Happy Endings

So I’m going to be watching Moulin Rouge with Alyssa tonight, and she told me that she always stops it at the end when everything is happy, before the movie becomes sad. It got me to thinking about narrative arcs, and the interplay between audience/creator.

When you write something, or produce something, the majority of the work should take place in the imagination of the audience. A creator should be striving to evoke the right images and feelings in their audience. Of course, different media (and different works) fall in different places on the sliding scale of abstraction and detail. Television and film tend to be very detailed, mostly because we can see all of the make-up, costuming, sets, and facial expressions, which leaves very little work for the imagination to do. Books tend to be very abstract, with our minds filling in most of the blanks. Anyone who’s read an author spend a few pages describing the layout of a house will know that books don’t really lend themselves well to detail. And of course some details are more important than others; I’ve read books where the main characters are never given descriptions, just archetypes, which lends a very ethereal feel.

Creators tend to object when people “interpret wrong”. This usually happens when creators use a lot of what might be seen as symbolism, but they don’t mean anything symbolic by it. A painting of man with his arms spread out isn’t necessarily evoking the crucifixion. At any rate, creators tend to get the most upset when they have a very specific vision for their work, and the new interpretation goes counter to that conception.

Audiences, meanwhile, seem to get upset with creators who defy their interpretations. This is why you get phrases like “where did that come from?” or “that seems out of character”. That’s why foreshadowing is so important; it lets the audience know what’s coming, and make room for it in their head. There’s a powerful feeling that comes from figuring things out ahead of the characters. There’s also the associated feeling of having all the pieces fall into place. Bad fiction – and bad art – tends to not make sense. This is part of why I dislike modern art so much; John Cage pushing a grand piano down a flight of stairs defies the conventions of art not for improvement but merely for conversation.

So anyway, we have Alyssa not liking the downer ending of Moulin Rouge. Whoever was in charge of the creative team that made the movie might be galled by what’s essentially an unauthorized director’s cut which completely changes the nature of the film. But I’ve always believed that once a creator unleashes their creation on the world, they lose control of it. A creation without an audience is simply a fantasy.

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Happy Endings

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