Feb 26, 2013

Comeuppance

I’m going to very cautiously poke my head into the realm of news reporting (or rather re-reporting) today, but don’t worry, I’m not getting political. A friend posted this link on Facebook recently, most likely while doing a little Yosemite Sam-style gun jig.

It got me thinking about the sense of symmetry that is required for a narrative to feel both complete and satisfying. This is often referred to in terms of balance; any transgressions committed by or upon the protagonist at the beginning of the story must be offset by some equally weighty punishment. However, I think our sense of balance is askew.

 If we were to somehow be able to look at every story ever told and weigh the crimes and punishments of the antagonists, we would probably find a great number of them involve bad guys who commit murder and die in the end, which we might consider a “balanced” dramatic arc. We would also find quite a few stories in which either a) the bad guy gets away with murder, or b) the bad guy commits some lesser offense, but still dies in the end; my guess is we would find many more of the latter.

 There is a very primal part of us that thinks even an eye for an eye is too lenient; it salivates at the phrase “justifiable homicide,” secretly longing to be victimized just enough to be able to kill someone for it, and it is on display in our lineage of vanquished villains, and in bloggers gloating over what is essentially the meting out of a death sentence for burglary.

Feb 21, 2013

Thieves and Liars


A student recently submitted an essay about the death of his father. I will include the opening paragraph:
Seventeen years ago, I came bounding into a world of love and laughter. I was the first child, the first grandchild, the first nephew, and the primary focus of my entire extended family. Although they were not married, my parents were young and energetic and had every good intention for their new baby boy. I grew up with opportunities for intellectual and spiritual growth, secure in the knowledge that I was loved, free from fear, and confident that my world was close to perfect. And I was the center of a world that had meaning only in terms of its effect on me-- what I could see from a height of three feet and what I could comprehend with the intellect and emotions of a child. This state of innocence persisted through my early teens, but changed dramatically in the spring of my sophomore year of high school. My beloved father was dying of AIDS.  From the moment my parents told me, I confronted emotions and issues that many adults have never faced.  The death of my father, from AIDS especially,  forced my view of the world and my sense of responsibility to take a dramatic turn.
Normally I wouldn’t post a student’s work without their permission, but this particular essay happens to be identical to an essay available for purchase and download at 123essays.com and a handful of other similar web sites. According to the plagiarism detection software we use at school, this essay has been submitted to at least sixteen other colleges.
There’s something particularly ghoulish about stealing someone else’s life story – especially when that story involves something so tragic – although it occurs to me that there is a good chance this story wasn’t even true of its original author. When I was 18, I took the writing component of the SAT II’s, which asked me to write an essay about a time I had learned from adversity. Being a middle-class white suburbanite, my choices were between the time I had to re-take my driver’s permit test and the time my parents accidentally left me at the mall. (I was 4, and I’m still recovering.) So, obviously, I wrote about the time my dad died in the first Gulf War.
Later, as I was bragging about how clever and  subversive I had been, I discovered no less than three of my classmates who had taken the test on the same day had also written about the deaths of their still-living fathers (a car accident and two types of cancer).
So here’s to you, anonymous AIDS-dad kid. Wherever you are, I sincerely hope you’re just another lying punk with an oedipal complex.

Feb 17, 2013

Thoughts: Zero Dark Thirty


I am going to make this very brief, since 1) there has been a great deal of discussion on this topic recently, and 2) I am knee deep in essays to grade this weekend.

Last night I saw Zero Dark Thirty. I was a fan of both Strange Days and The Hurt Locker, so I went expecting to like the film, but I also went in with my controversy radar set to high sensitivity, to the extent that I found myself distracted by a nagging need to self-monitor. Am I being propagandized to? I kept asking myself. How about now?  

Most of the time, the answer was, “no.” The movie is not a defense of torture or a hagiography of the CIA, nor is it a condemnation of those things. It seems to be, as the director has publicly (though belatedly) stated, an attempt to present as truthful an account of the CIA’s pursuit of bin Laden as is possible, given the limited information available and the constraints of the dramatic form.

