The Power and Dangers of the Law of Simplicity

The Law of Simplicity or Prägnanz

Jimmy Corrigan (Chris Ware)

Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000)

The Law of Simplicity is also known as the Law of Prägnanz. Although ‘Prägnanz’ would be a perfect name for a German scientist real or fictional, it is not (not yet anyway). It is a German term that can be translated as ‘succinctness’ or ‘concisness’. The art of keeping it simple to enhance communication by eliminating redundancy without omitting important information.

Chris Ware uses a wonderfully stylized (yet very precise) way of representing things. An eye becomes a speck, a brow just a delicate line. Facial expressions are accomplished with a bare minimum of information. His protagonist Jimmy Corrigan comes to (a pitiful) life, his posture revealing more than any amount of added information would do.

Our brain likes it simple. If less important information or background information can be minimized, simplicity in framing can bring the eye directly where it is desired. The eye preferably follows the simplest way or the most obvious path or pattern.

Even if simplicity is not provided the mind will analyse what it sees (or experiences for that matter) chopping it to manageable bits (or simple terms). Complex things will be dissected and seen in simpler forms. Preferably forms we recognize.

Our brain loves symbols. And symbols can be very powerful tools in storytelling. It can help convey ideas faster giving the mind to focus on different things.

The fact that we understand symbols in a quite universal way can simplify some aspect of storytelling. An oval with an eye is a head, a square with a triangle on top of it is a house

In comics symbols are an often used resulting in a style that is easily understood (Like the style Chris Ware uses in Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) (US Link)) and can be read at some speed, helping the eye keep a steady pace and keeping the illusion of passing of time alive. But the use of symbols can do so much more guiding the mind toward concepts and abstract ideas.

Picasso at some point choose to work with symbols (even though he was an excellent draftsman) it gave him room to play with other concepts, like time and space. An eye was represented giving the idea of an eye not an exact description. Our brain gets the symbol immediately and understands the rest of the painting in the same symbolic language, looking for the face to go with the eye and the hair.

“In the old days pictures went forward toward completion by stages. Every day brought something new. A picture used to be a sum of additions. In my case a picture is a sum of destructions. I do a picture – then destroy it. In the end, though, nothing is lost… But there is a very odd thing – to notice that basically a picture doesn’t change, that the first ‘vision’ remains almost intact, in spite of appearances…”

Stylized (Pablo Picasso)

Pablo Picasso, Stylized portrait of Jacqueline (1962)

Lars von Trier uses our ability to this more abstract way of seeing thing in Dogville (2004) (US Link). He draws the whole decor on the ground, like a floor plan, a city map. We understand it is a village, houses a place where people live. This is a simple way of representing something (for the story) unnecessary complex.

How the houses look doesn’t matter for the story. The story is about human relationships. These relationships get extra attention because everyone is visible all the time; no wall to hide behind. The symbolic design of the ‘decor’ gives the story a symbolic load; the lives we’re looking at, even though they might have been persons with names get an symbolic value too, telling a story not about humans but mankind.

Dogville (Lars von Trier)
Dogville (Lars von Trier)
Dogville (Lars von Trier)
Dogville (Lars von Trier)

Lars von Trier, Dogville (2004)
In the last shot it’s not clear if they are in the same room or not. But that doesn’t matter. The lives of these people influence each other, what one does affects the other, walls no longer protect them.

How the world was (Emmanuel Guibert)

Emmanuel Guibert,
How the World Was. A California Childhood (2014)

But symbols don’t have to take the shape or form of simplified reality, they can be more abstract and work on a more unconscious level. Emmanuel Guibert uses the same white in How the World Was: A California Childhood (US Link), the biography of WWII Veteran Alan Cope. He uses it to focus on the human interactions in the book; His mom dressing him, his grandpa talking him on long walks, a neighbourhood boy bullying him. These are the things that matter, where these scenes took place is just background, just the setting. He shows us what’s worth remembering.

White background doesn’t take on the same meaning in every context, though. The white in the famous and classic silent movie The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) gets a totally different depth. Director Carl Theodore Dreyer uses the law of simplicity and counts on the viewers understanding of symbols and uses these visual keys to show context in his movie. He uses this method to illustrate the power of the church. But he arrives at this affect through different reasoning. He said that once he understood what the story is about he wanted to show nothing but that. He didn’t want to make an epic drama or a bio pic. He wanted to show Joan conviction.

He tossed all but the necessities to accomplish this goal; he tossed the original script deciding to use the archives and transcriptions of the real trail. Shooting everything in close-up. Focussing on faces and the facial expressions of all involved. Laying bare the innocence and bravery of Joan, the misguided and heartless corruption of the 29 cross-examinations that put her trough trail and torture. (Dreyer and Editor Marguerite Beaugé used 1500 cuts to get this cross-examinations effect not to create the hectic atmosphere I mentioned in the post on continuity, but the feeling she is surrounded and has nowhere to go.)

The power of the church is illustrated in a sober yet very effective way. Using high and low angles to show who is in power and who is overruled and powerless. The background is simple a occasional Gothic window pane sets the scene the angle the framing adding meaning; the church rules all. But what is ‘the church’ it is left ‘blank’ and gets its ‘face’ from the people representing it.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)

Carl Theodore Dreyer, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

In the beautiful Three Colours Trilogy Blue, Blanc and Rouge (US Link) by Krzysztof Kieslowski the colours dominating the background are used to symbolize the mood of the protagonist. Each of the three movies has it’s own colour and theme. The colours, resemble the colours of the French flag and symbolise the ideologies that drove the French revolution; Liberté, égalité, fraternité which translates as liberty, equality and fraternity.

The atmosphere, mood and colour is all present all absorbing. This concept uses the law of simplicity in all its facets. A beautiful method with some stunning narrative impact.

The symbols work their magic but by ‘manipulating’ the background giving it a conformity in these symbolic colours Kieslowski makes the environment into a whole. Giving the protagonists not only a clear context but giving the surroundings, the ‘world’ the role of the antagonist in the story….

The movies are heavy with these emotions. Colour symbolics are stretched to their max without losing their meaning, giving the film a wide emotional range. In the trilogy, “Blue” is the anti-tragedy, “White” is the anti-comedy, and “Red” is the anti-romance. Film critic Roger Eberts remarks.

Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Blue is about grief, loss, despair, being alone, the painful balance between fate, the freedom to choose your own path, finding yourself and obligation.

Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Blanc is about innocence and new beginnings, marriage, disappointment, heartlessness, hopelessness, opportunity and revenge; equality in marriage or the lack thereof and the consequences…

Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski)
Three Colours trilogy (Krzysztof Kieślowski)

Rouge is about life (and death), love, passion, unfulfilled longing, judgment, acceptance and warmth.

Symbols can be a powerful tools in any type of narrative but with them comes grave danger and great responsibility.

Sometimes symbols get so strong we forget they are symbols and confuse them for the real deal. We start using them mindlessly, recycling t