Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Goldilocks Wasn't a Hipster

When I read on your blog "I have a friend who makes a point of reading stories against the grain" I thought: "Does he mean me?" If so, I'm rather flattered. Particularly the injunction that said friend would be better advised to write his own stuff than criticising other people's. Of course I'm usually wrong about thinking you're writing about me ("I'm so vain…"). But since said friend and I are obviously quite similar, I thought I might as well fill in some of the pieces about what said friend might think if he did happen to be me.

I'll have a go at describing the experience of people like myself. When I read or watch fiction (and non-fiction come to that) what I find frustrating is the apparent authorial ascription of morality, sides, values and so forth (I'm struggling for the word here). Perhaps it's my science background. When I read about atoms I don't expect the textbook to tell me which are the good atoms and which are the bad atoms. I expect to be able to make up my own mind as to whether the atoms in a bomb or a power station are good or not. (OK, maybe that makes me sound a bit too much like Doctor Manhattan.) I also bring that reading to current affairs and history and fiction. When I read about ISIS I expect to read information about, as far as we know, what has happened. Not a polemic on what must have happened given the fact that they are evil. The same goes for Conquistadors or for Supervillains.

That's why I enjoyed Watchmen. I wasn't being told that the Watchmen were goodies and someone else was a baddie. To me the story read like something, er, real. It felt like I was being given the raw data of events free of interpretation and told to make up my own mind. I didn't feel the usual necessity to explore contrary interpretations so as to overcome the bias of the telling and reach a level of objectivity. It felt like Moore was actually being objective.

In the case of Doctor Who, I find the show accessible to the extent that the Doctor's identity and morality are uncertain. We don't really know who he is and, from Genesis of the Daleks to Into the Dalek I feel like I'm being asked whether this god-like being represents the side I want to be on or not. It's tempting to be his assistant, but is it really desirable or even moral? He'd make as good a devil as a saviour. This feels far more believable to me than a Captain Kirk figure. And that's the reason that I have less desire to re-interpret Who than I do Star Trek. 

Which doesn't mean I can use this technique to enjoy everything, however bad or pulpy. It doesn't simply pad out dull fiction. For instance, I found Voyager almost un-watchably bad. I used to muse on how the premise of each episode could have been turned into a workable script while still watching it. That's a different thing altogether from creating a new interpretation. With Voyager there didn't really seem to be a work of fiction to interact with and I was idly trying to create one. With, say, Spider-Man there's a good enough story that it's worth trying to get to the bottom of it by understanding what's "really" going on. How good or bad is Spider-Man? Why isn't he motivated to make lots of money out of his situation? Why isn't he a Fascist? Why doesn't he have other spider characteristics, such as injecting acid into people and sucking out their insides? In the "real" world all this stuff would be discussed and explained. J. Jonah Jameson is a wonderful idea that goes part of the way to providing a real-feeling sense of "balance". Or rather, he would do if he weren't himself just presented as a disingenuous rogue. Superhero worlds are interesting enough to me that I'd like to be able to suspend disbelief in them. And that means filling in what seem to me like blanks created by the black-and-white internal values of the story.

I don't know how unusual I am in my "wilful misinterpretation". I don't generally think of it as wilful. Nor as misinterpretation. On the other hand I do know that I have a certain naïvety which means I often come up with readings that others tell me are wrong from beginning to end. It's one of the reasons I gave up English at school. I would have found it easy to regurgitate the teacher's interpretation of a novel. But I always found it difficult to be told that I was supposed to interpret a novel for myself and then be told my interpretation was "wrong". No-one else in the class seemed to suffer from this. My teacher seemed to be a post-modernist for whom all interpretations were valid except (apparently) for mine. "There are no wrong ideas here. Except that one, obviously." Perhaps it was a result of my book-of-the-decade poor reading background. I've noticed from all the novels I've read more recently that there are cues given by authors telling you who you're supposed to think is good or bad. They're not cues I would have spotted when I was at school.

I also have a possibly unusual habit of connecting one story with another in what I conceive of as the same setting. It's a bit like the fan thing of wanting all of Doctor Who to be consistent. I have the same reaction to, say, all cowboy stories. So once I've read a story in which Native Americans are good guys, they remain good for me the next time I read a cowboy story in which they're supposed to be bad. To me it's the same setting. Equally all modern-day bank robber stories are the same setting, whether the robbers are heroes (heist stories) or villains (superheroes etc). It's how I understand context in order to read any genre story. Without some sort of setting-transference I wouldn't be able to pick up the conventions that most stories require in order to be able to read them. Of course I may be totally unsubtle, picking up the wrong elements to take into the next story.

I wonder if this means that I'm actually incapable of authentically reading a story. I've often observed that for me everything includes its opposite. Cowboys so good at horse riding that they never fall off make me think about cowboys who do fall off. Maybe that's what the comic relief is for, to satisfy people like me that this is a realistic world? If cowboys can't fall off their horses, where's the peril? I used to love the 60s movie spoofs (Carry On etc) for explicitly raising the questions that the real movies implicitly raised in my mind. Strangely there are some writers who I find can fool me on this point. Tolkien is a good example. He manages to convince me that elves are nice without my wondering what their dirty secrets are. George Orwell famously manages to get his often absurd politics across in a highly convincing way. But these are rare experiences for me. Most fiction sets alarm bells ringing in my head. It could be that my reading is a way of preventing the cessation of suspension of disbelief. Perhaps I rationalise that good and evil are not as presented rather than finding the fictional world itself untenable.

Whatever the reason, I have to say that I really can't tell the difference between using the text for some sort of game and accessing something genuinely on the page. Take, for example, an idea I had recently for an alternative Superman plagued by self-doubt. The contrast of his virtual invincibility and his feelings of inadequacy nicely reflects emotional issues common in our own society. Now, the reason I had the idea was that Superman in some versions (Christopher Reeve, perhaps? I'm not sure) is absurdly smug. It just doesn't seem realistic to me that anyone could be that smug. All the time. I can't connect with the character. I want to access some interpretation which I can believe in. So maybe he's not smug in private. Such an idea could be the basis for a piece of fan fiction, but for me it's just a way of watching Superman. It doesn't feel wrong to me to wonder if the Man of Steel has secret private doubts, even if the text doesn't hint at it. It feels just as real as the famously invisible Captain's toilet in Star Trek. My alternative interpretations are things I imagine to be present in the universe. So in my reading of Star Wars there are people who consider the Rebel Alliance to be group of terrorist bandits. Because they are. They are also revolutionary heroes. I cannot imagine a world where you could be one without being the other.

116 comments:

Mike Taylor said...

"Tolkien is a good example. He manages to convince me that elves are nice without my wondering what their dirty secrets are."

In Lord of the Rings, maybe. In The Silmarilion, not so much.

Otherwise, your imaginary friend could almost be me (though he's not).

SK said...

So in my reading of Star Wars there are people who consider the Rebel Alliance to be group of terrorist bandits. Because they are. They are also revolutionary heroes. I cannot imagine a world where you could be one without being the other

Actually they are neither. They are word on a page, said by actors, presented on film with camera angles and cuts and edits.

This seems to me a case of the error of reading fiction as if it were 'gossip about imaginary people' rather than a constructed aesthetic experience; of imagining that a film, say, is a record of events that 'happened' in the fictional universe.

(I've just been reading some of David Mamet's railing against the Method, where he repeatedly points out the fallacy of trying to 'understand the character' because the character does not exist beyond the words in the script, and certainly has no 'inner life'. I don't agree with Mamet on everything, but in this he's right on the money.)

The key I think is the comparison of fiction with a science book. A science book is describing something that really exists. A fictional work, on the other hand, is not describing something that really exists: it is constructed in such a way as to make a point, and what is important is how well it makes that point, not whether it presents a 'true picture' of something which is, fundamentally, untrue.

Mike Taylor said...

"Actually they are neither. They are word on a page, said by actors, presented on film with camera angles and cuts and edits."

That's true only in so far as the Mona Lisa is merely dabs of paint on canvas, or The Rite of Spring is merely vibrations in the air. In other words, it's not true at all.

--

“I am a star at rest, my daughter,” answered Ramandu.

“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”

“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of."

SK said...

That's true only in so far as the Mona Lisa is merely dabs of paint on canvas, or The Rite of Spring is merely vibrations in the air. In other words, it's not true at all.

I think you miss the point. I'm not denying the reality of the constructed aesthetic experience; far from it. The point is that the constructed aesthetic experience is all there is.

It's not the difference between the Mona Lisa and some dabs of paint on canvas; it's the difference between the Mona Lisa and a painting of somebody that artist made up with their imagination.

The misreading is the idea that the aim of Star Wars is to provide a historical record of fictional occurrences in an imaginary world. Or that people on the Starship Enterprise go to the toilet.

It's not.

And they don't.

Mike Taylor said...

"I'm not denying the reality of the constructed aesthetic experience; far from it. The point is that the constructed aesthetic experience is all there is."

Isn't that the exact opposite of your previous statement that "They are word on a page, said by actors, presented on film with camera angles and cuts and edits"?

SK said...

Isn't that the exact opposite of your previous statement that "They are word on a page, said by actors, presented on film with camera angles and cuts and edits"?

No. How could it be?

They are words on a page, said by actors, presented on film with camera angles and cuts and edits, which add up, when experienced by a viewer, to a constructed aesthetic experience.

What they are not is a record of imaginary actions performed by imaginary people.

The words, actors, etc, create in the mind of the viewer an aesthetic experience.

But the Rebel Alliance do not exist outside of that experience.

SK said...

(For instance: there are questions it makes sense to ask of the Mona Lisa, like 'I wonder what she had for breakfast that morning?' or 'Did she banter with the artist, or did she just sit quietly and never speak to him?' that it would not make sense to ask of a painting where the artist made the subject up with their imagination.

The subject of the Mona Lisa existed outside the context of the dabs of paint on canvas, and the aesthetic experience those dabs create in the viewer. She had a life and did things which were not recorded in the painting. It makes sense to ask, 'I wonder if she was comfortable, having to sit still for so long?'

The imaginary subject did not exist outside the context of the dabs of paint on canvas; the imaginary subject is created by the dabs of paint on canvas. It makes no sense to ask, of an imaginary subject, 'I wonder if she finds that chainmail bikini comfortable?'.

The Rebel Alliance fall into the second category. They are not the subjects of the story in the way, say, ISIS are the subjects of an article about them. ISIS exist and stories can be written about them; but the Rebel Alliance do not exist and are created by the stories about them. There are questions it makes sense to ask about ISIS, like 'Are they really evil or not?', which it makes no sense to ask about the Rebel Alliance.)

SK said...

(Thanks for the Mona Lisa example, it's really useful and I would never have come up with it on my own, and I may re-use it on other occasions when this topic comes up.)

Mike Taylor said...

Yes, I think the Mona Lisa example has proved useful: it's helped us elucidate what we're talking about.

You claim that it makes sense to ask about the Mona Lisa 'I wonder if she was comfortable, having to sit still for so long?', but not the same question about, say, Slave Leia. I don't agree. I do of course agree that it's not a question that we could ever resolve by talking to the subject. But that doesn't make it meaningless: the answer is to be found in the intent of the artist (who in this case might be George Lucas, Richard Marquand or Carrie Fisher. Together they are portraying a character -- one that, like anyone fictional, can have anyr degree of backstory.

Really, I think that whether a character depicted in an artwork was based on a real living person is just about the least interesting thing about that character. James Bond may or may not have been based on Ian Fleming's brother Peter, but knowing that one way or the other doesn't make a jot of difference to the novels. If you ask of Bond, "why did he prefer his martinis shaken rather than stirred?" you wouldn't discover the answer by interviewing Peter Bond. If there's an answer to be had at all, it's in the character.

