Saturday, September 8, 2018

First Intro

A different kind of criticism.

What if we view a film, any film as a text?  In other words, what if we paradoxically judge a film based on the quality of its writing?  Is there anything to be learned from thinking about a movie in the same way as you would a book? 
The typical response is that books and films are different things.  My response is to wonder whether or not modern criticism suffers from a one-sided point of view.  The whole problem seems to rest on the nature of “appearance” and “understanding”.  Looked at from one point a view, a book, strip of film, or even a DVD are little more than pieces of manufactured technology.  If it is the “functional” appearance that determines the importance between a book and a movie, then of course it will be the differences that people focus on.  A way of understanding either an item based on either function or appearance would have to leave almost no room for thinking about them in any other way.

However, if the point of view is changed just a bit, then another picture emerges.  If the view changes from one of technical utility to that of End or Purpose, then an alternate possibility is created.  The book and the DVD can be seen through another frame of reference.  Instead of being seen as two separate items, both the book and the camera become what they really are.  Both items, when stripped down to essentials, amount to nothing except mediums of transmission.  

Media pundit Marshall McLuhan was made the famous statement that “the Medium is the Message”.  If the state of modern criticism is anything to go by, then it seems McLuhan’s words have not just been taken to heart, but also accepted on such an unconscious level, that it takes an extra special effort of attention to stop and consider what’s wrong with that sentiment.  The problem with having a medium (any medium) be the message is that the very purpose for which that medium was created (as a mode of message transmission) is lost if you first create either a book or camera, and then proceed to never fill them with either words or film.  To concentrate vast amounts of critical attention on a medium or mechanism of transmission is, at best, almost a kind of fixation with either the novelty or appearance of an object, or gadget.  It’s hard to figure out what the benefit of a viewpoint is.  What’s the point of having a stove – oven if you aren’t going to use it to help you eat?  It’s be like paying a final mortgage on your house just so you can sit and stare at it in all kinds of weather while never once stepping foot inside your own property.

We do not use either books or films for the sake of their being mechanical objects.  We use them because they are mediums that can be used to convey stories as entertainment.  That is the whole entire purpose for the creation of either medium.  In real life, it is the Message, not the Medium, which is the Message.

The Ambiguity of Images.
Consider also the impact that a good camera angle or face can have on people.  The problem here is that the same angle or image that works for one group of the audience could have an opposite effect another.  For instance, how do you take Edward Furlong’s performance in Terminator 2?  Is he a problem just by his very existence, or does he disappear into the character and allow more focus for the story?  The fact that this question has been answered in both the affirmative and the negative makes me wonder if maybe a third way of reading and watching is needed.
The mixed and inconclusive reaction to something as minor as a supporting actor in a film highlights just one thing: when it comes to images, most can’t make any definitive conclusion about what they like.  If there are so many possible ways of pointing the camera at an image, and each of them will please a viewer for individual reasons that can’t breach the wall of personal taste, then it seems that imagery can’t be the final arbiter of how to appreciate a work of art.

The Text is the Boss.

When it comes to books and films, there is one element that both mediums share, and which has been overlooked for a while now.  This may be due to the fact if something is fundamental then its often easy to lose sight of.  Blind people never take vision for granted, and because we have a nose and rely on oxygen we never stop to realize that we’re breathing.  The same goes for the key element that exists between a DVD of Citizen Kane or a copy of War and Peace.  Each medium relies on the existence of words, on a text, in order to achieve its goals. 
We wouldn’t be talking about the second Terminator if it didn’t have a script that held up.  In the same way all stories, whether on a page, a stage, or a screen rely in the last resort on the use texts to achieve their end.  If words are cut out of a story entirely, even if they exist as description or background info, then there is no narrative to tell.  This line of thought is not my own.  In his book Shakespeare and the Popular Dramatic Tradition, critic Samuel Leslie Bethell states: “Every approach to Shakespeare has something in it of value, but I am convinced of the fundamental importance of the words themselves – of the poetry – and of the…secondary importance of a knowledge of Elizabethan stage conditions.  My own particular approach…can be undertaken only in the closest association with pure literary criticism…”.

What I’d like to suggest then is that, in the future, it might help if the critic were to treat each story as a “text” rather than as a book or a film.  This approach would help audiences focus on the importance of the narrative and quality of the writing, as opposed to using various shots and images in the service of a vacant cult of personality.  This is the approach I’ll take in the course of this blog.  I’ll examine every book or film that I notice under the singular concentration of the writing as a text.  If an important symbol were to appear in narrative, I’d examine it based on what could be learned from the words, and thematic context embedded in them.

