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

Posted by @ 12:30 pm on January 7th, 2011

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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