Sunday, October 16, 2011

What Henry Rollins can teach us about “Character” in documentary editing.

Henry Rollins is a contradiction, the tough guy with a big heart. Watching this video this morning Henry Rollins - Man Test brought together for me a number of issues I’ve been facing in my recent documentary edits.

For the documentary editor, the way in which you reveal aspects of a subject’s personality is instrumental to their character in terms of storytelling.

I’ve recently been reading “Story” by Robert McKee - yes the writing guru from “Adaptation” who rescues Nicholas Cage’s character from a doomed screenplay.

My reason for reading “Story” was because documentary editing is very similar to screenwriting in many respects. In a documentary it is in the edit where your story structure is built, where your narrative arcs happen and where, as I mentioned, your characters are given shape. You may have a limited range of language (filmed material) at your disposal but the various possible treatments of that material can lead to anything from a shallow unengaging ramble, to a rich and meaningful world of people we love.

Regarding character development, McKee makes an important distinction between True Character and Characterisation. Characterisation is the outward expression of character, as projected by the character in terms of conscious behaviour. True Character on the other hand, is shown implicitly in how the character reacts to extreme circumstances, when push comes to shove, as it were.

Henry Rollins, a picture of masculinity with his comically strong jawline, thick neck and menacing eyebrows, projects a macho attitude towards the world’s issues. He literally shouts down the position of the mainstream viewpoint. And yet, as his “Man Test” reveals Rollins scores a 73% on Femininity as opposed to a 67% Masculinity score. While this is, of course, a subjective test based on self-reflection it does outline the contradictions inherent in real people’s own minds.

Similarly, the documentary I’m editing at present centers around two characters, a brother and a sister. The brother, is ostensibly a cold and objective scientist who is outwardly hostile and resentful of his sister. However, he turns out - when push comes to shove - to have a strong compulsion to care for his sister with her various ailments, which reflects a lifetime spent caring for the sick and founding charitable organisations.

In Rollins, it’s difficult to tell which persona is True Character and which is Characterisation. While his Characterisation is clearly macho, it is clear from his upbringing that the Characterisation comes from his father, a figure that Rollins despises. He says he hates the macho attitude of “knuckle dragging” meatheads, but seems to fall so naturally into this persona in his various creative outlets. This is what makes Rollins an intriguing character, his readiness to confront his internal contradictions is refreshing and makes him an ideal documentary subject.

But all documentary subjects have these contradictions. Why? Because all documentary subjects are human beings.

Human beings all have natural tendencies peculiar to them, some of which are unhealthy or contrary to what they actually want. For Rollins this is his tendency to thuggery and victimhood. He overcompensates for his feeling of victimhood by putting on a strong front physically and verbally, while he compensates for his tendency to thuggery by embracing intellectual subjects. Rather than his contradictory behaviours cancelling each other out into a bland brand of ordinary, Rollins becomes a dynamic balance of pendulum swings between the poles of his personality.

This is the reason building True Character vs Characterisation contradictions in fictional characters is so important, it makes the characters real.

In documentary editing it is important to look for and carefully delineate what is your subject’s True Character vs what is simply Characterisation. This enables the documentary editor to reveal those aspects of True Character and Characterisation effectively to achieve an engaging story that rings true.

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