Sunday, May 06, 2007

Critical Validation

Some years ago (1999, in fact), I had a theory about the film American Beauty. It was basically that there was a film hidden inside the film, that something else was clearly going on aside from light pedophilia, suburban potsmoking, self-actualization, and mystical plastic bags. The video segment that was the first shot of the film suggested that the tapes were significant in that they constitute the only hard evidence that investigators of Lester Burnham's murder would turn up, and that they would construct a seemingly airtight case against Ricky Fitts and Lester's daughter Janie. What kind of shocked me was that, at the time, nobody else seemed to be talking about that dimension of the Oscar-winning film (I must admit that film critic bars are spread rather thin in Sacramento, and I didn't make any special effort to comb the internet for others who shared my view, so this might be old hat for IMDB message board types--scratch that--just checked the aforementioned, and no mention).

Anyhow, that's just kind of the first part of what I'm getting at here. As someone who spends a lot of time picking media to pieces (just ask my friends about the subtlety of the Slowsky Comcast ads or the Geico cavemen (probably another blog about that whole thing in the near future)), I can sometimes second guess myself into thinking that I'm seeing something that isn't there. The other side, though, is that, if my opinions and interpretations of media/texts is just smoke and mirrors, then why did I spend twelve years in college learning how to do it? If I had studied engineering, I wouldn't be forced to admit that maybe my bridge is no better than anyone else's, but the general perception is that there's a very short journey from literacy to literary criticism, and it just ain't so. It's this kind of intellectual timidity on my part that got me into a weeks-long debate with a friend who denied that there was Christ symbolism of any kind in Cool Hand Luke; I value intellectual honesty, but there's got to be a point at which it's not necessary to painstakingly consider each and every opinion regardless of its source.

On to the validation part.

I recently bought American Beauty on DVD (a long-overdue purchase, considering how much I like the film), and sat through the commentary track narrated by Alan Ball, the screenwriter (of Six Feet Under fame); and Sam Mendes, the director. Right out of the gate there was a mention that the original first scene of the film was a courtroom scene in which Ricky and Janie are convicted of Lester's murder, but that it was removed because it didn't match the direction that the studio wanted from the film (I guess it would have been a bit more like Sunset Boulevard than it already is). What I think is great is that the first scene gives a hint toward decoding the original story from what was actually released without compromising the film that it ultimately became. I don't know which of the two creative influences on the movie pulled that off, but I feel a lot of gratitude to whoever it was.

It's nothing new, really. There's even a name for stuff like this in art studies, much like the roman a clef, or "story with a key," in which historical or controversial events Primary Colors is a great recent example, but Kerouac's On the Road is another good one. I thought I might even be on to something (I get a cool kind of buzz when there might be some neat new idea out at the edge of my awareness).

After sitting on it for a while, I thought "literary pentimento" was the right term (I wrote a paper about Hellman's autobiographical novel (not quite a roman a clef) back in English 1B). It seemed like this might be something that could tie a good critical essay together. Then I came across (pretty basic google search), of course, literary pentimento. I was only a little disappointed, but that little bit of disappointment got me thinking about whether it's really possible to have an original idea anymore. I'm not sure how I'd answer that one, but I think it's a good one to start discussing. Any thoughts on any of the above?

1 comment:

  1. This was great. My favorite so far.