The Creative Paradox: Rational vs Irrational in Cinematic Communication

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Here’s something that happens all the time. A creative person gets an idea for a great story. She sees all the characters clearly in her mind, she hears the dialog, she can feel the action and almost taste the way this incredible story will take audiences on a roller coaster ride of laughter and tears. This is a story that has to be told, that people must experience. So she sits down to put the story on paper. Forty pages in, she stops to read what she has written. And she’s shocked. It’s not her story. The story she saw in her mind isn’t there on the paper. The characters aren’t what she had in her mind. The funny scenes don’t get laughs and the poignant scenes produce yawns instead of tears.

This is a very frustrating feeling for a writer. This is why most people don’t write. Something similar happens to directors when the dailies don’t match the vision they had in their minds, and to editors who look at a rough cut and realize that after all their hard work, the thing that’s missing is the story.

One reason it’s especially frustrating for a writer who’s working on his own original idea is that it’s so hard to find anyone to blame. Directors can always find a reason their vision failed: actors, equipment, crew, weather, etc. And editors can always blame the footage the director brought them. But the writer has no excuse. When it’s nothing but your idea and your words, you have to admit responsibility. No one comes and forces you to make scintillating, multifaceted characters into cardboard cutouts. But that’s what happens. Nobody took your computer away from you and turned your dialog from sparkling wit into verbal pablum. But there it is. And it sucks.

Why does this happen? Why do great ideas suck when we try to express them? Why is it so damn hard to tell a simple, beautiful story?

First, some psychology and maybe a touch of philosophy. Don’t worry, we’ll get through it quickly and move on to the movies.

The psychologist/philosopher Carl Jung theorized that there exist rational and an irrational sides to the human personality. Different cultures have used different terminology to describe this duality (or something like it). In Asia it’s expressed as Yin and Yang. The ancient Greeks had the concept of Logos and Eros. Our modern Western culture speaks of “Left Brain” and “Right Brain” duality.

Since the Seventeenth Century, when we entered “The Enlightenment,” Western culture has promoted the idea that only the rational side of the personality is valuable. The term irrational became an insult, and no one in a serious profession, no politician or bank manager or college professor, will admit to being irrational.

But as hard as we pretend to be rational in all our thoughts and actions, according to Jung, the irrational parts of us remain. And because our culture doesn’t consider them suitable for public display, we have to hide our irrationality, or worse, pretend that our irrational personality traits are actually completely rational. When this goes too far it can lead to dangerous mental illnesses that can result on a societal level in mass psychoses culminating in cultural cataclysms like the Third Reich and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

How does this apply to making movies? Two very important ways. First, because we, as storytellers, need to understand that the Cinematic Experience is an irrational experience. We need to understand that fact, admit it, and embrace it (although we don’t tell people on the outside our secret.)

Secondly, the filmmaking process is one in which the rational and irrational parts of our selves will repeatedly and persistently be put into extreme conflict. This is because cinema is a creative, irrational medium which is also highly dependent on technology, which is hyper-rational. The challenge of cinematic storytelling is to balance these two opposing forces in a way that results in something that is at minimum entertaining and may, at times, even rise to the level of beauty.

The central problem in creative work is this polarized duality, the conflict between Logos and Eros, rational and irrational, the Yin and Yang of the human personality. (By the way, don’t get the word Eros confused with erotic, a term that is related to Eros, but isn’t the same thing at all, no matter what the advertising people think.)

It has become fashionable to refer to the concepts of Logos and Eros (or something like them) with the code words “Left Brain” and “Right Brain.” Actual brain scientists dispute the accuracy of this terminology, but I’m going to continue to use it because creative (Right Brain) people understand what I’m talking about, and it works to clarify aspects of the creative process. And we’re not going to be doing brain surgery here, just trying to understand movies.

This duality of Logos/Left Brain versus Eros/Right Brain is the central polarity of the creative process. Form versus content, discipline versus dreaming, technology versus imagination, organization versus passion, sending and receiving. These forces are always competing in the creative process.

To do quality work in any creative field you must have both.

I repeat: it’s not a question of which is better, you must have both.

The most common problem comes when Yang/Logos/Left Brain takes control. When Left Brain makes Right Brain a subservient slave — as it usually tries to do in its authoritarian way — it leads to a kind of extreme rationalism that is destructive to creativity. This rationalism tries to come up with a logical, even mathematical, solution for every problem. And it doesn’t work. It may work for engineers, but not for storytellers.

