The High and Low of It

Culture, that is.

I didn’t mention that before the Working Girl and I ventured out to the New Windsor Rodeo Saturday night we watched a matinee of Snakes on a Plane.

Now, I’m always a little late to the game. My Internet browsing consists mostly of visiting a few blogs, a few literary websites, and checking my four or five email accounts. So I didn’t see the Snakes on a Plane trailer until about two weeks ago, and I saw it on television, not the Internet. W.G. was in another room, and she heard me saying out loud to myself, “What the hell?”

I told her what I’d just seen—a bunch of snakes, on a plane. She said, “That’s the first you’ve heard of it?”

It was. And, as I said, my first reaction was mostly astonishment. Ten years or so ago, amid the tirade of movies that featured natural disasters in lieu of plot or characters—there were, if I remember correctly—volcanoes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes—I used to try and come up with a joke about what the next installment would showcase—A blizzard? Really big rain puddles? A strong wind?—but pretty much anything I could come up with was out there already, or in production, and thus my jokes tended to fall flat.

This, though, this Snakes on a Plane, had to take the proverbial cake as the ultimate in ridiculous plots.

So, bored and looking for a movie to watch Saturday afternoon, W.G. and I decided to check it out.

The result: I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as frequently or as hard in a movie theater as I did that afternoon. Even W.G., prone as she is to silent laughter—the kind that takes place mostly in her head—let a few laughs rip.

The movie is truly over-the-top. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that in the movie’s first half hour, three people die in the airplane’s bathrooms, and one woman is, um, “seduced” by one of the creatures.

But I was never, throughout the movie’s entire 90 minutes, not entertained.

Does the film invite further study? Will I ever watch it again? No and probably not, though I can imagine this thing being shown in theatres, a la The Rocky Horror Picture Show, for years.

* * *
This is the wonderful writer Gary Lutz, in an interview:

“When I'm in the mood for a story, when I feel like knowing who did what to whom, I'll watch Ghost World for the 40th time or some other wonderful movie. Movies are the perfect storytelling medium.”

Now, I don’t think Snakes on a Plane is anywhere near perfect storytelling, and it’s definitely no Ghost World. The movie does take causality into account, though. We know why and how the snakes get on the plane, and why they’re so vicious. And there’s something like character development, though I think most of it is tongue-in-cheek, or at least that’s the way I took it, and in doing so found it hilarious.

But I bring up Lutz’ quote for another reason. I’ve mentioned on this blog a few times that in my early days as a writer I cared solely about language and paid little to no attention to plot, causality, even character.

In graduate school, however, “story” became a more primary concern for me as a writer. I read my first detective novel (which was, in fact, my first ever foray into reading genre). I paid attention to plot and character development, and not just in the books I was reading. I also watched films differently. And I became obsessed with good television shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under.

After studying “story” for a few years, I think I would have agreed with Lutz—films are perhaps better suited for conveying story than fiction.

I found that, though I could get into the “story” of a novel, if its language were not working in a way that kept me interested, I was less inclined to want to keep reading.

Here is another quote from Lutz, from the same interview: “I don't read fiction for the story; I read it for the acts of language, for the feelingful feats of syntax, and if I don't find any, I'll move on.”

While I was studying “story” I came across a few books whose authors managed to both tell a riveting story and do so using language that satisfied me: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, the Judas novels of Will Christopher Baer, the works of Dennis LeHane, and Daniel Woodrell’s Tomato Red.

I should say that I still enjoyed reading “literary” fiction as much as anything. And I agree with what Ben Marcus had to say in Harper’s about language-based writing: it’s good for the brain. But reading some of the above authors made me re-evaluate whether or not the two—strong language and strong story—needed to be exclusive, because when I encountered writers with a feel for language that was indeed “literary,” but who could also make me really want to turn the book’s pages—not just languor in the sentences—I was hooked. And for me, this kind of writing is generally my favorite of all “entertainment” experiences.

* * *
I mentioned, among those books I considered exceptional (and there were many more, but those works come to mind quickly) Tomato Red, a novel by Daniel Woodrell.

Here’s half the first sentence of that novel: “You’re no angel, you know how this stuff comes to happen: Friday is payday and it’s been a gray day sogged by a slow ugly rain and you seek company in your gloom, and since you’re fresh to West Table, Mo., and a new hand at the dog-food factory, your choices for company are narrow but you find some finally in a trailer court on East Main, and the coed circle of bums gathered there spot you a beer, then a jug of tequila starts to rotate and the rain keeps comin’ down with a miserable bluesy beat and there’s two girls millin’ about that probably can be had but they seem to like certain things and crank is one of those certain things, and a fistful of party straws tumble from a woven handbag somebody brung, the crank gets cut into lines…”

That’s right, half the first sentence. (And just so you know, the novel quickly becomes first-person, for those of you put-off by the use of second-person.)

The language is fairly stellar, but so, too, is the book’s plot. Its characters are well developed, if odd, and they are thrown into some interesting and compelling circumstances.

I just this week (yes, the same week I watched Snakes on a Plane) read Woodrell’s latest: Winter’s Bone. And the language in this one is even better than the language in Tomato Red in my opinion. So, too, is the story.

The story is an old one: a girl goes in search of her missing father.

She encounters problems along the way that border on the melodramatic, but what bolsters her search is the language in which the novel is written. And it is here, I think, that Woodrell succeeds in achieving that rare combination: He’s written a book with an honest-to-God story but done so in a way that allows the reader to still marvel at his “acts of language.”

Does the novel invite further study? Will I ever read it again? Yes and most definitely yes. I may read it again later today (because I still don’t quite get the thing about the names).

So, for those of you who’ve scrolled this far down the page: go and check this guy out. He’ll definitely make it worth your time. And once you’re done with Winter’s Bone, and you’re feeling a little down about Ree Dolly’s circumstances, and the overall condition of the world, go and check out Snakes on a Plane. It is guaranteed to lighten your mood pretty quickly.


fringes said...

Great post, Chad. Thanks for the review and the recommendations.

Thanks for your help with the thing.

Amra Pajalic said...

I saw the trailer too and couldn't believe my eyes. I'll probably have to watch it on DVD, just to satisfy my curiousity. But I have a tiny phobia about snakes and will probably have nightmares and have to check under the bed and sofa every night for a few weeks. So that's a turn off.

That paragraph by Woodrell is amazing. I'm finally getting back into reading after a dry spell and i"ll have to start my to read list again.