Thoughts On: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer - A Spectrum Of Drama: Tuphlodrama


The Killing Of A Sacred Deer - A Spectrum Of Drama: Tuphlodrama

Thoughts On: The Killing Of A Sacred Deer (2017)

A family is tormented and threatened with death when a young man is welcomed into their home.

The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is yet another perfect film by one of my favourite contemporary - even all-time - directors, Yorgos Lanthimos. (Let it be emphasised that tied to Lanthimos is his co-writer, Efthymis Filippou). Whilst I think there is tremendous depth to be explored in this film, what I want to talk about today is The Killing Of A Sacred Deer as one film amongst Lanthimos' other films. This is because, like The Lobster, Lanthimos' first English-language film, this has been painted by and large as just weird, polarising and strange. Those who have seen and liked Lanthimos' other films appreciate this strangeness and, most likely, understand his style to be something far beyond just weird. However, how are we to describe what it is that Lanthimos is doing, and how could we approach The Killing Of A Sacred Deer to get the most out of it?

A starting point would be understanding the idea of alienation. The alienation effect, or the distancing effect, is an idea that comes from the theatre and the play write Bertolt Brecht, and is a form of storytelling that is, in the most fundamental sense, concerned with forcing you to recognise the construction that is a story, a play, a book or a film. Through absurdity or the breaking of rules, the alienation effect then has you step outside the fantasy of, for example, a film so that you can question what exactly is going on as opposed to being immersed in an illusion. As a result, the alienation effect is a concept larger than a simple definition if seen in its full potential as it has basis in a mere call to attention: a storyteller asking an audience to pay attention and take their story seriously.

I have beaten this dead carcass too much already, but the best example of alienation in film comes from Jean-Luc Godard. And as I have noted before, I am not a fan of the manner in which Godard uses alienation as, in my view, he merely breaks rules, little else. On the other hand, Lanthimos uses alienation to break rules as to open up the form of cinema and explore the unexplored. What we then see in the cinema of Lanthimos is strangeness and absurdity used so that we recognise that we're being told a story, and so start paying close attention, and all whilst the strangeness becomes familiar and rules start emerging from the alien.

The most obvious example of alienation being used to create a world can be seen in The Lobster, which is essentially a science fiction film. As we watch this narrative unfold, we then begin to understand the strange behaviours that people hold and the uncanny relationships they have with animals to be the consequence of the world around them. The world we see, which is an exception to the rule of classical storytelling, then becomes self-contained and fuelled by an inner logic, which in turn sees the world fit back into the rules of classical storytelling. Comprehending the world of The Lobster then normalises the people within - and to a degree that we can begin to see ourselves in them, and even watch profound truths emerge from them, like we would with traditional characters in stories that seem normal to us.

However, whilst alienation is an approach to cinema, this is not what defines Lanthimos' films, much like it does not define each form of cinema that may seem alien to us. After all, if you lived your whole life having never seen a musical, only dramas, romances, action films, etc, and suddenly saw Singin' In The Rain or The Sound Of Music, you would likely have no idea what you just saw and would have been completely alienated. Nonetheless, you would be incorrect in suggesting that these were 'alienation films' and leaving things as such. This is, of course, because the musical is a form of cinema unto itself. Though it is vastly different from a traditional drama, it is easily accepted with an understanding of its conventions. So, whilst a specific form of alienation is used to subvert the classical narrative by the musical, this technique is coherent and familiar to its audience. I believe that the form of alienation in Lanthimos' films parallels the musical in this way as, though it may not be inherently familiar to audiences, it can be understood quite easily and thus perceived as familiar and coherent. As a result, I don't think we should be calling Lanthimos' films 'alienation cinema' just as much as we shouldn't be calling them 'weird movies'.

