I recently gobbled down Black Swan Green by David Mitchell - certainly one of the best novels about growing up I've read, up there with Cat's Eye, Catcher in the Rye and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. And Mitchell does an interesting thing - he'll have a critical incident happen in a chapter's final paragraph. Protagonist Jason Taylor and his friend Dean scramble through six backyards in a row in an initiation rite for a secret gang. Taylor makes it, but Dean, three yards behind, crashes through a greenhouse. End of chapter. The next chapter begins with no mention of the accident. A character suffers a grievous injury on a motorcycle. End of chapter. Next chapter begins, same pattern. Eventually it gets explained what happened, but long enough afterward that you've filled in the missing pieces yourself already.
These aren't clumsy omissions. Important scenes get left out as an invitation to the audience. I know you're there, the author says. You're part of this unfolding thing. You've got a part to play. This approach contrasts the vast majority of works of art, where the audience's role is passive. And this difference comes down to the contrast between modern and postmodern.
But first, a few more examples from other media.
Larry David brings a sophisticated sense of comedic structure to his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Sitcom convention has the various conflicts resolved to conclude the episode. Jack, Janet, Chrissie and Mr. Furley unpack the misunderstanding. Gilligan gets a second conk on the head from a falling coconut, curing the amnesia the first conk caused. On The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden's crazy scheme blows up, he sheepishly admits his error to Alice, she forgives him and he tells her she's the greatest. All is well, roll credits. But on Curb Your Enthusiasm almost every episode ends with the various plots and subplots colliding, and instead of resolving, they open up much deeper trouble than anything we've witnessed in the preceding half hour. There's a short pause in which Larry realizes he's fucked. Roll credits, play the over the top kooky orchestra music. The next episode begins with everything back at the neutral point. We're left to conclude that Larry wound up in the doghouse but his wife (or colleagues) eventually forgave him (or didn't) and however much time later, life is back to normal. This happens in Fawlty Towers too. We don't need to see the fallout of Basil's attempts to save face being exposed to his wife. It probably wouldn't be as entertaining as what led up to that point anyway. We can fill in the rest. And we do.
Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez did this in their B-movie double bill Grindhouse. Both films begin with the faux announcement "The management of this theatre apologizes that there are one or more missing reels in this film." Partway into each movie, the action stops dead, the words "Missing Reel" appear on the screen, and we jump ahead abruptly. In Rodriguez's Planet Terror we go from a sex scene in the back of a barbecue restaurant to a zombie attack with the restaurant engulfed in flames! A major character has been shot, and in his dying moments he thanks the mysterious hero for finally revealing to his true identity to him. The hero tells him not to mention it again. And they don't. Missing reels weren't actually a feature of 70s B-movies. Tarantino collects films. He'd bought a print of The Sell Out, an Oliver Reed movie from 1976, which turned out to have a missing reel. Watching it in his home movie theatre with twenty minutes and a major plot point omitted, he found himself enjoying the puzzle this set up. How did the story get from there to here? He filled in the gaps for himself. And then mischievously invited his audience to do the same in Grindhouse.
In Scott McCloud's graphic work Understanding Comics, he explains how in all sequential art the reader takes the static image of one panel and the static image of the next, and brings them to life in her mind. Her role is active and essential.
Gary Larson often created this inner mental motion with a single panel of The Far Side that showed the moment right before the reaction. The figure depicted in the comic is completely straight-faced as he realizes he's fucked. Larson doesn't need to show the character screaming, or running for his life. It's funnier if that all takes place in our imagination, extrapolated instantaneously from the single panel.
In a 1966 live recording, Mississippi John Hurt elicits a laugh from the audience by leaving out words from in the song Richland Women Blues. Instead of singing a given word, he gives a guitar string an emphatic pluck. As a listener, you fill in the missing words in your head. To listen to a 20 second excerpt click here.
David Bromberg does a similar thing in this performance of the blues classic Come On In My Kitchen from his 1976 album How Late'll Ya Play Til. Each time he repeats a verse, he leaves words out, playing emphatic notes on the slide guitar each time. The listener's imagination fills in the gaps, to humourous effect - you can't help but think of dirtier words than the song actually contains, in some cases.
My friend Charlie Ross does this on stage in The One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings. In each show he recreates these cinematic epics using his voice and body and nothing else. No props, no costume changes, no set. A simple but precise gesture combined with a vocal impression and suddenly hundreds of people looking at a guy dressed in black on a bare stage see Jabba the Hut laughing villainously, Legolas taking down a giant elephant singlehandedly, or the trash compactor scene, with all its characters, music, and set dressing, right down to that slime monster snake thing that pops an eye up out of the muck for a quick look around before disappearing and then grabbing Luke around the neck. A significant portion of Charlie's shows take place in the audience's memories and imaginations, with Charlie orchestrating them for an hour.
