Chekhov

March 3rd 2015

Today I watched Birdman. And this isn’t a film reviewing blog so I won’t tell you what I thought about it (it was amazing) but telling you I watched it is necessary for the story I want to tell today.

I do this thing, where after I watch a film, usually any film but especially the good ones, I read the entire Wikipedia and IMDB pages of the film. Because watching the film wasn’t enough for me, I have to know more. I have to know the goofs and trivia and continuity errors and the actors and the soundtrack composer and the awards for which it was nominated and who went on the coffee runs and how much the movie made. I just have to know. I need to know if there was anything I missed.

And when I was on the IMDB page for Birdman, I happened across this bit of trivia:

The film plays with the notion of Chekhov’s gun: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.  If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.

And although I’d never heard it called Chekhov’s gun, or heard it described that way before, I knew what it meant. You see when I watch films I pay attention, I’m completely immersed in the world, and I’m always looking for the hints and subtle things that others might miss. My flatmates hate watching films with me because I always talk about ‘Significance’.

Every single thing that happens in a film was planned, everything is put there for a reason. Be that by the props department, the director, the writers or the coffee lady. I’m not just talking about props or things we can physically see either, I mean lines of script or camera movements. Everything in a film has significance, but some things are more significant than others.

Say the camera pans over a specific object for just a fraction more than you’d expect. Significant. That object is important.
Say a character goes to say one thing, but then says something else. Significant. People don’t stutter in films. Not by accident.
Say the characters walk out of a door and slam it shut behind them. But the camera stays rolling as the door opens again slightly. Significant.

Some significances (as if that’s a word) are more obvious and blatant than others, but the point is that I understood what Chekhov’s Gun meant. And it fascinated me. Suddenly I dove into this new world of dramatic principles, and literary devices. I read up on Alien Space Bats and Deus Ex Machina and Metonymy and Redshirts and the Principle of Evil Marksmanship which is related to the Inverse Ninja Law which is another name for the Law of the Conservation of Ninjutsu.

(All of those are actual, real, technical terms, I promise)

Suddenly, words and films were a lot more complicated. And a lot more theoretical. Obviously I know that quite a bit of thought goes into writing and producing and directing, but reading all of these principles and techniques and devices fascinated me.

And I was pleased to see that I’d accidentally used some of them in my own writing. My novel has examples of Chekhov’s Gun, and foreshadowing and aphorism and hypocatastasis. And that made me feel like I was actually a not awful writer. And I’d been feeling that recently. I’d been feeling that my writing was never going to be good enough to take me to LA. To take me to the set of a film. Of my film.  Maybe there is hope for me.

Until tomorrow, wait for the rifle to fire.

Jacn

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4 thoughts on “Chekhov

  1. Eleanor Dix says:

    I’m a bit worried I’ve set up some Chekhov’s guns and forgotten to pull the trigger. I guess I’ll find them when I finally start the editing phase. Nothing worse than a loaded gun…

  2. seroword says:

    I agree, Birdman was formed in a really intelligent and thought-out way. All the best narratives have me wondering how it was created and where they started, and in the same way a well written script leaves no room for irrelevance, so it comes as nice surprise that Birdman won Best Original Screenplay.

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