December 19, 2014

In Search of Aesthetic Emotion

After watching Rajkumar Hirani's 'PK' this morning of its release, I was instantly reminded of some concepts explored by Robert McKee in his wonderful book, 'Story'. Without spoiling the plot for you in any way, here follow the words of McKee that precisely illustrate my view on the film. All the words are his, but I have edited and reordered sentences to keep it brief and still as powerful and insightful.


In life, experiences become meaningful with reflection in time. Because in life idea and emotion come separately. The two realms influence each other, but first one, then the other. If you see a dead body in the street, you're struck by a rush of adrenaline. Perhaps you drive away in fear. Later, in the coolness of time, you may reflect on the meaning of this stranger's demise, on your own mortality, on life in the shadow of death. In fact, in life, moments that blaze with a fusion of idea and emotion are so rare, when they happen you think you're having a religious experience. 

But whereas life separates meaning from emotion, art unites them. In art, experiences are meaningful at the instant they happen. Story is an instrument by which you create such epiphanies at will, the phenomenon known as aesthetic emotion - the simultaneous encounter of thought and feeling. You might forget the day you saw a dead body in the street, but the death of Hamlet haunts you forever. A story well told gives you the very thing you cannot get from life: meaningful emotional experience. In this sense, story is, at heart, nonintellectual - it does not express ideas in the dry, intellectual arguments of an essay. But this is not to say story is anti-intellectual. We pray that the writer has ideas of import and insight. Rather, the exchange between artist and audience expresses idea directly through the senses and perceptions, intuition and emotion.

(Excuse me for interrupting Mr. McKee for a very brief illustration of the above-mentioned concept. Watch any movie directed by Rajkumar Hirani, who is perhaps the only filmmaker in the commerical Hindi movie space constantly exploring the communication of ideas through very basic emotions of joy and pain, all through well-crafted stories. Four movies, and all have this in common - the artist's pursuit of aesthetic emotion. Now, read on, for McKee has more to say.)

The danger is this: When your premise is an idea you feel you must prove to the world, and you design your story as an undeniable certification of that idea, you set yourself on the road to didacticism. Misusing and abusing art to preach, your screenplay will become a thesis film, a thinly disguised sermon as you strive in a single stroke to convert the world. Didacticism results from the naive enthusiasm that fiction can be used like a scalpel to cut out the cancers of the world. The finest writers have dialectical, flexible minds that easily shift points of view. They see the positive, the negative, and all shades of irony, seeking the truth of these views honestly and convincingly. This omniscience forces them to become even more creative, more imaginative, and more insightful. Ultimately, they express what they deeply believe, but not until they have allowed themselves to weigh each living issue and experience all its possibilities.

Master storytellers never explain. They do the hard, painfully creative thing - they dramatize. Explanations of authorial ideas, whether in dialogue or narration, seriously diminish a film's quality. A great story authenticates its ideas solely within the dynamics of its events. Failure to express a view of life through the pure, honest consequences of human choice and action is a creative defeat no amount of clever language can salvage.

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