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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.

By Anna

“If our life is ever really as beautiful as a fairy-tale, we shall have to remember that all the beauty of a fairy-tale lies in this: that the prince has a wonder which just stops short of being fear. If he is afraid of the giant, there is an end of him; but also if he is not astonished at the giant, there is an end of the fairy-tale. The whole point depends upon his being at once humble enough to wonder, and haughty enough to defy.”

–G.K. Chesterton

Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a fairytale where the audience is the prince and the flickering motion set to classical music is the giant—space, technology—ideas to be conquered, but held in reverence lest they conquer us.

2001 was released in 1968, a year before the moon landing, but a few years after the first man went to space, and Kubrick’s film spans thousands, if not millions of years beginning with our ancestor’s discovery of intelligent life and realization it is made to conquer. The transition from an exigent, flailing ape to a redoubtable space station flight is propensity, and I feel fairly confident saying no other director has choreographed something as remarkable since.

The film expresses the nature of humanity as one needing to conquer, but failing to express emotions at the beauty and vastness of the task at hand. The film’s protagonist, if you will, is HAL 9000—an artificial and intelligent computer who never underestimates human intelligence, but whose intelligence is underestimated by humans, particularly the crew of Discovery.

The film’s pace is steady but slow in order for the audience to remain in wonder at such a masterpiece of light, sound, and image. Roger Ebert saw the film at its release and witnessed walkouts and restlessness, as well as reading reviews and reviews saying Kubrick had failed. But Ebert saw the film as more than entertainment—it is “a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him (Kubrick) had used words, music, or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it.” And on my second viewing, five years after my first, it become clearer to me that this film was great because it didn’t express a clear plot, but cared deeply about the story of humanity more than fast-paced stimulation of pursuit.

The film requires a lot of patience, but the outcome is complete balance between humility to respect and pride to create.

Quick Reviews from movies I saw this week:

The Last Station:

How remarkable a film and how remarkable a marriage. The tension and controversy surrounding Tolstoy’s final days is not necessarily made clearer by this film, but it is made beautifully: Tolstoy struggling to live up to his writing by leaving his work to the public, while also not letting his family down with nothing after he dies. His love and affection for his wife (Helen Mirren) is clear as is hers for Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), and though the film is romantic it is also a real story conveying real romance: one for the people and one for a spouse. James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti of course entertain, and the score is true to its characters.

A Single Man

This movie is stream of consciousness with every detail shot and acknowledged just as a grieving soul would look at the world. The changes in saturation from shot to shot unfold like flipping through Esquire or GQ, no shot the same, yet all tailored and manufactured to perfection. “Sometimes, awful things have their own kind of beauty.” And Tom Ford honestly expresses the beautiful in death and loss. It is a slow film, but worth your time.