The Prin­ciple of Displacement

Or if you want a job done, give it to a busy man.

Living is rarely a simple or straight­for­ward process. We spend our days in a world that seems to become increas­ingly complex and demanding. Multi-tasking, keeping a multi­tude of  ‘balls in the air’, is an innate human talent, part of our evol­u­tionary equip­ment and also part our everyday life experience.

And so there is a thrill of recog­ni­tion when we see these attrib­utes portrayed on the screen. The pleasure of watching the char­ac­ters in The West Wing; or the fast-talking, wise cracking heroes and heroines of the thirties and forties; is the pleasure of watching smart grown-ups who really know how ‘to chew gum, walk and talk, all at the same time’.

This is drama that respects our intel­li­gence and never patron­ises its audi­ence. It often moves along at a fair old lick and is frequently packed with action and incident that demands a certain amount of concentration

It’s not that the important stuff, the ‘meat and gravy’ of the drama, is missing; but instead of having it doled out in large, simple-minded spoon­fuls; we, as an audi­ence, are being asked to do some work.

Displace­ment‘ is a way to get the audi­ence involved; to keep their eyes on the ball and make them part of the game.

In the following para­graphs I try to explain this idea in more detail –  but essen­tially what I mean by displace­ment is drama that hides itself in a beha­viour or activity.

Instead of drama that confronts us, it seeks to intrigue us.

Instead of explaining itself, it delib­er­ately creates mystery.

The prin­ciple of displace­ment is a useful tech­nique for a dram­atist because it is recog­nis­able (i.e. truthful) to an audi­ence. And because it produces a kind of counter-energy; energy that can even, as we’ll see, be counter to the main impetus of a scene; but that acts as a useful ballast – espe­cially to drama with weighty themes.

What else is happening?

What else is happening in the scene you’re writing apart from the main action of the scene? This is not a stupid ques­tion. Apart from the reasons I’ve just given above, using displace­ment can be a way of keeping your audience’s atten­tion when you need it.

I watched a play recently which contained a long inter­rog­a­tion scene between an intel­li­gence officer and a suspected spy. The dialogue was intel­li­gently written and the story should have been compel­ling but, after a while, my interest began to flag. There was nothing else going on apart from the inter­rog­a­tion itself and the scene lacked the complexity that might have kept my attention.

This should have been in the writing of course. But even with duller material, a good director might have helped things along by giving the actors some peri­pheral displace­ment activ­ities that made the situ­ation more believable.

It felt unnat­ural for two char­ac­ters to main­tain such a stead­fast concen­tra­tion. People in rooms do get bored after all: they fiddle with things, smoke, read a news­paper, pick their noses. More to the point, these kind of displace­ments are part and parcel of inter­rog­a­tion techniques.

A sense of play­ful­ness is a very useful attribute for a writer or director to have in situ­ations like this one. The serious content of the scene would have come across so much better if it had been about more than some­body asking ques­tions. It desper­ately needed some kind of counter-energy to sustain our interest and main­tain the character’s credibility.

Once I began thinking about this, I real­ised that many great dram­at­ists and actors use this consciously or uncon­sciously as a tech­nique for capturing an audience’s atten­tion. It’s almost as though the weightier the content of the scene, the more ballast it requires in terms of a displaced energy.

Case study: Call North­side 777 (1946)

In this 1940’s thriller about an intrepid reporter getting to the bottom of a murder mystery, the prot­ag­onist (James Stewart) has a scene where he discusses his day with his wife and comes up with a plan of action.

The scene is all about making connec­tions and the unfin­ished jig-saw puzzle proves not only to be a useful displace­ment activity but, wouldn’t you know it, a handy meta­phor too. (Fortu­nately, the film’s light touch and original charm stops the device from becoming too heavy-handed).

In this instance, displace­ment is used not so much to distract us but to reflect the inner meaning of the scene; as a mirroring device.

T.S. Eliot writes about the ‘objective correl­ative’ in poetry; the vessel of poetic meaning.  I prefer this term to symbol because it is free of reli­gious and psycho­lo­gical connota­tions but it means pretty much: “the thing that stands for what we want to say“.

I once had a student who wanted to write a scene about a mother’s concern for her child. She had great trouble expressing her inten­tions until I suggested that she wrote the scene instead about the child losing its red coat. With the lost coat standing in for the mother’s anxi­eties, the scene soon came to life.

Derailing the action: Shakespeare’s Macbeth

In medi­eval doctoring, a patient was cured by having blood drained from them. In drama, it can often be effective to channel or displace energy from the central focus of the action. Para­dox­ic­ally this seems to preserve it.

