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W.H. Auden Clearly States the Problem

There is a special place in my heart for the poet W.H. Auden (See my previous post on The More Loving One here) because for my dollar he deals, as poets go, most directly with the conundrum of the human spirit in the age of technology. And we can hardly say to have faced up to this problem in our own time. There are articles published all the time which nobody reads about the disturbing correlations between the use of social media with depression and anxiety, especially among young people, and it’s no wonder why. But things are not poised to get any better any time soon. Quite the opposite. And as time goes on we continue to come up with canned excuses for keeping certain types of technology in our lives which only act as a weight around our neck. We must obviously bow to the god of convenience.

One of my favorite meditations on this subject is Auden’s preface to The Sea and the Mirror, a poetical commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In it Auden questions whether or not science and art are sufficient to fill our desperate need for meaning. O what authority gives existence its surprise? / Science is happy to answer / That ghosts who haunt our lives / Are handy with string and wire. But this is hardly satisfying. Our wonder, our terror remains. If we turn to art then for an answer still we will meet The lion’s mouth whose hunger / No metaphors can fill.

I am sometimes put off by poetry because to me there is nothing worse than trying too hard. And there is a lot of poetry that tries very hard to be poetry and that comes across in reading. But Auden is one of the exceptions. His style is effortless. I don’t think there is one line where he takes liberty with my trust as a reader. There are no easy answers. And I find a good dose of old-fashioned congenial Britishness is never a bad companion on one’s quest for meaning anyway. Enjoy:

The aged catch their breath,

For the nonchalant couple go

Waltzing across the tightrope

As if there were no death

Or hope of falling down;

The wounded cry as the clown

Doubles his meaning, and O

How the dear little children laugh

When the drums roll and the lovely

Lady is sawn in half.

 

O what authority gives

Existence its surprise?

Science is happy to answer

That the ghosts who haunt our lives

Are handy with mirrors and wire,

That song and sugar and fire

Courage and come-hither eyes

Have a genius for taking pains.

But how does one think up a habit?

Our wonder, our terror remains.

Art opens the fishiest eye

To the Flesh and the Devil who heat

The Chamber of Temptation

Where heroes roar and die.

We are wet with sympathy now;

Thanks for the evening; but how

Shall we satisfy when we meet,

Between Shall-I and I-Will,

The lion’s mouth whose hunger

No metaphors can fill?

 

Well, who in his own backyard

Has not opened his heart to the smiling

Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard

Was sober when he wrote

That this world of fact we love

Is unsubstantial stuff;

All the rest is silence

On the other side of the wall;

And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.

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Charlie Brown: Building Character

Charlie Brown is arguably one of the most recognizable fictional characters of all time—he and the rest of the Peanuts gang are larger than life.

But you may be surprised to learn that in the first Peanuts strips, published in 1950, Charlie Brown was little more than a prototype of his future self. He was more like a stock character than the unmistakable loser we all know and love. And beyond Charlie Brown almost every other piece of Peanuts was missing in these first strips. There was no Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, or Pig-Pen. The other starting main characters from the early 1950s strips–Shermy and Patty–would eventually be scrapped to make room for the future stars.

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Above is the very first strip of Peanuts ever published, October 2, 1950.

Although most of what we’ve come to know as Peanuts doesn’t appear in Schulz’s work until the 1960s, the original germ of what the character of Charlie Brown would become is present in this very first panel. Of all that’s absent, it’s what’s present that is most striking. There is Charlie Brown the likable loser:

Good ol’ Charlie Brown.

How I hate him!

I like this first strip and the beginning era of Peanuts–the early 1950s–because, all throughout this period, you can see that Schulz is still working. I think that’s why the first panel is two other characters looking at and commenting on Charlie Brown. It’s a way of acting out Schulz’s own task, which was to see and define a character people would be interested in. He was still trying to see Charlie Brown. He didn’t have a fully formed character to begin with. He just began and worked it out as he went along. It took him some time but he eventually got it. Below is a much more recognizable strip which was published January 1957.

