the style versus content smackdown - part 4

It’s becoming clear by now that, to a large extent, Emerson and Gelderblom are trying to set fire to straw men. But to sum up they key issues undermining their case for equating content with style:

Literalism vs symbolism: the thing about symbols is that the condition of their possibility is simultaneously the condition of their impossibility. For something to serve as a symbol, it has to be, in some way, totally detached from the thing it symbolizes; it wouldn’t be a symbol otherwise, if it is even possible to conceive of a fixed, necessary symbol. The absence of meaning, nothingness, is thus always a possibility, which leaves open the possibility of new meanings, new symbols, etc, but can also remain without meaning. Gelderblom suggests that people who see style in substance are more liable to “hit” upon overlooked levels of meaning, but the mistake is that the meaning is not something to be hit upon (remember that quote by Jameson?). Meaning is something that is created and created anew. As such, meaning isn’t some static that can be overlooked, but a dynamic process that is ever-changing.

The Missing Links: It’s not simply that “style” and “content” are different words, but that in ordinary, everyday language we make a distinction between the two all the time. In an informal poll among people I know, no one agreed that style and content are the same. By itself, this doesn’t necessarily prove much except that if we don’t equivocate style and content in everyday terms, why should do so in formal film criticism? Gelderblom’s complaint – that arguing that style comes at the cost of substance assumes that style “by itself is incapable of prompting any thought” – actually misses the point, just as it misses a key concept: information. Of course style is by itself capable of prompting thought. It is even capable of serving a communicative function, as is content. In other words, just as content is informative, so is style. However, the information in style and the information in content are not necessarily identical. To use an example. I could say, “It’s raining today.” (Content) But tone of voice (style) can influence how the fact that it’s raining today is interpreted; it can even question the truth of that “fact.” Hence, “It’s raining today?” Or “It’s raining today!”

So with all due respect to Godard’s sensible definition, perhaps we need to view style not as a property of content, but as vessel for content. In other words, style is the medium of content. This brings me to another key concept lacking in Gelderblom and Emerson’s discussions on style: dialectic. Without implying that style and content are opposed to one another, we could informally say that they’re the thesis and antithesis that come together in synthesis to make a film. When it’s a good synthesis, we have a good film (irrespective of whether the filmmaker starts with style or content). When it’s not, we have a bad film. If there is no distinction between style and content, then the basis for saying that is inferior to rests on shaky foundations. After all, perhaps dismissing Lara Croft: Tomb Raider arises out of a failure to appreciate what the film’s formal qualities are telling. It’s ironic that the very thing Gelderblom argues for ultimatly has the effect he believes arises out of distinguishing between style and substance.

To illustrate, consider a great scene from No Country for Old Men (minor spoilers!). Llewelyn Moss (Brolin) sits in his hotel room, tensely waiting to find out what Chigurgh (Bardem) will do. He calls down to the reception, but without the camera leaving Moss’ face and telephone-holding hand, we can hear the phone ring endlessly in the lobby. We then get a shot of the cat licking spilled milk. The implication, of course, is clear: Chigurgh killed the desk clerk.

What makes the scene so wonderful is how the Coen Brothers set up the scene in terms of shots and the like as well as the choices they make in what to reveal and what to conceal. There is palpable tension and terror. Yet they could just as easily have shown Chigurgh walking into the hotel and killing the desk clerk. The overall information we learn – that Chigurgh killed the desk clerk and has no compulsion about killing anyone who might be in his way – remains the same regardless of how that information is conveyed. It just so happens that the Coens chose – masterfully – to be sly rather than explicit. The moral of the story, then, is however much style and content work as a seamless, unified whole when we experience a film, analytic distinctions between the two are unavoidable and perhaps even desirable when trying to figure out what makes a movie tick.

For the most dramatic example of how and content are distinguished, we actually have to look no further than the fact that there some questions that references to a film’s formal qualities won’t answer. Example:

Did the character perform action X with a motive that is both believable and consistent with other character information provided by the film?

Does it make sense for event C to occur given events A and B?

Are the characters well-developed or merely stereotypes?

