I'm eight years old, driving back from seeing The Black Stallion with members of my family. I can no longer remember my opinion of the movie (I'm a girl; I was 8; it was about a horse: I'm sure I adored it).
My family members are dissecting the movie piece by piece, line by line, scene by scene, which I find all very puzzling.
I'm in England as part of a Theatre in London college program. We all go to see Uncle Vanya, starring Ian McKellan in the eponymous role (that summer, he was starring simultaneously in Richard III, which I also saw--no, he never confused his lines!). London playhouses are rather informal: playgoers can buy standing room when the seats run out. During the interval, I switch with my roommate, giving up my seat to stand at the rail overlooking the thrust stage.
Over an hour later, I straighten up from hanging over the rail and realize I've forgotten where I am. I have no idea even now whether the play was good or bad. Ian McKellan was in it, so I'm sure it was beautifully acted, but as for the direction, scenery, dialog . . .
No idea. For over 90 minutes, I was completely caught up in Chehov's play.
I have to admit, I still don't have the slightest idea what that play is about. But bored? Crystallized in my brain is an image of Kenneth Branagh walking out on stage in his bare feet, then he and Judi Dench roaring beautiful language at each other in beautiful voices. Much later, I'll remember that he wasn't much taller than Judi Dench, but at the time, all that struck me was the powerful delivery.
The sad truth about criticism, especially for those of us English graduates trained in the stuff, is that it gets easier as we get older. I have seen The Black Stallion since I was 8; it is beautifully, stunningly photographed. It is also entirely too long and monotonously paced in parts.
For good and for bad, criticism has its place, especially if you believe, as I do, that some things are better than others. Comparisons are rather inevitable.
And (if I'm honest) criticism can be fun to write.
Still, despite the importance, inevitability, and power of criticism, I ultimately side with C.S. Lewis on this issue: the best way to enjoy a piece of art is to get swept up in it. This is why excessive praise as well as excessive criticism can be detrimental to viewing a movie or reading a book. We are already prepared for perfection or for flaws (I find the former more problematic than the latter: regarding excessive criticism, I can always like something anyway; regarding excessive praise, the human brain has the detrimental capacity to imagine perfection--far beyond the actual possibility of its performance).
In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis argues that the best way to learn about a piece of art is to talk to the people who love it and find out why. He looks specifically at how people imbibe a piece of art--whether as users (what does this do to me or for me?) or as receivers (what is the author doing?).
For my thesis, I added a third or compromise position. To me, allowing the artist's work to sweep over me (receiver) also involves a creative component (user). I join the work, so much so that I reside in the artist's world while I am reading or watching it (one reason I only read short scary books by Stephen King, never long ones).
With this approach in mind (creative enjoyment), hunting for a message in fiction--or, contrawise, evaluating such works by their good, clean, appropriate, profound, insightful, important (take your pick) messages--creates a problem.
Academic and business compositions (should) tell you what their message is upfront. However, although fiction writers often start (or at least end) with a vision, the communication of that vision, message, or theme is usually (1) not primary since story or imagery or style comes first; (2) not fully acknowledged, even by the writer.
It might be more accurate to say that a fiction writer communicates a worldview, rather than a message of theme, but even that is too precise. Stephen King states that after he finished the first draft of Carrie, he noticed the recurrence of blood as an image. During the next edit, he emphasized its symbolic value but not so much so that it got in the way of the story. Speaking of myself, I wrote a full novel-size first draft of my current novella Aubrey before I realized the story was about rape and abuse.
|Courtesy: Mike Cherniske|
When my students write narratives, they have to have a thesis because the narrative is evidence, not a story for its own sake. But I still discuss with them the power of using story: "Why tell a story rather than deliver facts and figures?"
"Stories connect better," they tell me. "Stories can show us more. Stories can speak to us in different ways."
Figuring out what they connect with and how they speak is the best type of criticism.
In my posts on turning books into movies, I separate THE MESSAGE from the movie-maker's vision. A film based on a book might have a message. It must have a vision.