A Gricean Hitman

Paul Grice’s analysis of the pragmatics of conversation, which concludes that conversation is a cooperative act which, if it’s to be effective, should follow certain maxims, defines informal protocols for getting the message across effectively. It applies to both speaker and listener. To the speaker it says: Here’s what to do if you want to be clearly understood. To the listener it says: Here’s what you should assume the speaker is doing if you want to understand the various pragmatic implications in what you’re hearing. In heavily paraphrased form, they look like this:

Quantity: Include as much information as you need to, but no more than that.
Quality: Don’t say anything that you think is false, and don’t claim anything more than you have evidence for.
Relation: Be relevant.
Manner: Be clear and to the point.

The Gricean maxims are based on a single, fundamental assumption, which is this: both speaker and listener want the conversation to involve the most effective and efficient transfer of information. (Though, since they set out principles for such transfer, the corollary is that they also set out how conversation might deliberately be perverted by violating the principles.)

Gricean maxims apply to stories too, though not without some interesting modifications. The modifications follow from the fact that the fundamental Gricean principle is violated: the speaker — the author, film-maker, playwright — no longer necessarily desires the most effective and efficient transfer of information, and often in fact desires to tease or even mislead the listener. Nevertheless, with the modifications applied, Gricean maxims can still work to inform how we process stories at a meta-level.

I find that I’m most interested in screenplay narratives these days, not so much for the visual, filmic quality — although that too — but because the modern screenplay is such a refined and constrained beast. As we sit through a two-hour film that maybe isn’t working very well, we might think it’s dragging along painfully, but two-hours-or-so is a hugely compressed time in which to tell a complex story. One of the effects of that compression is that the filmic Gricean maxims come into play all the more. This is especially true of the ‘Hollywood’ screenplay. I’d claim that the most significant difference between the ‘Hollywood’ screenplay (wherever it might be made, and by whom) and the ‘Independent’ screenplay (wherever it might be made, and by whom), is that the Hollywood screenplay squeezes as much juice as possible out of the Gricean maxims, particularly those of Quantity and Relevance. Independent screenplays are happy to use — and typically make a virtue out of — whimsy, loose ends, quirkiness. They’re far more about character, and mood. Hollywood screenplays are essentially plot-driven stories. If you want to pack a complex plot into a couple of hours, it’s got to be tightly packed. That means wasting nothing. Use and reuse every symbol, every location, every character that you can. Link the nodes in the story very richly, because you can’t afford to spend time creating too many nodes. Everything’s got to be relevant. Everything has to count.

Now, since most of us grow up processing these highly-Gricean film narratives, we know how they work, even if we don’t realise how much we’re aware of that. So much of our processing of such a narrative is at the meta-level. A listener new to the genre might ask questions which exist more at the story level than at the meta-level: ‘Will James Bond manage to defuse the bomb before it explodes?’. But anyone who’s been around the block once or twice knows that the correct question is more like: ‘Of course James Bond will manage to defuse the bomb before it explodes. That’s how these films work. But how will he do it in this case?‘.

The Gricean questions of Quantity and Relation are somewhat merged. Since a Hollywood screenplay is by necessity so parsimonious with its ontology — it can only afford so many characters, so many locations, so much dialogue — we expect relevance. And if we’re expecting it, to a certain extent we demand it, and would feel short-changed were it violated. (The same is not true of Independent films. We have different meta-level expectations of those — ones not concerned so much with plot mechanics.) We’re constantly on the lookout for foreshadowing, which is just one way of having something serve double-duty in the film. We expect that there won’t be loose ends, so as we process the film we’re projecting the thus-far-loose ends forward to see if we can propose how they’d be joined up. Indeed, a simplistic (but not too simplistic) rule for the successful plot-driven film might be: Make sure all the ends are tied up (because that’s what the audience wants), but not in the way that the audience has predicted (because although they want you to play fair, they like to be outwitted).

Which brings me, eventually, to Collateral, which follows the filmic Gricean maxims wonderfully, but fails in part almost because of that. Despite the star billing, the film introduces itself as Independent — seemingly shot in mostly natural light, lots of hand-held camerawork, digital film-processing for a gritty realism, creating an expectation that what we’re going to get will be messy and quirky — but gradually becomes more Hollywood as it progresses, ending with every loose-end tied and every note of foreshadowing paid off. The consequence is that the audience is required to fade from one set of expectations to another during the course of the narrative, with some grinding of gears.

Specifically, a character is introduced at the beginning of the film in such a way that (kicking in the Gricean maxim of Quantity), we know she’ll be back. It’s a nice beginning, which serves to introduce us effectively to Jamie Foxx’s taxi-driver character, but the Independent film would leave it there, as a loose end to be left dangling — or tied up in our imagination some time after the film’s end. The Hollywood film, however, is parsimonious. It must have her return, and in such a way that she’s central to the plot. It quickly becomes clear that the obvious way for her to return is as the final victim of Tom Cruise’s hitman. We’re told (kicking in the Gricean maxim of Relevance) all about her preparation for a case that she’s prosecuting the next day. Stuart Beattie does his very best to smuggle this into the screenplay as just inconsequential character information, but we’re in Hollywood territory by now, so we expect that this will be relevant. (Moreover, there’s an added bit of meta-level processing here: since Jada Pinkett Smith gets up-high billing, and since there isn’t really enough meat in the opening scene to justify this, if we’re paying attention even the film’s promotional materials are subject to a Gricean maxim of Relevance.)

When, towards the end of the film, we’re finally told that Pinkett’s character is to be the final victim, there really isn’t any surprise. And there ought to be. It ought to be a chilling moment. But we’re in Scooby-Doo land here. Quite apart from the fact that we know Pinkett’s character will be back, and in a way that’s central to the plot, the final victim can’t realistically be anyone else. There are no other candidates that we already know, and we know that the last victim will be someone we know, because (kicking in the Gricean maxim of Quantity) otherwise Pinkett’s first scene would be unnecessary information, and Hollywood screenplays can’t afford that; and because (kicking in the Gricean maxim of Relevance) we know she must have some further relevance to the film.

Structurally, then, the film is a curious straddle of Independent and Hollywood. Otherwise, it’s deeply absorbing and engaging. It feels like the first film I’ve seen about LA (not just set in LA but about LA) since I moved here, and it catches the city wonderfully well. It smells of LA. The disorientation of a long night awake, the constant contrast of the dark and neon, lights reflected on every surface. It’s a journey both around and into the darkness of the city.

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