I’m taking an experimental film class this semester, and if I haven’t already pointed this out, I’m not a huge fan of the whole experimental thing. I dunno, though; it’s a slippery slope, experimental filmmaking. Some of it tries so desperately to be art that it’s crap. At the same rate, some of trounces about believing it’s crap and ends up…well, not art, but not crap, either. Good.
I guess, if you were to boil my feelings down to the simplest, I like dreams. I like films that use experimental techniques to achieve a dream-like aesthetic. Mulholland Drive and Beauty and the Beast (not the Disney one), as a recent and an old example. I also dig Fritz Lang and a lot of what I’ve seen of the whole German Expressionist movement. It’s not strictly dream-like, but many of those films create a warped, surreal universe, which you don’t see much these days outside of sci-fi (although a lot of expressionism was sci-fi, and a lot of current sci-fi creates a warped universe to exhibit a shitty movie, so I’ll shut up now…).
But it’s just one of those things. I like what I like; I don’t like what I don’t like. I don’t get all opinionated about it, because I really feel pretty apathetic toward the whole genre. I don’t declare all experimental films art and all narrative films crap, as some do. But I also don’t do the opposite, even though I’m definitely fonder of a story than of arbitrary imagery or painful quick-cutting. You could say, though, that when I like something, I like it because it doesn’t beat me over the head with a fucking hammer. “THIS IS THE POINT,” Jane Campion declares when Holly Hunter goes over the side of the boat with her piano, “GET IT?!”
Frankly, yes, but try subtlety. For the love of God, just try it. Mulholland Drive was subtle to the extent of “Huh?” and Beauty and the Beast was basically a straight narrative that took place in a fucked-up place where fucked-up people lived. They kept the Giant Hammer of Overbearing Symbolism inside that case marked “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY – BREAK GLASS.” Which, yes, I appreciate a whole lot, but they also had an eerie internal logic. Nobody questions the fact that candelabra are held by disembodied human arms that move, because to them, it makes sense. Therefore, it’s an interesting image and not a flashy gimmick. It doesn’t draw attention to itself; it’s just there.
So, subtlety. I dig it. When I started with this class, I wasn’t really looking forward to writing an experimental film, because I was misinformed by the professor. She had a very, very broad definition of the word “experimental” (she included straight, non-genre narrative involving wacky characters as well as straight narrative that’s nonlinear, like Annie Hall or Pulp Fiction), which she has since narrowed to exclude anything that includes any sort of literal story whatsoever.
We are poets now. Give me a moment to adjust my beret and wax my mustache. We work in compression, in telling a story using almost nothing but symbols and imagery. If there’s any literal, logical story—get it the fuck out of here.
This makes my life really difficult.
Our assignment for the first couple of weeks were to find compelling images, from magazines or photographs or some such, and then to find random objects that took our attention. With our objects, we created a sculpture. When the sculpture was created, keeping the photos in mind, we wrote a one-page treatment (which, for those unfamiliar, is defined at the bottom of this entry).
Based on such loose guidelines, I was given to believe the whole idea was a sort of free-association type of deal. The treatment I wrote told a story (at least, I see the story) using almost nothing but symbols, very little dialogue. I thought it was pretty solid, in the sense that it had the only stuff it really needed: conflict (both internal and external), theme, and symbolism. The literal narrative is this: a woman wants to escape her life, only to find the place she escapes to is much, much worse. Very Alice in Wonderland, but subconsciously so.
Anyway, not the greatest idea in the world, but for a treatment I wrote in 10 minutes, it wasn’t bad, especially considering how much I actually thought it through, as far as the bad symbols and metaphor-tastic dialogue was concerned. Trust me, I’ve written worse, and recently. But I had problems with the treatment. For reasons I will never, ever, ever, ever get into on this blog, the contents of the story and many of the symbols have a great deal of personal significance to me. I didn’t want anybody in my class or my professor to know this any more than I want any of you Internet trolls (no offense, ven) to know this, so I cleverly hid the personal stuff in the way I always do: by making fun of how terrible the writing was.
My transitions were clumsy and awkward, so I ripped on them. A lot of the symbols, even though they held meaning for me, seemed very cheesy on the page, so I mocked them, too. Even though they got laughs when I read them in class, the treatment as a whole didn’t particularly go over well. Everybody thought I was just parodying an experimental film, and I was accused (by a really nice guy who I like a lot—who happened to write a treatment that was so anvilicious Jane Campion would probably buy it tomorrow) of creating meaningless symbols.
Which, I guess, mission accomplished as far as dissolving the notion that anyone would discover my personal connection to this story. But it bombed conceptually, because everybody was so distracted by the humor that they didn’t realize that, personal or not, everything in the treatment did have meaning. Yeah, I was self-deprecating and probably taking the reader/listener out of the moment, but if you paid attention to everything else… I dunno, it wasn’t good, but it wasn’t meaningless, either.
People like me, pretending to be writers, are often told that, no matter what you do, a story will fall flat if you have no connection to the material. Sure, you can have a deep, intimate connection to your story, and it can still fail. But you stand more of a chance of success if the connection is there. “Why do you need to tell this story?” is what we’re always asked. And I know why I needed to tell that story, and it was all there on the page, if you cross out the sarcastic commentary and pay attention to what’s actually going on.
So, I took it to the Super-Hot Pot-Head to get a real opinion. The events of the class were Tuesday, but taking the story to this friend happened yesterday. She knows a disgusting amount about all of what inspired this story, and now I realize I’m being so vague that I probably shouldn’t even be ranting about my bad treatment since nobody knows what the hell I’m talking about. Too late.
Anyway, she knows the inspiration, she knows where a lot of the symbols come from, and—most importantly—she’s a lot smarter than me. So I was telling her about this class, and she asked to read the treatment. I let her, obviously, and she took out a pen and started scratching out all the commentary as she read it. Then, she re-read it.
Afterward, she asked, “Are you a moron?” Since she clearly knew the answer, I assumed she was being rhetorical and said nothing. She continued, “Nobody knows what the hell you’re talking about here. You’re not telling a story. Well, you are, but you’re not telling that story. Nobody’s gonna look at this and say, ‘Well, that Stan, he sure goes out with fucked-up girls, and this story proves it.’ What they’re gonna see is what they did see—a story about a woman trying to change her life and ends up making it worse—except they’ll probably like it better without all the jokes.”
And she’s right. Nobody who doesn’t know me or my situation would have any idea what the fuck I’m talking about. To them, it’s just this story about some woman. In a way, that’s very freeing, as somebody who pretends to be a writer. I tend to keep the personal stuff bottled up like a post-Taco Bell intestinal tract, just brewing there, waiting to explode in some form or another. Or I hide behind jokes, which is more common. “Here’s something bad that happened to me once—look at it and laugh.” And yeah, it’s funny, and in time, my current situation will probably be funny, too, but to deal with it right now, in writing, I’ve found a way to do it.
I still suck at it, though.