Tuesday, May 19, 2009

MacGuffin technique

I recently watched a documentary on great movie-makers, in which Alfred Hitchcock explained some of his techniques. Don’t worry too much about the content or elements of a plot, he said. For instance, the audience doesn’t care what the villain is after - Uranium 235, industrial diamonds, secret documents, whatever. What is important that the actors must be shown to be engaged in some plot, hurrying, agonising, fretting, fuming, etc. What they are hurrying for, agonising over, fretting and fuming about is immaterial.

He calls this the “MacGuffin” technique. The name is derived from a story in which a traveller on a train is asked by a fellow passenger what he is carrying in his peculiarly-shaped bag. “ It contains a MacGuffin” the travellers replies. “What’s a MacGuffin?” asks the other. “It is used to trap lions found on the Scottish Highlands” says the traveller. “But there are no lions in Scotland” says the other. “Then there is no MacGuffin in that bag” concludes the traveller.

This technique is applied quite often in real life too. Birthday gifts for children, I have observed, are just MacGuffins. What children want is the thrill of expectation, followed by the process of actually receiving the gift parcel, tearing the gift wrapper, and looking inside. What the gift actually is hardly matters. It is discarded very soon anyway.

I think most of our rituals contain MacGiffins. What’s important is that people must gather in one place, exchange pleasantries and gossip and disperse. The chanting and the mantas of the ritual are incidental and don’t matter one bit.

Update: It is not that MacGuffins are unnecessary and avoidable. They are often the ‘core’ around which other activities are carried out and so are very much essential. But, the core can be anything. That’s the point

Humans have an innate and ‘tribal’ need for rituals and ceremonies. Without the core of a ‘ritual’ you might not get people to participate. Rituals can take different forms in different contexts, the yagna in a religious ceremony, the ribbon-cutting while inaugurating a building, the bottle-breaking while launching ships, the coconut-breaking while buying a car, the lamp-lighting while commencing a seminar… Each of this is a MacGuffin kept alive by tradition. Instead of ‘ribbon-cutting’ it could be balloon-bursting and nobody would notice the difference.


Balajisblog said...

Raj - going by newspaper reports as well as statements from corporate captains on increments / bonus etc, looks like " McGuffin" technique applies in the corporate world for the next 2 - 3 years...Balaji

Usha said...

If you sit down and analyze,our life is mostly made up of McGuffins right?
We need them as much as we don't need them. Depending on the position we take we could see our life as a child or a cynic.
Nice post.
Now if you will excuse me I have some Mcguffin to attend to.

Raj said...

Balaji, corporatese = MacGuffinese

Usha, Life = MacGuffin