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Posts Tagged ‘screenwriting’

What is the MacGuffin? You have to read to the end to find out!

In my last post I wrote about the psychology of desire and projection in the experience of cinemagoing. It’s not this particular object that matters to the person watching the film (the treasure, the secret files, the briefcase) – it’s the fact that this object becomes a symbolic representation of a deeper longing. The plot, if it’s a good one, allows us both to acknowledge that longing, and to have a sense of moving towards its fulfilment.

Searching for the hidden treasure!

Alfred Hitchcock is the master in this regard. He doesn’t just create ‘suspense’ (a very weak work); he opens up the hidden currents of longing that lie within the human soul – and attaches them to the most ordinary and sometimes absurd objects.

How? With the MacGuffin! What’s the MacGuffin? This is his answer from an interview he gave with Oriana Fallaci in 1963:

You must know that when I’m making a movie, the story isn’t important to me. What’s important is how I tell the story. For example, in a movie about espionage what the spy is looking for isn’t important, it’s how he looks for it. Yet I have to say what he’s looking for. It doesn’t matter to me, but it matters a great deal to the public, and most of all it matters to the character of the movie. Why should the character go to so much trouble? Why does the government pay him to go to so much trouble? Is he looking for a bomb, a secret? This secret, this bomb, is for me the MacGuffin, a word that comes from an old Scottish story. Should I tell you the story? Is there enough tape?

Well, two men are traveling in a train, and one says to the other, “What’s that parcel on the luggage rack?” “That? It’s the MacGuffin,” says the other. “And what’s the MacGuffin?” asks the first man. “The MacGuffin is a device for catching lions in Scotland,” the other replies. “But there aren’t any lions in Scotland,” says the first man. “Then it isn’t the MacGuffin,” answers the other…

[From Alfred Hitchcock: Interviews, Ed. Sidney Gottlieb, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2003, p62]

And in the formal structure of this blog-post itself, in the plot of these few hundred words, what is the MacGuffin? It’s the answer to the question “What is the MacGuffin?”

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Czech Hitchcock - The Birds + Pyscho by Dave & Bry.

We think and talk a lot about films, but not as often about individual movie scenes. Philip French writes about the first time he saw the shower-room murder in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and then asks eight people from the industry to choose their favourite scenes of all time. These include the subway chase in The French Connection, the final mystical moments from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the moment when Jimmy Stewart first looks out over the dwellings behind him in Rear Window.

People judge a movie by the strength of its story and overall impact, but ultimately what they remember are individual moments and sequences. This perhaps reflects the very nature of film, which is a rapid succession of still pictures that provide an illusion of motion. And until the coming of cassettes and DVDs, few of us were able to see a picture over and over again or re-view a sequence. So we had to replay it in our minds, and naturally we’d often get it wrong. Which is how “Play it again, Sam” entered the language instead of: “Play it, Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By‘.”

James Stewart seems to have been thinking of this approach to cinema when he talked to Peter Bogdanovich about his craft: “What you’re doing is… you’re giving people little… little, tiny pieces of time… that they never forget.” This is echoed by Walker Percy in his 1961 novel The Moviegoer. Some people, his narrator says, “treasure memorable moments in their lives: the time one climbed the Parthenon at sunrise”, but “what I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man. Likewise Jean-Dominique Bauby, the paralysed French writer, describes in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly how he’d lie in the hospital recreating favourite scenes from Touch of Evil, Stagecoach, Moonfleet and Pierrot le fou. Canny film-makers have cottoned on to the idea, like James Cameron, who says: “You try to create one or more emotional, epiphanous moments within a film.”

These moments come in many forms – simple, complex, lyrical, violent, gentle, witty, romantic, revelatory – and, if they stick, become as real as any other memory. They can range from the split-second close-up of the suave spy’s missing half-finger in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps to the protracted pursuit of Cary Grant by the crop-dusting plane in North by Northwest, from the in-your-face eye-slicing in Buñuel’s first silent movie, the avant-garde Un Chien Andalou, to the puzzling sequence of the Chinese businessman’s mysterious box in the same director’s mainstream success Belle de Jour 40 years later. Like your favourite jokes, your cherished movie moments reveal something about you and, if shared, they can be the beginning of a beautiful friendship, especially if one of them is the final sequence in Casablanca that features that line.

When I get a moment after Easter, I’ll post about my own favourite scenes.

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