The Usual Suspects
I'm in Adelaide, South Australia at the moment on holiday. On the long trip across, I managed to see The Usual Suspects
starring Kevin Spacey. I'd heard some good things about it, and was interested to see what it would be like.
Let's start with the cons: A slow, rather ponderous start. It didn't grab me, there wasn't a strong sense of protagonist until the second scene (maybe it was the busy environment around me; I wasn't as patient as I would be at home or in the cinema). And at the end, an unashamed cliche - the detective drops his full cup of coffee as he realises something. We see the slo-mo coffee cup smash from three different angles. Come on, people don't do that!
The pros: The story. It had just the right "turns"in it to make you so, so surprised at the end. Although I must admit I did suspect what eventually did happen, but they made such a good job of pointing me in the wrong direction I really was surprised when X was revealed as the real you-know-who! (Don't want to spoil the film for you if you haven't seen it)
Even though I didn't really like the beginning, it was the kind of beginning you eventually wish you'd paid more attention to as the plot unfolds, because it holds so many clues as to what's actually happening.
It's not my favourite genre (grittycopdrama), but it was a good example of that genre.
As well as The Usual Suspects
, I also saw some of Wall Street
. Both films were set in New York, and both had panoramic skyline shots including the World Trade Centre. I'm not American, nor especially sympathetic to the USA, but both of those shots nearly made me cry. It's amazing what symbolism can do.
Monday's lesson: Composition
Pressing deadlines prevented me from going for a walk on Monday, but they didn't stop me having a bit of school. (In retrospect, maybe they should... I was running a bit late on those ol' deadlines!)Also, I took notes for this entire lesson in red, which is why this entry is in red. Take it as read.Okay, simple but very powerful lesson today: Composition. It's just like musical composition, you can do anything you like, but over time structures have evolved to make it easier to start. With story composition, those structures are referred to (by McKee anyway) as the canons of composition.They are:
Unity & Variety"A story, even when expressing chaos, must be unified." Viewers of your film should be able to say, because of [inciting incident], [climax] had to happen.Because of the brainwashing, an assassination or finding the truth had to happen - the Manchurian candidate.Because Imperial stormtroopers destroyed Luke's home, he had to go and fight the empire, eventually destroying the Death Star - Star Wars: A new hopeThe inciting incident is the most profound cause in your story, and the climax is the ultimate effect of that cause. The spine that holds it together is the protagonist's desire to restore balance.Within unity we must induce as much variety as possible, for instance in Casablanca, the main story is a love story, but you'll also experience political drama, comedy and even aspects of the musical."The key to varying a repetitious cadence is research.Pacing
- unity & variety
- rhythm & tempo
- social & personal progression
- symbolic & ironic ascension
- principle of transition
That's the alternation between tension and relaxation. Some films, like Face/Off, just ratchet the tension up all through the movie, leaving you exhausted at the end. The best films give you a slight breather from the tension, usually through humour, before propelling you into more peril.Even though this is 'pacing' and not 'rhythm', McKee talks about the 'rhythm of life' a lot in this section.Rhythm & TempoThe rhythm is set by the length of scenes. In an average two-hour film, each scene should average 2.5 minutes, right? But really you've got some which are 30 seconds, and others which are six minutes.The point is, avoid long scenes because they risk being boring, even if the dialogue is fantastic. It's the scenery that people get bored with. If it's the same for too long the eyes start thinking about doing something else.However, there are exceptions. TWELVE ANGRY MEN is a film based on a stage play, set in a courthouse, and taking place in real time. This is based on French neoclassical theatre, where they strictly obeyed the unities, a set of conventions that restricted a play's performance to one basic action or plot, taking place in one location in real time.Even though that theoretically makes for one long scene, the effect of a scene change is when characters enter and exit. The energy changes, the story moves.In the example of TWELVE ANGRY MEN, the characters were all there all the time, but the camera chooses to focus on smaller groups of people. Sets within the set.In the film MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, two characters share dinner in a restaurant, in real time. Their scene changes are created through word pictures. Got to see that film.Tempo is "the level of activity within a scene via dialogue, action or a combination of the two."As we head towards the climax, scenes tend to get shorter. (I'm nodding in agreement here, the Manchurian Candidate certainly did) When the climax arrives, we can put the brakes on, stretch the playing time, and the tension holds.If we lengthen and slow scenes prior to a major reversal, we cripple our climax.Now to the different types of Progression, the first being:Social progression where we widen the impact of character actions into society. It starts intimate, then gradually spreads outwards. Classic example - a farmer finds an alien in his field. Then the aliens take over earth. Or similar.Personal progression, on the other hand, is where you drive actions deeply into the intimate relationships and inner lives of the characters.Symbolic ascension is when you build the symbolic charge of the story's imagery from the particular to the universal, the specific to the archetypal. So characters become symbolic of a larger principle, for instance, or a symbol within the story identifies with a value.Ironic ascension is kind of cool. It makes the audience think, "yep, life is just like that!"Examples:
(NB: He is just a generic term here, it could've been 'she')What encompasses all the ironic ascensions is this: when someone is sure this is how life is, and life shows them it's waay different.Lastly, the principle of transition is the third element between two scenes (the other two elements being the end of scene one and the beginning of scene two). It's something in common
- He gets what he always wanted, but too late
- He gets pushed further and further from his goal, only to find he's been led to it
- He throws away what he later finds is indispensable to his happiness
- To reach a goal he unwittingly walks in precisely the other direction
- The action he takes to destroy something becomes exactly what are needed to be destroyed by it(I still don't get that, I'm sure it's a misprint... basically, it doesn't destroy it)
- He gets something he's sure will make him miserable, does everything to get rid of it - only to discover it's the gift of happiness.
