The Tulip Driven Life Podcast

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Is The Cinema Influencing The Way Authors Write Novels?

So, this is a major departure from what I usually write about on this blog. This is not something I am going to tie directly in with the Bible or theology (although I certainly could), but instead will merely be my opinion on the matter. Of course, in the realm of opinions, we are free to disagree, and it can be true that both people can be right. This is because we aren't dealing with God here, or absolutes, but a preference, a particular taste if you will. It is not true that pizza tastes better than spaghetti, although, to me, it does. For you, it may not, but that is because of our differing taste buds. So, this article will be more in the realm of, "Which tastes better: Pizza or Spaghetti?" And of course, everyone knows the answer is pizza, no matter what toppings you have :D

Having said that, I do want to remind everyone that opinions can be preferences but they can also be more than that. So this is an opinion that I will concede may be nothing more than a matter of personal preference or taste, however that will not stop me from saying that I believe my personal taste is the preferable personal taste :). Of course, we all believe that anyways don't we? Otherwise, we would never express our opinions and sentiments and preferences and try to get others to see things the way we do in this wonderful world.

Anyways, enough philosophizing. I have recently read Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves To Death, which I did a partial, incomplete piece on here:( In it, he argues quite persuasively that media shapes our epistemology, the way we view truth and derive our truth. Also, he argues, again quite persuasively, that the television is causing us to devalue critical thinking and patience, replacing it with amusement. Quick thrills. Cheap tricks. Headline news with a punch line. Jay Leno for the broadcast booth. In short, we are amusing ourselves to death. Politics, religion, have succumbed to the masses desire to be entertained, amused. Which, if I remember correctly, the word amused literally means "no think," or not to think or something like that.

And Postman said all this back in 1985. It still rings true today, although perhaps just as much if not more so through the internet and music than the television, but the same principle remains. I remember my art teacher at UNC Pembroke cussing us out one day because one student fell asleep in class and his excuse was that the class, and teacher, were boring. The art teacher yelled out, "How dare you demand to be continually entertained!" Along with a few expletives, he certainly drove his point home. I never forgot it either. He was right. Everything, including religion, politics, the news, even our science and math books, are all about style over substance. Even Microsoft Word 2007 for crying out loud! There are so many fancy pictures and diagrams I just don't know what to do anymore. I looked at one of my Dad's old math books and, surprise, very few pictures. But, bigger surprise, you could actually understand things a lot better. Why? Because they actually explained the math problems to you with intelligible words, not illustrations with arrows all over the place. Today's text books are more like road maps.

So, now let's narrow the scope. If Neil Postman is right, and I think if we are honest with ourselves, by and large he is, then the answer to my title for this post is yes. Yes, the cinema is influencing the way authors write novels today. How could it not? This is Postman's whole premise- that the culture is now gathering its epistemology from pictures, not words. Images, not ideas. Emotion, not logic. Passion, not thoughtful, intelligent reflection.

It is no wonder, then, that movies are so chalked full of action (most of them anyways) that whether or not a movie star can act has become nearly irrelevant. Can you look up at a large green screen with a horrid look on your face and shout out, "Oh, HECK no!!" convincingly? Then you have got what it takes for Hollywood.

I know that's not completely fair, I know I am overgeneralizing, but the point remains- this is the good stuff kids go for, like the cereal slogan. Hey, in fact it is like today's cereal- no substance, no nutrients, just sugar. How dare we demand to have our taste buds entertained!

So the movies, the video games, even the music, is all about emotion over notions, feeling without rational thought shaping and guiding them. Thus, Postman fears, the death of the book. Not because of big brother taking them from us and refusing to let us read so that we can gain the knowledge to free ourselves from tyranny, oh no sir, something far more sinister, far more dangerous. The death of the book will come because nobody cares to read them anymore!

Who reads nowadays? I mean, besides the faithful Calvinists and girls who read Twilight or sappy romance novels, who reads? I can honestly say that besides theology, I don't read much at all. Harry Potter, okay, I love the movies, but I have only read the first and last book in the series completely. I like reading books about history, like the 900 page whopper I read on the Civil War, but by and large, even I don't read all that much outside of theological and biblical studies. This is alarming.

Reading is the place, or was supposed to be at least, where deep thinking, reflection, Truth, was supposed to have its say. The Bible after all, is a book, not a powerpoint presentation. And the symbol of the cross only has meaning to us because of the Truth that is behind the cross, the meaning behind the symbol. The knowledge of the gospel! And the gospel is communicated with words. A skit of the crucifixion is not the gospel. It may have profound impact on us, but only because we know the meaning behind what we are watching, and that is because we have been told the gospel with words!

