The more I watch Game of Thrones, the more I realize it’s not necessarily great art or deep social commentary, but a prime example of antagonistic writing.
Much like The Sopranos, it derives much of its raw cinematic power from emotionally manipulating the audience. You build up suspense and terror in the audience’s mind only to deprive them of the redemption, the closure, they need to feel whole again. To feel as if their time investment in this work of art is worthwhile.
In The Sopranos, antagonistic filmmaking reached a crescendo of anti-climax, surpassing even Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which one could argue was an antagonistic movie—one of the first modern efforts to disturb, repel, and yet fascinate moviegoers with the glitzy portrayal of immoral, horrific human beings who were REAL, and really didn’t deserve fame. (Scorsese continues this trend in The Wolf of Wall Street)
In independent filmmaking, of course, presenting the dark side of humanity, the frustrations of injustice, even the capricious glee of evil, is as old as foreign movies. Antagonistic filmmaking goes one step further than the depiction of suffering—the director/writer ceases to care about the reality of the story and intentionally tests his/her audience, for his own amusement, or for the experiment.
David Lynch, for example, doesn’t care about the reality of his characters but intentionally makes films that bewilder and shock the senses. Lars Von Trier and Paul Thomas Anderson flirt with antagonistic filmmaking, but in the end, are guilty of nothing more than getting inside the heads of their warped characters. Lynch doesn’t care about the story; he wants a guttural reaction from you. Quentin Tarantino, while often praised for his ability to tease audiences is not classically antagonistic. He eventually gives people everything they want—almost too much, as in his most recent surreal historical films.
The Sopranos explored the anti-climax plot relentlessly, showing us the ugliness of violence and the lure of self-centered sex, without appeasing our guilt, our primal feelings, or our desire to set things set right. It was very “realistic”, and yet felt emotionally detached only because it purposely faded out before we could see how these realistic characters were affected on a personal level.
Game of Thrones is a series that likewise antagonizes its audience, not necessarily in anti-climax, but in the depiction of amoral characters prevailing over decent protagonists. This is not exactly groundbreaking, except of course in sci-fi and fantasy.
One of the earliest and yet most bizarre cases of gonzo antagonistic cinema art would have to be Andy Kaufman, and subsequently the WWE of the 1990s Attitude era who picked where Kaufman left off and spent entire months on storylines where they infuriated crowds of fans. They did give them a payoff, sort of, when the hero prevailed in one match where he won the title belt and posed in the ring victorious for about 10 minutes of “redemption.” Compared to hours and hours of evil, antagonistic brutality in which villains pummeled heroes and innocent bystanders, the pay off was hardly worth it.
While I did enjoy all of the cited examples above, I do feel as if there is a limit to antagonistic filmmaking. At one point does antagonistic filmmaking become masochism, sadism, or even “snuff-porn” filmmaking—which is comparable to rape?
I think as an independent moviegoer, no longer obligated to watch movies for pay, that I can feel all right about walking away from certain films, TV series, and documentaries that depict the most heinous of actions by supposedly civilized beings.
Whether it’s in the spirit of sharing abominations on social networks, or praising someone for something great and wonderful they did (which of course doesn’t concern me in the slightest), or acknowledge the fact that evil really exists (does it?), I don’t feel obligated to spread the word. I don’t really want to do my part in infecting the rest of the world with an agonizing disease.
At some point, I do ask myself: Why am I watching this? Will my life personally benefit from this two-hour experience? (Even more so with series that take days of my time) That’s the joy of not working as a film critic. The ability to say, I have better things to do than sit here and suffer.
Some have said the series “The End of the Magical Kingdom” is antagonistic writing.
A long time ago, during the time when I gave religious sermons, a friend once told me, “You hold your audience hostage.”
I can only laugh today when people say the same thing about my modern novels. I suppose writers never change. Only their voice evolves.
Speaking of “antagonistic fiction“, vote for our book on Goodreads and check out The End of the Magical Kingdom on all major platforms.