I never ceased to be amazed by the diversity of artistic visions present in cinema and novels. Just when you think you have some notions about what constitutes the ground rules for the imaginary world, some work comes along and blows you away. I had that experience recently with Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix Plus where the introductory chapters (“Swarm”) hint at altogether different kinds of consciousness. Yes, it is a totally imaginary and contrived world (though it’s plausible!), but it makes one realize that even character and individuality and integrated plotlines are expendable in works of fiction. Over the weekend I watched two films that offered their own alternative universes: Return to Oz (this live-action remake of Wizard of Oz that is faithful to Frank Baum’s volumes) and Bergman’s Persona (still one of my all-time favorite films).
I had the uncommon joy to show the Wizard of Oz to Ukrainian students, and I still remember their gasps of shock and awe when the screen turned to technicolor, and magic suddenly seemed possible. In works geared to children, it is easy to adapt expectations and accept certain absurd notions (and that is precisely the fun of it). Part of the fun of children’s literature is recapturing the joyful surprise of encountering the inexplicable. On the flip side, one also remembers the terror of the unknown; one remembers why one prefers the mundane to a world of scary flying monkeys.
Persona is an odd film to pair with a children’s classic, but it is similarly subversive. In good modernist style, the film breaks down at several parts, and certain aspects of plot are never explained. Last evening, I had a prolonged email debate with a film buff over one plot loose end: the fact that the mute actress who up to now has been totally incommunicando suddenly midway through the film is typing and mailing off letters. My friend’s responded that such matters of plot of character are subservient to the greater ends of modernism and deconstruction of words, character and art; Bergman is not trying to write a coherent plot; far from it. I accept that point (and in fact I advocate such experimentation), but I wonder whether this particular plot deficiency only made Bergman’s world seem more contrived, less relevant.
Other works change your idea of what constitutes a story, or more precisely, what constitutes a rich experience. In the delightful Iranian film “The White Balloon,” a 7 year old girl spends the entire film trying to retrieve some money she lost to buy a goldfish for New Year’s Day. She spends most of the film just waiting and crying. The best thing about the film for me was how we remembered what time was like for little children: all the waiting for adults to attend to us, to take care of our problems, to notice us and give us love.
A more modernist example I encountered recently is Alberto Moravia’s brilliant Contempt (later made into a movie). The story is claustrophobic and manic-depressive. The ending is foretold. We know from the start that the protagonist will lose Emilia, and yet we can’t help but be fascinated how; the reader becomes obsessed with figuring out whether the protagonist’s actions were to blame or whether the blame rested on Emilia or other external factors. The crucial question is: did the protagonist have any ability to prevent the breakup from taking place? In this world, the key question is relationship and love and jealousy and the need for companionship and harmony. Laughter? Magic? Family? Imagination? None of these really matter in Moravia’s world.
I move on. Recently I started reading Robert Flynn’s Tie-Fast Country, a Texas novel about a grandmother rancher. This book straddles two types of stories: the Western romance of living off the land and the contemporary man who has to deal with TV, cantankerous relatives and an unsatisfying love life. In the first type, characters are defined more by actions than inner thoughts; conflict is often embodied in people and criminal behavior; good and bad seems easy to distinguish; morality and choices are simple, though survival remains the main challenge. In the second type, the big conflict is anomie and dismay with the superficiality of contemporary living. (Robert Flynn’s technique of alternating flashback chapters with contemporary chapters allows him to keep two separate books under one cover, quite a feat).
When a reader starts that kind of book, it usually because he is interested in that kind of experience, for better or for worse. But some novels offer something different than promised. The glorious film “Rapture” (which by the way comes the closest to being an example of religious poetry in American cinema ) hints at being many things: a mystical journey, a tale of alienation from morality and spirituality. By refusing to validating secular humanism or born again Christianity, the film lets itself be enjoyed by people who normally would find Christian or anti-Christian art unappetizing. Rapture, like Brothers K, has a knack for appealing to the innate desire to give in to belief and simultaneously to abandon it. The sex scenes at the beginning of Rapture would horrify a religiously-minded person, and yet within the film they are perfectly appropriate and help us to understand the woman’s susceptibility to proselytization.
By now American film audiences are used to being titillated. A few tit shots, softcore sex, crude jokes. Oh, yes, and a gunfight or murder or two. That is part of the genre, part of what we expect when we watch a DVD or go to the movies. Part of the reason I rented the film Closer (which was mediocre by the way) is to see Natalie Portman and Julie Roberts reveal some passion and bare some flesh.
I don’t want to suggest moral squeamishness here. That is what our mores are; that is what art and cinema is all about. But it is also a reason why we need to go back in time and learn about what kinds of experience were valued by previous generations. I’m reading Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale, which is unlike anything I’ve read before. I can’t say I love it; I can’t really say anything about it yet, except that it draws me in and keeps me interested. Yet, the incidents and the characters are so hopelessly ordinary that I sometimes wonder why I continue reading. Yes, the narrator has a sophisticated sometimes ironic tone, but it’s more than simply a stylistic tour de force. Bennett’s novel is trying to bring us to worlds where nothing extraordinary happens, and yet individual lives are imbued with dignity and dramatic incidents that make their stories worth writing about (and worth reading). There’s no sex or angst or enormous philosophical conundrums hanging over the heads of characters. Nevertheless, they struggle, yearn, love and ultimately fall.
Contemporary readers need to revisit these kinds of worlds, if only to remember the types of experiences that used to be valued. Let’s be blunt; modern living is insufferable, though it has its high points. Now more than ever we need to be aware of alternate methods of living (pre-TV; egad, the very thought of it!) Just two weeks ago, my apartment complex had a power blackout lasting two days. My weekend was ruined. I could not web surf or watch TV or cook or listen to music. I had to keep the door open for natural light, and I had to talk to neighbors for updates. Hot water and hot meals became luxuries; I felt deprived and forlorn; even my cellphone battery had run down. It’s amazing how a simple event reminds you about how rapidly life changes, depending on matters of health, technology and external forces. Books and film (but especially books) let us remember what used to matter, what kinds of values and experiences have outlasted Star Wars, MacDonalds and yes, even Microsoft. Literature imbues us with a sense of mutability and immutability together; it gives us a sense of what is impermanent, what will endure. Nobody can deny the folly of modern living, but it is consoling to see that prior generations found their own societies equally inadequate, astonishing, and maddening.