Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Warning: Major Rant

As I do every year, I'm seeing all the Oscar-nominated Best Picture movies (Michael Clayton, No Country for Old Men, Atonement, Juno, There Will Be Blood). A good friend commented that she will see only Juno, because "The others are all depressing. I don't go to the movies to be depressed. I want to be entertained."

What's with this attitude, which I encounter a lot about not just movies but fiction as well? I have no trouble with comedy (I thought Juno was adorable) and I can even handle heart-warming, in small doses. But the idea that art exists only to amuse seems to me just plain wrong. "Entertainment," which my dictionary describes as "that which holds the attention so as to bring about pleasure," is surely in the eye of the beholder. There are many kinds of pleasure (and hence entertainment), and a profound one is the sense of having gained an insight into reality, into the way the human universe works, including its negative aspects. It's not yuks, but it is for some of us a deep and lasting pleasure. "Depressing" works can do this.

When I taught college years ago, one semester I had an Intro to Contemporary Lit class. After we'd read an Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, I showed the class a taped interview with Nobel Laureate Singer. He said, among other things, that "high literature was for high people and low literature was for low people" (You can imagine how well that went over with a group of freshmen heavily into Star Wars novelizations). Singer was talking about "depressing" stories that feature people whom you don't want to ask to dinner, stories that end unhappily, or both.

This is not an abstract issue for those of us who "write grim." We're trying to say something, at least some of the time, that we think might be worth hearing. Tor turned down my novel Nothing Human (it came out from Golden Gryphon) because my then-editor found it depressing. "Nancy, you destroyed the entire human race!" he pointed out. Well, yes. But so did Clarke in Childhood's End. I at least left our genetic descendants, plus the planet itself. The book was about trashing our environment, and its literary quality aside (the author is never a good judge of that), I think it made a valuable point in a non-polemic way.

So if I'm hoping that Atonement wins the Oscar. Tears and gloom and all.


Unknown said...

Well, I personally don't mind a depressing story once in a while, but I think some people just don't want to deal with it because life can be depressing enough as it is. If you're on welfare or struggling to survive for whatever reason you probably don't want to go watch some movie that is just as depressing. You'd rather watch something funny or action packed...or at least that's the logic I see.

Unknown said...

Nancy, I absolutely could not possibly agree with you more. I don't think it's an accident that most of my favorite movies of all time are those that explore the dark corners of human experience. The stories that linger on in my mind months and years and even decades after I've seen them are most often those with profound insights and implications, not the disposable cotton candy fluff. (Nothing against cotton candy--yummy!--but it's hardly a steak dinner, is it?)

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Entertainment is the primary reason I watch either films or read literature, but I'm not hung up on matters such as whether it was too grim or too funny. I do enjoy a films and literature that can stir my emotions (that doesn't happen often enough) and I may even enjoy something that makes me think.

But I, personally, tend to lose patience with something that is overtly polemical in nature. The primary reason is that over the course of getting a Masters in History, chances are whatever political theory or message a writer is likely to trot out in their story, I've probably already heard it a dozen times over.

If Message is Overriding Story, I'll put the media (book or film) back on the shelf, walk over to the non fiction section and pick up something interesting such as Guns, Germs and Steel, or maybe some E. P. Thompson.

But dark and grim doesn't bother me at all.

S. F. Murphy

dolphintornsea said...

But here's the thing (and I have friends who just don't get this) depressing movies, or literature, or music,

- do not depress me! Rather, I usually find them uplifting and, as perverse as it may seem to some, I feel pretty buoyant after enjoying them. On the other hand, brainless fluff depresses me, even if it's calculated to amuse.

So when my best friend is in my car, I have to hide the Morrissey CD's, or whatever I'm playing, and put one of those damn "mellow" things on.

So give me "grim but good" every time.

Kevin W. said...

I agree that "depressing" work doesn't necessarily depress me. Sometimes that feeling of "I'm not alone here, this artist understands my feelings" overcomes the overtly depressing theme (Harlan Ellison's work is a perfect example, to me at least). Good jazz can do it too, like Mingus's "Meditations For Integration", or Art Pepper's "Lost Life". Or sometimes a depressing story can have some uplift - ever see an "X-Files" episode called "The Field Where I Died"?

dolphintornsea said...

Kevin has nailed it exactly. "Depressing" but good work leads to the feeling that "someone understands!". On the other hand, works that people turn to to cheer them up lead to the feeling that "these people are brain dead". And that's depressing.

James A. Ritchie said...

It has been my observation that those who like movies such as No Country For Old Men, and those who write such books, are most often those who haven't experienced such things in their own lives.

As a writer, I know you don't have to experience something grim, murderous, barbaric, etc., first hand to get it right (Though getting it right is extremely rare, in my experience), but you do, I think, as a reader, have to experience at least a bit of such things first hand to know whether the writer got it right.

At any rate, I don;t go to the movies or read books to get a message. As someone once said, if you want to send a message, use Western Union. It's faster, cheaper, and will reach more people.

I guess my real gripe is with the argument "Real life is often brutal, unfair, mean, barbaric, etc." Of course it is. I already know this. I've known it most of my life, and I'm damned if I'm going to pay ten bucks for a movie, or twenty-five for a novel, just to hear one more writer say it.