for the two scenes, or something that contrasts the two scenes.For instance, a comparison, in Manchurian Candidate (2004) you've got Marco eating noodles while watching TV. Cut to Raymond, also eating noodles while watching the same program on TV.Contrast: An episode of Star Trek: Enterprise I saw recently. Hoshi says the crew are probably meditating while they're at a Vulcan monastery. Cut to Captain Archer being fiercely beaten by an Andorian.Other examples:
Nuff said. Catch up with you next lesson!
- Characterisation trait
- An action
- an object
- a word
- a quality of light
- a sound - eg. The Beatles' Good Morning ends on a chicken clucking, which morphs into a guitar note at the beginning of Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (reprise)
- An idea.
The Manchurian Candidates - both of 'em
Brilliant. Both of them were just fantastic.
I got to see the 1962 classic and the 2004 remake on one day, along with special features and commentaries - I love watching films!
So here's the story. In the 1950s Richard Condon writes a novel, The Manchurian Candidate
. It doesn't really go anywhere, not a bestseller or anything.
In (I think) 1957, John Frankenheimer
and George Axelrod
read the book in one afternoon, loved it, and immediately purchased the film rights.
A key to the project's success was getting Frank Sinatra
on board. Luckily for Frankenheimer and Axelrod, he loved the idea and was really looking forward to making it.They made it
, and in the process made a whole lot of firsts:
- The first black actor to play a part that wasn't specifically a black character (Joe Adams, who played the army psychiatrist)
- The first - or one of the first - karate fights on screen (in Western cinema, anyway!)
- The first time cops arrived in a car and the camera is in the car watching them get out (looked very CSI to me!)
- The first assassination scene of its kind - it's become cliched because it's been copied a lot ever since.
Also an absolutely useless piece of trivia: the bad guy, Yen Lo, is supposed to be Chinese but the actor
was actually of Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese ancestry. And spoke with a New York accent - what conscientious evil Red Chinese scientist was say "woid" for "word"? (But he was good apart from the accent)
So yeah, they made the film, it was great. And Frank Sinatra eventually got the sole rights to it. When he died, his daughter Tina inherited it. And sometime in the last few years, Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme approached Tina Sinatra and said, "how about a remake?"
I watched the 1962 version first, then the 2004 remake
. I was impressed by the first one, and interested to see how the new one would update the story.
Similarities: just about all the characters. Liev Schreiber even looks a lot like Lawrence Harvey.
** WARNING - Spoilers coming **
Differences - interesting to note these because they tell us something about the times we live in:
- In the original, the candidate was Raymond's father. In the remake, Raymond himself was the candidate, and his father had died 20 years ago. Interesting statement there about the loss of fatherhood in our society, and also the youthful image of leadership now compared to the '60s.
- In the original, the mother (Angela Lansbury) was a behind-the-scenes manipulator, pulling the strings for her dullard husband who was the senator. In the remake, the mother (Meryl Streep) is the senator. A big difference for the story, and one that was so well done by Streep.
- In the original, the bad guys are communists from Russia and China. In the remake, it's a shady multinational corporation. 'Nuff said!