And so on. In this vein, we come full circle to what launched this series of posts. To question the ethics of what and how a film represents a particular subject, to discuss cultural context as Jonathan Rosenbaum did; all these and more are perfectly legitimate questions, as is respecting a film for its formal qualities but rejecting the quality of its meaning/information (or vice versa). A film isn’t merely collection of isolated scenes; it is a gestalt of cinematic elements. In my view, No Country for Old Men is an example of the former. It has outstanding performances and some truly excellent scenes, but doesn’t gel as a gestalt. Even if I thought otherwise, I’d still think Emerson is off-base with his film theory and critique of Rosenbaum.



the style versus content smackdown - part 3

I’ll leave Emerson aside for a moment and bring in Gelderblom, who is mighty irritated with critics who offer “platitudes” like “The film’s technical bravura can’t make up for its sluggish plot” and “If you like gee-whiz visual pyrotechnics above a decent story, this one’s for you.”

Part of Gelderblom’s irritation stems from how the accusation of style over substance is lobbed in a cavalier fashion against both “eye-popping Hollywood extravaganzas like The Mummy Returns, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, Bad Boys II, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Catwoman”and “offbeat fare like Lola Rennt, The Limey, Fight Club, In The Mood For Love, Elephant and Oldboy.” It’s interesting in-and-of-itself that Gelderblom recognizes categories of film quality, a recognition that clearly puts offbeat fare on a higher pedestal than Hollywood extravaganzas. He seems to be saying that it’s okay to indulge the style over substance argument for mainstream Hollywood films, but how dare critics use that same argument against this clearly superior offbeat stuff? According to Gelderblom, using the same argument against both “types” of film is to put directors like Steven Soderbergh and Michael Bay on the same even playing field – that’s begging the question, of course, from a critical standpoint. And a good example of the snootiness that mars this crusade against so-called lazy critics.

But to go on. Gelderblom is particularly displeased by the notion of style over substance – Emerson’s separation of style from the work itself: "…to claim that a medium’s formalist qualities are only skin-deep…is to confuse aesthetics with cosmetics and to ridicule the meaning of form altogether.” Again, this seems to be a rather unfair characterization of contemporary film criticism, in that even the platitudes Gelderblom bandies are about a particular film’s failure to have substantial formalist qualities. In other words, to say that film is emphasizing style over substance is to say that the director of a particular film has not made good use of film’s formalist qualities. This is a very different thing from saying that the formal qualities of film as a medium are skin-deep by definition, which I doubt any critic really believes.

And still critics choose to splice the unity of style and content over and over again. A real pity, because Godard’s formulation carries style beyond the mere serviceable and offers a way of acknowledging form as the outward manifestation of content. This criterion - style as the shape of substance - may sound pretentious, but those who examine films accordingly are likely to hit upon levels of meaning overlooked by others.

Gelderblom goes on to posit two more degrees of style-driven cinema: style as substance (“movies are, quite literally, about their style”) and substance in style (using “form to evoke and flesh out an inherent message”). He prefers these degrees to style over substance because “The word “over” suggests that style prevails at the cost of substance--as if style by itself is incapable of prompting any thought.”

Of course, I have a problem with that…I’ll get to it in my next post. (I’m deliberately keeping these posts short.)

Stay tuned...


the style versus content smackdown - part 2

Emerson’s beef with film critics hinges on a literalism whose result is that

film criticism itself is automatically made superfluous. A bullet is a bullet, a killer is a killer, a zombie is a zombie, a gangster movie is about gangsterism, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, and don't even ask about the cigar. Lift and separate "content" from the movie and, once you've removed the context, what more needs to be said? In Keith Uhlich's eloquent words, such an approach exemplifies "the dubious product of American literalism, of an inability to grapple with a film's numerous layers of experience, falling back on easy prejudices and dichotomies as a way of stopping discussion and disagreement cold.

