A Moment of Tact

Tact is an underestimated artistic skill.

Art deals with human misery as a matter of course. It depends on conflict after all, and there is a clear preference amongst storytellers for the extremes of human existence where pain is a matter of course. Still, pain is also a difficult thing to convey. Go overboard in your presentation, and you’re likely to end up where Requiem for a Dream did – with images that shock to such an extent that they lose their human scale. The pain inflicted on that movie’s characters in the end is too great. It is so over-emphasised, it loses veracity. This is a common issue in drug-centred narratives (because we tend to overreact in our presentation of the ill-effects of drugs), but the problem is a universal one. If you want an audience to understand the pain of your characters, to tap into the deeper hurt that lies beneath the screams, you need tact.

This is demonstrated perfectly by a single Orange is the New Black scene.

In this scene, Dayanara Diaz (Dascha Polanco) is about to give her boyfriend/guard John Bennett (Matt McGorry) a blowjob. He seems uncomfortable as she undoes his trousers, which I at first interpreted as coming from the problematic nature of a prisoner-guard romance, until that is she takes them down far enough that she uncovers his false leg. She looks at it, and looks up, and the camera takes a darting swing upwards to see Bennett staring, straight ahead, his face so tense and so still. In that look, those few visual seconds, lies a whole world of fear, fear of rejection, fear of the consequences of difference. At that look, my breath caught. The camera snapped back to Diaz. She pauses, and the pause seems to last forever. Then, slowly, gently, she plants a kiss on the thigh of the false leg. And goes back to business.

This is a scene of pain. The fear in Bennett is clear and sharp – the tension he feels immediately transmitted to the viewer. The sense of timing, on part of actors and editors both, functions to hold that tension for the beat it needs to really twist the heartstrings. The gentleness of Diaz in releasing that tension turns an unwinding into a blossoming of feeling. This is a scene of great emotional power, achieved through the smallest movements, and it feels so sincere it breaks the heart.

Such is the worth of artistic tact.

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