Pete's Blog

A Lie

Kurt Vonnegut once said (or had a character in one of his novels say) that writers conspired with editors and publishers to fool people into thinking life had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is cogent criticism of a literate society, but I'm not sure that's what we are anymore with the rise of what I call performance media, where an work's ideas are now mediated by the performers who give it voice, even if those ideas are written by the performers themselves. But for all these changes there are still conspiracies afoot, still misapprehensions to be promoted. The one I keep coming back to is found so often in fiction films that it might be seen by future historians as a central tenet of the age. You've seen it. Two people are having a heated discussion. One of them is trying to show the other that he/she is in the wrong, but the two are evenly matched, batting conflicting arguments back and forth with increasing emotion. Finally Character A turns to go. At the door (or, if they are outside, the tree) he/she turns and delivers one more stunning remark, perfectly encapsulating in a few words everything that needs to be said. Character B has nothing to say, and is left to ponder as Character A exits. In the next scene (or soon, at least) Character B has come around. He/she apologizes, or changes course in some way, or just tries to be a better person, all because there was one sentence that needed to be spoken and when it was spoken the scales fell from his/her eyes and everything changed. This NEVER HAPPENS in real life. The perfect remark, even when it is found and spoken, has no effect on behaviour, aside from producing a certain residual resentment at Character A's eloquence, which is considered elitist, insulting, not to be considered because it's evidently designed only "to make me (Character B) feel guilty." And yet children and adults alike are bombarded with this idea that the perfect remark will effect the perfect outcome. How many arguments have been extended beyond any reasonable length or escalated into violence (emotional or physical) simply through the desire to resolve the situation the way they do on TV? To keep raging until the final, best thing is said? How much frustration, even rage is there when time and again this strategy is shown to be useless? My son came home from Middle School some years ago asking why the other kids couldn't be nicer. It broke my heart to tell him that there was nothing he could do besides treasure his few real friends. I remember asking my parents the same thing at the same age, and I don't think it was because I (or Caleb) was so sheltered. I think it was because we had seen it so often: "Gee, I guess he's right. I guess I really ought to join the French Foreign Legion after all." In defense of writers and directors everywhere, it should be said that nobody intends this simple device to break anyone's heart. The fact is arguments that resolve themselves are more interesting and dramatic than those that don't, even if those that don't make up the vast majority of human interactions. After all, Shakespeare wrote almost exclusively about aristocrats, not because he thought aristocrats were the only people on Earth, but because Hamlet is more interesting if he is not just a troubled teen but a troubled teen at the peak of political, social, and military power. Still.

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