People’s behavior, in real life, is often bizarre and inexplicable, but, because they’re standing in front of us, we don’t have cause to doubt that they’re real people. Thus, we buy whatever they’re doing as real, even if it’s incomprehensible.
In fiction or drama, because the characters aren’t inherently real people, the rules are different: very often, characters’ behavior can come off as impossible, as not belonging to real people at all, and thus not viable within the story … so the challenge of making people seem real is distinct to art, as opposed to life, even if their behavior is exactly the same.
In real life, people do irrational things all the time. These things serve no purpose for anyone, at least no conscious purpose. They are thus truly irrational, and often highly destructive.
In a movie, if someone behaves irrationally, it seems to serve the story in a contrived way — like the writer/director has made this person do something they have no reason for doing in order to serve some preordained narrative end. And the audience won’t buy this — people in movies have to seem like they’re acting of their own free will, rather than fitting into a larger narrative scheme, even though, of course, that scheme (the movie’s plot) has no way of manifesting except through them.
So, I think, people in movies are not allowed to behave as irrationally as they do in real life because true irrationality is not achievable in a work of art that has an author.
The work of any artist that rises to being an -esque has some element of humor in it.
Somewhere, in great art (at least great narrative art), the lines of horror and humor cross … no great art is dead-serious all the time (except maybe Cormac McCarthy’s). Art that achieves the state of -esque (Pynchon-esque, Pinter-esque, Kafka-eque … Lynchian, Cronenbergian, and Beckettian as honorary -esques) describes the world as only it can, granting those who come in contact with it a portal into a place they recognize as real but could not have accessed on their own.
Work on this level is morally neutral: it’s describing reality as the artist encounters it, as if he or she were a highly articulate alien visiting earth, not arguing for how it should or shouldn’t be. This encounter, for its disarming combination of surprise and recognition, is funny.
Art that becomes an -Ism, on the other hand — like David Foster Wallace’s in its later years, or George Saunders’ some of the time — contains a plea for change, an ideological, almost Evangelical dimension demanding that readers become better, strive for more, lift themselves up … which, for me, much as I appreciate the sincerity of the sentiment, keeps it short of greatness because it refuses to take on the world as it actually is. To insist instead on a better world feels like a failure of attention on the artist’s part.
And this isn’t funny — it’s grim, no matter how much humor it strives for.
WHEN I THINK ABOUT THE POINTS OF CONNECTION & DISJUNCT between literature and film — which I do every day — it often comes down to the differences in the feelings I remember from BROADSIDE BOOKSHOP and PLEASANT ST. VIDEO in downtown Northampton. I spent a lot of my growing up time in these two stores. Both were temples for me, more so than any other locations except for my house and HAYMARKET CAFE.
BROADSIDE BOOKSHOP I think of as bright, clean, crisp, new, the covers of the books glossy and smooth … a morning place, smelling of coffee and soap. This is still the feeling I have about literature.
PLEASANT ST. VIDEO, on the other hand, was dim, dank, an evening place, smelling of beer, sweat, even semen … especially with the supposed locked porn room behind the CULT section in the very back of the basement … and all the boxes in the FOREIGN section with their naked bodies and vibrant wounds, their illicit R or even NC-17 ratings … this is still the feeling I have about film.
Now I’m searching for a way, in my own work, to unify these feelings, because I don’t think I’ll ever be able to settle on one or the other.
Yesterday I found myself wandering in Central Park and thinking back on THE LOBSTER — easily my favorite film of 2015 so far — and trying to explain to myself what makes Yorgos such a particular sort of genius. The scene that came back to me most vividly is the one where Ben Whishaw’s character gives a speech about how he got his limp: He explains that his mother was turned into a wolf after failing to find a human mate and that, for many years as an adolescent, he would visit her in the zoo, feeding her meat. But, he admits, there were many wolves in the enclosure and he could never be sure which one she was. This started to bother him after a while, so one day he leapt into the enclosure and was immediately mauled. The wolves fell on him, tearing at his flesh and ruining his leg (that’s how he got his limp) … the last thing he remembers before passing out, he says, is that two wolves stood impassively in the background, watching the attack without participating in it. “So I reasoned that one of those two had to be my mother,” he says, completely deadpan.
The presence of such sober, even banal logic within a larger situation that’s totally absurd defines all of Yorgos’ work, at least all that I’ve seen … He gets a very distinct kind of humor and terror by nesting such a rational mindset within such a deranged one, and giving each equal weight in the construction of the film. This is what I love about him.
The phrase “Write you what you know” has the obvious (and questionable) meaning of “write about what you know about, from your real life … (rather than making anything up).”
But I think a truer sense of the phrase is that you have to start writing before you know the whole story — once you have a few ideas, or inklings, or a sense of tone, atmosphere, etc, even a single compelling image, start writing. Write what you know, without expecting to know everything from the outset. If you wait to know everything about the story before you start writing, you’ll never start, because you can’t learn everything that way. You have to prove to the story that you’re willing to take the risk of committing your time and effort to it without the certainty that it’ll turn out well, or turn out at all.
The original idea for a story is just a way of getting into it — like a string you pull on the blank page that allows you to enter its interior. Once in this interior, things happen that you couldn’t have predicted, and you have to be willing to go with them if you want the story to take on a life of its own. And if it doesn’t take on a life of its own, the story is just thought, not art.
In the same way, when making an independent film, a lot of the time you have to start shooting without knowing you have the money to finish — the only way to get the money to finish is to have already started, to have already proven to yourself and others that you’re really going to do it, and to have something tangible that shows what it is.
Herzog says he’s done this on nearly all his films.
ONE STEP TOWARD ARTISTIC MATURITY seems to be allowing a little levity / happiness into the work of art — not being unremittingly grim all the time, not needing everything to turn out as badly as possible no matter what. It feels like part of accepting the genuine grimness of the adult world, rather than the imaginary grimness of the childhood world, is also allowing a measure of lightness, beauty, frivolity — understanding that these things are linked, and that making room for them in a story doesn’t make me weaker, but actually more nuanced, more able to encompass the full spectrum of real life. Maybe I’ll even write a happy ending once in a while.