Aviophobia, Ophidiophobia

(In which I discuss two movies that have not been released, but still manage to be late for several bandwagons.)

United 93, a movie about the plane hijacked on 9/11 that didn't reach its target, opens on April 28th; a movie that was at one point provisionally titled Pacific Air 121 will open a mere three months later, on August 18th: Snakes on a Plane.

Now, some might question my juxtaposition of these two films (aesthetically, ethically...); sure, there are surface similarities: both are suspense films with action confined to a plane and a concept the audience knows going in (and a title that says it all), but shouldn't my sense tell me that comparing a work that most people will encounter with extreme earnestness (whether with appreciation or revulsion) to one that can only be taken as the height of cheese is, perhaps, misguided? My response: it's just an attempt at cleverness.

Both films have caused a media buzz. In the case of United 93, the response is not surprising; is it too soon? are we ready for this? is it profiteering? etc. Universal's release of a trailer featuring news footage of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center enflamed the debate, stirring up quite a bit of free publicity in the process. (See Slate's debate on the subject.) Paul Greengrass, the director, also helmed the documentary-esque Bloody Sunday, a film version of an event that, although it occurred over 30 years ago, is still a quite a raw spot in Derry; the experience seems to endow him with reasonable credentials for this sort of project. If the images from the trailer are representative, we can expect a similar cinema verité feel in United 93, and those who are afraid of vulgar sensationalism or sentimentality need not worry. (As David Denby assures us in this week's New Yorker.)

Another ad features Greengrass and family members of the victims (all of whom Greengrass met (see Slate again) before making the film) talking about the movie, and begins with the silhouette of a plane on radar, stirring text, broken audio. These latter bits are borrowed and parodied by a faux trailer for Snakes on a Plane.

Snakes on a Plane (SoaP for short) has, out of a blog entry and a few press snippets here and there, become an internet meme and all-around bizarre phenomenon. (Even NPR took note.) Fan sites abound, as do expressions of enthusiasm so layered with irony that they are indistinguishable from sincerity (even by those who express them). I've bought in wholeheartedly; the use of "Snakes on a Plane" as throw-off phrase akin to "shit happens" is especially appealing.

If Snakes on a Plane can be read in conjunction with United 93, as an opposite and thus related manifestation of a compulsion on the part of the public, maybe the Internet obsession becomes less whimsical. Yes, he says, maybe...


A Marshalling of Happenstance and Banana Bread

(From a discussion (intellectual catfight?) between the Errant Digeratus and me about allusions, reading, authors, Gravity's Rainbow, and Ulysses. I often wax incoherent, but I stand by my intent.)

'You claim: "Certainly you can say "X was cold" or "A frigid wind blew over the exposed crag where X stood" but your reader will never think of what you were thinking as you wrote it (how your body reacts to cold) or how X was feeling (whatever that could possibly mean), the reader will interpret the feeling as how his body feels cold." Certainly. But, if you say "X was cold," the reader will not picture George W. Bush in a sundress standing on a beach ball on the sun. You have said nothing about W, let alone beach balls, and the sun is very hot, not cold. The reader will likely register a thought close to what the author meant by cold. It is important to note that the reader has a unique take on the world and thus each time something is read it is made anew (even if it is read by the same person twice), but it does not end discussion.

"Indeed, on your view, the only way for an allusion to contribute to meaning is if an author explicitly says so externally to the text in question."

Not my view; of course the reader constructs meaning. If you are looking at a text, the author always meant, never means (despite what our English teachers tell us about using the present tense). For me, the author died at the moment of finishing the text, but was very much alive when composing. The truth is, I am far more a Barthesian than what I'm letting on in this exchange; it's why I don't like to say what I "meant" when someone is in the process of interpreting a story or poem I've written; it's finished; it's on the page; what I meant is no longer of value. But there was a unique organizing force; perhaps a marshalling of society and happenstance and the banana bread I had for breakfast, but an organizational force nonetheless. A reader comes along and picks up the printout: she reads, and, based on her "knowledge and assumptions," constructs meaning for herself out of the text. Maybe she notices what she believes to be an allusion to another work. Maybe the author intended it as an allusion, maybe he didn't; if he intended it, then noticing it will likely prove fruitful (as it might reveal something in keeping with the original imposition of order and substance), and if he didn't, noticing it will likely prove less fruitful (because it would not have originally been part of any constructive scheme). I say "likely" and I mean it; there's no telling for sure.'

And so on.


