mlsamuelson.com

melody:story::texture:experience

I received an email that ended thusly from my friend Alejandro Adams, mentioning his in-development film Babnik:

"I hope Babnik lives up to the (ahem, your) hype and pulls one out for the 'plot' team (but not at the expense of character!)."

My reply, in slightly edited form (and intended as a treatise on story and not to be misconstrued as a chastisement):

I don't mean to derive too much meaning from what likely was a quickly dashed off thought, but I would like to address the concepts the above thought brings into play because there's important territory therein.

I'm not, actually, a champion of plot, nor am I on the plot team. In my own artistic thinking I refuse to use the word, to let it be an object/aspect of a work that I consider. I root for the story team. Plot is a mechanical, story is organic - much as the mechanical and living birds in Hans Christian Anderson's The Emperor's Nightingale (http://hca.gilead.org.il/nighting.html very much worth a read).

So let's discard plot in favor of story, and then we get

"I hope Babnik lives up to the (ahem, your) hype and pulls one out for the 'story' team (but not at the expense of character!)."

That makes little sense. Story is about decisions and decisions reveal character and values and the consequences of both. Plot on the other hand is simply concerned with moving pieces forward towards an end in the name of something - instruction, delight or propaganda mostly commonly. The latter, story fervently resists as it is counter to its nature.

Story, however is not the only aspect of a piece of narrative art one needs attend to, of course. In broad terms, regarding the narration, I believe there are two facets that come into play: the aforementioned "story" and "experience" (for lack of better words). In music, one might characterize these differently, as "melody" and "texture," respectively. Story and melody are "what happen" and experience and texture are "what it felt like." It's easier to talk about story and melody, and no doubt their accessibility leads to their being discounted in the eyes of many artists as common and thus base. That, however is a mistake.

Of the two features of narrative art, I would contend an artist could attend solely to story and produce a work of brilliance (because the experience will follow, or be suggested by the story), while an artist trading only in experience would be likely to produce mere curiosities (since story isn't guaranteed to follow experience) - producing the sort of things one might expect to see in an antiseptic art museum room outfitted temporarily with nine stackable chairs rather than an art-house cinema where your shoes stick to the floor and the seat squeaks from use.

I always cringe to bring up the name, because he's become one of those people whose work is bandied about by short-in-the-tooth intellectuals, but I have watched David Lynch from the beginning favoring the experiential while having the thematic core (ie. the "truth") of his work reside in the story, to more and more moving that core to the already-favored experience realm of his work. The resulting works have lost their integrity as narrative pieces and as a result and are nearly unwatchable to anyone whose constitution doesn't yearn for the merely grotesque. Wes Anderson, too, has had this trajectory so far in his career. Originally creating moving films that cared about their characters (Bottle Rocket, Rushmore), to the last few works (The Life Acquatic, The Royal Tennenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited) that seem to have little more depth than dioramas and not surprisingly care most about precious little things. In this case the grotesque is replaced with the ornamental. In both cases, it's been a transition from artist to hack. Usually, though, young "artists" who have had the blessing of not having early success before becoming grounded in their art - if they stay at the craft - become true artists. The transition moves in the other direction, from an initial fascination with the surface of things to a more fundamental respect for the characters as people who must make decisions that reveal themselves and the larger truth of the work.

So, I would reiterate, one ought always attend to story, and if one has the inclination he or she might attend to experience as well. Artists who attend to story will not have to worry about experience as it will follow, but those who put experience before story must at least pay story mind and would do well to have the truth of their work, the thematic core, tied to the story.

It's the story that the audience will remember, anyway. To artists who eschew their audiences, and wish to hazard the experience route, I'd suggest the art of diorama. They are easily displayed and stored in one's bedroom.

7 comments

Jarrod Whaley wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

I freely admit to an

I freely admit to an admiration for the grotesque, and make no excuses for myself. Perhaps your use of the word here is meant to express your preference, merely (and if so I have zero beef to hang on your hook), but the suggestion seems to be that grotesquerie en tant que soi is some slight upon a weathered and narratively feathered bird. But Lynch--and to a much less compelling if not downright fully boring extent, Anderson--are not entirely oriented toward enhancing the flightworthiness of narratively feathered birds; their birds are feathered to be visually pretty, or feathered in such a way as to obscure the shape of the bird's body, or feathered in a way which is designed to force "ornithologists" to wonder whether the feathers are, in fact, woven artifice.

