely missed. Pathos is why Knocked Up and Napoleon Dynamite made so much more money and acclaim than all the other comedies. It’s why Pixar movies are so unbelievably great while almost every other American 3-D animated feature ever made has completely sucked.
I don’t think I’ll achieve it in this new screenplay unless I somehow achieve the time (in other words, money) to give it undivided attention; I suspect I’ll end up falling somewhere between convenient emotional indulgence and the true prize of pathos. So while mulling his words over in Maine, I set off to find some inner light in the characters, and just as much inner darkness. The best I can say is I’m working on it.