Just a Little Innocent Manipulation

Cunning Little Devils)

Eddie Mannix should not take the new job offer from the Lockheed Corporation. He should retain his faith in the magic of cinema instead, for the silly stories they make in their studios really do make a difference in the lives of those that view them, and he must never forget that fact.

These are the great truths in the Coen brothers Hail, Caesar, and I can pick out the solitary scene where I became completely convinced of them. It happened about two-thirds of the way through the film, when Mannix was tempted once more by the Lockheed executive to leave behind the “kid stuff” of Hollywood for a real job.

Up until this moment the Lockheed executive has seemed to have some valid points, but then he does something undeniably slimy. In a previous meeting he offered Mannix a cigarette, to which Mannix had responded by saying he was trying to quit. Quitting the unhealthy habit is important to his wife, to his family that he cares for, and a way that he genuinely wants to improve himself. Here, in their later meeting, the Lockheed executive can see that Mannix is conflicted, and once again offers a cigarette with a knowing smile.

Just like that all of the valid points of the Lockheed executive become only the cunning arguments of a devil. This man does not have Mannix’s best interests at heart at all. He is willing to compromise and manipulate him, to use the man’s weakness against him in the guise of friendship. Mannix turns him down. Turns him down for the smoke, turns him down for the job. I cheered him on for it, and I bought into the same realization that he did at that moment: that the make-believe of movies is more real than all the cynicism of the “real world.”

But then, as I thought about it, hadn’t I just been manipulated myself? The movie wanted me to feel a certain way about Mannix’s choice between dreams and practicality, and so it had intentionally cast the voice of practicality in a body that was slimy and conniving. Couldn’t it have used the same trick in the opposite direction and just as easily persuaded me the other way?

Devils in Angel’s Clothing?)

Now let’s bring in Exhibit B: George Bailey. This man is the main character of It’s a Wonderful Life, and he finds himself caught in a very similar conundrum as Eddie Mannix. All his life he has burned with an intense desire to chase his dreams, to build wonders, to travel the world. But unlike Mannix, he is not actually living that dream. At each step practicality has gotten in his way instead. Duty to family and friends has kept him far from the life he wishes to lead, and he’s grown very depressed as a result.

Then, in the film’s final act, a charming little man appears to convince him that the life of wonder he’s always wanted has been in front of him all along. Clarence the angel is sweet, innocent, and loyal. He speaks with a simple, uncomplicated wisdom, and uses it to make clear the great benefit one accomplishes just by doing their duty.

Is it really so wrong to make sacrifices for your family after all?

By the end of the film George Bailey is convinced and so are we. The film’s best trick is temporarily severing him from the life that he had. The sudden loss of wife and children cuts both he and the audience very deep, and we rejoice with him when they are reunited. We want nothing more than for him to never lose them again.

And as with Hail, Caesar, we have been manipulated into agreeing with the film’s core thesis.

Bias, Bias Everywhere)

So…each of these films manipulate our emotions to get us to agree with their message. But honestly, if we’re going to take offense at that, then we’re going to have to throw out essentially every story ever told.

Just consider how elements like swelling music in a film tugs at your heartstrings and makes you feel the emotions that the director wishes you to feel in that moment. Consider how Shakespeare’s heroes give a passionate soliloquy to win the audience over to their cause. Consider how the author lays bare their characters’ minds to prove the virtue or vice behind their actions. All of these make declarative statements of what is right to think about a situation, and what is wrong. Just as with real people, every story is going to have a bias, and to ask them not to is to to ask them not to be made by people.

Every now and then there is a story that tries to take a neutral stance, tries to show both sides of an argument equally. But even then there are biases towards what “equal” means.

Turn it Over to the Jury)

Any story that has a message is going to frame it in whatever way best supports that message. Some stories are going to have an overall message that you do not agree with, and are going to utilize character archetypes that you feel are incorrect and even harmful. And other stories will give an overall message that you do agree with, and utilizes character archetypes that you feel are fair and accurate.

But these are actually the exception. Far more common are the stories that will fall somewhere in between. Stories that you only partially agree with the message of, or that you do agree with, but still use archetypes that you still feel are incorrect and even harmful. I have read books and seen films that I liked every piece leading towards the central theme, but still did not like the central theme itself.

And this is fine.

People are not so delicate that they cannot handle mixed messages. You aren’t going to break someone by challenging their preconceived notions and you’re not required to coddle their every opinion. Every day people are exposed to conflicting opinions, and we have learned how to parse through the pieces, reject the ones we disagree with, and hold to the ones that we believe to be true.

In the moment we might feel that Hail, Caesar makes a good point, and we might feel that It’s a Wonderful Life makes a good point as well. But after we’ve had some time, been able to weigh them against our own conscience, we’ll still make our own decision on the matter. In fact, we might find that we can believe in a balance between both practicality and dreams.

And so I don’t feel guilty that in my last story I influenced the reader to reject the father’s ideals by painting him in a negative light. That was my archetype to support my central message, and you can take or reject it as you feel fit. On Thursday I will post the first entry in my new story, and in that chapter you can bet I will already be casting my characters in positive and negative lights, trying to influence you to side with some and against others. Pay attention to how I do that, and also consider how you are doing the same in your own stories.

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