It’s funny how certain ideas recur in little clusters. When I was in Atlanta last week, we went to the Margaret Mitchell Museum and somewhere along the way, someone talked about the disintegration of film masters like Gone with the Wind. I came home to discover that Mr. Math had picked up a copy of Metropolis. This movie is a favorite of mine. It’s a silent film made by Fritz Lang. According to the Wiki, it’s the first full length science fiction film, and, at the time it was filmed in 1925, it was the most expensive movie ever made. It’s also a love story set in a dystopian future (2026), and one in which love heals all wounds. (What’s not to love about that?) The eye candy is interesting too – it’s always intriguing to see how people envision the future. I like also that Fritz Lang and his wife, Thea Von Harbou, wrote the screenplay together. She actually wrote a book first, and the screenplay was derived from it. (Wiki says the magic and occult segments of her book were left out of the film. I’d really love to read that book!)

Metropolis was heavily edited after its initial release because it was long, then suffered disintegration of the film masters. The films and records were scattered during the Second World War, so bits and ends were even harder to locate than is usual with old films. The end result was that a number of scenes seemed to be lost forever and the plot progression was jumpy.

The interesting thing about these old movies is that different versions were cut from the master for different countries and territories. And over the years, some of those regional masters and films for Metropolis have been discovered. Restorations have been done over the years, incorporating found pieces, and digitizations have also been done to preserve what exists.

The version of Metropolis that Mr. Math brought home was the 1984 restoration by George Morodis, which featured a pop soundtrack. (I doubt that the release date was a coincidence.) This version also added scenes (discovered in far-flung collections) and straightened out the chronology of the story, some of which was conjecture without having either Mr. Lang or the script at hand. The film was tinted, as well. There’s more content, but the film speed is faster. I remember seeing this movie when it was in general release, at the Carleton Theatre in Toronto (which was where one went to see arty stuff, back in the day).

Recently, longer versions of Metropolis were discovered in New Zealand and Argentina. There’s a newer restoration from 2010 which adds 25 minutes to the running time, courtesy of these discoveries. We’ve ordered a copy to watch it, too, and I’m excited about more Metropolis.

If you want to read more about the history of this film, here’s the Wiki.

If you want to see more about the 2010 restoration, here’s the website for it.

What’s your favourite old movie? What’s your favourite dystopian-set love story? Are there different versions of your fave old movie available?

Life Imitating Art – or Not

Phew! Now we’ve finished the EMBER’S KISS blog tour – and I have sore fingers from traipsing all over the internet – it’s time to settle back into our usual blog routine. I’ve been doing some thinking and writing some posts and today you get to read the first of them.

This is an idea I’ve had for a while, but it’s been percolating again. I’m curious as to what you all think of it, so here we go. Do you think that the art you view shapes your life? Or do you think your character shapes the art you choose to view?

Let me explain what I mean. We choose to view certain kinds of art – as movies, as books, as entertainment, as stimulus – and we each have specific tastes. This is a good thing, as otherwise there would be one book published each month and one painting created each quarter, and one movie produced each week. The diversity within any given medium is due to the variety of our tastes: the popularity of any given example is a reflection of how many people find it resonant at any given time. Let’s go beyond that a bit more.

For example, romance is a very popular genre of fiction. There have been studies over the years which declare that people who read romance tend to have more active sex lives. (Those reports get a lot of media attention!) There have also been reports that romance readers tend to be more optimistic about life – even if they don’t believe that love conquers all, they have a more positive outlook than the population at large.

So, which came first? Do they read romance because they are fundamentally optimists and thus prefer to read about happy endings? Or have they come to believe in the good guys winning because they read romance?

Here’s another example. I know several people who love a certain sub-genre of women’s fiction which is very dramatic. Each chapter ends on a cliffhanger in these books, and the stakes are invariably life or death. I personally find these books exhausting to read and a bit breathless in their anxiety, which is why I won’t name any specific authors. But the readers I know who love these books seem to have a need to create drama in their own lives, too. Every mole hill becomes a mountain. The stakes are high. The repercussions are potentially dire. Talking to these people can be as exhausting as reading one of these books. So, do they find these books appealing because that’s already their perspective and the books resonate what they already believe, or has reading these books changed their worldview to be reliant upon high drama?

This extends into other areas, too. Overall, the pacing of fiction has increased in the past twenty years. There is more white space on the page (even if it’s a digital page), more focus on action and dialogue, and less introspection. Does this change in the structure of popular fiction mirror a change in ourselves, our society and our expectations, or did fiction create the social change? Does it amplify something that already exists? Does it make the effect stronger or simply mirror it?

