Year of Short Fiction Part 4: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of those weird cultural staples that literally everyone has heard of it. Most people over a certain age have probably seen the movie, but ask them what it’s about, and they probably have no idea. It’s kind of fascinating to think how a novella/film gets to such a point. I can’t even think of another cultural phenomenon of this type.

I was pretty excited going into this for a few reasons. I, too, had seen the movie enough years ago to not remember it. Oh, there’s the long cigarette, and a crazy cat, and a wacky party girl, and singing “Moon River,” but what was it about? What was the plot? The other reason I was excited was that Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is one of two books that have ever made me cry. The way he writes is breathtaking.

The first thing to jump out at me was the vulgarity of the language. It was published in 1958, so we’ve moved past short fiction that hides indiscretions. But I still must imagine this novella pushed what was acceptable for the time. It openly talks about prostitution and homosexuality and a 14-year-old girl getting married to an adult man. Plus, Holly’s language is very direct and crude (I don’t recall if she swears, though).

Lolita came out a few years before Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and Tiffany’s doesn’t compare in disturbing imagery to that. So I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised. It had more to do with tone than imagery, though.

The novella is basically a long character study, and it does an excellent job at this. Holly has to be one of the strangest characters of all time. Capote’s attention to detail is incredible. Almost every sentence that has Holly in it is crafted to expose some tiny piece of how her mind works. An early example is that the location on her business card is: traveling.

At first, it comes off as chaos. Nothing about the character makes sense, and the sentences she speaks come out in a stream-of-consciousness level of confusion. But then, by about halfway or so, she’ll do something weird, and you find yourself thinking: that’s so Holly. There appears to be a deep internal logic to it. Holly feels very real and knowable.

The plot itself is fairly melodramatic. It goes by at rapid-fire pace. This short novella has Holly being in love with and engaged to several people. She travels to probably a dozen places, often not even in the U.S. There’s parties. She’s involved with a scheme to smuggle drugs orchestrated by a man in prison. She gets pregnant and miscarries. It’s almost impossible to take stock of all that happens in this, and there’s almost no real emotion behind any of it.

Capote clearly did this on purpose. Holly’s character is flighty, and she often jumps into things without any thought. If we think of the novella as a character study, then all these crazy events occurring is part of the brilliance of the novella. The plot doesn’t have weight for the main character, so it would be a mistake to have the events play a significant role to the reader. Holly moves on, and so should the reader.

And now we come full circle. No one remembers the plot to Breakfast at Tiffany’s by design. We’re only meant to remember Holly. Even her last name is “Golightly.”

The only moments of emotional poignancy are when the narrator reflects on it all, and when we see beneath Holly’s shell. He falls in love with Holly for real (this is a bit of a theme to the book: what is love?). This is quite well done, because it contrasts so starkly with Holly’s indifference and shows how devastating her indifference can be as she tears through people’s lives.

Capote gives Holly one piece of depth that prevents her from being some caricature of a socialite. She cares deeply about her brother, and it is probably the only real human connection she’s ever had. A lot of her carefree attitude stems from a disturbing fact dropped subtly in tiny details. She runs from human connection because of the psychological trauma of being a child bride.

Overall, the novella was way better than I expected in terms of character development. It was also sort of disappointing in a way. I went in expecting it to be a romance between the narrator and Holly done in a brilliant literary Capote-esque way. It’s not that at all. But once you get over the initial shock (and genre confusion), it’s brilliant.

Thoughts on Arrival

Warning 1: Whatever my opinion of this movie, I warn you to not read this post before seeing it. I’m warning you. There are major spoilers, and these are the types of spoilers that don’t merely reveal some plot twist. These reveals will irrevocably altar the way you experience the movie to an extent where you will be robbed of being able to form an your own opinion.

WARNING 2: I’ve warned you. Do not let your eyes drift down this page if you haven’t seen this movie.

For those of you who are still reading for some reason, despite not having seen the movie, I’ll start with a few non-spoiler things I didn’t like to give you a chance to click that x in the upper right corner of the screen while you have the chance. Do it!

First off, the movie was terribly derivative. It’s hard to think of single thing in the whole film that isn’t just a copy of something already done in some other “first contact” story. I know that “everything’s been done” (supposedly). But if you’re going to pick a story that’s really been done a hundred times, please, please, have something truly new and interesting. More on this later when I’m allowed to start spoiling.

The characters and their motivations seemed really weak. After some thought, I identified the problem. Theme must emerge from story and characterization. Arrival put theme before characters. So when humans freaked out that the aliens arrived and started trying to wage war and division everywhere, it didn’t seem all that motivated.

People planted bombs and cut off communication in order to show that humans are these terrible war-driven species. In other words, the writer(s) knew they wanted to get this across and so showed it. Instead, they should have had a story with a strong flow and sense of character in which that theme emerged. Also, they hired this linguist to do her job and then opposed her ideas every step of the way. This was unmotivated, artificial resistance to create conflict: a terrible narrative device.

Okay. Now on to some of the things that really bothered me. How the hell did they crack the written language? The entire premise of the movie hinges on them being able to read the words with high accuracy and specificity (remember that scene where they translated “weapon” and everyone freaked out?).

