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Arena, Part 2: Resonance

Some interesting comments and questions were raised yesterday, proving that what constitutes an Arena is not only a little controversial, but touched with a soupcon of subjectivity.

I made Shell’s brain melt yesterday (Hi Shell) by suggesting that Arena goes beyond the “world in which your story operates”. To recap, I suggested that Arena can not only go beyond your actual story and become a reflection of the theme and/or message behind it, it can also become a character in its own right, suitably freaking our Jason out to boot.

Before I begin, I should point out that perhaps I view Arena in this convoluted way because my background is in English Literature and Philosophy. In short, I like to complicate things. For some of you, Arena will just be the world in which your story operates and you’ll think I’m just a complicated wench. However, in my opinion, the Arenas that are the best, the most interesting, the most poignant, touching or even horrifying are those that I outlined above and one way a writer can achieve this is through metaphor.

Metaphor is defined in the dictionary as “something used, or regarded as being used, to represent something else; emblem; symbol.” I don’t see enough use of this symbolism in the scripts I read or the movies I see on DVD or at the cinemea (hah, cinema: I wonder what one of those look like…). WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET is a mantra used in film and whilst it’s definitely preferable to referencing characters’ thought patterns and suchlike, often there is not that deeper “layer” that could hint at so much more, which I feel is a shame as it is an opportunity lost in my view.

Let me give you an example but first, here’s a ***MINI SPOILER ALERT FOR NIGHT PEOPLE, STARTING NOW***. Regular Readers of Bang2write know that I saw Mead Kerr’s Night People last week. My take? I loved it. One of the stories focused on a teenage boy who finds himself at Edinburgh Bus Station, preparing to run away to London with nothing in his bag but a pair of footie boots from a time he tried out for some team. He gets chatting to a Rent Boy plying his trade at the bus station toilets, who attempts to make him see sense and go home, but the younger boy is having none of it. The Rent Boy makes a number of phone calls on his mobile to whom we assume is his pimp: he’s grooming this boy, going to take him with him, we assume. Finally a car pulls up at the bus station and the rent boy tells the younger boy to get in, that he’ll “be okay”. Except it’s not a pimp. It’s a social worker. The Rent Boy has saved the younger boy from the life he’s had to have.

So that’s the plot there, but it’s not over yet: the boy gives the Rent Boy his footie boots before getting in the car and going with the social worker. The Rent Boy seems touched… Yet when he walks back into the station, another Punter is waiting for him. There’s a moment where he looks at the footie boots and then the Punter… And he throws the footie boots in the bin and follows the Punter into the toilets. *** SPOILERS OVER NOW ***

Now, those footie boots could have been cut from that plot and nothing would have been lost. Nothing, that is, except symbolism. Those footie boots became symbolic of the hopes and innocence of youth and when The Rent Boy threw them away, symbolic of those hopes and innocence lost. This use of symbolism or metaphor can be really effective and form part of your Arena, what I call “the feel of the piece”. Watching that moment, as The Rent Boy looks first at the Punter, then at the football boots, I was willing this character to make the change, to follow his own advice, get out of the game. When he doesn’t then, I was devastated! I did actually wipe a tear from my eye (though I had to make sure Adrian and Clare weren’t looking for fear of them thinking I was a suck-up and/or saddo! But oh, heart-breaking). So, cut the footie boots? You can still understand, those footie boots were an “add-on” to the story if you like, an extra. The Rent Boy could have sidled back in to the bus station, gone into the toilets after the Punter and we could have still thought “It’s too late for him”. But add the footie boots and it resonates. Which is one of Arena’s main abilities: resonance.

Films which use this notion of symbolism to resonate with the Viewer and reflect the theme and/or message of the piece are varied; comedies, horrors, science fiction, supernatural thrillers, dramas – name a genre, they all can do it. It’s up to the individual writer and often forms part of his or her voice and the Re/presentation they choose. Sigourney Weaver’s character in A MAP OF THE WORLD presses her hand over her mouth like a small girl every time she does something she thinks is “bad”, yet when her best friend’s child dies in her care, she just stands and stares. They don’t just have to be visual symbols either. A film like MURIEL’S WEDDING used Abba Music to convey the hopes and dreams of Muriel/Mariel and the realisation that she should be herself. These “extras” could have been changed or written out altogether and no one would have known the difference. However, the fact they’re there add to that all-important “feel of the piece”, going beyond the perimeters of the story and into our own interpretations of what that film is trying to get across.