Here’s the thing: I don’t think it is successful even in that modest ambition, and the reason for that comes down to a very small choice made late in the film.

I will entertain the idea of art as the “mirror in the roadway”(sometimes reflecting the sky, sometimes reflecting the mud, etc.) as justification for the film’s existence. But, if your goal is merely to tell the truth, you need to find a less obvious truth than “we killed bin Laden.”

The sad thing is the filmmakers had an easy opportunity to do so, but they went out of their way not to. I am referring to the decision to not show bin Laden’s face. One of the important ways in which true stories differ from myths and fictions is that they are about real people. In addition to being the most famous terrorist in the world and a pretty powerful symbol of evil, bin Laden was also just some dude who had to eat and sleep and shit like the rest of us. I don’t think you have to be of any particular political persuasion for that to be a weird (for lack of a better term) thing to think about. There are two truths to this story: we spent ten years and a whole lot of money to kill bin Laden the Powerful Symbol of Terror, and we spent ten years and a whole lot of money to kill bin Laden the just some dude.

By choosing never to show bin Laden’s face, Katherine Bigelow is denying the later half of that little stoner truism, and thereby relegating the whole effort to the realm of popular myth (and some would say propaganda.) And that’s a shame, because she's ignoring the half of the story we’re a lot less comfortable with. 

Feb 13, 2013

Stories that Eat their own Tail


     Sunday's post about the retelling of stories got me thinking about a handful of stories that are actually about the retelling of stories, specifically Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Circular Ruins,” and John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse.” (And the essays that always seem to accompany them in anthologies: Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” and Barth’s “The Literature of Exhaustion,” respectively. Neither of these pieces are narratives, though, and they have both been analyzed many times by people much smarter than yours truly, so I won’t be talking about them.)
          
     I’m also going to save my discussion of Borges and Barth for a later time, when I have a better idea of the scope and focus of this blog. Instead, I would like to talk about a peculiar speculative/science fiction trope that descends from stories like “The Circular Ruins,” the character-trapped-in-an-infinite-loop story.

     There are two basic varieties of the infinite loop story: those in which the hero gets out, and those in which she doesn’t. The former is, for my tastes, the least interesting. I’m thinking of movies like Source Code, Run Lola Run, and Groundhog Day, or any number of episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (“Cause and Effect” and “Time Squared,” for those of you with Netflix and two hours to kill). In these stories, the loop is a problem to be overcome, and to do so the protagonist(s) goes through a series of steps that looks something like this:


     Enter loop à become aware of loop à discover nature of loop à find way out of loop.

     This structure requires three full iterations of the loop, with a possible montage of partial iterations to give a sense of narrative time. The trick with these stories is extensive use of rhyming action to indicate progress and provide a feeling of momentum. Thus, we see Bill Murray learning to play the piano, or Jake Gyllenhall getting slightly closer to diffusing the bomb on each return trip. Eventually, the loop is annihilated, either because the protagonist achieves some arbitrary spiritual insight and the Universe decides to let her out (Groundhog Day, Run Lola Run) or because of the discovery of some equally arbitrary technical gewgaw (Source Code, Star Trek). To be fair, time loops are not real-world problems, so we should not expect real-world solutions. Regardless, the loopy-ness of the loop isn’t all that important; it’s just there for our hero to get out of. There’s little difference, narratively speaking, between Captain Picard entering his time loop, and Timmy falling down a well (or R. Kelly getting trapped in a closet.) They go in, they get stuck, they get out, they move on.