Seriously. I wrote a novel with an unknown written language, so I spent a huge amount of time thinking about this. Despite spending a thousand years and having a whole library of this language with books with pictures, I came to the conclusion that the researchers would get essentially nowhere.

So how the hell did these few people, in a matter of weeks, figure out pretty much everything (including highly abstract words like “time”)? The language doesn’t even have an order or grammar to it. They never left the spaceship. That means they were never pointing to a tree and writing “tree.”

I know this seems like some trivial thing: suspend your disbelief, etc. But I can’t. If this was 90% of the movie, it would have been the coolest first contact movie ever. That’s how interesting and difficult and original the idea would have been. Instead, they skip over the only interesting thing and pretend like it was so trivial that it wasn’t worth mentioning. It’s impossible they figured this out and renders the whole rest of the movie worthless.

Let’s return for a moment to the lack of characterization. Are we really supposed to believe that the two main characters fell in love? They never once flirt. They never even crack a smile at each other for all I remember. They never hold hands. Chemistry never develops between them.

Now, this would have been fine if one of the last lines wasn’t: “Do you want to have my baby?” Um. What? The most obvious reply should have been, “You creep. Who asks that? Get away from me.”

Since we see lots of events after the alien part of the movie, they could have flashed forward to a place where he says this, and then we would fill in all the lovey-dovey stuff in our minds. It would have been way less creepy. Or, they could have done a better job at developing the romance.

I get that she can see the future, and he has just learned that, so he knows that she already knows if they have a baby. That makes it ever so slightly less creepy. But not really. Why would that be the first thing you ask? Why not just ask her on a date or something?

Now that we’ve broached the topic of the twist of the movie, let’s dig into that. It doesn’t so much bother me that the premise of the movie rests on a sketchy theory, namely that language affects how you perceive the world. Plenty of great SF take cool theories to their extremes (including ones I’ve written).

What does trouble me is that every interpretation of the form of time travel the main character gains leads to major problems. The least plausible interpretation is that she can actually travel to and live in future and past places of her life.

This is problematic because it basically implies immortality. Are you about to die? Then just go live an earlier part of your life out. Plus, there’s all the time travel paradoxes that would arise. If you actually relive it, then presumably you can change things. That’s a problem for obvious reasons.

A more charitable understanding is that she can merely access “memories” of future events. The movie makes it seem like they must be her own memories, but that seems to cause problems for the aliens who seem to know events 3000 years in the future. But whatever, let’s say the aliens are more advanced, so they have memories of future events regardless of point of view.

This still leaves some problems, like in the future, when meeting the Chinese general, she doesn’t remember calling him, despite it necessarily having happened already. This makes it seem like it isn’t a mere memory of the future but an actual living out of that moment (and we’ve already said this is a problem). So let’s assume it’s a mere memory of the future and not a living out, despite the problems that causes with the movie.

What does it mean to access a memory of a future event that doesn’t happen? It’s a paradox. If she has the choice to not have her baby, then she could choose not to have it based on knowing her daughter will die early. But then not having the baby would erase the memory of her daughter dying young, and so she wouldn’t have a reason not to have it. This means she would choose to have it. Woops. It’s an endless cycle that creates a paradox.

Okay. So let’s say she can’t choose. The future is set. That undermines the entire message of the movie, which is that she chooses life in the face of struggle. Plus, this choice aspect of the movie is voiced by several characters (it’s the reason Ian leaves). There is no way the writers want you to interpret the movie as some argument against free will.

As you see, the movie does the opposite of good SF. Good SF, like Primer, makes you super confused, but as you think deeply about it, you gain clarity. You realize it really does make sense. Arrival does the opposite. It seems deep and interesting at first, but the deeper you think about it, the more it unravels as nonsense.

I know a lot, and I mean a lot, of people really, really loved this movie. So my question is: why? It’s paradoxical. It’s derivative. The characterization is shallow. The plot has major holes. It’s hard for me to think of a single thing someone would have liked about it.

Is it just that people haven’t seen really interesting SF, like Primer, for example, so they don’t see this for what it is? They’re blown away by the twist ending, so they don’t think any deeper and just believe it to be as deep as their initial intuition leads them to believe?

This actually troubled me enough that I had a hard time sleeping after watching it. It’s sort of my job to understand what people like in stories, so to not be able to think of anything that makes this movie worth watching (other than the brilliant cinematography, seriously, that DP deserves a bonus) while millions loved it is very troubling to me.

 

Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:

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Millicent playing the role of Ellen:

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Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:

Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.

On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.

On Swanberg’s Easy

I’ve been a longtime fan of Joe Swanberg’s, going all the way back to his first mumblecore film Kissing on the Mouth. He just came out with a new Netflix series, Easy, so I had to check it out.

The show doesn’t follow the conventions we’ve come to expect from Netflix. Each episode focuses on a single relationship issue between completely new characters. There is no big story arc like Orange is the New Black or House of Cards.