That said, we should take a moment to talk about the opposite of Lanthimos' kind of films: melodramas. To think of the melodrama, we can consider one of the most iconic melodramas ever made, All The Heaven Allows. But, if you have not seen this film, just think of soap operas, telenovelas, classical musicals, Bollywood or even Nollywood movies as they often operate with very similar principals. So, thinking of the acting in these forms, we have over-the-top, highly expressive styles. In Lanthimos' films, we have muted acting and a constipated style that - though it isn't as emotionless as the acting in Bressonian films - is highly confined. What's more, where the music used in the likes of All That Heaven Allows is highly manipulative, that in Lanthimos' films is queer and invasive in a somewhat disorienting or confusing manner; where melodrama uses emphatic writing with sometimes ridiculously dramatic plot beats, Lanthimos' films stumble across the screen in a way that can be senseless, yet not without drama.

We could go on drawing up anti-parallels between the melodrama and Lanthimos' films, but the heart of the difference lies in the prefix melo-. 'Melos' is a Greek word meaning 'song' or 'tune'. It is then quite like 'melody' as it is concerned with motion and movement of a musical kind that evokes emotion. Looking again at the term 'melodrama', we can understand it to describe a 'musical drama'. However, drama itself meant 'act' or 'do' in ancient Greek, and so we could break 'melodrama' down further to mean 'musical happenings', 'tune doings' or 'song acts'. To translate this into, not just modern language, but modern ideas, we could understand the melodrama to orchestrate conflict with beats and notes of drama formulating an emotionally evocative tune. Whilst it could be argued that all drama does this to some degree, we can recognise melodrama as melodrama for its emphasis of the inherent musicality in all drama.

Thinking of melodrama in such a light leads us to see that Lanthimos' films are, in some ways, non-musical. However, whilst you could argue that the films of Bresson are anti-melodramatic by virtue of their asceticism (minimalism), anyone who has seen Pickpocket, Au Hasard Balthazar or A Diary Of A Country Priest would not see sense in putting Lanthimos' films in the exact same category as these anti-melodramas. (This is at least true when we are using the term anti-melodrama to construct a category). This is because Dogtooth, Alps, The Lobster, etc. do not lack musicality completely. After all, there is an absurdity to the acting that is, in a way, highly expressive, just like there is a strong presence of a soundtrack and highly dramatic plot beats. So, Lanthimos' cinema isn't anti-melodramatic, rather, it is pretty tone deaf.

We can then arrive at the idea of tuphlodrama. 'Tuphlos', quite contrary to 'melos', means 'deaf'. Recognising Lanthimos' cinema as 'deaf drama' does not mean that it lacks the expression of melodramas, rather, it refuses to express emotion in the same manner. It is, in my view, appropriate to characterise Lanthimos' films as such as there is a very strong philosophy of expression deeply embedded into his style that leaves them contrary to the melodrama, but not polar.

Let us now shift gears slightly by talking a little about screenwriting. A tight, maybe perfect, script by contemporary standards is quite laconic and highly aware of what 'movie dialogue' means. As any screenwriter will then tell you, if you recorded a real conversation and simply transcribed this onto a script, something would look very wrong. This is because talking in the real world is rife with 'uhms', 'ahs', slips and omissions. Reading these on a page without facial, bodily and oral cues - or even hearing this in a movie from an actor - would introduce a hyper-realism that is too easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is because of convention. An audience member knows that they're watching a movie, and more often than not wants a spectacular, emphasised, or even short-hand, version of reality. As Hitchcock famously said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out". Movies have to wrestle with the fact that audiences want a skewed reality in movies, and, more than often, life with all the dull bits cut out. This is why convention emerges; a filmmaker has to construct a world in which some parts of life can be emphasised and blown up whilst others can be omitted and muted. Looking to the action film, we see such an idea presented with brilliant balance; the drama of life is emphasised hugely - guns fire, flames blaze, people scream, bombs go off, etc. - whilst the boring nature of life is cut out. This is especially true with dialogue as it becomes incredibly laconic, but spectacularly expressive. Just think of phrases such as "I'll be back", or "Yippee ki-yay, motherfucker!" and how ridiculous they'd be to say outside of a movie in the way they're said in Terminator or a Die Hard movie.