The real issue, I think, is this: given that the character is a cultural construct (whether or not it was based on a real person), to what extent is that construct shared between different people? And to what degree does the author successfully constrain what that construct is? In other words, do you and I understand the same person by James Bond, and is that person the same one that Ian Fleming intended us to understand?

SK said...

If you ask of Bond, "why did he prefer his martinis shaken rather than stirred?" you wouldn't discover the answer by interviewing Peter Bond. If there's an answer to be had at all, it's in the character.

No, it isn't. Because there is no 'character'.

If there's an answer to be had, it's in the question, 'What did Ian Fleming intend to communicate by Bond preferring his Martinis shaken rather than stirred?'

It makes no sense to ask, 'Is James Bond a psychopath'?

It makes sense to ask, 'Does Fleming intend to present Bond as a psychopath, or not? to what degree does he succeed in that?'

But the point is that it makes no sense, for example, to ask, 'Where is the Captain's loo on the Starship Enterprise?'

The point is that there is nothing in the fictional universe except what is presented. The lives of the characters do not go on off-page or off-screen, and it makes no sense to speak as if they do.

The point is that it makes no more sense to 'wonder if the Man of Steel has secret private doubts' than it would to wonder if the girl in the chainmail bikini is feeling chilly.

It definitely makes sense to wonder, 'what would a story about a superhero who was plagued by secret private doubts be like?' and it might even make sense to write such a story, if you could do it well enough.

But it makes no sense to try to wonder what Superman 'really' feels when he is off-camera.

The point of a story is not to pretend it's real.

Honestly, I wish I could find whoever first came up with the idea of 'suspension of disbelief' and shoot them. They could not have been more wrong and they have caused no end of trouble.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Mona Lisa is a thing made by Leonardo; and it is the same thing whether or not it is a painting of a real person, or an imaginary person Leonardo made up out of his head. That's not to say that the question "Who was Lisa?" and "Was it a good likeness or not" aren't interesting questions. Obviously they are. But they aren't strictly questions about the painting. The woman in the painting has an enigmatic smile that has fascinated people for centuries. It's just as fascinating and enigmatic if it turns out that Lisa said "I hated that painting, he couldn't even get my gap toothed grin write." (And our interest in the painting doesn't go away if we find a signed and sealed letter in Italian that says "My Mona Lisa is smiling like that because she just found out that her husband's mistress had met with an unfortunate accident, but can't let him know she knows.")

Does the Mona Lisa have legs? No: she doesn't. Why don't we think of it as a slightly grotesque "paining of a legless woman"? Because there's nothing in the painting to suggest that Lisa herself didn't have legs: it happens to be painted from the waist up. What colour shoes is the Mona Lisa wearing? Well, we don't know, they aren't in the picture. What colour shoes was Lisa wearing when she say for Leonardo? Presumably, it's theoretically possible that we could find out. Does that effect the painting? No: because they aren't in the painting: it would be weird to say "The red shoes that we can't see clash with the background and spoil the artwork." (*) But surely we are free to say "The Mona Lisa has legs, and stockings, and was wearing whatever shoes were worn by a rich lady in the 1500s. Because although they aren't in the painting, the style of the painting suggests or implies that those things would be present. That's a true fact about the painting. If the curtain opens on a stage set consisting of a sign post with "Nottingham - 2 miles" on it, I can meaningfully say that the scene takes place 2 miles from Nottingham; and when Robin Hood exits stage left I can meaningfully say "He has gone to Nottingham".

Nothing in Star Trek suggests that Captain Kirk is anything other than a human being; so we assume that he has a sock draw, wears underwear, showers, goes to the toilet. Those things are present even though they are not mentioned; they are implicit in saying "Kirk is presented as a normal human being." And in fact, as soon as semi-official guides to the Enterprise were being published (about 5 years after Star Trek finished), toilets were clearly shown in the cabins and on the bridge of the Enterprise.

This kind of thing only becomes a problem when a text draws attention to the thing which it doesn't want to be mentioned. There is a scene in the aforementioned Superman Radio Series when Jimmy and Lois are imprisoned in a cellar by baddies for at least several days, and there is not even the slightest suggestion that this could be a bit awkward, particularly for two such prissy characters. Once you've noticed the absence, it can interfere with the reality of the story. Viewer's are said to have started to notice the absence of a bathroom in the Brady Bunch's home. (And don't even get me started on Daniel Deronda's foreskin.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

(*) I remember that someone objected to the BBC adaptation of Lord of the Rings because Robert Stevens was not tall enough to play Aragorn...on the Radio.

Andrew Rilstone said...

We had more or less this exact discussion with respect to Revenge of the Sith in 2005. It did not end well.

Mike Taylor said...

Link?

SK said...

Once you've noticed the absence, it can interfere with the reality of the story

But the point is there is no 'reality of the story'. There is only the story. The story is not, and is not meant to be, an accounting of events.

To go back to the original guest article:

When I read about ISIS I expect to read information about, as far as we know, what has happened. Not a polemic on what must have happened given the fact that they are evil. The same goes for Conquistadors or for Supervillains.

What does 'information about what has happened' even mean for superheroes?

It seems to mean that there is a fictional world onto which the story is a window, and the task of the author is to portray this world in as realistic a manner as possible, such that it is possible to pretend, while experiencing the story, that it is real: to pretend, for a while, that Luke and Leia and Han are real people.

And, furthermore, it implies that anything which compromises this activity of 'pretending it's real', which reminds one of the essential artifice of the whole thing, whether it be outlandish coincidences, inconsistencies in plot or motivation or the 'rules' of the fictional world, is bad.

But this is simply not how fiction works.

It's not about pretending there's a real world which we are seeing.

That much is obvious from, for example, any double-clocked drama. Such a device out instantly to destroy any work in which it is used for it renders the whole thing completely impossible to believe in. and yet it doesn't. Why not? Because it's not about pretending the world and the characters are real; it's about seeing them as representations of aspects of life, and through that receiving the communicated aesthetic effect of the work.

Visual artists working in two dimensions, for example, quite often 'cheat': they paint things which would be impossible in three dimensions, in order to better achieve the effect they want to produce.

This is not a flaw; the point of the piece of art is to produce a response, not to accurately represent a possible three-dimensional scene.

In the same way, stories should not be seen as attempts to accurately portray possible worlds. They are constructs, designed to produce an aesthetic effect on the reader, viewer or listener.

You are not supposed to believe in the world of a story, at all. You are supposed to experience the story.

If something gets in the way of that experiencing (such as introducing a mystery early on, flagging it up as important, and then not resolving it by the end of the story (hello, Kill the Moon) that is bad. But if it just makes it impossible to 'believe' in the world of the story, to pretend it's real? That's no problem at all.

tmellis said...

It makes no sense to ask, 'Is James Bond a psychopath'?

It makes sense to ask, 'Does Fleming intend to present Bond as a psychopath, or not? to what degree does he succeed in that?'


I think that the question of
"Is [the character of] James Bond [that of] a Psychopath?" is both a legitimate question, and one separate from the question of whether Flemming intended him to be viewed in that light...

And if you are more interested in reading the stories as fiction than as a critical analysis of Flemming, a more relevant one too...

SK said...

if you are more interested in reading the stories as fiction

The whole discussion is about what 'reading the stories as fiction' means.

It does not, for example, mean 'pretending for the time you read them that they are describing real events'.

Mike Taylor said...

The whole discussion is about what 'reading the stories as fiction' means.

It does not, for example, mean 'pretending for the time you read them that they are describing real events'.


I think that is exactly what "reading the stories as fiction means", and a beautifully economical description to boot.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If someone tells me that Robin Hood walked from Dover to Nottingham in a single day, then I am perfectly entitled to ask how he managed, given that it's 215 miles away. Maybe there is a good answer. Maybe we are just coming to the part where Robin has a magic carpet or a teleportation ring. (But Robin Hood with a magic ring is a different proposition from Robin Hood the honest rogue with amazing archery skill.) Maybe this is a fictional England in which Nottingham is about where Canterbury is in real life. (But a Robin Hood who lived in an England with a different geography is a different proposition from one who had his adventures in identifiable places.) And "He's only a fictitious character; if I say he can walk at 25 miles per hour, he can" is also a possible answer. For certain kinds of narrative -- jokes, say, it's a perfectly good one. ("Why did the man have a duck on his head" "It doesn't matter. Because I say so. Because it sets up a clever pun at the end.") But "Robin Hood, who lives in a Monty Python, Tom and Jerry Universe where time and distance makes no difference" is a different Robin Hood again.

SK said...

What about, 'it doesn't matter; it's a story about archery and swords and derring-do and stirring music and overacting, meant to stir the blood, have you on the edge of your seat during the exciting bits and make you cheer when the hero gets the girl, and the only sensible criteria to judge it on are how well it achieves those ends' as an answer?

SK said...

(For that matter, what about, 'he's a fox' as an answer?)

Mike Taylor said...

If you throw your hands up and ignore everything that happens offstage, then the reason Robin wins the archery competition could be "he doesn't really, but aliens with mind-control powers make everyone think he has". That's not a Robin Hood story. (If you set it up beforehand that your particular story is one in which Robin Hood knows some aliens with mind-control powers then it is; not a regular Robin Hood story, but a Robin Hood story of sorts.)

Mike Taylor said...

The point is, you need to know what kind of story you're watching/reading so that you know what kinds of things might happen. To know that, you have to assume some degree of reality in the fictional world.

SK said...

The point is, you need to know what kind of story you're watching/reading so that you know what kinds of things might happen.

Yes.

To know that, you have to assume some degree of reality in the fictional world.

No. You have to be able to read the genre cues which tell you whether this is the sort of story in which those sorts of things might happen.

Mike Taylor said...

That's not enough. The genre cues might tell you that Robin doesn't have superpowers, so that he's limited to (say) 4 mph when travelling long distances. But they can't tell you how far Nottingham is from Dover. For that, you need to assume a world. An offstage reality.

SK said...

The genre cues might tell you that Robin doesn't have superpowers, so that he's limited to (say) 4 mph when travelling long distances. But they can't tell you how far Nottingham is from Dover.

No, what they tell you is that it doesn't matter how far Nottingham is from Dover because this is not the kind of story where distances matter; this is the kind of story which cuts right to the next exciting bit, who cares about the practicalities of things like travel?

For that, you need to assume a world. An offstage reality.

See, this is an example where assuming a world is actively harmful to the process of experiencing the story as fiction, because it gets in the way of the how the story is supposed to work.

To properly experience the story as fiction, you need to forget all about the idea that there is an offstage reality, and (like the narrative) cut straight to the next bit of swordfighting / romancing / goofing off in the forest.

Mike Taylor said...

When you're experiencing reality, do you also deliberately ignore everything that can't see at that moment?

SK said...

When you're experiencing reality, do you also deliberately ignore everything that can't see at that moment?

Why would how I experience reality have anything to do with how I experience stories?

Stories and reality are different things.

Do you also object to all visual art which dispenses with perspective, because it doesn't match what you see when you 'experience reality'?

Andrew Rilstone said...

Okay.

