I’ve never much liked big entertainment or serious art. Broadway plays? No. De Kooning paintings? No.
On the other hand I practically worship low budget creations geared toward more blue collar demographics. Very often workman-like productions—in all media—have a reasonable respect for craftsmanship and lots of entertainment value. Sometimes they even contain unexpected, oddball little gems—moments, images, phrases—people remember all their life.
It’s difficult to imagine something lower budget or more workman-like than the 1956 Universal International horror classic [‘classic’ ?], “The Mole People.”
This film contains a moment I’ve remembered my whole life, and it illustrates a particular technique for writing a tricky kind of scene.
“The Mole People” is the story of a Harvard archeologist and his team of scientists doing field work somewhere in Asia. While investigating an unexpected artifact, a scientist—a bit player scientist—falls into a crevasse. Attempting to rescue their colleague, the other scientists discover a vast subterranean world with a lost civilization of albino Sumerians. The albino Sumerians keep a slave race of burrowing monsters—the Mole People—to perform their labor.
There also is a beautiful, non-albino girl the albinos regard as an ugly freak and keep as a slave. She, of course, falls in love with the Harvard archeologist.
Now, for a writer this kind of scenario brings up a problem. You’ve got a clash of civilizations. You’ve got an Ivy League professor. Presumably you’re going to get some Deep Questions asked and some Insightful Answers given.
But most writers, of course, typically have less insight than they have money (which they typically have none of).
So how does a writer create dialogue for a character that’s supposed to be wise and insightful?
I know of three basic techniques:
1) The cheesiest way is simply to fake it. Someone asks a Meaningful Question. The wise character starts to answer when suddenly a woman screams or a bomb goes off or a giant lizard crashes through the wall and the plot zips along right past the question and answer but the audience gets the impression the wise character could have delivered some insight.
2) The hardest way is to actually try to create an answer that is insightful. This is dangerous because there’s always going to be someone in the audience who either recognizes where the insight was stolen from or who catches half a dozen logical flaws. When they start to chuckle or snicker the whole audience will realize the writer screwed up.
3) The most workman-like way of crafting wisdom is to have the wise character say something that is bluntly simple and definitely not wrong and then move the scene along quickly as if the wise character could have said more if he’d wanted to. Sometimes these little, simple, not-wrong kind of things can have a beauty all their own.
“The Mole People” was written by Laszlo Gorog and he uses this third technique frequently. The film came out before I was born, but I saw it when I was very young. I’ve always remembered one particular scene.
The beautiful slave girl, Adad, is alone with the Harvard archeologist, Dr. Bentley, in the cave where he’s living. She plays something like a guitar while they chat. They have this exchange:
Did you learn that song as a child?
I did not learn it. I … found it.
It’s beautiful. As beautiful as you are.
No. I am a marked one. The priests said so.
They’re so right. It’s not only the color of your eyes and your hair and your cheek that mark you. It’s your heart, also. It beats with tenderness. The love of your ancestors is there.
Love? What is love? I do not understand.
Well, if somebody has hurt and his hurt gives you pain, or if somebody has joy and his joy gives you pleasure, that’s love.
It’s difficult to imagine a more Meaningful Question than ‘What is love?’ or a question more difficult to answer.
But as low budget monster movie answers go, I thought that one was pretty cool.
Tomorrow I’ll put up a quote from a writer who attempts to answer the question the hard way.