The problems these couples face are familiar to any fan of Swanberg’s. They include classics like gender roles, sex, sexuality, stagnation, and change creating conflict. Modern relationship ideas make an appearance as well like privacy when posting to social media and using apps to hook up.

Lots of people consider Swanberg’s early work to be boring. This stems from the philosophy of mumblecore: capture everyday moments with improvisation that sounds like normal speech (hence some inaudible mumbling). This can make for long stretches of pretty much nothing happening.

I want to argue that Easy is a departure from, or maybe more accurately, a continuation of his early work. First, the finished product consists of thirty-minute short films. The medium forces a tightness that a feature length movie does not. And Swanberg most definitely shows this off by staying completely focused on the core idea of each vignette. There isn’t time to languish on nothing.

Still, the improvisation aspect of the acting keeps with an aesthetic from his early works. There is an authenticity to the speech and rapid insight into the characters that often doesn’t come out in fully scripted shows.

I’ve seen some reviews that claim this is the same boring stuff and it is dated and cliche**. I think these reviewers are bringing a bias from his earlier work to these viewings. They also probably don’t understand what each vignette is really about.

The thing I like most about Easy is how each episode has a surface problem that gets explored, but each also has a more complicated meta-commentary running beneath it. I’ll use the first episode as a case study in this.

The premise is that a couple thinks they don’t have a good sex life because the man stays home. He thinks maybe the wife sees him as emasculated and isn’t aroused by the thought of him doing the housework. To spice things up, they use Halloween to dress up in stereotypical masculine (a construction worker) and a stereotypical feminine (a maid?) costumes and role play.

On the surface, this does look cliche. How many times have we seen comedies and dramas examine the gender role idea. It’s old. It’s boring. It’s been done since at least the 90’s (Thirtysomething comes to mind). We should be over this by now.

I get that sentiment, but I think it misses the real and new commentary of the episode. The reason the couple thought this was the problem in their relationship was that a “study” told them. This is cultural commentary about how eager we are with our devices in hand to jump on every study as essential to our lives.

We blindly follow whatever gets reported on, despite the fact that we don’t even know anything about these studies. I certainly don’t believe catchy headlines. Studies often have small findings, and the degree of certainty about their validity is low. But the mainstream media wants clicks, so they put out catchy headlines that have little to do with the actual results of the study.

Strangely, we all jump on the headline as if it were capital-T Truth and make adjustments to our lives based on this. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has changed their order at a restaurant because they were perusing their phone and ran across a headline “New study finds link between X and cancer.” Are we really that gullible?

Each episode has these underlying issues that are not the “obvious” surface one. I can see writing this series off as unoriginal if these surface problems are all you see. But I think the show is inspired in how it takes these old tropes and puts a deeper cultural commentary underneath (many of which would not be relevant five or ten years ago, so they certainly are not rehashing old ideas). I never once got bored watching it, and I have to wonder about the type of person who did.

** Dictionary dot com claims no accent on the e is acceptable for cliche, so I’m sticking with this spelling for blog purposes. I always use the accent in more formal writing.

Whiplash and the Externalization of the Resistance

Steven Pressfield wrote a book called The War of Art back in 2002. Since then, it has risen to cult classic status in various art circles. The book spends some time defining something called the Resistance, and then it turns into a drill sergeant to push you through the Resistance. I want to argue that the movie Whiplash is a direct externalization of this concept.

The Resistance is that internal force that tries to prevent you from doing work. If you’re a runner, maybe you tell yourself that those mile repeats you have to get up at 6:00 a.m. to do before work aren’t going to benefit you that much. Sleep would help you be more productive the rest of the day. That’s the Resistance.

If you’re a musician, maybe you tell yourself doing scales with the metronome on one more day in a row won’t be that helpful. You could just play through some etudes to work on your “lyricism.” That’s the Resistance. Maybe you’re a writer, and you want to read one more book on ancient Rome to make sure your setting is completely accurate before you waste words writing something wrong. That’s the Resistance.

Most people that read Pressfield’s book can really identify with this and understand it from personal experience. Where he got some criticism was in how extreme he took this idea. He basically says the better you get and the closer to great art you get, the worse the Resistance will get. How bad is the Resistance? Well, it was easier for Hitler to start WWII than to face the blank canvas.

I get how people took offense to this historical inaccuracy, but the point wasn’t accuracy. It was to emphasize, metaphorically, just how devious and strong the Resistance can be. People will look for any excuse to not work.

This brings me to the movie Whiplash. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. This movie is so fantastic. It is about a drummer who wants to be the best. He, of course, encounters the Resistance.

The way I interpret the movie is through Pressfield’s book. The movie makes the Resistance external, so that everyone can see exactly what this kid’s excuses could be if he succumbed to them. As he gets better, the Resistance gets worse and worse, until pretty much the most ridiculous thing ever happens to him (I’ll spoil it later with warning).

Here’s an example from early on in the movie:

Oh, you practiced so hard that your hands were bleeding? Guess it’s time to stop and heal up. No! That’s the Resistance. If you really want it bad enough, you won’t let something tiny like that stop you. He comes up with the idea to dunk his hands in ice water to numb them and lessen the bleeding so he can keep going.