SK is arguing for an extreme formalist position. "The Well Wrought Urn" and all that that entails. "Nottingham" means only what it means in THIS story: the name wasn't chosen because of things that the reader already knows about it. When a character says he is going to "London", the reader hears the word "London" as if for the first time. "London" means only what it means in THIS story (so far, just "place where the hero is going") -- the fact that its where the Queen lives or that there is a bridge and beefeaters and a zoo are outside The Text and therefore totally non-existent. If London turns out to be in that part of Cornwall where they all wear haggis and eat kilts, this doesn't surprise us in any way, because that is what the writer has made true in this story. In fact, if we are being proper formalists, we don't really think of London as a "place" at all -- we are more interested in the repetition of the "L" sound and the length of the word and how it sounds in the sentence. And, incidentally, we shouldn't even be looking at the Mona Lisa as a picture of a woman. We should be looking at it as an arrangement of colour and shape and negative space and light. All of which is, in fact, quite a good way of discussing poetry, because it forces you to look at what the writer actually wrote, which is a concrete thing we have in front of us and which we can all agree about, as opposed to wishy washy subjective emotions and feelings. But it's not how an ordinary readers reads an ordinary story. An even a staunch formalist might have to admit that if a poet says "Jerusalem", "New York", or "Notting Hill" " he might know and intend that those place names will have certain resonances with most readers?

SK said...

SK is arguing for an extreme formalist position

No he isn't, he's arguing for a common-sense position.

"Nottingham" means only what it means in THIS story: the name wasn't chosen because of things that the reader already knows about it.

No, that's just silly.

Clearly London and Nottingham are chosen for their resonances with readers.

But the point is that in some types of story, travel is important (for example, in a spy story, if the disowned spy is in New York and needs to get to London, we expect there to be some clever business with faked passports and maybe a tense scene at the airport where he has to avoid someone from the agency). In other types of story, it isn't (for example, in a romantic comedy, the heroine might be in New York when she realises that in fact she is in love with the hero, who is getting married in London tomorrow; and then the next scene is her running up the steps of the church in Camden, and literally nobody cares how plausible that would have been because it is not what the story is about).

In both types of story, the resonances of London and New York are important, and it is important that the reader knows they are far apart; but in one case the distance is important because it sets up a tense travel sequence, in the other it is important because it symbolises emotional distance.

But in neither case does it help to imagine that there is some 'real' offstage world through which the characters are travelling when they are not being depicted. In fact most of the time, as the example with that Canadian singer shows, it is actively harmful to the experience to start trying to imagine what the characters are doing 'offstage'.

But no. I am not saying that the reader is supposed to forget that Dover and Nottingham are far away from each other. I am saying that in that type of story it simply does not matter: travel is boring, swordfights are exciting, so cut the travel and get to the swordfight. That is how that kind of swashbuckling story works.

The reader knows that Dover and Nottingham are a long way away form each other. The reader knows that what is depicted is, in reality, impossible. but the reader does not care because it is more important for that type of story that it be exciting than that it be possible.

If it isn't exciting, then the story has failed, whether or not it is possible.

On the other hand if it is exciting, then it being possible doesn't add anything to the experience.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Be very careful of using the phrase Common Sense. It has very negative connotations around here.

I can imagine a film in which we see Robin Hood return from the crusades, and then instantly fade to him back in his castle in Nottingham, and no one minds how he got there. You just skipped the boring bit. (That is, on my analogy, like the fact that we happen not to ever see Captain Kirk going to the toilet. It's not mentioned and it doesn't matter.)

I can also imagine a film in which we see Robin Hood disembark from his ship, and then say "We can be in Nottingham by nightfall" which instantly makes any viewer who has ever seen a map say "Er...No you can't." (This is analogous to making a TV series in which six teenages and two adults share a house and pointedly showing us that there is no toilet.)

Your example of the romantic movie works fine, because the audience assumes that the hero has spent several days travelling. If later on in the story, someone said "Ah, the eminent professor you met on the boat from New York to London" they wouldn't say "He didn't have time to meet any body, because he traveled back in the twinkling of an eye through the power of movie magic."

Some kinds of story are always pointing outside themselves, encouraging us to think about the characters's back stories or the history's of their world. (60% of the interest of Lord of the Rings comes from the allusions to events and histories that happen off stage.) Some kinds of story, I agree, take place in a self contained bubble which doesn't have an outside. It is meaningless to ask "What will Vladimir and Estragon do if Godot finally turns up" or "How did Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin first meet up." It's not meaningless at all to ask "What sort of man did Tom Sawyer grow up to be?" or "What was the rest of Cossette and Marius's life like?"

I think that My Friend is wrong that all stories can be read as having a before, an after and an offstage. I think that you are wrong in thinking that no-story can be read in that way.

Andrew Rilstone said...

(The existence of fan fiction and unauthorized sequels proves this. A given piece of writing might be good or bad: but readers don't, on the whole, throw up their hands in despair and say "A story about Elizabeth and Darcey as a married couple -- but that's MEANINGLESS NONSENSE" as I think we might if someone started, say, imagining Dennis the Menace being sent to a child psychologist.

Andrew Rilstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Taylor said...

"SK is arguing for an extreme formalist position."

No he isn't, he's arguing for a common-sense position.


I rather suspect we all think our positions are common-sense positions. So do UKIP candidates, for that matter. Making that assertion doesn't really us very far.

Mike Taylor said...

Our esteemed host writes:

It is meaningless to ask "What will Vladimir and Estragon do if Godot finally turns up" or "How did Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin first meet up." It's not meaningless at all to ask "What sort of man did Tom Sawyer grow up to be?" or "What was the rest of Cossette and Marius's life like?"

Yes! This! Exactly!

So the question then becomes (and I suspect it was the real question all along), "Is Doctor Who like Waiting for Godot, or is it like Tom Sawyer?" And the answer of course is "it depends what episode you're talking about". And that, as much as anything, is why I love Doctor Who.

Gavin Burrows said...

”Stories and reality are different things.”

In what may well be a rare moment of accord, I agree with SK here. Stories and reality are different things.

The point about the distance from Nottingham to Dover seems to me trivial. Shakespeare makes basic errors of time and distance constantly, and the only people who worry are academics who don't want to admit the great man ever made mistakes. At most its a barometer of how far you're enjoying the experience. Your reaction may range from “it's daft of course that someone could ride one horse from Nottingham to Dover in two hours. But mostly I'm thinking about how gallant Errol Flynn looks in his green livery” to “this film is so dull, Kevin Costner's English accent is appalling and they don't even know the distance from Nottingham to Dover. I think I'll see if there's a repeat of 'QI' on Dave.”

Art is always artifice. Art is composed from signs. The actor in his green livery and the roadsign to Nottingham are both signs. Some theatre plays dress the stage up as a window, where actors pretend to see things in the wings and so on. Just like the Mona Lisa approximates spatial depth. In other plays the stage is just a canvas to stick signs on, and the actors are more likely to look out to us in the audience and tell us stuff. Each is fine to do. But it doesn't stop it being all signs.

This doesn't make fiction any less involving for us. A sentimental soul, I have sometimes cried over the deaths of fictional characters. I once felt fill to bursting with exultant joy at the death of the fictional character Adric. I would have been surprised had I bumped into the actor at a party the following week. But only because I don't normally get invited to those sorts of parties. There was no clash between my reaction and my knowing this fiction was a fiction, concocted for this purpose. We look at the Mona Lisa as a portrait and as an assemblage of colours and shapes. We don't notice we're doing it because we're used to it.

The only caveat that needs making is that, once you see everything as just an arrangement made by an author, you can start to see everything as intentional on their behalf. In that way fiction would never be any more than one of those anecdotes people tell to demonstrate a point. (“Little Jim tended his apple tree and watered it every day. But Little Fred was lazy and let his die, and one day he tried to steal an apple off little Jim.” All of that stuff.) But that doesn't necessarily follow. Ian Fleming could have written a psychopath as a lead character and not known it. Authors often describe how stories take on their own agency and get away from them. That's often a sign of fiction working. But it's an entirely different kind of agency to the one the real world has.

Andrew Rilstone said...

How do we deal with something like Henry V, where the narrator specifically tells the audience to imagine things which aren't happening on the stage?

Keith Edwin Schooley said...

Or how do we deal with Hemingway, for whom the thing not stated is sometimes very important to the story? If nothing exists except for the actual words on the page, then we are not entitled to imagine that Jake Barnes is impotent, because The Sun Also Rises never actually comes out and says so. In "Hills Like White Elephants" the couple cannot be talking about an abortion, because the story does not actually state that they are.

Indeed, on these premises, if in one camera shot you see William Tell shoot a crossbow, and in the next shot you see a bolt stuck in a tree above his son's head, and two halves of an apple lying on the ground, you are not entitled to assume that WT just shot the apple off his son's head, because you didn't actually see it happen.

I understand the objection that one can't wildly speculate about the imaginary world of a fictional construct (or if one does, it has nothing at all to do with the original story). Nonetheless, we can and do and must make inferences about the characters, settings, and events of a fictional construct, in order for the reader or viewer to appreciate the experience at all.

Gavin Burrows said...

”How do we deal with something like Henry V, where the narrator specifically tells the audience to imagine things which aren't happening on the stage?”

By doing as we are bid, I think. Words are signs too.

”Indeed, on these premises, if in one camera shot you see William Tell shoot a crossbow, and in the next shot you see a bolt stuck in a tree above his son's head, and two halves of an apple lying on the ground, you are not entitled to assume that WT just shot the apple off his son's head, because you didn't actually see it happen.”

I think the opposite is true. If we somehow saw merely those fractured incidents in real life, the best we could do is speculate. (Did the son survive? Is this split apple the fired-on apple or another one? And so on.) It is precisely because they are arranged in this way in a work of fiction that we are entitled to assume what happened. It works like a kind of equation, where the signs are lined up in a precise way which allows us to make that assumption.

In Jarry's 'Ubu Roi' we know we are in Poland when a man walks on stage and hangs up a sign which says 'Poland'. Tolkien spent ages devising very detailed little maps. But one is not wrong and the other right. It's not even that one is one thing and the other the other, it's just that one sign has more elaborate calligraphy to it than the other. Many who copied Tolkien failed to recognise this and only gave us the backgrounds, only did the world-building. They didn't just misunderstand what made Tolkien work. They misunderstood what fiction is. There are doorstep fantasy trilogies which are nothing but category errors.

When you say stuff like this, people assume you are decrying Tolkien in favour of Jarry. It's similar to the way, if you say you like an abstract painting people assume you must be a sworn enemy of anything representational. That isn't it at all. You're not making some aesthetic choice. You're describing what art is.

Plus, people assume you're advocating some art-for-arts-sake argument, where art must be seen as some hermetic system which is remote from our lives. But it's the opposite. Art isn't there to mimic our lives. Art is there to speak to us about our lives.

Keith Edwin Schooley said...

Regarding the William Tell cut-to-the-apple-already-split illustration, Gavin Burrows wrote: It is precisely because they are arranged in this way in a work of fiction that we are entitled to assume what happened. It works like a kind of equation, where the signs are lined up in a precise way which allows us to make that assumption.

I dunno. SK wrote, "The point is that there is nothing in the fictional universe except what is presented. The lives of the characters do not go on off-page or off-screen, and it makes no sense to speak as if they do." Making the assumption (that WT shot the apple off his son's head off-screen) assumes that there is an imaginary world in which something actually happened, pivotal to the plot, between camera shots (because Errol Flynn didn't yet have the CGI technology to realize his vision).

The Hemingway examples are more to the point, anyway.

JWH said...

"In the case of Doctor Who, I find the show accessible to the extent that the Doctor's identity and morality are uncertain. We don't really know who he is and, from Genesis of the Daleks to Into the Dalek I feel like I'm being asked whether this god-like being represents the side I want to be on or not. It's tempting to be his assistant, but is it really desirable or even moral? He'd make as good a devil as a saviour. This feels far more believable to me than a Captain Kirk figure. And that's the reason that I have less desire to re-interpret Who than I do Star Trek. "

Why exactly is the Doctor more believable than Captain Kirk? I feel almost the exact opposite.

Andrew Rilstone said...

How do we deal with Star Wars on the Common Sense theory? When Obi Wan talks about the Clone Wars is he referring to a: a cartoon series which wasn't going to be made for another 30 years b: events in the past that the viewer is invited to imagine or c: Nothing at all because there is no "before" or "after" its just a series of pictures.

