Monday, April 17, 2006

Thoughts on many subjects

The Book as Sacred Container of Knowledge
In preparing to move, I have already filled 10 boxes of books. I estimate 3-5 more boxes.

Many of these books I've already read and have no intention to read again (though as an English professor, I can't know whether I might use something for class, attempt to write an article, or go back to Grad School). Many others I have never read and have no desire or intention to read.

And yet, I cannot bring myself to give away, or sell, or throw away these books. They seem to represent some ideal, some idealization of knowledge, or a spiritual intellectual quest.

The Book Itself and Criticism
Reader-Response Criticism asks us to examine the reading experience itself. To do so does not strictly involve a relationship with the text (or rather, it involves a wider examination of the experience with the text than is typically given).

Is the paper clean and fresh, or is it yellowed and wrinkled? What is the style of the font? What is the size of the font? How many words are on a single page (or how much time passes between page turns)?

These non-text text issues have a bigger impact on our reading experience than we realize. The solemnity, the seriousness, the formality, the humor, the dignity of a text is often based on the font style and size, on the spacing of letters on the page.

I'm O.K., You're Biased, by Daniel Gilbert

I hate when people objectify their artistic biases. Some people essentially transform their subjective tastes on film or literature into objective systems for evaluating film or literature.

One reason I embrace Reader-Response Criticism is because it recognizes that the reader plays a role in understanding a work of literature. By accepting the reader's role, a Reader-Response Critic admits to biases in interpretation. Awareness of these biases leads to useful interpretations. Naively pretending that biases do not exist is not a helpful way to interpret art.

Adaptation: staying true to the spirit, not the letter
One of the most memorable scenes in the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest occurs when McMurphy gets Chief Bromden to play basketball.

This scene doesn't really occur in the book. McMurphy briefly gets the men on the ward to form a basketball team, but it is short-lived and doesn't feature McMurphy doing much with Chief Bromden.

However, this scene stays true to the spirit of the book, and simply makes the development in the novel visual. In the book, Chief Bromden gradually develops sanity, pride, independence, courage, and strength thanks to McMurphy. It is difficult to film the first person narration of Chief Bromden, thus difficult to show this slow development. The film simply includes this scene to make visual and brief the long development of the novel. In two scenes, we see Bromden (and all the men of the ward) grow and change.

Film adaptations must simply find ways to show us things that only the depth of a novel can truly provide. The novel offers an experience no other artform is capable of. Good adaptations (such as Cuckoo's) show this depth effectively; bad adaptations fail.

Gender construction
I spend an inordinate amount of time considering the meaning of gender identity and behavior. I believe that gender is largely socially constructed, but I also believe it would be foolish to ignore scientific knowledge of biology and chemistry. It is extremely difficult to separate social construction of gender from biological differences between men and women. Perhaps it is impossible. I've found Deborah Blum's "The Gender Blur: Where does Biology End and Society Take Over?" an interesting starting point to reflect on these issues.

Old themes are not new
I don't mind that movies like "Down in the Valley" get made, but do we really have to pretend that a film deconstructing the mythology of the Western is something new and edgy? You want to deconstruct the Western, you can start with The Wild Bunch and High Plains Drifter and Blazing Saddles and pretty much every Western made since. Let's not contend that such an effort is something dark and newly necessary.

Furthermore, let's not pretend that what Ed Norton has to say about the film is something new and edgy and dark, either. He says the movie

"is about the lack of a spiritual center, the lack of authenticity, and about a person needing a fantasy to escape the banality of modern existence. It's about a person saying, 'The way we live is so inauthentic, the spirit of things is gone.' It's the desire to escape the constraints of modern pavement."

Are we talking about T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland" here? Or any number of movies made in the last 40 years? Seriously, start picking out movies you've seen that this passage could be describing.

Nothing irks me more than those who act like something derivative and done is something new and creative.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous1:06 PM

    Books really are like a sacred thing, though. i agree with you. It is hard to part with even the suckiest of books. Maybe I feel that way because my mom treated books with such reverence when I was little. I remember seeing other kids' books, with writing in them and pages torn and folded; it was painful to see.

    I am finishing showing Hamlet to my class today, and the one scene that really gets me, is when Hamlet is acting crazy with Polonius (Do you know me, my lord? Excellent well. You are a fishmonger.). In the Zeffirelli adaptation, Hamlet is reading and ripping out pages of the books. The only time I imagine I would ever rip apart books is if I were either mad or acting that way, so I find this scene very effective.