Friday, September 08, 2006
More for the Lexicon
... and here we are again with the Lexicon:
The Cliff of Justice
A convenient accident that saves the hero from moral difficulties. Just as he or she finally gains the upper hand in the climactic final struggle with the villain and is about to finish him off - or wait, is he? that would make the hero a killer! could we live with that? - the cliff edge crumbles, a rock falls from overhead, or the set otherwise intervenes and the villain dies without the hero having to do the dirty deed. This is supposed to resolve the structural need for punishment while leaving the hero untarnished, but doesn't work for two reasons: one, it's implausible, and two, it's a cop-out.
The narrative patch-job of an author who's chickening out. A situation arises in the plot that is difficult to solve, usually because it raises deep emotional, moral and/or psychological questions that would tax the author to deal with. Instead of diving in, grappling with them and producing a hard-won but satisfying solution, the author does a bit of quick pipe-work, comes up with a short plot explanation that almost works as an excuse for not going there, and rattles along as before. Works if the reader isn't paying too much attention, but a waste of an opportunity to write something really good.
You can see an interesting example of the Cliff of Justice in the two Cape Fear films. In the remake, our hero is just about to kill the villain by smashing his head with a big rock - but just as he brings it down, the river in which the villain is lying rises and drags him out of the way. The rock comes down on nothing, and the villain is born off to a watery grave. Now, the story didn't have to end that way. In the original, which is much better, our hero has been battling the villain and finally gets him on the ground, unarmed, wounded, with the gun in our hero's hand. Victory! Now, our hero almost kills him, he comes that close. Then, just at the last minute, he pulls himself together, remembers he's supposed to be the good guy here, and says, famously, 'No. No! That would be letting you off too easy, too fast . . . You're gonna live a long life . . . in a cage! That's where you belong and that's where you're going. And this time for life! Bang your head against the walls. Count the years - the months - the hours . . . until the day you rot!' It's both more morally consistent - the hero has been on the side of law rather than vengeance all the way through, it's the villain who's the vigilante - and a more serious punishment for the villain, who'd rather die than go back to jail. In the remake, the villain floats off down the river babbling in tongues, not even punished by the realisation that he's lost: he still thinks God is on his side.
The fact that the remake was done in 1991 has something to do with this, I think, as the Cliff of Justice was popular in films during the 80s and 90s, but it's a curious decision. Scorcese decided to make the hero more morally compromised - Cady, the villain, is after Bowden because Bowden was supposed to be his lawyer when Cady was tried for rape but, knowing that Cady was guilty, refused to put up a good defence, whereas in the original, Cady is after Bowden because Bowden caught him trying to rape a girl, intervened and got him jailed. Besides that, 90s Bowden is corrupt, unhappily married and generally dysfunctional, instead of a paragon. But somehow, the film can't live with the final push into making him a killer, he has to be saved morally somehow. Yet it doesn't sit with the cynical tone for him to be saved by his making a definite moral decision. He's too compromised to save himself, but not compromised enough to be beyond the need for saving. All the film can do is intervene with a Cliff of Justice and make the decision for him.
It suffers from the usual Cliff of Justice problem: a story needs to be driven along by the hero's activity, which is to say, he's an adult who controls his own life. When the final resolution comes direct from the author, suddenly the story treats him like a child, steps in and says, 'don't worry honey, I'll sort it out'. Suddenly, the story is no longer relevant to the hero's actions, and that's a broken story.
Eh well. I like a lot of other Scorcese films.
Another Publisher-Dating Dictionary term, (click here to see the rest http://www.kitwhitfield.com/publisherdating.html) suggested by a nice lady at Random House:
You say: Please enclose a cheque and contract by return of post.
Dating equivalent: Hi. So shall we have sex here and now, or do you want to get married on the way back to my place?
Getting published isn't something you can mail-order: the odds of your book being accepted are always long. Acting like you can command it looks as if you think the publisher will be forced to publish you because it would be too embarrassing to contradict you, but that is emphatically not the case. Failing to acknowledge that it's the publisher's decision makes you look like you'll be difficult to work with, and also like you aren't aware that the main deciding factor will be quality rather than the author's wishes; this implies that you aren't aware that some writing is better than others - and writers who can't identify quality can't produce it. Besides that, it's trying to boss around someone you're asking for a big favour, which is never a good start.
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