It seems to me that the "Common Sense" position only allows you to say "A" if Star Wars and Clone Wars are part of one text which has to be interpreted as a whole. In which case, of course, all 117 expanded universe novels and all 942 comic books are part of the text of Star Wars, and practically no-one has enough knowledge to interpret them. It also means that the moment George Lucas pronounces that the novels aren't canon -- i.e aren't part of the text -- any more then the whole meaning of huge chunks of Star Wars changes. This is, indeed, how some fans approach texts -- why they were so seriously offended by the fact that the new movies aren't using the Extruded Universe material. But it seems a counter intuitive way to approach movies to me.

Mike Taylor said...

The clone wars are a particularly resonant example for me. Back when "Star Wars" just meant the film we now know as A New Hope, or possible the whole original trilogy, I found the mere phrase "clone wars" fantastically evocative. In fact, to not think[*] about what had happened off-screen would have materially reduced the power of the original films for me.

Of course, when we actually got to see the clone wars 25 years later, all that stuff with genetically identical proto-stormtroopers was hopelessly disappointing, even though I'd not had any fixed idea in my mind about what the clone wars actually might have been. In this case, what I built[**] in my own mind was actually better than what was on the screen in front of me. I think this kind of experience is why I find SK's very reductionist idea of what fiction is to be not merely different from mine but actively perverse.

For what it's worth, I suspect that happened to the clone wars when the thing we call Star Wars[***] got so much bigger and more clearly defined is the rule rather than the exception. When authors hint at something bigger and grander in the background, what we construct based on those hints is often more satisfying that what the author himself had in mind. In that sense, what we feed off when we read or watch fiction is often not merely the piece of art that the author intended us to have but a whole set of ill-defined and contingent home-brew fan-fictions.

(Tolkien is an exception here, in that the backdrop that gets expounded in The Silmarillion makes subsequent re-readings of LotR more satisfying and resonant rather than less.)


Notes

[*] Actually to say that I would "think" about the clone wars pre-2002 is misleading. It suggests a degree of active and clear cogitation that wasn't there. What was happening was something more like an idea repeatedly coalescing and then diffusing somewhere on the edge of my imagination. I'd almost say that I was meditating on, rather than thinking about, the clone wars, except that that too indicates a misleading degree of intentionality. It might be better just to say the idea of the clone wars was mixed up somewhere in the background of the fabric of my life, and that it made that life a little richer.

[**] Again, "built" is too strong a word for what was happening, but it's the best I have to hand right now. See the first note[*].

[***] It saddens me that Wikipedia's definition of Star Wars is now "an American epic space opera franchise".

Andrew Rilstone said...

Of course Tolkien had actually written the Silmarillion, for certain values of written, before he started the Lord of the Rings, so when he refers to Beren or Gondolin in the trilogy, he's referring to something "real". Nevertheless, some people think that the experience of reading Lord of the Rings without knowing -- just getting little hints about Numinor -- is preferable to having it all laid out in a long saga. Christopher Tolkien talks very interestingly about this in the introduction to the Silmarillion. I take it that when Lucas typed the words "Clone Wars" he had no more idea than us what they were about.

Mike Taylor said...

But I am very glad to have read the books in the order I did. To read LotR on its own merits and then go on to the older work; and then to come back to LotR with fresh eyes. That's a whole sequence of wonderful experiences. I don't think starting with the Silmarillion would have been anywhere near as delightful (even assuming I made it through that very dense and difficult book without a running start). It would have made LotR seem like a mere sequel.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Agreed. Interestingly, what Tolkien originally wanted (or one of the things) was a four volume Lord of the Rings, with final volume being an extended "Tale of Years" which laid out the back story.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Actually, my approach to Star Wars might tend slightly closer to the Common Sense position. The scene between Luke and Ben in Ben's cave is my favourite moment in the Star Wars, which is to say, my favourite moment in any movie. And part of what happens in that scene is that the Old Man talks about a legendary past that he experienced, and the Young Man has heard about, but we the audience no nothing about. I don't think I had any concrete "vision" of what the Clone Wars meant. (Maybe: thousands of naked faceless shapes pouring out of a machine, and ancient Jedi, in suits of armour, maybe, or like the cover illustrations of John Carter of Mars holding their ground against them?) I think that not knowing, and wanting to know, is the point. (See Mr Lewis on joy, yearning, sehnsucht, Northerness, of course.)

Andrew Rilstone said...

"know nothing about". Why doesn't auto-correct do something useful once in a while.

tmellis said...

I think it is perfectly reasonable, in a "modern" setting, for a secret agent or a rom-com heroine to be able to get from New York to London in 24 hours, with as much "on screen" ("on page?" action as seems necessary to the tale being told. In either case this could involve struggles with bureaucracy, (ticket vendors, customs & security staff), races against time (to get to the airport, to get through the airport, to make a connection in a European airport), encounters with unwelcome characters (enemy agents, jealous ex-partners, nosey fellow travellers...), or it could be handwaved ("Luckily Imanaged to get a seat on the Red-eye into Gatwick") or ignored - we all know Aeroplanes exist - a character using one is not unreasonable.

On the other hand, a Victorian Secret agent or rom-com heroine being able to do the same feat would be remarkable and require some explanation - you have two contradictory pieces of information "19th Century setting" and "travel between America & Europe in < 1 day" which can't both be true.

This is the same as the Robin Hood issue. "Scene 1 - Dover", "Scene 2 - Nottingham" is not a problem, but "Scene 2 - Nottingham, later the same day" is, because it contradicts what we know of the setting.

This, I think is the problem I had with "Merlin" - had the main characters not been called "Uther Pendragon", "Arthur", "Guinevere" and "Merlin" and the setting "Camelot", it was a perfectly fine Saturday Tea-time family-friendly fantasy. But by evoking all those Arthurian links, but ignoring every other version of the tales it caused to much cognitive dissonance (in a way that "Here is a version of Robin hood in which Robin is a Fox..." doesn't"

Gavin Burrows said...

Just a general point, Keith, I didn’t confer with SK before posting any of my comments and we have often taken quite opposing views in the past. It may well be there’s differences between us on this. (I am mildly apprehensive for example about the phrase “'What did Ian Fleming intend?” Art is not in the intent of the author, art is what happens on the page.)
 
But more pertinently, your questions suggest to me that I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. It’s nothing to do with pedantry or literalism or insisting on seeing every single thing. I’m saying art is a language with its own syntax, and that this includes visual art. Your examples are really no more than elliptical sentences. If we walked into a pub and I said “beer?”, you would be unlikely to reply “no, I'm Keith” or “yes I expect they will have beer, this is a pub.” The context makes the implication clear. This is quite different to constructing extraneous biographies for characters, a habit more akin to asking “I wonder what the word beer does with itself when we are not in a pub?”
 
Mike, with the Clone Wars I feel you are making my points for me. If I miss an episode of a TV drama and do not see the much-heralded confrontation between Bert and Sid, I have simply missed out, just as if I arrived late somewhere and failed to see an event in the real world. (Anyone who suggests I could have caught up on the iPlayer will cause me to sulk terribly.) But if a TV drama continually refers to that great big barney between Bert and Sid and sometimes flashbacks to just before it only to cut out again, so it becomes the great unseen, that is quite a different thing. Information is being raised in order to be withheld. It’s the equivalent of starting sentences just to leave them hanging. Your qualifications of the words “think” and “built” make it quite clear you knew this, and have responded in the right way. It's not a space to be filled in later. It's a space to be opened up. (Though I may have to qualify the word “knew” there, in similar fashion.)
 
This is absolutely antithetical to the assumption that fiction gives us arbitrary windows on a seamless virtual universe, and if we stare hard enough we can join up the pieces. If that were the case, writers would be absolutely unable to perform that sort of trick. (Though I may have to qualify the word “trick” there.)
 
This is one of the commonest failings of fanfic, and why it’s so depressing that all of that stuff is becoming increasingly mainstream. The erosion of the distinction between fans and creators could be said to be having its drawbacks. Though, and you may be ahead of me here, I may have to qualify the term ‘fanfic’. Lucas’ last three Star Wars films were (at least in this sense) fanfic, even if they were written by the guy who wrote the first trilogy and he got paid for doing it. While stuff which is formally speaking fanfic does not suffer from this failing.
 
Keith's Hemmingway example might be different. I assume it’s when we only see the shadow of an event, but that’s enough to tell us what the event is. Played up on the wall, the shadow enlarges the casting object. Information is being withheld in order to be raised. Instead of a strange word or phrase being inserted in a sentence to stir mystery, a familiar word is being alluded to in order to emphasise it. But it’s the same deal. We still get what we know straight from the page or the screen, its not a portal to elsewhere.

Art doesn’t happen in some fictional universe we get arbitrary glimpses of. Art happens in our world. That’s the point of it.

Keith Edwin Schooley said...

Fair enough, Gavin. I think we're more or less on the same page. My comments were directed primarily toward SK's rather more stark portrayal of the idea. He seemed to be saying that there was no such thing as "character," that the only relevant questions one could ask about the Mona Lisa were questions one could ask of the model who posed for the painting. I think that if a painter paints a subject with a quizzical look on her face, it's reasonable to wonder what that quizzical look means, regardless of whether there was a physical model or whether the artist was imagining her.

I think we are agreed upon the idea that there is at least some sort of mental "mini-verse" in which we are allowed to make logical connections that are implied by the paint or the text or the script or the body language agreed upon by an actor and a director. I think that the questions of "Is James Bond a psychopath?" or "Is Hamlet mad?" are legitimate, and nobody asking them believes that there is a "real" Bond or Hamlet or psychiatrist tending to either who could answer the question.

The question of "Is Hamlet mad?" means "Does Shakespeare portray Hamlet in such a manner that an attentive reader/viewer would regard his character to be Crazy For Real as opposed to Crazy For Pretend?" That's not at all the same as someone writing a fanfic in which Hamlet goes on a killing spree in Holland on his way back to Denmark after being rescued by the Dread Pirate Roberts. I guess I'd say the reader/viewer can fill in details implied by the story itself, but can't speculate on What Might Have Happened given that character in a completely different story--without creating a completely new story that may or may not be consistent with the first one (cf. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead).

Andrew Rilstone said...

I trust we all saw this mornings Notes and Queries discussion about why James Bond likes eggs.

Mike Taylor said...

Here's the link.

Gavin Burrows said...

”The question of "Is Hamlet mad?" means "Does Shakespeare portray Hamlet in such a manner that an attentive reader/viewer would regard his character to be Crazy For Real as opposed to Crazy For Pretend?"”

Shakespeare might be a good case to cite, as he’s commonly regarded as one of the first writers to give his characters some approximation of psychological depth rather than set up functional cogs in the mechanism of the plot. If Tolkien portrays worlds that seem world-like, rather than the literary equivalent of theatre flats, Shakespeare gives us minds that seem mind-like.

But to me the key terms are ‘approximate’ and ‘seem’. Real people you’ve known for years are capable of surprising you, you’re even capable of surprising yourself at times. A fictional character with limited page/screen/stage time cannot hope to match something like that, and any author who tries is simply setting themselves up to fail. It’s like ‘realist’ art, it never looks as real as real life, does it?

But I don’t think that’s what’s going on with ‘Hamlet’…

I think scouring ‘Hamlet’ for clues as to whether the Prince is potty-for-real or pretend-potty isn’t really the way to go. It’s a bit like people who read ‘V’ like the central purpose is to find out who V is. It always seems to me the point is that we don’t know, and that if we were supposed to know the text would at some point tell us.