Ignoring the irony of Uhlich’s statement on stopping discussion and disagreement cold, which is the logical conclusion of Emerson’s restrictions on what constitutes valid film criticism, the argument is that there’s more to a film than what you see. That is, a film has a symbolic quality. His quoting of Richard T. Jameson sums up his position quite well:

"Content" is not content; "the meaning" is not a concrete certitude cunningly buried so that one may have the pleasure of a civilized, mental version of hide-and-seek, strip-mining through "the story" to get to "the themes." "The meaning" is only one more piece of material, as deformable by the operation of the artistic sensibility as the sea is by the pull of the moon's gravity. Content is what happens from moment to moment, and then in the suspended moment that is one's life within the aesthetic life-system the artist has created. And content is at the beck of style.

Emerson (through Jameson) is entirely correct about the nature of a film’s meaning, in that “meaning” is not built into a movie. It is not an objective, intrinsic property, but a fluid, subjective, malleable quality. But what does it mean to say that content is at the beck of style?

In agreeing with a commenter, Peet Gelderblom, whose essay The Shape of Substance I’ll get to in my next post, Emerson says:

That's a simple concept (an obvious one, I'd think) but many persist in seeing "syle" as a kind of mortar that can be slathered on with a trowel in between "bricks" of "content." To pretend you can separate the style from a work of art is like pretending you can separate an apple into its color, its shape, its texture, its smell and its taste, and line those things up for examination, side by side. It's metaphysically absurd, man.

I think Emerson is being quite unfair to critics by assuming that because they discuss one aspect of the film over another, they are metaphysically separating style from a work of art. More importantly, though, I think he’s wrong to assert that style can’t be separated from other aspects of a film – at least from an analytical standpoint. I’m not quite sure what he’s getting at with the apple, in that comparing a taste with a colour doesn’t make that much sense. But you can certainly compare the colour of an apple with the colour of an orange and achieve a meaningful comparison without having to consider texture or taste.

Emerson’s point, ultimately, is that “style over substance” arguments fundamentally neglect the essence of film as art, a point developed by Gelderblom in the aforementioned essay.

Stay tuned…


the style versus content smackdown - part 1

It’s well established my now that critics who DON’T fall to their knees and worship the new Coen Brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, are in the minority. (This minority includes me, and you can read my review here.) Naturally, this leads to some rather feisty discussions…and, I think, unintentional snobbery on the part of the film’s defenders. Jim Emerson (editor of rogerebert.com and a film blogger) in particular, seems to have taken issue with Jonathan Rosenbaum’s critical view of the film in the Chicago Reader.

I’m not going to dissect the discussion around Rosenbaum’s critique per se, except to point out that Emerson and Rosenbaum engage in rather different kinds of film criticism. Rosenbaum addresses the cultural significance of the film. He specifically wonders how films like No Country for Old Men offer us a “convenient cop-out” where “we can allow dog collars to be used even while we hypocritically shake our heads at the sadness of it all.” In response, Emerson quibbles that Rosenbaum misunderstands, among other things, the movie’s genre – it’s not a psycho killer movie, as Rosenbaum believes, but “a noirish crime thriller and a western and a detective story.” (Personally, I’d agree it’s a nourish crime thriller, but if it’s a western detective story, then it’s not a very good one based on standards of either genre.) More importantly, the foundation of Emerson’s film criticism specifically engages the film’s craft, although I suspect Emerson would dislike referring to his discussion of the film in that way. In other words, Emerson is focused on how the film functions as a film whereas Rosenbaum muses about what the film means in the context of today’s culture.

It’s worth quoting Emerson, who in turn quotes from something he wrote after seeing the film at the Toronto Film Festival, to get an idea of what drives Emerson’s critique:

"No Country for Old Men" is one of those movies I think provides a critical litmus test. You can quibble about it all you like, but if you don't get the artistry at work then, I submit, you don't get what movies are. Critics can disapprove of the unsettling shifts in tone in the Coens' work, or their presumed attitude toward the characters, or their use of violence and humor -- but those complaints are petty and irrelevant in the context of the movies themselves: the way, for example, an ominous black shadow creeps across a field toward the observer ("No Country" has a credit for "Weather Wrangler"); or a phone call from a hotel room that you can hear ringing in the earpiece and at the front desk, where you're pretty sure something bad has happened but you don't need to see it; or the offhand reveal of one major character's fate from the POV of another just entering the scene; or... I could go on and on. To ignore such things in order to focus on something else says more about the critic's values than it does about the movies. It's like complaining that Bresson's actors don't emote enough, or that Ozu keeps his camera too low.