     In the second type of loop story, our hero does not escape, and usually doesn’t become aware of her predicament until the end, if ever. We can see this in a small subgenre of horror stories in which the afterlife, usually Hell, is depicted as an endlessly repeating scenario. Neil Gaiman’s “Other People,” for example, tells the story of a man who walks into a room inhabited by a demon. Over the course of a thousand years, the demon tortures the man for the sins of his life, and in the process disfigures him beyond recognition. The man then finds himself alone in the room. He sees his previous self walk in, and he repeats the demon’s first line of dialogue. That line, “Time is fluid in here,” is a bit on-the-nose for me, but I appreciate that, as with Borges, the point of recursion is a moment of epiphany for both the protagonist and the reader. Similarly, Stephen King’s “That Feeling, You Can Only Say What It Is in French,” is about a woman experiencing an overpowering and unpleasant sense of déjà vu during a car ride from the airport with her husband. This being an afterlife story, we are treated to a reflection on her past sins, as well as a surprisingly economical portrait of her unhappy marriage.  The experience is painful only in its banality. The car ride ends when the debris from a plane crash begins to rain down on them, at which point the woman wakes up sitting next to her husband in the plane, experiences even more déjà vu, and is killed in the crash. (And then, of course, ends up back in the car.)  What I like about the King story is that, rather than being about the repetition of torture, it presents repetition as torture. It also takes place in a series of overlapping dreams, which nicely echoes the structure of “The Circular Ruins.”

     Ultimately, what I prefer about the inescapable-style loop story is that it uses the idea of recursion to complicate the narrative rather than resolve it, and in doing so forces us to have a tiny little face-to-face with something that makes us uncomfortable. I’ll admit it’s not much, and it’s certainly not Borges, but it’s something. 

Feb 9, 2013

Thoughts: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

     As part of my job as an Instruction Pump Dispenser at Burger King University, I am occasionally allowed to teach a literature survey course that goes all the way from Gilgamesh to George Saunders in the space of eleven weeks. The required text is a fairly hefty, custom-printed anthology, curated with a more-is-more sensibility by English faculty from thirteen campuses, so the course can take almost any shape the instructor wishes.

     Recently, my approach has been to select a handful of narratives and track the ways they have been retold by different authors at different times, with a focus on cultural shifts and movements. One of the examples I use on the first day as I am explaining this to students is Louise Glück’s poem, “Gretel in Darkness.” Glück takes the classic, witch-baking fairytale (which is itself a cobbled-together narrative based on earlier stories) and turns it into a statement about the violence, both physical and cultural, done to women by our folkloric traditions. (I’ll admit, this seldom gets the “ah ha!” reaction I hope for. That usually comes sometime around week 3, when they realize "Hamlet" = The Lion King. Such is life at BKU.)

     The point to all my kvetching is that I have a little more inherent sympathy for Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters than it probably deserves. Of course we should retell this story, and we should not be precious about it. Blow it up. Gut it and stuff it with our particular values and mores. (If my images seem a little violent, I apologize; I did just sit through Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.) Let some poor, future Space MFA lead a class of robo-nursing students through a discussion about how this specific telling could only have come from this specific moment in this specific society. We are not at History’s end, and we shouldn’t approach our art (feel free to put quotation marks around that word, if you’d like) with a spirit of conservationism.

   That being said, aye yai yai does this specific telling reflect the abhorrent values and mores of this specific moment in this specific society. We’ve taken a cautionary tale about overconsumption in a time of famine, and turned it into a paean to excess. The dark undertones of violence visited upon children: now a Technicolor celebration of violence marketed to children. And the pervasive misogyny…well, that’s all still there. Ugly women bad, pretty girls good. (Ugly men, though, secretly want to be good; they’ve just been manipulated by evil women.)

    I can’t say I was surprised or disappointed by any of this. It’s not like I’ve never seen an action movie before, and I more or less got the 90 minutes I paid for. If I really wanted to effect a more hopeful, enlightened culture, I would stop going to see movies like Hansel and Gretel, and spend my money on, I don’t know, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But I don’t. Like this movie, I am the product of a singular moment in a singular culture, and I want to see Famke Jannsen fly around on a flaming broom before getting shot down by a handsome woodsman with nice arms. (Or, if you can’t find one of those, Jeremy Renner. Zing!)

     Because that’s the difference between the stories that live on through countless retellings, and the ones that go the way of, say, Howard the Duck. As much as we might not like to admit it, we are told the stories we want to hear.