Monthly Archives: May 2013

Romcom blues

Here’s an interesting piece by Dan Mazer (best known for his work with Sasha Baron Cohen on The Ali G Show, Borat and other such fare) on his recent anti-romcom I Give it a Year. As a writer of straightforward romcoms, he has good, clear insights into the genre; his story about writing his anti-romcom is topical because it’s not completely ANTI: he’s trying (according to this article) to have both the romance and the anti-romance at once. The role of market forces (through his distributing company) also shows the extent to which stories are only allowed to reach large audiences if they’re sufficiently familiar and clear in terms of genre; directors who make genre-bending movies tend to be either so established they can do anything (e.g., Charlie Kaufman) or on the sidelines of big-money (e.g., Woody Allen). I haven’t seen Mazer’s movie (I only just heard of it today), but the reviews don’t exactly invite checking it out. It does sound a bit like a movie I have seen, The Break-Up (with Jennifer Anniston and Vince Vaughn), which I hated watching but which was at least interesting for what it does to the myth of perfect forever love.

I don’t agree with Mazer’s praise for Knocked Up, though. I found that movie totally conventional and not very edgy at all.

Here’s the link to Mazer’s article:

For a much shorter and, I suspect, much better anti-romcom, here’s a truly great music video from Bob Dylan’s most recent album, Tempest (2013): Dylan’s been busting generic expectations for decades, and unlike many washups from the sixties, seventies, eighties and even nineties and oughts, he’s still got it–and he’s 72!

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Related to Tom’s lecture on Freud

Here are two articles you might read if you’re interested in learning more about the relationship between plot and Freud’s model of the psyche. Both articles can be accessed for free through the library website.

Here is the citation for Peter Brooks’s famous article, which I have discussed a few times (it is also republished in his influential book, Reading for the Plot: Brooks, Peter. “Freud’s Masterplot.”Yale French Studies 55/56 (1977): 280-300. The paper is rather technical and dense, but it’s extremely well argued and quite persuasive.

I haven’t read this paper yet, but it looks fascinating, not least because it is written by a neurobiologist (it’s also short!):
Yang, Amy. “Psychoanalysis and Detective Fiction: a tale of Freud and criminal storytelling.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 53. 4 (2010): 596-604.

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Some masterplots….

There were many questions after class about masterplots, so I thought I’d give some examples. Basically, though, masterplots are just “skeletal” stories that recur again and again (by skeletal I mean that a given structure is what recurs, rather than its content). Jesse in class was right to call masterplots “cliche plots.” Note that masterplots are often culturally specific, though some are more or less universal. Indeed, it is culturally specific masterplots that are most persuasive, because they touch on what makes us belong to our culture rather than others. This can be positive but also negative, depending on how people make use them.

Here is a small list of masterplots that we often encounter in the media, in literature, in political discourse, etc. There are many, many more. (I put related variations in parentheses.)

Coming-of-Age (initiation; awakening), e.g., Great Expectations, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the Harry Potter series, Confessions (St. Augustine)

Rags-to-Riches (pursuit of happiness)

Rise and Fall (tragedy, vice punished, pride before the fall), e.g., the Fall of Lucifer, Oedipus Rex, Scarface, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Galapagos (Vonnegut’s novel), the theory of the entropic heat-death of the universe

Virtue Rewarded (Cinderella story)

Origins (family saga, creation story, epic), e.g., Paradise Lost, The Epic of Gilgamesh

Self-sacrifice plot (hero’s martyrdom), the Passion of the Christ, The Guard (film)

Underdog plot (struggle against impossible odds, forbidden love), e.g., Erin Brockovich, The Matrix, the fall of Lucifer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Brokeback Mountain

Picaresque (road narrative, quest, adventure story/romance), e.g., La Morte Darthur, On the Road, Don Quixote, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Big Lebowski

Faustian plot (temptation plot, bargain with the devil).
Exile/survival/banishment (stranger in a strange land), e.g., Robinson Crusoe, Castaway, Gulliver’s Travels
Life lived (old fool), e.g, The Sense of an Ending

Orphic Journey (descent into hell), e.g., Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now, Argo, many CSI episodes, The Divine Comedy: Inferno

I’ll stop there, partly because the latter is exemplary. The recent Oscar-winning film Argo is very clearly playing on the Orphic Journey masterplot in the form of a CIA agent’s infiltration of Tehran and escape home with six Americans. This is a powerful masterplot (myths, parables and fairy tales give us many of our most persuasive masterplots)which helps account for the success of the movie–especially at this time of renewed tensions between Iran and much of the West. Thinking of this movie in terms of masterplots, it’s also easier to see how the film sets American values and lives against those of the Iranians: that is, once we are aware of how the movie uses the Orphic Journey masterplot, effectively likening Tehran in 1979 to the underworld and its people to the damned, it becomes clearer how this film might function as propaganda. One of the reasons it’s important to be aware of masterplots, then, is that the awareness helps us be more critical of them. We can never be free from the lure of masterplots, but being able to recognize them and their workings can make us less susceptible to their subliminal attractions.

