Ceci n’est pas une histoire

01 Oct 2016 - Buffalo Grove, Illinois - 02:04

All the movies I listed in the last blog were really terrific! (except Goldfinger, which was still pretty good) I rated them like this:

  • Princess Momonoke: 9.5/10
  • The Big Lebowski: 7.5/10
  • Drive: 9.5/10
  • Upstream Color: 8.5/10
  • Apocalypse Now: 9/10
  • The Third Man: 9/10
  • Goldfinger: 7/10

I have watched a couple of other movies in the meantime (Primer, Edge of Tomorrow, There Will Be Blood), but I haven’t a ton of time to dedicate to this one-movie-a-day endeavor. Turns out, it’s actually really hard fitting all those movies into a daily schedule! I’ll try to write up my thoughts on all of them eventually, but to hold you over in the meantime, here’s an essay I wrote about stories.

So what is a story, anyway? It’s made up of words, and images, and chronology, and sound, but the end result is what remains after one has processed those details.

Sometimes you have to distill experience into pure emotion. We’re all Benjy, after all; we all experience life as a fluid, a cup of water sloshing to the rim and spilling onto the table, falling in infinitesimal droplets. Time and sense are fragile, surfaces shattered with a touch. Just as it did for Benjy, who couldn’t tell one time from another. It all moves from one place to another just as easily as the water does.

The only thing that truly matters is the truth it gives you, distilled in the wine it transforms into. Drink up and feel yourself filled with the emotion an entire spectrum of sensations have clumped themselves into. That is what a story is.

On July 2nd, 2005, Katie Flynn was in a limousine with her mother, Jennifer, plus some other relatives. They had just left a family wedding. Katie was one of the flower girls.

While Katie’s aunt and uncle were getting married, Martin Heidgen was drinking up, preparing to gracefully end Katie’s life. He drove for two miles down the wrong side of the highway at 70 mph until his car collided with the front of the limousine. In the collision, Katie’s seatbelt decapitated her. Jennifer was the only one to make it out of the limousine unscathed. She picked up Katie’s bloody head, walked off to the side of the road, and sat there while emergency responders dissected the limousine to salvage family members.

They salvaged the rest of Katie’s body. Sometimes I imagine Katie’s soul lying in the bottom of the limousine, a silhouette dressed in white condemned to young death eternally. Never again would she walk to see her mother’s loving face, or any of the people she loved that were now climbing out of the limousine. Maybe she looked up and saw her mother’s tears drip onto her face. Or maybe she was still in the limousine. Or maybe she was just dead.

This was the basis for the song Limousine by early 2000’s band Brand New. The song is sung from Jennifer’s perspective. “Remain in my hands and smile,” she begs. The voice and words are laced with pain, a spiked cocktail that’s one part tragedy and three parts calm angst; we drink up to hear Jennifer Flynn, mother to a joyful flower girl alive just hours earlier; but never again, never again. “Remain in my hands and smile.” She runs her hands through black seven-year-old hair like she would have just three hours ago; just one hour ago; just a half hour; just then, when she was sitting right beside her in a limousine. But never again will it feel the way it did. Suddenly, the noise fades, and we’re taken to the perspective of Heidgen the killer:

Hey you beauty supreme,
Yeah, you were right about me.
But can I get myself out from underneath,
This guilt that will crush me?

And in the choir,
I saw our sad messiah.
He was bored and tired of my laments.
He said, “I died for you one time,
But never again.”    

The song becomes remarkably plaintive. The D-A-G-E chord progression underlies the imagery of a man kneeled down in the pew of a chapel, looking up at the cross and hearing those tragic words: that “I died for you one time,/but never again.” Never again. Never again. Never again.

The first time I listened to the song, the words rung in my ears. There was some sort of torment and guilt behind the ringing, the same that I suppose Heidgen felt. Guilt was appropriated into the mind through shock. “And in the choir…” Jesus stood before me. I saw his stigmata drip blood onto the hardwood floor of my room. “I died for you one time,/but never again.”

The rest of the song is a flurry of distorted guitar over the words Jennifer said to the media two days after the accident:

We’ll never have to buy adjacent plots of earth,
We’ll never have to rot together under the dirt.
I’ll never have to lose my baby in the crowd…

Well, I should be laughing right now.    

The song sputters to an end, B and G chord arpeggios slowing to a halt. The story closes just as it began: in silence.

“He was bored and tired of my laments.” A sigh. I watched Jesus’s eyes glaze over, staring at the pathetic sight that lay before him. I gazed back, and said, “Well, I should be laughing right now…”

Song and music provided my first experiences with the full power of storytelling. I grew up with two musicians for parents, so I listened to WFMT radio in the car, knew the names of a few famous conductors and composers, and watched Fantasia 2000 on DVD. I was particularly captivated with the segment on The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the tone poem of the same name by Paul Dukas. Mickey Mouse is the titular character, blundering about with his master’s hat, creating chaos everywhere until the master eventually comes back to set things straight. The master reprimands Mickey and hits him on the back with a broom in time with a final run in the violins and a chord from the entire orchestra.

