Recently I watched Mean Streets by Scorcese, and it blew me away as to how powerfully all the threads in the film fit together, despite being so ‘seemingly’ meandering – and furthermore, that this was one of his first few works as a director is an astounding thing.
Amazing, for example, is how the very first appearances of every character grounds all of their respective worldviews and carries it through all the way to the very end. Charlie as the self-loathing Catholic. Johnny as the reckless infant. Michael as the ‘mook’ who thinks he’s tougher & smarter than what he is. Tony as the guy who’s looking to ‘protect’ his spot from the outside – the neutral.
Every character is caught in this personality cycle, and the film goes on to show how each character deals with their problems from within this cycle – while the other characters and poetic images serves to deepen the internal worlds of the main quartet – but also leaves a communicative leaning-outwards to tell us, the viewer, about the greater reality that is contrasted against the smallness of these character’s interiors.
The ending is probably the best example of this – with Charlie & Johnny going on an escapist joyride, while the cinematography tells us something about how they might be feeling – before crashing into a violence of images as Johnny gets shot by the vengeful Michael. But then, even with this dramatic scene, the film ends with a slow montage of the trio being saved by paramedics interspersed with the daily life of all the other characters – everything returning back to reality.
What Mean Streets reinforced within me was the idea that, as always – whatever works… just works. The film is completely non-linear, experimental, and uses all sorts of techniques. There is no aesthetic code that can direct us to how something works – because aesthetic codes, like Rule of Thirds and all that, can only direct us towards how certain emotional states or responses might be obtained – but communicating meaning can be done with ugly and dissonant things as well. All that matters is that the dissonance works with the message.
Aesthetics, in that sense, is a lot like Common Law in that there is a slow building up of ‘cases’ as to what creates what effect or does not create what effect – and how these things are put together and what threads can be followed. But, ultimately, there has to be a bit of intuition on the side of the perceiver rather than relying solely on those cases – especially when critics can chase smaller things in some cases without viewing the bigger picture – or turn into conspiracy theorists from threads that are too distant to be communicative to most people, but are communicative to you because you happen to have experiences that fill in the blanks. Usually, such experiences develop Empathy – but they don’t exert a pull from that standpoint beyond it. As Woody Allen’s numerous films (especially Manhattan) proves – Empathy can just be another toolkit in the message of the artist to make you attach yourself to characters who are probably horrible people, while the artist also leaves the counterpoint within the work – such that only those who are more receptive to those associations will understand that the work goes beyond Empathy and seeks to criticize the myths of those who Empathize.
There is an upwards spiral of instruction – and it’s confusing in the same way that Meditation-writer Daniel Ingram talked about how there are people who act enlightened after achieving their first view bouts of nirvana but don’t realize that they’re actually much ‘lower’ on the ladder than they think.
There is no way to properly convince people of the communicative gestalt that greater works achieve as compared to lesser works – except to show discrepancies between two works – and show one that somehow communicates more on one thing, while the other communicates less. And even after explanation, they have to feel it intuitively (or at least parse it intellectually) as the work itself progresses.
Even harder is to gauge whether something is purposefully ambiguous or just quirky and meandering. For example, stream of consciousness in Joyce might try to show the ‘undercurrent’ of mythology and culture that seeps into daily life, or, opposingly, to show how daily life might be pushed up to mythic qualities – but the way Joyce goes about doing it comes from infinite tangents that might communicate that but do so with frustration and laziness. I can feel this now because I’ve come into contact with A Norwegian in the Family – and that novel kind of does the same thing through long excerpts and mythological references in some parts… but simply never meanders because of how much it makes sure that everything fits and communicates. It does so many things at once. It understands that sometimes poetry and beautiful prose might be detrimental to the message. You process pulp fiction plots & prose faster than poetry, and Dan uses that pulp fiction ‘speed’ in some scenes to condense time so that parts that are huge masses of words & psychological information somehow manages to read faster. In other parts, he goes into his high poetic mode to deepen reality – but just long enough that you get the point and it doesn’t become over-excessive. It is a masterclass of informational pacing – and it definitely conveys and communicates more per page than a whole bunch of other writers. Even though I haven’t completed it – I cannot help but feel that this is probably the greatest thing that has ever been produced thus far in human history – Quantum Objectively. Combined with the fact that Dan interconnects his oeuvre such that all of the books seem to make reference to each other (I haven’t read his other books, but there are within A Norwegian in the Family to the greater Daniverse) – the combined output of Dan Schneider might be the greatest achievement ever achieved by a single human being.
Even though it is a frequent postmodern pronouncement that Literature is Dead – reading A Norwegian in the Family has made me realize that we’re only just beginning. The entire past of Literature feels like a kind of adolescence – where people were concerned about petty things like making pompous references to Classical works, or writing lyrical prose for its own sake, or spending too much time on descriptions, or being limited to some kind of lesser theme of race or culture or subculture (being content to merely describe the phenomena without analysing it in a deeper way and attaching it to deeper humanity). A Norwegian in the Family manages to achieve all of the above – references, lyrical prose, descriptions, and commentaries on race or subculture – but it does so much more. It is a Gripping Conspiratorial Crime Novel + Character Study + Historical Fiction + Philosophical Rumination on Evil + Homage to the History of Literature + Slice of Life Novel + Slapstick Black Comedy Satire etc…
It is not merely objectively great – it is now the Objective. Aim your hearts towards it gentlemen – there are no Rules but only Tools – the Process of Art is just beginning…