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Instructions for Report # 1 on Blackboard

A rough version of the instructions for Report # 1 is now on Blackboard; I’ll probably do some editing to make it a bit clearer, and the definitive version will be passed round in hard copy on Monday. But this sneak peek gives you the essentials, more than enough to set you thinking about what you’ll do for your report and looking for narrative to write on.

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How to talk about books

A student came to me after class to ask about what is legitimate to discuss about the books we read. This is an important question, because it gets at one of the major difference between reading in literature (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction) versus reading in the sciences (life, physical or human) and even other humanities like history and philosophy. Basically, there is no single focus or “right” reading of the narratives we read. What I’m presenting is, of course, reflective of two things: 1. the focus of the course (i.e., I will talk mostly about aspects of the readings that reflect plot, temporal structure, narration, etc–in short, things related to narrative); and 2. my own interests and specialty.

In other words, you should feel encouraged to bring up your thoughts and interpretations even if they don’t exactly reflect my lecture. By focusing on, say, time in The Sense of an Ending, I am neglecting other important features, like the historical moment it describes (1960s London), the issue of class, its portrait of masculinity and its sexual politics, etc. If these or other aspects of the novel strike you as important or interesting, do raise them in class–or as comments on this blog.

This is not to say, of course, that anything goes (a common misinterpretation of how the study of literature works). It is arguable that Tony Webster is a misogynist pig, but it’s plain wrong to say he’s a psychopath, or a spy, or a Ferengi, an alter ego of Veronica or the spirit of Adrian Finn. As in the sciences, interpretations must be supported by evidence (usually in the text).

In any case, consider this an encouragement to bring up things about the readings that don’t necessarily or obviously relate to the topic of my lecture.

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Syllabus now on Blackboard

I’ve posted a pdf of the course syllabus on Blackboard. Note that the readings and assignment schedule may change slightly, so keep updated by checking the “Books and Schedule” page on this site.

See you in class this afternoon for “beginnings, middles, ends.”

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Metaphors as Verbal Models

ImageBy the way, looking back at my last post I thought I might say a bit more about the use of metaphors as a way to clarify complex or abstract ideas. (Brooks’s model of the plot is, really, an extended Freudian metaphor.) Even if they’re not accurate in a mathematical or predictive sense, these models are extremely useful–and not just in the arts. To give just two examples from the sciences: (1) natural selection is a metaphor with a lot of explanatory power: it isn’t “true” in the sense that there is nothing or no one selecting, but it is a useful model for understanding how populations evolve. (2) in Einsteinian physics, it is common to describe space as a tablecloth and stars and planets as bowling balls (or the like) weighing down certain areas of the tablecloth, so that the trajectory of a light particle deviates towards the heavy object. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this is “just” an elaborate, heuristic metaphor. Anyway, such metaphors are a tremendously useful way to help understand the unknown in terms of the known. It can sometimes be misleading (in quantum mechanics, we can easily be misled if we take the metaphor of an electron’s “spin” too literally), but it is unavoidable and often very illuminating. A few famous examples, right there in the titles of influential books: The Selfish Gene (Richard Dawkins), The Anatomy of Criticism (Northrop Frye), The Genealogy of Morals (Friedrich Nietzsche), Archaeology of Knowledge (Michel Foucault), and, no doubt, countless others…

To clarify: I’m not saying that because we need metaphors to describe, say, space-time or Darwinian evolution, these phenomena are therefore fictions. What I’m saying is that the language Darwin and others have had to use to describe their models is an inherited language, with old associations inevitably attached. Language is so entwined with the notion of agency that it’s very hard to describe something like natural selection without implying an agent–even if there isn’t one; think of expressions like “gravitational attraction” or “stock market behaviour” and you’ll see what I mean. (for more on this, see Gillian Beer’s excellent book Darwin’s Plots). This, I think, is what Nietzsche meant when he said that “we are not yet rid of God because we still believe in Grammar” (from Twilight of the Idols).

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