Monday, October 8, 2007

Third Way 2: Why Transformers Is the Most Important Movie of Our Generation


In hopes of serving as an aesthetic bird-dog, I'd like to send out a few more brief but hopefully potent salvos about writing and the difficulty of writing, now, when the technology of literature is at its peak and a tangible sameness has settled over storytelling, the story, and American writing in general. Of course, to say that I'm under qualified to talk about these things definitively is, well, pretty much stating the obvious.

As I see it, great art should posses two qualities: strangeness, and familiarity. Less than great art errs most often by forgetting too much about one or the other side of this equation.


The world is filmed with art and with ways of looking at things. You can barely touch a soda bottle without getting your hands sticky with story, let alone a person. And because all this art is known to us, the world gets dull, gets boring. We forget it exists.

Claude Levi-Strauss talks about culture along the Amazon: sometimes form stops being a way of perceiving and starts being a way of remembering.

But the amazing thing to me is, the world is still there! I can still go outside to get some coffee and see a little girl, maybe six or seven years old, calmly walking down the other side of the street with her hand on her crotch. I still have to park my car every Tuesday.

"Keep the ground, feel the roots, domesticate yourself." - Emerson's Journal

"There are, however, corridors around these mountains." - Davenport on Joyce, Mann, Proust.

"All is garden."


On the other side of things, experiment that leaves the human universe is less interesting, to me at least. Gertrude Stein is a force of nature in Three Lives or The Making of Americans, but I don't see the point of Tender Buttons. Language, unlike music, is referential: it can never be completely abstract.

A true investigation of daily life reveals quickly how bizarre the world is. Also, how packed with humor, life, death, joy, pain.

"A few nights ago I was the topic of discussion, and we all decided I was an ignoramus." - Anne Frank.

"Destroy your manuscript, but save whatever you have inscribed in the margin out of boredom, out of helplessness, as it were, in a dream." - Osip Mandelstam.

"In this vacuum of our thoughtlessness, in the pile of blase, feuilleton nothingness, our eternal lyric Poem has plopped itself down and howls like a soaked dog." - Gombrowicz.

To recap and tie some of these undeveloped strands together: about four months ago I saw the movie "Transformers" in a North Carolina movie theater. There, for the first time I think, the fatal flaw of digital special effects was brought home to me. I mean, the gigantic robots looked "real" - they were given weight and dimension and color, they turned shiny in the light and darker in the shade - but there was no reality to them. An entire industry, state, country's worth of resources had been put into making these creatures life like, but they weren't: they were deader than dead.

Think about how amazing it is that we are not impressed by the spectacle of gigantic robots fighting with one another! Why not? What is missing?

Now try looking at this short clip of the Russian animator Yuri Norstein's "Winter's Tale," as an antidote.

For me, the difference between the two types of "animation" - Transformers/Hollywood style special effects and Multfilm collage - is incredible, illuminating. Norstein's movies (and if you haven't checked them out, you should: very Miranda-July-worthy) are made out of pieces of paper; what makes them appealing is not that they're realistic - that they "fool" us, or pass for live action - but that they're so clearly artistic. The technique is at the forefront, and because the technique is so visible, we take pleasure in its mimesis (the Blogger spell-check says that I should spell this word "mimosas"!). We get the feeling of a mind observing, and translating its observations into a resistant medium: this gives delight. We also get the feeling that there is an observed, human world under there.

How does this apply to writing? Without making too many grand claims, I wonder if the traditional short story and novel forms - the types, Seth, that we are working our asses off to write every day - haven't become a sort of high-tech production themselves. Ways of remembering, rather than ways of perceiving. How many stories/novels do you read in which the point of the whole thing, from page one, seems to get to the end? Even very good works frequently feel like that for me, and I wonder if it isn't because the form itself has become a sort of ritual that I indulge in, like drinking warm milk before bed or something.

One of the reasons why "Miscellaneous" literature - and by here I mean the great, gigantic Nile delta of diaries, letters, fragments, experiments, failures that runs around, beneath and through the main channels of literature - has been so fascinating to me lately is because of its "low-tech" feel. Something about the way a diary, for example, admits its form from the very beginning seems to give it an unbelievable freedom to me. So I wonder about different ways to break things up, put art in the forefront, transform things back into perceptions.

As Pushkin, the king of marginal literature, says: "Poetry has to be a little bit stupid."


Jacqueline Thea said...

This was a fabulous write.

Insightful and thoughtful observations, particularly regards strangeness and familiarity.

The Man Who Couldn't Blog said...

"Whilst I read the poets, I think that nothing new can be said about morning and evening. But when I see the daybreak, I am not reminded of these Homeric, or Shakspearian, or Miltonic, or Chaucerian pictures. No; but I feel perhaps the pain of an alien world; a world not yet subdued by the thought; or, I am cheered by the moist, warm, glittering, budding, melodious hour, that takes down the narrow walls of my soul, and extends its life and pulsation to the very horizon. That is morning, to cease for a bright hour to be a prisoner of this sickly body, and to become as large as nature."

Josh said...

That "the" is perfect. Which thought? What is "the thought"? Also the word "moist," which I heard a girl once say was the most disgusting word she'd ever heard. The funny thing was, this girl didn't know how to tell time! (five years later I still can't believe this)