Office,living room or bathroom?

In the Making Of documentary on my Dr. Strangelove DVD, there’s a comment that stuck with me: “If a man learns about a nuclear war in the office, it’s a documentary; if he’s in his living room, it’s a social drama; if he’s in the bathroom, it’s a farce.”
In relation to the movie, it refers to the scene where general George C. Scott is in the bathroom when the White House calls him in to deal with an imminent nuclear war. More generally, I think it’s true: Where we set the story can determine what sort of story it is, even if the characters stay the same.
Consider a character deciding he’s going to dedicate his life to Jesus. If he does it at the altar call (a point in some church ceremonies where the pastor asks everyone to come to the altar and pledge themselves) it could be an affirmation of traditional values, or the ringing triumph at the end of the movie that the sinner’s finally seen the light. Or it could be the opening of a movie, followed by the man falling back into sin, or revealing he’s faking it all along for some reason. Either way, the scene itself suggests seriousness.
If the same character makes the decision while alone in a toilet stall, he’s probably serious. It could be a comedy—the busy executive who thinks he can fit God into the few moments he has free. Or a darker story, where the man’s sitting alone in the only place he can shut out the world and he desperately reaches out when he realizes even there, God is listening.
If it’s in a boardroom, it could be the climactic scene, the point where the hero realizes that he can’t go back and be the same gigantic tool he’s been when the movie started (the same scenes, except the altar call, would work with nonChristian religions, I think).
A killer confronting the protagonist on the street can suggest that the setting is dangerous, that we’re in a gritty urban milieu, or that the charming small town isn’t as safe as it looks. A killer in the bedroom implies a greater level of danger: Your personal bubble’s been busted. The killer may be targeting you personally. If the killer’s at your workplace, it could cue us it’s the kind of hell-hole that drives people to go postal.
If your characters are discussing the overthrow of a foreign government in CIA HQ, that’s fairly unremarkable. If they’re eating at Denny’s, it could suggest a paranoid theme (the idea these conspiracies are happening right out in the open but we don’t see them) or a comedy. If it’s the kitchen at CIA HQ and the kitchen staff are setting it up, it could be a satire: The CIA’s agents are incompetent boobs and it’s the servants who really keep the place running.
I wanted to end this with an example from my own writing but I couldn’t think of any. Perhaps now that I’ve framed the principle, one will come to me eventually.

1 Comment

Filed under Movies, Writing

One response to “Office,living room or bathroom?

  1. Pingback: The Bird King and the power of setting | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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