Sunday, June 25, 2006

dark at the end of the tunnel

How is a book like a TV show but different from a film or a play? Give up? When you read a book or watch a TV show, you know when you're nearing the end. You also know when you've reached the middle and when you're two-thirds of the way done. When you go to the theatre, unless you first check the run-time and then keep monitoring your watch, the end could come at any time. As could the middle. In fact, the middle will probably sneak by without you even noticing it. Middles don't register unless you know the distance to the end.

In a theatre or cinema, you sit and let the story take over, and you don't focus as much on "the goal," because you don't know when the goal is nigh. When you watch TV, the clock on the cable box or DVD player continually reminds you of how much of your half-hour, hour or two-hour show is left. When you read a book, you can feel how many pages separate you from The End. That stack in your right hand, which was once so thick and daunting, grows flimsier by the minute, until it's just a few postcards wide. Sure, you often get a sense that a film or play is winding up for a big (or small) finish, but you're not continually aware -- as you are with books and TV -- how how many steps you have left in the journey. And any sense you do have, in the theatre or cinema, is based on intrinsic elements of the story (swelling music or the heroine gasping her dying breath), whereas with a book or TV show, you're tipped off by an emotionally neutral feature of "the interface," the pages or the clock.

This difference is profound. It affects (or should affect) both audience and writer. Consciously or not, good authors are aware of whether or not they're writing for a medium with predictable . And they shape their work accordingly. It's easiest to see this with the most bounded medium: painting. A painting exists within a frame. Both artist and audience are aware that the "story" comes to an end on all four sides. There's no hiding these ends, so the expert craftsman makes use of them. Some paintings, like Magritte's famous apple-headed guy, come to a full-stop at the edges. Magritte centers the important details, drawing your eye inward and killing any mystery about what lies outside (though there's mystery aplenty INSIDE).

De Chirico does the opposite.

But both paintings are supremely aware of their borders and make full use of those boarders to achieve their goals.

Cinematic (and theatrical) craftsmen beware! Your process usually starts with a manuscript. Deceptively, the script has a page-count. You can thumb through it as you work. Your co-workers will blithely refer to the kiss on page 57 or the car chase on page 123. But theatre goers won't flip through pages. They whine like kids in the back of the car, "Are we there yet?" To strengthen your work, either throw in some signposts or purposefully manipulate the audience by keeping them guessing -- or by lulling them into a trance state, in which they no longer care about (or are aware of) the time's ebb and flow.

Kubrick played with the seeming boundlessness of film. "2001" is either trance-inducing or interminable, depending on your taste and attention span. In "The Shining," Kubrick strived for the opposite effect. He punctuated the movie with title cards which count down increasingly smaller and smaller units of time: Monday, Wednesday, 2am, 4am...

Here in the infancy of the 21st Century, we're in the thralls of a great convergence. No medium is an island. The tectonic plates of art are shifting and colliding. Movies are released concurrently with DVDs. TV-shows are downloaded from the web. Albums are broken up into songs, which are sold for 99 cents on iTunes. Books are read on screens or heard on headphones.

For several years now, I've been a devotee of audiobooks. I download two each month from I generally read a printed book during the day, at my lunch hour during work, on my subway commute, and on lazy Sunday afternoons. At night, when I'm lying in bed, lights off so as not to disturb my wife (but in the throws of my chronic insomnia), I listen to books on my iPod. Sometimes I go back and forth between the audio and printed version of the same book, reading it during the day and listening to it at night.

I enjoy "reading" either way. I like being able to linger over a passage of text, which I can only do when I'm holding a printed book in my hands. But the truth is, I don't do it all that often. Generally, my reading (at least of fiction) is linear. I start at the beginning and plod through until I get to the end. I like the voice-characterizations in the recordings (when a book is read by a good actor), but the truth is that I can do these pretty well in my own head. In the end, the differences between reading and listening -- for me -- are minor. In either case, I absorb the information, I laugh, I cry, I wonder, I dream -- and then I move on to the next book.

The only REAL difference is that when I'm reading a book, I know exactly when it's going to end. When I'm listening, I don't. Yes, there's a readout on my iPod that tells me how many minutes I have left, but since I listen in the dark, I don't see the readout. On those rare occasions when I do see it, it is meaningful, but not as meaningful -- as quickly perceivable -- as a wad of pages in my hand.

When I listen, I "read" in a very different way. My main concern is, "where is the story going next?" I experience in-the-moment and worry only about what's happening now and what will happen in the very next instant. When I read, I have an additional concern: how is the story going to resolve itself in the X number of pages remaining? With the goalpost always in sight, the entire journey is an arrow pointing towards it. When I read, I can often feel a structure: a five-act structure or a three-act structure (I feel it figuratively and literally). When I listen, I may sense the passing of episodes, but I have no idea how many of them there will be in the whole series.

It surprises me that this difference -- the most profound difference -- is rarely mentioned in the endless discussions about media convergence. As a lover of stories, it's the only real difference I care about. Though my whole life is about stories, I'm not one of those people who are romantic about books. Yes, when my library becomes paperless, I'll miss the smell of paper and the snobbish pride at my shelves, filled with heavy tomes. On the other hand, I'll be able to collect many more books when they're all digitized. Hard drives are so much more spacious than my Brooklyn apartment. And I quit sentimentalizing print pretty quickly when I'm stuck on the subway, unable to get a seat. It's nearly impossible to hold "The Riverside Shakespeare" and a pole at the same time. It's so much easier to read "Hamlet" on my palm pilot. I only need one hand.

Screen readers give me a page-count: 122 out of 279. An attempt to simulate the printed experience. Close but no cigar. Maybe it will be more meaningful once I get used to it. After all, a clock is just as artificial, and yet I've lived with them for so long that they nearly have the authority of pages in a book. Which is why TV shows feel more like bounded books. Counters just aren't the same. When the counter says 210 out of 211, I DO feel a quickening in my pulse. But when it says 87 out of 249, it's just numbers. Whereas with a clock or a heft of pages, I'm gauging my progress during each step of the journey.


Christina said...

You know, I've subconciously sensed your point - that you treat narratives differently if you have a sense of when they're going to end - but I've never applied that idea across different media/art forms. Very interesting. You've found yourself a reader!

Christina said...

Looking back over your previous entries and reading the info posted on your theatre company's website, I'm intrigued by how you put relatively little stock in the use of sets and costumes.

It made me think of an essay I read once where two different versions of "Cosi Fan Tutte" were being performed on alternate nights. Both versions were by the same director, and the endings varied between the two versions - the way that sets and costumes were designed for each version were dramatically different, with different sets representing different ideals. Maybe it would interest you to read?

Marcus said...

Hi Christina. Thanks for your comments.

I should mention that I'm not againt sets and costumes. Rather, I am PRO story. My company is an experiement in "pure" storytelling. We're trying to get to the heart of what storytelling is, and one means of doing this is to strip stuff away until we're left with just the text of the story and the actors.

Many would object that sets and constumes CAN help tell a story, and I agree.

So far, we have discovered that a stripped-down version allows you to see a story in a unique way. A "dressed up" story might be just as good -- but different. Hopefully, the theatre world has room for both types.

My only object is to gratuity. Costumes and sets are great if they ARE serving the story. They should be trashed if they're not.