‘Hamlet’ is also a good example of how author intentionality is at most secondary to the text itself. The ‘Hamlet’  we now have is a hodgepodge of various versions over time. References to Hamlet’s age are inconsistent, most likely because different actors of different ages were playing him and things then got spliced together. But that’s now part of the text that we have. If we’re insisting on the integrity of a fictional universe, we’d have to conceive of a Hamlet who can age and rejuvenate at will, while also able to hypnotise the other characters into not commenting on this.

But I’d argue the indeterminacy of his age becomes part of the indeterminacy of the play. The point of ‘Hamelt’ is that not only us but ultimately Hamlet himself is unable to know Hamlet. He doesn’t know whether he wants to bump off his step-dad or not. He doesn’t even know whether he’s mad or just pretending. He’s that moment of self-doubt, where you don’t think you even know your own mind any more, blown up into a character.

Let’s jump from Shakespeare to the Psychedelic Furs. There’s the line from ‘Pretty In Pink’, “She lives in a place to the side of our lives/ Where nothing is ever put straight”. And this is true for all characters who do anything more than service the plot. They’re there to remind us of some aspect of ourselves by embodying it, not pretend to be somebody else. If the Revenger is a cog, Hamlet is a totem.

Admittedly I may be rigging the point with the example. It’s quite conceivable Shakespeare intended to subvert the then-common revenger tragedy genre, which kind of corresponded to a modern action movie. (“Someone’s offed your Dad, you are now officially cross and out to get them back. Your time starts now…”) He takes one of the most directed, plot-driven characters in fiction and occludes his mind, imprisons him in indecision. It may well be simply a happy accident that the confused version of the text we now have matches the author’s theme.

Should fifty-plus comments on this sort of thing not be enough for anyone, here’s something I wrote a while ago on ‘Hamlet’…

SK said...

How do we deal with Star Wars on the Common Sense theory? When Obi Wan talks about the Clone Wars is he referring to a: a cartoon series which wasn't going to be made for another 30 years b: events in the past that the viewer is invited to imagine or c: Nothing at all because there is no "before" or "after" its just a series of pictures.

(d) 'He' is not referring to anything because there is no 'he'.

Rather, George Lucas is using that bit of dialogue to provoke a particular kind of response in the viewer.

If other words,

And part of what happens in that scene is that the Old Man talks about a legendary past that he experienced, and the Young Man has heard about, but we the audience no nothing about. I don't think I had any concrete "vision" of what the Clone Wars meant.

There is no Obi-Wan; there is no 'Clone Wars'; there is just the aesthetic experience of the impression of a legendary, unknowable, past.

That is the point. We are not meant to imagine that the Clone Wars were a 'real' event happening 'off-screen' in a 'real' fictional world; we are supposed to feel the dialogue invoking the resonance of a glorious, forgotten past.

Andrew, you are so close to the truth it's amazing you can't see it.

SK said...

I think we are agreed upon the idea that there is at least some sort of mental "mini-verse" in which we are allowed to make logical connections that are implied by the paint or the text or the script or the body language agreed upon by an actor and a director

Actually I think that's exactly the point of disagreement.

No. There is no 'min-verse'.

There is a piece of art which is meant, by various conventions ranging from the seemingly-simple (the conventions of grammar) to the utterly-if-you-think-about-it-bizarre (the idea that if you see one thing, and then another thing, the two are in some way connected in time or in space), to convey certain ideas and provoke certain responses.

There is no 'mini-universe' which the seen, or described, events are meant to have taken place in.

There is just the work of art and the responses it is meant to evoke by describing, or depicting, and juxtaposing, the images and events.

SK said...

It’s quite conceivable Shakespeare intended to subvert the then-common revenger tragedy genre, which kind of corresponded to a modern action movie. (“Someone’s offed your Dad, you are now officially cross and out to get them back. Your time starts now…”) He takes one of the most directed, plot-driven characters in fiction and occludes his mind, imprisons him in indecision.

I think the key to (one aspect of) Hamlet is Laertes, who is quite clearly the hero of a traditional revenge play and acts exactly as he is supposed to within that play, but has the misfortune to actually be in a play called Hamlet.

Almost makes me wish I had played Laertes that time had had the chance; problem is, as I pointed out at the time, I doubt I could have suppressed the instinct to fence to win...

Mike Taylor said...

"There is no Obi-Wan; there is no 'Clone Wars'; there is just the aesthetic experience of the impression of a legendary, unknowable, past."

This feels to me like a distinction with no difference. It's like when a pedantic neurologist says "there is no perception, there is just the experience of neurons firing in a way that makes it seem that we perceive the world".

Andrew Rilstone said...

You see, I was going to respond to Gavin along these lines.

"I think that your reading of Hamlet is quite right. The ambiguity of Hamlet's madness, and the question of why he procrastinates are not problems to solve: they are aspects of the play. However, the logic of the common sense position would be that "How does Ophelia die" and "Who killed Hamlet's father" would both be equally meaningless and unanswerable. ("Ophelia doesn't die because a: we don't see it we just hear someone talking about it and b: she DOESN'T EXIST she DIDN'T LIVE IN THE FIRST PLACE so HOW CAN SHE DIE.) Which is clearly nonsense."

I would have been doing a reducto absurdium on the "common sense" position, but it turns out that it is more or less what SK thinks. And it seems a lot like nonsense.

SK seems very good at skirting over counter examples. In Henry V, the narrator figures says "Think when we talk of horses, that you see them, printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth". The logic of the "common sense" position would be that an audience that does, in fact, use it's imagination during the battle scenes is acting against the author's intention, and all we can say is "before the play starts a guy comes on and talks". Which is obviously absurd.

I think that it is empirically provable that the "common sense" approach is not what writers INTEND; and I think that it is empirically provable that the "common sense" approach is not what audiences and readers in fact do. (I think that if you asked 100 kids who watched Star Wars when it came out; 99 of them would have said that they played out the Clone Wars with their action figures; or talked to their friends in the East Barnet School Jedi Knights club about what the Clone Wars meant. I think that if you had asked George Lucas, he would have said that this was exactly what he hoped would happen. When Tolkien was asked questions about the off stage life of characters in Lord of the Rings he wrote long, detailed answers. When C.S Lewis was asked questions about the history of Narnia he replied "ah, well, I've given you lots of hints, now you must imagine it for yourself."

I agree, in fact, that a purely formal approach is a good one for a critic to adopt. Otherwise you find yourself talking about scenes which aren't in the play or the film. A play in which depicted the execution of Cordelia in gruesome detail would obviously be different from the one which Shakespeare wrote, where King Lear unexpectedly comes in with her dead body. But the answer to "how does Cordelia die" remains "she is hanged by her evil sisters" not "it's a meaningless question."

Andrew Rilstone said...

In August 1977 when George Lucas was asked the name of Luke's father, did he reply

a: I intend you not to know, it's part of the effect I was going for

b: Didn't you understand. It's a movie. Luke isn't a real person. He wasn't actually born. I made him up.

c: Annikin (sic)

(See "The Making of Star Wars" p 350-353)

Gavin Burrows said...

”think that if you asked 100 kids who watched Star Wars when it came out; 99 of them would have said that they played out the Clone Wars with their action figures”

As a child I used to watch a show called 'Doctor Who'. Perhaps you have heard of it. Part of its appeal was its cultivating a mystery about its central character, something I was always very attentive to. I imagined there was some complete story, which existed somewhere and somehow which only the writers had access to. So, if for example, the Doctor said he was 850 years old I would not think “we are being told the Doctor is old and wise and inscrutable, beyond anything Earthly”. I would think “aha, an 850-year chronology they have told us only part of so far”. If the Doctor later said he was 625 years old I would be momentarily confused, then assume it was a clever, grown-up think which they might explain later or I might get once I was older. I also tended to assume my parents knew everything. When I was a child, you see, I reasoned as a child.

Fanfic hears the 850-years figure and imagines it can add events to the chronology. This is a better thing. I honestly do think this is a better thing. But it still fundamentally misunderstands the statement. When Andrew says this is a good approach for a critic I would say, with no disrespect to anyone here present, it seems the approach you'd expect a grown-up to have. Its putting away childish things.

We know how Hamlet's father dies because it's in the text. Its an answerable question, so I can't see it as a meaningless one. He shows up to tell us himself, which is quite obliging of him under the circumstances. Or (dramatic pause) does he? At times people other than Hamlet can see his ghost, at others they can't. If the play is a 'mini-verse', that mini-verse either contains a vengeful ghost or a figment of Hamlet's fevered imagination. On the other hand if the play is a play, that ambiguity merely becomes a part of the play. To question it, if not actually meaningless, is something of a category error.

”This feels to me like a distinction with no difference.”

Part of the problem here may be that SK is putting the argument in rather negative terms. At times he/she seems to be going more out on a limb than me, which is a little unnerving seeing as I'm the strict Brechtian. Could I pretend to be Mike a minute in order to ask a leading question?

“Hi SK, this is Mike. I work in computing and sometimes sing folk songs. So I am clearly not Gavin who does neither of these things. Anyway, I have previously taken fiction as kind of 'mini-verse', a series of connected events only some of which we see. But I have decided to give your way a bit of a go. The next film I watch, the next novel I read, what do I need to do differently in order to get the 'constructed aesthetic experience' of which you speak?”

Andrew Rilstone said...

If, when Hamlet stabs Polonius through the curtain, someone in the audience rushed onto the stage and started to administer first aid, we would feel that they had not understood what a play was.

If that same man read The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and asked if it was possible to visit Sherlock Holmes rooms and where was he buried, well, he would still be making a mistake, but it would be a much more reasonable mistake. Many people have made it. The stories really are presented as if they were Watson's write-ups, so it isn't a gross misreading (although it happens to be wrong) think that they really are.

Andrew Rilstone said...

From which I conclude that there are different kinds of realism. Looking at a cubist painting and wondering why Picasso's wife had blue skin simply shows you haven't understand the painting. Looking at a tromp l'oeil and thinking that you are really looking through the window shows that you have.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I grant that the proper enjoyment of the tromp l'oeil involves believing that it is real and at the same time knowing that it's a painting. I believe the first audiences who saw "The Blair Witch Project" honestly thought they were watching a recording of an actual event. Supposing that to be true, whose experience was closer to the film-maker's intention: the ones who honestly thought it was true, or the ones who knew that it was a trick?

SK said...

This feels to me like a distinction with no difference

I suppose that when there is a fork in the road, it can seem that the two paths are going in much the same direction.

It's only after following them for a while that you realise that one of them ends up in completely the wrong place.

In this case, one path is the correct way to read fiction.

The other ends up with being able to frame completely nonsensical statements like, 'With, say, Spider-Man there's a good enough story that it's worth trying to get to the bottom of it by understanding what's "really" going on'.

Look, I'm sure we've all seen those web pages which 'prove' that, a few hours after the end of Return of the Jedi, all those jolly Ewoks were killed by the flaming chunks of Death Star raining ecological catastrophe down upon their furry little heads, right?

And I'm sure we all realise, don't we, that that — that the idea that there is some fictional world that continues after the credits roll — is a completely stupid, nonsensical way to read fiction, right?

That we would think that someone who actually said, 'I think Return of the Jedi is a terrible film because all the Ewoks die after it ends' had missed the point of the whole thing?

Which is all I am saying. We do not, we are not meant to, experience fiction as a window onto an imaginary world in which things are happening, and to try to see it that way — as if there were some 'objective reality' of the fictional world — is completely, utterly wrong.

As wrong as thinking that all the Ewoks died after the credits rolled, and therefore the ending of Return of the Jedi was not one in which good triumphed over evil and redemption won the day, hooray.

(Tolkien is a bit of a special case. He clearly was trying to make up an imaginary world which could be imagined as having a history and existence in some kind of coherent sub-creation. I submit that this is why his works, considered as novels, are mostly pants.)