Shakespeare has often proved himself to be remark­ably acute – even ‘modern’ – in his psycho­lo­gical obser­va­tion. In Macbeth, MacDuff is given the news of the brutal murder of his wife and chil­dren. This is the scene in count­less cop shows where a grieving relative is given bad news and we might expect it to be handled with dignity and a certain amount of decorous emotion. Instead, Shakespeare makes it partic­u­larly messy.

MacbethTo begin with, Ross, the bearer of the news, makes a hash of breaking it to MacDuff: first telling him they are safe and then contra­dicting himself and blurting out the news of their deaths.

The fumbling makes the news even more painful. The men around MacDuff try to console him as he stupidly repeats the ques­tions “My chil­dren too? … My wife killed too? … All my pretty ones? Did you say all?”  The poignancy of the scene comes not from the words them­selves but what happens between them: “All my pretty ones? … Did you say all?”

Shakespeare’s superb dramatic instincts and his under­standing of human psycho­logy are both on show here. MacDuff needs time to process the inform­a­tion, he cannot deal with it in one go, and so it becomes ‘displaced’ in his mind as he works frantic­ally to assim­ilate it.

Simil­arly, Ross cannot bear to tell MacDuff about the death of his family and thus he lies initially, delaying or ‘displa­cing’ the dreaded task of informing him.

How do you portray terrible events in a fresh way that grabs at the hearts of your audience?

You show human beings clum­sily failing to cope.

You let the drama derail itself from the predict­able lines it should have run along.

(Joan Little­wood, the director who founded Theatre Work­shop and devised Oh What A Lovely War, was a believer in the efficacy of making the occa­sional ‘mistake’. She would actively instruct certain primed actors to depart from the rehearsed scenes some­times in order to inject life back into produc­tions that had become too slick and polished.)

The Cover Up

I’m shy, but I’m damned if I’m going to show it … I’m angry, but I’m damned if I’m going to show it …  I’m scared, but I’m damned if I’m going to show it…  Acting the cover-up can often be more inter­esting and revealing than merely demon­strating the under­lying emotion or situ­ation. It is amazing how far you can go with covering-up, espe­cially if the story-line is strong enough for the audi­ence to know what’s going on.”

Peter Bark­worth, About Acting 1980

Good British actors have an instinctive under­standing of the dramatic value of hiding a character’s feel­ings. Carpets are safe from being chewed when a stirling British talent is working because the repres­sion or subjug­a­tion of emotion is nearly always more powerful and convin­cing than letting rip.

Repressed emotion acts like a pres­sure cooker or a spring-board. Help your actors by writing char­ac­ters that are good at covering-up, at masking their true feel­ings and chan­nel­ling their emotions into all kinds of displace­ment activities.

They will thank you for it in the end.

Jive Talking: the Tarantino solo

Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differ­ences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just – it’s just there it’s a little different.
Jules: Examples?
Vincent: Alright, well you can walk into a movie theatre in Amsterdam and buy a beer. And I don’t mean just like in no paper cup, I’m talking about a glass of beer. And in Paris, you can buy a beer at McDonald’s. And you know what they call a, uh, a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

Pulp Fiction 1994

In this, by now, iconic scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, two heavily armed gang­sters, on their way to deal out viol­ence to some punks, talk about the names given to McDonald’s burgers in Europe. It’s the kind of dialogue that’s become a Tarantino trade­mark: eclectic and quirky, taking the genre into new and unex­pected territories.

The eccentric discourses that Tarantino injects into his movies are like the solos of a famous lead guitarist – a touch self-indulgent, perhaps, but still enter­taining. And with the instincts of a showman, he ‘lays them down’ on top of solid and tightly written scenes.

In Reser­voir Dogs, for example, the plan­ning of a robbery is a stock scene from any gang­ster film. We under­stand the situ­ation without the need for elab­or­a­tion and so Tarantino uses it for a lengthy discus­sion about tipping instead. Conver­sa­tions that might be boring (a discus­sion of hamburgers) become highly effective when they are set against scenes with poten­tial for violent conflict.  A rambling mono­logue from a garrulous Nazi works well (Inglorious Basterds) when it is intercut with the agon­ised faces of Jewish fugit­ives hiding under the floorboards.

These are classic uses of delib­erate displace­ment – refo­cusing the energy of the scene. Hitch­cock would defin­itely have approved of it and under­stood the formula only too well: show the audi­ence the ticking bomb under the table and then move the conver­sa­tion onto the foot­ball and the weather …

David Clough, August, 2010

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