7.29.2004

Taste; Relative Archaeology; Truth Is a Fiction; Hinges

Taste

When I was but a wee-tot, liver, spinach, peas, and rice were the four major food groups that triggered my gag reflex whenever their vile aromas coyly fluttered their flatulence with my nostrils.   One of my best grade-school chums hated liver, too--what sane kid didn't?  His grandpa was rumored to eat the gelatinous grey globs raw.  Once, the kid's granny cooked the stuff up and told them it was steak.  Oh, they gobbled it up and were surprised to hear what they ate. 

But I never fell for such a rouse.  Any foul muck posing as anything but the toxic waste it was went directly into the cubby hole under the table the second Ma and Pa turned their heads, which always provided them with a small moldy surprise when they went to add a leaf to the table for the Grandfogies at Christmas.  

Eventually, I learned to appreciate rice with a good dousing of soy sauce.  Spinach and peas taste fab fresh or cooked up with other delightfuls, but canned spinach or peas I can hardly stand.  Even now, my fight-or-flight response to liver has not changed.  The stench of sautéed liver still sends my gorge into paroxysmal fits.

FATHER: One day, lad, all this will be yours!
HERBERT: What, the curtains?
FATHER: No, not the curtains, lad. All that you can see! Stretched out over the hills and valleys of this land! This'll be your kingdom, lad!
HERBERT: But Father, I don't want any of that.... I'd rather--
FATHER: Rather what?!
HERBERT: I'd rather... just... [music] ...sing!
FATHER: Stop that, stop that! You're not going to do a song while I'm here....

HERBERT: But I don't like her.
FATHER: Don't like her?! What's wrong with her? She's beautiful, she's rich, she's got huge... tracts of land.
HERBERT: I know, but I want the girl that I marry to have... a certain... special... [music] ...something...
FATHER: Cut that out, cut that out....

HERBERT: But, Father!
FATHER: Shut your noise, you! And get that suit on! And no singing!

--from Monty Python's The Holy Grail, scene 14


Like Herbert's father's taste, I may not be the best reviewer for narratives that require singing.

Some people like musicals.  Those who do often audition for plays and take theater classes, so that, one day, lad, all this prancing around the stage can be theirs for a living, singing, "The hills are alive!"  For some reason, I attract people who would rather watch The Pirates of Penzance than movies of guts and gusto that put hair your chest with salty characters like the wit-wielding beer-guzzlers of Charles Bukowski in Barfly (he makes a cameo, by the way, in scene where Mickey Rourke walks across the bar to meet Faye Dunaway) or even movies of sheer genius where preteen proto-lesbians kill their moms out of love.

Now I don't necessarily go into epileptic fits around musicals, but I can say that I met very few that I liked:  Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber Of Fleet Street and My Fair Lady (although I do prefer the original play--the father makes more sense and the ending is superior).  Okay, I'll apoplectically admit one other, but only because she was a cutie, and if you try to blackmail with such knowledge, don't be surprised if Jeffrey Gillooly knocks at your door to knock off your kneecaps.

Had I known De-Lovely [clips] was going to be more of musical retrospective than an autobiography of Cole Porter, I might have been less interested.  But you do have to admire the way they melded the music into the story to add new meanings to the lyrics.

The plot, like most musicals, takes awhile to kick in, but if your movie partner is a theater nut, it's a tolerable and not too gorge-retching.  The critics and lay people both give the movie a B-, which seems fair as Kevin Kline does a fairly believable job playing Cole Porter as the character ages and otherwise changes over time, but I wasn't completely convinced by the love scenes, but then I can't remember when I last was.  So maybe that's a matter of taste, too.

***

The Relative Pluralist's Never-Ending Archaeological Dig

Mike Resnick was once reported in a blog as saying at a convention that a writer should never define himself.  There's probably some truth to this as people use the defintions of things to straight-jacket people into catagories where they don't belong.

The Interstitialists, as much as I enjoy their fiction, can be annoying in their attempt to avoid definitions, but without a definition, how can we be who we are? or move elsewhere?  The fiction lives out the White Room Syndrome.

We seem to forget words mean--often multiply:  via connotations and denotations--so that we can understand.  If we understood, maybe we wouldn't fight so much, in the home or on the war front.

Definitions are not a limit but a beginning.  And if I define myself as a relative pluralist, that's not the end of understanding.  If you name the thing, you've scribbled out the general stretch of main highway and a few mountains in the corner of the map.  But the map changes once it is mapped--not because the uncertainty principle guides life under such definitions, but because both we and the road are different now that we know it is there.  We're on the map of knowing who and where we are, but the map or the truth of who we are will always be hopelessly incomplete.  The vague here-there-be-dragons are worth exploring only as it is part of knowing and enlightening what has been explored before.

