The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

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S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

S-Town and Tangential Storytelling

Spoiler alert for the podcast S-Town. I ruin it.

So if you party like I do then you’ve already binged the entirety of NPR’s S-Town podcast on a Saturday night while sharing a fifth of cheap Scotch with your best friend, a crayon drawing of a sad woman on a napkin.

Anyway.

S-Town is a fantastic journey revolving around the troubled redneck genius John B. McClemore– and during those revolutions, a layer from the small town in rural Alabama is shaved off and inspected thoroughly, revealing that every inch of this place has John’s DNA somehow embedded into it, even well after his suicide. It’s a mind-blowing piece of investigative, empathetic journalism.

And there’s a popular theory that John himself “authored” the narrative of this story from the very beginning and there’s a lot of tempting evidence that this is the case. Too many metaphors make too much sense. You have the “null set” of the maze which not only summarizes John’s philosophy on his own life (there’s no solution and yet you’re trapped in an experience of convoluted twists and turns and frustrations) but also that of his thoughts on climate change (no solution to the biggest problems that plague us)– the pessimism is almost redundant. There’s never any solution, just problems, of which John bitches about constantly. Brian Reed even suspects that John had set up the “null-set” on purpose early on in the series. And that carries an implicative weight to the other puzzles John has proposed: namely, the murder that wasn’t a murder and his hidden stashes of gold that might not actually be buried. Problems without solutions. Wild goose chases. Geese chases? Never mind.

There are other metaphors, of course. One of the most striking is how John gilds a dime to give to Brian using potassium cyanide. He ingests the same chemical later to kill himself. The beautifully grim metaphor, if there is one, is that John was symbolically turned to gold on the inside. (Sidebar: it could very well be that this is the metaphorical gold that John has sent Travis to look for– not material wealth, but the appreciation of their friendship once he’s departed. But that rings a little too smug and cold, even for John. It sounds too much like every high-schooler’s threat “you’ll miss me when I’m gone.”) The gold metaphor comes full circle when it’s revealed that John’s other preferred gilding practices likely incurred gradually detrimental brain damage similar to the Mad Hatter’s disease.

So did John just use Brian Reed to enact a dramatic suicide note? My take? Not really. You’d have to discount the tireless work Brian and his team did to find this extremely personal narrative, slogging through hundreds of hours of audio. S-Town is a testament to how important editing is– how essential scene selection can be for an emotional payoff. John was a man who rambled, rambled coherently maybe, but shot off from one subject to the next until it inevitably spiraled into climate change and the doom of his shit town, Woodstock.

John also thought in metaphorical concepts. He’s a clock-fixer-upper, it makes sense that he could create complicated stories with people acting like the cogs that turn against each other… but again I feel like that’s a disservice to the amount of work put into this thing and the narrative constraint they put upon it. S-Town could have been many things, if based on John’s metaphors alone. But everyone involved in production was smart about it and they made it into a journalistic novel not unlike Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

And I salute them for a storytelling strategy that often goes unappreciated– that of constant deviation and tangential leaps. I think, because John was who he was, this was almost inevitable. Well, that and the fact that the first story (the non-murder) would have rang kind of flat if not for Reed’s post-mortem investigation into the intrigues of Woodstock.

If you think about it, the narrative goes from hanging out with John (noting his pierced nipples), to the murder investigation, to the suicide, to the familial troubles of John’s family which branches off into two distinct parallel perspectives (Travis and Rita, the former of which is now searching for gold, the latter of which tried to get those nipple rings as a keepsake from the coroner), both of which leading towards contacting the lawyer and town clerk (Faye), which opens a lot of questions which leads towards John’s perhaps most intimate friend and the explanation of the “flagellation” ritual of piercing his nipples repeatedly.  It could be that I’m bad at summarizing things, but I think I got the basic story down.

I’m using the nipple ring motif because it’s something that first appears as a random, almost unnecessary detail that keeps returning as a slightly more relevant (even contentious) detail before the symbolic weight of the piercings are finally revealed. It’s also the perfect example of a little quirk that binds two disparate narratives together. Of all the legal conflicts between Travis and Rita, it’s the nipple rings that apparently affect both on a solely emotional level. And for Travis, the explanation brought us back to John’s workshop, practicing their “Church” service, one of the last images we have of John in S-Town‘s narrative. It initially came off as thematically forced to thread the story along before Reed and his team finally let the last Tetris block fall into place.

The art of tangential storytelling is that if you take enough left turns, you’ll eventually end up where you started, but, like all stories, you’ll have gained perspective. By the end of S-Town we’ve gained the perspectives of many people who’ve interacted with John, but in a sad way, once the series is over, we’re back to a world where John doesn’t exist and are forced to ask the question, am I the better for knowing this man? S-Town (or Woodstock), too, like the gloomy protagonist always insists, is more or less the same town it always was, minus an eccentric that many of the townsfolk preferred not to know. Are they the better for having this series released?

The latter is the kind of question I can’t answer definitively. I think exploitation was avoided as much as it could’ve been. Not that it might matter to the people of Woodstock. “Fuck it,” is the motto for telling everything upfront, after all. In that, I feel, there is some elemental truth of honesty. The tattoo artist is upfront about his racism and Reed, while hiding the fact that he’s married to a black woman and is Jewish, accepts that and moves on to other topics of discussion. He does it without necessarily demonizing the guy. That was a lateral move of empathy, uncomfortable though it may have been, on Reed’s part to keep on digging for the story– and he found it (summarily: John would get a tattoo every time the shop was in the red to give them enough business to get ’em back to black). Effectively Reed piloted a narrative into a crash-landing in shark-infested waters and made the story about the sharks and where they swim. But they’re not as scary as you’ve come to believe. That’s the kind of opportunity that this kind of story mechanic allows for.

The structure of tangential storytelling is more intuitive than you might think. After all, the recipe for the second act of a hardboiled detective novel or police procedural TV show is rooted in the act of interviewing people. This is what translates so elegantly to the podcast format of S-Town– Reed acts as detective running down leads on his deceased friend and picking up common threads between seemingly unrelated perspectives. We see those interactions recorded as they happen and we love it. It’s why you’ll remember scenes from All the President’s Men if not the actual newspaper article that broke Watergate. Just like John’s riddle of where he left his gold, it’s the journey that’s more important than the outcome.

Which might be trite but nonetheless true.

I suppose it’s because that journey uses every tangent as a discursive opportunity to explore an element of John’s life or otherwise his impact of the people he left behind– and their lives in S-Town. To bring up my favorite book on earth,  The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño employs the extreme method of using 52 narrators to account for the actions and whereabouts of two scummy poets over the course of several years. The plot of the novel is entirely implicative, obscured by the dozens of stories people tell, not only about the poets, but about their own secrets, troubles, impulses, mental illnesses, historical fascinations and racial biases. It tells of the evasive duo, but not without letting in the reader about their own life. Likewise, John B. McClemore is sort of a magnet thrown into a mine. He’s always at the center of things, but everything/one that sticks to him is also fascinating.

Which nullifies the “null-set” paradigm of reading S-Town. At least on a cynical level– I doubt that John’s dream of a suicide note would include intimate details about his rhinoceros-skinned nipples. It includes everybody he’s known, and while he’s had his own time to devise his time on earth, it’s the people that he’s interacted with that get to spin his legend. And everyone’s got a different outlook on the guy. He’s been many things. But there are common threads of kindness, pettiness, embarrassment, cowardice, success and failure…

And through these many lenses we get the character of John from the outside looking inward.