Life is also joyous, happy, loving, hopeful, etc. Sometimes the good guy does win and sometimes real life people overcome incredible obstacles and succeed.

Sadness, yes. Grimness, yes. But at least leave me with some hope. Keep such endings as we find in No Country For Old Men away from me. That isn't a message, it's laziness. It's Hollywood at its worst, and exactly the kind of ending guaranteed to piss off most viewers, and to win the most awards.

The trouble with having something to say is that it's probably already been said over and over and over, no matter what the message is. Just tell me a good, entertaining story that at least leaves room for believing life isn't all woe is me gloom and doom. That's why I go to the movies, and why I read novels.

Jay Charles said...

Nancy, thanks for brining up this issue. It's one that I have long pondered.

My take on it is that the attitutde you're describing is rapidly becoming more and more prevalent in American society. For example, consider that on Super Tuesday, all of the networks that were covering election returns, including both broadcast and cable varities, did not match the market share for American Idol. Now, I agree with Cameron's assertion that there's a place for cotton candy as well as filet mignon, but that seems almost ludicrous.

Interestingly enough, we haven't really lost sight of the fact that adversity is what makes the story or the characters interesting; it's just that we want the challenges to be overcome, if not easily then with surety, so that our protagonists always prevail.

Before a clamor arises, or a mob forms to defend the honor of American Idol, let me say it isn't just that show I'm talking about. What about the sentiment expressed in the politcal arena not so long ago: "Can't we all just get along?" No! We can't, nor should we expect to do so. I believe that heterogeneity provides strength that homogeneity, which may provide safety (or at least predictability), simply cannot. But all that is beside the point.

Getting back to entertainment: Don't get the idea that I'm humorless... I can honestly say that I like things across the gamut of the entertainment spectrum, from stupid, mindless humor to deep, thought-provoking treatises. But the truth is, when it comes to taking pleasure in entertainment, I find that the thing which matters most to me is how well-crafted said entertainment is. And that craft can be shown in many different ways, from costumes to plot to musical score to character development to cinematography to chemistry to name it.

I wish I had some great, unifying thought that could tie this all together, but failing that, I believe I'll close with the thought that the heights and depths of human character are often best seen in the tragic rather than the comedic.

TheOFloinn said...

I notice a curious correlation between pleasant = cotton candy and grim = steak. Yet, what is more pleasant and enjoyable than a good steak - well-aged, medium-rare, dressed with mushrooms. Yum. Why is not grim compared with gruel and pleasant with roast turkey? Food for thought? Or just food?

I'm reminded also of the comparison that Tacitus made in another context entirely when he noted that
while we instinctively shrink from a writer's adulation, we lend a ready ear to detraction and spite, because flattery involves the shameful imputation of servility, whereas malignity wears the false appearance of honesty.

There was a 1996 movie titled Spitfire Grill. Anybody see it?
"Most folks would rather hear a colorful lie over the truth any day." -- Percy, Spitfire Grill

You can color the lie white or black, as you wish. My personal opinion is that the fiction be true than that it be happy or grim.

Jay Charles said...

Mike's comment made me consider a few things:

1. Truth in fiction. What a wonderful way of expressing what I was thinking, even if I was inadequate to the task in my earlier comment. While it may seem odd at first blush for fans of speculative fiction (whether of the scientific or fantastic bent) to earnestly prate about reality and truth in fiction, that is indeed what makes a story great. The truer the relatinships and interactions are, the more I like it.

2. To me, I think it is less "pleasant" vs. "grim" than "inconsequential" vs. "substantive."

3. Finally, I notice that I'm experiencing an almost irresistable compulsion to categorize and correlate different foods to different qualities of entertainment. It is to everyone's good fortune that I will eschew the opportunity...

TheOFloinn said...

jay charles comment on "truth in fiction triggers this further thought: the distinction between fact and truth. The root meaning of truth is faithfulness: a true friend, a true line (in carpentry), true north. It's why couples become be-truthed to each other. Something may be true to fact - Newton's theory of gravitation, for example - even if later facts modify it.

Fiction should be true to life. Yes, we say, that's the way a person like that would act. When Starbuck, who had opposed Ahab's obsession with the white whale, sees Ahab go sleep with the fishes, he, too, then goes on the attack. We can nod and say, Yes, that is not a contradiction.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Hmmm. Well, in a way, Nancy, you coudl say that you find being intellectually chanllenged and emotionally wrenched "entertaining." I guess not everyone does.

To each his/her own.

dolphintornsea said...

Truth is indeed the thing, no arguments there. But there are truths you like, and truths you don't like.

Pandering to your audience by giving them only or mostly truths they like is lazy, at best. It's more valuable to point to truths we don't want to face, but have to. And that's a process that's unlikely to involve lots of laughs.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Nancy, as Poul Anderson said, "We're competing for beer money." If a creative soul wants to reach a mass audience, you gotta give the people what they want, as Ray Davies put it. And often that means a happy ending--characters the reader or viewer can identify with, facing stern trial, and triumphing. See the wonderful (first)ROCKY. That's just the way it woiks.

Singer's views about "high" people and "low" people piss me off so bad I'll have to think about why they elicit so strong a reaction.