Thursday, March 8, 2012

Here there be meh

I'm having a "meh" sort of day. The sky is gray and cloudy and has been spitting chilly rain; the temperatures have fallen as if they think that March in Texas is still winter; I've been struggling with a stupid formatting issue that's delaying the first step in getting my book ready to self-publish (an evil word processing program is responsible, but I won't say which, because frankly a billionaire whose hobbies apparently include encouraging third-world people to stop reproducing isn't somebody I want to tick off), and I'd really like to curl up with a good book/movie/TV show/whatever and a big bowl of ice cream, except it's Lent, which means that the book etc. might be possible but the ice cream certainly isn't.

Which put me in the perfect mindset to read these two things: first, this excellent piece by Emily Stimpson on the failure of certain types of "Catholic" or "Christian" art:

For many Catholics — notably those responsible for backing the film financially and promoting it in Catholic circles — the failure of “There Be Dragons” was particularly disappointing.

Their intentions, after all, had been noble: to make a first-rate film about Opus Dei founder St. Josemaría Escrivá. They’d also gone out of their way to hire a respected director, Roland Joffé, and a professional cast and crew. Once the film was made, they promoted it widely among Catholics, screening pre-release versions at Catholic conferences throughout 2010, and calling in the Catholic public relations firm, The Maximus Group, to pack theaters on opening night.

But it wasn’t enough. Not for Hollywood, which barely noticed the film’s release. And not for Catholics: Few saw it and fewer liked it.

The reason it wasn’t enough? Because the film didn’t tell a good story. As reviewers described it, the production value was high but the script was convoluted and the directing heavy-handed. It didn’t matter how true or Catholic the content was. The way the content was conveyed was less than compelling, so the content was as well. [...]

The list of reasons why Catholic media rarely measures up goes on. There’s the reticence on the part of responsible Christians to make the risky investments that art requires. There’s the shortage of first rate film and communications programs at Catholic universities, the decades of Catholic internecine squabbling which has kept much of the Church’s energies directed inward rather than outward, the distrust of Hollywood and tools of social media, as well as what Vogt and Gan characterize as “false humility” on the part of Catholics.

“It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the Christian message is powerful and compelling enough to stand on its own, that we don’t have to worry about how we present it,” Vogt said.

“The beauty and power of what we have to say can blind us to the importance of the medium,” seconded Gan.

While I was still nodding vigorously (heck, while I was still shouting "Amen!") at that one, I found this piece by Simcha Fisher discussing Stimpson's essay. Simcha talks about the movie The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and the character Dobbs, and says:

That’s the kind of guy he is: he keeps coming back and coming back. He can’t let go. Contrast this foreshadowing of his fatal flaw with the final scene, in which Dobbs and Curtain laugh hysterically as tens of thousands of dollars worth of gold dust go swirling away on the wind, back to the mountain.

This, my friends, is what we call “detachment”—a fine Christian virtue, and one worth instilling. Can’t teach it any better than that—but of course teaching isn’t what John Huston set out to do. He set out to tell a story.

Can you imagine if a typical earnestly gooey Christian producer wanted to send a message about greed and corruption and detachment? I suppose there have been plenty of these types of movies, probably mostly around Christmas time: “. . And now I’ve learned that what I really wanted most of all was right here, all along.

This is sort of what Curtin learns, except that director John Huston made sure someone had to get shot before those peach groves and their faithful mistress became available for Curtin to pursue. Because when someone gets shot, it makes a better story; and when you tell a better story, people listen to what you have to say.

Well, Amen! again.

And that brings me to the point, if I have one on such a "meh" sort of day: if you want to write fiction that is decidedly not "meh," one of the things you have to do is let your characters be as fully developed as possible and then let them drive the story.

An interesting movie-biography of a saint would be one in which the saint's humanity shone forth in all its messiness, all its doubt, all its indecision and pain and anger and even sin. A dull biography (movie, book, or otherwise) of a saint makes it sound as though the saint was truly made of shiny plaster, always good, always serene and confident, never conflicted or troubled--because the writer or creator wants us to think that this is what it is like to be holy. But that sort of person isn't human; he or she is a mere cardboard cutout.