I know what you’re thinking. Plenty of people become the best in the world in their art form or athletics without going to these extremes. But I think this misses the point the movie is making. Like the Hitler comment above, the point isn’t to be “literal.” The movie is metaphorically externalizing the Resistance.

Imagine how ineffective it would be for this scene to have the Resistance appear internally. His internal voice-over says, “This is hard. I want to stop.” Boring. Unenlightened. The Resistance will always present itself as legitimate excuses, which is what makes the movie brilliant.

BEGIN SPOILER (highlight it to read)
At the climax, the kid is in a car accident and gets whiplash. He is basically trapped inside an upside-down smashed car, bleeding from tons of wounds. If ever there was a legitimate excuse to stop, this would be it. But no, he claws himself free from the car and runs to the concert where he is supposed to perform and starts playing on stage.
END SPOILER

It would again be a mistake to write this off as totally ridiculous. The point is that the Resistance will keep getting worse as you get closer to being the best. The movie had to up the Resistance to these levels to show just how strong the feeling of having an excuse will get. It’s metaphor; it’s not literal. And I think people’s problem with the movie and Pressfield’s book is they don’t understand that the only way to teach people this lesson is to go over-the-top like this.

David Lynch and Partial Fourth Wall Breaking

First, I added two widgets to the side of this page so people can see my progress on the the Goodreads reading challenge (and the books I’ve read for it) and the book(s) I’m currently reading. I know most of you probably use some sort of RSS reader and never see the actual page, but I thought I’d throw that out there.

I rewatched Inland Empire recently and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as confusing as I initially thought. I hadn’t watched it in probably eight years, but I remember my initial reaction: this is nonsense. I loved Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It seemed that the abstraction jumped up a notch too far to be comprehensible in Inland Empire.

***Spoiler Warning: I give some of my interpretation of the movie. Obviously, no one really knows what it is about, so this shouldn’t be a big deal even if you haven’t seen it.***

This time through I noticed something interesting; the viewer isn’t left to figure it all out on their own. A lot of clues are given in the form of partial fourth wall breaking. If you’ll recall, breaking the fourth wall means talking directly to the audience. Think Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Fight Club. It lets the audience in on something the main character is up to that the other characters don’t know, sometimes to humorous effect, sometimes not.

A lot of people don’t like this technique, because it is so jarring. It pulls you out of the movie. If the information is vital rather than humorous, it can seem like laziness or cheating for the writer to not work at getting the information to you in a more subtle way.

Here’s where Lynch’s technique comes in. I propose that Lynch uses a partial breaking of the fourth wall. He makes his characters speak to the audience directly, but the words are part of a normal(ish) conversation. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll think two or more characters are speaking to each other. Instead, they are speaking to the audience to clue them in to what is happening or about to happen.

This technique has been around forever. Robert M. Fowler presents a convincing argument in Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark that the Gospel of Mark uses this technique. We obvious have no idea what Jesus actually said, so the writer of Mark used conversations with Jesus to speak over the heads of the disciples and directly to the reader. For example, when he says, “Take up your cross …” the disciples couldn’t possibly know what that meant, because he hadn’t been crucified yet! These words are meant for the reader who already knows the full story.

Anyway, enough on that digression. The technique has been around forever. Here’s how I think Lynch uses it. One way to tell is when conversations stop making sense and don’t sound like any sort of conversation normal people would have. Ask yourself: if the character is speaking to me about the movie they are in, does that line make sense?

But then I noticed a certain camera technique went hand in hand with these bizarre conversations. Lynch uses an extreme close-up during such moments. The character doesn’t look directly at the camera like in a normal fourth wall breaking moment, but it is darn close. He keeps it so that it looks like they are in conversation, but really the character is probably speaking directly to you.

I’ll explain using an example from the first scene where this happens. One of the first scenes in the movie is of Grace Zabriskie’s character visiting Laura Dern’s character(s). She claims to have moved down the street and is getting to know the neighbors. The conversation starts off with normal camera angles and mundane things (I like to get to know my neighbors, which house are you living in, etc).

At some point things go weird. Arguably, when the new neighbor says, “It’s difficult to see it from the road,” (in reference to her house) she is already speaking to the audience. She is preparing us to interpret these close-ups. We should interpret this sentence as: It is difficult to see what the movie is about from the far shots of the camera, but if you pay attention to the close-ups things will be clearer.

The next part of the conversation pulls in to an extreme close-up of the face of the neighbor (but note that Laura’s stays at a normal head shot). She says things like, “I hear you have a new role to play.” She’s telling the audience that Laura’s character will be playing a role in the movie you are watching (we learn this later by a different means) even though it sounds natural enough that she might be referring to the fact that Laura’s character is an actress.

The weird stuff then starts appearing. “Your husband. He’s involved.” Laura interprets this as a question and says, “No.” Her confusion comes from the fact that those words were not directed at her but to the audience. Her husband is involved in the true plot to the movie. Grace’s character is so close to looking at the camera in these moments that it is hard not to see it as breaking the fourth wall. Both character’s faces turn directly towards the camera, but their eyes stay ever so slightly away.

