January 7th, 2011 / 12:30 pm
Craft Notes & Film

On over-writing, distance, fiction, theater, and film: A series of disorganized thoughts

Last night, I saw Black Swan.

Last night, I read Linda Lê’s The Three Fates.

Last night, I didn’t fall asleep until after 4am.

The first two things contributed to the last thing. I’m usually a very good sleeper. It’s one of the few ways I cope with anxiety: sleep. It is something I’ve trained myself to do since I was a kid. That sounds stupid, but I’m sure a lot of people here have problems sleeping. We’re an anxious lot, what else can I say?

Last night, while I was trying to get to sleep, I kept thinking about Linda Lê’s book. The Three Fates is a book about a two sisters and a cousin (the three fates) who want to bring their old father (called King Lear) from Vietnam to France to show off their successes. The three fates were whisked away from Vietnam before the fall of Saigon. Their father remained. The book is written in this hyper-stylized way, seemingly over-written, over-the-top, a fairy tale with characters unabashedly stolen from other literary works (notably: plays). What sticks to me with this book though is how over-written it is. Every sentence is excessive. If this were a fiction workshop, I’d write next to every single line: “Over-written.”

Here’s the thing though: the over-writing is functional. That’s what gets to me. The language mirrors the opulence and indulgence of the characters. It leaks, literally, from the characters onto the page.

Take, instance, this passage, narrated by the cousin (called Southpaw, who has a missing hand) about the younger sister (called Longlegs, cutie, gams – any condescending synecdoche will do) asking her for money for an abortion:

Two of the favored, rowing like galley slaves toward the promised land of domestic bliss—the sight could move you to tears, but no way were the gorgeous gams going to let this ill-conceived dome grow and press its vile weight on her slender columns. She had to move fast, empty the abscess, cleanse her entrails. Southpaw asked nothing better than to help out. Her stump was already starting to itch, tingling with excitement at the prospect of being party to a nefarious scheme. Her long hand tripped over itself in its rush to pull out the bills that would help purify the matrix, restoring Cutie’s body to its fidgety suppleness and its desire to gambol, which, money on it, would take her far, once she had purged Theo the mirage-dealer and his germinating imposter, expelling both from their haven with a single heave-ho. The beauty was determined to give herself a complete makeover for the arrival of King Lear, who shouldn’t have to see that, the parasite in her lair and his seed in her womb. She was going to decontaminate her body, dredge her head, regain her dominion over the attic studio, sweep out the shards of Theo the pulverized god, and, now redeemed, await King Lear in the pose of a frozen idol. For frozen she was. (33-34)

The excess in language is the excess of the characters. They are lavish, even if they are not necessarily wealthy. Longlegs, for instance, is a telemarketer, but simply by not being in Vietnam, she is hyperbolic. Southpaw, who lives off disability, is indulgent about her misery. The older sister, called Potbelly because she is pregnant, yammers on and on about her new kitchen, her new house, her new prince about to be born, even while she’s counting pennies to bring her father to visit. It is a fake excess for all of these characters, which is what makes the language—sometimes annoyingly over-written—all the more provocative.

Black Swan is similarly indulgent. You’re probably all sick of hearing about the film by now, but I just saw it last night, so it’s fresh on my mind. The film is beautiful, an orgy for the eyes, psychologically gripping, but over-written and way too easy at times. One of my chief critiques about the film is the use of mirrors, which is just so fucking easy. I mean, sure, mirrors and ballet. Ballet dancers use mirrors, but come on! Throughout the movie, Natalie Portman looks at herself in the mirror and her reflection does something that she doesn’t do. The film succeeds in showing us her breakdown in a million better ways than the mirrors, but Aronofsky insists on scene after scene with the stupid mirror, which must be one of the oldest props/metaphors out there as a way of showing psychological cracking.

Aronofsky’s Black Swan and Lê’s The Three Fates explicitly take their principle characters from theatre. Ballet is a play, words expressed through movement, but the displacement and distancing of the viewer is the same. In “On Dramatic Style,” Sartre explains the difference between the distancing between characters and audience in the theater as opposed to both novel and film. In the novel, he argues that the reader can identify with a character of her own choosing. Yes, the writer manipulates the reader to be more sympathetic towards one character or another, but ultimately, the choice is the reader’s. Furthermore, the reader experiences what the character does, complicitly. There is a mutual guilt and pleasure. When our hero achieves what she wants, we do too. And our heroine’s fall is our own as well. It is voyeurism to the extreme, where the reader can place herself into the text, character as avatar.

Film, Sartre argues, is different. We see things not through a character’s eye (1st person) or even a 3rd person limited, much less 3rd omniscient. We watch events unfold through a mythical 3rd person camera who is neither character nor narrator. The camera is

an impersonal witness which has come between the spectator and the object seen. I see things as someone who is not me sees them; I am, for instance, a long way from the character, yet I see him close up. There is a sort of detachment here, but—and this is what is ambiguous about it—this eye also often becomes the eye of all of the characters, for instance, the hero’s eye. (8)

Of course, film is a natural medium to us now. The camera is ignored, readily and easily. In fact, if a film is good, the viewer remains engrossed, forgetting about the camera entirely, at least, until the film is over. If we stop and note the beauty of the cinematography, we are already displaced from the “moment” of the film. We’ve removed ourselves.