- (SPOILER ALERT) In the original, Raymond pulls the trigger. In this one, it's Marco! And Rosie, instead of playing the spare wheel but quite sweet role she did in the first movie (portrayed by the beautiful Janet Leigh), is now in Sinatra's shoes, being the agent, rushing around the stadium and eventually shooting Marco. Which was, I must admit, quite a shock!
- In the original, we wait a while before meeting Marco, our main protagonist. There's a lot more exposition up front. In the new film it's character first, and exposition comes later, as we see the characters in action.
Generally it was interesting to see how they in many ways started from scratch, to avoid comparison with well-known scenes from the original. Clever.
And where comparison was inevitable, like the assassination scene, they changed enough variables in the script to make it just as much a "what's going to happen?" moment as in the original.
Sorry if I'm rambling, but since reading the stuff I've been reading about scene analysis and story structure, I'm getting into this sort of nitpicking endlessly.
One thing about the remake that's copped a lot of flack from the comments on IMDb
is the way Marco's mental state is portrayed. Sinatra in 1962 portrayed a slightly sad, sleepless character. Washington portrayed someone seriously struggling with long-term depression. Much of the camera work and editing is subjective, so we see things from his perspective.
I especially liked the scene where his German friend gives him electric shock therapy, and he remembers just a tiny bit, then wakes up in the park, days later, with Rosie saying "Did you blank out on me again?" Inspired!
In the original I did think the tide turned too soon for Sinatra's character. One little thing and all of a sudden he's in the army's good books. It was a relief, because you felt for the guy, but not so realistic.
Meanwhile, Washington's character struggled throughout, right up until the end. He embodied that classic picture of a character reaching, being slapped back by reality, then reaching further to try and restore the balance. Talk about 'opening the gap' - this was full of gaps opening up right underneath our protagonist.
Listening to the commentary was good, I love it when writers chime in on commentary. Yes, it's interesting to hear about what lenses or sound editing were used, but I need to hear about story. And there's a moment in the film where Marco is being interrogated, provoked rather, by an army guy who says, "You want to hit me? Hit me?" - and he does.
It's a great moment for the audience, because it's a welcome moment when we feel maybe our protagonist is back on top of things, in control again. But no... he ain't. It's just a moment of instant gratification. And very funny.
With this agonising build-up, it's absolutely inspiring to see Washington's acting as Marco appeals to Raymond. Sinatra's version of the same scene was powerful too. But while Sinatra's scene ended on a simple question mark, the Washington version went powerfully in the other direction, as Marco gets sucked into the whirlpool of the conspiracy.
It's also got an added poignancy to it, as Rosie, now revealed as an FBI agent, can't find Marco and now feels responsible... how could she let this happen? I guess the original Marco (Sinatra) feels this way after letting Raymond and Jocie have a honeymoon. If you don't know what I'm talking about, you've got to see both of these movies. I'm telling you, watch it.
One of the IMDb commenters criticises the remake for having an obligatory explain-it-all scene. I disagree. There's not much explaining going on, just some emotional closure. And the eerie words of Dr. Noyle dubbed on at the end are brilliant, a great example of words taking their meaning from a new context.
Manchurian Candidate is now one - or two - of my favourite movies.
Friday: Waterview Downs: The Invert, the cross-dresser, the fictocritic
I was back at my first 'classroom' today - no, my second, the first was a cafe - sitting on the bench at Waterview Downs. Didn't see any rabbits ... maybe they've been ex-ter-minated!
Today's chapter - Chapter 9, The Writing Experiment
- looked at four new types of writing which "transgress generic norms" like poems, plays or storys. They are:
- Synoptic novel
- Discontinuous prose
- Mixed genre writing
"Postmodernist writing has played a double game with genre: both paying homage to it and yet pulling the rug from beneath its feet."
The synoptic novel
is like a story synopsis (the kind you need to pitch a film script) without the full story. It's a standalone piece of work. It needs to have a strong sense of what the story is, but obviously can't have the details or development of a novel.Discontinuous prose
"breaks up narrative or expository writing: it is the bread and butter of experimental prose writers." This is how we tend to write diaries or notes: "A collection of fragments which circle around a topic, rather than a directional plot-oriented story."
A multi-genre piece
combines and "cross-dresses" various types of writing. For instance, a novel-type narrative, then a poem, then an advertisement, then... the possibilities are endless. I kind of enjoyed the examples given of multi-genre writing; I think it suits the information-saturated culture we live in. Visually the equivalent would be film footage that is very rapidly intercut, with different frames appearing on the same screen like in 24
. It's overwhelming, but it's a unity at the same time. We search for meaning or we create it.
