In the days after the tragedies of 9/11, some of us sought refuge in movie theaters. In fact, one theater in the frozen section of lower Manhattan opened its doors to shell-shocked patrons and offered free soda and popcorn and movies. God bless a film like Rat Race in days like these.
But as we know, films offer us much more than escape, especially when we look at film texts (and their popular reception) as cultural artifacts that refract the age in which we live.
The call for submissions for this issue was as big and vague as we could manage without sounding like dolts. We cast our net as wide as possible, lest we stunt, shut down, or otherwise alienate “good writing on or about film.” We wanted to see how film suffuses other arts, other media. We wanted to see how one medium might be refracted through another, and how creative writers, among other artists, make that happen.
What we didn’t expect was the subtheme of labor within the culture industry. You can watch this theme unfold in Daniel Nester’s interview with Paul Thompson of NYU film– an actor turned playwright turned director turned teacher– and in Greg Pardlo’s interview with Dylan Tichenor, film editor for Unbreakable, Boogie Nights and Magnolia. You can trace it across MJ Robinson’s essay on The Blair Witch Project as an allegory for the popularity of film schools, and in James Polchin’s essay on celebrity– of the Hollywood and the academic varieties. You can even follow it in CAConrad’s Elvis sequence and in Daniel Nester’s “Leslie Nielsen Signs Autographs, Comments on His Disaster Movie, The Poseidon Adventure.” These pieces seem to be grappling with shared questions: Put simply, what does it mean to be a working actor, director, or screenwriter at the end of the 20th century? What are the conceptions and consequences of celebrity?
In this issue you will see screenwriters writing poems, film editors and directors talking about their craft with poets, scholars and academics using film to trace larger cultural shifts regarding celebrity, and more. Storytellers in one medium here convey a preoccupation with other media. Writers in one form or medium hold up a mirror, a lamp, a sonnet (see Kevin DiNovis’ Jaws poem) to another.
“The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born”–Marshall McLuhan
If you’ve cast even a fleeting glance at our previous online issues, you can guess at an obsession. In what ways does one medium or technology of storytelling affect another? How might one inflect the features, style, content, craft of another? PBQ’s reflexive concern with the relation between online magazines and traditional print forms is demonstrated by our editors’ participation in a number of academic panels and workshops, and by the numerous essays they have penned on the subject.
Working out this theme has been like getting gum out of my hair. With our move online, we have lingered over questions of Web publishing versus print publishing, and we’ve noticed the way our readers and contributors have reacted to the changes we’ve made. Though many are enthusiastic, a good many remain suspicious, distrusting our Web issues’ status as a “real” publication.
Thus this intro is the third in a series of pieces about the anxieties PBQ has tapped with our move online. The Web has provided us with a way to resurrect/preserve/grow an offbeat high-quality 30-something venue for new writing. But some writers balk at Web publication.
With this film issue (the third of its kind in PBQ history) we expand the circumference of the debate between the book and the web, and locate a new terrain on which to map emerging ideas and concerns about writers and writing: film. Popular film reflects (and affects) the social imaginary. Consider the ways in which films have spoken to a cultural preoccupation with new technologies of communication.
One of the late twentieth century’s most interesting films about writing and writers is Shakespeare in Love (1998). Its surprise box office success evidenced a cultural preoccupation with the role of the writer. Academy award-winning, wildly popular, the film was produced and released in a time marked by the “new economy” and e-commerce. In an era of soaring new technologies, when, barring a few Luddite holdouts, most writers were composing with computers instead of pen and paper, the most popular romantic comedy of the year featured a playwright scribbling with a quill.
This preoccupation reveals a deeper anxiety. Recall Sneakers (1992)? The Net (1995)? Johnny Mnemonic (1995)? Or more recent films like The Matrix (1999), this summer’s Swordfish, even, arguably (or, rather, aargh) last summer’s The Cell. These films are driven by plots that contain characters who crack the code, speak the new language, access and deliver information (so, OK, J-Lo as a virtual psychiatrist intervening in her patients’ alternative universes to get them to rewrite their traumatic narratives is a bit of a stretch).
That these films fit in the generic categories of crime and sci-fi suggests that what fascinates us also gives us the creeps. Note, for example, the peculiar absence of writers as characters in the films above. Not that writers are central to sci-fi or noire crime drama, but it’s worth noting that they are not visible in the recent spate of popular films that deal with the digital, the virtual, with computers.
Such films reveal that our preoccupation with writers exists on a continuum with anxieties about their perceived disappearance in the twentieth century. It is as if film, video, and digital technologies threaten to erase the art and practice of writing, and this anxiety gets articulated through high-tech movies.
But perhaps the best example of a film that takes writing as metaphor of agency and control has nothing to do with computers. Director Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2001) is marked by narrative innovation and structural pyrotechnics; the film makes your heart race with uncertainties — everything in the plot is destabilized, glimmering into narrative focus before disappearing. Suffering from severe short-term-memory loss, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) takes to writing on his body. His short-term memory has literally crashed, and the only way for him to know “truth” is to indelibly mark it on his body. But even that text can have multiple meanings and thus the narrative unfolds, and unfolds again, in dizzying concentric circles. The film is a near parable of the risks and rewards of (dis)embodying memory: Truth is contained in memory, and memory can be lost. Or worse, the “truth” you carve out and save can be appropriated by someone else who would tell a different story.
Storytellers are haunted by new technologies of communication. Our dependence on machine memory holds us in thrall — we delight in its expanse, dread its collapse, and promise ourselves we’ll always “backup.” But new technologies are haunted by storytellers. The absence of the traditional figure of the writer as a character in these films belies a spoil of riches for writers in our age. McLuhan argued that when a technology becomes most popular it has already begun to wane. If we tease that claim out, then the invisibility of writers and writing in popular film speaks to a renaissance of the art and practice of writing. The imaginative writer — regardless of genre — tries to open up the smooth surface of things with each keystroke. And this issue of PBQ is my proof.
Perhaps more than ever the writer is part seer, part maker, part shapeshifter. Lewis Hyde writes that “trickster is the mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence, doubleness and duplicity, contradiction and paradox.” Anxieties about the role of the writer and the effect digital technologies have on writing express the trickster myth.
“That trickster is boundary-crosser is the standard line,” writes Hyde, who complicates that idea “in one important way, for there are also cases in which trickster creates a boundary, or brings to surface a distinction previously hidden from sight.” Boundary-maker and -crosser, trickster opens up space for surprise. Watch how the writers in this issue play across genres, conduct border raids and borrow/thieve characters, content, and form from other media. What’s more, they do so in a venue (PBQ online) that blurs technological boundaries. We are a book, and not.
The trickster, god of the threshold and the crossroad, is an archetype that offers us a way to understand the writer’s work within the shifting technologies of communication. And in times like these, when things threaten to fly apart, it is the writer who calls up the world in beautiful, shimmering, truthful lies before it disappears.