Ocular Proof

From Seymour Hersh's New Yorker piece on the U.S. administration's machinations with regard to Iran:

"If the order were to be given for an attack, the American combat troops now operating in Iran would be in position to mark the critical targets with laser beams, to insure bombing accuracy and to minimize civilian casualties. As of early winter, I was told by the government consultant with close ties to civilians in the Pentagon, the units were also working with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeris, in the north, the Baluchis, in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast. The troops “are studying the terrain, and giving away walking-around money to ethnic tribes, and recruiting scouts from local tribes and shepherds,” the consultant said. One goal is to get “eyes on the ground”—quoting a line from “Othello,” he said, “Give me the ocular proof.” The broader aim, the consultant said, is to “encourage ethnic tensions” and undermine the regime."

The oddity of this intertextual intrusion into such a straight-laced piece of reporting struck me.

From Act 3:

Villain, be sure thou prove my love a whore,
Be sure of it; give me the ocular proof:
Or by the worth of man's eternal soul,
Thou hadst been better have been born a dog
Than answer my waked wrath!

Is't come to this?

Make me to see't; or, at the least, so prove it,
That the probation bear no hinge nor loop
To hang a doubt on; or woe upon thy life!

(Is everyone these days an Iago?)

I can't help but remember the farcical performance by Colin Powell in front of aerial photos of fuzzy rectangles before the invasion of Iraq. Ocular proof indeed.

And, of course, Iago fabricates proof: the tell-tale handkerchief, false intelligence, insinuation. Now, Saddam is no Desdemona; do not get me wrong; and neither is Ahmadinejad, by any means. But why must we "encourage ethnic tensions"? Because, let's be honest, hasn't that always paved the way to lasting peace in the past?


Lifting the Lid: Capote

(This past week I saw Capote and Inside Man. The latter made me want to be a bank robber; the former is the topic of this post.)

I’ve argued that the writing of fiction is “empathy amplified,” by which I mean that the author makes an attempt to “feel with” a subject in a hypothetical situation, to inhabit a particular (fictional) pathos to an extreme extent. Fiction allows dissociation from the self, the author’s contingent and actual setting, and facilitates identification with the fundamentally different. When Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), in the film Capote, decides to merge journalism with the novel—to make his “nonfiction novel”—the subject he most fully inhabits, the murderer Perry Smith, along with each of the other characters he writes, is a real person. Capote is the most profoundly empathic creature imaginable, but in the amplification into art of his human interactions, the empathy becomes exploitative, and, as David Edelstein points out in Slate, the climactic scene, in which Perry tells the story of the night of the bloody murders, is one of emotional “vampirism.”

Here I take one step back for a wider view. The film Capote, as a biopic, suffers from a similar moral ambiguity as Capote the writer, although decidedly more removed. When “Hoffman starts with the physical and works inward to the soul” (David Denby in the New Yorker) or when he “disappears into Capote” (Edelstein again, and no italics), we lose the distinction between persona and person, we forget that Hoffman merely inhabits a role, that the story happened, but not necessarily precisely so; the journalistic and the novelistic have merged once again. When I think of Capote, I will forever see and hear Hoffman.

The final words on the screen tell us that In Cold Blood made Capote the most famous author in America, that he never finished another book, and that he died from complications from alcoholism. They suggest he never recovered from the process of writing his nonfiction novel. Here, years and years of individual life are reduced to denouement. Perry Smith was hanged, but Truman Capote drank himself to death; both provide ends.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone writes:

“Early on, we see Capote sneak into a Kansas funeral home and covertly open the caskets of the Clutter family. Later, at a New York reading of the unfinished In Cold Blood, Capote recites the words that turn the reality of that immoral action into transcendent art.”

Is it immoral? If the filmmakers did not lift the metaphorical lid of Capote’s coffin, didn’t the author of the biography from which they took much of their material? And, with Capote, as with In Cold Blood, aren’t we thankful for the view?


Comix/flix, Part 1

(I’ve sent in my acceptance of admission to the Northwestern MFA program in Writing for the Screen and Stage. So, naturally, I’m questioning the value of what I’ll be doing for the next 2 years.)

The comic book is the ideal form of a screenplay.

I first had this thought after watching Sin City, and I’ve been reminded of it recently watching V for Vendetta and reading Art Spiegelman’s Maus. When Sin City was released, there was plenty of talk about the movie being the most faithful comic book picture ever produced; it was a translation into a different medium rather than merely an adaptation; Richard Rodriguez reproduced the comic book nearly shot for shot and brought Frank Miller, the book’s creator, into the process of the filmmaking. It was a gorgeous bit of work—splashes of color against cold post-industrial steel—and I was sure I hadn’t seen anything this visually vigorous in a long time. The second time around (another 9 bucks to the box office), a hollowness started to sound, but the images of Sin City certainly retained their kick. It was brilliant, I thought: if screenplays are outlines, a comic book is a map. (I’m ignoring, for today, the other reason Sin City was revolutionary: its use of digital technology.)