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that, at the end of the day, this is just a blog like any other, where pop culture is examined and looked at from one perspective among many.  With any luck, those who tag along on this particular odyssey might find an interesting take on their favorite stories.

A series of influences.

It’s been a belief of mine, for a long time now, that it helps to know just where any would be critic is coming from in his artistic judgments.  If you know what ideas are steering the guy making the call
on any book or film, then you can understand why he thinks the way he does.  This knowledge has one other benefit.  It places the critic and the reader on an equal footing, even if they both disagree with each other.

No critic can work in a vacuum.  Every film or book they’ve read has had a hand in shaping the kind of person they are, and the ways in which they reacted to any given work of art.  With that in mind, I thought it might help place things on an even footing if a list was made of the kind of books that shaped the way I think about art.  Specifically, I thought it would be a good idea of a series of posts could be made of those cornerstone texts that everybody has, even they don’t know it. 

These are the books that are still able to act as guiding posts long after the years have made their cruel subtractions.  I think that people who can pinpoint such texts are in a much more stable position than those who don’t have such points of reference.  Whether or not it amounts to much, you have to admit at least it has to count for something.  There’s got some kind of lesson involved in that somewhere, though just what it is escapes my mind at the moment.  Anyway, to kick things off, I thought I’d start with the following:

The Book that Started it All.

Stephen King's On Writing taught me that thinking about fiction could be fun.  It sounds like an oxymoron, especially if you think the sole purpose of life as to cram every moment with as much fun as possible, and nothing else.  Although that does beg the question of what is fun, exactly?  In any case, that statement remains true.  In this memoir, King is able to pull off the feat of being able to entertain an audience with a how-to manual.

There really is no mystery in how he does it.  He’s a fan, and every fan loves nothing more than to       jaw about the stories they like.  The specific type of story King likes are those that belong to the Macabre.  That’s another stumbling block for some, however King is able to write in a down to earth style that should put the reader at ease.  The one thing that could keep anone from enjoying this book depends on the particular prejudices they bring to the table.  The importance of this book lies in the major thesis King sets before the reader regarding the very nature of stories:

“I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.  The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them of course).  If you can see things this way (or at least try to), we can work together comfortably.  If, on the other hand, decide I’m crazy, that’s fine.  You won’t be the first.

“When, during the course of an interview for The New Yorker, I told the interviewer (Mark Singer) that I believed stories are found things, like fossils in the ground, he said that he didn’t believe me.  I replied that was fine, as long as he believed that I believe it.  And I do.  Stories aren’t souvenir tee-shirts or GameBoys.  Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.  The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground as possible.  Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell.  Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.  Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same (163-64)”.

That’s a very far out kind of statement to make.  After all, a book is just a collection of ink on paper, scribblings, as they’re sometimes called.  Those are the facts about books.  It is also a fact that once enough people have read the same book and had similar, yet differing reactions of enjoyment, that the ink and the paper are granted a kind of public validity.  My point is that dismissing King’s assertion will prove useless as long as anyone tries to base their argument on facts.  
For starters, there is the problem of which facts to choose that best support your counter-argument.  For instance, you could try to make the case that King is just an isolated incident, and try to make some claim that the majority of public opinion would tend to agree with mark Singer.  The gap in such logic would be the problem of how well public opinion on the matter would hold up to scrutiny when you consider how little attention is paid to topics like this.

If King’s thinking could prove to be an isolated incident, that would be one thing.  However, here we have the same sentiments expressed by not one, but more authors.  For my purposes, it helps to look into a passage of Humphrey Carpenter’s 1977 book, The Inklings.  The Following snippets from a passage of that book should help demonstrate what I mean (italics mine):

