The don’t-look-away ingredient


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?

Quiet vampires

Helga’s Post # 77 — Friday is usually movie night at our house. I know, I know, this is a blog about writing, not movies, but please bear with me. While much of this post is about a film, there is a link to writing and books.

When you are reading a book, how much violence do you tolerate, or are repulsed by? What’s your turning point when you say enough is enough because the book no longer gives you enjoyment, or worse, it might even make you sick?

Conversely, are you in the camp that needs violence in their reading to enthrall, mesmerize, spellbind and tantalize you as you turn the pages of a novel? Does brutality and graphic violence spark your imagination?

These questions came to me after watching 12 Years a Slave, the movie that captivated this year’s Oscar crowd. The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a cultured and well respected African American northerner, who is kidnapped and then sold into slavery by his abductors and ends up spending 12 years on one or more southern plantations.1

As Oscar MC Ellen DeGeneres quipped, here were two possibilities for the evening: “That 12 Years a Slave wins the best picture Oscar. And possibility two: you’re all racists.”

Wait a minute here, Ellen. That’s a bunch of crap. Does it mean anyone is a racist who does not enjoy watching a movie of a succession of scenes containing the most graphic brutal violence and sadism? Does it that mean if Schindler’s List wouldn’t have won an Oscar for best picture and best director, that everybody was a fascist and Nazi?

Admittedly, I feel confused by this controversial and complex topic, because to be fair, there are other forces at work in this film; like the mesmerizing photography, the setting of the south, the great acting, all contributing factors to make the film work on those levels. 12 Years has all of that in addition to beautifully nuanced and sensitive portraits of black people, interpreted by a brilliant cast.

But it has something even more powerful than all these elements combined. It overwhelms its viewers for nearly two hours with relentless violence. In 12 Years, there are vicious beatings of every sort: murder, lynchings, rape, dehumanizing nudity, and that five-minute, lump-in-your-throat scene where Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup is strung up by his neck just inches off the ground. Film critic Armond White called it ‘torture porn’ and accused director McQueen of turning slavery into a “horror show”, and of confusing history with brutality, violence and misery.

This is how some critics have expressed similar sentiments:

– The problem with this amazing and unforgettable film is that it is comprised of unendurable and unrelenting human suffering. Because there is no relief for our hero-slave from beginning to almost the very end, it lacks a certain credibility. After the unrelieved cruelty that comes in a horrific procession from one scene to the next, we wonder, why was every single white human in this film corrupt, vicious, and cruel beyond imagination? So, Oscars will be awarded and rightly so, but I am warning my friends to think twice before enduring a movie that’s so hard to watch.

– Beyond the intriguing premise (a man is kidnapped into slavery) this movie goes nowhere. Brutal, repetitive, and pointless. What is the subtext? What is the message? Slavery was bad? No character development, no plot development. Just one graphic depiction of cruelty after another.

– So many stereotypes, excessive brutality and sadism without sufficient redeeming purpose. It’s a significant story historically but uncreative, humdrum approach to the subject. Acting of main character is excellent but even then it doesn’t feel true. It feels like a movie made for some “noble” purpose. I prefer Django Unchained because at least it doesn’t try to pretend to be something it isn’t.

– The movie message is slavery is bad. For two hours it hammers that message with a sledge hammer till the head aches from all of the excess noise in form of superb but ultimately useless star appearance, needless violence and sexual abuse is unbearable.
It all has been done before and better. A complete misuse of excellent cast.

So, lots of shared sentiment. There’s no denying that it’s an important film about an important and long-neglected subject. But actually watching it wasn’t my idea of a good time for a Friday night. My husband didn’t even watch it to the end and left during the flogging scene of Patsy.

And I am stuck with this question: Do we really need to see this grisly brutality in order to realize that slavery is bad? Or, more disturbingly, has 12 Years a Slave achieved its level of success and popularity because of its searing scenes of violence? Is it possible that so many consumers who watch films and buy books are demanding and enjoying such hyped-up description of brutality and violence?

I have asked myself similar questions whenever I come across some particularly graphic scenes on film or in books. I realize this may sound peculiar to lots of people, because violence is so firmly entrenched in popular culture. For me, it holds no joy. Conflict yes, intrigue yes, the more the better. But explicit, gory human suffering and sadistic violence?

Not so much, I’m afraid. I am not saying violence is always evil. As American singer-songwriter and poet Jim Morrison put it so well, ‘what’s evil is the infatuation with violence’. That’s what he must have meant when he said:

‘Film spectators are quiet vampires’.

Artful reality and the cutting of dull bits


Silk’s Post #76 — I’ve been obsessing about storytelling since I had my epiphany on the immortality of stories in my post last week, “Survival Guide for Writers.” Why do stories move us, entertain us, excite us, give us insights, and make us see the world and humanity through a sharper lens? And how do stories artfully distill real life and dramatize it?

Alfred Hitchcock famously asked “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?”

As with all great and memorable quips, this has the ring of truth. Writers will smile and nod their heads in agreement. There’s a certain obviousness to it. Don’t bore your reader. Of course. This is common knowledge.

