Friday, December 15, 2006

Learning from Bill

As a committed Philistine (or, as some people say, a Philistine who should be committed) I think Shaw did a better job as a playwright and Edna St. Vincent Milay as a poet, but nobody could touch Shakespeare as a teacher of letters. English profs tend to focus on crap such as what sort of dagger a scoundrel might have worn in Elizabethan England. I am more fascinated with why and how the words work.

One thing I have found it useful to do is make what I call the “atomic” change to something Bill said that really grabs me. The word “atomic” comes from the Greek a temnein, which means “not to divide.” I therefore define an “atomic” change as the least one can do to a sentence – such as adding or removing a single word. Consider this from MacBeth:

“Life's but a walking shadow, a poor playerThat struts and frets his hour upon the stageAnd then is heard no more.”

Take the word “then” out and the statement has the same meaning. But it does not have the same impact. By the way, that is almost certainly the same technique Shakespeare used to write the play in the first place. Since reading this play for the first time I have not been able to use or hear the word “then” without thinking of MacBeth. You can make atomic changes to anything Shakespeare – or Jackie Collins for that matter – said which grabs you and see what happens.

Another thing that is worth doing (to a Philistine) is to try to spot The Bard’s use of iambic pentameter. If it has been too long since that boring Middle School English class taught by the eternally frustrated Miss Spinster T. Ironbottom, here is an example of iambic pentameter from Twelfth Night:

“If music is the food of love, play on.”

Forget the words and attend to the rhythm and you get dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum, dah-dum. There are five dah-dums (thus the pentameter) and the dah-dum itself is the iambic. My feeble understanding, anyway. Regardless of what the sentence says, this rhythm should be buried in there somewhere. Bill used iambic pentameter to distinguish the speech of kings, queens, and lords from those of less noble characters. What is so neat about IP is that you can do it without anybody getting wise. And yet they do get the effect. Poetry shouts to the reader, HEY, I AM USING IAMBIC PENTAMETER. Bill buried it subtly in what appeared to be prose.

Now the question. I have seen lots of books on Shakespeare. But has anyone ever seen anything that deals with the problem posed above – namely, why The Bard is The Bard and not just another mean scrivener? Has anyone ever collected all his techniques into one marvelous book?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Reversing the Cliché

Some people like clichés so much that when they write they enclose them in quotation marks, or even italicize them, as if to say: “Hey, look at me, Mom! I’m using a cliché!” That may be necessary with some audiences, but with those of us who like words, it is not necessary. Even if you don’t shout about it, we know when you are being hackneyed.

Enter Alfred Hitchcock. He is deceased, and therefore the late Alfred Hitchcock. But I am going to avoid the cliché and not call him “the late, great Alfred Hitchcock.” In fact, I think I will avoid calling him “the late Alfred Hitchcock.” On this post he is just plain Alfred.

Alfred came up with the idea of reversing the cliché – taking a hackneyed idea and turning it inside out and making something new out of it. Not only that but he coined the phrase “reversing the cliché.” Here is an example:

In fifties era spy movies there was an obligatory scene in which the good guy is standing under a street lamp late at night. It is raining and the bad guys show up in a black Cadillac with vile and unreasonable intentions toward the good guy. That might have been fresh the first hundred thousand times anyone used it, but after awhile it was more likely to provoke audience groans or howls of laughter than suspense.

So Hitch makes NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Cary Grant is supposed to rendezvous with the bad guys. But it is daytime. It is not raining. The sky is clear. And the rendezvous point is out in the middle of nowhere, unless you are a country boy or girl, in which case it is finally out of nowhere and in the middle of somewhere. A black Caddy drives up, but when Cary Grant, his head filled with bad spy movies from the past, thinks it filled with bad guys and idiotically walks up to get euthanized, the Caddy speeds away. Then the bad guys do show up, only they are in a cropduster (an airplane, for the benefit of you city slickers out there) and they are bad. They are worse than bad. They are bad bad. One of them has a machine gun and Cary Grant’s character has no place to hide.

Now THAT is reversing the cliché.

Years later I do not remember who the bad guys were, or why Cary Grant was out there in the wheat field, or what happened after he got away. But do I remember him running through that field dodging machine gun bullets? You bet I do. When documentary film makers show clips from NORTH BY NORTHWEST what scene do you think they show? Cary Grant on the train eating breakfast with Eva Marie-Saint? No, no, think again!

Nobody will remember this after so many years, but when Hitch’s film PSYCHO begins, Janet Leigh has just ripped someone off and is on the lam. Now the cliché then was that major actors were always in the final reel, unless they were doing cameo appearances, and Janet Leigh was a major, major actor. So, reversing the cliché, Hitch has her character killed in the first ten minutes of the film. Audiences could be heard gasping for breath and saying things like: “No! That can’t be!” That scene became the most famous (or is it infamous?) moment in the whole film.

Now let’s take another example of reversing the cliché. This time let us use a different film maker. One hackneyed device from the same time period was the good guy trying to keep from getting killed by bad guys who either had blanks in their guns or needed to spend more time at the pistol range. A LOT more time. In the end the film would leave audiences wide-mouthed with surprise as the good guy happily scampered away without so much as an unwanted crease in his trousers. I never did understand that one. In the real world we have trouble looking good even in ideal conditions. In the movies even soldiers in war zones always wore clean, perfectly pressed uniforms. Francis the talking mule made more sense than that.

So a fellow whose ancestor gave his name to a well known vegetable (no, I am not kidding) launches a movie in which it is the bad guys who are trying to survive being slaughtered by a ruthless British assassin, who has a double-oh number and is licensed to kill. By the time Sean Connery finally managed to extricate himself from the series it was pretty well done. But in 1962, when guys like that in real life were the front line soldiers in a Cold War we all thought would turn us into nuclear ash heaps he was not an anti-hero as the critics called him. He was THE hero and we were all glad he was there. The producers preserved the cliché inasmuch as their hero’s face was never blackened for night operations and there was never so much as a smudge on his dinner jacket. But he reversed the cliché in some ways. And it worked.

So put this whole thing in quotation marks and italicize it and think about it.