July 16, 2013

Keeping Us in the Dark

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

As part of a summer movie festival this weekend, I had the pleasure of watching The Sound of Music on the giant screen for the first time.  I had seen it enough times on TV over the decades to know most of the story and definitely the songs but seeing it in its original cinematic glory was a new experience, and I noticed something for the first time.

This involves the famous anthem "Climb Every Mountain".  In a convent scene, young Sister Maria (Julie Andrews) is at a crossroads, and Mother Superior encourages her in song to follow her dream.  What's unique about this scene is that the elder nun's face is obscured by shadow as she sings.  We've seen her face before, but during this epic song we only hear her voice and observe the reactions on Maria's face.  The effect, appropriately enough, envelopes Mother Superior in a supernatural way, as if Maria is hearing the voice of God.

From a storytelling POV, Mother Superior is little more than an occasional mentor figure, positioned to convey this important message (important enough that it will reappear as the closing theme).  Obscuring her personage and letting the message speak for itself gave this key scene a bigger-than-life quality.  

An air of mystery is a device used to great advantage in fiction.  We don't get to see Darth Vader's face in either of the first two Star Wars movies, creating all sorts of speculation about how terrible he must look if he has to wear a mask.  It's actually disillusioning in number three when we finally do see his unexciting face.

Fans of 70s TV will remember the voice of Charlie sending his Angels off on their weekly mission.  Heard but never seen, this character was a bit of an enigma, even though most viewers already knew what John Forsythe really looked like.  Had they enlisted an unknown voice actor, you can be sure fan magazines in the day would have doggedly pursued his real identity, perhaps to another disappointing outcome.

It's no great mystery what next-door neighbor Wilson looked like on Home Improvement, but the gimmick of always concealing his face with a fence or a tool was purely for comedic purposes anyway, to tease the audience with a never-ending sight gag.  Likewise, we never got to see Frasier's Maris or Norm's wife on Cheers, but we sure heard about them, and the invisibility factor made them all the more intriguing.

For that matter, anyone who watched The Gong Show will remember The Unknown Comic, who catapulted to TV and Vegas fame by telling his awful jokes while wearing a bag over his head.  Audiences who wondered whether he was a famous comedian pulling a fast one lost interest once they found out he was Murray Langston, an actual unknown comic.

The point is, we love intrigue.  A story doesn't have to be a mystery to include mystery, because we are fascinated by secrets kept from us.  By leaving some things to the imagination, we capture the natural curiosity of the reader.  Can we create a more iconic scene or character by adding a little of the unknown?  The shadow knows.

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