The more I read and watch and experience art, the more I realize that the scenes I really love are the ones that make you feel two different, contradictory emotions at once. The Glee scene I talked about last week is a great example: the scene is happy and sad at once; a mother and daughter are singing together for the first time and the last time. This emotional contrast lends the story a lot of depth and texture that it wouldn’t have if the two emotions were split up over different scenes.
Another great example is from another musical, one of my favorites: Gypsy, the story of a driven stage mother who forces her daughter into a life of theater. She’s very obsessed and hard to live with, and at the end of the first act the daughter runs away and the act falls apart. This is devastating, but the mother grits her teeth and determines to build a new act with her other daughter, singing a joyful and triumphant song about how the future’s even brighter, and the new act will be better than the old one. It’s all very thrilling and triumphant, until you realize that the other daughter doesn’t want to act–she thought this was her chance to leave the theater and live a normal life, but instead she sees her mother’s obsession now focused on her. The scene becomes wrenching and heartbreaking–and yet thrilling and triumphant at the same time. One character is bravely rebuilding a horrible life that the other character doesn’t want. The powerful mix of contradictory emotions make it one of my favorites scenes of any play or movie.
Another good blend is the death of Eponine in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (book or musical; it happens similarly in both if I remember correctly). Eponine has been in love with Marius for years, but he doesn’t love her back. During the violence of the French Revolution she attempts to win him back by helping carry a message through the war-torn city, and ends up getting shot just outside of his barricade. He pulls her to safety and tries to save her, but the wound is too grave and she dies in his arms–thoroughly convinced by circumstance that Marius has finally come to love her. We get the happiness of love and the sadness of death, all in one scene, PLUS the added dimension of knowing that the thing making her happy is completely false, PLUS the mix of responsibility and guilt from Marius. He doesn’t want to lie to her, but she’s dying and he doesn’t want to disillusion her either, and we feel horrible that she’s dying and horrible that’s she’s misunderstanding the situation, but we feel glad that at least she’s dying happy, and the whole scene starts folding back on itself in a self-consuming paradox where we can’t decide how to feel. We’re good and bad and joyful and tragic all at once. It’s incredible.
This is one of the things I’ve tried to do with the John Cleaver books, building scenes that make you feel happy and sad at the same time, or thrilled and disgusted, or laughing and scared. I won’t mention any by name, both for spoiler reasons and because I’d feel stupid if I thought a scene worked in one way and it turns out it doesn’t actually work that way at all. We artists are very self-conscious that way. What i would like to hear, though, are other examples of the same thing that you’ve come across in other books and movies and such. Are there any great ones we should be aware of?