By, Jacob Krueger
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I discussed how Terence Malick gives shape to central the question of The Tree of Life through the choices of his main character, Jack. The structure through which Malick gives shape to those choices is known as a Hegelian Dialectic: one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal as a writer.
Who is this Hegel guy anyway?
An 18th century German Philosopher, Hegel certainly wasn’t a screenwriter. However our craft, and many of the best movies ever written, owe him a debt of gratitude.
Hegel believed that if you took a thesis (something you believed strongly) and forced it to do battle with an equally powerful and irreconcilable antithesis (a belief that runs deeply counter to the original thesis), you would end up with a synthesis which would somehow bring unity to the dialectical opposites of thesis and antithesis, and in this way lead you closer to the truth.
In dialectical screenplay structure, thesis and antithesis stop merely being philosophical ideas, and take human form, in our characters and the belief systems they represent. As those belief systems come into conflict, our characters are forced to change, driving to a synthesis that transcends their original belief systems, and leads them closer to the truth in relation to the question of the film: the question the with which the writer is wrestling in him or herself.
In many Hollywood movies, the thesis and antithesis of the Hegelian dialectic is boiled down to a “good” protagonist and an “evil” antagonist.
But while good vs. evil might be the oldest Hegelian dialectic out there, in the best movies, protagonist and antagonist transcend simple good and evil, and come to represent powerful ideas with which the writer is truly wrestling: ideas which the writer is questioning in him or herself.
Just like great philosophers, great writers don’t stack the deck for one side of their argument.
No matter what you believe as a writer, to truly make the most of a dialectical structure, you must step into the world view not only of the protagonist, but the antagonist, crashing their ideas against each other as if both were true, and pealing back the layers of their true and false assumptions as you search for a synthesis that somehow reconciles their irreconcilable differences.
This isn’t just true for art films like The Tree of Life.
In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vadar represents the Dark Side of the Force and Luke Skywalker represents the Light Side. But their dialectic transcends simple good and evil, because Luke doesn’t know that Darth Vadar is his father, and doesn’t realize that he also has the Dark Side in him. In the Synthesis, good does defeat evil, but at a cost that changes Luke forever, and costs him both his hand and his black and white view of the world.
In The Big Lebowski (which I’ll be discussing in detail in my upcoming seminar The Big Lebowski: Seven Act Structure) The Dude represents the non-violent hippy thesis “the dude abides” and John Goodman represents the antithesis of “this will not stand”, tempting The Dude away from his values and into a “war” for his stolen Persian carpet. (A satirical examination of the way the grown up hippy generation was seduced into The First Gulf war.)
In There Will Be Blood, the thesis of Capitalism in the character of Daniel and the antithesis of Church in the character of Eli do battle literally to the death, forcing both thesis and antithesis come to grips with their failures and hypocrisies, driving to a synthesis in which “Church” is left dead in the bowling alley, and “Capitalism” has destroyed everything he has built.
The Tree of Life is built around a dialectic between Nature, as represented by Jack’s father and Grace, as represented by his mother.
Stay tuned for the next article in the series, in which I’ll be discussing both the content structure of that dialectic in The Tree of Life, and how you can use the lessons of the film to inform your own writing.
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