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That’s more like it.

What a great reminder for the creative person. You don’t need to have everything all worked out. What you need is one good idea to build on.

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How Reading Raymond Carver Can Make You a Better Writer

Raymond Carver’s short stories are some of the most distinct in the English language. He wrote most prolifically in the 1970s and 80s, and was inclined toward what he described as “brevity and intensity.” His sentences are short, the subject matter is often the grimy rough-and-tumble of the American lower-middle class, but the impact left on the reader defies any easy categorization.

“I Could See the Smallest Things,” isn’t one of Carver’s more popular stories, but it’s my favorite. Published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, it was cut heavily by Gordon Lish, Carver’s longtime editor, by about twenty pages. The final version of the story is only five pages, but doesn’t lack any power for that. On the contrary, “I Could See the Smallest Things,” is an object lesson in how to capture your reader’s attention with grace and subtlety.

The opening paragraphs of “I Could See the Smallest Things,” begin with a mystery:

I was in bed when I heard the gate. I listened carefully. I didn’t hear anything else. But I heard that. I tried to wake Cliff. He was passed out. So I got up and went to the window. A big moon was laid over the mountains that went around the city. It was a white moon and covered with scars. Any damn fool could imagine a face there.

There was light enough so that I could see everything in the yard—lawn chairs, the willow tree, clothesline strung between the poles, the petunias, the fences, the gate standing wide open.

But nobody was moving around. There were no scary shadows. Everything lay in the moonlight, and I could see the smallest things. The clothespins on the line, for instance.

I put my hands on the glass to block out the moon. I looked some more. I listened. Then I went back to bed.

But I couldn’t get to sleep. I kept turning over. I thought about the gate standing open. It was like a dare.

In true story-teller form, Carver is artfully inviting us to be interested in the mystery the protagonist is experiencing. The gate. What made the noise at the gate? Sometimes, as writers, we forget that simple open-ended questions are powerful tools. A reader nagged by a question is a reader motivated to turn the page. This doesn’t mean we should give up the poetry in our writing, or over-emphasize an arbitrary question. Notice how Carver includes details about the moon and what the narrator sees in her yard. But these aren’t arbitrary either. These details work in service to the story as a whole. We are experiencing the world of the protagonist and her context. The details contextualize the relevance of the question, while the question gives direction to the details.

Pretty simple so far.

The narrator, Nancy, walks outside to her gate to see what made the noise and finds her neighbor, Sam, leaning on his own fence.

“Evening, Nancy,” Sam Lawton said.

I said, “Sam, you scared me.” I said, “What are you doing up?” “Did you hear something?” I said. “I heard my gate unlatch.”

He said, “I didn’t hear anything. Haven’t seen anything, either. It might have been the wind.”

He was chewing something. He looked at the open gate and shrugged.

His hair was silvery in the moonlight and stood up on his head. I could see his long nose, the lines in his big sad face.

I said, “What are you doing up, Sam?” and moved closer to the fence.

I let myself out and went along the walk. It felt funny walking around outside in my nightgown and my robe. I thought to myself that I should try to remember this, walking around outside like this.

Sam was standing over by the side of his house, his pajamas way up high over his tan-and-white shoes. He was holding a flashlight in one hand and a can of something in the other.

It’s easy to miss what’s being done here. Did you notice the bait and switch? In section 1 the object of interest is the opening of the gate. Now it’s switched. Sam dismisses the opening of the gate, “It might have been the wind,” and now we are left wondering a) who is Sam? and b) what is he going to show the narrator? This switching doesn’t mean the gate is meaningless or just a trick to catch our attention. But, as we will see, the meaning of the gate changes.

Sam and Cliff used to be friends. Then one night they got to drinking. They had words. The next thing, Sam had built a fence and then Cliff built one too.

Sam then shows Nancy his problem.

“Look at this,” Sam said, hitching his pajama trousers and squatting down. He pointed his light at the ground.