The neighbor goes on, “Is there a murder in your film?” Laura gets confused again, “No.” The neighbor changes it to a statement. “No? I think you are wrong about that.” We, as the audience, are being told that Inland Empire is about a murder. In fact, we were told the husband is involved and were told a story about infidelity. Putting the pieces together we have been directly told that the key to unlocking the movie: Laura’s character cheats on her husband and is then murdered by him.

If you watch the film with this in mind, everything starts to make more sense. Pay attention to when there are extreme close-ups, so you know that you are being told vital information through a partial fourth wall breaking technique. Good luck.

On Politically Correct Art Criticism

WARNING: This post will contain spoilers for many, many things.

I know this is a controversial topic, and I periodically keep coming back to it. But I can only read so many reviews that make these types of arguments before needing to say something myself. The main thesis of this post is that it is never a valid form of art criticism to say: this work is bad, because people with trait X ought not be portrayed doing Y.

Before going any further, I’d like to make the argument to show I understand the point of view I’m criticizing. Suppose Group X (women, blacks, gays, mentally ill, etc) has a negative stigma attached to it that manifests in real world discrimination. The claim is that making media that reinforces this incorrect stereotype causes measurable harm to society by perpetuating this discrimination indirectly. It also harms people in this group (particularly children) by not giving good role models to show the stereotype is not true.

I’ll even grant most of this argument by giving an anecdote from my own life. When I was growing up, I experienced a lot of frustration trying to find a positive portrayal of gay people in media. They either ended up dead from AIDS (Philadelphia, Longtime Companion, Love! Valour! Compassion!, Jeffrey), dead from gay bashing or suicide from bullying (Boys Don’t Cry, The Laramie Project, Brokeback Mountain, Defying Gravity, Bent), were pedophiles or molested as children (Mysterious Skin, L.I.E., Bad Education). It seemed the only option to live a life where something terrible wasn’t happening to you was to live a lie (Maurice, Far From Heaven, De-Lovely).

So believe me when I say I get that this style of criticism is coming from a good place. Here’s some examples of articles that use this argument from the recent past (I’ve read more, but didn’t save them anywhere). Avengers: Age of Ultron is bad because instead of having Black Widow killing men all the time, she also has a subplot of flirtation and romantic interests and concerns over her infertility. This pegs the whole movie into problematic territory, since group X (women) ought not be portrayed as caring about thing Y (men or having babies? more on this confusion later).

A recent, highly creative and interesting game Her Story was recently criticized for, can you guess? You’re wrong, because it has nothing to do with women! The game dared to allude to the main character having dissociative identity disorder (though many people believe she does not). The main character also committed a murder. Thus, it is clearly flawed because we ought not portray group X (mental disorder) doing thing Y (committing crimes).

And on it goes. Do you see the pattern? Let’s start with my opinion on the matter before breaking it down and giving better ways to go about this sort of thing. There is a divide between mass media and art. In the age of the internet, this divide is almost impossible to find. I think the argument for this type of criticism almost works for mass media. It fails miserably for art.

Art is art. No matter how good your motives, it is never, ever valid criticism to deride art because the artistic content has material you disagree with. To make that criticism is to say that certain topics are off limits for artists: a character with trait X can’t do thing Y. What if the character must do that thing in order for the art to be the best it can be?

It is hard to articulate exactly why this is not a valid form of criticism. The best way to invalidate it is to try to come up with any sort of plot where this type of criticism cannot be leveled against it. You can’t do it. You almost can by trying to make it have absolutely no conflict or drama. But as soon as any reasonably fleshed out character has any sort of conflict, you will be able to find a criticism of the above form. We’ll come back to this double standard with the Avengers example later.

Many people have embarrassed themselves by trying this exercise. The most prominent being Anita Sarkeesian who makes her living off criticizing video games from a feminist perspective. She sketched a game idea that she thought would be free from sexist tropes, but as soon as it appeared, people were able to throw her own tropes right back at her. It is easy to criticize, but to create something free from this form of criticism is impossible. That is why it is not valid. If it applies to everything, it applies to nothing.

The other reason is that these criticisms are nothing more than saying the work is not politically correct. When phrased this way I think everyone can agree it is poor criticism. An artist’s work is bad because it is not politically correct? When we see something like this, we should laugh at how lazy and dishonest this type of criticism is.

So where does this leave us? I think there is a valid way to raise these same issues. A valid form of criticism is to point out cliche and lazy uses of tropes. Doing this requires effort and justification. For example, in Her Story, if you try to phrase the criticism in these terms, it falls away as baseless. The use of dissociative identity disorder is done in an original way. In games, it is not a trope that mentally ill people are criminals. Such a subtle use of the disorder to create depth and thought-provoking moments is wholly original in games (and also it isn’t even clear the main character has the disorder!).

The Avengers example is a little more tricky. I alluded to a difference between mass media and art earlier, and something that grosses half a billion dollars enters the public consciousness in a way that an indie game does not. Maybe there is some ethical responsibility there. But I think this becomes much easier when we remind ourselves it is a superhero movie. The new Avengers movie could possibly be the least believable movie I’ve ever seen. It is hard to go a whole minute without thinking, wow, that is fake.

