Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Uses of Tragedy in Fiction and in Life

When I lived in Berkeley during the summer of 1967 the entire USA seemed to be speculating about the secret behind the radio hit “Ode to Billie Joe,” a new song by Bobbie Gentry. The lyric tells of the suicide of a young man who jumps from a bridge, though the song provides only a series of tantalizing clues about what happened, and nothing of why.  As a boy of thirteen, I hardly understood how serious this was, though it certainly intrigued me.

Even at that age, I recognized that when you have recently suffered a major loss, words intended to comfort you, reassure, or cheer you up are not likely to help.

Then in 1976, a film called Ode to Billy Joe, inspired by Bobbie Gentry’s song was released, and it proved a genuine tear-jerker. When I saw the film at age twenty-two, I admired its visual and emotional realism, and the beauty and sincerity of the young protagonists, Billy Joe and Bobbie Lee. Only, not until recently was I able to view the film again, on DVD. After nearly forty years, I find appreciate this beautiful film and its nuances as I never could before.

For some critics, the uncertainties of the song proved more evocative and haunting, while the film and the detailed revelation of what happened and why, did not prove so satisfying. Personally, I appreciated the film’s sweating, believable Southern characters, the drone of the cicadas in the Mississippi heat, the excellent dialogue, and the tragic tangle of events. I admired how the young heroine endures her terrible loss.

Unlike the song, the revelations of the film are not ambiguous. Yet no matter how much information we may have about the loss of any person, we can never know the bottom line. The ultimate “why?” cannot truly be answered, even with apparent motivation and circumstances. The complexity and subtle nature of human experience renders any simple, linear cause-and-effect explanation no more than a rationalized emotional placebo. The truth of our existence is profoundly mysterious.

Though I have had a near-death experience (NDE), went to the “Other Side” and returned, I am not convinced of what that really means. Concerning life after death and before birth, I am agnostic. What I believe in is life. Still, human experience demonstrates that loved ones who pass on may sometimes return to comfort their survivors, or finish some interrupted business.  To doubt that this happens, in my opinion, takes skepticism too far, and dishonors the meaningful experience of a great many human beings.

My belief is that mortality is mysterious, that nobody knows for sure what, if anything, happens to our consciousness after we die, or where we come from “before birth.” In the sense of our evolving DNA and the stardust of which it’s composed, it seems we’ve all been around in some form, all along and always will be. For insight, Nature is always the best source, and if you observe what’s happening in a forest, everything is recycling, all the time.

Of course, grief can be caused not only by death of a loved one, but also by the end of a relationship, or by anything you consider a terrible failure, a betrayal, the loss of a beloved home, or a serious health diagnosis.

So, what do we learn from tragic loss, in both fiction and our human lives?

You can never afford to take anything that you love in your life for granted, not for a moment. Cherish what you love, here and now: always. So easily we focus on the past, on what we do not have, and may overlook the good things that are present.

In fiction, tragedy adds the depth of realism to human experience, and produces change in the survivors, motivation, or shifts of direction in plot and story, and character development. The fictional Billy Joe, and his remarkable survivor Bobbie Lee have helped me to clarify my feelings about these realities in my own life.

In life, nothing can mitigate the impact of a tragic loss, though certain beliefs may provide a buffer from the harsh realities. In fiction, the portrayal of loss has an ancient pedigree that goes back at least five or six millennia to Gilgamesh and his lost Enkidu, yet it still provides no definitive answers.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Building Worlds: The Origins of Imaginative Fiction

by Bruce P. Grether

Much as I have always loved C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Herbert and other great world-builders of imaginative fiction, I’ve never wanted to write a book that resembles anything I’ve read. Thus the worlds I’ve created contain no Great Lion, no Elves, dragons or wizards, and no giant sandworms.

I’m not bragging, probably I’m just a stubborn individualist this way. Though I’ve seen speculation that readers of such books tend to two basic categories, wanting originality, or wanting the same basic thing over and over again thinly disguised, I’m not certain it’s so simple as either exploring something that seems new, or imitation.

Perhaps this all has more to do with the early influences upon writers, as well as readers.

Recently I’ve considered what stimulated my own creative imagination early on. Though I was not actually reading much fiction on my own yet at age five, I know that my mother was actively reading to me and my siblings almost every night, a wide variety of fiction: Mark Twain, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and various other classic children’s books.

That same year, I experienced a remarkable scope of actual experiences, only bits and pieces of which I clearly remember. We traveled westward from Thailand to the USA, and I saw the Great Sphinx, played at the foot of the Great Pyramid, saw mummies in the Cairo museum; in the Coliseum in Rome, I pretended a marble chunk was a piano; we saw the Crown Jewels in London; at Lincoln’s tomb in Illinois I was photographed pretending to smoke my toy peace pipe and wearing a feather bonnet. In Denver, I vividly recall that we saw Disney’s brand new film, SLEEPING BEAUTY.

