Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

When to quit

Janet and I started watching Junebug tonight, and after half an hour I just had to throw in the towel.

I used to find it very difficult to give up on anything I was reading, or watching, or listening to . . . somehow I thought I would never be able to have a complete opinion about something if I only got part of it. I remember, when I was young, that I had a certain dread when I was about to start a book by someone I had never read before -- I was worried it might not be any good, in which case my compulsion doomed me to reading a bad book for next few hours or days.

I lost that compulsion somewhere. I'm still remarkably generous in the amount of attention I give a questionable piece, especially in a remote-control, channel-surfing age. But I have my limits, and I'm starting to learn what they are. Junebug only reminded me of my criteria:
  1. A book, movie, or play has somewhere between 15 minutes and half an hour to audition for my attention.
  2. On rare occasions, the work will do something so silly, stupid, or nonsensical that I will be able to dismiss it out hand in those first 15 minutes.
  3. More often, though, the sin is one of omission. The work will lose me if, in those first fifteen minutes, I:
  • Don't understand what's going on; or
  • Don't care enough about one or more the characters to be interested; or
  • Don't sense the point of the whole piece; that is, does this work have anything interesting or important on its mind?

Junebug lost me on all counts. It was only finally, after half an hour, that I had any sense of what the premise of the whole movie was about -- some sophisticated outsider art dealer meets her backward North Carolina inlaws. Before that, I'm just so in the dark about who these people are, how they are related to each other, or why I should care. Even once I do understand the characters and the relationships, there is not a single person I care about. The NC family is generally mean to each other. Not that people have to be nice to each other to get my attention-- I mean, The Lion in Winter is nothing but non-stop meanness, but it's so clever, so witty, so elegant, and so full of mind games that you're still sucked in. The Junebug family was just mean in a coarse, ignorant, unappealing way; it was the kind of encounter you might have with a family at the grocery store, the kind that makes you grateful for the family you have.

And even all of that could have been forgiven if I sensed that this movie was trying to say something. It certainly acts like a movie that has something to say: all those looooong still-life shots of living rooms and front lawns, and seemingly mundane activities like inflating a mattress, and the generally slow, desultory pace of a movie that's not in a hurry to tell its story . . . it seems to say, "listen, feel what's going on here." It makes me appreciate Broken Flowers all the more, because that movie used all the same tricks, but it actually worked. When I spent a minute and a half staring at Bill Murray sitting on a couch, I still felt like something was going on, and I wondered about that man, and sensed his struggled, and I understood what was at stake in his life at that moment. Here . . . I was just staring at an air mattress inflating, and thinking, "So what?"

So, I am left with little or nothing to say about Junebug, other than: a movie about an unendurable weekend with unlikeable inlaws should not feel like an unindurable weekend with unlikeable inlaws.


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