Saturday, January 07, 2012

Hooked on Sensation

Recently I saw a wonderful film, Pablo Giorgelli's Las Acacias. What's wonderful about it? Well, nothing really happens - not in the sense we usually mean nowadays when we're taking about film. It opens with a long sequence in which we watch acacia timbers being felled, the sunlight falling through their swaying, tumbling branches. There's sound: the loud yet also distancing sound of the machines. And then we get a shot, a long and contemplative yet riveting shot, of a truck driver's arm  resting on the open window of the cab, cigarette (I think) in hand, as he waits for his load of logs. It's a beautiful arm: sinewy, sheeny in the light falling across it, and mysterious: signalling all of the contradictory possibilities of masculinity - its toughness and tenderness - and thus encapsulating the essence of the film. For this is Ruben, taciturn Ruben, who, we will discover, on this particular lumber-hauling trip from Paraguay to Beunos Aires has been charged by his boss to pick up Jacinta, the daughter of the boss's housekeeper, travelling to seek work and live with cousins. It's a long time before we know this: almost in real-time, we haul out of the timber forest with Ruben, sharing his view of the road ahead and through the wing mirror the road behind and the great sweep of the long log-laden wagon as it takes bends. There's no dialogue: it's a silent movie, almost - apart from the huge sound of the engine, in which, along with Ruben, we are drowned. At last he stops in a lorry park, and slowly we realise he is looking for someone. We see her the moment he does: a pale speck struggling in the distance across the dual carriageway and carrying several bundles, one of which, as she nears, is clearly a baby. Are you Ruben? she asks him, and he speaks his first words of the film: His boss said nothing about a baby. He is not pleased. This is the moment - a fair way in - that the real drama of the film begins. But by this time the film has taught us to watch and attend, which, to appreciate this drama, we need to do:  for the journey is long, and most of it is conducted in silence. We need to listen to those silences (filled with that throbbing engine sound), we need to watch the faces and see the thoughts flitting across them, and only then will we truly appreciate those crucial moments when the silence is broken. It is the five-month-old baby who first breaks through Ruben's displeasure, and a relationship begins to develop between the two lonely adults, but the development is gradual and subtle - and all the more moving for being so.

There is a moment, after Ruben has clearly become attached to Jacinta and her baby, when it looks as if he might lose her. They have stopped to eat at a roadside canteen and at the outdoor table which the drivers share, a young Paraguayan trucker strikes up a conversation with Jacinta in their own language. Ruben comes back from attending to his lorry to find both their places at the table vacated. Has she gone off with the other trucker? There she is: talking to him beside his lorry... Is she going to go off with him? No: in the next shot she and Ruben and the baby are back together on the road, behaving towards each other as before. We are glad, but I have to say I was also surprised. One gets so used to sensation in film, to plot twists geared for excitement, that I fully expected that she would go off with the other trucker, however disappointing that would be (and that possibly Ruben would get her back in the end). The fact that she didn't - that we simply shared Ruben's fear that she would, and the subsequent understanding that it was an irrational fear stemming from his growing emotional investment in her (ie, it was the clinching thing that showed to him he was falling in love with her; that was the point) - was infinitely more satisfying and true to human nature.

Watching this film made me realise that we are no longer used to paying the kind of attention it requires from us (some people walked out of the cinema well before the scene in which Jacinta appears) - an attention to mood and emotion and psychology and relationships rather than event - and the deep satisfactions it yields. We have been schooled for crass over-the-top drama, and I think our response to both films and literature is affected.

Not so long ago I was invited to spend a day in a secondary school since one of my stories, 'Compass and Torch', is included in the AQA GCSE exam syllabus. This is a psychological story about a relationship: it features a moment on a camping trip taken by a father and young son estranged by divorce, and deals with the emotional tensions between them, and at the end suggests a prognosis for their future relationship. It's chiefly a story of repressed emotion, symbolised by the watching wild ponies ignored by a father and son intent on the practicalities and the tensions between them. The story ends thus, as the father and son bed down for the night:
In the plummeting darkness, the man's own anxiety began to mount. He could feel it gathering in the blackening chill: the aching certainty that already, only one year on from the separation, he has lost his son, his child. And the thought grew so strong that he could only half-listen to the child's earnest desperate voice.

