I've spent a long enough time not participating in this thing, so I figured I'd finally join. And such good timing! The IWSG now has its very own site. It's the brainchild of ninja captain Alex Cavanaugh and meets on the first Wednesday of every month. As for the purpose? It's the porpoise, of course. (He's in the water across from the lighthouse. He took the picture.)
For my inaugural post, I'm going to talk about clarity. Recently I've been exchanging thoughts on the film Immortals with A. Lee Martinez on Facebook. Why I'm talking with Martinez, the author of such books as Divine Misfortune, is because of Pat Dilloway, who has latched onto the author. Martinez recently saw Immortals presumably for the first time, and thought it was a hot mess. The film, from visionary director Tarsem (best work: The Fall), was originally released in 2011, and is a more recent version of the sword-and-sandal epic resurrected by Ridley Scott's Gladiator in 2000 and also exemplified by Zack Snyder's 300 from 2007.
Now, even though Gladiator won a Best Picture from the Oscars, most people these days still think of 300 as the definitive modern example of this genre of movies, even though Gerard Butler, the star of the film, is equally considered by most people to be merely a more histrionic version of Russell Crowe, who starred in the Scott picture. Immortals was Henry Cavill's first big role, but chances are people were thinking then and will still now and for the foreseeable future consider this past summer's Man of Steel (where he played, y'know, Superman) for that distinction.
Immortals is one of many, many films that were released in the wake of 300 to adopt a similar aesthetic presentation. In fact, most people seem to have assumed the whole reason it was made at all was to capture the very same audience, and perhaps for studio bosses that was exactly the case. And yet, knowing Tarsem as I do, I could never view it that way.
The film, as Martinez suggests in his vehement and negative opinion, can easily be said to be a hot mess, in one viewing. Even though I have an abiding love for Tarsem, that's pretty much how I saw it myself the first time. It was virtually impenetrable, or in other words lacked clarity. Cavill isn't nearly as striking a presence as Butler is in 300, and he's rarely in a position as Crowe is for the majority of Gladiator to command attention. The roles are very different. If anything, Cavill is far more like Sam Worthington in Clash of the Titans, a reluctant hero who has to crawl all the way to the top (besides being a generally heroic and capable kind of guy to begin with). (Given that few people seem to like the Titans remake, this is not such a great allusion.)
No, the big star of Immortals is Mickey Rourke, who approaches the villain role much as Butler does the hero role in 300. There's also John Hurt, who has one of the most distinctive voices in film today, who acts as narrator and one of the guises of Zeus, as well as the lovely Freida Pinto in one of her early post-Slumdog Millionaire roles. (She is was and always will be the best thing about that movie.) The fourth and fifth leads go to Stephen Dorff and Luke Evans.
The gist of the story is that Rourke is a power mad monarch who wants to declare war on the gods by unleashing their ancient rivals (who just so happen to be...the Titans). Naturally Zeus isn't too keen to see this happen, so he gently nudges Cavill into position to stop this from happening. The problem is that in the chaos that follows in the wake of Rourke's maneuvering, Cavill ends up further from his goal than is convenient. By the time he's ready, it's too late and the big battle at the end of the film has already provoked tragedy, including the deaths of several gods, which finally forces Zeus to break his own vow of noninterference. It is indeed Cavill who stops Rourke, thus being the hero Zeus thought he could be, but the catastrophe remains. But then again, the original war between the gods wasn't so great either, and once the Titans, like the kraken, are unleashed there's only so much damage control possible.
The visuals do indeed evoke 300, but there are the telltale signs of Tarsem all around. (He began his career in music videos, but called greater attention to himself with The Cell, in which Jennifer Lopez traverses a surreal landscape. In fact, Tarsem is always immersing himself in those. It's the story he tells every time, and like a great storyteller is always finding new ways to do so.)
As far as clarity goes, however, there's not so much of that going around, at least initially. For this reason, it can seem unsatisfying and even a gross case of bad filmmaking in general. In such cases it's easy to extrapolate that the story simply didn't work or was executed poorly, or that characters behaved stupidly. All these things are the reaction of someone who failed to connect with the presented experience.
So why am I going on and on about this in a post that's supposed to be about my specific writing experience? Well, for one thing I recently had another look at one particular chapter in my manuscript for Minor Contracts, one of three I have floating in the air. I was unsatisfied with the way I'd written it. And I went back to reservations I've had about the opening chapter. And I started to think, maybe I have to write the whole thing over again. Generally, I hate even the idea of doing that. I will sometimes have to start over again, but I've never even thought about doing that with a whole manuscript. With the Modern Ark manuscript, I haven't thought about doing that sort of thing too much, because it's a whole house of cards, almost every chapter doing something entirely different. If I move one piece, the whole thing could collapse, and I've already monkeyed around with the opening chapter of that one several times. I'm of the idea that what was going through my mind when I wrote the thing in the first place is more than likely the best version. Anything else is just another version. If the due diligence was performed in the original conception, you should be fine.
Now, certainly editing is a key thing to consider. In movies editing can affect everything. Oliver Stone has four cuts of Alexander (my favorite movie, and another sword-and-sandal epic), for instance. Studio heads used to chuckle wildly as they hacked apart Orson Welles' work. With someone like Orson Welles, you change the shape of his work and you most definitely change the whole thing. (I'm not claiming to be Orson Welles, mind you.)
And I'm just talking about things I've already written. Twice now in the past month I've already radically altered the course of the next manuscript I'll be writing, In the Land of Pangaea, even thinking of alternate titles (which happens to my stories frequently anyway, even years after I've completed first drafts). Thinking of those changes and the changes I could make to Minor Contracts doesn't even begin to take into account clarity.
Because I'm always wondering how clear my stories are. Most of the writers around me strive almost single-mindedly for clarity. Sometimes I've taken that to patronizingly calling their work simplistic. And yet most stories are like that. When it's anything but it's either quickly forgotten or a classic. (And no, I'm not going to say I write classics. That's for history to decide. And here you understand that I'm speaking in the voice of Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Which reminds me, bears are terrifying.)
When I'm looking at my own work and not even considering clarity, I can understand why I look at a movie like Immortals differently than A. Lee Martinez. Clarity is clearly one of his priorities. Me, I can deal with a little mess. This isn't to say that I'll accept anything. There's really is such a thing as a hot mess, when someone's reach has exceeded their grasp. I don't think that's the case with Immortals. It would be hard for someone like Tarsem to do that after nailing something as brilliant as The Fall.
So when I look at my own writing, and worry about specific elements or passages, I'm worrying less about how they will ultimately work and more about how they fit into the greater tapestry. There's got to be a unifying imperative. In Immortals it was always John Hurt and and my belief in the abilities of Tarsem. Did I convince myself the movie worked because I wanted it to work? That will always be the counterargument.
But I don't think so.