But here’s what isn’t common knowledge, the secret behind the ‘obvious’ truth in this simple quip: what Hitchcock knew that many writers do not is what the ‘dull bits’ actually are.

On my short trip this week, my time has been claimed by a whirlwind of overdue family visits, leaving little opportunity for writing. But that hasn’t stopped me from pursuing my self-assigned, on-the-road writer’s quest: learning to identify ‘dull bits’.

Much advice has been given on this topic, most of it in the form of ‘don’t do this’ lists. Don’t open your book with the weather. Don’t go on and on with endless descriptions that bog down the pace. Don’t include forgettable volleys of literal, uninteresting dialogue. Don’t go into pedestrian narrative detail about every action, like a ‘how-to’ manual. Don’t get trapped in a POV character’s head with long ruminations that put readers to sleep. These are simple prescriptions that promise boredom-free stories. Easy peasy.

But wait.

Every one of these rules has been broken by the best writers in certain circumstances, and the results can be sublime.

Opening with weather? Examples abound, some leading to immediate replacement of the book on the shelf, others inexorably drawing the reader into the story. Long descriptions? Some of the world’s best-loved books are littered with them. So are the rejected books in most slush piles. Literal dialogue? It has been used to engaging effect by the masters, and to the opposite effect by lesser writers. Narrative detail? We’ve all seen examples of the kind that creates tension, and the other kind that kills tension. Pages of interior thought? Captivating in some books, a literary sleeping pill in others.

So if such rules identifying ‘dull bits’ are not absolute, then what’s the difference between gripping writing and writing that we skim over in our quest for ‘the good part’ of a book?

I think the difference is whether the writer has a clear sense of story. Whether a particular chunk of content serves that story … or is extraneous to it. Whether the whole story is a continuous, dynamic thread that grabs readers and leads them through highs and lows and tension and emotional twists to a satisfying conclusion … or just a procession of scenarios (regardless of how well written, in terms of technique), which never really ‘gel’ into a strong, memorable story. In other words, I think ‘dull bits’ is a relative term, depending on story context.

Look at it this way: maybe ‘dull bits’ aren’t entirely defined by the nature of their content. Maybe they are simply the things that readers don’t care about or can’t fully connect with. If the writer can make the reader really care about a chunk of content, then, by definition, it is not dull.

So, now to my research. My week-long study of ‘dull bits’ has, perhaps irrationally, consisted of analyzing:

  • one day of air travel from Vancouver to Sacramento
  • screenings of 4 Academy Award-nominated movies

An Airport Scenario with ‘Dull Bits’ Removed (or Re-purposed)

Yes, there is great people-watching in airport, mainly because everyone is in transit. If one has a bent towards intrigue, romance or fantasy, then speculating on where people are going – and why – can lead to some tantalizing story ideas. One stimulating exercise is to mentally add a background sound track to the action you’re watching, like an imaginary movie. Does a tale start to spin itself?

The actual experience of being in an airport, however, is intrinsically boring. Everyone is waiting for something. In limbo. Filling the time eating overpriced snacks, zoning out on mobile devices, tossing back a quick drink among strangers in nobody’s neighbourhood bar, shuffling around last-minute souvenir and duty free shops, attempting an uncomfortable nap on furniture designed to keep people awake, making trips to echoing washrooms with sticky-faced children in tow, reading whatever’s at hand, or just fidgeting in the myriad ways people fidget. No one really wants to be there. It’s almost the dictionary definition of a ‘dull bit’.

So … delete delete delete? Or can this scenario be dramatized?

If, in this temporary, restless and unnatural society of strange bedfellows, a sudden disruption occurs – an explosion, a chase, the rantings of a deranged person, a staggering man with a knife in his back, a frantic lost child, a clown on a unicycle – we have elevated all these ‘dull bits’ into something much more interesting. Not only do we have the unexpected disruption, but we also have the different reactions of all the people who have now become witnesses, united in surprise. Haven’t the ‘dull bits’ now been sharpened into shards of drama?

Or what if one person in the ordinary airport scene is behaving differently from all the others. He stands rigid, focusing intensely on an exit door. His eyes dart to a pair of security cops walking briskly through the airport, heads swivelling and radios in hand. He turns his back to them and saunters to a news stand, picks up a magazine as they pass, watching the exit door from a new position. He’s clearly waiting too, but not for a plane. A child slips his mother’s protective grip and runs, squealing with laughter, towards the news stand, nearly running into him, Mom in pursuit. The man ignores it, takes a sideways step, turns his face away. Can’t you hear the tense, ominous sound track? Don’t you want to know what happens next?

There’s a story in each of these scenarios, and the ‘dull bits’ have been recruited in the service of these stories. You could envision a dozen other stories that could play out in this  circumstance, where the contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary amplifies the disruption about to happen.

