Monday, October 22, 2007

Conceit and Fake Plastic Grapes

One of the hardest elements of drama to communicate to new writers is the idea of conceit. No, it doesn't mean conceited. It does have to do with the word 'concept'. If I had to put a definition on it, it would be something like 'a writer's distinct strategy for unity.' It's what makes a piece of work identifiable as itself. It's what holds a piece of work together. High concept movies, like Jaws, Star Wars, or Snakes on a Plane, have clear appeal which is immediately communicated. This means that the writer came up with a strong, focused controlling idea that both holds the script together and distinguishes it from other scripts. And then they exploited that idea in every conceivable fashion.

I used to teach conceit by talking about how the term is used in poetry. I'd go on about how it might be an extended metaphor, or sometimes a pose used by the poet. But now I rely on Italian restaurants to get the point across.

Say you walk into an Italian restaurant. It's modern... low track lighting, ambient music, and designer accents left and right. Everything about it says 'cutting edge'. You order the persimmon-infused organic tomato tapado and free-range lamb casse-tete over barley-flecked tagliatelle. The waitron suggests a delicate yet assuming Sangiovese with overtones of minerals and citrus from the Abruzzo region as the perfect complement.

Your food arrives, and it's spaghetti and meatballs a carafe of house red wine. You're upset. Why?

On another day, all you want is a good family-style Italian meal like they make back in Jersey. Your friend tells you there's a great place out of town a ways where the matriarch who cooks everything herself won't let you eat until you wash your hands. You get there, and she welcomes you in with a kiss, tells you to wash your hands and have a seat. The music is Frank Sinatra and Perry Como. There are fake grapes and red-checked table cloths. Italian kitsch, family photos from the 50's. But before your family-style dinner for two arrives, mama brings you an amuse-bouche made with an organic fig, goat cheese and a balsamic reduction. The spaghetti and meatballs are a labor of love. But you just aren't sure if mama needed to braise the free-range lamb with cumin and coriander before smoking it over mesquite before adding it to a miso broth specked with heirloom baby tomatillos.

You're dissatisfied. Why?

Mama might be a whizz at incorporating divergent elements into a deconstructible edible, but she failed to follow through on her conceit.

Conceit, for screenwriters and restaurateurs both, is telling your audience HOW TO ENJOY the experience. It's inviting them into the story. It's getting them where you want them to be. It's not an easy thing to do, and new writers inevitably spend too little time with it.

If you open a restaurant, you don't have the leisure of skipping lightly over the issue. Have you ever stopped to wonder why so many Italian restaurants have fake plastic grape vines and pictures of Frank Sinatra and Connie Francis and Joe DiMaggio? They're there for a reason. They frame the experience. They tell the diner what to expect.

Ever wonder why crap movies like Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? or Pool Boy IV or Alien vs. Predator or Talladega Nights not only get made, but make money? Ever wonder why they get regurgitated and make even more money? And so on and so on, until our entire culture is steeped in their aroma of rot?

They tell the audience how to enjoy them. They're dead clear about how to enjoy them.

Depressing, huh?

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