These artists demand their audiences be active participants in their work. They eschew the standard injunction to sit back and be entertained. Lean forward, they say. You're a part of this. Dance with me. You can do it. Contribute. Shake off the passivity so often foisted on you. You'll get something good out of it.
We're unused to this. We've been spoonfed for so long. We've come to associate any expenditure of effort with work, and work is by definition something you don't want to do.
Balls. It can be engaging. And empowering. And fun.
Think of the verbal complexity in HBO's Deadwood. You can't be half awake or distracted and keep up with that show. Virtually every power shift (and they happen every episode) happens through language, practically Shakesperean in lingual dexterity and simultaneously chock-a-block with cocksuckers and motherfuckers. Only occasionally does violence move the story forward. In a Western!
Look at the rise of serial television. Lost made you think "what does this mean???" every episode. Every commercial break was preceded by a cliff-hanger. Every season of Desperate Housewives features of a murder mystery, resolved in the finale. In The Wire there's no clear good guys vs. bad guys dynamic. Some of the law enforcement people are corrupt, self-serving bullies. Even the "good" ones are flawed in some way. But some of the bad cops have moments of brilliance and grace. Some of the criminals have a strong sense of community and responsibility. So who do you want to win? Breaking Bad's protagonist is a straight-laced high school chemistry teacher, diagnosed with lung cancer, who turns to cooking a superior variety of crystal meth to pay for his medical treatment and provide for his family. One of the chief antagonists is his crass, macho blowhard DEA agent brother-in-law (he's a potential antagonist, anyway - he doesn't know who's cooking this superior meth, yet) - who's later shown to be an genuinely perceptive and skillful detective, and is at one point laid low with severe post-traumatic shock after a gun battle in the line of duty, exposing a completely unexpected vulnerability. Who do you want to win? Same with the characters on Deadwood. Saloon keeper Al Swearengen is established as a villain in the first season, but by the second season seems more like the hero, without having changed his behaviour or views at all. (Seeing shades of grey in the world is one of the things Jason Taylor learns over the course of Black Swan Green, by the way) And isn't it interesting to discuss all of these things with whoever you know who's also into the same shows you're watching?
By contrast, think of the conversations that might have followed an episode of Knight Rider, twenty-five years ago. Or the A-Team, or The Six Million Dollar Man. "Remember that chase scene? That was awesome!" "Yeah! Or that fight?" "Yeah!"
Superman has been in constant publication (as well as on TV and in the movies) long enough for there to be a radical divergence of interpretations and reactions to his character and stories, something Carter Phipps explores in another post on this site. He characterizes the differences as modern and postmodern. And those distinctions apply to the works I've been describing as well.
Modernity sits very comfortably with absolutes. Stories told with a logical progression. Moral certainty. Progress! The Enlightenment! Civilizing missions to the New World! We're here to save the day and we know who's good and who's bad. Period! Postmodernity is grey layered on grey, and then more grey. It's fluid and amorphous. There are no certainties, everything's a matter of perspective. Postmodern works of art are conscious of themselves as being works of art. They admit it. They toy with that fact. They're aware of the audience as subjects, able to interpret the story in many ways, and they invite them to do so. There are no definitive answers. You choose who's right and who's wrong. You decide what happened in the missing reel. The characters, like you, are full of contradictions and uncertainties. Nothing's in easy black and white like in the old days.
And don't get me wrong, I can get right into a good ol' straightforward story full of moral absolutes. When I'm reading an Ultimate Spiderman or Captain America graphic novel, no part of me wants the Green Goblin or the Red Skull to win - not for a second! This summer I got right into Cowboys and Aliens, with its marauding villainous invaders the heroes could kill with impunity. Same with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with its Very Bad People contrasted with Good Kind People and Good Apes. One of my favourite piece of theatre I've seen in recent years is the Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County by Tracey Letts, in which the cast never directly acknowledges the audience and things proceed from one realistic scene to the next (although Act One does conclude with the moment right before one of the main characters is given a devastating piece of news)(no need to see her scream - we can imagine it). And The Honeymooners, broad, theatrical and linear, is one of my favourite shows (mind you, a few episodes do end Curb Your Enthusiasm style, with things at their worst). And David Mitchell's most recent novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet lays everything out in chronological order, and it's pretty damn clear who the villains are in that story, and who's good.
I'm grateful to live in a world that features both. I like sitting back and being entertained by someone who knows exactly how to take me on a ride. And I like being pulled out of my chair and invited to dance in the world a brilliant artist creates.