With the recent and sad passing of the great Sidney Pollack, I was minded that David Zucker would often cite his interactions with Sidney Pollack as a good examples of a comedy “Logic Nazi.”Every project or room ought to have one, comedy or drama.
The Logic Nazi’s job is to do what most of us usually do after we see a film. “How did the villain even know he had the jewel in his pocket?” “Why would he refuse to fight that one guy when we’ve already seen he’s willing to fight bigger guys?” “Why are they going out of their way to find someone to help them rob the bank when one of them already has the means to do it on his own?”
Every movie probably suffers from logic flaws. The goal, of course, is to avoid crossing the threshold of tolerance. There are some flaws in The Godfather, for instance. If Tessio can figure out where Michael is meeting The Turk and have enough time to plant a gun, why can’t he plant a few guys in the back kitchen? Or in a back alley? Have them do the murders…and not put Michael on the hook?
But…the logic flaws in The Godfather simply don’t cross the threshold of tolerance. Because they don’t, no one really gives a damn. In fact, many people will instinctively argue that the logic flaws aren’t flaws at all.
I call this the Illusion of Intention. Audiences are primed to believe that everything they see in the film was always meant to be exactly as it is. You and I and everyone who makes movies knows that this is far from true. Studio notes, an off day with an actor, a directorial screwup, a problem with a visual effect, a scratch in the negative…hell, a million things can go wrong, leading to a segment of film that is not perfectly representative of the filmmaker’s intentions, but is, in fact, a mistake or compromise they have to live with.
So we gloss by logic errors in films that don’t cross the threshold of tolerance, because they haven’t done enough damage to shake the illusion of intention.
But…you can only suffer so many shots below the waterline before the ship starts to sink. If the audience’s illusion of intention is repeatedly or grossly challenged by logic problems, they will revolt.
Okay, so what?
Well, when we’re writing, we’re faced with a consistent choice across all scenes. How important is logic to this scene? Sometimes, logic must be suspended in order to achieve something dramatically or thematically powerful. The aforementioned scene with Michael Corleone is a good example. Having a bunch of nameless thugs kill Solozzo would have been boring and inconsequential, whereas when Michael does it, it’s the moment Vito stops being the titular character, and Michael starts.
Sometimes you have to forgo logic for the better moment.
Most drama and action requires tight logic to really make people feel like the movie is in charge of itself.
Comedy, in particular, craves logic. If there’s any question whatsoever about the logic of a setup, then the resulting punchline just won’t work. We shot a scene where the original setup rested on the notion that Leslie Nielsen’s character wouldn’t recognize his own wife’s face. Well, his characters are definitely confused, but not that confused. It crossed the line into illogic. Once we altered the setup editorially to maintain logic, the punchline worked great, and the audience laughed.
Similarly, when writing in fantasy and sci-fi, internal logic is paramount. Make up any rules you’d like for your fictional system, but adhere to them. For instance, in the latest Indiana Jones film, the crystal skull is presented as an object so magnetic, it can literally attract metal shavings out of the air from hundreds of feet away.
But sometimes, it doesn’t seem to be magnetic at all. Like when it’s in a jeep. Or near guns. Or bullets.
That was a glaring logic flaw that pulled a lot of people out of the moment, including myself.
On the other hand, the filmmakers were smart to include a fast shot of the words “lead-lined” on the refrigerator that Indy climbs into just before the nuclear blast goes off. That’s enough to satisfy the Logic Nazi.
Note that problems of logic are different than problems of suspension of disbelief.
For instance, I have no problem suspending my disbelief when the film suggests that there are crystal alien skulls that have powers…or that a hero can survive a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. It’s possible given the fantasy tone with which I’m being presented.
When writing, be your own Logic Nazi, but if you feel like you need a little break from it, take one. Just make sure it’s a very little break, and above all, make sure that it’s a mild logic flaw. Pad around it. Do what magicians do, and misdirect (the fact that Tessio barely has time to get that gun in there helps obscure the obvious alternative that whoever left the gun could have just hung out there with the gun and done the shooting himself). Set off chaff and flares, and hope no one notices that you might have forsaken Occam’s Razor in favor of something a little more interesting or fun.
Don’t worry about the skeptics out there who insist that space explosions shouldn’t be fiery, heroes can’t get shot in an arm and keep raising it to fire a gun, etc. Just make sure everything adheres to the internal logic you’ve set up, as well as the basic rules of the world in which you set your film.
Because if you do cross that threshold…
…well, I’m still wondering about that magnetic thing.
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