Finally, theater—where the seeds of both Black Swan and The Three Fates are found. Sartre writes:

In the theater, all this is replaced by an absolute distance. To begin with, I see with my own eyes and I am always at the same level and in the same place, and so there is neither the complicity we have in the novel nor the ambiguous complicity of the film; hence to me a character is always definitely someone else, someone who is not me and into whose skin I cannot slide. (9)

Sartre goes on to describe the experience of watching a play. The viewer can never mistake herself for a character. There is not only a physical distance but also an emotional/psychological one. We never learn what the character is really thinking. If there is a soliloquy, it is still not a direct line into the character’s head. In both film and fiction, part of the complicity is derived from our ability to know what a character thinks. Furthermore, with both fiction and film, our attention is directed towards one thing or another. In theater, we are given a full stage, and if our interest wanes in what is happening center stage, we can wander, freely. On screen, we are limited, though surely, things occur beyond the focal point. In fiction, the reader is even more limited. We have only words and at most, analysis.

Herein is the beauty of both Black Swan and The Three Fates. They take characters who, by virtue of the medium of theater, are distanced and make them penetrable through novel and film. This move makes the reader/viewer more empathetic—because we slide into the character, we mistake ourselves for them, or, at the very minimum, we experience vicariously—but at what expense? Is there not value in the distance of theater? Weren’t these characters created explicitly for theater, with the intention that they should be firmly distanced from the viewer? How does changing the medium change the actual characters? I admit, I’ve lifted plenty of my characters from theater, and I think there’s value in resurrecting—ahem: stealing—characters. These are more questions drafted out of curiosity than judgment.

But back to over-writing. Last night, as I was tossing in bed, I kept thinking about the difference between these two types of “over-writing” (Lê’s excessive language and Aronofsky’s heavy handed/obvious mirrors) and what over-writing even means. What does it mean to be “heavy handed” and when does it function? What makes it non-functional? The Three Fates is an excellent book, one I would recommend to anyone. (I’m working on a “real” review of it now.) Black Swan is a beautiful film. That being said, there’s a residue of something that leaves me uneasy, and this post is just a disorganized beginning to understanding exactly what that residue is and what it can mean.

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  1. jhon Baker

      over writing can serve a purpose if and when done correctly and well. In the book it seems to be a necessary vehicle for the telling of the story – I haven’t seen the film but am really wanting to. Having not read the book nor seen the film it is hard for me to justify the heavy-handedness of language and metaphor in them. I don’t think it needs my justification though, Film needs to appeal to a broader audience that may need a metaphor beat to death in order for the point to be grasped. It is not higher art meant for the choir but art meant for popular consumption and in this case to maybe challenge the senses of the vox popoli to a more elevated understanding of truer mental aberration. The story may find that the over writing is more a comment on the characters preferred outlook in juxtaposition to their reality. I don’t know and will have to indulge in both to have a more informed opinion.

  2. deadgod

      “Function” is a most useful word. ‘What effect does the piece cause?’ – that’s the [cliche alert] rubber meeting the road with art, though it’s nowhere near the only question that leaps on one.

      Richard II is a great, greatly-overwritten character.

      Cormac McCarthy indulges his voice – to me, his overwriting is less successful than his subtler passages/books, but probably most of his (other) fans disagree with this view.

      In what ways is self-indulgence entwined with discipline? Is there such a thing as self-discipline? (If one disciplines oneself, then who has ‘mis’behaved?)

      Do Le and Aronofsky acknowledge that there is such a thing as overwriting/overcinematizing?

      Of course, excess is an irresistible occasion for thinking the thought – if it can be thought – “boundary”.

      What’s up with the horror of saying something ‘obvious’?

  3. Anonymous

      asceticism is self-indulgence, no?

  4. lily hoang

      Deadgod: You’ve raised an interesting question about the relationship between (self-)indulgence and discipline. There’s a huge difference between these as broader philosophical concepts v. concepts specific to writing. Here are my thoughts:

      1. In general, self-discipline can be redundant; however, it is possible to discipline others without applying the same rigours on oneself. This is called hypocrisy, and it is hardly uncommon.

      2. In writing, there is no relationship between indulgence and discipline. Or, at least, I can’t see one. A writer can be very disciplined yet her writing can be very indulgent. Being able to read one’s own writing with a critical eye is unrelated to discipline. To me, discipline has much more to do with structure.

      3. As philosophical concepts, there is an absolute relationship between indulgence and discipline. This is obvious. To indulge is to lack discipline; those with discipline do not indulge. Colloquially, indulgence has taken on an erroneous modifier, that is, that indulgence is a rare occurrence, but in either situation, it is caused by a lack of discipline.