This is, in many way, a rather remarkable and flabbergasting statement. First is the frankly condescending assertion that “if you don't get the artistry at work then…you don't get what movies are.” Holy condescension, Batman! Even more amazing is how Emerson dismisses criticisms about the use of violence, or tonal shifts, or whatever, as “petty and irrelevant” in comparison to how scenes and shots are set up. Interestingly, he does back-pedal in comments with his readers. Responding to someone taking him to task, he writes:

…I do not advocate "ignoring" anything, but rather NOT to ignore the broader picture of a film -- not to reduce a multi-layered experience to a one-dimensional literal concept. I don't think noticing tonal shifts is petty or irrelevant in and of itself. But noticing (while crucial) is only the first step in criticism. The next would be to give an example and explore, for example: Why does the tone shift in this way? What is the effect? What is the context? Go ahead and argue that something doesn't work, but cite an example from the film.

But while Emerson is right to point out that what critics choose to discuss about a film (and what they leave out) says more about their values then the film, it seems to me that his views on film criticism are rather guilty of confusing technique, style, and content. At the very least, it’s a bit obvious to say that a discussion of the film should start with the film, but I don’t think it’s necessary to use a shot-by-shot, scene-by-scene analysis, in order to successfully (that is reasonably) critique the film. I can only assume that Emerson quoted himself to suggest that Rosenbaum’s criticism of the film is based solely on ideology rather than anything contained within the film.

In order to accept this, however, one has to buy into Emerson’s equivocation of style and content. In order to explore that equivocation, however, it’ll be necessary to take a look at some of his other blog posts…which means another blog posting of my own as this one is long enough.

Stay tuned…


a conlang is born!

At long last, I’ve completed the first working specifications for my first conlang – constructed language. It’s my first step into a big, big world.

Why invent a language? To quote myself from the specs' introduction:

The reasons for indulging what Tolkien famously called his “secret vice” are hardly unique; to explore the mechanics of language and, quite simply, to have fun. My discovery of conlangs – constructed languages – began when I first took a stab at learning Spanish. As a language related to French, Spanish bears essentially the same grammar and verb conjugations – that is, the same fragrantly irrational grammar and verb conjugations. This led me to Esperanto, the famous “interlang” (international language) created by Dr Ludwig L Zamenhof in 1887, but not to finding a language that makes as much sense as I’d like. Esperanto did, however, lead the way to the wonderful world of conlangs, which comprises everything from well-known conlangs like Klingon to not-so-well-known languages developed by private individuals for their own amusement.

And so comes my first attempt at creating a conlong: Asesulu, which originally began life under the name Amu’ipalo’i. To give you a brief taste, here’s a snippet from Genesis 11 1:9, the infamous Babel text:

11:1 The entire earth had one language with uniform words.
11:2 When [the people] migrated from the east, they found a valley in the land of Shinar, and they settled there.

11:1 Eto’uku a’ovofe’ele a’otama’oki o’ate u lajaja’uku o’avumu’ele.
11:2 Avena pesonukula o’atusi’oki o’ate de e’asa, ube a’oliki’oki ele Sinar ele vili’uku. Ube o’aliki’oki.

Literal Translation:
11:1 The whole earth possessed a homogenous language.
11:2 When the people migrated from the east, they found in Shimar a valley. They settled.

Beyond the cerebral fun to be had in creating a language (I categorically refuse to use the word geeky), I am planning to put Asesulu to use as a fictional language, namely, as the language for a series of stories, ultimately forming a novel, set in an artistic utopia called the County of Imagination where crimes are investigated by the Department of Forensic Poetry. I have two stories written; before I go on, though, I’m going to edit the existing stories to include Asesulu.