I looked and saw some wormy things curled on a patch of dirt.

“Slugs,” he said.

Sam takes Nancy by the arm and guides her to see the holes in his rose bushes and the traps he sets for the slugs. “An awful invention, the slug,” Sam says.

And then there are a few key images:

A plane passed overhead. I imagined the people on it sitting belted in their seats, some of them reading, some of them staring down at the ground.

“Sam,” I said, “how’s everybody?”

“They’re fine,” he said, and shrugged.

He chewed on whatever it was he was chewing. “How’s Clifford?” he said.

I said, “Same as ever.”

Sam said, “Sometimes when I’m out here after the slugs, I’ll look over in your direction.” He said, “I wish me and Cliff was friends again. Look there now,” he said, and drew a sharp breath. There’s one there. See him? Right there where my light is.”

I closed my arms under my breasts and bent over to where he was shining his light. The thing stopped moving and turned its head from side to side. Then Sam was over it with his can of powder, sprinkling the powder down.

“I quit, you know,” Sam said. “Had to. For a while it was getting so I didn’t know up from down. We still keep it around the house, but I don’t have much to do with it anymore.”

I nodded. He looked at me and he kept looking.

“I’d better get back,” I said.

“Sure,” he said. “I’ll continue with what I’m doing and then when I’m finished, I’ll head in too.”

I said, “Good night, Sam.”

He said, “Listen.” He stopped chewing. With his tongue, he pushed whatever it was behind his lower lip. “Tell Cliff I said hello.”

I said, “I’ll tell him you said so, Sam.”

Sam ran his hand through his silvery hair as if he was going to make it sit down once and for all, and then he used his hand to wave.

Nancy then gets in bed and lays her robe “within reach,” hears Cliff clear his throat, and swallow.

I don’t know. It made me think of those things that Sam Lawton was dumping powder on.

I thought for a minute of the world outside my house, and then I didn’t have any more thoughts except the thought that I had to hurry up and sleep.

Raymond Carver can teach the willing writer that a simple story, like life, can be more than the sum of its parts. The writer need not smack the reader over the head. Sometimes all a powerful story does is leave a trail of bread crumbs to something else.

Remember the gate. It opened. We never found out how it opened. “It might have been the wind.” Or maybe Sam opened it himself. But the real point of the story isn’t the gate, or who opened it, but that it opened. The gate, once a piece of tangible mystery, a who-done-it, becomes a symbol. The gate, a doorway through the fence, that was built out of spite, becomes on opportunity—perhaps a damned opportunity—to restore what has been lost.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox is the Best Wes Anderson Film, Part 2: Who am I, Kylie?

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Source: Saulscreative.com

IF THE SIGNIFICANCE OF Mr. Fox’s journey is exhumed during his confrontation with the wolf, everything leading up to it takes on a relatable form. The opening scene particularly becomes more than just a piece of information that moves the story along:

This scene is the prototypical nightmare for any modern person fearing the trappings of a traditional family life, so the mythos of hyper-individualism goes: freedom dies the moment you become responsible for someone else’s wellbeing, and thus happiness dies along with it. Mr. Fox feels this as he insincerely smiles—knowing the outward role he is supposed to be playing while being inwardly conflicted. Felicity Fox, on the other hand, upon asking him to find a ‘new line of work,’ is established as the moral center of the story: the embodiment of the expectations Mr. Fox will try to negotiate his way around.

Fantastic Mr. Fox, a stop-animation movie with fox puppets, is one of the most sophisticated critiques of this kind of modern day mythologizing I’ve ever seen; it does this by avoiding easy answers. Like Mr. Fox, we are all caught somewhere between the competing realizations of our obligations to others vs. individual freedom. One story tells us that in order to be happy we need to settle down into a family collective and subjugate our needs and wants to the group. The other says that this traditional model has largely failed and that in order to truly be happy we must follow our internal drives for autonomy and self-sufficiency. Each story, in its critique of the other, throws a little of the baby out with the bathwater, eschewing some element of human complexity.

