Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Struck Sure

The human mind is naturally geared towards cliches. I think most of us are fundamentally aware of this fact, whether we choose to address it or not. When people (and I'm referring most specifically to amateur authors) write stories (in any format: short, screenplay, or otherwise), they tend to fall into certain established norms. They have a protagonist who, generally, has a moral core to be reckoned with and they've got an antagonist who is a lousy sonofabitch (whether it be "mean man who kidnaps girl" or "the bottle") in comparison to this protagonist.

The protagonist, although a darn nice feller, still has some personal (or impersonal, maybe, if it's an action film or something) issues that he has to overcome before he can effectively face the antagonist, likely over the course of some deeply emotional, probably spiritual journey. He'll brave obstacles along the way that'll challenge him like he's never been challenged before, but he'll meet people who can offer him advice and assistance (or, like, a really cool gun if it's an action movie) so that he can overcome that problem, change permanently for the better, and ultimately defeat his opposition (kick that corrupt, power-hungry millionaire right IN THE FACE!!).

But, ah!, somewhere along the line, someone told the youth of America (and, I dunno, maybe other places where they have pencils and paper too) in their lame creative writing classes, that a positive ending was not the path to real art. Oh my, no! A positive ending defies that which is true of life! Life is pain! Pain, man, PAIN!!! Thusly, it was that the people began to write their stories of woe and verisimilitude. No longer would the boy get the girl. Rather the girl would DIE!!! Gone are the days where the children go on a road trip and learn things about themselves. Instead, they would learn that ONE OF THEM HAS A GUN AND THEY ACCIDENTALLY SHOOT EACH OTHER!!! It is not kosher these days for an action hero to blow up the corrupt foreign government after riding a motorcycle into it. No no, these days the action hero SUCCUMBS TO ALCOHOLISM!!!

The thing the children don't seem to be noticing is that, what's this?!, their stories still exist entirely within the realm of cliche. I've become so used to them that I no longer hold out hope for the puppy to make his way home, but expect, instead, that the dog pound will get a hold of him and his final days will rival the likes of the worst illegally filmed PETA footage you've ever seen!

You certainly cannot blame people too much. It's difficult to exist outside of cliches. Indeed, they're just an overblown version of structure and structure feels nice! In a way, this very blog conforms to a cliche. Sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, grammar, and spelling are soooo overused, are they not?! What a boring, standard formula! There's nothing mind-blowing, nothing convention-shattering (although this is a fragment...um, I think).

There are, of course, people who attempt to defy this structure. Julio Cortazar has that crazy-ass novel, Hopscotch, which is open-ended and invites the reader to trek through it in essentially any order they see fit, some of the chapters being deemed "optional." Hubert Selby Jr.'s messed-up works tend to be written in a breakneck, nearly stream of consciousness-like fashion, with a "/" taking the place of most apostrophes (e.g., I/ll). Most obviously would probably be E.E. Cummings, who threw convention to the wind and wrote all kinds of poetry with punctuation all out of order, odd spacing, and confusing syntax.

BUT!!! One should note (and people have) that is it not the case when you strive so vehemently for lack of structure, that that lack of structure inevitably becomes a form of structure itself? (I/m quite used, at this point, to Selby/s nonsense, for example!) Should you not bounce back and forth between jumblingsofwords AND OdD capiTILIZAtion with strange!! punctuation? \selections/ before returning to wholly refined prose, in order to keep your reader on their toes?! HMM!? WELL??!? HUH?!?!? Still, are you not, in fact, dealing in standardized practices in your choosing to use words from whatever language it is you write in? Should your non-conformist work perhaps not then look just like Hadhaisdhaond? BLGHO%AON: Gsaofkomn oafmoamsf sgiond gsidogn [fd[sgm!?/420

But, again, same issue! This gibberish becomes another form of structure, and eventually you would have to find some way to go against that structure and, should you do this at fairly frequent intervals, people will get used to that formula! Then you'll have to come up with some other crap! JEEZ! This is, of course, assuming anyone is going to plod through your gobbledy-gook, which, let's face it, they aren't. It doesn't matter if the letter jumblings make assloads of sense to you. To everyone else it will look like a waste of their time. This is getting to my point! Yes, there is one in here somewhere, I think!

STRUCTURE IS GOOD.

