Behind the Curve – Dinosaur 13 (2014)
A while back there was this bit on Last Week Tonight that showed footage from a interesting zoological study to illustrate its point. There were two monkeys placed in adjacent cages. The researchers had them perform the exact same task. One was paid with a grape; the other with a cucumber slice. The monkey who received the cucumber promptly tossed it on the ground. He threw a tantrum, rattling the bars of his cage. Clearly, he had been cheated.
That monkey’s anguish should be familiar to most people. It’s the same feeling you got when your brother or sister got something that you didn’t. Our primate minds appear to naturally recognize the concept of fairness. We see what another gets and think “I should get at least that much. And when we feel this internal justice has been violated, it cuts us deeply (unless, of course, it’s violated in our favor).
We carry this innate sense of justice with us to to our. The characters who illicit some of my most vitriolic hatred are not murderers or rapists; they’re cheaters and manipulators. Characters who take more than they’ve earned, or who have managed to avoid punishment for a transgression. Dinosaur 13 contains an excellent example of this character. Maurice Williams is a landowner who sold the T. Rex skeleton, “Sue,” to the small group of paleontologists who found it on his land for $5,000, more than any fossil had sold for at that time. You can see him agreeing to the sale on video. Williams used legal loopholes to steal the skeleton back (I don’t know if the paleontologists got their money back). While never actually breaking the law, we can all agree that this is a crappy move. Yet, Williams does not pay for his crappiness. He eventually makes 7.6 million from it. Meanwhile, the federal government prosecutes the aforementioned paleontologists for a bizarre collection of non-crimes. One of them ends up serving 2 years in federal prison for “failure to fill out paperwork.” If you’re anything like me, that turn of events ought to piss you off.
The human instinct for fairness can be invaluable to the storyteller, allowing him to create powerful emotion in the audience relatively early to get them hooked. But don’t forget that the audience will expect you to follow through. We wait eagerly for the villain’s comeuppance. We want to see Hans Gruber falling off the building.
Let’s look at Game of Thrones, a series that has elicited more of this fairness indignation than any show in recent memory. But they are inconsistent with the payoff. It’s fantastic when we get the satisfaction of seeing Joffrey’s stupid, evil, Justin Bieber-esque face as he chokes and dies. But that’s the exception. More often it seems as if nothing comes of it. The Freys and the Boltons are still living quite comfortably on their ill-gotten gains. Eventually the indignation dies down and it leaves me, as an audience member with a feeling of mild disappointment. I feel that there’s something incomplete about the experience.
I dislike this effect in Game of Thrones because it feels like an accident. But leaving the audience with a feeling of incompleteness can be an asset to your story. Dinosaur 13 doesn’t have the option of paying off its injustices. The story came from the real world, a notoriously unfair place. The filmmakers understand this and allow us to embrace our outrage inherent in the story. By the end of the documentary we’re stewing in a kind of bitter, defeated acceptance of the status quo, which turns out to be quite powerful. I think we need a wobbly ending sometimes to remind us that our world could still use improvement.
- Show: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay) (2015) – Monday, January 4
- Movie: Léon: The Professional (1994) – Thursday, January 7
- Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11
- Documentary: Super Size Me (2004) – Thursday, January 14
- Book: On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957) – Monday, January 25