So, my grand argument, then, is that it is rather foolish for a visually driven culture (which, hello, that is 21st century America!) to demand books and novels to visually stimulate them and not to actually develop a good story, a deep plot, and dynamic, winsome characters. Oh, believe me, the parables of Jesus are quite visually stimulating. But what do they use? That's right- words, logic, truth, reasoning. They tell a good story, and things aren't exploding all the time. They stimulate our thoughts with ideas, which may be explained with parables and images, but it is explaining a Truth claim, an idea. The gospel makes the image of the cross profound and emotionally moving. It isn't visual eye candy- rather, it provokes emotion because it points to the most profound, most amazing, most humbling truth of all time: Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, died on the cross for sinners, saving them from the hell they deserve. The images serve a purpose- to point us to Truth. If Jesus said sit down, I am going to show you a parable, and then he held up a sign depicting a bundle of wheat and tares and gave no explanation for what he was showing, we wouldn't have a clue what he was talking about. That's right, that would be because he wouldn't be talking! Pictures without explanation is like speaking gibberish, unless the picture depicts something that we already understand. A painting of a sunset doesn't necessarily need an explanation. A picture of a few blades of grass, and nothing else, probably does.

And that is precisely what has been demanded today of books. Our culture, which gathers its epistemology and ways of learning truth and experiencing "the good life" now from pictures, loud noises with no understandable or intelligible words in music (kind of like the clanging symbols that make no discernible sound the Bible speaks of, yeah?), and/or gyrating on the dance floor, is demanding that the book either gets its act together and follows lock-step, or else dies the death of not being read. That makes about as much sense as telling a letter of the alphabet to turn into a smiley face, some sort of symbol, and express itself in that way. But whatever you do alphabet, don't string yourself together with other members of the alphabet into meaningful words, that would require us to think, rather than just feel and experience you. Thinking and feeling, words and images, they go together. But the thought produces the emotions, or should at least. The knowledge of the cross gives meaning and may make us emotional when we see the image of the cross.

What am I getting at? Here is what I am getting at. Why on earth must authors entertain from the first page of their story with "written" eye candy? Oh you know what I mean, it might as well be picture books minus the pictures. "ZOOM!" went the airplane as it spiraled wildly out of the night sky. "Mayday, Mayday," screeched the pilot, grabbing the controls with the force of Chuck Norris's death grip. "Boom!" Went the explosion, and all the passengers died! Except for one, whose blood became infused with the leaking oil, and turned him into the superhero known as, "OILMAN!"

And people eat that stuff up. Literally, just have the lamest, cheesiest, most worthless dialogue ever, which connotes nothing except, "Oh snap, that planes gonna blow!" And then you paint the picture of the grandest explosion EVER in your book, except your writing skills are so underdeveloped that it just comes off like a comic strip for five year olds. Notice I said "paint the picture" intentionally. Books are meant to connote ideas, logical truths, rational thought. If you want a big explosion, go see a MOVIE, but do NOT demand that a book give you visual stimulation from page one, and every other page in between until the end of the book, without any time for character development or plot!

And that's it. Style over substance. But here's a little secret- there's no style if there's no substance!

So in today's writing, the moral to the story is- there is no moral, who needs those? Just check out that sick nasty explosion, or the description of the sound of that engine purring. Sweet huh? Or the moral of the story is some Bible story taken out of context to become moralized that is about as real and developed as a Sunday school class for 6 year olds. Sweet eh?

No, not sweet. Why should I have to open my book with an action scene, the antagonist and protagonist duking it out from the get go, whether it be with swords and shields, wands and brooms, bow and arrow? That makes no sense, and leaves a dirty, empty feeling in my brain. How can you care about this epic clash between good and evil, when the battle is being depicted on the front page, and consequently, you are not capable of knowing who is good and who is evil? Not to mention you don't have any emotional attachment to the characters because you cannot see what their personality, their charisma, their hardships, or their struggles are like. And don't say that creates intrigue or myster- it could, except for the fact that these authors can't write and never develop any real story or their characters.

No no, but you see, today, in our visually driven culture, which even drives our epistemology, we don't care what they are fighting for, just as long as they are fighting. We are like barbaric gladiators, bloodlusting. We are like the man and the woman who happen to bump into each other in the hotel, have never seen or heard of each other before, and with just one look in each other's eyes, rush into the bedroom together and have sex.