As I’ve pointed out, part of these types of arguments hinge on the idea that people will think the trope is real which will reinforce a harmful stereotype. Forgive me for not being able to put a kid who watches a teenager get beat up and tied to a fence to die because of who he is attracted to and thinks, “That could be me,” on the same footing as world where a human turns into a giant green killing machine and Thor exists. In other words, context matters.

But let’s get back on track. My main objection above is that this style of argument never ends. What could have been done differently? If Black Widow has children and a family, the complaint will be that the male superheros don’t have to split their time (though Hawkeye does!). This reinforces the idea that women can’t have it all but men can (or something? why has taking care of a family taken on such a negative stigma again?). But then if she doesn’t have children this reinforces the negative stereotype that if a woman has a career she won’t be able to have a family even if she wants one. Do you see how once you let this style of argument in, it never ends. It is lose-lose for the artist. The critic can complain no matter what choice is made.

If you want a real critique of Avengers you need only point to the cringeworthy damsel in distress trope that occurs 3/4 of the way through when Black Widow is the one captured and needs to be rescued. But for some reason, people focused on her romantic interests…

Anyway, I’m sick of reading these critiques that take this form. They had a bit more validity in the past when it was harder to find positive portrayals of certain groups of people. With our current technology of Hulu, Youtube, Netflix, Amazon, and on and on, it is just as easy to find the blockbuster as the indie film. Mass media doesn’t drown out diversity in the same way it used to. So let’s move on from this lazy, invalid form of art criticism to something more substantial.

On Modern Censorship

I don’t want to wade into the heavy politics of things like GamerGate, MetalGate, and so on, but those movements certainly got me thinking about these issues a few months ago. A few days ago, I read a New York Times article about twitter shaming people out of their careers over basically nothing. This brought some clarity to my thoughts on the issue.

I’ll try to keep examples abstract, at the cost of readability, to not spur the wrath of either side. I haven’t done a post on ethics in a while, and this is an interesting and difficult subject.

First, let me say there are clear cases where censorship is good. For example, children should not be allowed to watch pornography (of course, there could be a dispute over the age where this becomes blurry, but everyone has an age where it is too young). There are also clear cases where censorship is bad. For example, a group of concerned Christian parents succeeds in a petition to ban Harry Potter from their children’s school.

Many arguments about censorship boil down to this question of societal harm. To start our thought experiment, let’s get rid of that complication and assume that whatever work is in question is fine. In other words, we will assume that censorship is bad in the sense that the marketplace of ideas should be free. If something offends you, then don’t engage with it. You shouldn’t go out of your way to make it so no one can engage with it.

In the recent controversies, there has been an underlying meta-dialogue that goes something like this:

Person A: If you don’t like the sexism/racism/homophobia/etc (SRHE) in this game/book/movie/etc (GBME), then don’t get the media. Stop trying to censor it so that I can’t engage with it. I happen to enjoy it.

Person B: I’m not trying to censor anything. I’m just raising social awareness as to the SRHE. It is through media that these types of things are perpetuated, and the first step to lessen this is to raise awareness.

What made this issue so difficult for me is that I understand both points of view. Person A is reiterating the idea that if you don’t like something, then don’t engage with it. There is no need to ruin it for everyone else. It is also hard to argue with Person B if they are sincere. Maybe they agree that censorship is bad, but they want to raise awareness as to why they don’t like the media in question.

The main point of this post is to present a thought experiment where Person B is clearly in the wrong. The reason to do this is that I think the discussion often misses a vital point: in our modern age of twitter storms and online petitions, Person B can commit what might be called “negligent censorship.” Just like in law, negligence is not an excuse that absolves you of the ethical consequences of censoring something.

Thought experiment: Small Company starts making its GBME. In order to fund the project, they get the support of Large Company that is well-known for its progressive values. In the age of the internet, news of this new GBME circulates early.

Person B happens to be a prominent blogger and notices some SRHE in the GBME. Note, for the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t really matter whether the SRHE is real or imagined (though, full disclosure, I personally believe that people whose job it is to sniff out SRHE in media tend to exaggerate [possibly subconsciously] SRHE to find it where it maybe doesn’t really exist).

Let’s make this very clear cut. Person B knows that they can throw their weight around enough to get a big enough twitter storm to scare the Large Company backer out of funding the Small Company’s project. Person B does this, and sure enough, the project collapses and never gets finished or released.

This is clear censorship. Person B acted with the intent to squash the GBME. Sadly, Person B can still claim the nobler argument given earlier, and it is hard to argue against that. I think this is part of what infuriates Person A so much. You can’t prove their interior motivation was malicious.

But I think you don’t need to. Now let’s assume Person B does all of this with the good-natured intention of merely “raising awareness.” The same outcome occurs. Your intent shouldn’t matter, because your actions led to the censorship (and also hurt the livelihood of some people which has its own set of moral issues).