SK said...

Similarly, the reason we laugh at that guy in the black-and-white-film who insists that the Rebels were terrorists because the Death Star they blew up must have been full of innocent contractors who were just doing their jobs, is because we realise that he is applying inappropriate logic by treating the fictional universe as if it were real, and extrapolating beyond what is shown on the screen.

And the reason we laugh even more when his friend tries to argue with him by claiming that any contractor who took on work from the Evil Empire clearly had no morals and deserved to die, is because he is trying to answer a nonsensical criticism by buying into the mistaken logic of the criticism, rather that by saying, 'That's silly, it's a movie about heroic rebels fighting an evil empire, it's not a depiction of an imaginary world where people go to the toilet, take on construction contracts, and so on.'

And the reason why we laugh at the Austin Powers movies when they show the henchmen's wives receiving the call telling them that their husbands won't be coming home because they were killed by the hero is, again, because we realise that this is — as it was so well put above — a category error.

It is funny because it is applying inappropriate logic (a lot of humour can be gained from the application of sound logic to an inappropriate situation, and this — applying real-world logic to a fictional world — is an example).

And we know it's inappropriate logic. We know that it is a fundamental misreading to wonder about the families of the nameless hired bad guys James Bond, or his peers, dispatch with such frequency.

We realise that it is stupid to think that the world of the film or book extends beyond the screen or the page, and that is why we laugh at those, like the guy in the black-and-white film or the implied author of Austen Powers, who do it.

Mike Taylor said...

"In this case, one path is the correct way to read fiction."

Perhaps the strangest part of SK's argument is this assumption that there is a single correct way to read fiction, as though reading were a rigorous, objective discipline like pure mathematics.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I think this argument is about to become Silly.

Gavin Burrows said...

"I think this argument is about to become Silly."

I'm now picturing you dressed as an Army Captain.

Is that in the text? Am I allowed to do that?

SK said...

Were there contractors on the Death Star?

Is there any difference between the contractors in Star Wars, who are not part of the text but whose existence can be extrapolated from it if we assume that the attempt was to depict a coherent world, and the guards who are shot up in The Matrix who are stated within the text to be innocent dupes of the machines?

SK said...

(I hear there is a game some people play where the idea is to take a film and come up with an alternative reading of it assuming that everything which is depicted on screen is 'true' but everything the characters say is a lie. While I'm sure this amuses those who play it, it is clearly not going to get you closer to an actual reading of the film. It is, as was put in one of your previous essays in this series, using the text as the raw material to play a game with. The 'pretend it's a window onto an imaginary world and construct what is happening beyond the frame' is exactly the same kind of game: an amusing diversion, perhaps, but ultimately not a way to read the text.)

Andrew Rilstone said...


(Tolkien is a bit of a special case. He clearly was trying to make up an imaginary world which could be imagined as having a history and existence in some kind of coherent sub-creation. I submit that this is why his works, considered as novels, are mostly pants.)


And here we come to the point, I think.

a: SK comes on to this forum -- this forum -- and remarks that Tolkien's works are "mostly pants" as if that's a given. In the early days of the internet, this is what we used to call "trolling".

b: SK argues that fiction never points outside itself or asks you to believe in a different world. When we point to a work which clearly does point outside itself and ask us to believe in a different world, he says "ah, well that's an exception", "it's a very bad book", or (more subtly) "it barely counts as a work of fiction. This is, of course, the "no true Scotsmen argument". ("There were no women on ships in those days." "But I heard there was a lady whose job it was to darn the sailors socks and bring them hot cocoa each night." "Old Granny Timbers? She doesn't count as a woman! And anyway, she was an exception..")

One can't really argue with that kind of logic. So I won't.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Pretend that it is 1960 and you have only read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. Here is a quick quiz to see if you have been paying attention:

1: Elrond compares Frodo with "Hurin and Turin". Who are Hurin and Turin?

2: What is the origin of Tom Bombadil? Is he valar, or maiar, or what?

3: What became of the entwives?

4: Do Balrogs have wings?

Andrew Rilstone said...

The answer to all four questions, is, I think "I don't know". (It would have been better to have assumed it was 1972: only Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit have been published, but Tolkien has died and you can't ask him.) But "I don't know" means a different thing in each case, doesn't it?

1: Hurn and Turin are characters in a huge unfinished epic called "The Children of Hurin" which Tolkien has written, is referencing, but hasn't published yet. You could know in theory (if you'd been at a story telling session in the Bird and Baby) but you happen not to.

2: The text explicitly says that it isn't possible to know the origin of Tom Bombadil. His purpose in the text, like the fairies in Lewis's "Discarded Image", is to be inexplicable. The Tolkien Society journal was full of clever papers proving that he was Aule, Illuvator, Tolkien himself, etc, but they were trying to provide a solution to which there is no question.

3: Tolkien drops a lot of hints about the entwives. He doesn't tell us what happened to them -- neither Treebeard nor the Hobbits know -- but he doesn't suggest it's unknowable. I would tend to the opinion that he did know, and chose not to tell us. (I think that the Entwives probably had something to do with the similarly mysterious origins of the Hobbits.) We don't know the answer, and since Tolkien never wrote it down, we can't find out, but it isn't a silly question.

4: Tolkien thought visually; he did sketch some of his creatures and monsters; he got very cross when film scripts changed the facts about Balrogs (he thought it was important that they didn't speak, even in wireless plays.) But his description is such that different people have interpreted it in different ways. I am pretty sure that if someone had asked him the question, he'd have given him a straight answer. But I don't think he intended it to be mysterious; or, in fact, that the ambiguity of the description is a big part of what makes a balrog a balrog.

So: we have things which Tolkien knew, and which it is possible for us to know; things which Tolkien didn't know, and which it is impossible for us to know; things which Tolkien knew, but didn't tell us, because he wanted it to be mysterious; and things which Tolkien knew but accidentally left unclear. Even if you don't agree with the examples, you can see the different kinds of "not knowing" that I have in mind. There are known knowns, unknown knowns, known unknowns...how did it go?

Mike Taylor said...

That is a very interesting quiz.

The first of these questions had a well-defined correct answer, but until the 1970s no-one but JRRT (and probably Christopher) could have known what it was.

The second seems to be unknowable on a much deeper level, in that even Tolkien himself professed not to know, and IIRC to like no knowing.

The third is not, as far as I know, addressed in any of Tolkien's writings, beyond a vague idea that they headed out east somewhere. But it seems in principle something that he might have decided to write about had he lived.

The fourth is the name of a very good book.

So we seem to have three rather different kinds of unknowability, plus a sales campaign.

SK said...

SK comes on to this forum -- this forum -- and remarks that Tolkien's works are "mostly pants" as if that's a given.

It's not just my opinion:

'Tolkien was [...] a rather poor novelist' (Rilstone, 2012: p. 29)

I do occasionally phrase points in a frivolous way in order to attempt to bring some light humour into what would otherwise threaten to be a rather dry, technical discussion.

I realise that no one else in the word ever does this, so it can come as a surprise to people, but they usually get used to it after a while.

SK argues that fiction never points outside itself or asks you to believe in a different world

The first point is a complete misreading of everything I am saying: I certainly have never and would never argue that fiction never points outside itself. It does so all the time. Fiction often involves allusions to things outside itself, whether other works of art, or the real world, or historical characters, or whatnot.

Indeed, it's difficult to see how fiction could work at all without referring outside itself. For one thing, every metaphor would be impossible, for the whole point of a metaphor is to point outside itself. If I write that a character 'erupted', then that is impossible to understand unless you know that it refers to something outside itself (ie, a volcano).

I honestly don't know how you could have got an argument that fiction never refers to anything outside itself from anything I have written.

The second part, now, that's closer to the truth, indeed, I think it is the truth. No, I don't think that fiction asks us to believe in a different world. I think that fiction presents us with situations and events in such a way as to work on us to produce an aesthetic effect.

I think that 'believing in another world' is not necessary to this aesthetic effect, and indeed is often harmful to it, as I hope my examples have shown (for instance, do you think that there is any way in which wondering about the fate of the Ewoks post-credits, or of the contractors on the Death Star, contributes to the aesthetic effect of Return of the Jedi?).

When we point to a work which clearly does point outside itself and ask us to believe in a different world, he says "ah, well that's an exception",

Because it is an exception.

'I don't think there is any precedent in the history of literature for Tolien's creation of Middle-earth' (ibid.)

Star Wars, for example, makes no attempt at all to depict a coherent world. And if you asked Forster what 'really happened' in the Marabar Caves, do you not think he would point out that to even ask that question you must have missed the whole point of the novel?


Rilstone, A. Do Balrogs Have Wings? 2012

Andrew Rilstone said...

SK

Does the Mona Lisa have legs?

AR

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ibsen's "Ghosts". A play.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Osvald, it turns out, has inherited syphilis from his father. He makes his mother, Mrs Alving, promise that if he ever loses his mind as a result of the disease, she will help him kill himself. He has procured drugs for the purpose. In the final scene, he does, in fact, start to lose his mind, and the play ends with her crying "No! No! No!Yes! No! no!"

Question: Does Mrs Alving kill Osvald.

Answer: There is no answer. The play ends before she has made the decision. The whole point of the play is that it ends before she has made the decision. If we knew, it wouldn't be the same play.

Question: Is "Does Mrs Alving kill Osvald?" a silly quieston?

Answer: No: arguably the point of the play is to raise that question, to leave you pondering, to ask yourself what you would have done in her situation, and what she would have done given what you've found out about her in the last four acts.

(Someone told Ibsen that he thought that a mother would refrain from administring the drugs, holding out for a miracle. Ibsen said that he thought they were right. He didn't say "Don't be silly, there is no Mrs Alving, she's just a collection of works intended to create an emotional reaction." But he also didn't say that as the author he had the final word. He was just speculating on something "outside the play", like any member of the audience.

Eric Spratling said...

"I honestly don't know how you could have got an argument that fiction never refers to anything outside itself from anything I have written."

It may be splitting hairs, but:

"The point is that there is nothing in the fictional universe except what is presented."

... sounds awfully close, if not quite the same.

Also, you stressed repeatedly that the point of fiction is merely to provoke a reaction. So when, say, Robin Hood is having his climactic duel against Basil Rathbone/Alan Rickman/Skinny Lion, how is the viewer supposed to muster any amount of proper excitement if he is not pretending, on some level, and to a certain degree*, that what he's viewing is "real"?

[*As Andrew eluded to early on, properly grasping which kinds of works merit which degree of suspended disbelief is a huge part of this, which is why Death Star Contractors and Grieving Hench-Widows are things virtually no one minds, but many more find the idea of Dover being an evening's stroll from Nottingham to be inappropriately jarring.** There is no hard & fast rule for this; as the US Supreme Court famously ruled on obscenity, we just know it when we see it.]

[**Interestingly and possibly relevantly, as an American I don't know much about the geography of any country we haven't been to war with in the last few years, so you could have told me Dover & Nottingham were next-door neighbors and I'd not have known the difference.]

Eric Spratling said...

Just realized I used "splitting hairs" incorrectly. Ah well, you know what I mean.

Gavin Burrows said...

"Pretend that it is 1960 and you have only read Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit"

This seems a good way of looking at it. If 'Lord of the Rings' was merely a set of sideways pointers to other works then while I'm not sure I would call it "pants" I would be tempted to call it pointless. It would be like a document that only consisted of hyperlinks. And a good way to test that is to turn the clock back to before those other works were known.

I might even know a good test case reader - me. It was, I would like you to know it was later than 1960, but I read both those books before 'The Silmarillion'. And, still in my mid-teens, despite having exulted in all the high adventure, grand themes and semi-mythological stuff, but couldn't take to 'The Silmarillion' - too dense, too textbook-like. I think I read it to the end out of sheer obstinacy, but had long since stopped taking it in. My answer to questions like "who are Hurin and Turin" would be either "pass" or "dunno, mate", depending on how I was asked.