There is an opposite problem of an excess of Eros/Right Brain, which usually manifests as a very creative person with brilliant ideas who can never get his thoughts or his crew or his money organized to the point where he can actually express the brilliant images that Right Brain conjures up. In filmmaking, where technology and logistics play such a huge part, overly Right Brain people don’t usually survive very long.

The Left Brain/Right Brain concept has found its way into the popular lexicon and I’m going to use it, even while acknowledging that actual brain scientists will tell you it isn’t really accurate. It’s useful because we intuitively grasp the concept that there is a creative part of us that is in conflict with an organized, structured part of us. This would still be true on a psychological level no matter what a brain scan might reveal about actual neurological functions. But when someone attaches a (pseudo) scientific label onto it, it makes us intuitively see ourselves as rational (i.e. good) even when we aren’t being rational. Which is irrational. And sort of Paradox.

Confused? Stick with me. A little bit of confusion is part of the package when you start to study the creative process.

One of the difficulties in talking about Eros is that language — words and definitions — come from Logos. We’re trying to use words to explain something that is inherently not only non-verbal, but actually anti-verbal. You can talk and write about Logos, because Logos is words and language. But trying to use words to define Eros is using a flashlight to look for shadows — everywhere you point your light, there’s no shadow there! (Extreme rationalists will argue that this proves that shadows don’t exist.)

Where Logos defines, Eros undefines. Logos is a filing system that labels, organizes and puts each thing in a place separate and apart from all other things. Eros dissolves barriers, melts things together, unites and combines.

Take the examples of two activities that are often called art forms: dancing and cooking. Both of these activities require lots of Logos — scientific knowledge about how things work. The dancer has to know a lot about anatomy and physics, because the physiology of the human body and the laws of physics are what make a dancer able to move a body through space in complex and interesting ways without falling down. The cook has to know rules of chemistry and how different kinds of heat affect different ingredients. But we don’t pay money to watch orthopedic surgeons dance, even though they generally know more anatomy than dancers. We don’t go to restaurants run by chemistry professors, even though they have more knowledge of the molecular structure of food. Because dancing and cooking are forms where science (Logos) serves the interests of creativity. The only reason the science is there is to help make the dance more exciting and the food more delicious.

But exciting and delicious are irrational concepts. You can’t create a scientific instrument to accurately measure the excitingness of a dance number or the deliciousness of a dish. Exciting and delicious are subjective notions that have no place in the world of scientific Logos.

But would you want to live without them? No. The irrational aspects of life like deliciousness, comfort, love, yearning, despair, ecstasy, spiritual growth, humility, victory and humor are what give life meaning. They are the why of life, the part the what-describing Logos can’t describe. And because Logos can’t describe these things, it pretends they are either unimportant or nonexistent.

Okay, I promised to keep this focused on how you actually make movies, and I meant it. We may explore some of the areas sometimes referred to as esthetic philosophy, but we will always come back to the question of practical application: how does this help me make better movies? How does this help me make good decisions at my writing desk, on the set, in the cutting room?

The creative process starts with irrational impulses seeping up through cracks in the unconscious into the conscious mind. When the storytelling is genuine (as opposed to when it’s based on rational ideas like making money or propagandistic persuasion) the impulse to create — to tell stories — is spontaneous and irrational. When stories come from the rational mind, they are always cliche, formulaic and predictable. So creative decisions like casting the right actor or how the story should end are too important to be left to rationality.

The reason I bring all this up is because it is the central problem in the creative process. If you can begin to understand that you, as a creative person, carry this dual nature inside you, it will help you when you get stuck. When your script isn’t coming out how you envisioned it in your mind, when your dailies don’t look like what you imagined, when your funny scenes aren’t funny and your dramatic moments are dull, it will always be because of this dual nature you carry: the inherent and inescapable polarity of the creative part of your personality in conflict with the practical part of you.

With Logos, questions demand answers.

With Eros, answers melt into questions.

Rational versus irrational: it’s not a battle, it’s a dance.

The good story emerges from irrational dreaming; telling it well requires rational discipline.

[Excerpted and adapted from the ebook Good Stories Well Told Volume I: Principles of Film Analysis by Alex Nibley. Illustration: detail from The Temptation of Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch.]

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