Friday, January 15, 2010

against redundancy

An Obvious Example

"Once upon a time, there lived a young princess who had a wicked stepmother. Once upon a time, there lived a young princess who had a wicked stepmother. The princess cried herself to sleep each night."

I need to cut one of those "once upon a time" sentences, don't you agree? Unless the goal is to write something experimental, something in the style of Gertrude Stein, redundancy seldom helps and often hurts.

What if I keep both sentences but rephrase the second, so it's not an exact copy of the first?

"Once upon a time, there lived a young princess who had a wicked stepmother. There was once a princess with an evil stepmother. The princess cried herself to sleep each night."

Who is going to argue with me and claim that this isn't a mistake? Maybe someone will. Most of you won't.

Yet many of my friends, people who would agree that these examples are redundant and bad, accept redundancy if the repeated information is coming from two different sources. For instance, they have no problem with a music video in which the lyrics mention a white horse while the image presents ... a white horse.

The Debate

Friends often greet my tirades against redundancy with one of the following two objections: (1) it's not a problem in this case; or (2) it may be a minor problem, but it's not worth making a big deal about.

Since I'll waste most of the words that follow on point one, let me quickly address point two: say I write a poem in which I describe a rabbit as "a cuddly rodent." That's an error. A rabbit is a not a rodent. (Many rabbits aren't cuddly, either.)

So the rabbit bit is wrong, but does it matter? No: not if your main goal when reading is "to get the point." Okay, a rabbit isn't a rodent -- but it's rodent-like. The point is that it's a small, cuddly creature.

Such a reader also doesn't care if Hamlet says "To be or not to be..." or "To live or not to live..." Same point.

(I am not berating such readers. Rather, I am warning them to stop reading this essay. What follows will seem petty. And that's fine. I am not a gourmet chef, and I have an immature palate. People tell me that Dominos pizza sucks, yet I love it. When they go on and on about "real New York pizza," they seem petty to me. If this essay was by one of them, and it was about gourmet pizza, I would stop reading. It's just not important to me.)

When I read, I DO want to get the point. But I also demand elegance. When a work is inelegant, it itches at me like a smudge on a windowpane. The smudge doesn't ruin the whole window, but it's annoying. And if it can be wiped away, why leave it there? The view will be better without it.

I don't want to just get the point that there are mountains outside the window. I want to see the mountains in all their glory -- without smudges.

Why Redundancy Is Bad

I balk at redundancy because it's inelegant. It's inelegant in the same way that a shirt with both a zipper and buttons in inelegant. It evokes an artistic mind that hasn't thought things through, as if what we're seeing is an early draft in which the artist was trying out various approaches and hadn't yet decided on the right one.

Redundancy also condescends. It suggests an artist who doesn't trust me to follow him the first time he says whatever he is saying.

My railing against redundancy is itself becoming redundant, so I'll stop trying to convince you that it's aesthetically wrong. You either agree with me or you don't. Let me conclude this point by reminding you of what many artists believe:

- if an aspect of the work doesn't move the work forward -- if the aspect does not provide new information or recast old information in an interesting light -- that aspect must be cut.

- "Kill all your darlings."

An Example

Last night, as I was watching a production of "Macbeth" on DVD. The witches entered, and the actors playing them were dressed in rags and wearing masks that made them look more like demons than humans. Still, they looked vaguely female -- except they had beards.

Then Banquo said the following:

What are these
So wither'd and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth,
And yet are on't? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

When I chastised the redundancy (the way the witches looked and Banquo's description of them), I was surprised at how many of my friends disagreed with me. I had a hard time teasing out the locus of their disagreement: was it point one or two, above? Did they feel that the moment was not redundant or did they agree that it was, but didn't think, in this case, the redundancy was a problem?

Don't Blame the Director!

One exasperated friend said, "Well, what's a director supposed to do? You have to show the witches. Are you going to make them look like beautiful women or something?"

That's a good point, but it's also beside the point. A problem is a problem whether or not it has a solution. Cancer is a problem. If it turns out that there's no possible cure for the disease, it will still be a problem. We'd still be living in a better world if there was no cancer.

(Often in these arguments, placing blame gets muddled up with aesthetics. I often make artistic blunders. When they do, they are blunders. They might be excusable. For instance, I might under-rehearse a play because halfway through the rehearsal period get catch pneumonia and and have to take a couple of weeks off. No one can blame be for that. Still, the play is under-rehearsed.)