At last the child, tucked up in his sleeping-bag, chattered himself out.
The man gently takes away the torch.
 It isn't long before the man, already expert at blanking out pain, falls asleep too.
Neither hears the horses moving round the tent in the night.
For years to come, though, in his dreams the boy will see their wild fringed eyes and feel the deep thudding of their hooves. 
I guess very few children nowadays know the experience of feeling the ground thudding as a horse gallops by at a short distance, but I have to say I was taken aback when, in two of the classes I read this to, a boy put up his hand at the end and asked in a troubled voice if someone died. Yes, there is the concept of death in the ending, but it's an emotional death: because of the emotional repression, the relationship between the father and son is doomed and they'll never be close. But the boy, still longing for that closeness, will dream in the future of the ponies they ignored that day (and which moved around the tent in the night and then galloped off again), and which, with their wildness and softness and freedom, symbolised the unexpressed and unfulfilled emotions.

Those boys - though understandably puzzled - had interpreted the ending in a literal way that cuts right across the story's psychological approach and, for me, renders the symbolism illogical: they assumed the horses had trampled the tent. And it's not only school students, it seems: here's one of the teaching activities suggested on the AQA website for the story:
A speaking and listening role play activity in which students agree on a version of events to explain what might have happened during the night and create a report for the evening news.
Well, I have to accept that as an author you can sometimes imply things you never intended, but I do wonder if such readings are due to a growing cultural expectation of sensational event - one aspect of that bogey 'high concept' - in our literature.


Mary said...

I have never seen that film, but now I MUST. I love the quiet of non-constant, fast paced 'action'. And i love films and books i can truly get lost in. And this 'sounds' like one of those. Thanks so much for the post.

Dan Holloway said...

What a beautiful post. Your description of the speck on the carriageway makes me think of Omar Sharif's arrival in Lawrence of Arabia. I'm also reminded of two wonderful films from my student days about artists - La Belle Noiseuse, which consists of little but 3 hours of an artist painting a model, and Quince Tree Sun, which follows an artist for a year as he paints a single tree in different seasons, directed by Victor Erice who was responsible for the most beautiful piece of magic realist cinema, The Spirit of the Beehive, about a girl and a travelling cinema in Franco's Spain - so much more powerful than Cinema Paradiso. And possibly my favourite magic realist film Jesus of Montreal.

This is a difficult subject, though. There are far too many writers of a certain kind of literary fiction (sadly it's the one I love best) who mistake sensuality for "beautiful writing" and deliver passage on passage of exquisite descriptive prose that falls utterly flat because it fails to breathe, is not the life force on which the novel draws - it's the difference between a pretty painting and a transcendent one (a lovely landscape and a Caravaggio). And the problem is that because this kind of beautiful writing is often equated with luxuriant sensuality, readers are put off before they reach the truly unctuous stuff. The best I've come across in recent years is Marie Darrieussecq's Breathing Underwater.

Interesting that you cite a short story - I think this is something at which short fiction particuarly excels because you avoid the danger of over-richness whilst still having the space for rhythm.

Sue Guiney said...

Fascinating. The role of sound and the way we use it...reminds me of music and the use of the rest. I was always taught that the rest, that space between notes that has a pre-defined amount of time, is to be thought of as a note itself. the emptiness of sound is just as important as the space filled with sound.

Elizabeth Baines said...

And of course, Sue, the rest or the beat as it's called in drama is supremely important for plays. In prose too - where you can create it typographically.

I see what you mean, Dan. I don't think that the alternative to sensationlist plotting has to be over-rich prose, but I can see that quieter, psychological work can suffer from this preconception.

Dan Holloway said...

Yes, it's the preconception that's the problem - especially among writers.

Very interesting about the use of the beat. It's something we can do in dialogue through the positioning of our tags. My poetry writing friends use the positioning on the page to create some incredibly subtle beats with tabs and indents

spiky said...

cool post. :)

a visit form philippines. :)