By Ryan

Note: This is the first in a series of columns inspired by the excellent Reality Hunger by David Shields.  You should read it.


Every writer strives for the perfect ending.


The majority of the songs here end with the band repeating some variation of the chorus while the engineer pulls down the master knob on the soundboard.


Skip to the end.


A strange thing happened to me when malfunctioning Netflix DVDs cut short recent viewings of the films A Serious Man and A Single Man (yes, I saw Solitary Man, but the theatre projector soldiered on through the end credits): I had absolutely no desire to see the last five minutes of these films.  They felt complete to me; the titular characters had said their bit, and now it seemed that all that remained was to conclude the all-sacred plot.  This was an activity I was not interested in.


YouTube and Wikipedia visits by my film-viewing companion confirm that both films end with a major event—two catastrophes meant to change the way one thinks about all that came before them.  This information changed nothing, but rather it confirmed what I had suspected all along: the plots of these films don’t matter.


As Stephen Frears, the director of High Fidelity, worked to translate the best moments of the Nick Hornby novel on which the movie was based, he found to his surprise that the best moments were the voice-overs, especially the direct speeches of Rob Gordon (John Cusack) to the camera.  Frears said, “What we realized was that the novel was a machine to get to twelve crucial speeches in the book about romance and art and music and list-making and masculine distance and the masculine drive for art and the masculine difficulty with intimacy.”  This is the case for most novels: you have to read seven hundred pages to get the handful of insights that were the reason the book was written, and the apparatus of the novel is there as a huge, elaborate, overbuilt stage set.


Don’t misunderstand me; I’m not arguing against story.  I like stories, and I think they are a great means of communication.  Just don’t confuse story with plot.


Plots are for dead people.


No one’s ever gonna watch an improv scene of two people arguing and say, “A ha—they saw his point of view!”  Don’t follow the plot.


Why are films, novels, videogames, etc. so built around plot, then?  One does not remember the details of a great work—one remembers the emotion, the argument, the aura.  We partake in art to better understand ourselves and our world.  The specifics of good art are interchangeable; the message is not.  “How does Rothko make you feel?” not “What color is it?”


A book report that starts “The Great Gatsby is about Nick Carraway…”


I don’t care where it’s set; I care what it says.


Hamlet would be a lot better if all the plot were excised, leaving the chain of little essays it really wants to be.  But while it’s true that Shakespeare’s plots can sometimes seem like armatures dragged in from the prop room, they are also there to service the need for human sensation.


Nothing about plot is sensational.