It’s almost impossible to discuss cinematic Dramatic Narrative without discussing Stakes – what is at risk, what is being fought over, what stands to be lost or won…? This notion of what is at Stake is consistent across films and genres, and good screenwriters have long held to the idea that the higher stakes the more engaging the story. The notion of what exactly constitutes High-Stakes, of course, varies. It might be personal – the loss of love or faith – it might be a physical and tangible – lose of a home or money – it might be world-scale – the loss of a nation, a war, freedom.
A recent close-viewing of the opening episode of the much celebrated David Milch series Deadwood prompted us to consider the relationship between Stakes, Genre, Myth and Circumstance. The discussion began with the simplicity of what constitutes High-Stakes. A character losing their job is certainly High-Stakes to that character in those circumstances but hardly resonate with impact on a grander community, nation or world scale. Where as a character who is the President of the United States losing their job is arguably Higher-Stakes because of what’s at risk for everybody if a US presidency is in jeopardy.
If we can identify the former as a kind of Personal High-Stakes (where what’s at risk really only has bearing on a particular character) and the later as Circumstantial High Stakes (because the circumstance of time/place makes invests whats at risk for the character with far wider ramifications for society) then we are left with a glaring gap between these two poles. And its a gap that a show like Deadwood stands firmly. Lacking circumstantial high-Stakes it uses Genre and Metaphor to elevate the stakes out of the intimate and personal to something much greater and where much more is conceptually at risk.
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