If you write something false about someone that leads to their harm, even if you didn’t realize it, you can still be charged with libel. Negligence is not an excuse. I’m not saying it is a crime to do what Person B did (for example, the SRHE may actually be there so the statements Person B made were true). I’m only making an analogy for thinking about negligence.

You can claim you only were trying to raise awareness, but I claim that you are ethically still responsible. This is especially true now that we’ve seen this happen in real life many times. If Person B is an adult, they should know writing such things often has this effect.

To summarize, if you find yourself on Person B’s side a lot, try to get inside the head of Small Company for a second. Whether intended or not, Person B caused their collapse. It is not an excuse to say Small Company should have been more sensitive to the SRHE in their GBME if they wanted to stay afloat.

This is blaming the victim. If Large Company said upfront they wouldn’t back the project if Small Company made their proposed GBME, it would be Small Company’s fault for taking the risk. If a group of people who don’t agree with the content of the GBME cause it to collapse, it is (possibly negligent) censorship.

Under our assumption that censorship is bad, I think Person B has serious ethical issues and Person A is clearly in the right. The problem is that in real life, Person B tries to absolve their wrong by implicitly appealing to a utilitarian argument.

A (non-malicious) Person B will truly believe that the short term harm of censoring is outbalanced by the long-term good of fighting SRHE. If the evidence was perfectly clear about the causation/correlation between SRHE in mass media and real life, Person B would have a pretty good ethical argument for their position.

What makes this such a contested issue is that we are in some middle ground. There is correlation, which may or may not be significant. But who knows about causation. Maybe it is the other way around. The SRHE in society is coming out in art, because it is present in society: not the other way around that Person B claims.

This is why, even though, with my progressive values, I am highly sympathetic to the arguments and sentiments of Person B, I have to side with Person A most of the time. Person B has a moral responsibility to make sure they raise awareness in a way that does not accidentally lead to censorship. This has become an almost impossible task with our scandal obsessed social media.

For the debates to calm down a bit, I think side B has to understand side A a bit better. I think most people on side A understand the concerns of side B, but they just don’t buy the argument. Many prominent speakers on side B dismiss side A as a bunch of immature white boys who don’t understand their media has SRHE in it. Side B needs to realize that there is a complicated ethical argument against their side, even if it rarely gets articulated.

I’m obviously not calling for self-censorship (which is always the catch-22 of speaking about these issues), but being a public figure comes with certain responsibilities. Here are the types of things I think a prominent writer on SRHE issues should think more critically about before writing:

1. Do I influence a lot of people’s opinion about SRHE topics? For example, having 200K twitter followers might count here.
2. Do my readers expect me to point out SRHE in GBME on a regular basis? If so, you might be biased towards finding it. Ask someone familiar with the GBME whether you are taking clips or quotes out of context to strengthen your claims before making a public accusation.
3. Are my words merely bringing awareness to an issue, or am I also making a call to action to censor the GBME?

On Barthes’s “Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narratives”

I feel I may have been a little unfair in choosing “From Work to Text” last post. In the same collection of essays, Image – Music – Text, is a much better introduction to what Barthes is known for: (post-)structuralism.

Recall that structuralism began back in the very early 1900’s (maybe even very late 1800’s) with linguists like Saussure. Barthes begins the essay by recalling this work. They studied the idealized structure of language and pointed out how this ideal linguistics may be different than actual usage. This gave a systematic way to go about studying it which was still important.

If you’ve ever tried to read any structuralism, then you know that it is full of jargon. The most important words to know are parole vs langue and signifier vs signified. Langue refers to the idealized language we study and parole to the use of language in everyday life. Signifier means the word itself (i.e. the collection of sounds or scribbles on the page) and signified is what the word refers to.

Barthes wrote this essay in the 70’s, so linguistic structuralism had essentially died at this point due to people like Derrida and Chomsky. But Barthes mostly brings up Saussure as an analogy to what he wants to do. Narratives are also composed of chunks which can be identified, and they are structured in a meaningful way which can be studied.

Barthes identifies three main levels of description for a narrative: function, action, and narration. He uses “function” for the smallest unit of a narrative, because it is to consist of things like Chekhov’s gun. One unit might be the reference of a rifle on the wall. The rifle will function later in the story.

Barthes finds that identifying the functional units becomes increasingly more complicated the more you think about it. For one, he makes an assumption I don’t quite agree with to make things easier: art has no noise. If the author refers to a red sweater, the detail is not just meaningless noise, it must have some significance. If you want a rule of thumb, the functional units will be roughly each sentence unless there is strong reason to divide the sentence or include two.

These units come in two types: functions and indices. We already pointed out that function means the unit serves a function in the narrative like the gun example. An index unit integrates more diffuse information like the atmosphere. To understand the meaning of this type of unit one must move to a higher level of description (action or narration).

He then goes on to classify functional units even further into four functions: nuclei, catalysts, indices, and informants. These are what they sound like. The nuclei form the core of the story in the sense that deleting one fundamentally alters the story; a catalysts makes an event happen; indices we described already; and informants identify a location in time and place for the narrative.