“How does any author think of anything?  I don’t think that conscious invention plays a very great part in it.  For example, I find in many respects that I can’t direct my imagination; I can only follow the lead it gives me…Absolutely true.  I mean, when I picture the country house I’d like to have if I were a rich man, I can say that my study window opens on a level park full of old timbers, but I can only see undulating ground with a fur-topped knoll.  I can fix my mind, of course, on the level park, but when I turn to the window again after arranging my books, there’s that damn knoll once more…Jung’s archetypes do seem to explain it, though I’d have thought Plato’s would do just as well.  And isn’t Tollers saying the same thing in another way when he tells us that Man is merely the sub-creator…?  But the real point…is that it does happen.  You see, I come more and more to the conclusion that all stories are waiting, somewhere, and are slowly being recovered in fragments by different human minds according to their abilities – and of course being partially spoiled in each writer by the admixture of his own mere individual invention (138)”. 
The punchline is that one of the speakers in that conversation is J.R.R. Tolkien, the guy who wrote The Lord of the Rings.  He’s the Tollers spoken of in the above passage, as it turns out.  Later on, in one of  his correspondence (later collected as part of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien) where he reports:

 “What happens to the Ents I don't yet know. It will probably work out very differently from this plan when it really gets written, as the thing seems to write itself once I get going, as if the truth comes out then, only imperfectly glimpsed in the preliminary sketch (104)”.

This is a sentiment Tolkien expresses time and again in the letters:

The Lord of the Rings as a story was finished so long ago now that I can take a largely
impersonal view of it, and find 'interpretations' quite amusing; even those that I might make myself, which are mostly post scriptum: I had very little particular, conscious, intellectual, intention in mind at any point. *

“* Take the Ents, for instance.  I did not consciously invent them at all.  The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard's first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on myself (except for labour pains) almost like reading someone else's work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the 'unconscious' for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till 'what really happened’ came through (211-12)”.

The fact that two authors, who have never met, and who are separated by whole decades from each other, can still share the same literary outlook is something I found fascinating.  More than that, it sparked an interest in the idea of stories and storytelling as a kind of self-perpetuating, imaginative mental phenomena.  

Ever since reading both books I’ve been on an ongoing search into this line of thinking.  It’s the reason I started this blog.  My hope is to use it as a means for understanding the words of both authors, and to see how far I can observe this same concept in other works of fiction.  I’m also interested in the reasons people have for the enjoyment they get from their favorite books and films.  This brings up the second goal for this site.  I’d like to examine, if I can, the way people take in the stories they watch and read, in order to examine the value that gets placed on them.  

The fact that humanity has been telling themselves tales since almost the first time we made our appearance here, whatever this place is, has to mean something.  I don’t that I can find out all the reasons why we do it.  I just hope to have some looking for answers.  Finally, on a third level, this blog is meant to be just like any other.  Even there’s a specific goal in mind, why cant a guy have just talking about the pop-culture that he likes?


  1. (1) I think books and movies -- or books and paintings, books and music, books and video games, etc. -- ARE different, but I don't necessarily think that matters. The principles of examining the text(s) seems to me to be more or less the same regardless of the medium. That said, while I disagree that the medium is the message, I do believe that the medium should always be considered; or, put another way, not only should the message be considered, but the method of its delivery should be considered as well, because that speaks to intent.

    From there, it's a matter of deciding the extent to which one wants to lean toward analyzing the perceived intent of the creator(s) or toward the perceived impact upon the audience (i.e., oneself). I think both methods are compelling, and I think trying to find a middle ground of some sort is also compelling.

    (2) "What’s the point of having a stove – oven if you aren’t going to use it to help you eat?" -- It's useful for hiding dirty dishes in if you've got no time to clean them before company comes over.

    (3) "For instance, how do you take Edward Furlong’s performance in Terminator 2?" -- As an awful one. But not in a way that works against the movie, weirdly enough.

    (4) "Each medium relies on the existence of words, on a text, in order to achieve its goals." -- I agree that this is true of most movies, but I do not think it need be true of ALL movies. I can even give you a decent example: The Blair Witch Project, which we recently discussed as being partially a work of improvisation. You could argue, of course, that that improvisation became a de facto screenplay during the editorial process. Many films have been shaped massively by the editorial process, and sometimes in ways that change them significantly from what had been written in the screenplay.

    (5) "It’s been a belief of mine, for a long time now, that it helps to know just where any would be critic is coming from in his artistic judgments." -- Absolutely agreed.

    (6) If someone told me they thought On Writing is King's finest achievement, I wouldn't argue.

    (7) King's idea about stories being like fossils that must be excavated rings entirely true to me. Just in the tiny amount of fiction writing I've done, I've seen firsthand evidence of it being true. And, for that matter, I don't think it need be limited to fiction writing; the same holds true for poetry, or even for creative nonfiction. Maybe even for criticism! There are different ways of looking at it, I suppose, but I'd be inclined to think that anyone who dismissed King's idea out of hand was someone who simply didn't know what they were talking about.

