Mastering Stories

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has garnered much acclaim for the acting jobs of its lead characters.  Most also appear to appreciate the fact that the narrative leaves many holes and unresolved questions.  My thanks to a former student who passed me this more critical review from Stephen Farber.  He writes,

. . .enthusiastic critics have described the film as “elusive,” “enigmatic” and “confounding.” One glowing review rhapsodizes that the movie “defies understanding.”

If these seem like strange words of praise, you may need a crash course in new critical and directorial fashions. “The Master” epitomizes the rise of a new school of enigmatic movies, which parallels similar post-modern developments in literature and music. “The Master” aims to join this company, but its release only proves to me that the cult of incoherence is beginning to pall. Too many movies, novels and even TV series dispense with all sense of logic; they revel in unintelligibility and dare audiences to enter their tangled web.

I haven’t seen the movie, but if the above comments ring true, I would likely agree with his assessment.   Good stories should involve us in multiple perspectives, but these perspectives need a narrative center, and perspectives need resolution.  Creators who ask others to enter the world they create owe this to their audiences.  Perhaps there can be exceptions to this, as Farber continues. . .

It is probably easier to accept these films if they announce from the outset that they are working in a more impressionistic vein. Although I was not a fan of “The Tree of Life,” I understood that Malick never intended to spin a Hollywood-style narrative. He was aiming for something closer to a lyric poem or an atonal symphony than a traditional drama. The problem with “The Master” is that it does not really present itself as this kind of experimental effort. It starts out telling a straightforward story but then veers into murkier terrain without ever establishing a clear set of ground rules.

Unless one wants to write a reference book, non-fiction authors should deal with the same narrative constraints.  Alas, often historical writers get bogged down in details and forget that what makes History come alive is the story.  The story doesn’t even have to involve people.  One could weave a narrative about geological time, I’m sure.  Using multiple perspectives aid stories, but they are not the story.

So it was with great hope that I picked off the shelves Greg Woolf’s Rome, An Empire’s Story.  Like books on any other historical subject, works on Rome often drag their feet talking about the details, and lose sight of the where they’re going.  But the word “Story” in the title got me excited.  “Here, I thought, “is a valiant champion to right all past wrongs!”

The early chapters did little to encourage this hope, and then I got to page 52, where he writes,

Each invention was based on a combination of crops–cultigens–that could together supply the carbohydrate needs of humans, and some of their protein.

My heart sank.  I knew that when he called crops “cultigens,” and he referred to “humans,” that I was certainly not involved in a “story.”

The eminent Adrian Goldsworthy praises Woolf on the book jacket, stating,

…[Woolf] offers no simplistic answers, but instead well considered discussion of the evidence and how we try and understand it.

Far too often I see this imagined dichotomy.  Since no one wants simplistic answers, we offer no answer at all and instead play ping-pong with the facts.  The best historical writing offers answers without stooping to oversimplification, without fear of what the facts might actually mean.  No one should make blind dogmatic assertions that have no room for evidence. But we want our experts in the field to make their best guesses, if for no other reason than it’s fun to make such guesses, and it’s good to see people enjoying themselves.

To Woolf’s credit, at the close of each chapter he has a marvelous and brief discussion on the best sources for the issues at hand.  Here he reveals his true calling – a collector of valuable factoids that he shares gleefully and humbly with whoever is interested.  Looking at his picture, I knew he had to be a nice guy after all.

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One comment on “Mastering Stories

  1. […] wrote recently about The Story of Rome, and, while not a big fan of the book, I did find a few insightful tidbits. […]

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