If you want to read more, you’ll find the specs here. And for more on conlangs, check out langmaker.com, a site chock-full of conlanging goodness.


minor pet peeve about deconstruction

Every so often, I'll hear someone use the word "deconstruction" in a sentence. While it doesn't make me cringe per se, it does tend to be a mild irritant if only because there's more to the word than being synonymous with analysis. (Literally, to de-construct, to take apart in order to understand it better, thus to analyze.) The word is simply used in too cavalier a fashion, methinks.

In his Letter to a Japanese Friend, Derrida put it starkly: "
All sentences of the type 'deconstruction is X' or 'deconstruction is not X' a priori miss the point, which is to say that they are at least false." If this is a bit cryptic, the entry on Derrida at Wikipedia isn't necessarily more helpful, in that it mentions, in response to the popularity of deconstruction in literary studies, "Derrida's claims that deconstruction is an 'event' within a text, not a method of reading it."

But perhaps there is some clarity to be found in Derrida's lecture "Signature, Event, Context," (click here for the original French) in which he said:

Deconstruction cannot limit itself or proceed immediately to a neutralization: it must, by means of a double gesture, a double science, a double writing, practice an overturning of the classical opposition and a general displacement of the system. It is only on this condition that deconstruction will provide itself the means with which to intervene in the field of oppositions that it criticizes, which is also a field of nondiscursive forces. Each concept, moreover, belongs to a systematic chain, and itself constitutes a system of predicates. There is no metaphysical concept in and of itself. There is a work - metaphysical or not - on conceptual systems. Deconstruction does not consist in passing from one concept to another, but in overturning and displacing a conceptual order, as well as the nonconceptual order with which the conceptual order is articulated.

The question, then, is how this displacement occurs as an event within a text, while keeping in mind the"someone" that "performs" (or rather inhabits, that is, witnesses) the event of deconstruction. To offer an answer; more reading.



So my story, Unarmed Men, has been rejected for publication by a prominent (I assume) fantasy magazine. The form letter says that the following may or may not be reasons for the rejection: old ideas, poor grammar/composition, or a failure to "stand out."

Since there's nothing wrong with the grammar/composition, it's not an old idea (at worse, it may bear a kinship to The Prisoner episode Living in Harmony, even an allegorical sympathy but a kinship is hardly a photocopy), and those who've read it have not described it as run of the mill. Why was it rejected, then?

I won't indulge any woe-is-me blather, because while I've submitted stories in the past that, in hindsight, were not my best work and were understandably rejected, I've come along way since then with stories like Unarmed Men. It could just be that the story wasn't their speed. It's not, strictly speaking, a fantasy, although it is clearly not realistic. As an allegory, it takes on decidedly surreal qualities. Or, maybe the fact that the assistant editor mentioned errors in formatting the manuscript (it's apparently important to indent the first line of paragraphs and not have extra lines between paragraphs) means that they didn't read it. Unsanctioned formatting as a means of weeding out one of hundreds of stories received - one less to read.

I might reformat the story and send it again. Perhaps I'll see if there's another publication more suitable, although Unarmed Men really is hard to classify - western? science fiction? fantasy? It's an allegorical western.

But I confess that getting something published is the most unpleasant part of being a writer, especially given how subjective editors are in choosing pieces to publish and hard it is to get meaningful feedback on why a piece was not published. That's the way it goes, though. If at first you don't succeed, try and try again.


nihilism and the horror genre - part 3

To wrap up my posts on nihilism and the horror genre, I’ll answer a rather obvious question: what does any of that have to with (my) writing? To begin with, I want to deal with the impression that I’m dismissing an entire genre. I am, of course, but on the plus side I’m always open to being surprised. That’s why I’m enjoying writing book reviews for Morbid Outlook, because many of the books I’ve received are horror-themed and give me an opportunity to challenge my normal reading tastes. (In fact, I just finished reading Clive Barker’s new book, Mister B. Gone, and – surprise of surprises –I liked it!) But what about actually writing a horror story?

