There are several things I liked about the recent movie "The Butler," but one of them is the director's decision to get several key points across subtly, without banging us over the head. As you may know, the film depicts the life and career of a White House butler who serves presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan, and who lives to see our first black Commander-in-Chief take office. It also chronicles the hard-fought civil rights struggles of the 20th century.
One of the presidents the butler works for is John F. Kennedy. As you watch the story of his administration unfold, you know, of course, how it's going to end. But when that November 1963 date arrives, all the film does is show a TV screen covered with "CBS NEWS BULLETIN," and then a silent video of Walter Cronkite, removing his glasses, and looking over his shoulder to check the time.
We've seen these images many times, and we know what they mean. Respecting our knowledge, the director invites us to be part of the story and resists the temptation to sensationalize it.
Similarly, we learn at one point that the Butler's younger son is going to Vietnam in the early 1970s. Later (spoiler alert!), there's a knock on the door of the butler's house and he opens it to find two soldiers, in full dress uniform, with solemn looks on their faces. Nothing is said, but again, we understand completely what has happened.
As I watched these scenes, I was reminded of last year's film "Lincoln." Near the end of that Stephen Spielberg epic, we see a tired Lincoln slowly walking out the White House door, heading for Ford's Theater and a long-awaited night of relaxation.
I thought to myself "This would be a perfect spot for this film to end. We all know what's going to happen, and the image of a bedraggled president heading to the fate he could not have anticipated is all we need to bring this story to a close."
But no. Mr. Spielberg dragged the film on another 15 minutes, showing us the grisly details and the wrenched reactions of onlookers not only at the assassination but during the long hours as they waited for Lincoln to die in the house across the street to which he was taken.
Those 15 minutes were not only unnecessary but, in my opinion, detracted from the film's power, because they bypassed an opportunity to engage the audience in the story and let us employ our imaginations.
Ancient Greek dramatists famously left all violence offstage, merely suggesting to the audience what had happened. Their contemporary, Aristotle, argued that when drama depends on "spectacle" (what we would call special effects), the degree of spectacle has to be constantly increased with each succeeding play, until it overwhelms the audience and loses all effect.
Could this be what's wrong with so many current movies and television programs? Showing us everything leads to revealing nothing, and ignores the need for us to play a vital part in the interaction.
As in so much of life, less is more. Directors, take heed.
Email John Gottcent at email@example.com.
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