That the dig for the self is hopelessly incomplete is hopeful because we now have a working map.  We can proceed point to point.  We can travel deeper through the geological layers of who we are.  No, there may be no ultimate truth, but there are truths.  And, yes, the truths are relative, but that doesn't mean they're all equal or appropriately used.  This is why I prefer to discovery to lazy haziness.  As G.I. Joe said, "Now you know... and knowing's half the battle."

If you keep discovering and defining yourself, the people who try to straight-jacket you will look like quaintly naïve dumbasses.

***

Truth Is a Fiction

The movie partner and I had an interesting discussion post-I, Robot (if a movie spurs discussion beyond criticism, it should have some value, no?):

Most people see the continuum of fiction to non-fiction as a barometer of falsity.  I don't.  While I'll agree that the things known as "facts" begin to pile up toward the non-fiction end, I don't see much use for facts without truth--whatever that may be.  Instead, the more useful way of viewing the continuum, shedding light on the dubiousness of facts or history (see "Notes for Historians..." and Zu-Bolton in "Poetry Briefs"), is to see fiction as trying to shed light on facts--real or imagined.  Truths can be examined and critiqued.  Facts cannot.  But facts alone are meaningless.

What was difficult to convey in this discussion was removing the old paradigm of fiction being just blithe entertainment because it doesn't have nonfiction or the facts.  But the strictly non-fictional only attains depth when it starts shedding facts for constructing the narrative in a meaningfully fictional way.

Which leads me to disagree with Dan Green, my favorite blogger on literary matters, that the literary arts are not designed to communicate.  This may be more of a failure to define our definitions.  For me, the real reason writers don't want to call theme "a message" or "moral" is because the writer doesn't want to be your back-seat driver but wants you to nudge your own vehicle down his map and to arrive for yourself and even to discover something other than his "Message."  Writers can't pretend to have any grand Ultimate Truth.  But without some insight into what life may be about--that "aha!" moment, that moment that causes the reader to fill the margins of books--the story is, at best as Graham Greene called it, an entertainment.

***

But Does the Story Hinge Upon It?

In Borderlands of Science, Charles Sheffield writes,

"The moral, from a storyteller's point of view, is be careful when you deal with objects or people moving close to light speed.  An otherwise good book, The Sparrow (Russell, 1996), was ruined for me by a grotesque error in relativisitc time dilation effects.  It could have been correcte with a simple change of target star."

Now I've taken authors to task for their science, especially if the story hinges upon the scientific conceit,  but though it's been some time since I read The Sparrow, I somehow doubt that those relativistic effects were central to her argument or theme.  If her argument were scientific in nature or if her argument's theme would not be affected by a correction that kept it within reality, the book can conceivably be ruined by such a flaw.  It may be that the flaw was constructed around a theme as opposed to a fact, trying to keep it more fictional (according to my definition) than nonfictional.

I, Robot, as I pointed out earlier, did have a few flaws that threw me out, but they could explained.  The reader owes the writer this much.  Don't assume something is a flaw because it looks wrong.  Assume, as Karen Joy Fowler said at Clarion, that the author meant to do what she did, and go from there (I'd mentioned this earlier in a different context). A friend pointed out there was no reason to have jets fly overhead at the end of I, Robot.  It's true.  It was a silly frill, but a nit-picking flaw since the story does not hinge upon such a flaw.

The Bourne Supremacy  [clips]  does hinge upon flaws.  Again, I was not convinced by his love for his wife.  Matt Damon has one red-eyed moment, but it comes too late.  And the underwater mouth-to-mouth was ridiculous--if a bullet knocked her unconscious immediately, she's probably dead.  And if he wants to give mouth to mouth, it would do her more good if it were oxygen instead of carbon dioxide (unless she's a plant).  Why is his love for her important?  Because the plot hinges on the revenging of his wife's death.  However, I scribbled this quibble out, reasoning, "Maybe he was mad less about the wife than that those foul Treadstone folk, who just couldn't leave well enough alone."

But where does he get all this technology?  Where does he get the money?  How is he still on top of the game a few years later?  I was willing to toss all these questions away if the plot were labyrinthine enough, but no.  It was a fun ride, yet another Hollywood action thrill.

The first film, on the other hand, I loved.  It was incredibly inventive in how Matt Damon struggled against his amnesia, against powers that seem stronger than he is, and with the untapped resources locked in his head.  And the plot was complex.  If I recall, the love affair felt more real.  Maybe, watching the two back to back, I would have appreciated better and answered the questions to the second film.

But I didn't have that film to watch beforehand.  And probably other audience members were similarly crippled.  Still, if you like action flicks, it's a romp.  Go enjoy.

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