Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Tension - The Piano Wire of Filmmaking

I've been tense, lately. I have too much going on in and outside of my head. And this morning, I was reflecting on my state of being and found myself reflecting even deeper on the nature of tension itself. How do we cultivate it inside of us? Why do we create it in the first place and allow ourselves to exist in it so often? Why do we actually seek it out so often, even in our "leisure" activities?

And we do indeed seek it out. Every time we decide to watch a film, in fact. Because while a certain kind of stress and tension may totally suck in our personal lives, - destroying health, wealth, relationships and more - it is absolutely essential to good filmmaking.

What is it that creates the beautiful sound of a piano or a guitar? Tension. Strings pulled very tight (like the back of my neck right now) and then manipulated to create audible vibratory resonance. It's no different with a film, but instead of strings, the properties of cinema are used to create and maintain tension - visual composition, sound, music, performance, editing, etc. Now, these elements can just as easily be used to dissipate tension, but that is the difference between a good film and one that is...well,...not so good.

The dictionary definition of tension is as follows: "The act of being stretched or tightened. Physical, mental or emotional stress or strain..." This definition is applicable to any kind of filmmaking, be it art or entertainment - although I would offer that art is more about being stretched and entertainment is more about being tightened. But all filmmaking creates a kind of stress/strain that radiates energy out to the audience, much as piano wire, struck by keys, radiates sounds.

It has been said that all art aspires to the condition of music. And I think it is the musicality of manipulated tension (and its visceral impact) to which they are referring and why music is such a good analogy for filmmaking. Tension is at play in string instruments, wind instruments and, of course, vocal chords. It is the skillful manipulation of the created tension that gives sounds their musicality. It is the creation and skillful manipulation of tension that gives filmmaking its own musicality.


And this tension is not simply created in the scripted incident that I believe should be called nothing other than PLOT but what many insist on calling STORY. For me STORY is narrative construction, which can often have almost nothing to do with plot and can yield an endless treasure of tension.

Back to the music analogy, of course not all music sounds the same to all listeners. And no film will strike all audience members in exactly the same way. People who prefer hard rock over experimental jazz will find their analog in film. This is why most reviewers and other opinionated jerk-offs drive me crazy. They look at films as a single, homogenous product that has a "right" and "wrong" way of being a film - and rail against films that have no "story" (they mean plot). But there are as many kinds of films - with their own special properties - as there are kinds of music. The unifying and defining element in all films, in terms of quality, should be nothing other than a film's musicality - it's ability to create and manage tension.

Of course, the "music" of a Stan Brakhage may be lost on a Tarkovsky devotee, just as Tarkovsky's "music" may be lost on someone who's tastes gravitate to Merchant and Ivory...or David Fincher...or Brett Ratner, for that matter. Tension manifests itself in different people for a variety of different reasons - for some, financial issues push their buttons, for others it's romantic issues, for still others it may be threatened violence and for some, practically ANYTHING creates tension. Filmmakers should stop putting pressure on themselves to create/manage tension that can speak to all types of audiences. They simply need to understand the type of film they are choosing to make and milk tension from that experience for all it's worth.

Of course, none of this answers why we are so obsessed with tension. Perhaps its because mystery is tension and our lives - our existence and eventual obsolescence - is a complete mystery that we are constantly attempting to solve - or at least understand...or, perhaps, simply from which to be distracted.

I could use a little distraction about now - artistic/entertainment tension to distract from life tension that I create to avoid existential tension. Sheesh. But what would I be without tension? At peace, maybe. But probably just depressed.

No comments:

Post a Comment