Monday, February 4, 2013

"Alert The Media - I May Have Changed My Mind About Something"

It happened while I was writing the last blog post.  It came as a complete shock to me, a “put-down-my-pen” moment, accompanied by an abrupt intake of breath.  My reaction to my change of thinking surprised me, as I like to consider myself an open-minded person. 

But who doesn’t?

“I am a closed-minded person, and proud of it.”

You do not hear a lot of claims of that nature.  Everyone likes to think they’re open-minded.  Even bigots.  They may not say this out loud, but inside, they’re thinking,

“I have thoroughly thought this through and I have determined that hating people who are different from me is the right and reasonable thing to do.  If those people – and you know who I’m talking about – are not worse, how can I possibly be better, which I know for an absolute certainty that I am?  That’s not closed-mindedness.  It’s just simple logic.”

The evidence of my own open-mindedness is that people on both sides of the ideological spectrum do not care for my opinions, rolling their eyes in a notably similar fashion when I assert them.  I question people’s views, both Left and Right, and the reward for my independence of thought is very few friends and an unshakable belief that nobody thinks for themself around here, except me. 

The thing is, open-minded people should not be startled when they change their minds about something.  I was.  Suggesting that my innate open-mindedness may be the first belief I shall have to reexamine.

An alternate explanation is that this illumination may have simply caught me off-guard, my reaction reflecting more the unexpectedness of its arrival than the fact that I almost never change my mind about anything.  Yeah, that’s what it was.  I am almost certain of it.

Here’s how it went down.

I was writing about – making a case for – the narrative –call it the “classic” – form of storytelling, in contrast to a free-form collage which, though it feels more like everyday life, sacrifices the emotional engagement and climactic wallop only a “well-told story” can reliably deliver.

The knock against this long-practiced approach to filmmaking is that the result feels too much like a movie, and that the audience – the younger audience in particular – is on to this “formulaic” arrangement and it bores the heck out of ‘em, and therefore, to get them to show up, you have to tell stories in a decidedly loosy-goosier manner. 

In my post, I equated the classic version of storytelling with the composition of music.  To hit home, I asserted, the notes in any composition have to arrive in the right order, and just the right amount of them.  (A writer once complained to me, “I often hear you say when someone pitches a joke, ‘Too many words.’  What exactly do you mean by ‘Too many words?’”  My immediate response was to sing the opening to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but adding a note, so it went, “Bah-bah-bah-bah-baaaaaaah.”)

When it’s right, meaning in sync with natural expectations or at least deeply-rooted conditioning, it feels right.  And when it’s wrong, it doesn’t.

And that’s when it came to me.  A blind-siding illumination.  Accompanied by a mind-altering click and a purifying light.  Not literally, but close.

Something had unequivocally changed in my thinking arrangement.  Something about writing, so, though no big thing to the world in general, it rocked my personal writer’s world like a medium-plus-sized earthquake, the kind where you stand in the doorway and wait till it’s over.     

Let me explain.

There’s this highly readable film critic who writes for the New Yorker named Anthony Lane.  I often think that his entertaining style of writing is essential, to make up for the lack of anything resembling “entertaining” in the movies he writes about.  There’s a relieving satisfaction in, “At least there’s an enjoyable reviewer writing about these terrible movies.”

But one thing Lane said – and he has written this more than once – annoyed me to my core.  His view was that it was unfair to judge a movie negatively because the story it is telling is not an original story; the film should instead be evaluated by the skill in which that traditional story is currently being presented. 

It seemed like Mr. Lane was letting such movies too easily off the hook, for telling, with perhaps interesting embellishments, a story we have seen dozens of times before.  The same house, with a stylistic makeover.  

To me, this is not writing; it’s Interior Decoration.  (My sense was that, as a contemporary movie critic, Mr. Lane had seen so many movies that were entirely derivative that he had dropped “originality” from his evaluative checklist, and was now marking on “style points” alone.)      

Then, in my “Moment of Illumination”, the pieces moved around in my head, and, as the above title reads, I may actually have changed my mind about this.

It suddenly occurred to me that the – call it the “western” – musical scale includes twelve notes – seven white notes, and five black notes.  All works of music, from country songs to concertos, emanate from those twelve notes. 

Twelve notes – that’s all there are.  “Music” is the composer’s idea of the most appealing configuration of those notes.

Do I criticize a composer for writing a tune, using the same twelve notes they’ve been working with for centuries?  Do I expect them to come up with “original notes”?  Those are rhetorical questions, by the way.  But if you’re scoring at home, the answers to both of them would be “No.”

Ipso and its pal facto

If I have no problem with musicians composing new songs using the same twelve notes, why then do I rail against a screenwriter for penning yet another romantic comedy where they fight but, in the end, they’re together? 

Perhaps, as Mr. Lane asserts, the right and fair approach is to critique a movie not on the basis of the originality of its storyline – as there are a finite number of those as there are notes in the scale – but on how effectively the current incarnation that iconic storyline has been assembled this time.  (If this is truly the case, I owe a series of apologies to Nancy Meyers.)  

It was interesting experiencing the arrival of a new and mind-altering understanding.  It’s like changing the sheets.  I have a new idea – fresh and clean and crisp and cool. 

Hello, New Idea. 

Welcome to my mind. 

Just don’t get too comfortable in there.  I see a few more bad movies and, twelve notes or no, I am changing my mind right back.
Today is my 68th birthday.  I am keeping it low profile in case the Machinery of Death gets wind of it.


Annie Kaye said...

Happy Day, Earl.

Kathleen said...

Happy Birthday, Earl. I'm a middle aged fledgling comedy writer who enjoys and appreciates that gifted people like you and Ken Levine share your stories and insights. So to that birthday greeting I add, "Thanks!"

Stef said...

Happy Birthday, Earl.
May your life be blessed.

sk85 said...

First Happy birthday.

I had a very similar thought a few months ago. I am currently in college studying film. I had a to write short film script in about a week. I was criticizing myself because the story wasn't very original and the ending didn't blow me away with a new insight into life.

Then I thought well every story has been done before the key is executing the story well. I looked at my script and realized that the execution was pretty good especially for the second thing that I have ever written for screen.

As you said the key is how well the story is told not how original the idea his.

By the way here is the final cut of the movie. As background it was written on a Sunday and shot the next Saturday.

Any thoughts from Earl or the other would be appreciated.

GRayR said...

Happy Birthday Mr. Pomerantz,
I have always thought that only the finest of minds could accept change, allow themselves to be changed.
Blog on