Mr. Fox therefore has an identity crises which leads him to a path not unfamiliar to many of us. He does what he has to do in secret while playing a different role in public. He thinks this won’t have any effect on those he loves:

But of course it does have an effect.

In fact before Mr. Fox even commits any secret acts of‘pure animal craziness,’ his son Ash is already aware of his father’s resentment towards him:

How many children throughout history have been subject to their parents’ misappropriation of attention and significance? This is the deeply ingrained story of what happens when a culture cannot make up its mind about what it thinks it should be. When we (as well-meaning individuals) cherry pick and otherwise ignore incompatibilities between cultural narratives that are irreconcilable, schisms develop within us overtime which effect how we relate to others and especially those closest to us.

THESE ARE ALL VERY WEIGHTY and significant ideas but the masterstroke of Fantastic Mr. Fox is in how it uniquely handles these. Rather than becoming overly somber at its own realizations, Fantastic Mr. Fox insists on being funny. This, in my opinion, is the best way to explore tough and self-implicating problems. We can’t take ourselves too seriously or we sort of lose the point.

One of the ways Wes Anderson pulls this off is by poking fun at ways in which human civilization deals with its own inconsistencies, reinterpreting them for the animal world. My favorite example of this is the Whack Bat scene:

Why are the rules for Whack Bat so complex?

And why is it funny?

This is an expression of how culturally central sports are, and how at the same time, they are completely arbitrary systems of rules that govern human movement for the sake of entertainment and ritualistic reenactment of earlier more brutal times, when human strength and speed were important for sustenance and not sport. Ash wants to be an athlete because his dad was an athlete. This is illustrative of the very conflict within Mr. Fox: sports are a remnant of how the primal life has be tempered and even made beautiful through civilized cooperation. Imagining the minutia of Whack Back reminds us just how ridiculous our obsessions with sports are. It’s been estimated that the entire sports industry, combining all ticket sales, merchandising revenue, and sponsorships will amount to 73.5 billion dollars by the year 2019. This is hilarious. The agonizing attention which is paid to the smallest details of statistics, analysis, and reportage of games, both professional and collegiate, is a reminder of how conflicted we are about the obsolescence of our own bodies. Ash’s particular desire to be an athlete is also a function of trying to gain his father’s approval.

THIS IS JUST ONE example of the innumerable ways Fantastic Mr. Fox gives space for clever humor.

Without spoiling the ending, it’s safe to say that Mr. Fox does accomplish certain resolutions to his problem of the divided self.

In the Boggis, Bunce, & Bean Supermarket, under fluorescent lights, amidst aisles of groceries, Mr. Fox gives a concluding speech in elegy to our modern day situation; caught between our primal instincts and the world made for us by society:

They say our tree may never grow back, but one day something will. Yes, these crackles are made of synthetic goose, and these giblets come from artificial squab, and even these apples look fake, but at least they’ve got stars on them. I guess my point is, we’ll eat tonight, and we’ll eat together. And even in this not particularly flattering light, you are without a doubt the five and a half most wonderful wild animals I’ve ever met in my life. So let’s raise our boxes to our survival.

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Fantastic Mr. Fox is the Best Wes Anderson Film, Part 1: I Have a Phobia of Wolves

I WANT TO TREAT this scene as a first stepping stone in a series of reflections. I have an uphill battle to fight: I want to make case that Fantastic Mr. Fox—often overlooked or dismissed as a kid’s movie—is actually Wes Anderson’s best film, and is one of the most important films of the last ten years. I figure my favorite scene was as good a place as any to start.

The scene is both a literal and structural a detour: Mr. Fox, his son Ash, and Kylie the possum have saved cousin Kristofferson from farmer Bean. They are riding a motorcycle on their way back to their hideout to hatch a plan with the rest of the animals to get back at the farmers who have forced them underground. On the road Kylie spots a wolf. He says to the group, “Don’t turn around,” and comically all three heads turn (because, of course, in life, we do the very thing we’re told not to.) Mr. Fox stops the motorcycle to look at the wolf. “Where’d he come from?” Mr. Fox says. And soft choir music plays as Mr. Fox awkwardly comes to terms with his ‘phobia of wolves.’