The defense of narrative in and of itself is one thing, but when the defense commits offense upon other modes, it is no longer a defense. Film is a synthesis of literally every art form of which humans have claimed themselves capable. It isn't just about stories--even if that's the aim of most movies. Why? Because despite the aim, the work itself is a synthesis of countless formerly interexclusive media--dramaturgy, pictorial imaging, color synthesis, auditory staging, musical suggestion, montage...the list continues.

I don't decry the argument for a more narratively active cinema, but at the same time I will argue that narrative is so little of that which the cinema actually is. And to deny the other other things is to deny the cinema. If narrative is your thing, write stories instead of scripts. No one will fault you.

I enjoyed the chance to vent like this, and in spite of my fundamental disagreement with what you say, I'm glad you've said it. It confirms my faith in what little, admittedly, I know about who you are, and it makes me want to know you better than I do. Because this is a fascinating argument, even if it's one I know I will "win."

mlsamuelson wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

I think you've mistaken my

I think you've mistaken my argument. I agree with your points (though would likely distribute my valuations differently).

The thesis here is that narrative is the best vessel for carrying the truth of a work - even if it is only a kernel of truth. Introducing said thesis in the denouement of my post is tantamount to introducing an important character in the closing scenes of a film, and that must always be handled tenderly. If my performance in that regard is awkward or weakens the presentation of the thesis, I hope that may not be mistaken for weakening my point. By no means have I stated that narrative is the sole mode that ought to be attended to or emphasized in a film or any other narrative art. In fact, often some of the most striking and intellectually occupying birds are those displaying the meagerest of attention to narrative and possessing a super-abundance of feathers. If, however, that feathered bird has had _no_ attention to narrative integrity, then it is but a constellation of feathers likely to become a cloud of feathers at the merest touch. And feathers, those alone may be objects that reward intense intellectual scrutiny, but ultimately, feathers alone, when the feathers are the point, are, as stated above, at best an art museum curiosity - and perhaps a brilliant work of artifice, but not necessarily a popular accessible work (and they don't have to be, if that's the intention) - or at worst the work is bedroom worthy. In either case, the audience is limited. _But if that is your intention or audience_ by all means, feather it up!

mlsamuelson

Jarrod Whaley wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

I'm not convinced that I've

I'm not convinced that I've mistaken your argument, though I will admit perhaps to have neglected full engagement with the caveat in which it is wrapped. The adamance of your claim is not what I dispute, but rather it is the claim itself: that narrative must necessarily be afforded some privilege.

While it may be that you haven't fully condemned films which are designed around expressive modes other than pure narrative, I quite heartily disagree with the notion that "narrative is the best vessel for carrying the truth of a work." There are any number of ways of expressing truth. Pictures can also contain truth, as can sounds, colors, and abstract "moods."

Moreover, there's nothing wrong with a cloud of feathers alone, with no bird. You admit this, and yet I still on some level think we disagree. My point here is that narrative is no more fundamental to the cinema than any of its other devices--in fact, it is less fundamental than some of them--images for instance.

mlsamuelson wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

My beautiful and disarming

My beautiful and disarming wife read this post and the above two comments [ed. a third appeared while this was written] and said, "What about 'Goodnight Moon'" She knows that's one off my favorite books, and she also knows how to disembowel my arguments in seconds.

That stumped me for a while, as 'Goodnight Moon' is a book without acting characters, without any sort of narrative arc, simply the falling of night and a rabbit going to bed.

After thinking about it I realized 'Goodnight Moon' is not a narrative work at all, but a work of poetry.

So, a caveat is in order: the above post is in regards to narrative art, not poetic art, and I have made the assumption above that what ought to be desired is narrative. In regards to poetic works vs. narrative, my post is somewhat tautologically stacked in favor of narration since I define the value in question as 'truth' as created by story. Undoubtedly resistance to my statements is at least in part attributable to this.

Some may not wish to separate narrative from poetry, but I prefer to do so. The two can go together - such as in Shakespeare's plays, but they need not and can exist within works with structural integrity apart from the another. "Ode on a Grecian Urn" is poetry, "The Brothers Karamozov" is almost purely narrative (at least in the English), and "Moby Dick" is a mixture of the two. The essential difference in these two trends in art works is that narrative art is ultimately about the truth of the process of things, while poetry is concerned with the truth of being/feeling (experience). These are very different things. Society (and apparently me) is currently inclined towards narrative, and I would contend that it has the mass appeal, but it need not always be so.

So, I suppose this is a concession of sorts, or perhaps we can state it as "a broadening and refining of the argument to include both trends of art."