I've always either hated or at least acknowledged that I do not "get" art or poetry. I've only recently come to grips (oh, the denial I faced!) with the fact that this is because I am, simply, a slave to structure. Yes, I understand that poetry can and very often does have a specific formula to it. Still, I only went back to the basic rules of literary construction earlier to illustrate what a useful thing structure is. What I'm truly concerned with is the matter I was addressing when I began this diatribe, that is, the cliche.

I have a problem with the fact that, fundamentally, a poem has no obligation to tell a story. Yes, some works of fiction pull the same nonsense (and some poems apparently tell a story) and I will say I probably won't care for those either. I don't mind my conventions being jostled, really. I think John Barth's Lost in the Funhouse is one of the coolest short stories I've ever read and, I'll be honest, it made next to no sense to me before a professor explained it. Also, two of my favorite films are Jacob's Ladder and The Conversation and those sons of bitches are all kinds of nutty.

Art, I would say, makes even less sense to me. Poetry is confined by language (not that it has to be, but I don't think there are many famous poets who made up their own dialect, but please enlighten me if I'm wrong) whereas art is not really confined by much of anything. Yes, I'm aware there are various artistic movements that supposedly allow for the categorization of a bunch of different artists and I'm also aware that art can, evidently, be taught, thereby implying that there must be conventions to it. Still, I can't really imagine another field in which Jackson Pollock could've gone so far off the beaten path of standard procedure.

The man drizzled paint over the top of canvas. Yes, it was very different and, what can I say, that's about as far as I can personally go in respecting it. He did something strange and new, but I look at most of his work and I can't find the rhyme or reason. I can't find a starting point and end point. I can't find anything that indicates that he did anything beyond flinging around a bunch of paint at random. Sure, the criss-crossing multi-colored drizzle patterns might kind of end up being pretty anyway, but I see no purpose. I know some people do (and some people claim to but probably don't), but I can't and I imagine I never will. Pollock is one of the more extreme examples of non-structured art, but it all boils back to the same thing for me and most art. The rules are so undefined that I see no rules to break, rendering the whole endeavor nigh-pointless.

My basic requirement in any form of expression is that I be taken somewhere. Silly as this sounds, I don't mind if there's even just the tiniest little smidgen of something repeated throughout a work, just to remind me that there's an underlying cohesion there. Yes, I believe I'm admitting that I'd like the author to put in something that at least attempts to feign a narrative in there, even if, overall, they themselves do not believe it.

I read all of Naked Lunch. I had a job as a CVS parking lot attendant. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go so I read all of Naked Lunch. If there's a narrative there, I have no clue what the hell it is, but a fair number of people claim this is a respectable work of literature. Supposedly, a great deal of this work was written on all kinds of drugs or, at the very least, coming down from these drugs, which sort of raises questions in my mind, in regards to how vaild a work is if it's almost entirely drug-fueled. Is the person talented or just fucked up? But that's something else altogether. Bottom line, I actually somehow didn't hate Naked Lunch. However, I didn't know what was going on (if anything) at nearly any point and, without any sort of clear narrative (and I know some people claim there is one) to anchor me, the whole thing left my head entirely shortly after my finishing it. Literally the only thing I can recall from the book is the one occasion that I noticed the repetition of a phrase.

It happens twice in the book. In both cases a character ducks into (I believe both times) a garbage can and then utters the phrase to someone else, "Get away or I shoot you. I got myself hid good." I remembered this, for one, because it was funny to me but this also goes back to what I was saying earlier: even the illusion of some kind of continuing storyline is what sticks out most in my mind.

Music, like literature and film, is governed by rules. There's a reason people repeat the same chord structures and time signatures again and again. They sound nice. They work. They've proven themselves to do so over and over throughout history. I feel the same way about my music that I do about my films and books. I need some structure. I need a reason to believe that someone tried to actually create something with some cohesion and some purpose. Still, I don't listen to, for example, The Beatles very much. I'm aware they're very good and they are responsible for tons of music as we know it today, and also realize that when I listen to a Beatles song, it's unlikely that I'm going to dislike it because it's fundamentally good stuff. Regardless, it's very, very simple. When it came out it was amazing, I'm sure, but now it's like the very first building block of a massive, complex construction. What I look for is situations in which the keystones are jostled from their moorings. To that end, however, there's a point where I believe it crosses the line from creative to just plain lazy.

