The central challenge of great narrative art is to present characters that feel like real people. The problem with that, of course, is that each person is a universe. Each person is depths of complexity, frailty, irrationality. We only barely know ourselves and don’t even know our spouses and children well. It’s a mark of true genius to be able to build characters in a piece of narrative art where you can feel this character has the same infinite depths as an actual human.
Since it’s impossible to portray these infinite depths, the best way to do that is to let people “take a peek under the iceberg.” Show just enough that the reader or viewer is just capable of discerning, through a glass darkly, that there are immense depths within. Show too little and the character is a cardboard cutout. Show too much and it becomes artificial. You can see the gears whirring inside the mechanical turk.
The work of art that I know that I think pulls it off the best, is War and Peace. Every single character in that book feels like a real person. Like a sculptor chipping away, Tolstoy shows us archetypes that he then refines into real people that are absolutely, thoroughly, 100% believable. Prince Andrey is a hero, but is also insecure, rejecting the woman he loves because she might have been with another man. Pierre is a coward of hidden depths and who rises to great maturity. And this is true of every single one of the Russian-novel-countless characters in the book. Criticism of War and Peace focuses on its pretty silly metaphysics and philosophy, but it is really a wonderful character book. You want to read it and read it over and over again and make these characters a part of your life because you know you’re never going to hit bottom with them. They’re infinitely deep just like you and me
(well, mostly me) .
One potentially fruitful way to reveal “just the right amount of iceberg” is through what I’ll refer to as “narrative impressionism”: telling your narrative through small sketches instead of a continuous storyline. Narrative impressionism lends itself to this because it is intrinsically suggestive: the whole point is to show just enough to suggest much, much more. But the real pitfall of narrative impressionism is also obvious: not showing enough. And not just showing enough, but by showing only the things you want to show, revealing the artificiality of the narrative. The reader/viewer gets into the habit of, with each new scene: “What is it the author is trying to tell me here? Oh, So-and-so is this type of person. Got it. Please move on, now.” Characters become dry and one-dimensional.
I write this a propos of The Tree Of Life, which I only just saw yesterday and was underwhelmed by. (Spoilers below the fold.)
I have to say, first of all, that if I hadn’t heard quite so much gushing about the movie, I wouldn’t have had such high expectations and would have enjoyed it more. Also I’d been led to believe that its Christianity was implicit, whereas it is quite explicit, and so I felt beat up over the head with it—but really, this wasn’t due to the movie itself so much as myself.
I also have to say that I didn’t mind the non-narrative, “arty” sequences at all. The movie has outstanding photography and outstanding music, and they are just thorough joys to behold.
No, the problem, I think now, is the narrative impressionism. The central story of the movie proceeds only by narrative impressionism, and after a while it gets tiresome.
You quickly get, about Jack’s father, that he is The Father Who Is Bitter About His Life And Transfers His Ambitions On His Kids And Is Too Distant And Harsh, which is an archetype of American fiction. Yes, there’s some deeper complexity there: he loves music, and he is wonderfully played, but that’s about it.
Jack’s mother, in particular, is a complete archetype of The Mother. As I said on Twitter, I doubt that mothers-of-three in rural Texas in the ’50s looked as beautiful at Jessica Chastain. I get tired after a while of Dude Movies, which this certainly is—movies where the guys are clearly the most important part of the story, and the women exist only as archetypes and plot-devices. The Tree Of Life fails the Bechdel Test — I’m not trying to make this a politics thing, and it’s possible to make a great movie or book which is primarily about men, just saying that most of our movies portray women (and especially mothers) unimaginatively, and that it’s a pet peeve of mine. Especially this character, who could have been the most interesting character in the movie.
It’s been said that the Mother character is an archetype on purpose—a theological archetype, and a reflection of the childhood memories through which we experience the movies. I mean, I guess, ok. But if you crash your car on purpose, the bumper is still ruined.
The childrens’ characters are the best ones. They’re the most fleshed out, they are acted outstandingly, and they do get enough complexity that you can feel they have serious depths, especially Jack but also the blonde boy.
Even the cleverest movie in the world fails if the viewer doesn’t identify with the characters at a deep level, and I wasn’t able to do that. Impressionism is all well and good, but it’s really risky, and it can feel pretentious when preferred over a narrative that would have made the characters easy to identify with. Yes, it’s the kid’s memories, it’s oneiric—whatever. It didn’t grab me. I’m glad I watched it. It’s outstandingly beautiful. There are wonderful moments. The performances are outstanding (except the empty-faced Sean Penn who I still can’t stand and whose drugs-and-drink-ravaged face isn’t credible for a successful architect). But it didn’t grab me. I understood that the kid committed suicide, but apparently not many people did, but only at the end did I realize that the kid who killed himself was the blonde one, not Jack. (I spent the whole movie asking myself: “Is Sean Penn the older Jack? Why assume that—just because they both have dark hair? Why follow a kid if he’s not going to be the one who commits suicide?”)
I am loath to say that it was “too arty for me”, because some of the most arty parts were what appealed most to me, but it did feel disjointed and, in some places, artificial. That, more than theological questions, is why I was ultimately not gaga.