Sometimes multi-genre includes quotes from other pieces, and the effect is that you see the quote in a different way, in a different context. It's that search for meaning, either finding it or creating it with what's around you.
Lastly (short lesson today!), Fictocriticism
is a "fusion and exchange of critical and creative writing", sometimes known as the paraliterary or postcritical.
It makes you realise there's a line between literature and writing about literature, and then crosses that line. There are poems that comment on poetry. There are essays about literature written in a poetic style.
What I wonder is why rap music is not mentioned here. That's one thing I can't get my head around, that despite postmodern academic thinking claiming to have the marginalised in mind, it still divides culture into high and low, with stuff that most people have heard of falling into the low category. Why is that?
Why do I mention rap music? Because you often hear rappers mentioning themselves and the art of hip hop and/or rap in their music. It's a classic example of fictocriticism, I would've thought. Anyway...
Interestingly, fictocriticism uses multi-genre writing, discontinuous prose and linguistic play.
That's it for today. I'm only two chapters away from finishing The Writing Experiment
! A great quote in the conclusion from today's chapter:
"The subversion of genre is central to an experimental approach and the textual and cultural norms it questions."
So there it is. I need both these books. With the one - Story
- I'm learning the classic genre structure. With the other - The Writing Experiment
- I'm learning the newer, more academic genres. What use will this knowledge be to me? Whenever you enter a new country it helps to know the landscape. I'm entering into a creative writing space I haven't actively been in, even though I've been a writer all my life. This is the map.
Thursday - Scene Analysis
Same classroom today. Just as I was ready to leave, the heavens opened. Maybe I should invest in a raincoat. And waterproofing for my books... yeah, never mind.
Today I was back to Story
, and loving it. I think it's not so much a difference in content as in tone. Writing Experiment
is written kind of clinically, academically, while Story
is written all friendly-like. Conversational.
Today's lesson was simple but great. It started off with text
, and how a scene isn't worth doing if it doesn't have subtext.Nothing is what it seems
, said this chapter. "If the scene is about what the scene is about , you're in deep s**t." - Old Hollywood saying
Subtext is all around us but we don't often catch it, we're wrapped up in ourselves. But in the movies, we're concentrating. Have you ever seen a film and thought, "I know what that character's really
thinking..." That's subtext in action.
"Subtext is present even when a character is along. For if no one else is watching us, we are. We wear masks to hide our true selves from ourselves."
So even a voiceover or direct narrative isn't direct. That's kind of postmodern, ain't it!
Having laid that foundation of what subtext is and how important it is, McKee then took us through the technique of analysing a scene.
- Define conflict. Who drives the scene? (Could be a non-human character, like the weather) What do they want? What/who's stopping them? What does that antagonist want?
- Note opening value. What's at stake here? Is it positively or negatively charged? E.g. faith... the protagonist begins the scene believing in God.
- Break the scene into beats. Identify the text and subtext for each action and reaction. Subtext is what's really going on... so the dialogue could be moving along, but for each character you just need one phrase to describe what they're really thinking, feeling, or doing. E.g. "begging". And what's the other person doing? E.g. "ignoring him". Each action-reaction pair is one beat.
- Note closing value and compare it with opening value. How does the scene end? The value you identified in 2 should have an opposite charge now ... e.g. the protagonist no longer believes in God, or his faith is challenged at least.
- Survey beats and locate turning point. Look over the list you've made of "beats" in the scene and see where things turn - where that value turns from positive to negative, or vice versa. Remember, if it doesn't turn, it's very probably a wasted scene.
That was it. See, I told you it'd be a nice and simple lesson today.
One last definition, this came up in one of the example scenes that got cut to pieces.Synchronicity: the fusion of meaningful coincidence around a centre of tremendous emotion.
Wednesday - more avant-garde poetics
Because the weather is very unpredictable today, my classroom was the sofa. Millie the cat was very happy about this.
I continued The Writing Experiment chapter 8 today, about postmodern poetry, and avant-garde poetics (poetics being the theory behind poetry).
Specifically I was looking at ways of messing about with language, stuff that seems to come quite naturally, but I resist being taught it as an official way of writing for some reason.
I've got two theories as to why I don't like "learning" this sort of stuff:
- Putting it in a learning framework takes all the fun out of it, or
- It goes counter to what I've learned about communicating - it all seems to lead to meaninglessness.