I hate John Cage. I don't understand John Cage and I hate him. This man made "music" with no form, structure, or point to it. I watched a little documentary about him and at one point he literally stood there scratching a cactus over the head of a microphone. Scratch, scratch, scratch! This was a song. AWESOME. In this case, there's still the issue of whether his lack of structure is, in itself, another form of structure, especially when it's so damned gimmicky. Another example, he collaborated with some flamboyant dancing guy. The mission statement of these two folks together was that they did not believe the music and the dancing necessarily had to coincide with each another. In other words, John Cage made some formless noise while this other guy jumped and pranced and twisted around on a stage without any regard for what Johnny's current soundfarts were sounding like (not that anybody could really dance in time to them). I'm sorry, but why are you even calling this a collaboration? You essentially admitted to the fact that you are doing TWO DIFFERENT THINGS. This doesn't sound like art to me. It sounds like laziness.

I hate the sound of John Cage's "music" but I respect the fact that he did his very best to entirely defy convention, which I've already discussed as being an exceedingly difficult endeavor to strive toward. I acknowledge the fact that some of the music I appreciate might not even exist were it not for John Cage's influence. Much like most art, I just don't see (hear) it, but I'm sure it has its place.

If you get it, well, bravo you. Although this doesn't really have a necessary place within my long, long point (CHINK IN THE WALL!), I feel like saying that what I do hate is when people will fawn over something they don't understand, just because they believe they should. This issue has never, ever been addressed in anything ever before like, say, a story with a naked emperor and a bunch of dimwitted subjects, but, for example, in this John Cage documentary, there was footage of a concert in which an Asian woman sat down at a piano to play a John Cage piece, supposedly one that is dedicated to victims of the Holocaust (but I bet most of them would think it sucked). That Cagey (HA) bastard had placed screws of some kind inbetween the strings inside the piano to make it give off this irrating vibrating effect. The piece itself consisted of the woman slamming her hands and elbows down on the keys (supposedly in a specific order) and making an awful cacophany (I suppose it's a decent musical representation of the horribleness of the Holocaust, but it's still not going on my playlist). There was a whole audience of people dressed to the nines, sitting attentively, listening to this. They all clapped at the end, but I have to wonder if anybody, after the show, was willing to admit, "Well, that was a waste of an evening."

Going back to unstructuredness being a form of structure itself, I have a friend who listens to almost nothing but music with no apparent time or form to it. The fact that he's able to find multiple bands doing the same basic thing strikes me as almost as boring as listening to manufactured pop on the radio. How exactly can you be unique in your lack of a construct, if there's no form to refer back to? Noise, I believe, is noise is noise is noise.

It's the same problem with experimental film. A couple of weirdos made some borderline nonsensical pieces and then a bunch of less talented weirdos tried to copy it, not even noticing, apparently, that making an effort to replicate a lack of structure is, in that very act, imposing a structure upon the whole genre. Incidentally, the people who tried it out first (Dziga Vertov's The Man with the Movie Camera rocks the house), pulled it off much better than those who produced an attempt at an emulation.

The bottom line here is that structure is there for a reason. The human race has been around for a good long while and we've come to accept that a number of things just work. It's important not to fall into such a specific formula that you end up going over the same paces as a gazillion people before you. On the other hand, although an attempt at an utter lack of structure strikes me as almost pointless, I'm glad that there are people out there giving it a go anyway. You probably won't have the biggest fan base (I certainly won't be a part of it), but maybe someone will enjoy it, take note of your ideals, and apply an aspect of it to something the rest of us can stomach.

It's a very fine line to walk. One thing to note is that, for all his battles with the conventions of the English language, E.E. Cummings often adhered to sonnet structures and rhyme schemes. Clearly, he was aware of the balance: lessening the conformation on one side requires further dedication to formality on the other.

The notion of "thinking outside the box" is an absurd one (and, indeed, the people who usually use such a phrase don't truly mean it and would much rather you be a "team player") as, in the first place, usage of the term is a CLICHE, and, secondly, the phrase itself acknowledges the existence of the box. How can you be entirely outside the box if you're always aware of your attempt to distance yourself from it? Well, you can't!

Thus I submit to you, don't think outside the box. Keep the box, but, instead, just beat the hell out of the thing. Smash it, tear it, set it on fire, make it stretch for all its worth. In the end, it might be the same box, but it'll be changed enough to keep us interested.

Now, get away or I shoot you. I got myself hid good.

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