Wednesday, December 30, 2009
A Man of Taste
Coming out of the Master’s theater I look around at my wife and kid and a little town I have lived in for almost five years. On nights like this, it seems like such a pale place to have arrived after the road years. But a lion may find peace in a quiet cage. Your Children will never ask where you’ve been. They never ask about your adventures or if ever you’ve had any. They only know you as you are now, just as I only knew my father at that time in his life and not before, and hardly since. Sometimes on nights like this, I want to tell my kid "There's more to me than what you know. I've seen stuff."
The Masters Theater is this small cineplex where the roof leaks and they charge $2 for a movie. These are recent movies which have newly arrived in that odd after life between first run and DVD. This is a very liberating place to have in your town. There are very few movies I want to see so badly I would pay ten dollars a head plus popcorn for my bunch to see them. But for $2 I can take my chances on anything that sounds even a little interesting. This evening the movie is “Paranormal Activity”, a reputedly scary movie, highly regarded by the critics. I’ve assured my family this is a 4 star movie and is supposed to be a real thrill fest and a half.
For a man, a hot date or a family outing even to a cheap movie is a kind of religious offering. You hope it will be accepted, as Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis hoped their offerings would be accepted by God. Abel's was accepted. Cain’s was not. Cain killed Abel in his rage and shame. When a man takes his best girl or his family on an outing to a movie or a restaurant and the result is good, he feels like Abel, he feels right with God and generous towards all his kind. About twenty minutes into a movie, with few exceptions, my wife knows if she likes it or not. About ten minutes into this one I feel the radiation leak silently poisoning me on my right side that says it is unlikely that later tonight we will be celebrating our carnal passion. On my left side my kid has slouched down in his seat with his chin in his hand. The movie is failing. My offering has been rejected. When the movie stinks – and this one does – I feel like Cain, though so far without the desire to murder anyone. From this time I begin to put away the Daddy hat and the Hopeful Lover hat and put on the Apprentice Writer’s hat. I ask myself – why doesn’t it work?
The apprentice writer must learn from everything and everyone. The literary Gods such as Tolstoy and Shakespeare it turns out aren’t very useful to learn craft from. They’re too high over my head, Olympian and unattainable. They represent the random touch of the divine. Lesser mortals like me learn the most from the hard working writers who are on my own meager level or better. But the failures, both mine and others, are an essential teacher. If you swing for the fences the way you should, you have to fail and not be afraid of it. When the Beatles were just a spunky little bar band playing eight hour long sets in bucket-of-blood strip joints in Hamburg Germany, their audience threw wooden chairs at them. That's how you train up to be the Beatles. That's part of the deal going in. You'd better learn to get 'em up and make 'em dance - or else they'll come after you. When you have an opportunity to observe and study from the failure of another artist, hell, that's a freebie. And as an old road dog knows, nothing tastes better than free.
As we walk across the parking lot, the sneers and snickers of the people in the audience, mostly college age kids, somehow sting in my ears as if that had been a story of my own that had fallen flat, and God knows I've written some stinkers. I have to keep reminding my nerves that I didn’t write the movie, I just went to see it. So I ask my kid “Did you like it?’
“It was stupid.”
"Fair enough. Why?"
Now this is a kid who is experimenting with drama class at school. He’s getting a feel for this stuff. He’s had some bit roles in plays, and his drama club placed second in a contest. He hasn't got it all figured out yet, but he knows what he likes. He knows when the machine is working right. He knows when it isn’t.
In the novel “Hannibal” by Thomas Harris, someone asks Dr. Hannibal Lechter how to go about developing “taste” in quality as regards food and art and music and so on. Whatever his lurid faults, Hannibal the Cannibal is an urbane man of sophisticated taste. He answers that the most important thing, the starting point, is to trust your preferences first. Develop your own opinions of quality based on what you like and most important, try to understand why you like them. My kid is starting to get a sense of what he likes and why. He’s on the way to being a man of taste.
"I wasn't scared. I was bored."
“Okay, so why? Why didn’t it work?”
He knows I write stuff I don’t want him to read. When I ask "Why doesn't it work?" we're addressing each other as seasoned technicians of story craft. As we wander around in the cars looking for my white van he thinks it over and speaks with emotion. “It was redundant. It was the same scenes over and over. The girl stands by the bed shaking and the clock runs. Or people scream. Or nothing happens. Over and over, the same stuff.”
“Okay. What about the characters?”
“There wasn't any villain, just this entity. But you never get to know the entity. You don’t get to know the people. They just scream and talk about the same things over and over. They don't change. You don’t even know how they got in that house. You never get to like them.”
“So liking them is important?’
“Yeah – like Toy Story.”
He’s in high school and “Toy Story” was a long time ago, but that’s my boy, he knows a good story when he sees one. “Toy Story” is good story telling. Mighty good. It’s not kid stuff to him. He hasn’t rejected the good things of childhood just to satisfy the status quo of what other people have told him he's supposed to like. He respects the stories he loved as a little kid and he’s not ashamed of them. That’s a very good sign. I just love that. The boy has taste already. Dr. Lechter would like this kid.