I would need one of you actual Tolkien scholars to tell me whether Middle Earth history came before or after 'Lord of the Rings', or whether that's a chicken-or-egg sort of question. (I am guessing the third,) But whichever way, I think the elaborately constructed background is something which enhances rather than detracts from the main story. Stories abound where the fate of the whole earth is at stake, but this mostly just comes across as mere hyperbole. What we actually hear is more akin to "those hurriedly painted theatre flats are at stake. No, don't touch them, they are probably still wet." Sensing there's a whole Middle Earth of which we're only seeing a section, that gets across the necessary sense of scale.

But there's more... You can read the book as a psychological story. Will Frodo fulfil his mission before he is corrupted? Is there still a sliver of good in Gollum? But pnlu in part. I think it's more about connecting that psychological story to a cosmological one, about the nature of good and evil and so on. Mordor isn't just a representation of the darker side of Frodo's mind which might win over him. We need some notion of it having an external state, having existed before Frodo's birth and being likely to continue after him.

To sacrifice Tolkien for the benefit of a very tightly drawn theory without meaningfully asking what he is actually doing and why - I feel compelled to say I cannot regard that as a step along the path of wisdom. You don't have to like Tolkien, many people I respect don't. But you do need to at least consider him.

Gavin Burrows said...

"arguably the point of the play is to raise that question, to leave you pondering, to ask yourself what you would have done in her situation, and what she would have done given what you've found out about her in the last four acts."

I think herein lies the difference between SK and myself. We both insist on the primacy of the text. But I suspect for SK the text exists in and of itself, and for me it exists as an object in the world. Hence for me the second question is not delusional but only really exists as a way to frame the first.

So Ibsen has to hit a Goldilocks point when drawing in Mrs Alving. If she's too loosely, too generally drawn, if she's just "the Mother" the audience have no traction with the play and may well not engage with the events. But if she's too precisely drawn - if for example she belongs to some religion which insists on reincarnation so to kill her son merely makes him go away for a while - she becomes a barrier to us asking ourselves what we'd do. She has to be just detailed enough. And that's determined by the text she has to service.

It may be significant all of SK's examples come from the more generic end of genre fiction. Perhaps the sporting equivalent would be where jumpers function as goalposts. It doesn't matter if this Nottingham is not at all convincing, as it's just somewhere to stand in front of and have a swordfight. You don't want an elaborately delineated background if you're just supposed to be looking at Errol Flynn swashing his buckle, it would just get in the way. Bring in something less generic, let alone something outside of genre fiction, and it has to be excised. It's starting to sound like cookie-cutter thinking.

It may also be true that my take on the 'text theory' comes from... quelle surprise... agit-prop or Dadaistic provocations. One of my first examples was 'Ubu Roi', after all. That's partly why 'Lord of the Rings' seemed interesting to me, as something so obviously on the other end of the spectrum. But I feel quietly confident my theory stretches to 'Lord of the Rings'. I don't need to take it down from my bookshelf and put it in the rubbish bin. I may even keep that never-really-read copy of 'The Simlarillion'.

Gavin Burrows said...

"pnlu" is a special slang word cool people use for "only". And not, you know, a typo or anything like that.

Mike Taylor said...

Like Gavin, I struggled badly with The Silmarillion on my first attempt. Unlike him, I was wise enough to just give up half way through Valaquenta.

That left me free to return to it with an open mind many years later, at which point I absolutely loved it to bits.

All of this is basically to encourage Gavin to take another stab. I think you'll find it very rewarding.

Gavin Burrows said...

”Unlike him, I was wise enough to just give up half way through Valaquenta.”

And Andrew didn't watch 'Battlestar Galactica' through to the end. It's like everyone else is suddenly smarter than me.

”All of this is basically to encourage Gavin to take another stab.”

Like I say, I still have my copy! I think I'd need to re-read the others first. I got the order right, just my age wrong.

Keith Edwin Schooley said...

Since my coinage, "mini-verse," has been picked up, I should point out that all I meant by it was that you were allowed to make inferences that were not explicitly told you by the text (script, film, etc.). You are allowed to assume that William Tell shot the apple off his son's head even though it's not explicitly stated, and even though all we actually saw was one actor point a crossbow and pull a trigger, and another actor with a bolt above his head and two halves of an apple next to him. You are allowed to connect the dots, even if you're not allowed to sketch out further reality past the rolling of the credits.

As for the rest of the discussion, it's nothing but Plato vs. Aristotle.

Nick Mazonowicz said...

"(I've just been reading some of David Mamet's railing against the Method, where he repeatedly points out the fallacy of trying to 'understand the character' because the character does not exist beyond the words in the script, and certainly has no 'inner life'. I don't agree with Mamet on everything, but in this he's right on the money.)"

Appreciate I am late to the party with this but.....

In his haste to get rid of something which has arguably been taken to extremes, Mamet appears to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here.

Let's take a simple example

Man. I am feeling sad because my wife is dead.

According to Mamet, the ONLY thing we can take from this is that in this one line, the actor is sad. Arguably, in every other line spoken by him or whilst other characters are talking, 'Man, could be laughing, talking, or spinning cartwheels. Certainly, unless the script explicitly specifies it, there is no reason for the actor to keep portraying him as sad.

Or take another example.

Woman. Are you alright.
Man. Oh yes fine, very happy after all my wife has just died.

Under no circumstances, according to Mamet,should an actor portray 'Man' as sarcastic, the character has said he is fine because those are the words on the page and any attempt to portray what the character is 'really' feeling is incorrect as there is no 'real' character to have such feelings.

In fact, I'm not even sure how, according to Mamet, you can ever have any such thing as 'bad acting' - bad acting implies that an actor is failing to portray the reality of the lines and according to Mamet, there is no 'reality' to portray

Mike Taylor said...

"In fact, I'm not even sure how, according to Mamet, you can ever have any such thing as 'bad acting'."

Or directing, whether good or bad.

But surely this can't be what Mamet meant?

SK said...

Question: Does Mrs Alving kill Osvald.

Answer: There is no answer. The play ends before she has made the decision. The whole point of the play is that it ends before she has made the decision. If we knew, it wouldn't be the same play.


Yes. Exactly. Bingo.

Question: Is "Does Mrs Alving kill Osvald?" a silly quieston?

Answer: No: arguably the point of the play is to raise that question, to leave you pondering, to ask yourself what you would have done in her situation, and what she would have done given what you've found out about her in the last four acts.


Okay, I begin to see what the issue is. When I say 'a silly question' I mean that it is a question to which there is no 'objective, 'real within the fictional world' answer. I don't mean that it is not a question worth ruminating on.

This was my point about the initial guest-article. It seemed to treat, for example, the question of 'Why isn't Spider-Man a fascist?' as a question with should have a real, objective answer within the fiction. I pointed out, and still point out, that this is a stupid misreading. The reason Spider-Man isn't a fascist is that the writer didn't choose to write him that way. End of.

However... is the question, 'Why isn't Spider-Man a fascist?' one worth ruminating on? Considering what the story might be if he was? Well, indeed, it is a question worth ruminating on, just like the question of what happens to Osvald is.

So is it a silly question?

No, it isn't, if you are asking it to ruminate on and consider as illuninating the world, human nature, and your own reaction to the aesthetic effect of the play.

But yes, yes it most definitely is, if you are asking it in the sense of, 'What is the correct objective answer to this question within the reality of the fictional world?' And it is in this sense in which I got the impression the guest writer was asking such questions as, 'Why isn't Spider-Man a fascist?' and 'How does Superman feel when he's alone?' and 'Are the Rebel Alliance terrorists?'.

Then it is a very silly question indeed.

It may be significant all of SK's examples come from the more generic end of genre fiction

That must be the first time anyone has called A Passage to India 'the more generic end of genre fiction'. I could have given more literary examples if it was up to me, but I took the examples I was given: the ones used by the guest writer, and the ones in the comments. It is not my fault they tended (until Ibsen) to the more generic end of things.

In his haste to get rid of something which has arguably been taken to extremes, Mamet appears to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater here

Have you read the book (Theatre, Mamet, D. Faber & Faber 2010)?

Because if you not are criticising a totally mistaken idea of it based on what you think he writes from a couple of points I have made in an utterly different context, then you are doing a very good impression of it.

(For the record: Mamet thinks the actor's job is to convey to the audience the playwright's intent. If the playwright intends the audience to understand that the character is being sarcastic, it is the actor's job to make sure they get that. If the playwright intends the audience to understand that the character is lying, it is the actor's job to convey that too. The 'Method' — which basically means the actor trying to think themselves into the character's state of mind — is at best a distraction from and at worst a complete impediment to the actor's primary job, which is to transmit the play to the audience through their voice and body.)

SK said...

In fact, I'm not even sure how, according to Mamet, you can ever have any such thing as 'bad acting'

Quite easily: bad acting fails to convey to the audience what the playwright intended them to understand, and therefore leaves them unable to follow the story.

The Method, on the other hand, would consider 'bad acting' to mean that the actor had not properly accessed the memory of their parents leaving them alone when they were six and used it to think themselves into the state of mind of the character whose lover walks out on them.

The fact that the audience neither knows nor cares what the actor's parents did, has no idea what state of mind they are in, is, to the Method actor, neither here nor there.

Mike Taylor said...

"Bad acting [is acting which] fails to convey to the audience what the playwright intended them to understand."

How does that definition apply in the case of a long-dead author such as Shakespeare, whose intent we can't discern from the text (or in any other way)? If we don't know whether Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be mad or not, what (if anything) constitutes good acting of that role?

SK said...

So when, say, Robin Hood is having his climactic duel against Basil Rathbone/Alan Rickman/Skinny Lion, how is the viewer supposed to muster any amount of proper excitement if he is not pretending, on some level, and to a certain degree*, that what he's viewing is "real"?

I don't understand this at all. Why does excitement depend on reality?

The tenth time you watch Robin Hood's fight, when you know every move, every off-hand one-liner, exactly the same as the other nine times you watched it, you know exactly what's coming next, you know exactly how everything will end, how can you possibly 'pretend it' real'?

But is it exciting? Well if it's one of the good ones it damn well is.

So what has 'pretending it's real' got to do with excitement? Bugger all, as far as I can see.

SK said...

How does that definition apply in the case of a long-dead author such as Shakespeare, whose intent we can't discern from the text (or in any other way)? If we don't know whether Shakespeare intended Hamlet to be mad or not, what (if anything) constitutes good acting of that role?

I don't know what Mamet would say. Why don't you ask him?

I would say, good acting of that role would consist of picking something to convey which fits with the rest of the play, and successfully conveying it to the audience.

It certainly has nothing to do with 'thinking yourself into the non-existent character's mental state'.

Mike Taylor said...

"Good acting [...] certainly has nothing to do with 'thinking yourself into the non-existent character's mental state'."

I still don't understand why you think that. I certainly understand that you think it -- you've successfully made that much very clear -- but your argument in support of this position seems to consist of repeatedly asserting it.

What I mean, for what actual reason should I accept your ideas on what good acting is over, say, Robert De Niro's? I'm not saying I'm closed to the idea, I just don't see what the weight of it is.

Andrew Rilstone said...

An actor had a bit part in a horror film. The director told her she simply had to walk on set, imagine that she saw a terrifying monster, scream, and run off.

"What was I doing before I came on?" She asked -- was I at work, out for a walk, picking the kids up..."

"Doesn't matter" said the director. "Just come on and scream."

"Roughly who am I?" she asked "Student? Secretary? College lecturer? Senior citizen."