That's my point. Sex within marriage is biblical because the act is based on a knowing one another, intimately, through conversing, living with one another, being there for one another, crying with one another, enduring hardships, enduring the fullness of life together, spiritually uplifting and nurturing one another. Sex like that, between a man and woman in marriage, is an act of devotion to one another, the crowning expression of their deep, deep knowledge of one another, that they accumulated through talking, not miming. Discussing, not emoting. Doing life together, not getting together for a one night stand. Sex, therefore, is an expression of one's deep knowledge of one another, and the intimacy that is shared from the entirety of the relationship. There is nothing intimate, nothing beautiful or special about sex with a stranger. Likewise, there is nothing profound, or deep, or thought provoking about cheap thrills in a book, or a movie, without any character development and layers of great internal strife. If I don't see internal conflict with a character first, I can't believe, or really care about, their external strife. Why Should I? Sex is the outward expression of inward love; marriage is devotion to someone you love because you know what they are like and have chosen to get to know them more. I cannot pull for a character that I do not know in a book when he or she is in an epic struggle if I do not love him or her, and I cannot love them if the first time we "lock eyes" is when he or she is in an epic battle, and continues to be in some chaotic, fast moving sequence with no character development, no reflection, throughout the entirety of the book. I want intimacy, not cheap sex. After the intimacy, the connection, after I love the character, then I'll care about their cries of despair and their anguish from being ravaged in war or some other catastrophe that is supposed to make me feel for them. I can't feel for them if I do not know them!

We have turned all this on its head, in society at large. Think about it. Sex sells in Hollywood, and now in the books too. How about Twilight? That's some crazy sexual tension, and you are a liar if you deny it. The books aren't written well from the very little bit that I've read (and Stephen King agrees), but they do paint an image of lust, of sex, in your mind. Books that sell best are books that depict raw, graphic images of sex, violence, drug abuse, shooting people with big guns, big explosions, flashy car chases, sword fights, shaky cameras, robots doing war, you name it. If it's deviant, if it's sensational, and it is being depicted graphically, either with words in a book or with pictures on a screen, it will sell. But truth, logic, rational thought, theology, philosophy, real politics, real science, its day has run its course. We don't care about that now. Don't tell us why the galaxies are so beautiful (because God created it and it is His awesome handiwork), just show us a picture of the beautiful galaxy because, after all, that's all we value anymore. Postmodernism is rearing its ugly head. It becomes what this means to me, and don't you dare ascribe any meaning, thus putting my feelings and interpretation in a box. Don't write me a book that tells me why I should care about the characters, the world, the ethical and moral situations anymore, just show me the big battles, the raw emotion without knowing why the emotion is there. After all, truth is subjective, and emotion interprets itself- in a visually driven society, that is. In the world that Neil Postman predicted, that is.

So the book has been, in many ways, reduced to the commentary in a comic strip. Fill the bulk with pointless action scenes, or steamy sex scenes, or car chase scenes, or anything that gets your heart racing and turns your brain off, because we don't value rational thought and truth anymore. Just eye candy. Bright and shiny and flashy things. People emoting. Don't tell us why they are, just show us that they are, or tell us that they are in books with word. But don't bother us with why they are doing that, why they are feeling that way, because that would lead us down a quest for truth, for reality, for actual substance, to an actual solution!. And life is tough- that's why only good writers can pull off a real story with a deep, life-like plot that stimulates your brain and culminates with a profound ending or lesson that makes you think and potentially changes your life.

But today, it seems all that matters is that characters in stories are having strong emotional swings. Feeling is the standard, visual stimuli trumps all. No longer does emotions flow from truth, logic, rational thought, but rather it just comes because the point in life is just to feel, to experience, to emote, apart from reason, apart from wisdom and knowledge. Let us amuse ourselves to death, that way we can ignore truth, and thus ignore reality, and thus numb our consciences to the reality of God and His holiness and our need for a Savior.

I'll keep on writing for those who value truth, logic, knowledge, which only words, not pictures, images, or depictions alone, can give. Then, when the deepness, the wisdom of God and His profound truths, hit you with it's full force, the emotion, the passion, the tears, the excitement, will come. After you get into the brain of a character and see how they think about their particular circumstances, then you can appreciate their reactions to the other characters and the world around them. That's how it works in real life. We care about family and friends because we know them and know what they are thinking. When strife comes to them, we can feel for them because we know how they handle such difficult situations and what is going through their minds. The same should be true in our writings, for good writing at least.

Sadly, much writing today doesn't understand this.