Sincerity Vs. Sardonicism: Infinite Jest and Fight Club

There are some obvious ones: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous. The program, however, has evolved to include a whole slew of twelve-step fellowships: Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Crystal Meth and Sex Addicts and Workaholics and Overeaters Anonymous. The twelve-step lifestyle may have hit its parabolic maximum in the late 90s, but it continues to carve out a niche in American culture, a culture that has a particularly addictive personality. It makes sense, then, that (vice) Anonymous programs occupied a prominent role in American media of the late nineties. A program with a faith-based foundation is bound to be targeted by an increasingly secular, skeptical media industry. Two juggernauts of nineties culture come to mind.

Fight Club is a firmly postmodern film. A character that directly addresses the audience; a twist based entirely on the subjectivity of reality; an atmosphere marked by a general skepticism for authority and traditional power structures. Twelve-step fellowships are approached by the film with the same sardonic attitude. From a group dedicated to parasitic brain parasites (sic) to one called “Remaining Men Together”, the film suggests that these fellowships exist for any ailment that could possibly afflict a human being. The people who participate in these groups are portrayed as pitiful, weeping husks. The protagonist himself attends these meetings, but as an outsider, as somebody who would never really buy into something so gooey and sentimental. The film’s finger points at human sensitivity and vulnerability while its distrustful postmodern face contorts and laughs.

Infinite Jest seems to portray these fellowships in a similar light. The stories shared by the twelve-steppers border on the absurd; most of the participants suffer from laughably bad lots in life, and they wear their hearts on their sleeves about it. The same exaggerated sentimentality portrayed in Fight Club also exists in Infinite Jest, but there’s one important difference: it’s shown to work. While Fight Club makes twelve-step programs out to be ineffective and cheesy, Jest portrays them as effective and cheesy. Yes, there’s a whole lot of recitation of trite cliches and blathering on about a “Higher Power As You Understand It” and hugging other members and crying into their shoulders, but it’s honest and therapeutic and helps the addicts see that they’re not alone. Gooey sentimentality may not be cool or edgy, but for some people it might be just what they need.

This difference, I think, highlights a significant divide in our culture. Some are happy to point and laugh at the bits of our culture that seem silly; others do the same, but are also willing to recognize their merits. Malicious cynicism versus a sincere sense of humor. Perhaps if more artists cease to be content with stopping at the pointing and laughing, if more are willing to fuse their satirization with sincerity, then perhaps that sincerity will begin to infuse into our culture.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity

This is a theory that I’ve been thinking about for a long time now, and I’ve decided that I ought to flesh it out thoroughly with a full article.

While some skills of literary analysis are transferable to film analysis, there are a few key differences that make it an entirely different beast. These differences can make it difficult for even the most skilled readers to dissect film effectively. I’ll refer to these challenges under the umbrella of “film familiarity”.

Film familiarity can be divided into two primary components. The first one involves the fundamental tools that the medium uses to deliver an impact, which are visual and auditory stimuli. These stimuli also happen to be the variety of sensory information that most people are bombarded with most on a day to day basis. It may seem as if our familiarity with this sort of sensory information would make film analysis easier, but it actually generates one of the greatest challenges of understanding the form. Consider the written word; most literate people read in some capacity every single day, but they’re not exposed to nearly the same volume of text as they are to images and sounds. Furthermore, the text they’re exposed to in the form of cereal boxes and advertisements is a far cry from the text of literature. As a result, when someone sits down to read a poem, it’s an active and involved process. Because they’re not exposed to poetic language in their everyday life, there’s a degree of conscious effort that takes place to internalize it and interpret it. Each line is taken in, processed, and critically analyzed on at least a somewhat conscious level. The images and sounds of film, however, are far more familiar to the everyday person than the style of a poem. It feels more natural. When they watch a film they receive its emotional impacts, but they don’t need to consciously process the information they’re presented with in order to do so. Breaking down the film into its constituent parts feels unnecessary and unnatural, creating a barrier to understanding the technical elements of the medium.