During my sixth through my eighth year back in Thailand, my first three years of elementary school exposed me to an immense range of imaginative fiction, from fairytales, to detective stories, to Narnia, and many others. I’ve been both an avid reader and a writer ever since. Some of my first few completed novels were somewhat derivative, and we can certainly learn our art and craft by imitation. In my early teens, however, I consciously realized that I was not interested in creating worlds that much resembled any I’ve read.

Something different than conscious creation set my writings in motion, a form of inspiration, perhaps from the unconscious mind. The worlds I’ve fully explored by writing full-length novels and series of novels set there have all opened to me without exception through a vivid dream. Most dreams that I recall are not so detailed or clear, but the ones I refer to each created a doorway in my mind that I could always pass through again.

That’s how it works for me!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Magnificent MALEFICENT!

A review by Bruce P. Grether

(NO SPOILERS, or at least nothing very specific!) I’ll seek to avoid revealing major, specific plot points in this brief look at the marvelous new Disney film MALEFICENT, which I saw in a cinema yesterday. In fact, though I have read only a few reviews, on several points I would have enjoyed being totally surprised, though these points by no means spoiled the film for me.

I’ve been especially drawn to this production in part because as a boy of five, I saw Disney’s original animated SLEEPING BEAUTY that serves as the lunching pad for this new live-action film. The former had a lasting affect upon me, and now I’ve found the latter moving, beautiful and of rare cinematic quality.

MALEFICENT offers something I find missing in many contemporary fantasy stories: a meaningful, plausible origin and motivation for figures viewed as villainous. In fact, this revisionist version reminds me of the numerous versions of Greek myths, in which we sometimes still have older more “goddess-oriented” versions, later revised to give male gods greater importance. Though MALEFICENT is filled with magick and fantastic beings, the causes of evil behavior work the same way for humans in our “real” world.

Another aspect of the film I found delightful was the depiction of the “Fair People,” or inhabitants of the Fairy realm, which aligns quite accurately with actual western European traditions. This impressive re-telling does not demolish the original at all, but re-tells it with some surprisingly different slants, which I for one found extremely refreshing and satisfying. So bravo to all involved for pushing beyond the simplistic good-evil scenarios of so much contemporary fantasy!

One more touch of praise must go to Angelina Jolie, whose skilled portrayal of the eponymous character is a major part of why I’d call this film magnificent!

Friday, March 21, 2014

On the Road - A Film Review by Bruce P. Grether

Many citizens of the USA have a romantic fixation concerning the landscape of this vast nation, its variety, and the cultural differences of regions, such as the East, West, North, South and the Middle, all imbued with their own character, beauty, and mystique. The classic novel by Jack Kerouac, On the Road, touches into all of these, as well as depicting a rich assortment of human characters.

Like many readers and writers, I have waited a long time for On the Road to come to the screen. One major challenge to such a visual adaptation is that Kerouac’s beautiful, quirky and inspired prose in the novel is not easy to translate visually. There is a kind of poetry and heart to his best writing that must be heard and felt, as much as seen. Still, the film offers exquisite cinematography, and fine performances by the entire cast. Though I appreciate the choice to use Kerouac’s fictional character names, this may confuse some viewers unless they research on Wikipedia.

As with the novel, the major focus is what we now call a classic “bromance” between the narrator (the character Kerouac based on himself) and his good friend and inspiration based on that famous wild man Neal Cassady. There are several layers of romantic fixation going on here, for Kerouac crafted most of his works by recording his own life and friendships through a kind of romanticized filter. His novels ended up as accounts of how he wanted to see things, and often quite different from how others viewed events.

This beautiful film mostly honors Kerouac’s version of things, though there are touches of biography added that are not so flattering, such as the wonderful performance of Kirsten Dunst, as the woman who married Cassady’s character. Though her role is relatively small, she achieves special luminosity and poignance. Also exceptional are Garrett Hedlund as the Cassady character, who brilliantly convinces with his rakish charm. The unexpected casting of Viggo Mortensen as the character inspired by William S. Burroughs, is a brilliant vignette, and quite true to life.

No doubt my view of the film is colored by my own fascination with the Beat Generation, whose works and lives I’ve studied for decades. My partner who is not so fixated said, “The film seems to be about three things: substance abuse, male bonding, and abuse of women.” Though I cannot disagree, to me the film, like the novel, provides a depiction of how certain people can light up other’s lives with enthusiasm and inspiration; this may even translate into the creation of writing and art.

Though creativity does not require irresponsible behavior, the other side of the equation is the free spirits that defy convention, and question external authority. For anyone interested in the literary and cultural history of modern times, On the Road is definitely worthwhile. I’m less certain what I feel about how the film ends, and yet in a real sense, that conclusion was only the beginning of much else.