So, how can Arena be a character in its own right? Well, the answer to this is quite simple. Ever seen a film where you get the “feeling” that someone or something else is present, yet that elusive final character is not “there”? Science Fictions and Horrors do this particularly well. Consider a film like ALIEN and the on-board computer MOTHER. She never speaks (unless you count the “T-Minus Ten minutes” countdown to the ship blowing up, though I always think of that being an alarm system, rather than Mother herself). Commands come through ostensibly from The Company, not Mother, yet the whole crew talk about her not only as if she is alive, but as their matriach: “Why did Mother wake us up?”/”What does Mother say?” right through to Ripley’s tantrum-like “You BITCH!” at the end when Mother does not reverse the countdown.

Mother is not their Guardian, she is mere chips and circuit boards, a watchful eye; a spy if you like, connected to Ash and Ash alone. In some way, she is an extension of him. Her name is ironic: a Mother would not sacrifice her real children even for her own benefit, yet Mother does this readily with the message from The Company (one could argue a malevolent aunt or uncle perhaps?), CREW EXPENDABLE. She is first the crew’s protector from the hostility of space, but then a prison, as none of them can escape and the creature picks them off, one by one – essentially with her blessing.

Mother is a character, but really, she is the Arena, as surely as the countryside is an idyll, then prison in slasher-horrors as people in log cabins have nowhere to run from psychos with hockey masks. Mother is an Arena as surely as the haven of the bus is in JEEPERS CREEPERS from the freaky flying thing, or the ship in EVENT HORIZON. Mother is The Nostromo and The Nostromo IS Mother. Even the crew act like her children – in the extended version, Ripley and Lambert even fight like adolescents schoolgirls and have to be dragged off each other by their elder “brothers”. It’s symbolic, it’s an added layer and it’s all very definitely “there”.

This device has of course been copied: Moya in FARSCAPE was similar, though rather than being an on-board computer, she was the actual ship, a kind of organic Leviathon. I enjoyed the episodes where Moya was pregnant and things would go wrong like the lights; giving Moya human-like foibles like this gave it an added “extra” – again it could have been taken away, no one will have noticed, but that “extra” was fun and added to the “feel of the piece”.

For an Arena to be a character in its own right though, it does not neccessarily need to be given a name or afforded a personality in this overt manner. Thinking again of SEVEN, the city there is a character in its own right, yet all we ever hear about its own malevolent intent (rather than John Doe’s) is Gwyneth Paltrow and Morgan Freeman’s conversation in the diner where she fears for her unborn child in such a godawful place. At that moment, it was as if the City has ears and delivers her fate through its medium of John Doe, her head ending up in that box. Again symbolic, but highly effective. Others that follow this more covert method of Arena-as-Character (as it focuses on other, more overt Antagonists too) include the infamous Overlook Hotel in THE SHINING, various houses of horror in films like THIRTEEN GHOSTS and hostile landscapes like those in RED PLANET, PITCH BLACK, THE MISSING and THE DESCENT. These are the films where the Arena can be the antagonist, can even cause more problems than the REAL antagonist, even force the antagonist and protagonist to work together at times, like in THE DESCENT or to some extent, LOST HIGHWAY.

Any thoughts?

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11 thoughts on “Arena, Part 2: Resonance”

  1. The metaphor example I remember best is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a show about a girl called Buffy who, well, slays vampires. Buffy battles vamps and other demons that congregate round her high school because it’s sat atop the Hell Mouth. But all of this is a metaphor for something else: high school is hell.

    Grey’s Anatomy is another example. On the surface, it’s a show about medical interns sturggling through their residency in the hope of becoming qualified doctors. But the show’s arena is really a metaphor for surviving high school – the cliques, the back-biting, the little romances and petty intrigues. In case anybody hadn’t spotted the metaphor, season 2 ended with the hospital staff staging a high school prom as a last wish for a dying teenager.

    Does any of that make sense?

  2. Absolutely – and sometimes a metaphor behind an arena doesn’t tie directly into the story like you say, but has an “added extra” bit for those who like those “layers”. I’ve not watched Grey’s Anatomy, but re: Buffy I would agree, that “extra” is very definitely “high school is hell”. I’m reminded of one episode where Angel is evil again and he kills one of the teachers at the school as he can walk around freely there since the motto of the school is “Welcome, those who want to be educated” (or words to that effect) and in this particular Arena, Vampires have to be invited into a building. This is exactly why I think Arena is the one area that *can* go beyond story.

  3. Where do you stop, though? Can you?

    When I did Film Studies I had a lecturer who insisted that ALIEN was a metaphor for cancer, the “beast within” – of course in the times it had come out (197o-something?) it had just been discovered that smoking wasn’t “naughty”, it was a real threat to your health and she said that it was no accident the beast came bursting out of the victims’ chests. It all linked in together, apparently. Didn’t see it that way myself, I just thought it was really gory and cool!