Maybe both of those are partly true. Or maybe I feel threatened in my worldview because of the political implications. That's entirely possible. It's interesting (to me, anyway) noting my feelings and reactions as I go through these exercises.
So what did I read about today?
Metaphor meets metonymy
. Most traditional poetry is driven by a consistent, single metaphor or image. For that matter, many good films are too.
Metonymy is almost but not quite the opposite of metaphor. It focuses on the differences where metaphor focuses on the similarities.
Metonymical poetry is centrifugal - it takes a central idea and then spreads out. Metaphor gathers in elements towards a central idea - centripetal
The traditional approach says mixed metaphors are a pain in the neck and should be thrown out the window (ha ha), while avant-garde poetry says you can find some striking images by mixing metaphors.
Here's my half-hearted attempt at a mixed metaphor metonymical munkliphorical (okay I made that last word up) poem:
The cat is like a squatter
enforcing his rights
a tree planted for generations
a cute, fluffy monolith
that time will not move
(This was when he was sitting on the book I was writing in.)
Other ways to mess with language - use homonyms (words that sound alike but mean different), or just play games to get some creative new ideas: don't use any words with the letter y in them, for example, or use only one vowel, only words a certain length, etc. The possibilities are endless and putting those constraints on yourself can result in some really fresh, new stuff. I really should try it but didn't have the inclination or time or imagination this morning.
Um I can't remember what game I was trying to play with this poem:
Many oceans we all crossed
and there were no zebra crossings
except maybe the crossings
of the few zebras who made it here
Mmm. Changing the meaning of crossing from ocean-crossing to zebra crossing and then to zebras crossing the ocean. Hm.
Then there's the section of grammar, and my mind really threw a wobbly at politically correct nonsense like:
"Grammar can be constraining because it is hierarchical... this has the effect of making one idea in the sentence seem more important than others..." Duh! "...grammar is the product of a particular social context, and can be identified with the hegemonic culture: in many cases western imperialism."
As I wrote in my journal: WTF?
Thankfully, grammar exists in languages and cultures other than English, which made statements like these hard to swallow. I was really relieved to read the question:
"What is to be gained by writing like this?"
And even more relieved that the question was answered: it defamiliarises grammar, focuses our attention on how language normally works, and how it can be stretched.
Sort of like how in film an out of focus shot can be deliberate to help us become aware of how we see. I'm into awareness. I like it.
But I find it hard to agree with saying subverting grammar "liberates meaning instead of obscuring it", because "each sentence can be interpreted in several ways, producing more meaning rather than less". That's definitely in the eye of the beholder.
Meaning to me is about the intention of the sender, about communication. If that's not happening, might as well read messages into dog droppings you find on the footpath. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but I'd rather relate
Feeling frustrated at this point, I wrote a poem:
lots of meaninglessness
in my mess
could have been chowder
for all I know
why don't people
simply want to
Yep. That's what it felt like - "the sound of silence" growing louder and louder. I was starting to get the point.
The book then talked about discontinuity
, which is pretty easy, just don't make the second paragraph relate to the first. I think continuity is something we crave, and it's hard to achieve. Why we'd want it in our art, I'm not really sure.
Then, lexical experimentation. Inventing new words or messing about with old ones. Spike Milligan does fantastic stuff on this, and it works, it's funny. Somehow the academic examples in this book don't catch me the same way. They're either incomprehensible, or smugly self-satisfied. Except for this one:
Nin-sene.sense is too binary
andoppostioin, too much oall or nithing
account with ninesense seeming by its
very meaing to equl no sense at all. We
have preshpas a blurrig of sense, whih
means not relying on convnetionally
methods of conveying sense but whih may
aloow for dar greater sense-smakinh than
specisi9usforms of doinat disoucrse that
makes no sense at all by irute of thier
hyperconvetionality (Bush's speeches,
From 'A Defence of Poetry', by Charles Bernstein 1999a, pp 1-2
I kind of got that. He's saying what seems like nonsense might actually make more sense than political speeches and other forms of public discourse. I understand. Communication!
Then we looked at visual poems, how poems look. We covered that before in chapter 2 (I think) and that's cool. Pretty easy to do if you think visually. It's funny, film scripts, even though they have strict conventions, need to look right on the page too. To give sense of space and time. Interesting.Prose poetry
"questions the division between poetry and prose". It's a "diverse and loose category, sometimes including short meditations or poetic narratives". Sounds like a sham to me! ;) But I'm just being facetious.
