...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Monday, April 7, 2014

34. The Cameraman

When I first started reading novels to to my older kid, he'd often interrupt me to ask what was going to happen, esp. when a character was in jeopardy. When Jim, in Treasure Island, is getting pushed out to sea in the little coracle, my son asked, "Dad, what's going to happen to Jim?" My answer to these questions was always the same: "Be patient, buddy. The story raises questions that it itself will answer."

He was a quick study, as anyone who pays attention is. You don't need to know Chekov's famous dictum to know that certain elements in a story precede (and precipitate) certain outcomes. The structure of a sentence, for example, limits its options. This is most apparent in sentences that rhyme. I was scanning the dial in the car recently and came across "Ramblin' Man," a song I've heard a million times but never paid much attention to.
Lord, I was born a ramblin' man,
Tryin' to make a livin' and doin' the best I can.
And when it's time for leavin',
I hope you'll understand,
That I was born a ramblin' man. 
"Man," "can," "understand," "man." It all fits together easily and predictably, like the well-worn shoe that song is. Such predictability is what makes its violation so much fun. That violation is the engine of comedy, but it's also the revealer of pathos. Take this pretty obscure song, "Strobe," by the band Adam Again. [Better to listen to it than read it, esp. because its vowel rhymes would not be considered by someone like Stephen Sondheim to be rhymes at all.]
Remember when you laughed in my ear three times
I was waiting for more you said "who am I"
Now you're waiting in the shopping line
Saying here's two nickels will you give me a quarter
I like the song ok, but I love that last line. Even though I know what's coming, I'm still caught off-guard. My ear wants to hear "dime."
Years ago I had a friend read a bunch of my poems, and he put them into three or four categories. The best--what he called the "haymakers"--were those he said that surprised him. I was pleased by this description. Who wants to be predictable? (I guess I do, on some level. Predictably reliable, say. Predictably bitchin'.)
I've been watching a lot of Buster Keaton's silent-era movies with my kids. They are, at their best, "news that stays news." Last spring I set up a projector in the backyard for my son's birthday party and showed to his friends, at his insistence, the short One Week before we watched Super 8. One of his friends (the "cool" one), asked me, incredulous, "This was made almost a 100 years ago?" He left before Super 8 ended.

Running out of new Buster Keaton movies, or at least running out of those that are a) silent and b) available via Netflix, we watched this past weekend The Cameraman, from 1928. Not a bad movie, but nowhere near his best. Scenes went on too long, for one thing. But you might also say that too many of its "sentences" were predictably structured, a la "Ramblin' Man."

An example: A poor Buster Keaton buys from a pawn shop a lousy movie camera in hopes of working as a newsreeler and impressing the woman who works at the news agency. At the entrance of the agency, right in front of his (potential, but really, inevitable) girl's desk, is a glass-paned door. Buster, in his clumsiness, knocks the pane out with his tripod. Next time he's in the office carrying his unwieldy rig, there's that door again, all fixed with a new pane, like a straight man about to get hit in the face with a pie. My son said, "That glass is going to break again." And sure enough, it did. A few scenes later it happened a third time. There were funny bits in the movie, but this was not one of them. One Week, on the other hand, ends with a climactic "sentence" that is structurally predictable--you can literally "see" what's coming--yet which, miraculously, ends in surprise.

My undergrad poetry teacher, Kevin Clark, first introduced me to that idea--who said it? Paul Valéry?--that a poem's ending should be "surprising yet inevitable." I've held onto and disseminated this idea lo these past twenty years. Here it is in Charles Simic's words: "[The kinds of poems I write] depend for their success on word and image being placed in proper order and their endings must have the inevitability and surprise of an elegantly executed checkmate."

This is not the only way to conceive of "endings," of course. But give me a "Strobe" over a "Ramblin' Man" any day.

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