Saturday, May 08, 2021

Good Science Fiction is Frank Capra's Elevator Hat Scene

Showbiz writers have their own lore. For example, supposedly an actor told Steven Bochco, a legendary showrunner ("Hill Street Blues," "NYPD Blue," "LA Law"), that his character would never say a certain line. Bochco called the script supervisor over, had her pull out the script, and show him the page. "Sure he would. See? It's right there in the script."

Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert

A better story is told about Frank Capra, the 1930s comedy director (It Happened One Night, It's a Wonderful Life). Capra hired a famous playwright to write a script. The playwright spent the first act showing in aching, keenly observed detail how a couple's marriage had deteriorated.

Capra met with the writer. "Here's what we're going to do. The husband and wife get in an elevator. He keeps his hat on. A pretty girl gets in the elevator. He takes his hat off."

Tales From the Loop is an anthology science fiction show out now on Amazon Prime. In an episode, someone goes missing because of science fiction shenanigans. Someone goes looking for her. 

The episode is not about how she went missing, or where she went, or getting her back. It is about  how good people can be bad parents. It is about loneliness. 

Girl and boy examining a science fiction rock

The science fiction premise is just an excuse to tell a dramatic story about people. It is an extraordinarily efficient way to tell a dramatic story about loneliness and bad parents. Because the person disappears because of science fiction, the story can pretty much elide the how and why. How? It's science fiction, okay?

So the story can focus not on how or why they went missing, but on how the people left behind feel about it, and what they do about how they feel.

(Science fiction, in a way, is not a genre. It is a location. You can have sf action-adventure, sf tragedy, sf drama, sf romance, sf horror, etc. SF horror is just horror set in sf-land.)

Great science fiction can give the story teller a shortcut: a way of setting up the story math in a heightened way that does not require sophisticated parsing to understand. It is a way of finessing part of the story setup so we can get to the juicy payoff.

Just like Frank Capra's elevator hat scene. 

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