Part of prose poetry was what the American Language Poets called "the new sentence". This is where a prose sentence (that may or may not obey the rules of grammar) is completely self contained and you just chuck a whole lot of them together. Sort of.
I really need to ask myself why I'm persevering with The Writing Experiment
. I'm really enjoying Story
, but enduring Writing
. Why should I continue? Because I believe as a writer I should be aware of the many tools available in my toolbox, and also know what other people call those tools so I can collaborate with people in the future who are very different from me.
Also, perhaps much of this stuff will sink in on a subconscious level, come up at some later stage when I least expect it, and I'll be like, Oh! My old friend. How are you?
Tuesday - Postmodernist poetry - Owairaka
Between Greenlane and home
maybe a park
maybe the Domain
yes, that's it
Oh that's right
He was stuffed.
No I mean literally,
She was so crushed when he died
She had his body stuffed so he could still
look like part of her life.
I never knew what that name meant
I stood at the summit, reading the plaque
matter of fact we got the name wrong
Te wai or raka? Can't remember
but it meant the sacred water of
who was a tohunga.
it's cold this morning
walking should warm me up
but I don't know where the path is
I follow the nearest thing
what a view
followed by their people.
kept them away
This is the same bench I
when I got here.
I'm seeing it from a different perspective
many things in life like that
The Writing Experiment Chapter 8
Postmodernist poetry, avant-garde poetics.
Didn't enjoy this one as much, because a) it was about poetry, not music, b) it's got a lot of academic stuff in there, and doesn't draw on popular culture, and c) I don't enjoy poetry as much when it's not set to music!Postmodernist lyric
One of the key characteristics is the split self. "Once we start to use words, language inevitably takes on a life of its own which is not identical to the feelings we are expressing."
In other words, our words are not us. Traditional poetry has sort of assumed that they are true representations of us.
But in postmodernism the idea of who I am, a single, unified self, is splintered. Psychoanalytic theory comes into play here: "a human subject emerging from the Oedipal process is a split subject, torn precariously between the claims of the conscious and subconscious."
There's also the famous (?) Lacanian mirror stage, when (apparently) an infant sees themselves in the mirror and feels joy at recognising themselves, but also despair that they'll never be totally at one with that image.
In other words, we don't speak with just one voice, not one of us. There are many sides to people.
This is nothing new, but in postmodernism it's emphasised and treated as normal, rather than something to be solved or cured.
The book then gave a few examples of the use of "split self" in poetry, the most vivid one being of a character who's body says go here, and the mind says, okay, I'm just along for the ride.Subversion of voice
is another PoMo (postmodern) thing. To avoid poetry becoming overly "confessional, self-indulgent or self-aggrandising." Subverting your voice is like talking about love and starting to get all misty eyed, but then cracking a bad joke. Surprising the reader/audience.
Or it's using a perspective that is alien and disjointing. Lots of that here.
Then there's the more political dissident lyric
, using art for politics' sake. Because postmodernism believes that every piece of language is political, even if it's not intended to be.
There were some pretty good examples here, including one that gives the view of sexual exploitation from a disabled person's view. Postmodern poetry is often used to address taboo issues.
I only just started the avant-garde
language part of the chapter; I needed to get back to the office and had an itchy eye. Not sure what the eye was about.
What I read was interesting, the theory and history of avant-garde literature.
The term comes from the military, meaning a vanguard, symbolising the first group of people to lead a movement. Avant-garde arts began in the early 1900s, with visual arts like surrealism and dadaism, and poets like Gertrude Stein and Andre Breton.
Then in the 1980s and 90s there arose in the USA "Language Poetry" and in the UK the slightly different "linguistically innovative poetries".
These groups of poets argued that "language had been fetishised, commodified and consequently devalued, and that in order to change the world we have to radically change the way we use words."
They believed it was necessary to make language unfamiliar, so we could see it and be consciously aware of how we use language.
Postmodern poetry is very political and can't be viewed as separate from the Marxist and Freudian ideologies driving it.
Question for me: if I disagree with those Marxist and Freudian ideologies, can I still use the methods of postmodernism? Or is the message, the what, so wrapped up in the how, the delivery, that it's impossible?
Guess there's only one way to find out... ;)
CROMBIE: I don't know what to say. I thought we'd been through this?
JOHN: I know. I'm sorry, it was a mistake, it won't happen again.
CROMBIE: This isn't school, you know! I'm not going to put you on detention or give you the strap. I can't. But you're up against reality. Your actions have put you at risk. And also my agents. They're supposed to be looking after you. Help them out a bit, can you!?