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THIS IS FUNNY—I smile every time I watch this scene—but it’s also emotional. Mr. Fox too is on the brink of tears at one point but fights them back. Wes Anderson has a unique skillset as a director, one that enables him to hit beats of humor and melodrama at the same time, by complicating what would otherwise be a visually striking but superficial story with genuine discord between the appearance and what’s underneath.

Take for instance Mr. Fox’s attempt to communicate with the wolf. He states their Latin names, tells the wolf he has a phobia of wolves, speaks in different languages, but the wolf is silent. Wes Anderson’s obsession with the surface level composition does well to freight this interaction with meaning. Mr. Fox and the wolf are literally both animals but the wolf is not anthropomorphic, which brings tension to the attempts to communicate. We, as the viewers, are not sure whether or not the wolf will respond. And Mr. Fox, even set against his greatest fear, is ever a bullshit artist. He says all throughout the movie that he is a wild animal. That is taken to be the main subtext of the movie, the reason for the materialization of the main plotline: Mr. Fox cannot help but steal chickens and squabs: as he says to Kylie “And how can a fox ever be happy without, you’ll forgive the expression, a chicken in its teeth?” He thinks he wants to be a wild animal but isn’t prepared to deal with the negative consequences that go along with that. The wolf is a physical manifestation of the disparity between what Mr. Fox thinks he is and what he actually is.

The raised fist is meant to be ambiguous and funny; a symbol normally associated with political movements, it somehow fits. I don’t know why but this is the perfect way for the wolf to reciprocate—probably because it subverts Mr. Fox’s expectation that the wolf will know Latin or French, and instead, without words, this scene engenders the ironic feeling that although they are trying to express solidarity with one another, the two couldn’t be more different.

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WES ANDERSON IS THE PERFECT auteur to give expression to Mr. Fox because he too is something like a bullshit artist—but we are all bullshit artists in this sense. Mr. Fox wants both sides of the coin. He wants to live with the benefits of society and the benefits of a wild life with none of the downside, and without considering the effect that effort has on others. If this is not the underlying moral calculus for just about every modern day problem we face, I don’t know what would be.

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I APPRECIATE THE MORAL subtleties of Fantastic Mr. Fox, which is at least partially a movie made for kids. Disney & Pixar movies can be morally heavy handed, with overt messages and morals built in so obviously that it feels rigged from the beginning. Few ‘kid’s movies’ respect the intelligence of children and their ability to grasp complexity. The tested formula for conventional features seems to be: market to the parents instead of the kids, with messages the parents will want their kids to learn. This is fine. But my favorite movies and books of this genre (Willy Wonka, Star Wars, A Wrinkle in Time, & Fantastic Mr. Fox etc.) don’t necessarily pander directly to kids or to parents. Instead they become kid friendly by inviting kids to eat at the adult’s table and helping them come face-to-face with big ideas without spoon-feeding: they are accessible to kids and adults both by opening up the experiences of the characters and the general plotline in a way that is relevant to everyone.

This is no small task for the story teller. To be relevant to the widest number of people is to in some sense be universal, and a universal kids movie has fewer options at its disposal to reach such a level—being limited to what only is considered appropriate—so there is no choice other than to go deep, to delve into meaningful symbols, while eschewing the more gratuitous aspects of death or sex.

Rather than preach a specific message, this scene, and Fantastic Mr. Fox as a whole, lays out a way of thinking about the morality we all face. Even the surface is a symbol, the animals, which lends strength to Wes Anderson’s particularly stylized compositions as he plays with those metaphors.

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THE QUESTION, to my mind, is: how will we face those sides of ourselves that are driven by instinct? Avoid them? Explain them away? Run right for them, consequences be damned?

However we come to terms with this, we all have a little bit of fox in us.

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