Music can be programmatic, following a narrative, but more times than not the most important aspect of music is emotion, not chronology. Every conductor has said at one point the equivalent of Victor Hugo’s ubiquitous quote, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” I can describe chord progressions and patterns in music all I want, but texture? Timbre? These are intuitive, but ineffable. Once a poem has become set to music, once every single feeling, fabric, sense possible has been brought into the realm of the transcendent, it becomes that much greater. One destroys the constructs that scaffold up a poem - phrase constructions, diction, ink on a paper - to create something that goes beyond.

Consider Limousine, where perspective shifts between people narrating trauma. Do you need to piece together the sequence of events in the lyrics to understand the anguish? Consider The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Can you feel the slowing momentum building to the moment when you feel the broom hit your own head, like I did?

Narrative finds its power at its most nonsensical and unreal. A story is never actually a story; it’s never quite straightforward, never quite with crystal clear meaning. Story evolves, shifts between people and cultures. It transforms with every reading, consensus on interpretation oscillating constantly. It can be everything; but set in stone?

Never again. The truth in a story is in the wine, not the water. Water is transparent; when you look through it, you realize that it’s empty. It’s the destruction of all that makes water water that allows it to transform into full bodied wine. And the only way you can taste it is realize that water is clear, inherently nothing. Like a story.

I was introduced to films and videos from a very young age, too. I had my own computer ever since elementary school, plus access to plenty of DVDs. I wasn’t ever truly conscious of filmmaking techniques until much later in life - character development, cinematography, architecture of a shot, close-ups, wide angles, match shots, and all the other parts of clever editing - but I did develop a fascination with the medium. If a piece of literature brings an event or place to life, film brings them to hyperreality. That which can only exist in the mind, no longer merely exists there anymore: it’s in an external realm, beyond mind and body.

One of my favorite films is Paprika, an animated film by Satoshi Kon. An uncommon film to hear about, since the behemoth of serious Japanese animation is Miyazaki, but Kon was just as incredible as he ever was, if not better. In Paprika, the world rapidly shifts between reality and what is a dream world, instabilities and all. Kon cleverly uses match shots - close graphic matches two different scenes - to quickly bring the viewer between the two worlds. One moment, a character is in reality, picking up a cup of coffee - now he’s picking up a mug in a dream. And then another dream. And another, until the film is now shifting between five different dreams worlds. Or eight. Or whatever.

Kon uses these fast shifts between what is real and what is not at such breakneck speed that the film eventually blurs to the point where it’s unclear whether one is in reality or in the dream world at any given moment. The question is whether that actually matters. Perhaps the best way to experience the film is to surrender yourself to the confusion. I know that I gave up tracking chronology, and I surrendered, letting the surreality wash over me. Such surrender is an abstraction from chronology, after which there is no escape. I watched the world destroying itself; streets being pulled up and ripped apart; a absurd topsy turvy carnival. Did this happen in the real world, or in a dream? I didn’t care.

Annihilation of chronology, sense, and all ordinary conception of narrative, in the end, becomes the only constant, the only real reliability in interpretation. The only consistency is the lack of it, but that’s natural; after all, ceci n’est pas une histoire.

All of art, I would assert, follows this very rule: they create stories, but the annihilation of any inherent meaning or chronology frees it from the confines of a creator’s original conception. A creator, it is claimed, imbues a work of art with meaning and intention; but this, in itself, is an abstraction upon the mere fact that a creator creates notes on a page, or visual images, or sound, and then leaves it alone, to be recreated every time it’s experienced anew.

All conceptions of art, all interpretation, is an abstraction. Consider The Treachery of Images by René Magritte. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. A depiction of a pipe, Magritte posits, is not a pipe. If you look at the painting on a computer screen, you are not looking at a pipe. In both cases, you are seeing color; the real painting uses pigment, and the computer screen uses RGB dots. In either case, pieced together as gestalt it appears as a pipe, but the reality is that it is not. It is an abstraction of ink, or dots, or pigment, or whatever medium it uses to create a visual of…

Nothing. It is nothing. Ceci n’est pas une pipe. I came to terms with the fact that I had an emotional response to nothing. I ignored interpretation, and let myself liquidate all prior conceptions of what a piece was, or could be. I let it wash over, cleansing the word “art” from our superimposed naïveté. The true experience in story is an abstraction, but not an abstraction from the picture - it’s an abstraction from the dots on the canvas, the pure truth, that permits the real truth to come out in art.

Golconda by Magritte
Goldonda by Magritte

“Oh, it looks nice. The composition is pretty. Magritte made the red tiled roofs provide a contrast to the geometric pattern of falling bowler hat men.”

Nah. Ceci n’est pas une pipe. Ceci n’est pas une histoire. Ceci n’est pas. It is not.

Many thanks to Brand New, James Algar, Walt Disney Pictures, René Magritte, and countless other artists for providing beautiful, emotional, senseless stories to last a lifetime.

Rest in Peace
Satoshi Kon
August 24, 2010