But It's True!

Another friend suggested that this moment isn't a mistake, because Banquo is only saying what someone would really say in his situation. In other words, his words are psychologically true. If you see King Kong, you may well say, "Look! A giant gorilla!" even though everyone can clearly see that for themselves.

That's true. But it's still redundant. It's still inelegant. My friend could argue that it's necessary redundancy -- that omitting it would breach psychological truth, which would be the worse of two evils -- but I don't see how he can claim that the redundancy isn't a problem because it solves another problem. The horrible side effects of chemotherapy are problems, even though chemotherapy may solve a bigger problem.

(Truthful psychology is the solution to many problems in the theatre. If you get intentions, actions and reactions right, the play usually succeeds. Many young directors and actors learned this useful tool in drama school. And then, unfortunately, it became dogma for them. Dogma is the enemy of art. But it's always tempting to fall prey to it; it simplifies decision making. "It's psychologically true, so it can't be a problem. Let's move on."

There are usually multiple psychological truths to pick from, because not everyone acts the same way in the same situation. One must strive to make choices that are both psychologically true AND elegant!)

We don't live in a world in which it's possible to solve all problems. Life is often about tradeoffs. Still, I don't see how it helps to pretend that the problems we accept are not problems. Surely, if one is an artist, one must be on guard against problems at all times, purging them whenever possible, accepting them only after weighing all other options. Anything else would be inelegant and lazy.

A Tree is a Tree!

"You're being ridiculous!" cried a third friend. "If someone in the play describes an apple tree, and the play requires the tree to be onstage, are you saying that the director needs to make it a carrot patch to avoid redundancy?"

Good question. No, that's not what I'm saying. The director's first job is to ensure that all aspects of the story are consistent. Lack of consistency is another form of inelegance. This is well-known in Hollywood, where they pay full-time continuity checkers to make sure that the cigarette in the close-up is burned down just as much as it is in the medium shot.

If an audience member hears an actor say "apple tree" while pointing to a carrot patch, he'll be confused and jarred out of the dreamlike state that, hopefully, the play has lulled him into.

It's hard to weigh one sort of inelegance against another, but my guess is that, in general, inconsistency is more jarring than redundancy. So if I must choose between the two, I'll (sadly) accept redundancy.

Still, that doesn't allow me to relax my guard. I can't just blithely let all redundancy pass by security without checking its ID. I must carefully examine each redundant item, making absolutely sure that it's needed.

Maybe, in a specific instance, there's a way to serve consistency without adding redundancy. There's no general rule. The only way I'll be able to maximize elegance is to examine each moment, case-by-case.

In Favor of Redundancy

Redundancy has it's uses. Let me repeat that: Redundancy has its uses! It can "underline" a point, as Lear does when he says, "Never, never, never, never, never." Who would want him to just utter a single "never"? Not me.

When presenting something complex and foreign to the modern ear, such as a Shakespeare play, redundancy can help the audience understand key plot and character points that they may miss if those points are only made once.

But I caution directors against that second use. There are almost always better ways -- more elegant ways -- of making the story clear than by simply repeating information. I will expand on these techniques in another essay, but, briefly, one can use word emphasis and non-redundant movement to help the audience understand what's going on. (Don't allow actors to make that jacking-off gesture when describing sex. That's redundant -- and cliched. Gestures should never just illustrate words in the text!)

Remember: for every audience member who is thanking you for making things clear, there's another who is cursing you for talking down to him. "I get it!" he thinks. "You don't have to hit me over the head with it!"

Back to Macbeth

So what about the witches? Here are some possibilities: if you want to show them off, maybe because you think the audience will be more affected by the scary costumes than by Shakespeare's words, then cut the text. You could cut it to...

"What are these? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me."

If you don't want to cut the text, then obscure the witches. Keep their backs to the audience or make them completely invisible, only "seen" by Macbeth and Banquo. You could pipe in their voices through speakers. There are many solutions that will allow you to tell this part of the story without redundancy, some much more creative than mine.

Redundancy is like the dandelion, which is a beautiful flower. It's also useful for making dandelion wine. But we must always remember something else about the dandelion: it's a weed.

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