Over-Analyze This

Found out tonight I’m recording an episode of the excellent podcast “Battleship Pretension” tomorrow on the subject of Over-analyzing movies – does it really exist? If so, to what extent is it a bad thing?

So, I’ve been compiling a list of questions, thoughts, and anecdotes since over-analyzing movies (and anything) is an accusation often lobbed at me. It never fails to provoke an eye-roll from me at the time, but I’d be lying if I said I don’t quietly worry over it at night.

As a filmmaker, I worry about it even more. Am I over-analyzing my own writing? Am I seeing things in this that aren’t there and won’t translate on-screen? Is there even a point in making this film? It’s worth noting that I’ve been at it for about 2 hours now, and not because I can’t think of what to contribute. We’re past that. Now we’re back on the roller-coaster of circular-logic about intelligent art vs. “dumb” art and how maybe it’s a sign of elitism that I would even try to label someone else’s art as dumb, and then the other part of me that says no, screw that, Writing X is smart and Writing Z is dumb. And dumb is bad. And I am smart. Am I smart?

A few weeks ago, I was in charge of the devotional for my Men’s Group and we discussed, for about two hours, to what extent FORM or PACKAGING does and should influence us. I promise it actually had a lot to do with God and how we receive His message and whether or not it’s necessarily Biblically WRONG to discount a sermon based on the way it’s delivered/written. We also talked about the rise of the over-packaged church. You know the one. Starbucks and bookshop and giant plasma screens everywhere and loud, thumping announcements with “cutting edge” graphics and music hip enough that, quote, “you won’t be ashamed to bring your unsaved friends!” How those things distract from the message in one way, but in another way, because one of the gifts God gives us is the ability to deliver His truth to other people, the way we package something is vital because good packaging (as form) points to a form higher than ourselves.

I’m off-topic.

Jonathan Franzen

So, the subject reminded me of a passage in Jonathan Franzen’s book How to Be Alone about writing intelligent fiction with a heightened vocabulary that most people can still understand. About the contract between reader and writer. Because one of the things I want to talk about tomorrow (we’ll see if we even get around to it) is, since I’m coming to the topic not only as a critic but also as an artist, whose work is the subject of the criticism (I’m speaking in the global sense, we’re not dissecting MY films on the show), that my view on the show’s topic might be that the ideas of the “Best Analysis” and the “Most Analysis” are two very different things; that Best Analysis relies not solely on the intellect when determining quality, while the Most Analysis refuses to base quality on anything but intellect.

I couldn’t find the passage (I have the paper-back edition, so if you stumble upon it, let me know), but I did get distracted and wound up in Franzen’s own personal struggle of why to write in one of the essays, called “Why Bother?” Here’s his predicament:

“Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change: How to design a craft that can float on history for as long as it takes to build it? The novelist has more and more to say to readers who have less and less time to read: Where to find the energy to engage with a culture in crisis when the crisis consists in the impossibility of engaging with the culture?”

Reading that sentence sent me into a frenzy. Keep in mind, he wrote this article in 1996, nearly 15 years ago. How do you maintain culturally relevant work when the culture being reflected changes faster than you can create? I feel this way about movies; the peril must be amplified for the novelist. If this was the state of things in 1996, what calamity befalls the novelist now? How fast social phenomena come and go! How long do you think it will be before twitter and Facebook and MySpace (and blogs!?) are obsolete? For an easy example, look at cell-phones. The moment you buy one, five more have come out. In six months or a year, the model you bought will have been updated and expanded. It takes about two years to “earn” a phone-upgrade through the average cell-phone plan, provided you don’t change plans every so often. Think how movies have changed. Think how music has changed. How the delivery systems and modes of receiving them have changed. Now think how much the book has changed. Not much. Ink on paper, bound together. Sure, there’s that gizmo the Kindle, but it hasn’t caught on. For all the changes in everything else, most people still prefer to have a book and hold it. The newspaper can’t even boast that. The book is one of our most steadfast artistic endeavors. And yet so few people read.

I remembered that the article arrived at an answer to Franzen’s fear, if not a solution, and because at this point it was a little after 3:30am, I had to read ahead to figure out if his answers would satisfy me or, if they didn’t, if I could come up with a good enough counter-proposal to be able to go to sleep. In other words, I had to analyze. To an extent. Franzen’s answer is one I do find comforting.

Expecting a novel to bear the weight of our whole disturbed society–to help solve our contemporary problems–seems to me to be a peculiarly American delusion. To write sentences of such authenticity that refuge can be taken in them: Isn’t this enough? Isn’t it a lot?

Don DeLillo

It is enough. I started breathing again. A lot of times, too, a book or movie or whatever that is only about the RIGHT NOW will, itself, only be relevant right now. It will be a product of its time, and its own shelf-life will only be as long as that of the social phenomenon it’s about. And then it will be gone. But other things will last. Better things will remain. The film “25th Hour” got totally overlooked in 2002 when it came out. It was on my list of the best films of that year, because I sought it out. Zero Oscar nominations. Zero Golden Globe nominations. The movie was made by Spike Lee and has Edward Norton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rosario Dawson, and Anna Paquin. Seven years later, it is appearing on numerous Best-of-the-Decade Lists. Seven years later, it has remained.

So, of course, this entry, which was supposed to be short, has gone long. I’ll close with more encouragement, from the end of Franzen’s essay. It comes from another favorite writer of mine, Don DeLillo, who wrote to Franzen personally when he (Franzen) appealed to him (DeLillo) for help.

“The writer leads, he doesn’t follow. The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously, as an endangered spectacle. A reduced context but a more intense one.

Writing is a form of personal freedom. It frees us from the mass identity we see in the making all around us. In the end, writers will write not to be outlaw heroes of some underculture but mainly to save themselves, to survive as individuals.”


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