Monday, September 14, 2015

Cinema, fiction and Kazuo Ishiguro

I saw Kazuo Ishiguro on stage as part of Festival Letteratura in Mantova on Friday (at least 800 people there by my estimation, possibly more than 1,000) and the subject was Telling Stories: Cinema and Fiction.

The conversation started about memory and what film does well and what it doesn't do well. According to Ishiguro, memory is one thing that film, so far, hasn't managed to crack in a satisfying way. True, characters have flashbacks or memory is used as a plot device (they talked about Hitchcock's Marnie and the final reveal where the entire motivation and secret's she's harboured is exposed with an image), but the act of recreating a memory is one that is difficult, if not impossible, to weave in with the present narrative. If we jump back in time, it becomes a realistic portrait, it's part of the movie, it's no longer really a memory in a certain way.

I want to think about this because it might be argued that fiction, too, has a similar limitation. When one thinks about the work of Ishiguro, memory is key to the characters and their motivations. But the memories can reside quietly in characters on the page, we're not necessarily pulled out of the action of the present to reflect on or remember the memory.

To me what makes this interesting is the question of trauma. How does the memory of trauma operate in fiction vs. cinema? After all, trauma is a flash, an image, not necessarily an entirely constructed narrative. And in cinema, trauma can operate on a more "real" level in a certain way: it has the emotional punch that trauma can have in real life (or some approximate emotional punch). Think Taxi Driver and all the stark shocking images. Or Twelve Monkeys and its frenetic moments of emotion.

After memory, the conversation drifted to what cinema can do well vs. fiction: and according to Ishiguro, one thing that cinema does well is action. He claims, aptly, that we tend to dismiss action in film because we think it's simple and that it lacks complexity (we, being, deep thinkers, I guess). But that action actually can be quite complex and done for a variety of reasons. He cited the Bourne Movies (I, too, am a huge fan of these films) and how the action operates on a defensive level from beginning to end. This as opposed to other movies where the action is offensive. According to Ishiguro, this distinction is key to how we as the audience react to and identify with the characters.

All of this is very interesting for me since I am just as interested in movies as I am in books. And,
A++ defensive action: why we love Bourne
happily, the conversation ended with a statement that I had to consider: the writer ended his talk by asserting that movies and books (cinema and fiction) are linked together creatively in a way now that they never have been before. They are vital to one another. People have been predicting the death of the novel since the beginning of the novel but as an art form it continues to be incredibly important in how stories are told and, more precisely, in how movies are told. After all, a movie can bring an enormous amount of publicity to a novel (too many examples to note here) but movies and movie makers need novels to create new and original stories. Without novels we have merely Hollywood formulas repeated an infinitum (we are almost there already and are well beyond there in Hollywood).

This is a particularly positive way to end a talk about movies in the midst of an important literary festival. Obviously I think a lot about books and the role that books play in public life. It's easy to get pessimistic. It's easy to feel that books are more and more relegated to the margins. Books and literature are niche occupations, no question. When I'm out in the world and talking to people who aren't necessarily readers or thinkers, I'm often shocked at how little they know about contemporary writers. Even huge stars that every reader must know, in the world of non-books, they mean little to nothing. And I forget that this is the majority of the world, of the US, of Canada. Most people don't read.

Tippi Hedren as Marnie: bad at memory
But, that said, books and literature have a wider berth than we give them credit for. They are used in movies. They are read on subways in the mornings and on lunch hours. They are stashed into beach bags on summer holidays. They are tossed into the back seat of cars on the way up to the cabin for the week. But because books and the act of reading doesn't "photograph" well, they aren't represented easily on screen (think about, for example, how rarely people watch TV on TV: it's not a cinematically pleasing thing to watch), they exist on the margins of all that. In the end, reading is a solitary act and one that's hard to discuss or share in the same way the TV is or movies can be. (Not that we can't discuss books but it's so personal and individual what people choose to read.)

I've said it before and I'll say it again: everyone should read. It makes smarter people even smarter. It makes not so smart people more interesting. It helps us see worlds and ideas in a way no other art form can. We can empathize, sympathize, imagine other ways of living, thinking about new ideas. Without exception: every single person who reads regularly that I know is more interesting because of it.

So turn off the Internet and go read a book. Without the phone at the fingertips.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative, keep posting such good articles, it really helps to know about things.