  4. I think it’s like David says Anya -it’s one thing on the surface, and another underneath. I think the beast in ALIEN *could* be a metaphor for lung cancer given the timing, but I also think it has room for other interpretations too, like the notion of big corporates overtaking the little guy and the idea of corporate manslaughter, etc. Often it’s not so much WHAT the metaphor actually is in a film or show, just the fact they can be read another way that sets the apart – after all, we’re not passive when watching these things and as the philosopher Roland Barthes says, THE AUTHOR IS DEAD: a producer told me recently he really liked the “Fellini-esque style arena” to my story. I thought I’d done Clive Barker!

  5. Yes, I think I’m starting to see what you’re saying. If possible, it’s good to let your location/environment feed the story and give it more layers. I thought of The Shining, in which the Overlook Hotel is very much an oppressive, scary character. Its long corridors and vast spaces are as frightening as the two li’l girls. Well, almost…

  6. Excellent and thought-provoking articles, Lucy. I always thought the symbolism of the Alien films was connected to AIDS and the horror of men ‘giving birth’. Don’t I remember in Alien 4 the computer ‘Father’ giving birth to escape pods?

  7. See now, I wouldn’t have considered the footie boots part of the arena. I would have considered them a part of the character.

    Very interesting post.


  8. Thanks Shell. Since the boots are an inanimate object outside of the character, I prefer to think of them as part of the “feel” of the piece since it wraps up those pesky things that we can’t see on screen like emotions, aspirations and suchlike. There’s undoubtedly an argument for those footie boots being part of the character though, just as much as all those different interpretations of the ALIEN franchise we’ve had today, scriptwriting being a hotly contended subject on pretty much all levels! : )

  9. Hi Lucy

    I think a lot of this, and some people’s blown minds, is also down to the muddy semantics of screenwriting. We’ve only got a partially shared set of terms to describe what we do. Some aspects we all call the same thing (scenes, beats etc), others like “arena” or “resonance” might be more niche and less widely agreed upon, even though those concepts are very familiar to most of us. It’s NOT a science, so the language we use to talk about the work isn’t always uniform. All the things you describe in your “arena” posts are part of how I approach all my work, too, but I wouldn’t have seen them as part of my arena.

    Like you I come from a eng lit background so I’m pretty comfortable with metaphorical components and tend to include them, naturally, as I plot. Like Shell I’d probably associate iconic items like the footy boots with character (because they are so often tools to illuminate something about a character’s deeper personality), and separate from the “arena” which I would think of more as the creation of your World (the very specific, integrated mood and feel and atmosphere for the film).

    Metaphor would be separate again – though related – and I don’t think you necessarily have to decide or define exactly what your metaphor refers to i.e. ALIEN is definitively about cancer. A richly metaphorical piece like ALIEN can be read in so many ways, and that’s one of its strength. It feels like a deeper, meatier, more memorable film because of that. Compare ALIEN to, say, ooh totally off the top of my head, DOG SOLDIERS- it’s a lovely little tense horror flick, and its plot is neither more nor less simple than ALIEN, but it *feels* thinner. ALIEN feels richer, with its complex images of incubation and sexuality and pregnancy and wotnot, all of which also tie into each other (e.g. in a nightmarish way Kane is a MOTHER, pregnant with the alien which kills him in its birth). It’s easy to see how metaphor there bleeds into what I would probably term the creation of the World, its atmosphere etc, all of which taken together you call the Arena.

    Really great post, though. Loads to think on.

    Completely off topic: you said you were trying to arrange a meet up in July. Is this a general invite for anyone to come down and have a beer if they are around? I’ve only just found this little blogging community and started to post, y’see.

    One little thing about your provisional date, July 14th- I don’t know if people have applied for the Writers Academy this year, but they are interviewing on thurs19th/fri 20th. Anybody who was shortlisted and not London based would already be in town and could stay on for the scribomeet on Sat 21st if you delayed a week. That’s a small number, perhaps, and I don’t want to step on toes since I’m so new here, but just thought I’d mention it.



    PS- I know quite a bit about Clive Barker, and, interestingly enough, for him its ALL metaphor- so there you go!

  10. Hi Gavin, welcome back. Good points as always: scriptwriting isn’t a science and has such a mix of subjectivity and interpretation, that patterns, themes, terms etc will shift constantly.

    Funnily enough, for me, because things like the footie boots are on the outside of that character (as opposed to those psychological elements in a novel, direct access to the characters’ thoughts) I think of those boots as part of the arena BECAUSE they are an outside tool, beyond the character, to illuminate something about that character’s deeper personality. Without them, we have just the character – and without access to his/her mind, we can’t render thoughts as image. By accessing the arena then – taking props out of it if you like – we can. But that’s just how it works for me.

    EVERYONE is welcome for the Scribosocial Gavin so I do hope you’ll come: good point re: The Writer’s Academy! I’ve applied so will natch be on the shortlist (!!!!) so that would work out easier for little ol’ me, rather than travelling up twice in a week… ; )

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