If we turn to drama where the conventions of the form aren't as emphatic as those of action movies, we can see that movie dialogue at its most common still bears the omission of the boring bits of every day talk and the emphasis of its more sparkling moments. Thinking of scripts by Aaron Sorkin, for example, we seemingly hear transcripts of life re-written to have, as he describes, a musical rhythm added to them. And such is 'movie dialogue'.

Movie dialogue says an awful lot about the modes of expression in drama. Expression in movies is a balancing act between the mundane - the quotidian - and the hyper-real. Moreover, it is a simplified and energised version of real life. As a result, whilst great dialogue has subtext, this subtext is nowhere near as difficult to decipher as it often is in real life. Much of this has to do with the fact that we have been shown scenes that are relevant to a specific piece of dialogue within the last hour or so, or, will have explanation given to us pretty soon. In life, you can be moving through your days - through hundreds of minutes, doing countless things - and suddenly find yourself in an argument with a friend. This argument, unbeknownst to you, has something to do with an insignificant happening that occurred 2 weeks ago. However, the movie of your life hasn't got an editing system that makes that obvious, and so that argument may go on for a long time, involving in it memories and bits of your personality that are rooted in the deep recesses of your childhood that you have no conscious idea about - scenes that have found themselves on the cutting room floor of your memory. Two years after the fine, restraining order and night in prison, you may still be in therapy trying to find out where things all went wrong. Movies, thankfully, won't put you in such a position. And this all comes down to the expression of conflict or drama: it's simplified, energised and put right into your hands.

If we bring things back to melodrama, we can see that this form of storytelling embraces the chaos of life whilst maintaining clarity. The music that emerges from drama is then there to involve your senses so that you have a constant emotional understanding of what is going on. It may be argued that melodrama is too clear, and thus lacks complex subtext and is, predictably so, ludicrous in its non-realism. However, whilst the melodrama employs a kind of storytelling that holds your hand and can beat you over the head with information, anyone who doesn't like soap operas or 'reality' T.V can tell you that everything is simultaneously too muddled and too much. In a certain respect, the melodrama makes life more complex by taking away the mundanity. And so our previous story about an argument ending in a fight and leading to years-long therapy is exemplary of melodrama as it overemphasises just how hard it is to understand the subtext of a conversation and overemphasises the effects of conflict.

Understanding melodrama to be an exaggeration of conflict in such a way, and drama to be a controlled emphasis of conflict, gives us to the tools to understand the mentioned philosophy of expression in Lanthimos' films that gives birth to tuphlodrama.

Tuphlodrama makes human interaction incredibly simple, but preserves the complexity of consequence and behaviour - in some respects, it even emphasises these attributes. We see this most obviously throughout Lanthimos' films with the dialogue and performances that are incredibly blunt, but simultaneously highly metaphorical and abstract. Ultimately, however, tuphlodrama is deaf to the music of melodrama as it is lacks the clarity of subtext. Before we can really zoom in on such an idea, we have to see a slightly wider picture of all we have so far discussed:

Here we have a spectrum of drama. On the extreme right is melodrama. This is the emphasis of the quotidian into the realm of the clearly contrived; mundane life is turn into music.

In the centre of the spectrum is drama. This is the management of the quotidian and its integration into a traditional cinematic space; mundane life has all the dull bits sucked out before being put on the big screen.

On the extreme left is biodrama. Bio, stemming from the Greek bíos, means 'life'. We should be familiar with this considering terms such as biodegradable, biodiversity, biology, etc. Biodrama, however, is the drama of life, and so, unlike traditional drama, it does not attempt to manipulate the quotidian. As we see in realist films and documentaries, mundane life is then put onto the screen quite directly.

Looking to the mid-left of the spectrum, we come to tuphlodrama. As we have been exploring, tuphlodrama mutes some aspects of drama and thus comes towards biodrama, but also embraces melodrama to some degree and preserves traditional drama with its absurdity. 'Tuphlo', as said, means 'deaf', as tuphlodrama is best thought of as deaf to melodrama.

