Friday, February 15, 2013

Writers are Masochists, Or Things I Learned from a Movie

There is a sentiment among writers—and no, I do not believe myself a member of that erudite or eloquent clan—that to write a “true” story requires a level of sacrifice and pain.

There is also the belief that work is never truly finished. Well, combine those two, and I would say Writers are about the most masochistic set of individuals on the planet. 

No thank you. I will take “blogger” any day. Too heavy already? Check out my story about Bowling Squirrels!

I have just finished watching a rather unique film. And, as typically happens when I combine lofty dramas with a Cabernet, I get a little contemplative. Ok, pretentious. Ok, maybe pedantic. Oh do leave off!

“At some point you have to choose between real life and fiction. The two are very close, but they never actually touch.” 

Basic Plot: Film, The Words

Dennis Quaid plays a writer who is debuting his newest work, and is being quite coquettishly pursued by a Young Girl, who shares aspirations of being a writer. Through a rather twisted and confusing chronology, Quaid’s character reveals to her the central characters of his novel. Among the cast of characters are:  a struggling writer, played by Bradley Cooper; the writer’s supportive wife, Zoe Zaldana; and a rather gruff and cryptic Old Man, played by the gruff and cryptic Jeremy Irons. Over the course of the film, you then enter into a play-within-a-play-within-a-play storyline; Cooper’s character discovers a briefcase containing an old manuscript, which he eventually steals, that just happens to be a semi-autobiographical fiction written about AND by the Old Man. Still with me? I know, a play-within-a-play-within-a-play.  Only even more confusing since the deepest level of the “fiction” happens to be based on the “real life” events of the secondary fiction level (re: the Old Man). [Insert apology for my unfortunate love of dissecting film through the lens of literary criticism.]

In the film, the story within a story mechanism, presents a writer whose attempts to educate a young and idealistic girl is more than complicated: it jumps abruptly between concepts of male desire, loving and longing, the artist’s insecurity, and even the worthiness of societal approbation. Each scene could be a vignette—staccato rhythms and disjointed transitions do very little to connect Quaid to his manifested younger self in Cooper, or to the source of his anxiety and creative self-doubt, represented by the Old Man (Irons).

Quaid’s character represents a writer who is questioning his own success in life, and is wondering if all that has been thrown at him—objects of lust (the Young Girl), social approbation (the book signing), or his right to a writer’s voyeurism (the Obscenely Large Glass Loftspace)—is truly the result of his own talent, or the arbitrary series of occurrences in an ambitious man’s life? Or worse, he wonders if he is only an mediocre writer, imitating a greater man’s effort. 

What separates the great from the never discovered? Whoever wrote this screenplay had Harold Bloom’s “Anxiety of Influence” in mind. In that essay, Bloom discusses the paradigm of the current generation: an ambitious young man, in whatever age he lives, will always feel the pressure to live up the legends, or “fathers”, that came before him. The greatest fear of that young man is not necessarily that he may never be discovered and his talent recognized, but that his contributions are merely versions, subpar attempts, of the efforts of his “fathers”.  So, Quaid essentially writes about his own artistic insecurities when he saddles the handsome Cooper with thievery and the contempt of Old Man Irons. My view deviates from here quite a bit—if the young man is meant to be anxious of his own influences, for both their merits and their sins, he is then going to constantly live in fear of the so-called pioneers who inspired him. Take that a step further and you end up with a young man at war with the very sources of his inspiration. 

Some might argue that this is the heart of how art makes progress, and how fields continue to grow. I will not venture there. I cannot claim to have thought very much on the subject. But I will run with this War-With-The-Muse idea!

There is a line in the movie in which the Old Man claims, “I loved words more than I loved the woman who inspired me to write them. [That is] my tragedy.” Discarding the gender issue, and even the gargantuan character that is played by the silent character “Writing”, this sentiment builds from Bloom’s premise: we may overlook, underappreciate, or even over-appreciate the necessary influences that shape our own self-worth. In order to be happy, in order to create without fear or doubt, one must accept that choices are but choices, and inspiration is simply an advantage to the act of creation. They are springboards for action certainly, but it is the man, and not the “influences” that redirects a life, a story, a resolution. 

At the end, Quaid has a moment where he tells the Young Girl that the novel concludes with “no morals, no consequences”, just an understanding that life can go on as usual, despite the horrible and tragic choices we make. The Young Girl seems extremely put off by this, and in a rather obvious moment, Quaid counters with the aforementioned “choose between real life and fiction.” The screenwriters may have tried to tackle about four different literary/social constructs, but this one is nailed (unfortunately, when most audiences are probably too confused by the timeline to catch it): in real life, the “story” does go on, and in so many cases our villains and our heroes are no different from one another. They exist at a level beneath the epic reach of fiction—because it is only in fiction that we demand to actually learn from the human experience. Real life? Oh gracious, how often do we dance with glee when our mistakes go unpunished? My point exactly!

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, will conclude me harassing your eyes on screen. 

Cheers! Now, go read a book or clean the dishes or something. ::wink and a smile::

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