      Now, to address some of your other concerns: Does it matter if Le or Aronofsky acknowledge the existence of over-writing? I don’t think so. Also: there’s no horror in saying obvious things. I say plenty of obvious things. This entire post was “obvious.” I dislike pandering to an audience or assuming that we “won’t get it,” and therefore, the director/writer needs to make obvious allusions so we’ll “understand.” The mirrors were heavy-handed, and, to me, their very existence proved that the film-maker thought the audience was not astute enough to understand the film. Just my thoughts. Feel free – as I’m sure you will – to disagree.

  5. Anonymous


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  7. deadgod

      I don’t get the difference (in understanding the terms “indulgence” and “discipline”) between writing practice and philosophical thought. As I see it, how one mixes indulging and disciplining oneself as a writer is a specific, practical example of general, theoretical consideration about “indulgence” and “discipline”.

      Also, allowance and restriction do seem ‘absolutely’ antonymous, and in the case of a practical boundary for specific action, they probably indicate each other’s limits – that is, where either is exercised, the other is relaxed. But, to me, it’s not a simple opposition, but rather a case where both exist even in the same-but-composite action.

      For example, a writer wants to describe a place lushly. This might mean, ‘more inclusion and description of detail than are needed to communicate the bare actions of the characters; more adjectives, adverbs, and prepositional phrases than the rest of the story’. But even this indulgence of imagination and diction entails matching discipline: excess, but not too much excess.

      Likewise, that writer might want passages of pared description, clipped expression. Again, this seeking to cut everything ‘unnecessary’ out would not extend to cutting anything ‘necessary’ out.

      I think all writing is both indulgent and disciplined, and that what’s needed critically is understanding those terms as having objects: ‘indulgent about; disciplined at‘. That’s what my question about entwinement was a step towards.

      The curiosity about Le and Aronofsky having things they choose not to do (because those gestures would be, to each of them, “excessive”) wasn’t an attempt to discover hypocrisy in either. I’d guess they’d each find something artistically ineffective in its excess; that is, they’d each find something “overwritten”, overdone. ‘I‘m not “melodramatic” – I call X “melodramatic”, and not in a good way.’

      – It’s interesting to me, when someone is ‘accused of’ something, what that person would call the “something” they’ve been accused of. For example, what does Antonioni call “boring”? (Nothing at all? – really??)

      When I referred to the “horror of saying something ‘obvious'”, that wasn’t a shot at your discussion of that movie.

      It was an actual question: what’s the effect of ‘stating the obvious’ being held, generally though not always, in scorn?

      As makers and interpreters of expression – not just ‘creative writing’, but every kind of expression – we’re told that the ‘stating the obvious’ is a particularly ineffective kind of excess: ‘don’t tell, show. don’t repeat yourself unnecessarily. don’t cater to a moronic audience – that’s “Hollywood”. – etc.’

      To me, being obvious is a sometimes-interesting kind of “overwriting”. I’m thinking of Beckett carefully explaining something that could have been quickly stated: ‘I moved the stones around in my pockets so that I’d always grab the one to suck that had been the one I’d not sucked for the longest time.’

      Thanks for inviting me to indulge in overexplaining what I’d meant.

  8. deadgod

      ah fuck

      that overwritten bold-type was an accidental performance

      or malicious html code

  9. Anonymous


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  11. Michael Copperman

      Lily, I appreciated this post. I haven’t seen Black Swan or read The Three Fates, so I’m not qualified to comment, but in the reviews of Black Swan, and in discussion over at Montevideyo, I get the impression that the excesses of the film– the cliched characters and situations, the indulgence in everything, whether visual or a function of plot or an overuse of an obvious device like the mirror– are intentional, both Aronofsky’s aesthetic and a part of the meaning of the film. If you want the overbearing mother and the coach who gets in the young ballerina’s head and the over-the-top performance and the close-ups and the sexscapades and the suffering the gaunt bodies and the so-much-over-the-top of it, and you’re going to go there and occupy that space, then you’re willing too to deploy devices which scream device. I guess, having read your post, that I’ll have to go see the film.

      Excess and being obvious aren’t the same– that is, excess, or indulgence, aren’t necessarily obvious. Is there anything wrong with being obvious? You’re right, dg, there is a grudge against the ‘obvious’ that has become a sort of rule in fiction, especially. If there’s meaning to the obvious– if it’s functional, if it has an effect that works– then it shouldn’t be dismissed, because it’s not in fact ‘obvious.’ Like your Beckett example, for instance.

  12. Sdf


  13. Anonymous


  14. Anonymous

      How can SELF-discipline exist if it is based on adherence to an external system?

  15. NLY

      Some of these thoughts dovetail similarly with my feelings on that rat-in-the-wall of the writing world, ‘show don’t tell’.

  16. NLY

      “wait, dg has just said this, man!”

      “I know that now, but the first time through I decided I didn’t want to read it because the bold was annoying.”

      “so you asked or this?”