On the mid-right, we come to the last term, and one we have no yet explored, typhlodrama. Typhlodrama is quite the opposite of tuphlodrama in that it emphasises some aspects of drama whilst embracing biodrama (realism) to some degree. Examples of typhlodramas would be action films like those in the Bourne Identity series or even comedies like those of Buster Keaton; they aren't completely realistic, and they aren't just dramatic, but they are a few notches below melodrama: they are typhlodrama. Typhló in Greek means 'blind'. As a result, it is best to think of typhlodrama as selectively blind to reality and biodrama.

If we turn again to Yorgos Lanthimos' kind of  filmmaking, we find ourselves in the realm of tuphlodrama. There are some hints of typhlodrama in films such as The Lobster as we're dealing with sci-fi, which is the embellishment and manipulation of scientific truth and biodrama. However, whilst The Lobster has touches of sci-fi typhlodrama in it, much of the narrative is based around basic drama and romance; sci-fi is used to very loosely to explain the world. As in The Killing A Sacred Deer, we could quite possibly dismiss the science and sci-fi and call The Lobster a fantasy. After all, without an explanation of some of the scientific happenings in both of these films, we're lead to think of magic of some kind or mythological intervention. As is most obvious in the likes of Alps and Dogtooth, Lanthimos deals with tuphlodrama as he is not blind to reality, rather, deaf to the music of contrived storytelling. This, as a slight side note, leads us to see melodrama in a similar vein to mythology as its music is ultimately derived from the construction of convention and story; the musicality of melodrama is founded by manipulation itself. So, whilst life (biodrama) can be thought of as chaotic and so often disharmonious, the perfect life (or the life perfectly constructed to make sense or translate meaning: melodrama) is in harmony with itself - it is precisely constructed. Thus, we see the difference between melodrama and biodrama and the relationship tuphlodrama has with melodrama; biodrama is untouched chaos, melodrama is constructed chaos, tuphlodrama is ill-constructed chaos precariously balanced.

To bring things towards an end now we understand how Lanthimos works with tuphlodrama, we should ask why: what does tuphlodrama say about human interaction and expression?

As we see in all of Lanthimos' films, human interaction is highly simple and very direct - so much so that it is almost ridiculous. We see hints of this in the films of Bergman where characters practically break the fourth wall with their devastating honesty and also in the films of Bresson where actors are refused the luxury to act. This strips away the complex subtext of life, and thus we see the ingeniously effective dehumanisation of characters in films such as Dogtooth where children are turned into pets and, most directly, in The Lobster where humans are turned into animals. Stripping the complexity of human interaction away reveals a painfully stark view of humanity and its actions. However, by virtue of the plain-face view of humanity that we're shown, there emerges complexity through absurdity. Thus, we see Lanthimos embrace alienation, but within the confines of a twisted melodrama. And let us not overlook the touches of melodrama in Lanthimos' films: the grand existentialist themes, the horrifying violence, the comically constipated emotional expression, the powerful symbolism and breath-taking, head-scratch-inducing endings.

Ultimately, whilst biodrama says "here is life", whilst drama says "here is life with the boring bits cut out", whilst melodrama says "here is life exaggerated", and whilst typhlodrama says "here is life, let us be blind to reality", tuphlodrama says "here is life, let us be deaf to its music". And it is without the music of life that Lanthimos shows us new constructions and new music. Such is his genius - also his co-writer's, Efthymis Filippou's, genius - and such is what you will see in The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.

So, whilst we haven't delved into and pulled out the meaning of this film today, I hope I have given you the tools to watch and take as much as you can away from it by telling you a little about a spectrum of drama and tuphlodrama. So, with that said, have you seen The Killing Of A Sacred Deer? What do you think of this film and all we've discussed today?

UPDATE: I have revised some of the presented ideas here. For a another post on this subject, click here.

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