As it happens, I am thinking about writing a “horror” story. But for me to think it worthwhile writing, it has to adhere to the following guidelines.
  • Put villains under the same moral scrutiny as the heroes. We examine how heroes hold up, or fail, under duress…but how do villains hold up when perpetrating their villainy?
  • Just as there shouldn’t be unstoppable good guys – that’s boring drama – there shouldn’t be unstoppable bad guys. Unless Ma Nature is involved, villains shouldn’t be indestructible.
  • No violence for the sake of violence. Also, no grotesqueries for the sake of grotesqueries. It’s easy to come up with twisted stuff, and if it isn’t, the Marquis de Sade, Hentai, or anything involving the Nazis and other genocidal maniacs will provide enough material. But it’s all exploitation if it comes without a good story and worthwhile characters to give it a meaningful context. Rule: never spill a bucket of blood when a pinprick will do.
  • Don’t manipulate readers. Just don’t do it.
So far, I’ve figured out, but not developed, the two main characters (the heroine and a science-loving goth) and the general structure of the plot (ghost story, mystery). All I say about the plot is that it’s a take-off on the film “The Messengers,” which is itself a take-off on just about every haunted house story every told. My approach will be more along the lines of science-fiction than fantasy, however. Still left to figure out is the nature of the haunting and the motivations behind it, whether or not to bring in another concept that could make the story be part of a larger series, and what other characters are necessary to tell the story.

I still have some work to do before I get to writing it, not to mention other stories to write. Before all of that, however, I just finished another science-fiction story I need to polish and prep to send out into the world.


nihilism and the horror genre - part 2

In regards to the graphic novel underlying the just-released movie “20 Days of Night” director David Slade says in an interview with SCI FI WIRE, “It's actually a hard, bleak, nihilistic story.”

Nihilistic - a word I’ve often come across in the description of films that don’t have happy “Hollywood” endings, that is, stories in which good fails to triumph over evil. Sometimes the word is just used in an imprecise, colloquial way. “I'd have flagged it as pointless if it had not been so nihilistic,” writes an IMDB user about that French horror film Inside. “It's not like the recent "torture movies" of late, which tends to have some kind of happy ending.” Sometimes, the word is better used, like in this discussion of Chinatown. (My take on Chinatown: Polanski’s nihilism has all the dishonesty that comes with the arbitrary in terms of plot but ultimately director-controlled flight path of a bullet.)

However, the philosopher in me bristles at the misunderstanding of the term, an abuse that cheaply equates nihilism with the active destruction of values and sometimes even celebrates that destruction. There’s a paradox involved in this petty bourgeois kind of nihilism, though. To explain, it helps to understand what nihilism as a philosophical position is. The entry on nihilism in Wikipedia is a useful primer (given how long it’s been since I took philosophy classes, I certainly found it useful, at least, and close to what I remember).

In essence, however, nihilism can take on various flavours:
  • the denial of all values
  • the denial of existing things (ontological)
  • the denial of truth and knowledge (epistemological)
  • the denial of ethics
Without getting into an academic discussion (and fully realizing that these few paragraphs are enough to get me into trouble), my own view is that nihilism doesn’t make sense from ontological or epistemological standpoints. But it does make sense when defined to say that life, existence, everything, does not have meaning or value. This is the abyss that terrifies; that there is neither objective meaning nor divine order to create meaning for us. Yet, clearly, the nihilist who fully embodies this nihilism would, to be consistent, actually have to be dead. When alive, however, meaninglessness is not a sustainable state. Whether it’s Will to Power, the nature of consciousness, a simple desire to live, or something else, nihilism is, in my interpretation of it, both the recognition of objective meaningless and the subjective response to overcome that meaninglessness. (Bring in the existentialists!) In other words, the nihilist’s task is to overcome his or her own nihilism – through an act of creation. It should even be said that all meaning is essentially self-created, even those meanings and values we attribute to outside entities like deities because, ultimately, those entities do not exist.

So before I drift too far afield, here’s the point. Horror movies are not truly nihilistic because – and this assumes that horror writers actually have reasons to end stories the way they do – while asserting the fallibility and weakness of good in the face of evil, they also evoke a feeling of horror and despair. In other words, the incapacity for good to triumph translates to the futility of good trying to overcome evil (because evil will win out in the end), which translates to meaninglessness, which in turn is negatively valued as something horrible, frightening, and bleak. Negative values are thus not nihilism, but a mere fatalistic reversal of positive values; petty bourgeois nihilism.

