The don’t-look-away ingredient

reading-in-bed

Silk’s Post #81 — Two of the 5/5/5 have now written about the controversial film 12 Years a Slave. I said my piece on March 11 in Artful reality and the cutting of dull bits, and Helga chimed in on Friday with Quiet vampires

I found it “glacially slow, as though to force the audience to stop and examine the reality before their eyes thoroughly, in solemn contemplation … a story that featured a litany of unspeakable cruelties shown in clinical detail.” I had great expectations for 12 Years a Slave and was disappointed to find myself struggling through it. For me, it was a failed movie. But I felt compelled to watch it.

Helga was overwhelmed by the relentless violence, and she summoned up plenty of film critics who agree. “Armond White called it ‘torture porn’, accusing director McQueen of turning slavery into a ‘horror show’, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery.”

And yet, this was the 2014 Academy Award winner for Best Picture. So somebody liked it. (Or, as Ellen DeGeneres slyly hinted, perhaps they were afraid not to praise it for fear of being labelled racist).

So what is the real power of this film? What is at the heart of it – its purpose and intent? Is it art? Payback? A long-awaited but brutal history lesson? Catharsis? After thinking about it a lot since I saw the film, my memory freshened by Helga’s post, I believe its raison d’être is to create a disturbance, to stimulate controversy.

And the uncomfortable method it uses (some might call it outright audience manipulation) is to compel us to watch, to glue our eyeballs to the luscious, humid scenes where inhumanity moves languidly and remorselessly, stretching out the pain. We are hooked by our own morbid fascination in a kind of temporary addiction, an almost trance-like state exacerbated by the painfully slow pace of the movie. We don’t look away. (Or most of us didn’t).

At the end of the film, I felt like the frog in the pot of cold water, who didn’t jump out when the heat rose by slow degrees. I felt cooked.

But this capacity of human beings to be sucked into a story and become temporarily addicted to it – sometimes against their will, or their better judgement, or their tastes – is a real and powerful phenomenon. To hold us in thrall – isn’t that the effect great literature has on people?

But wait, so do slasher movies. So does porn. So do vampire novels. So does pulp fiction. So do endless breaking news bulletins about the latest weather event, reality drama, mass shooting, video game, plane crash, celebrity downfall. Not for everyone, of course: we all pick our own potions and poisons. But who has never found themselves in the wee hours of the morning, glued to a movie they can’t switch off, or a book they can’t put down – even though the alarm clock is set to go off in just 5 more hours … 4 … 3 … 2 …?

What is the essence of this extraordinary temporary addiction? This obsessive engagement that won’t let us look away? It can’t be subject matter, or style, or genre, or sentiment, or intelligence, or action, or even quality that clinches the deal. The range of material that can have this effect on people runs the full spectrum, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

It’s what 12 Years a Slave, and Harry Potter, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and Flight 370, and Holocaust movies, and Casablanca, and The Story of O, and The Voice, and Star Wars, and Alice in Wonderland, and Hitchcock films, and Apocalypse Now all have weirdly in common. Maybe that sounds crazy. But I don’t mind starting a controversy.

Because I believe if, as writers, we can capture enough of that don’t-look-away essence in our books, we stand a real chance of success. If we miss it, we’re on the slush pile.

What is this elusive “it” that draws people in and won’t let them go? Is “it” just a collection of disparate hooks and lures that are different in each work and for each segmented audience? I don’t think so. I believe there really is a common “it” that addicts readers and audiences like crack cocaine.

So what is “it”? I still (stubbornly) think it has to do with story. But you tell me. What’s the essence of that don’t-look-away secret ingredient we all seek to bake into our novels?

5 thoughts on “The don’t-look-away ingredient

  1. I think that the “IT” is something intangible and not formulaic. You somehow get it right in your particular work, partially because you understand “IT” but also because you just happened to hit it right. The difference between getting it just right and almost getting it right is palpable but often indescribable. Meanwhile, I’ve assiduously avoided 12 Years, and am now more determined than ever to keep avoiding it. Thanks for your take on it.
    Thanks also for your encouragement about Querying (Joe gets a shout-out here as well). You called it “the slog,” and that term, its sound and feel, has kept me going (and will keep me going). In the last month, I’ve sent out 45 or 46 queries. I’ve received few rejections already, and there are others who say they won’t even respond unless they’re interested, so I don’t know how many rejections remain incipient at this point. But I’ll keep slogging. 5x5x5 has helped a lot.

    • I think you’re so right about the subtle but distinct difference between getting “it” right and just missing “it”. Oddly, one of the genres in which the difference is most glaringly obvious is humour. We laugh spontaneously, or we cringe, embarrassed at the failure. Other genres may be a bit more forgiving, but I’m sorry to confess how many half-finished books I have gathering dust on my shelves. I’m kind of a congenital finisher, but sometimes I either can’t take a book’s faults anymore, or it’s too much like work to get through it, or I just quit caring what’s going to happen next.

      • ” …sometimes I either can’t take a book’s faults anymore, or it’s too much like work to get through it, or I just quit caring what’s going to happen next.”

        Thanks, Silk. That taught me gobs of stuff in just a few words, but it was as sobering as it was enlightening.

  2. Fantastic, thought-provoking post, Silk. You want to know what is “it” that addicts readers and audiences. For me, it’s mostly anticipation. Nothing keeps me more glued to a book than not knowing what comes next for the protagonist. It can be he or he is in danger, and we fear for her, or if it’s a romance we want to know if the girl gets the boy (or other way around). Once it actually happened, the suspense is gone, so the “it” has to be stringing the reader along. An actual scene of violence does not really make the “it” list for me, and if it happens to be an explicit drawn-out murder or torture scene I lose enjoyment. Sensationalism isn’t good writing. So yes, I think you are right when you say it has to do with ‘story’, but not necessarily with the ‘don’t-look-away’ essence. You mention the scene in 12 Years a Slave when Patsy steals the bar of soap and how it affected you. I agree. That scene by itself and her punishment would have made the film so much more powerful without the repetitive and constant torture for the 2 hours. So what made me watch the entire film? I honestly don’t know. But I regret that I didn’t stop sooner. Anyway, this is a very interesting topic. We should explore it further.

    • Patsy was the only character in the movie I really engaged with or could relate to. For me, all the rest, without exception, were cardboard. My conclusion was that the movie had major problems with both the script and the direction, which the other actors just didn’t have the chops to overcome. I credit the actor portraying Patsy for bringing her to life, for infusing those scenes with humanity. So very odd that with all the repellant violence and cruelty throughout the movie, it all seemed so passionless. I think you have it exactly right about anticipation and suspense, the soul of story.

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