Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sometimes you don't want to know what went into it...

HALLIE: Not long ago I watched Donnie Darko, the movie starring a very young Jake Gylenhaal about a sleepwalking youth and a jet engine that crashes into his bedroom from a sky in which it turns out no airplane was flying. The film was a modest success when first released more than three years ago, and has gone on to rake in the $$ in DVD as a cult hit.

I loved the movie which could have been taken literally as a story about time travel, or (I thought) as a portrait of a deeply disturbed teenaged boy's inner world. Then I read an article explaining the story in gory the annotated Alice. Turns out the director intended DD to be a sci-fi tale of time travel with a malignant rabbit and the "Manipulated Dead" who wander around trying to get our hero to sacrifice himself so that the time/space continuum can unwrinkle itself. Well, that was a bummer. I liked the movie so much more when I could ponder its ambiguities.

It felt like those moments in an art gallery when you read some explanation (by the artist or the curator) of a piece of art that, up until that moment, you'd rather liked and suddenly it seems pretentious or overwrought. Or that time I loved-loved-loved a pot roast someone made until I asked for the recipe and discovered it had an entire bottle of Heinz chili sauce and a jar of marmalade in it. Sometimes you just don't what to know.

Should books (and art) need Cliffs Notes? Does knowing too much ever spoil your appreciation?

HANK: I was just reading about (and trying to understand) The Intentional Fallacy--a professor W.K. Wimsatt wrote 'the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art'.

So that's not exactly what you're asking, because you're talking about how *you* feel about what you read or saw, not whether the work is a "success" in general.

But I do think it can mean, on some level at least, who cares what the author meant? And if Donnie Darko makes you think, entertains you, enlightens you, based on what you saw and what you thought--then doesn't that make it a success for you?

But I must say, I always love to know more. What the author thought, what the artist was trying to convey. What I missed, what might make it a richer experience. I devoured The Annotated Alice. I read the explanatory notes in the symphony programs--it always makes the music better.(Okay, I'm with you, though, on the food ingredient thing. The yuck factor is better hidden.)

And it's certainly happened to me that a theme or motif emerges from my writing when I absolutely never--purposely--put it there. Readers will describe, with much certainty, how they understood what I was trying to convey in Prime Time. An I'm sometimes baffled--when it's something I did not, consciously, attempt to do. And yet, no question, something was revealed to them, something made sense in their own brain. And I embrace and accept that.

(Now I'm going to go Netflix Donnie Darko. So many of my pals love it.)


  1. I have to say, the topics you ladies present here are fascinating to me.

    I love this post because it probes the line between the art and science of writing in a sense. And, then almost three dimensionalizes it by adding additional info that may or may not contribute to the story.

    One thing I have learned in writing... just say it, don't explain it. Almost a part of show don't tell. Now, I realize that almost trivializes the point here, but yeah ... TMI, too much information, can ruin things. I agree with Hank as to the personal nature of something. If it's good for you then it's a successfully developed story. No further explanation needed.

    And to Hank's point - I must have reviewed the movie I was writing a zillion times when suddenly I realized that the opening scene was amazingly rich in visual metaphor. Here, a natural father is meeting a son who was let go for adoption, while in the background a test vehicle had just been smashed at high speed into a wall. The wreck of the two lives visually expressed and then technicians sweeping up the debris in background as they try to come to a place of communication in the foreground. It was awesome when I realized how the dialog tracked it, but initially unintentional. I was just presenting the story. You can bet in re-writes that I was covetous of that scene.

    When the movie gets made, I'm just sayin' oh yeah, man ... you know visual metaphor is essential to the expression of ... :-)!

    Yo! I'll never tell!


  2. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away (oops, no, it was Cambridge), I was an art historian, which qualified me to analyze any piece of art to death. Looking back, I think it helped me to enjoy a broader variety of pieces than I might have. But I still look for that immediate gut response, the "oh, wow" feeling that the great stuff inspires.

    I don't think I feel the same way about writing. There are many blogs and classes out there that teach you how do dissect another writer's work, and for me, that kills the book. I don't want to see the bones of it, I want to sit back and be captured by it. These days I find what I consider to be a "good book" is one that sucks me in and makes me forget the writer, the plot structure, the grammar, and even what day of the week it is--I just want to keep reading.

  3. Thinking about movies I didn't understand and I wish someone would explain because it might have been really good but who knows..what was the one with Tom Cruise? Vanilla Sky.

    And I've aways wanted to ask Mark Helprin about Winter's Tale, one of my favorite books. People ask--what's it about? And I say, um...

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  5. Yes, Shelia. That's exactly what I was thinking of about Winter's Tale. I could not do an elevator pitch about it--and yet, I totally understand it (and embrace it) simply from my way of understanding.

    And Mike, Hallie always talks about "making the reader do some work." Wonder if that's along your "don't explain it" lines.

    I'm just writing a scene where Charlie's cat, Botox, won't come out of her cat carrier in her new home. Charlie is also apprehensive about moving.

    I've written it with the line: Botox hates transitions.

    I've also written: Apparently, Botox is also apprehensive about transistions.

    I've also written: At least Botox isn't afraid to admit she hates transitions.

    I've also deleted the whole "what Botox thinks" line altogether.


  6. Exactly. You have to let the reader do some work. I like expressing it that way.

    Botox - I'd take the screenplay treatment even though it is a manuscript.

    Action only.

    For instance, Charlie notices that Botox is unwilling to come out. If you wanted to intensify it, Charlie can't even coax her out with a treat. I'd do this especially if there was something up with the new digs that cats can sense, but humans, especially Charlie in her trusting, does not. Even without that intrigue, Botox's reaction can just be a mirror of Charlie's unexpressed apprehension.

    Anyway - for sure - less is more.


  7. Does your front page indicate there's only one comment?

    Checking to see if this fixes it.

    We now return you to your original programming.

  8. Yes, Hank, I agree with you: "But I must say, I always love to know more. What the author thought, what the artist was trying to convey." Which is why I went chasing down that wonderful article about Donnie Darko and devoured every one of the director's remarks.

    And Mike, how true the corollary from writing:show don't tell and let the reader do the work of interpreting.

    An art show I saw this weekend and am recommending to EVERYONE is at Boston's wonderful Institute for Contemporary Art, Anish Kapoor's sculpture exhibit...the video interviews with the artist didn't spoil anything.

  9. Sheila, you constantly amaze me! you're so accomplished you make me feel like quite the slacker.

    My reading group read Northanger Abbey this month. One of the members did her thesis on the Gothic novel and had actually read all of the literary references in Austen's book. She had terrific insights into the book which I would never have picked up on (since I blew by Margaret Drabble's intro.)This time I wanted to know. In Francine's Prose's Reading Like a Writer I devoured every dissected example she gave of sentences, paragraphs etc.

    Other times, I find myself thinking..."Shut up and let me read (or watch!)" So, quien sabe? Maybe it depends on why you're reading or watching in the first place. Example? one needs to explain the movie Gladiator to me. I just want to watch.

    Do others read intros?