“The bastard form of mass culture is humiliated repetition: content, ideological schema, the blurring of contradictions—these are repeated, but the superficial forms are varied: always new books, new programs, new films, news items, but always the same meaning.”
— Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text
I was a huge music nerd as a teenager, as in it was almost literally the only thing I paid attention to, way more than even girls. Music biographies are how I discovered a taste for books and movies, and attempts at song lyrics were my first foray into writing. (E.g., No One Here Gets Out Alive by Jerry Hopkins on the life of Jim Morrison and Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan by Howard Sounes. I tracked down the books the biographers said were important to their subjects, hoping to rub off some magic dust.)
Anyway, I was thinking the other day about an interview I’d read with some hot pop-rock band around 2001-ish (I only subscribed to GuitarWorld and Rolling Stone [discovered Spin not until senior year] but I read every single article, even if I hated the musicians in question.) The lead singer/songwriter said something about how every song he writes can be reduced to an acoustic guitar and still be completely recognizable and just as good. (Questions of taste are not of interest. Let’s replace “good” with “intelligibly the same song.”) This stuck with me, and I remember coming across similar sentiments here and there in my adolescent quest to rockstardom.
This is also around the time I started reading real literary fiction. My high school obsessions were Faulkner, Vonnegut, Kerouac, Burroughs, and Palahniuk, because that’s who smart high school artsy types are into, especially when they have little to no guidance other than music bios.
The disgruntled epiphany of many a high school leisure reader (especially in deep southern Louisiana, typically anti-intellectual to the point of hostility) is the proper answer to two questions: Why are you reading if it’s not for school? which became a huge cliche of a hobby to hate on, and—not as troubling but pertinent to what I’m discussing—What’s it about?
My impatient, judgmental unjustifiably opinionated, and just plain hateful adolescent brain was always stopped short by this question: it dawned on me that the book wasn’t about anything that I could cleanly articulate. Even Palahniuk’s books! Sure, if really put myself to it I could come up with something somewhat succinct, but it was more complex than a back-cover blurb. Reading the book wasn’t about getting to the end, even if at that age I counted completed novels like notches in my belt.
Not until recently, thinking about this blog, did I recognize that I totally missed the contradiction between what I was learning in my personal pursuit of literature (I also saw Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway around this time, but that’s another story) and what this pop songwriter claimed to be one of the principle virtues of good pop songs.
But take a song like “There Is No There” by The Books. Reduce this song to just an acoustic guitar and it would just be wacky and unsatisfying.
Or “The Jezebel Spirit” by David Byrne and Brian Eno.
No one that I respect could argue that these are not amazing pop songs, and yet they’re irreducible. And that’s just two off the top of my head.
Sidenote: The great misfortune with writing this blog is that I work nights, two jobs, and don’t actually get to see many movies these days. This summer I’m averaging about two a month, so you’ll see me referencing my more common obsessions and only the most recent movies I’ve seen.
And certain films would greatly suffer from a logline or treatment, because it would implode the mystery. See the above-mentioned Lynch films. I would’ve much preferred seeing Dogtooth or Alps without knowing ahead of time what they were about, because the style is so distinct and interesting that it would’ve really been amazing to let the premises be slowly revealed to me. Amour would’ve been a thousand times more heartbreaking had I not known so much about it going in.
This is yet another argument against the idea of hewing any writing to fit inside of genre, or even to think up a story idea and stick all that closely to it. The creative process is a wacky ride, and your unconscious can block out a lot of options if you don’t hold all options to be equal.
Did anyone see that musical interlude coming in Holy Motors (Carax, 2012)? No! Probably not even Leos Carax until he decided it would be cool.
Frances Ha (Baumbach, 2013) undoes its genre by setting up a romantic comedy and never once delivering on romance.
Synecdoche, New York (Kaufman, 2008) is itself about the impossibility of limiting the imagination, of any kind of reductionism in art at all.
And Code Unknown (Hanaeke, 2000) seems at first to be one of those typically French sub-genres about inner-connectedness and serendipity (a la Amelie, Paris, or the film actually called Serendipity), but it turns out to kind of be about nothing, kind of about inner-connectedness, but also entropy and why the inner-connectedness trope is a bust.
I’m in favor of the long way. Find characters and/or places and/or themes and/or (but not limited to) a basic story you want to tell and instead of streamlining the process by looking up what’s supposed to happen in your genre or watching a bunch of movies that might vaguely resemble your movie (Is that seriously anyone’s actual professional advice? Really? These guys get paid to tell you that?), instead, watch a ton of movies that don’t even vaguely touch the tone of your script. If you think you’re writing a romantic comedy, write an action sequence. Write a musical number. Write a subplot that involves a plan to take over the world.
Creative ruts are where you find yourself unable to write the thing you tell yourself you should be writing, and that’s when you should feel most free, and when it lay ahead of you the possibility of writing something indescribable.
“Bringing itself to the limits of speech…text undoes nomination, and it is this defection which approaches bliss.”
— Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text