But what if nothing happens? Maybe the story is about a mother and child who are travelling to a new home far away. Maybe not by choice. Or maybe after a death in the family. The trip might change the child’s life forever. But the same rules about ‘dull bits’ apply. If the airport scenario is a transformative experience for the child – a portal to the future – and this can be dramatized through an incident, or even through the child’s perceptions, excitement, fears, hopes, then the ‘dull bits’ serve the story’s dramatic intent. Otherwise, the scene is an expendable – or it would be if Hitchcock were producing it.

Critically-Acclaimed Dramas: Three Hits and a Miss

This was, by any measure, an extraordinary year for cinematic dramas. One of the most remarkable things about the field of Oscar nominated films is how many of them were based on true stories, among them American Hustle, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and Captain Phillips, all movies I saw in the past couple of weeks.

Could there be a juicier opportunity to study how great storytellers can artfully create superb drama from real life – by cutting out the ‘dull bits’? If you ever wanted to develop a course to teach writers that great, authentic ‘real life’ dramas are intensely concentrated – and artfully manipulated – versions of true stories, these movies could form the whole curriculum.

Even the most gripping true story in real life has dull bits. What a great storyteller does is create an artful reality, not a faithful report of everything that happened. At least, this is my theory.

I’m no film critic, and my focus here is limited to this one criterion: how these cinematic storytellers eliminated the ‘dull bits’, while retaining the authenticity of ordinary life. How they re-purposed the ordinary – the ‘dull bits’ – to amplify the extraordinary drama of the stories.

I couldn’t find a single useless ‘dull bit’ in either American Hustle or Dallas Buyers Club. Not one.

Christian Bale arranging his absurd comb-over in American Hustle – as an opening scene, no less! – was captivating. Seriously. A man combing his hair. I watched it with dropped jaw. It made dramatic and bold use of an excruciatingly dull detail to deliver vivid and intimate insight into the character of the protagonist. All that came after followed suit – a rich, colourful, improbable circus of characters lurching through a real-life inspired story (the Abscam scandal of the 1980s) that spun out like a collision of the mundane, the corrupt and the grandiose. It left me breathless.

An emaciated Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Clubcareening down the hardscrabble Texas highway towards the salvation of bootleg AIDS drugs in Mexico, stopping to weep, flooring the gas pedal, possessed with life, refusing to give it up. This was just one of more memorable moments than I can count, shown through extraordinary use of the most ordinary details. Brilliant scene after brilliant scene, with raw and powerful performances that didn’t seem like acting at all. In this film the writers disappeared. The director disappeared. The actors disappeared. It was just the audience immersed in the story of real people, experiencing it directly in the gut. This was a movie that you felt with all your five senses, and maybe with your sixth sense too. No ‘dull bits’. None.

Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips, facing off with a skeletal Somali pirate who informs him “I’m the Captain now” after a daring takeover of his cargo ship off the Horn of Africa. The haves meet the have-nots. Civilization and privilege meet anarchy and desperation. This is a big theme played out in the drifting confines of the isolated ‘island’ of a vessel. The life-or-death story has inherent drama, and perhaps leaving out the ‘dull bits’ was relatively easy. The circumstances didn’t allow for boredom. Yet, I would not give this movie top rating for elimination of ‘dull bits’, mainly because of the short, but boring, opening scenes when Hanks packs his bags in home state Vermont, drives to the airport, says goodbye to his nice wife, and boards a plane for Djibouti to assume command of the ship. Establishing scene of normalcy. Introduction of nice-guy protagonist. Ho hum. A scene built on ‘dull bits’ that could be used to demonstrate what not to do. But the movie got better, much better, especially when the pirate Muse (Barkhad Abdi) shows up and owns every scene he appears in.

I did say three hits and a miss. I was actually shocked when I watched the Best Picture of the year, 12 Years a Slaveand found myself struggling through it. I had high expectations. Could there be a more dramatic story, a story less likely to have ‘dull bits’ than this now-famous tale of betrayal, cruelty, suffering, injustice and finally rescue? Yet, even though virtually every scene was a portrait of high drama, the movie itself played out like a series of still pictures in a gallery, which, ironically, felt unconnected by a real sense of story. Like still pictures, the pace of scene after scene was glacially slow, as though to force the audience to stop and examine the reality before their eyes thoroughly, in solemn contemplation. One shot of the protagonist’s nearly expressionless face, camera locked, lasted half a minute at least. What was he looking at? We don’t know. What was he thinking? We don’t know. What was he feeling? We don’t know. I’m sorry, this was one of many ‘dull bits’.

One spectacular exception was the electric scene where Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o, defies her master after being caught with a precious bar of soap, which crackled with animation. This was, for me, the most powerfully emotional moment in a story that featured a litany of unspeakable cruelties shown in clinical detail.

Is this a great film? I can say it is an important one, perhaps a historic one, certainly a brave one. And it will stay with me. Yes, it worked for me as a history lesson. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for me as a drama. Inarguably, it was real life. But in the storytellers’ mission to not turn away – to not cut out the difficult bits – I think they also failed to cut out the ‘dull bits’. My takeaway: despite its undeniable impact, it did not achieve the ‘artful reality’ that could have brought this story fully to life in all its dimension.