JOHN: I know. I'm trying.
CROMBIE: What's your name?
JOHN: (pause) James... Gundry.
CROMBIE: You had to think about it! What's your name?
JOHN: James Gundry!
CROMBIE: What do you do for a living?
JOHN: I'm an architect-
CROMBIE: -Where do you work?
CROMBIE: You used to work in Ponsonby. But you don't work in this town any more Mr... Gundry... because you went and shot your mouth off, putting yourself and others at risk. Because of your actions, Mr. Gundry, we're going to have to relocate you.
Happy, Mr Gundry?
Excerpt from my film
My job is to ensure the security of this country. If I do my job well, nobody knows. Life goes on as normal. That is my job: making life go on as normal.
I have no family, no past, and, really, no present to speak of. At least that's what you'll find if you try to discover anything about me.
I've placed dozens of people like John into protection, giving them new identities, new lives. But with John, there's this tiny problem. He wants to keep his name - the idiot wants to bring his name with him into a new life. You can't do that! You may as well have a big bulls-eye painted on you.
John's determination about his identity troubles me. It makes me question why I do what I do. I know, that's dangerous. Because if I don't do my job, life doesn't go on as normal.
Why does he make me question what I do? Because I've never come across someone so stubborn about something so practically meaningless as a name. What use is a name when you have a price on your head?
I know part of my job is psychological, but sometimes I fear the person on the other side of the table knows more about what's going on than I do. In any other job, that's okay. In mine, that's a danger.
Opposing forces personified
A Saturday exercise: personify those doubts and fears you feel when you're struggling to write.
"This is too hard," says Thisistoohard. Subtly demeaning, she combines sympathy with scorn. "Can you believe some people get paid to just sit behind a shop counter? And here you are, suffering mental constipation just to get a few words on a page - otherwise you won't get paid!"
The scorn softens: "And it's a shame really" - sympathetically, now - " it's a shame no-one reads those words you put so much effort into."
She looks faint. Do I feel faint? "All I'm saying is, is it really worth it?" I blink. "There must be an easier way to live. Everyone else out there knows it, and you're just trying to pretend it's not true."
Suddenly: "Why don't you wake up!"
I turn back to the screen.
"You're looking in the wrong place!" she yells. "The opportunities are out there, not in here."
Quieter now, subtler: "I don't want to tell you you're wasting your time, but..." A strange, wry smile.
New Zealand mythology
An interesting discussion on Saturday about the stories we tell and hear about New Zealand resulted in some insights:
- Every people group in Aotearoa has an immigration story. Everyone originally had to make a big decision to get here. Those stories are all about choice, and risk.
- The Fred Dagg image is getting less and less relevant as NZ society becomes more urban, and rural society becomes more sophisticated.
- Paradoxically, the number 8 fencing wire myth will always be told, because largely it's true: we as a nation tend to do more with less. Lord of the Rings is a great example of this: everyone got in and just did it.
- An interesting insight: many NZ films are told through the eyes of a child. Is this a sense of us as a culture still being in the years of late childhood? Are we entering into a teenage phase? Is that why we still have a bit of the cultural cringe, and want to be like other countries?
- More on the child-as-seer: perhaps it's to recapture a sense of identity that's been lost. Often the child is the character who's forced to see reality, which adults then deny. The child has a better sense than others of what's really going on?
- Pakeha are struggling with a sense of rootlessness. They see the Maori renaissance and acknowledge it as a good thing, but at the same time feel displaced. I spoke with several people about this (all pakeha, interestingly. Where are the brown faces in screenwriting?) and we all tended to agree on this. I thought it was just one of my hobby horses ;)
On this last point, I see it as being a sense of shame for past wrongs that pakeha have committed collectively. However, ours is ignorant shame. We don't really know or seem to care much about our history (although the production of docos like Frontier of Dreams
indicate there's some interest).
When I did my Western History odyssey
this year and last, I discovered a whole heritage that I only knew in shady forms. I could understand why people were so proud of the British Empire - what a club it must have been to belong to!
And I believe it's important for people to understand both sides of the story, because if you just tell one side, you're setting someone up to believe the other side when it's told, and feel betrayed by the telling of the first.