What do you think? Do you see an echo of what you read in your own character and perspective? Or do you think that you choose what to read on the basis of your nature? How does what you read mirror how you are?

Popular Fiction

One of the things I’m constantly saying when I teach workshops is that popular fiction – like romance – is a mirror of popular culture. Sub-genres become popular, then less so, as a reflection of our concerns in our day-to-day lives. This makes sense to me – when we’re working out some facet of gender roles or expectations from marriage or whatever, it seems reasonable that we would find resonance in books that explore those very same ideas. I’m also always teaching that romance is the most conservative genre in the bookstore, which means that ideas are explored in our genre last. When ground is broken in the romance section, it’s always been explored earlier in mainstream fiction or even other genres.

For example, currently interracial romances are experiencing real growth in market share. Traditionally, the vast majority of couples depicted in romantic fiction matched. They might have had different backgrounds, different perspectives but their skin colour matched. So, “multicultural” romance, as defined by publishers, meant a non-Caucasian couple who were of the same racial background. I always thought this was weird, because I grew up in Toronto in the era of Pierre Trudeau’s notion of multiculturalism – a true mosaic which promoting mixing over matching – but there you go.

Now, however, we have the new-ish niche of interracial romance, which means the hero and heroine don’t match. This isn’t because interracial partnerships are new – they’re older than time, in practice – but is because people in America are socially prepared to talk about this idea in 2012. It is possible. It is thinkable. And so we have a new sub-genre that is growing in popularity every day.

This is the kind of mirror I mean when I talk about popular culture and popular fiction. But recently, I realized there are many other facets to that mirroring. Right now, I’m reading Chaucer’s THE CANTERBURY TALES again. The difference is that this time, I can’t stop thinking about a very interesting passage in the introduction by Donald R. Howard. Here’s a good chunk of it, so you can see his argument:

“…To us the unity of a work ought to be “organic”—every part and element should have a function which contributes to one total response. Our own aesthetic predilections are most easily seen, perhaps, in architecture: a modern building is thought good if it seems of a piece, a single conception which can be grasped and felt from any vantage point. Details in such a design much be functional and “integral”, not decorative or extraneous. In the same way, our rhetoric is one of “logical” development, topic sentences, transitions, and beginning-middle-end organization. With respect to literature “organic unity” has been a major conception of criticism since the nineteenth century, and such an idea is reflected in book-trade jargon which seeks “development” and admires what “jells”. We prefer a work with “an idea” and tend to scorn what seems “unnecessary” or “unmotivated.” But it was not so in the Middle Ages.

The medievals admired detail, digression, and effulgence quite as much as they admired order. They liked details or images to have more than one possible meaning; they were not bothered but delighted by decorative detail which drew attention to itself; and they did not feel that details should be “consistent.” On the contrary, they painted realistic and sometimes lewd drawings in the margins of psalters and prayerbooks, covered their cathedrals with exquisite carvings often grotesque and earthy, and read romances whose intricate plots led the reader into mazes of happenstance. Their sense of order and structure involved hierarchy and multiplicity in a way that ours does not… “

Now, this is very intriguing. You have only to take the barest glimpse at medieval vernacular literature – those stories that people told each other – to find loose ends, plots resolved by happenstance or coincidence, subplots that are never resolved or details that seem to have nothing to do with anything. For a modern reader, these segues can be frustrating, and smack of the work being “incomplete”. But if this writer is correct, medieval people simply had a different idea of what made a good story.

That’s an incredible idea. We’re so sure of what makes a good story, that it’s hard to imagine anyone having a different view. What if there are different kinds of good stories? What if we could find some common ground between our ideas of good fiction and the medieval taste for multiplicity, digression, contrasting tones and mingled perspectives?

One way that I think we do echo this tendency is in the use of subplots, and in the use of point-of-view perspectives from secondary characters. Those elements do give a more dimensional view of the action of the story, but we’re pretty tough about those inclusions – they have to contribute directly to the development of the story, or they’re cut. I have the sense that medieval authors would leave them in place if they read well or were interesting or evocative, regardless of their contribution to the story overall.

What do you think? If you’ve read THE CANTERBURY TALES, THE DECAMERON, or any other medieval literature, what did you think of their style of storytelling? Would it drive you crazy to read a modern book with some plot threads left unresolved – or would you feel that you had a more realistic view of the story and the characters?