I agree with him about the characters too. Right on the beat. I didn’t care much about them either and that means something's not working. He inspires me, because he already knows so much more about this stuff at his age than I did.
Now here is the great mystery that still makes me crazy: Get this -
The folks in the audience didn’t like this movie. My wife and kid didn’t like this movie. I understood what the director was trying to do and admired him for his risk talking, but it didn’t work for me either. But. But-but-but Roger Ebert, my favorite movie critic, whose prose I study, whose opinions I revere, greatly admired this movie. The other critics greatly admired it as well. My bringing my family to this movie and having my offering blown off the altar by gales of laughter instead of screams was an honest mistake because the lights and voices whose taste I trust assured me this was one hell of a movie. What happened? Anyone who goes into a creative field such as a writing, music or art will sooner or later come up against the big question of taste. Which is - are you any good? You will never ever know for sure. That's what you will have to learn to live with. As Hannibal the Cannibal asserts, in the end you have to trust what you love and go with it and hope that other people will get it. If they don't, well, shucks. "Sorry if you didn't like my story this time around folks. But the sad fact is it's just what I've got." You want to touch your audience, that's partly why you're here, but in the end its a lonely deal.
So what lesson does the apprentice writer take from his conversation with his kid? How do you make it work next time?
One the things I discovered early on about writing and reading horror stories is that you must care about the people. This is true for any form of popular fiction, including romance and erotica. Horror stories depend a great deal on plot, but without caring about the people involved when The Very Bad Thing is about to happen there is no fear. Plot alone won't carry it. When you stop
caring, the story dies. That's why some of the most ferocious horror movies ever made like "The Exorcist", "Martyrs", "Poltergeist", "Orphan" and others have children front and center of their stories.
Let's talk about story. When Hitchcock’s “Psycho” came out in 1960, it took this basic idea of a main character you care about and just turned that inside out. That made it genuinely terrifying. We see the woman Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steal a bundle from a business client and run off with the money. She checks into the Bates Motel where she meets the twitchy but likable Norman Bates. Marion has a cheese sandwich and a heart to heart with Norman on the subject of being trapped, because Norman has a serious Mother From Hell problem. Marion sees the error of what she has done and decides to bring the money back and start over rather than being trapped into this life as a fugitive. We like her. We cheer for her redemption.
An hour into the movie – halfway into the movie – Marion is taking a shower. In an age when nudity was restricted to 8mm films at bachelor parties, seeing her blurred nude silhouette against the plastic motel shower curtain creates a great focus of erotic intensity. Cinematic time slows down to the second. We know something important is going to happen because everything is happening so slowly, in real time. What does happen is outrageous. She is killed. Really. Not just wounded. Not just scared silly. Not one of those sonuvabitching “dream scenes” I absolutely loathe, those cowardly narrative "Gotcha" cop-outs where the heroine wakes up screaming – but oh! It was just a dream! Not this time, buddy. “Most sincerely dead” as the munchkins say.
But wasn’t she the main character?
What the hell?
Can they do that??
We’ve cared about her. We've liked her and wished she would get her life straightened out. We’ve seen her sitting around the motel bed sulking in her underwear and she’s really got a pair too, poor thing. Now she’s what? She’s fucking dead Jim, and she ain’t comin’ back no more. Now that is a great story teller pulling you right out of your damn popcorn, yanking the rug right out from under you. In the hands of a more timorous writer, Marion would have been rescued two or three times by the erstwhile Norman and at the end Norman would have died a dramatic hero’s death and been forced, alas, to kill his nasty mother. Ah, poor Norman. But this shit? You have an hour to go and you’re cut loose without a clue now that the pretty girl with the nice tits is at the bottom of a skuzzy swamp wrapped up in a cheap shower curtain. Now you’re lost. Now you are thinking exactly what you should be thinking, which is -”Wow! And THEN what happened??"
Now that, oh Friends of the Inner Sanctum, is one of the greatest gifts a story teller can give to his audience.
My kid likes the right things. He likes characters that deserve the best or the worst they get. He likes movie people that talk the clever way they do in Tarantino movies ("I'm gonna get medieval on yo' ass!") and he likes it when the story is going somewhere unexpected. I think these are good story values.
The same rules that define "Psycho" as first rate story telling define erotica as well. Erotica generally falls into two camps, "He Fucked Her Ass Good" erotica versus making love erotica. The first kind is easy to sell, but forgettable. At some point as a writer you have to ask yourself what you want. To sell a lot and be forgotten, or go for what's difficult knowing that most of the time you are doomed to fail to touch the stars and will probably still be forgotten anyway. In the real world sex is easy, but love is hard. The mark of a good love story is that it gives love a bad name. It’s easy to write sex. It's difficult to write about the human heart and the ridiculous ways we twist ourselves up looking for love however we define it.