Marya wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

Michael, Are you saying

Michael,

Are you saying there's poetic film and narrative film and you (and most of society) have little interest in the former?

I can rarely remember the story after I've watched a film. It doesn't stay with me. Mood, emotion, (experience and texture) are what stay with me. Are what make me love a film. Sometimes the mood comes from the story, sometimes it doesn't. I have little patience for purely experimental films (as I've been exposed to them, anyway). I haven't been able to sit through the couple of Brackage films I've tried (Sorry, Jarrod.) One of my favorite recent movies, "I Don't Want to Sleep Alone," had almost no story. I was enraptured by it, and I think about it all the time. "The New World," or, as I call it, "The only movie ever made," has a hell of a story, and it's a story we all basically know (although where it's most amazing is where it departs from one most of us know of the Pocahontas tale). And it's probably a deadlock for me, between the story and the experience that make it the only movie ever made.

Alejandro Adams wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

I hate showing up late (and

I hate showing up late (and not as drunk as others). Luckily there are some finer shadings and sub-topics that might be worth a mention.

First of all, the original post is elegantly written and diligently argued, culminating in a well-observed point about the careers of Lynch and Anderson and the generous (cosmic-eye-view) suggestion that their "folly" might have more to do with the imposition of early success than with anything inherent in them as auteurs (I use that postury word to replace a half-dozen words that don't fit here--"storyteller" among them).

John Hawkes claimed that his "novels" had no character, no plot, no theme, no time. Naturally he was wrong on every count if only because to forge a work from inversions and repudiations is the most reliable means of affirming the conventions against which the maker means to strike a pose. Thus the anti-narrative properties in Lynch's films are narrative after all because they interact expressly with narrative traditions in order to achieve their effects.

The non-narrative mode (as distinct from anti-narrative) is often regarded as "meditative." Kubrick's 2001 is narrative only intermittently, successfully interrogating the space between narrative and meditative modes. I was relieved to see Nick Rombes point out that Canary "shatters distinctions between the mainstream and the avant-garde," which expresses this effect in cultural rather than ingrediential terms: the mainstream favors narrative.

But films which mosey away from narrative had better do it convincingly. The fact is that I have MORE patience with LESS narrative. In this respect Tsai is more palatable than Hou; Bartas makes Tarr look like O. Henry (i.e., pat and boring). It wasn't the meditative aspects of Reygadas's Silent Light that irritated me; it was the "love story." That director's previous film, Battle in Heaven, handled desire and physical intimacy in a far more abstract and satisfying way.

I recently watched the extended cut of Malick's New World and was disappointed (possibly disillusioned): the reinstated material didn't make the film "more" Malick but "less" Malick. The additional half-hour was made up mostly of literal-minded connective tissue which interfered with some of the definitive Malick moments I'd considered so memorable in the original release version. The narrative-to-meditative ratio was unaltered, but the LITERAL began to corrupt the FIGURATIVE. To bring the discussion back to my own work (where it started): one early viewer mentioned that the organ reclamation specialist in Canary doesn't wear gloves to do the dirty work. That "oversight" is one of the biggest cues that the film is expressing itself figuratively. The literal-figurative valence is perpendicular to the narrative-meditative valence. A fully figurative film can be fully narrative; a meditative film can deal in exclusively literal images. Jeanne Dielman, for instance.

But category-making is a tricky business, and debates about categories are largely semantic, with the spirit of the respective arguments buried far under the language. The narrative mode and the meditative mode seem mutually exclusive but that sense is propagated by practitioners for a variety of reasons and is less than evident in individual works. A sincere, unified work does not easily subject itself to pre-existing critical theory. Richard Ford graciously dealt with problems of taxonomy in his introduction to a short fiction anthology: "I'm willing to call a piece of writing a short story if that's what the writer says it is." (He was nobly trying to bridge the very visible and molten gap between Donald Barthelme and Raymond Carver.)

Also worth consideration: Cocteau's Belle et la bete and Welles's Mr. Arkadin, cases in which unrelentingly pungent visuals obfuscate the trite or uncompelling narratives--to the extent that one has almost no impression of what the "story" is "about" but is nonetheless rapt (although in Cocteau's case, almost anyone could recount the fairy tale before seeing the film, which he very likely took into account). I would appreciate it if someone could tell me what category this is.

Side note: Thomas Zengotita's incendiary book Mediated basically blames Goodnight Moon for the decadent and pernicious self-regard of the baby boomer generation (and those who followed).

Marya wrote 8 years 36 weeks ago

Brakhage. Yeah.

Brakhage. Yeah.

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