Thursday, August 18, 2016

Why We Describe Less

A while back I happened on a blog post (regrettably, I haven't been able to track it down again) which raised the matter of authors' describing less than they used to, and asking its readers why this may now be the fashion.

One reason, clearly, is the swapping of the third-person omniscient narrator who sees and describes everything for us reliably for a host of narrow and fallible little subjectivities, and their limited perception of what there is to see, think, feel.

However, there is too the reality that we live in an age of visual media which has driven home to us just how difficult it is for the written word to compete with the camera as a way of conveying images in all their vibrancy, immediacy, texture, grandeur--leaving many of us less inclined to try, and perhaps with less sense that there is a need to try. (Whatever it is, you've probably seen it on TV before, and so it seems it is enough to evoke that.)

Perhaps more importantly, film and television have accelerated the pace of storytelling, too much so to allow any room for thick description--confronted with which we are apt to get impatient to move on.

And of course, many have made a virtue of describing less (one thinks of the enduring cult of Hemingway), while more generally the trend of recent decades has been toward easier-to-read, less demanding books of smaller words connected together in shorter sentences, compiled together in shorter paragraphs in littler chapters (even as books of doorstop size became more than ever the standards).

Have we lost something precious in all this? Certainly there are those who have put subjectivity, evocativeness, briskness, minimalism, accessibility to good use. Still, at their best there was something to be said for the lusher descriptiveness of the nineteenth century novels. Take, for example, Peter Washington's appraisal of Balzac as
a writer whose delight in appearances encompasses every mode from the interior decorator's passion for glitzy surfaces to the philosopher's interest in the hidden depths behind them . . . He has an extraordinary grasp on the materiality of the world, the sensuous quality of objects. All his books are filled with things . . . [and] Everything has its place in a complete vision of life at a particular time and place.
The vividness of his settings, the solidity of the world he imagines and the characters with which he peoples it, would be difficult to imagine without all this, while as Washington also noted, "[t]he dramatic virtues of this method--its distance from mere description--becomes apparent at critical moments in the novel." The details--the difference between a wax and a tallow candle in Eugenie Grandet, for example--are neither decoration, nor mere "symbolism" of the sort on which impressionable middle school students develop neurotic fixations, but the sorts of little things that make up the life he describes.

Novels like Balzac's strike me as more fully novel-like than anything we are likely to encounter today--epic depictions of life, worlds on the page such as Modernist and postmodernist narratives, in their smugly showy fragmentariness, obliqueness and unreliability rarely even try to deliver (and still less often, succeed in doing), no matter how much admiring theorists tell us otherwise. And so while it is well that leaner styles are accepted, the achievements of writers working in that other mode ought not to be slighted.

Of Balzac and James

I'd read little James until recently, and most of that in a hurry for a long-ago graduate course. (Indeed, "Daisy Miller" is about the only piece that I felt myself to know well for a long time.)

The impression I got, however, does not seem to have been different from most people's, George Moore nicely summing it up its outstanding feature in his Confessions of a Young Man--the overgenteel, cloistered, drawing room narrowness of it. A particular passage in that book sums it up so vividly that I cannot resist quoting it:
Mr James's people live in a calm, sad, and very polite twilight of volition . . . in front of the reader nothing happens . . . human portraiture models are necessary . . . [but] the drawing room presents few accents and angles, conformity to its prejudices having worn all away . . . Is there really much to say about people who live in stately houses and eat and drink their fill every day of the year? The lady, it is true, may have a lover, but the pen finds scanty pasturage in the fact; and in James's novels the lady only considers the question on the last page, and the gentleman looks at her questioningly.
Recently reading Washington Square has only reconfirmed my impression. Indeed, after reading James' own critical writing, it has seemed to me that fully as he understood those French writers he so admired, and attentive as he was to their methods, he rejected what was best about them, what made their work so compelling--not least the interest that Honore de Balzac (hailed by James as "one of the finest of artists" in the essay he devoted to him) took in the "machinery of civilization," and the cold and critical eye he was ready to cast on it.1 Balzac's portrait of the brutal, vulgar, degrading, humiliating, painful, wasteful and ultimately hollow character of life in a society dominated by money and its pursuit (such a far cry from those who preach market values as the embodiment of efficiency, dignity and humanity!) was exactly the kind of thing from which James shrank in his work, instead glossing over the less seemly details to leave us with just those stately houses and that calm, polite twilight.

1. The essay appeared in the December 1875 edition of Galaxy--today's The Atlantic, and well worth a read by anyone interested in Balzac's body of work.

