Saturday, January 07, 2012

Elementary, my dear Watson

If you are familiar with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, you know that no detail is trivial and no connection is to be overlooked. The essential element of a good mystery is not so much the revelation which comes at the end, but also the build up to it. We are given bits and pieces of seemingly connected events, while our minds struggle (enjoyably) to comprehend the big picture. Presenting a mystery is indeed, a very delicate art. You have to give your audience enough to keep them interested but not reveal the real masterstroke till the end. Very rarely does it happen that the story is good, and so is the conclusion.

However, the rule of thumb is that, no new information can be added at the end. Otherwise you are just cheating the audience. So you have to show everything that matters beforehand, but show it in such a way that the audience is unable to come to the final conclusion without your help. Directors must be using numerous tricks and gimmicks for this. Show something in a scene but don't focus on it. Reveal something ever so slightly and distract the audience with a bigger/noisier event before they get a chance to dwell over it. Perhaps these tricks are quiet easy and not so impressive. But there was one trick that was used in the recently released Sherlock Homes: Game of Shadows, with which i was most impressed.

[I don't think this reveals the plot of the movie, but a spoiler alert is in order.]

Some time into the movie, Mr. Holmes visits a fortune teller. We are shown around the room before the fortune teller makes her appearance. The room is nicely decorated with carpets, wall-hangings and such-likes. The camera shows a flower bed with some peculiar flowers in it, just enough for us to take notice. After this, a elaborate fight scene entertains us for some time, and the story moves on. (Remember this is the time when many characters are introduced to us, but their relationships to each other are in the dark.)
Next, Mr. Holmes visits his brilliant antagonist,  Moriarty. The Professor is talking with a student when Holmes enters. Holmes, as is his habit, starts surveying the chambers (along with us of course). As Holmes and Moriarty engage in their dialogue, we are shown several things, but two in particular. A used horticulture book near the blackboard and a flower bed with peculiar flowers on the windowsill.
Now, as it happens, we make the connection between the two flower beds and speculate on the relationship between Moriarty and the fortune teller. But due to this, we miss out the connection between the book and the plants, which is a key piece in the entire puzzle. Which of course, is only revealed at the end.

Nice, isn't it? What's more fun is that this is not an uncommon trick. In fact it's so common that they have a name for it in psychological studies. It's called Priming. I will leave you with a excerpt from this very interesting book that i am reading presently.

In the 1980s, psychologists discovered that exposure to a word causes immediate and measurable changes in the ease with which many related words can be evoked. If you have recently seen or heard the word EAT, you are temporarily more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P (try completing it before reading further ........... ...............................................................) with SOUP than as SOAP. The opposite would happen, of course, if you had just seen WASH. We call this a priming effect and say that the idea of EAT primes the idea of SOUP, and that WASH primes SOAP.

Mr. Guy Ritchie, you primed us with the first flower bed. Didn't you now? ;)

After-thought: I saw this movie once and enjoyed it. All this is a after thought. Hence, if i have got my facts wrong, please correct me. And even if i have got my facts wrong, this is a jolly good imagination, ain't it?