To be truly nihilistic, however, it would have to be the case that the actions of evil are just as meaningless as the actions of good. This means there is no more value to the monster’s killings than to the hero’s failures. There is as much futility to committing evil acts and resisting good as there it to committing good acts and resisting evil. The question is: why bother do anything?

To call a horror story nihilistic, then, when the genre is really about those things that frighten us is to lend it a philosophical imprimatur it doesn’t quite deserve. Sometimes, a bad ending is just a bad ending. Of course, sometimes a bad ending is just a setup for a sequel.


nihilism and the horror genre - part 1

I dislike horror fiction as a genre. With the express goal of evoking horror, it is manipulative by definition, prone to formulaic plots (e.g. evil force kills people) and even more formulaic twist endings (e.g. evil force survives - surprise!). While it’s understandable that invulnerable infallible good guys are dramatically unsatisfying, it annoys me to no end that evil characters in horror fiction are rarely held to the same standard. If it weren’t for the often gruesome and gory violence, there wouldn’t be anything about horror fiction to get particularly worked up about beyond storytelling quality, but violence and gore are intrinsic parts of the genre, except, of course, in sibling genres like ghost stories or Rod Serling-like oddities. (And yes, I do recognize that there are exceptions to the rule. I did enjoy, for example, the "Silent Hill" movie.)

Of course, the fact that we live in a violent world makes it inevitable that violence will play a part in the stories we tell. To some extent, it is necessary as storytelling helps us, within limits, process our experience of the world. But I struggle with the notion of violence as entertainment – and there’s no question that, for many fans of horror, it is the violence that seals the deal. (Read the fan comments for horror movies like the recent French Film Inside at IMDB and you’ll see what I mean. One user writes “It is a very bloody movie mostly in the 2nd half but the one thing that puts it way over the top for the main-stream crowd is how it handles a woman who is 9 months pregnant. While I won't give away the ending (that's been done already in some spoiler sections elsewhere here ) lets just say the producers definitely took a road less traveled.. hehe” Hehe? The ending involves a pair of scissors, based on the spoiler, and this user says “hehe?”)

I admit that I can’t relate to this particular point of view. And I don’t buy into the more highfalutin rationales offered for gory violence as entertainment:
  • Horror points out that evil exists in the world, that sometimes evil wins. (Really? We need horror fiction to tell us something we know by reading the news and actually living in the world? Granted, horror fiction isn’t the only genre afflicted with delusions of imparting wisdom to the masses, but it certainly has the weakest legs to stand on.)
  • Catharsis. I don’t think the Greeks achieved anything by introducing the world to the concept of catharsis, which wikipedia defines as “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Then again, it’s entirely subjective and I admit that while catharsis isn’t something I experience often (if at all), especially with horror, other people might. But achieving catharsis doesn’t do anything about solving life’s problem. There’s no practically knowledge to be gained by it. So we watch a bleak horror film, get cathartic…and then what? We certainly don’t gain any useful knowledge in condemning or combating the evil that the metaphysics of the horror genre insists on waking us up to.
  • Fictional violence is different from real violence. By far the most sophisticated argument I’ve come across, with an easy superficial appeal, it is also one of the most disingenuous. True, no one is actually getting hurt when the violence is fictional, but that isn’t the issue. The issue is our relationship and reaction to violence. Consider – and this is threading on risky philosophical ground, I admit, for the sake of keeping things simple – that ethics aren’t real, in the sense that ethics are metaphysical and not physical. When we say, “murder is wrong,” we’re not talking about any particular instance of murder, but of a moral judgment to which we compare reality. From an ethical standpoint, then, it is the definition of violence that counts – a definition expressed just as easily through fiction as through real actions. In other words, the concept of violence is just as much the object of condemnation as the act of violence; the two are inexorably tied together. Here’s a thought experiment: If we were to see a violent film and that it was equally possible that the on-screen death was real instead of fake, what would it say about us if we entertained?
This has nothing to do, by the way, with whether or not other people are right or wrong to enjoy horror. Sometimes people just enjoy scary stories. But insofar as I’m concerned, I find that beyond deficiencies involving how horror as a genre works, violence presented as entertainment (something we willingly subject ourselves to) leaves me feeling morally queasy. I just don’t enjoy seeing people get hurt and don’t see the horror genre as a means of coping or overcoming the horrors of the world. Unless a particular piece of horror offers a window into examining and understanding horror, it typically just strikes me as exploitative.