Barthes then goes on to describe ways in which these units can interact. For example, the catalysts act on various nuclei. If this interests you, read the essay, but it may be a useful exercise to think about it yourself.

He calls a logical succession of nuclei bound together in some way, a “sequence.” For example, a short sequence of three functional units could be: hand held out, hand shaken, hand released. This small sequence might sit in a larger “meeting sequence”: approach, halt, hand shake, sit.

The next level of description was action. In a narrative, each actor/character belongs to a sphere of action. There are relatively few spheres per narrative (compared to functional units), and these can be classified. He gives a brief historical summary of people’s attempts to do this, but we’ll skip that for the sake of space.

The important thing is to not confuse short, trivial actions, which are functional units, with large scale “actants” between the characters. The classification comes in three main types: communication, desire/quest, and ordeal.

Barthes’s explanation of the last level of description, narration, becomes characteristically vague, because he turns to the classic problem of reader/writer interaction. There is, of course, clear evidence of the narrator in a narration (the fact that the words are there at all!). It turns out, there is just as much evidence of a reader, but these are more subtle.

For example, if a narrator says that his friend Susie owns the coffee shop, this is presumably not to remind himself of a fact he already knows. It exists on the assumption that the reader does not know, and hence shows there must be a reader. He goes on to describe types of narration, which I’ve discussed here.

One of the main points of the narrative level is to integrate the lower levels into a coherent whole. He calls this integration whereas the other fundamental process is called segmentation. He goes on to describe how functional distortion of these units can have meaning. For example, the unit of shaking hands can be interrupted by a sequence of thoughts. It is one unit which has been distorted and segmented for a reason.

He gives some more examples of segmentation and integration, but that is the main idea of the essay. I think it is far better and more useful than “From Work to Text.” Although structuralism and post-structuralism were major academic movements, I feel, like Sontag, that a lot more popular criticism can make use of structural analysis.

On Sontag’s “Against Interpretation”

I meant to do this a while ago as a contrast after the series on Hirsch’s Validity in Interpretation. If you are unfamiliar, Susan Sontag was a well-known cultural critic and essayist (among other things). She started publishing in the mid 60’s and continued all the way into the 2000’s. “Against Interpretation” was published in 1966.

The context here is interesting. Hirsch reacted to the New Criticism as somehow being too loose. You could make anything mean anything through a close reading. He wanted only certain narrow, well-justified interpretations to be valid. In “Against Interpretation” Sontag also reacts to the New Criticism, but in the opposite direction: the whole idea of interpretation is wrong-headed.

She begins by lamenting for a time when we weren’t so inundated with theory. She argues that we’ve become too obsessed with content. We tend to approach a work of art ready to interpret and extract its content. We start pulling out symbols and translating these into some meaning before we even have a chance to experience the work.

Art is supposed to be messy, complicated, and uncomfortable at times. The act of interpretation clears out the mess, simplifies it, and makes it comfortable. We often feel an overwhelming urge that works of art must be about something. How often do you hear, “I’ve heard of that book. What is it about?”

It is even possible that the artist intended certain objects to be interpreted as symbols, but the meaning is not what gives art its merit. Abstract art tries to be all form and no content in order to resist the destruction of interpretation. But artists shouldn’t have to flee from interpreters in order to escape.

In the seventh section of the essay, Sontag makes a startling prediction. “The fact that films have not been overrun by interpreters is in part due simply to the newness of cinema as an art.” I think from our vantage point, 50 years later, we can say she was correct. Open any newspaper or go to a film blog or find an academic journal of film studies. Cinema gets dissected through interpretation as much as any other art form.

She ends the essay with a solution to this problem of over-interpretation. Commentary and criticism are both possible and necessary. We need to switch from our obsession with content and talk more about form. She points to Barthes and others for people who have given solid formal analysis. We could also try to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it.” We can focus on description rather than on what you think the description means.

When we interpret, we take the sensory experience for granted. The purpose of art is to be experienced, not over-analyzed. “Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.” The goal of criticism should be to make works of art more real to us. “The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.”

Now that I’ve summarized the essay, I’ll comment on it. I think this is in some sense an overreaction or maybe even a straw man argument. For example, Hirsch, who values the author’s intent, would probably say that if the author intended for the work to be a purely visceral experience with no excess symbolism in it, then to read that symbolism in it would be an invalid interpretation.

More specifically, genre matters. Some genres call for detailed, complicated interpretation and some call for no interpretation. Sontag’s essay seems to call for a complete rejection of interpretation whereas the other side seems to argue that if you want to interpret, then here are some tools for it.

Maybe this is the 50 year gap, but I don’t know anyone that calls for always interpreting all the time. Even the most analytic of critics would admit that it is perfectly valid to just experience a work sometimes. So I guess I’m somewhat confused at what this essay is really arguing against.

On the other hand, I fully agree that we often over-analyze and reach for interpretations without first experiencing a work. I absolutely hate the question: what is that about? Romance novels can be about something. A TV sitcom can be about something (or in a particularly famous case about nothing). Essays can be about something. Great art stops being art if you try to reduce it to some five sentence plot line. The thing that it is about is not the thing that makes it worth experiencing.