Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Setimental Journey

John McFetridge

I’m a sentimental guy. I’m not ashamed to admit it.

In fiction I think sentiment, like a laugh, has to be earned. You have to feel it.

Years ago George Lucas said it was easy to make a movie audience cry; show them a puppy, then kill the puppy.

But as you move away from killing puppies sentiment gets a lot tougher, as George certainly knows.

Last week there was an article in the National Post newspaper in Canada by Robert Fulford about this kind of thing. He was complaining that Up in the Air is getting too much praise (I haven’t seen the movie).

Fulford said that Up in the Air was a “concensus movie” like Terms of Endearment, Dances With Wolves and Titanic and that these kinds of movies, “stand as monuments to the cinema of reassurance, glib and complacent, so heart-warming that they choke off every possibility of authentic feeling... that has always been a major source of Hollywood success.”

Fulford also mentions the book, Up in the Air, by Walter Kirn and points out the different professions of the main character in the book and the movie. In the book he’s a business coach doing “Brand Reconstruction,” trying to rescue a chain of Mexican restaurants that’s been wrecked by an E. Coli outbreak in its spiced meat, but that’s too pro-business for Hollywood. The giant multi-nationals that make Hollywood movies only ever make anti-business movies (glib, complacent, reassuring, heart-warming anti-business movies) .

But Fulford offers one line from the book that made me go online and buy it. The female lead is described in the book as having reached the age, “when working women first taste success and realize they’ve been conned.”

That line rings true to me and the people I know and it’s an uncomfortable truth, not reassuring or heart-warming at all.

The opposite of what Fulford says Up in the Air the movie does: “The movie congratulates all of us on the superior emotional wisdom we presumably brought to the theatre, then sends us home thinking exactly what we thought when we arrived.”
When I was younger people talked about writing as something that would, “make people think,” and I don’t think they meant, “make people think what they already thought was right,” but that does seem to be most writing. Well, it’s hard to write anything, let alone anything that might be uncomfortable.

These days every kind of superior emotional wisdom is being reassured from the most cynical to the most pollyanna. You think people are greedy and selfish beyond all repair and the human race is doomed? There’s a whole section over here. You think you’re different from everyone else, if only they’d see that? We got ‘em right here. It’s all the terrorists fault, here you go, no wait, it’s because the west destroyed their lives – whatever you want, we got it.

I’m old enough to remember when All in the Family first aired and people freaked out – often because they really did have some Archie Bunker in them. Or maybe because they had a little more Meathead in them and it suddenly looked silly (looking back on it now I can see where Meathead had more in common with Archie than he wanted to admit and I’m not surprised at the current state of my boomer generation).

Bob Dylan has been mentioned on this blog a few times and there’s another guy who wrote some uncomfortable truths, some lines that weren’t very reassuring and didn’t congratulate us on our superior emotional wisdom. In the middle of the peace and love and everyone is beautiful era people were singing along with the words, “You got a lotta nerve/To say you got a helping hand to lend/You just want to be on/The side that's winning,” and “When you know as well as me/You'd rather see me paralyzed.”

Wow, paralyzed. Not, “never see me again,” no, “see me paralyzed.”

So, maybe this is why I’ve always been drawn to the pulps and the stuff on the margins, the stuff not trying to be “concensus.” I like the stories that show me characters and doesn’t try to manipulate me into liking them too much, stories that earn the sentimentality.

A good example of what I mean are the stories in the Wal-Mart I Love You flash fiction challenge. Those stories were filled with sentiment and were heartfelt but they didn’t go for easy morals, no “puppy killing.” When the challenge was first announced with the website The People of Wal-Mart as an inspiration I probably wasn’t alone worrying that the tsories would be making fun of the weirdos in those pictures.

I shouldn’t have been worried. If there’s one genre in the writing world these days that earns its sentiment it’s crime fiction.

On the other hand, I do worry about the future of books sometimes. As usual, The Onion nails it:

Adults Go Wild Over Latest In Children's Picture Book Series


Anonymous said...

Fantastic! I just saw the movie Avatar and hated it for the very reasons you mentioned. Thank you for putting it into words so well!

Steve Weddle said...

Exactly. Folks want comfort, reassurance.

I wonder whether that's the same defectiveness, er, character trait that makes folks want to read 42 books in a series? They know what they're getting and they have their beliefs reinforced.

You're absolutely right that people like to be told they're right. Um, yeah. I know. But still.

Chris said...

Good post. As someone who saw Up in the Air and loved it, I think the reviewer you cite is missing a lot of gray area in the film. There are certainly multiple angles one can come away with from the picture as regards the main character, so it isn't necessarily anything being spoon fed. That just underlines your point about there being "something for everyone." How I react with my own sensibilities and politics will be different than the opposite person.

Dana King said...

I saw UP IN THE AIR over the holidays, and the critic nailed it. Most of the movie was entertaining, and had some good, and different, takes on a few things. Then the ending copped out. Big let down.

The most telling thing about the Onion video is bringing the CEO of the publishing company on as the guest instead of the author. There's no doubt in my mind publishing executives --not editors, mind you--would like nothing better than a staff to churn out pre-packaged "product" that has already been market tested.

John McFetridge said...

Dana, that blog Sandra Ruttan linked to on Crimespace, Mysterious Matters, said that there was more commissioning going on.

I see it as a bit of the TV model moving into publishing. Maybe soon we'll see book "producers" pitch a series the way TV shows get pitched (probably with some website tie-in). Maybe one book will come out like a pilot and if it does well a series will be commissioned and the book producer will hire a few writers to outline and write the whole series.

I don't know if this is something that will start out on the fringes like old pulps or in the soft middle of the mainstream - which one would be more risky? Hard to say.

Anonymous said...

John, that kind of series packaging has already been going on for many years, at least in the low-end of sf publishing. It develops, of course, out of the early pulps with Doc Savage, The Shadow, etc. When I was last working as a shelf monkey there was never enough space for all the Star Wars/Star Trek/Warhammer/Elfquest/Doctor Who/insertshittyconcepthere "novels" that came in in monthly allotments. All of these were farmed out to multiple typists .

pattinase (abbott) said...

Why do so many movies end badly? For just your reasons. I loved AN EDUCATION until the end. Why couldn't it end on the ambiguous note of her teacher saying, "I will tell you what to do." Instead we get a montage of her life ahead. I love ambiguity but know that many of the people I see movies with, don't.

John McFetridge said...

Patti, here's another take on Up in the Air. I'd be interested to hear what you think of it.

Mike Dennis said...

What a great post, John!! Yes, let's challenge the readers. Give them endings that don't quite dovetail with their current emotional wisdom. And crime fiction is the genre to do just that. That's an excellent way of putting it.

The endings to my novels and short stories are often messy and inconclusive, but hey, that's life, you know? It doesn't always end up with a pink ribbon around it, ready to be trimmed down a nice, neat two-hour movie. I refuse to see UP IN THE AIR, precisely because of Hollywood's anti-business, feelgood urges which they are totally unable to control. I'm quite sure it will win Best Picture, though.

In the meantime, we have to slog along, trying to stay true to ourselves.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Here is what I came up with after a long think (and my husband's long think). The end doesn't work. If she has any feeling for her family, if she doesn't want more than a fling, why spend several days with his family pretending to be a caring person. That's sociopathic. It is meant to lure him into a more committed relationship. Now, I didn't think of this as I watched it. But now it seems clear. Definitely flawed ending unless we are meant to consider her thusly.