Even the Blessed Virgin Mary questioned the angel and asked her Son to do something about the deplorable lack of wine at the wedding. Even our Lord wept over Lazarus and asked, in prayer at Gethsemane, that the cup pass Him by, because the Spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. If they, the only two fully sinless ones ever to walk this earth, were not one-dimensional sappy caricatures of holiness, how can we justify making any human person so?

As someone who dabbles in children's fiction, I will grant that there are times when the medium itself may limit some artistic choices. In my most recent manuscript, one of the adult characters is a bit of a ne'er-do-well--but I have to keep in mind that my target audience is made up of children (a lot of them, I hope, homeschooled!) who are between the ages of 8 and 13, which means that even if I secretly suspect that this character may have, in his misspent youth, indulged in most of the vices opposed to the Ten Commandments, I can't get too specific about those things in the book itself. The veil of innocence which children have ought, I think, to remain mostly undisturbed until they are ready to move forward into the adult world--and at that point, they'll be ready for books more suited to their maturity than my stories for children (and they may realize themselves that some of my characters may have had a bit of a past that never got discussed). But there is, or I hope there is, a difference between not discussing this character's hidden weaknesses (except for any that become relevant to the story) and pretending that the character doesn't have any--or pretending that his eventual decision to reform means he's automatically, from that point on, a good and trustworthy character in all respects, when it will take time for him to learn to be either.

Whether I actually manage to do a good job of this character's slow reformation or not will remain to be seen, and depends on whether I actually possess the skill to do any of this (which also remains to be seen). But I think there's a contrast between realizing as you start creating a character to enter a story that this character has some significant issues that must be dealt with, and creating a character on purpose to have issues and then dealing with those in some sort of Christian-triumphalist way that is supposed (or so you hope) to show everyone The Way. The first sort of book, even if done badly, may have some redeeming value; the second sort will cause people to toss the book aside and say to themselves, "Here there be...meh."


Roger Cook said...

Might I suggest While I don't know the opinions of the developers on Catholic doctrine, you don't have to send them money, and it will write files that are compatible with the slithering evil from Redmond.

Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, Roger; I like how you put that.

To be fair, I don't demand that my software companies embody Catholic teaching. I do demand that they write good software. I find the program in question to be the worst word processing program ever created, and how it managed to become some sort of "gold standard" with its hidden menus, counterintuitive formatting, insulting "Business English" idea of grammar, and so on is beyond me.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

In Milwaukee, we had a cold, windy, sunny day, on the heels of two days that felt like spring was coming... 60 degrees or almost, had to open the window while driving, due to the greenhouse effect...

...and you might want to declare independence from the maker of your word processor by trying Ubuntu operating system. It's free, it has a word processing program that will save your files in the format everyone else has come to consider standard, and it is reliable. I had a problem with a back-up program once, and the original software developer emailed me several times from Greece to get it straightened out.

I also use a more "standard" system called "Windows 98," with a word processor called "Windows 2000." It works just fine for me. The computer it runs on was obsolete when I picked it up for a song, and its still running ten years later. The software company is rumored to have later versions, but they are awfully confusing, and don't do anything I need that the one I have won't do, except generate files that people with the latest and greatest can receive as email attachments and open.

Now, to ruin everything, I suspect that a movie about anyone connected to Opus Dei would fail because that was such an intrinsically evil organization that good Roman Catholics (of whom there are many) would be utterly revulsed by it. Think of all the anti-Catholic stereotypes you ever heard... Opus Dei are the Catholics those stereotypes were warning us against.

LarryD said...

I hope you get your problems resolved - I'm anticipating that book like you can't believe!

Red Cardigan said...

Thanks, Larry! That means a lot. :)

Roger Cook said...

Siarlys, I wasn't sure she was ready to fully come over to the light side of the force, so I was introducing OSS slowly.

Red Cardigan said...

I downloaded Open Office last night. Woohoo! Loving it already. :)

Siarlys Jenkins said...

P.S. Great choice for your latest Lenten art work. One of my favorite episodes.

When I was writing for the Wittenburg Door, (the "u" is part of the humor), they ran a cartoon (not mine) showing a man who had just tumbled all the display cases in the store of a Pentecostal megachurch. He told the horrified crowd of onlookers, "I just asked myself, what would Jesus do?"