Now that I’ve provided background on my views of horror as a genre, I can actually get to the point I’m aiming for…in my next post.


how not to summarize a novel

So the first draft of my novel has been completed for a few weeks. After my first round of edits, it’s currently out gathering feedback before another round of edits followed by walking. It’s been rather interesting discussing my novel with friends, if only because I never really discuss it. Before I ‘splain that, though, some background.

Whenever someone would ask my what my novel’s about, the conversation would inevitably go something like this:

Them: oh, you’re writing a novel? Cool. What’s it about?
Me: It’s about, well, um…yeah…okay, well…um…hmmm…tough question….it’s about this character, see? It’s not so much plot-oriented as character-oriented…
Them: (crickets chirping)

Then I tried being a bit more precise.

Them: Oh, you’re writing a novel? Cool. What’s it about?
Me: It’s about a political activist who becomes disillusioned with his activism.
Them: OK…
Me: The character’s a playwright who hates drama.
(crickets chirping)

Clearly, my attempts to convey my own excitement about my novel weren’t succeeding, which brings me back to not really discussing what my novel is about. See, it's a character study, so to talk about the novel means talking about the character. But I don’t want to spoil the book by revealing the character’s secrets. Catch-22, my friends. Catch-22.

During an IM chat in which the sound of chirping crickets became particularly oppressive, I broke down and wrote a revealing synopsis. I’m still not happy that I had to reveal the character’s name, because the whole Prince-as-a-symbol thing seems, on the surface, to be incredibly pretentious. But that’s the character, and, until I come up with something better, this is the synopsis:

His name is ‽ and he doesn’t care whether people like it or not.

He’s a playwright, yet he hates drama. Of course, whether it’s the failure of past relationships, the unwanted romantic advances of a lonely mathematical genius, on-going conflicts with his parents, the politics of his theatre school, or the ordeal of watching a friend cheat on his girlfriend, he can’t escape it.

He’s a radical activist, enflamed by Dadaist ambitions to chafe against social injustice in all its forms, but increasingly disillusioned by a world that doesn’t change for the better.

‽ is a rebel waiting for a cause worth fighting for – for a drama worth living for – but facing increased isolation as ideals confront reality, art collides with meaninglessness, and the value of friendship is a lesson yet to be learned.


Here We Go Again

My previous attempt at blogging (“The Unarmed Man,” for the two people who might remember it) ended with a whimper. The reason probably had something to do with the yawning indifference the world has towards yet another blog, but I suspect that writing about my take on pacifism – individualist pacifism – wasn’t exactly the pied piper’s tune. Perhaps it could have worked, but to provide any kind of intelligent discussion on situations like, say, the monk-led protests in Burma, requires a lot of research. Given that I have more to do in my life than blog, I simply could not do the topic the justice it needed to make the blog successful.

But here I am again in blog-land, ready to give it another go – only this time I’ve chosen a more manageable subject; my various writing endeavours (see “About Me”). Stories in progress, stories to be published, fiction, non-fiction, special articles; if I’m writing it, I’ll blog about it here. I might also blog about any other topic that catches my fancy, although I don’t plan to make this blog a navelgazapalooza.

About the title: “The Recreational Nihilist” is the name of my column for The Front Page Online. It’s also a philosophical joke that, for some reason, never ceases to amuse me. It came about during a discussion with a (former) co-worker in which, after complaining about how ineffective anti-war protests were, I mentioned how nihilistic it all made me feel. But since I wasn’t entirely devoid of hope, I could only claim to be a recreational nihilist. I’m sure it was funnier at the time. Still, there you have it.