This line of thought led to Tony and I having a very interesting discussion about the Germans. Tony lived in Germany for a decade, including the time when the Berlin wall fell. Even then, young people, who hadn't even participated in World War 2, had a palpable sense of duty to ensure the horror of the Holocaust never happens again. They experienced shame and guilt, but it was based on knowledge. It wasn't just the kind of shame and guilt that doesn't go anywhere, it was constructive. I'm making generalisations here; of course some will experience this shame in an unhealthy way, while others will try to revise history and become neo-nazis. But generally it drives them to learn their history and take the lessons to heart.
A myth is not necessarily something untrue. It's just a story we tell in order to understand the world around us. One of the exercises on Saturday was to identify the myths told - in words or not - among our families when we were about seven or eight. Here's my attempt:
Cultural myths had more resonance for me in my early years than family myths. (Dr. Who, Star Wars, the Smurfs, Popeye, the list goes on...) My sister, seven years my senior, was a teenager, struggling with the things teenagers struggled with. My mum, not long widowed and fighting an illness she didn't know existed, was surviving, putting out my sister's fires and trying to give us both the love, care and attention we needed.
We were part of a church, and that provided context, but wasn't strong on myth, not the sort that really strongly grabbed your imagination. The Open Brethren are fairly prosaic in their approach to Scripture. Generally speaking. Which is a pity, because in the pages of the Bible are some of the most amazing images, stories and mysteries. Thankfully I met people later in life who could help me see some of that amazing stuff. But when I was seven or eight, it was all very grown up, with hymns and family lunches.
The prevailing unspoken message I got from within the family - and I dont' think any of us realised this was the message - was that you fit in with whoever you're with at the time. You can be fully yourself at home. You simply adapt to others when you're with them - whether at church, with extended family, school or anywhere else.
Creativity was also an unspoken but very important part of life. Whether it was mum's painting, embroidery, lacemaking or myriad other handcrafts, my sister's writing or my drawing, to be able to create was a given - a right.
I'm still shocked when I meet kids who don't know how - or aren't allowed - to play, learn and create. I wouldn't be me if I didn't have that.
Nature was there too. We lived in the bush, and regularly went even further into the bush to walk, socialise, and again, discover.
Our first exercise on Saturday was to take an image and make it into a creation story. Big ask! Here's my attempt, based on my cellphone:
In the beginning, the ON button was pressed. The hourglass appeared; sand rushed through the tiny space to the bottom, and then appeared the Welcome Screen. And the Welcome Screen said "How are you?".
Nobody answered, for the world was empty and without form. The PIN was entered and there was light and life.
"Searching for network" said the screen and in searching, the network was found. Where the network comes from, nobody knows. All you know is that without the network, you may as well hit the OFF button. There's no point without the network.
MENU ... Settings ... My Stuff. Let there be... plants, animals, birds, sea creatures... wallpaper, and a crazy frog ringtone.
On second thought, forget the crazy frog.
SIM opened his eyes, breathing air for the first time. The world was so beautiful. A stunning variety of life, plants, animals, birds and sea creatures.
But one thing drove SIM more strongly than anything else. In his innermost being, SIM, without thinking, was reaching out to find the network.
Through the Mythic Lens workshop - 1 October 2005
On Saturday I was privileged to be part of the NZ Writers' Guild workshops, Through the Mythic Lens, hosted by Jacqueline Feather
, a kiwi based in Hollywood who studies mythology.
It was good, and very practical. Lots of exercises where we had to really search our hearts for our own myths.
It was also great to catch up unexpectedly with Tony Forster, who's turning his hand to writing as well as Assistant Directing and Directing. We had a great catch up afterwards in a cafe called Logos, which ironically means Word.
Some basics from the workshop (I'll post my exercises as separate posts):
What is myth? Greek definitions:
mythos = story
logos = structure/speech (or word, or idea)
poesis = crafting
- "Myths are metaphors linking the invisible with the visible."
- "The stories that we tell ourselves are ultimately what determines our reality." Joseph Campbell (George Lucas was a Campbell protege)
- Archetypes - the Greek gods are useful as archetypes.
New posts in the past
Hi everyone who reads this (Robyn!)
Just letting you know that I've updated myself for the first time in a while, and put in my "lessons" for the 23, 28 and 29 of September in on those dates, so they show up before some of my more recent posts. Just so you don't miss them.
Blogcritics.org: Review: The Art of Game Characters
Blogcritics.org: Review: The Art of Game Characters
My latest review at Blogcritics. Definitely worth a read, not just for creating characters, but understanding the subtle differences between writing for games and writing for movies.
News : : Haydenfilms.com
News : : Haydenfilms.com
Good little resource here - every month they have an interview with someone involved in making a film. I like it!