It’s not that there’s anything new about making movies based on comic books (or graphic novels, whichever you prefer)—Superman, Batman, Spiderman: name a hero and you’ll find a movie (not to mention those indie normal-folks comix and their attendant flix, like Ghost World or the great American Splendor)—the trick is to realize (in the full sense) the multifaceted content of the source material. I mean translating not only the story and style of a graphic novel, but also the visual thrust of each frame by frame.

Perhaps I’m not at all original. Any film auteur will create a comic book of the screenplay, either on paper or in his mind. The storyboard is the logical conclusion of my line of reasoning. The Wachowski brothers, for example, who recently brought us the enjoyable V for Vendetta (an adaptation of an Alan Moore graphic novel), hired a couple of comic book artists to illustrate a shot-by-shot storyboard of the first Matrix in order to convince Warner Brothers to let them direct it.

This post boils down to a statement of the affinity between the graphic novel and the motion picture; the sequential frames of the comic book naturally expand into the 24 frames per second of film and make the standard Courier 12-pt of the canonical script scream out for something more.

But, for now, maybe I'll just work on classical dramatic form.


Me in letters

For a different manifestation of my online persona, take a look at Clay's blog.

The image was generated using Ascgen dotNet.

Personal Statement: Manifesto

(For my first post, I give you a personal statement that I submitted to MFA programs in dramatic writing. Person, from the Latin persona, meaning ‘a mask, or a character in a play.’ Below, I perform as MFA Applicant, a role I find especially fulfilling.)

“I want to be a screenwriter. I wish there were an equivalent word to playwright for film. A writer of plays is a play + wright, not a play + writer; not a mere scribbler, but a maker, a builder. As I write, I want to fashion films, not just script dialogue; I want to be a carpenter, constructing the framework, laying down the first, fundamental, load-bearing boards. Maybe filmwright is the word.

I revel in words, in the intricacies of woven text, but images—not evoked, not described, but let be, in all their forceful presence—cannot be ignored. Our culture is primarily visual. We live in the Image Age; the Information Age was a text-based myth. Images constitute our popular culture; they determine our politics; they make terrorism possible and war immediate. Visual literacy has become as important as textual literacy. The emergence of photography followed by the ascendancy of film began the shift, and now, in our digital world, with the Internet, TV, iPods, and cell phones, images self-replicate in a way that makes Walter Benjamin’s conception of the “mechanical reproduction” of film seem quaint in comparison. The power of dramatic writing is multiplied immeasurably by this culture of images; it is the form of literature that has evolved most successfully in the face of the new environment.”

The final half of the final sentence of the above paragraph I do not believe and never did. If I didn’t write it, though, the question would inevitably be asked: well, then why are you applying to programs that focus so intensely on writing? Why not a more standard film school? The real answer is far more complicated and contingent than I would want to dwell upon in a personal statement for graduate school. Better the smooth and concise transition than real honesty.

“When I arrived at Harvard, I had plans of becoming a theoretical physicist, but I changed my mind, or my mind changed, and I ended up concentrating in English. In my coursework, I read everything from Beowulf to King Lear to Gravity’s Rainbow through my recently-acquired analytic goggles and simultaneously began exercising my fiction-writing/evaluating muscles (complimentary muscles, somewhat like the bicep/triceps) more vigorously by working with campus magazines and taking writing workshops. I became interested in film as an outgrowth of my involvement with literature. I went outside of the English department and took two years of intensive filmmaking classes and became hopelessly, happily entangled. I spent hundreds of hours in the tiny closets in a basement in Harvard Yard, cutting and splicing, arranging and rearranging: constructing sentences out of pictures: inventing a new grammar for myself.

Fiction writing, whether prose or drama, is empathy amplified. To me, writing is an exploratory act; I think of it less as an attempt at “expressing myself” and more as an opportunity to learn about things that are strange or fundamentally different from me. The ideal is imaginative ecstasy, literally being outside oneself, inhabiting, in the process of creative work, some particular other. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to writing for the screen and stage: self-erasure, or at least the illusion thereof, is much more naturally obtained in theater, in dramatic film, in the television time-slot. Am I some latter-day l’art pour l’art hanger-on? Yes. No. Art for itself, of course, always, but not because it is artificial, not because is it better or higher than the true, but because of its refining nature, its subtle but pervasive moral imperative: at their best, the fictionary arts, both in production and in consumption, lead one to a grounded respect for alterity, a respect I feel is supremely important.”

I go on to discuss the particulars of my candidacy and the reasons for my interest in the program. I’ll leave most of that out.

“The program would provide the space in which to light my writing on fire—burn it into film, put it into motion on stage, encode it in video; in short, let the text melt away and reveal what remains, what withstands the test. I want to focus on basics, isolate and work on them individually: dialogue in theater, plot in TV, image in film, everything in everything. Carpentry. Metalworking. Shop class. Most of all I need to write, write, write.”

Right. So I’ve started a blog, a bit of digital space to prop open with, I hope, virtually volumes of words.