    (8) Man, I love Tolkien. I've really got to go on a deep-dive into his work one of these days. I've read the three primary Middle-Earth works, of course, but not recently enough. And there's so much more beyond that! I've read NONE of it, and it bugs me.

    (9) "Ever since reading both books I’ve been on an ongoing search into this line of thinking. It’s the reason I started this blog. My hope is to use it as a means for understanding the words of both authors, and to see how far I can observe this same concept in other works of fiction." -- An excellent reason to begin a blog. Not that a reason is needed; but if you've got one, all the better!

    (10) "I’m also interested in the reasons people have for the enjoyment they get from their favorite books and films. This brings up the second goal for this site. I’d like to examine, if I can, the way people take in the stories they watch and read, in order to examine the value that gets placed on them." -- As you may know, I blog a fair bit myself. And I've learned -- or relearned -- quite a lot about myself during that process. I'm a very self-absorbed person, so I tend to focus on that aspect of it, rather than turning the process outward. But my guess is that the outward look would be just as rewarding.

    1. (1) The approach from Intent seems both important and tricksy at the same time. The problem with finding a middle ground is what to do with all the cases of unintended consequences? For instance, film came about as a medium because Leland Stanford, a former governor of California, was a compulsive gambler who could almost never say no to a bet. It’s these strange gray areas which make definitive answers difficult sometimes.

      (3) In the case of Furlong, I find he’s really more of a non-problem for me one way or the other. If there is any problem with the actor in terms of performance, then none of it is literally registering to me. I always find myself concerned with the character, and which direction writing is taking him. In that, I can’t say that I ever really noticed Furlong’s performance.

      (4) I now fond myself regretting that whole Improv comment. This whole about-face was caused by finding out about a new documentary called “The Woods Movie”. According to Dread Central:

      “In October 1997, a group of filmmakers ventured into the Maryland woods to produce a low-budget independent horror movie. THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT would become a global phenomenon and began the “found footage” genre that remains a potent force today. Now, for the first time, you can see how that record-breaking groundbreaker came into being. From never-before-seen recordings of pre-production meetings, audition tapes, and test footage to the actual shooting, first preview screenings, and marketing at the Sundance Film Festival, all the key personnel guide you through the discussions and decisions that minted a shock sensation classic” (web).

      While the article does acknowledge that Improv is a fact in the making-of process, we are also shown a director’s note written on a sheet of paper containing scene directions:

      This indicates, to me at least, that I was premature in calling the film a work of total improvisation. Granted a certain amount of winging it, the overall production seems to have been a bit more plotted out than I at first thought.

      Another factor that gives me pause is to realize that “BW” might owe its inspiration to “The Last Broadcast”, another mockumentary about the Jersey Devil that was scripted from beginning to the end. So now I’m less certain about the non-textual status of that film.

      (6)-(7) I’ll swear I’ve had that experience at least once before. Maybe when writing an essay for my college paper. Be damned if I can’t remember what the subject was, though.

      The best example I know of at the moment might be “The Wind Through the Keyhole”. It seems to have caught the writer off guard, and the yet the finished product was a total pleasant surprise.

      (8) A good resource that is also thoroughly enjoyable is John D. Rateliff’s “The History of the Hobbit”. It examines the creation of, not the first Middle Earth story. Rather it focuses on the creation of the first one to see the published light of day.

      What’s remarkable about it is just how little Tolkien wound up changing in the end. In this regard, “THOTH” also ties in with points 6 and 7 above. To paraphrase Rateliff it’s like the rough cut of a famous movie, or the unaired pilot of a TV series. Well worth a look.


    2. (4) The directors talk about this a good bit on the film's commentary track, if I remember correctly. They themselves had obvious ideas of what was going to be done on a story level, and they would sometimes let the actors know bits and pieces of it so they would know enough to get the job done. But the vast majority of their dialogue was improvised, which means that a huge portion of what forms any screenplay -- the dialogue -- was written on the fly. If "written" is even the correct word. That happens with a lot of comedies, too.

      I've actually seen "The Last Broadcast." It's good; not as good as "Blair Witch," but good. You sometimes hear "Blair Witch" spoken of as being a ripoff of "Last Broadcast," but neither invented the mockumentary format, so in my mind, that's an empty claim.

      (6)-(7) Agreed!

      (8) I'll have to check that out one of these days.