"Doesn't matter" said the director "Just come on and scream."

"How do you want me to scream?" she asked "Am I surprised, disgusted, creeped out, trying to warn other people, in immediate danger."

"Doesn't matter" said the director "Just come on and scream."

The usual conclusion to this anecdote is that someone, observing the scene says "He will never be a good director. But some day she may be a good actor."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Old fashioned actor: Observes other people, say being scared. Notes what they do and how they move. Tries to copy those gestures, exaggerating them and stylizing them so that they can be recognized from the back tow.

(Other old fashioned actor: Observes stylized moves other actors make when they are being scared. Copies that.)

Method actor: Tries to remember a time when he was really scared. Tries to relive those emotions, and let it effect his speech and body language. Repeat process in front of audience. (I think it is a mistake to say that a method actor "thinks himself into the role" so that he sorta kinda feels that his youngest daughter has actually been hanged. I think it's more like "when he's playing Lear, he tries to evoke his own memories of what it's like to hear terrible news, and uses that in the death of Cordelia")

The old fashioned approach gives you Lawrence Olivier playing Richard III (which was hailed as a masterpiece at the time, but which now seems a little hammy and artificial to most of us). The method approach gives you Brando stroking the kitten or teasing his grandson in the Godfather.

Andrew Rilstone said...

There may be times when artificiality is precisely what you want. If you are doing a Mystery Play where characters come on and say "Herod am I, wicked Jewish king. I like to rant and rave, and I particularly like killing small children." then you probably aren't looking for presentational realism. Sometimes you want your crowds to mill about like a bunch of individuals; sometimes you may want them to stand in a row like a Greek chorus.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I once heard a lecture by Dr Jonathan Miller which reasoned thusly. "Syphilis simply doesn't have the symptoms described in Ghosts. You certainly can't be lucid with clear vision at one moment and crazy and blind a few minutes later. So what is actually happening? Obviously, having found out what a rotter his father was, he believes himself to have inherited syphilis from him, and the symptoms he exhibits at the end of the play are psychosomatic. So the tragedy is that is mother does kill him, even though there was no need."

Andrew Rilstone said...

I agree that you have to take genre into account when "reading" a film. But the answer to question "What about the technicians on board the Death Star" has a much simpler answer "They are off stage so they don't exist so you are not allowed to think about them by authorial fiat its a silly question." The answer is in fact "Didn't you look at the title? It's called Star WARS." Wars, by definition, involve situations where people kill their enemies to preserve their own lives, or those of their countrymen. If the war is just, then we regard a warrior as a hero even though he killed people, and even though the relatives of the people he killed were sad, and even though individual soldiers had different degrees of support for their government. All Star Wars has done -- and this certainly is a genre thing -- has cranked up the scale, so that instead of saying "If we don't torpedo the enemy ship (probably killing all hands) then it will torpedo us" you say "if we don't destroy the enemy PLANET then it will destroy OUR PLANET (and several others it noticed on the way over." And it's also a genre thing to make it clear that the Empire is very, very evil indeed, so the war Luke Skywalker is fighting in is very, very just. Of course, you Mum would very likely say "I don't care, dear, war is still horrible and you shouldn't be making films about it". But my reading is the reading that everyone who likes Star Wars adopts.

Andrew Rilstone said...

This is the one hundredth comment in this thread. Congratulations.

Anonymous said...

Rodgerv C said: Well, what he had was plainly a Nineteenth-Century Plot Moving Disease, like Torvald Helmer's ailment whose necessary and sufficient cure is a trip to Italy, or, a few hundred miles away, Ivan Ilyich Golovin's apparent cancer that he contracts from a knock on the side. Which opens up the question (sorry): What do audiences and readers do nowadays with 19C Plot Moving Diseases and the like?

Anonymous said...

And for "Rodgerv" read "Rodger the two-fingered typist."

Eric Spratling said...

"I don't understand this at all. Why does excitement depend on reality?

The tenth time you watch Robin Hood's fight, when you know every move, every off-hand one-liner, exactly the same as the other nine times you watched it, you know exactly what's coming next, you know exactly how everything will end, how can you possibly 'pretend it' real'?

But is it exciting? Well if it's one of the good ones it damn well is.

So what has 'pretending it's real' got to do with excitement? Bugger all, as far as I can see."


"Excitement" is not completely interchangeable with "surprise."

Gavin Burrows said...

”No, it isn't, if you are asking it to ruminate on and consider as illuninating the world, human nature, and your own reaction to the aesthetic effect of the play.”
 
Well it would seem that my disagreements with SK don’t go as far as I thought. Okay, “human nature” can be the same kind of trigger term as “common sense”. Bar that, this seems pretty much a textbook right answer to me. I shall need something of a lie down after this.
 
On the other hand, message boards are like drama. Where would they be without conflict? So...
 
”Mamet thinks the actor's job is to convey to the audience the playwright's intent.”
 
Okay, SK is quoting Mamet but seemingly with approval. So the lack of provable intent by Shakespeare becomes, if not exactly a problem, something to surmount. Whereas to me it’s almost an opportunity. We don’t always know an author’s intent. Sometimes their being available to talk to is still no help. But – and here I am going to sound like a formalist – the text is integral. We need a text or we can’t have an adaptation. No-one performs Euripides’ plays that were lost, just the ones that have survived.
 
” The usual conclusion to this anecdote is that someone, observing the scene says "He will never be a good director. But some day she may be a good actor." “
 
Sarah Miles tells an anecdote about working for Antonioni on ’‘Blow Up’ and asking essentially similar questions, for him to cheerily reply “it doesn’t matter”. She stormed off in a temper. An interviewer once told Robert Bresson they hadn’t got something about a character which wasn’t on-screen. He smiled and said “I don’t know either”. Whether Antonioni or Bresson went on to become pants or trousers may depend on people’s perceptions, but I know what I think.
 
Method acting clearly meant different things to different people at different times, and in fact became something of a fad. I can, I’ll acknowledge, use ‘Method’ as a synonym for luvvieness, when strictly all you could say is there’s a heavy overlap. And luvviness is to drama what bindweed is to gardens. All this ‘Method’ business is often the equivalent of the emergency plumber sucking in his cheeks as he sizes up the job – its there to make the whole thing look more complex and convoluted than it is.
 
I once saw Mamet interviewed, where he was fed a Noel Coward quote ”an actor should speak the lines and not bump into the furniture”. Mamet replied “I don’t care if the actors bump into the furniture”.
 
I think he was right.

Andrew Rilstone said...

But you would agree that Marlon Brando has a different style of acting from Lawrence Olivier?

Gavin Burrows said...

Elmore Leonard famously said “if it sounds like writing, rewrite it”.

Similarly, I'd say “if it looks like acting, drop it”. I hate to see actors acting.

I don't think I divide actors the same way as you. Brando or de Niro may have officially come from the Method school, but I'd place them somewhere alongside Alec Guinness. I don't think I could tell you eactly how Smiley is different to Obi-Wan Kenobe. I think it's similar to the way Moore and Gibbons built up a world in 'Watchmen'. They constructed a rationale which led to the story being littered with artefacts which, at least in the story itself, they never bothered explaining. But you pick up on those recurrent motifs almost subliminally, and absorb the sense that this is not just stuff made up to shove in panel backgrounds. Similarly, Guinness made characters up from little gestures you don't notice but take in. The actor becomes subsumed into the character.

Whereas the absolutely dreadful Olivier is more like someone like Meryl Streep. Whever I see Streep parading her new accent or set of gestures, like a yuppie parading the latest smartphone, I feel like I want to run for cover. It's simply showing off. You never get to the character, let alone the text, because the actor keeps getting in the way to tell you all about what the actor can do.

This isn't the same point as the 'mini-verse', I know. But they seem to overlap a lot in practice. Streep's stupid walk or whatever will be based on something she 'discovered' about the character while immersed in deep meditational study, which seems to have nothing to do with the text at all.

PS I hate to hear singers singing too. The reasoning is similar.

PPS Having Olivier's awful acting inflicted on the world does at least mean we have Paul Merton's impression of him.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I suppose that raises the question of why, if Olivier's acting was so bad, he was regarded as the iconic-ally great actor for so long.

But I guess that's a historical question. ("Bob Hope is as funny today as he ever was. And he never was very funny.")

Gavin Burrows said...

Coldplay are popular too.

Gavin Burrows said...

I’ve no idea whether Peter Brook was thinking of Olivier when he coined the phrase ‘the deadly theatre’, yet I can’t help but associate the two:
 
“They are the reflections of a critical attitude of a particular period, and to attempt to build a performance today to conform to these canons is the most certain road to deadly theatre - deadly theatre of a respectability that makes it pass as living truth”

Now if I can find another ninety-one quotes which directly or indirectly diss Olivier, I can bag the two hundredth post!

Andrew Rilstone said...

Of course, I never saw dear, dear Sir Larry live. Of his films, I think that Hamlet is a masterpiece, although its so heavily edited as to hardly be recognizable as Shakespeare's play. Henry V stands up very well, given when it was made: naturally I prefer dear, dear Sir Ken's version. I actually think his Othello is very good (and gives some sense of him as a stage actor) but if you tried to show it nowadays there would be an actual riot. The TV Lear was genuinely good, if you can get bast the Asterix costumes.

The interesting thing is the way in which tastes in acting change. Acting that was considered daringly naturalistic in one age looks terribly mannered in the next. I think it may be like humour: when you see surviving footage of the very great musical stars, you simply say "How could anyone ever have laughed at that?" I heard a man at Worldcon who believed that everything was always getting better and better. There was no point reading old science fiction novels, because they just weren't as good as new ones, how could they be? It might be that actors are getting better and better and comedians are getting funnier and funnier. I think it is actually that the whole situation in which jokes are told and plays are performed changes so much that they are out of date as soon as the curtain goes down.

Gavin Burrows said...

Yet actors like Gielgud and Richardson were contemporaries of Olivier and I do not smell the same ham on them. Possibly there were audiences then who saw attending the theatre as the cultural equivalent of eating up your greens, and other audiences who saw it as something more like the theatre.

I think art has to effectively 'do the double'. If it doesn't concern itself with its contemporary society it lacks traction. But if it becomes too specific it risks becoming transient. If 'Macbeth' was just a play about challenges to the Scottish throne it would be little more than a historical artefact for us now. Art needs both a focus and a wide lens.

And Shakespeare seems a good way to frame this. We don't, of course we don't, want reverential re-enactments with great attention paid to period dress, as if his history plays were documentary accounts. (If for no other reason than this being the Shakespeare the Tory party seem to believe in.) But I'm also slightly skeptical of the rush to make everything about them contemporary. (The “look, a laptop!” stuff.) I think, formally speaking, the best approach is to set them in some indeterminate time and place, and embrace the ensuing anachronisms.

How did we get from 'Star Wars' to Shakespeare anyway? I'd go back to the earlier posts to check but of course they have by now been superceded.

SK said...

I prefer dear, dear Sir Ken's version

I will allow you that entirely if, and only if, you can say 'Sir Ken' with the Ulster Vowel.

And I assure you, I can tell.

SK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
SK said...

The usual conclusion to this anecdote is that someone, observing the scene says "He will never be a good director. But some day she may be a good actor."

Inasmuch as this is true, it is true not because her approach to acting is the correct one (it isn't) but because part of a director's role is being able to coax the correct reaction from their actors, even if they are bad actors, and one who simply gives up on being confronted by an idiot like this will never become a great director.

A great actor would realise, in this situation, that they were dealing with an idiot and say whatever would produce the performance that would read correctly on film.

The whole point of the director being to focus on the end result.

SK said...

Sorry; for 'a great actor would realise' read 'a great director would realise'.

tigre said...

ITT: Asperger's Syndrome