The second part of film familiarity stems from the way the medium handles the passage of time. Now, written works have a limited degree of control over how much time the reader will spend on it. Tolkien, for instance, can make the journeys of his hobbits seem tortuous by tirelessly describing every last rock, tree, mountain, and bend in the road. But despite this, readers will spend varying amounts of time on each section. They’ll reread sentences that they don’t understand, savor the bits they enjoy most, and get through the boring sections as quickly as possible. The time controls of written works extend only as far as encouragement. A filmmaker, on the other hand, has total control over the duration of her work. She can select the exact total runtime and the precise duration of each scene. Barring bathroom breaks and intermittent pauses, and if a film is viewed as the creator intended, each viewer will be provided with the exact same runtime. Now, this is ignoring the frequent pauses that a film student or critic would employ in order to dissect certain scenes, but right now we’re referring only to the normal and intended delivery of a work. Undeniably, written works do not have the strict built-in duration that films have. This has a few important effects for the filmgoer. The most straightforward one is that the average viewer simply won’t have enough time to carefully dissect the piece. Since the film will go on and on despite the viewer’s thought processes, most people will not be able to carefully consider the intricacies of every shot and scene. The second, less straightforward effect is the subconscious encouragement towards passivity that a carefully controlled time structure generates. The controlled pace of a film means that a role that the audience would serve in the case of a written work is taken from them and relegated to the creators. Riding on the back of a motorcycle requires less attention than actually operating one. In the same way, the less work that an audience has to perform, the less attention they’ll need to pay to it. As a result, conscious effort must be taken to give a film the same attention as a novel or poem.

The funny thing about the medium is that if film familiarity is the primary stumbling block on the path to understanding the form, then one must actually become less comfortable with it in order to dissect it. They must consciously eliminate their rapport with the medium in order to be able to examine its technical elements. On the other hand, there must be some instinctual connection with the piece in order to be able to receive its intended emotional impact. Striking this balance between instinctual film familiarity and disinterested analysis is one of the greatest challenges that a student of film faces.


(This article is continued in a later post. Click here.)

Mr. Holmes and Shifting Perspectives

A few days ago I set aside some time to watch Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it. It seems like a Holmes movie starring one of the most beloved British actors in history would get a lot of publicity, but I really hadn’t heard much talk at all. It’s not a groundbreaking or exceptional film, but it certainly tells an emotionally satisfying and thought provoking detective tale that’s worth an hour and a half. What I really enjoyed about it, though, was the grace with which it weaves together distinct plotlines into a cohesive narrative.

The story is split into three separate series of events: Holmes’ outing in Japan to seek a plant that provides youth and enhances one’s memory, his final case that leads to his retirement, and his activities many years after his removal from the world of detecting. These three sequences could easily have been tossed together into a jumbled mess, but Condon manages to tie them together with poise and deliberation. Many recent films have tried to manage similarly complex plotlines and fallen flat on their faces (see Snyder’s participation-trophy-worthy Batman v. Superman. Actually, don’t see it), but Holmes never feels disorienting. This is partly due to the clear changes in setting that clue the viewer in as to what bit of Holmes’ story is being shown, but the key is distinct causal relationships between a sequence and the time shift preceding it. Every turn feels motivated, allowing the audience to understand where they actually are in the story and why they’re there in the first place. It’s very similar to chapter 3 of Brave New World, which I happened to be teaching the day after I watched Holmes. Huxley manages to wrangle the perspectives of three separate characters into a single chapter, and the result is one of the most effective pieces of worldbuilding in the entire novel. Shifts in perspective and time can be incredibly effective tools for a storyteller, but one must be sure not to lose cohesion in the process of utilizing them.

The Sense of an Ending, Life and Death in 163 pages

The first page begins with six cryptic, seemingly random statements. They are moments in time, innocuous observations of the world. When first read they seem meaningless, but as the story progresses these six moments begin to take on an important meaning. They develop and build slowly in a heartrending crescendo until they finally culminate at the conclusion, when they all finally make sense to the reader. Herein lies the beauty of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. He is able to seed images in his readers’ minds, images that wait for the perfect moment to come into their full form.

I’ve read a lot this year, but nothing has had as strong of an emotional impact as this short novel. It’s difficult to describe the feelings that it brings about. While there is an overwhelming sense of despair and terror brought about towards the gravity of our actions and our single chance at life, it isn’t the kind of despair that makes one want to bury their head under their pillow. In fact, it’s quite the opposite; after finishing, I found myself oddly invigorated, wanting to go out and have some kind of meaningful experience. A pervasive idea throughout the text is that most people fail to take charge of their life and turn it into something worth living, instead opting to let it fly by past them and take the path of least resistance. Barnes addresses this in a beautiful and realistic way, without allowing his book to become some sort of preachy self-help novella. The language is fairly simple but well-refined, and none of the events seem grandiose or exaggerated. I’m normally not a stickler for realism in the literature I read, but considering this novel’s grounded and practical driving theme I found it to work very well.

Despite its short length, The Sense of an Ending manages to pack in many complex and profound truths about the nature of life and aging. Among these are the reliability of memory in forming one’s ideas about the world, the place suicide has in society, and the transitive nature of relationships. I was amazed to see how well Barnes is able to fit in so many ideas without overcrowding the text, and also how he manages to bring all of these ideas together to tell the story of a single man’s life, identifying the most important and formative moments along the way.

I can’t recommend this novel enough. I hope to revisit it when I’m older in order to compare how it impacts me at a different stage of life.