The Combined Beginning-Ending Moment

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Bach’s cello suites you see a lot of phrases like this:

bach prelude 4

…where the low note you land on (the one in the middle here) is the first note of the next measure, and the beginning of the next phrase. Here, that low note, the E-flat, is at once the end of the E-flat major chord preceding it and the beginning of the A-flat major chord following.

The impression formed is of a continual flow and progression from one chord into another, and it kind of feels like the musical analogue of watching colors change in a sky or a movie or a screen saver. Each internal punctuation isn’t really an ending — it’s the beginning of the next thing. His music is always moving.

The technique can be very powerful in storytelling, which, if you believe Aristotle, is supposed to be premised on a beginning, middle, and end. But really good writers can plunk their endings down where they please and use them as beginnings. They recognized, in the Chekhovian mode, even before Chekhov existed, that a character’s thoughts or actions never really end. One simply leads into the next.

Madame Bovary, for example, appears episodic — Emma and Charles move from one city to another every few years, and the story is, at a high level, segmented by two trysts. But the progression of the story is finely calibrated, moment by moment. A good example of the beginning-ending note in Bovary is the end of Part 1 in the afterglow of an aristocratic party Emma recently attended with Charles:

The memory of this ball, then, became an occupation for Emma.

Whenever the Wednesday came round she said to herself as she awoke, “Ah! I was there a week–a fortnight–three weeks ago.”

And little by little the faces grew confused in her remembrance.

She forgot the tune of the quadrilles; she no longer saw the liveries and appointments so distinctly; some details escaped her, but the regret remained with her.

The fading of this memory is, for Flaubert, a beginning for the materialistic sadness defining the story that follows. Emma and Charles move on to the next city shortly after this, on to Emma’s next desperate attempt to seize something rhapsodic out of her life. Throughout the rest of the book Emma’s self-inflicted oppression and unhappiness squeeze around her, decision by decision.

If you prefer plays, an equally excellent example of the “continuous ending”, so to speak, is in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Acts 2 and 3 both end with the same refrain: Moscow, an of course unfulfilled dream that runs through the whole play.

Here’s Irina at the end of Act 2:

IRINA [left alone, in dejection]. Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!

…and at the end of Act 3:

IRINA. My dear, my darling, I respect the baron, I think highly of him, he’s a fine man — I’ll marry him, I consent, only let’s go to Moscow! I implore you, please let’s go! There’s nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let’s go, Olya! Let’s go!

No one uses the ending of an act better than Chekhov. The closing refrain is there, the note of finality and the mournful sigh offered up. But the wistfulness of the lines is precisely the instrument of continuing the play’s action, of conveying these characters’ destinies to go on, and on, in their lives.

Something more fluid than Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end persists in real writing, especially in real prose, which is drawn irresistibly to the constant change and fixed flow of real life.

“Breaking Bad” and Measuring Exploitation in a Story

November 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’m about halfway through Breaking Bad on Netflix and it took me that long to notice to myself, “You know, there are not many people dying on this show.”

I wanted cold hard facts, so I went to the record of truth for such matters, the internet. The Breaking Bad wiki has a list of deaths on the show. And sure enough, only 2 people die in the first season, only 10 in the second season (outside of a plane crash), and “only” 27 in the third season.

(For comparison, deaths on 24 measure in the hundreds and thousands per season.)

My “research” led me back to a thought I often have when I’m watching something with thrills and spills — violence, romance, drama, whatever. The thought is: how much does this story make use of its deaths?

I think, maybe counterintuitively, that the more a story wrings from each death, the better it’s doing. Titanic, for example, uses the ship’s sinking to highlight a love story between just 2 crazy kids. The math is: hundreds of deaths for one couple’s story. That’s a very bad ratio. It indicates sentimentality.

On the other hand, Nabokov in Lolita makes hay from one character’s death — Lolita’s mother, Charlotte — by spinning off the rest of the story from her death. (With Charlotte dead, Humbert and Lolita are free to road trip across the country together.) So one death unlocks the entire story. And that death is itself carefully arranged as a culmination of crucial pieces of the story. One death to one entire story is a sensible ratio.

Breaking Bad, though it kills a lot of people, probably has a defensible ratio. When one of the drug dealers employed by the main characters (Jesse and Walter) is killed, Jesse is haunted by it in a plot thread through all of the third season. One death, many ramifications.

There’s another factor in the math, which applies to even a single death: how much work does a story do dealing with the consequences of that death? If somebody dies just to give the main character the right to grieve and be sad and to be consoled by a beautiful costar, well then, the story is being exploitative. But if that death is a central and deep part of the story’s structure, then you know the writer hasn’t killed someone in vain.

There is no formula for telling whether a story is well told, but I like this particular formula as a thought exercise.

“Avatar” and Bridging the Uncanny Valley

May 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Neytiri cradles Jake's body in "Avatar"

Neytiri cradles Jake’s body in “Avatar”

In the interest of timeliness, I wanted to write about a key moment in James Cameron’s Avatar. Here’s a movie with two worlds: human and Navi, or rather human and CGI. There’s basically a different filmmaking mode for each — the former is a cold and dry technological and mechanical world like Alien, and the latter is a lush computer-generated tropical world of flora and fauna.

Each of these worlds is populated with a different humanoid lifeform, and the two different lifeforms don’t really interact (except in the big battle at the end, when they’re still really interacting distantly through a blur of action). Were they to interact, the film would risk sinking into the uncanny valley where the contrast between human and CGI characters becomes creepily apparent.

This is a wise decision by Cameron — it’s much easier to grow accustomed to the film’s two worlds separately, and the story carefully immerses us in one, then the other for long stretches each. But almost inevitably, there’s one moment where the worlds cross, namely the scene in the picture above (I’m truly sorry I couldn’t find a better picture — I’m not even certain this one comes straight from the movie).

Here, toward the end of the movie, the central couple share a moment, Neytiri in her Navi form, and Jake in his human form. In a sense the scene is nothing special — she cradles him mother-like, the disparity between their forms is shown directly (blue and peach, large and fragile), but they don’t care because they’re in love. Nobody’s calling Avatar an adventurous piece of storytelling.

But here’s the remarkable thing about it: when I saw this scene in the theater two years ago, all I could think was what an obligatory moment of cross-cultural sweetness it was. He’s in her arms, they say “I see you” to each other, their love is real, and racism is solved. I wasn’t thinking how weird it is to see a CGI and a regular human body intertwined like that, and I wasn’t studying their motions looking for seams or flaws in the presentation. After I got out of the theater, on my way home, then I realized I’d seen a human actor and a CGI one holding each other close, and all I’d thought was how trite it was!

In a way, what a terrific achievement Cameron pulled off! The CGI medium disappeared and all that was left was a straightforward love scene. That is, the computer animation disappeared into the scene, wholly integrated, leaving only the storytelling. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone or anything truly bridge the uncanny valley, and I know it was truly bridged because I wasn’t thinking about how real it looked, I was thinking about the story! It’s the kind of achievement that’s so deep I didn’t even realize it was there until I reflected on it.

So let’s give Cameron credit. Avatar is totally conventional when you look at its story. But the achievement of that conventionality, the successful construction of an ordinary love scene through CGI, is a strange kind of triumph.

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