Monday, April 10, 2017

13 Reasons Why: Some second thoughts on style and message

I have had a lot of exchanges with friends since I posted that review the other day (April 2) on 13 Reasons Why. Lots of people tuned in on whether the story was little more than "revenge porn" or whether it was dragged out too long, or whether high school sophomores in middle-class America actually wore that many tattoos. There was much to chew on in that film.

But in the end, it came down to some people liking it for one set of reasons and other people disliking it for another set of reasons. As commonly happens in a review, one gets the impression that one judges a work from the gut and then sets up criteria to create the impression that one has reasons for one's views, and is applying a judgment objectively. As I continued to reflect on the film, my own reasons became clearer to me, and I'd like to share them with you. 

I think the problem with writing a review of a film that deals with something as heavy as suicide is that one can’t help but fail to get it just right. Whenever art takes on a social issue there is a built-in conflict over goals. With the subject of suicide, any decent writer or filmmaker will want to take sides, and encourage all comers to the book/film to regard suicide as pure tragedy. But to be too explicit about it is to load down the artistic creation with “message,” and nothing spoils artistic creation more than preaching.

I think that’s why anyone looking for flaws in 13 Reasons Why is bound to find them. To those who prioritize the anti-suicide message, the film “glamorizes” it.  It’s “revenge porn.” To those who understand the writing process and the need to form a story in an appealing way, the device of drawing out the process of getting the whole story is good drama. So is telling a story in which the audience is forced to revise their opinions of characters as they acquire more information on their motivations. Adding complexity to the story as one goes along is an excellent way of telling a good tale, and 13 Reasons Why is well-told. One develops insights as one is drawn in. Personally, when I sat down to watch at 10 p.m., I assumed I’d last till midnight, maybe one in the morning, but I ended up sitting in my chair the whole night through. I had little attraction to Hannah and Clay at the beginning, as characters. They were too immature for me to relate to, as I said in the review. But as the story moved on I saw them as flies caught in a web of youthful deceits, at the mercy of fate, without proper adult guidance, and I began to feel my heart go out to them. I felt the tragedy of Hannah’s death, in the end, and didn’t care whether she was blaming others or not. Or whether others took on the guilt or not. To me it was just another story of human tragedy resulting from a failure to connect with the people who mattered in their lives.

We all respond to artistic creation – to stories maybe in particular – as Rohrschach tests.  We see what we want to see. It doesn’t really matter what the author’s intent was. I saw human vulnerabilities and the danger of trying to get through life on one’s own, without forming intense personal connections with loved ones. I was willing to forgive the authors their imperfect plot devices. The fact that my head and my heart were both fully engaged were ample compensation for its weaknesses. But that’s because I chose to prioritize the message, to make the message the foreground and the style the background. I’ve been touched by suicide. I will never not take it seriously, and am willing to allow creativity to suffer so the message can sail through.

I’ve had similar experiences with other pieces recently. Two that come to mind are the films Moonlight and Still We Rise. I got into a discussion about Moonlight with a friend whose opinions I highly value.  This time, though, she started in criticizing the details of the story, complaining about the lack of humor and what she thought was a missed opportunity to make use of a character. I had been knocked off my feet over the message. I have said aloud before that I don’t know why black people have not burned this country to the ground, so egregious is our history of slavery and segregation and our failure till now to put things right, and get kids out of poverty and degradation. So when she focused on the style, I got in a huff and asked her if she would ask a concentration camp survivor if they had managed to develop a sense of humor over the experience. Not the best way to engage a friend in a friendly discussion. But a superb example of what can happen when two people go at a work of art from radically different directions, one prioritizing message, the other prioritizing artistic creativity.

With Still We Rise, one of the characters, Roma Guy, features large in the history of the gay and lesbian rights movement in San Francisco. The writer, Dustin Lance Black, is a talented screen writer who knows that you may tell history in abstract forms in academic lectures, but for television, you create personal stories and individual characters the audience can connect with. I was talking yesterday with a woman who happens to know Roma Guy and tells the story of how she went to her colleagues to warn them, before the movie came out, that she was going to be presented in it as a heroic figure who almost single-handedly made things happen in the women’s community. The truth is, of course, that nothing she accomplished could have been done without the participation of many others, whom the film would slight, because it couldn’t pepper the story with too many characters. Once again, a conflict between style and message.

These are familiar challenges to writers and to anyone who takes literary criticism seriously, as well as to anyone who has ever had to choose between whether to make a documentary or create a work of fiction. Anthropologists and sociologists, too, have all had the experience of knowing they had a great story to tell, and wondered if they were in the wrong profession. A social scientist is ethically bound to tell the story without manipulating the facts. A fiction writer knows there is sometimes greater truth in fiction than in fact. You just have to know how to tell the story.

To be sure, I’ve made this an either/or argument. One can prioritize the message or one can tell a good tale. I’ve given short shrift to those who argue the real artist doesn’t settle for either/or, but writes a powerful story with a powerful message. I agree. This is one of the things, probably the main thing, that distinguishes between a good book and a great book. And I guess I'm saying 13 Reasons Why was a good movie, though not a great movie – and I leave to others who have read the book to tell us whether that holds true for the book as well.

Fine. I’d also suggest we remember the advice that we should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  


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