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)


By the time I saw Josh Trank's Fantastic Four I had long since had an earful of the bad press--and as is so often the case on those occasions, I found myself wondering if it was not overly criticized. At least in the more important ways the film did not strike me as conspicuously lazy and sloppy in the manner of, for example, Iron Man 2. It managed to avoid the triteness so often part of the Marvel crowd-pleasers--particularly tiresome in, for instance, the middle third of the first Thor movie. And in fact, more than many of these movies (the celebrated first Avengers movie among them), it is not a collection of action scenes strung together by the thinnest semblance of a plot (or more precisely, masses of bits of action strung together by the thinnest semblance of being action scenes, in their turn strung together by the thinnest semblance of a plot), but offers an actual story with actual characters.

As it happens, there is a lot of Trank's prior film, Chronicle, in it--bleak suburbs, gray skies, alienated kids with bad attitudes from crummy homes who mess around with powers beyond their understanding and have to deal with the consequences, all depicted in a rather grounded, low-key, small-scale way. (Reed Richards is turned from a grown-up and well-recognized scientist to a geeky high school science fair entrant, with the rest of the Four changed commensurately; while the central event in the origin story is not a space flight, but interdimensional transport to a primitive landscape, generally seen at night.) There is a bit of Watchmen, too (another film criticized far out of proportion to any actual weaknesses it had) in the conception of the heroes as damaged people exploited by the System, and specifically the military-industrial complex, covert-ops side of it, the badness of which seems to go far beyond a few "bad apples."1

As all this suggests, rather than a movie for purists, or simply a less faithful movie still attempting to be a colorful, lightweight crowd-pleaser in the familiar Marvel mold (which the previous film version of this story fit to a tee), Trank's Fantastic Four gives the impression of a movie attempting to subvert its source material, and the form more broadly--and in its earlier portions shows some promise on that level. However in the last act the movie turns much more conventional as the heroes brush aside their previously deeply felt differences to come together and battle a vengeful supervillain posing a cosmic, physics-based threat to the entire world, the day is narrowly saved, and even if we had doubts (more than doubts) about the functionaries in the dress uniforms and three-piece suits, everyone puts that behind them, while our heroes get a sweet new deal in the form of lavish facilities in Central City, and speak bad one-liners intended to get a final laugh before we cut to credits.

Alas, the final display of action and effects falls far short of what was needed to save the movie from that perspective, not helped by the fact that the scenes are so ill-lit one can barely make out much of what is going on, and that the low-key approach endures. Perhaps more importantly, the sharp turn in the narrative, expected as it may be, rings false after what came before.

Consequently the film alienates those who like the more conventional take by being so low-key and measured and dark, who felt uncompensated by the finale; while at the same time in the film's turning much more conventional in the final act, it alienates those who had been intrigued by its doing something different and more subversive. In that I am reminded of something I thought about when watching Chronicle: the tension between the big-budget, crowd-pleasing form and the narrative aspirations of necessarily smaller-scale indie filmmaking. For better or worse Chronicle just about managed to cohere in spite of them, but it also did not have the expectations aroused by its connection with the Fantastic Four, or the obligation to turn a profit on a $120 million production budget adequate to launch a whole franchise of summer tentpoles.

1. One of the more striking aspects of this is the depiction of the changed bodies of the principals, not just the Thing, but Reed, whose stretching appears grotesque rather than zanily cartoonish.

The Twilight of the Action RPG?

Looking at today's games--I have in mind here the action RPG genre--I am struck by their breathtaking graphics, their rendering of vast, intricately detailed, elaborately interactive worlds, and the lushness of the storylines that all this enables.

Still, appealing as they are visually and conceptually, I have to admit to being one of those who feels that games have lost something in attaining this new level of artistic accomplishment.

The size and intricacy and interactiveness of their virtual worlds makes gameplay far less intuitive. The player has to endure elaborate tutorials to master the necessary physical skills. Then in embarking upon their quest I suspect that only the most hardcore players can get by without a strategy guide--genuinely book-length--in hand, playing becoming an exercise in "following the manual."1

I'll admit that I've never had much patience for tutorials of this type, and that I don't even like reading the manual for things I buy in real life. But clearly I'm not the only one who feels that way--or we wouldn't have wound up in this bizarre situation where people in developing countries toil at gold farming in postmodern cyber-sweatshops.

It all leaves me wondering if the gaming experience in this genre did not start to decline a few console generations ago, when the sophistication of the design had grown beyond its bare-bones beginnings (as with gameplay consisting mostly of seeking out random battles so one could level up), but not yet passed beyond that level of accessibility and manageability beyond which a game stops being fun. (Some time around the release of Final Fantasy 7, perhaps?)

What do you think?

1. Online few seem to admit to this kind of reliance--but they also belittle anyone who does admit to this, which leaves me doubtful.

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