Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for August 11th, 2014

The eye of the octopus

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Snowpiercer

A genre evolves like anything else: when you’re looking only at the finished result, it seems inevitable, but it’s really the product of a long process of trial and error that could have gone any number of ways. The genres that we’ve come to know best—the romantic comedy, the action movie, the horror film—are a little like the human eye. Proponents of intelligent design like to point to the human eye as proof of a divine watchmaker, since it seems intuitively ridiculous that so intricate a machine could have emerged through time and chance alone. Really, though, the eye evolved through a series of intermediate stages, each of which conferred its own advantage, and if you were setting out to build an eye from first principles, you’d never have designed it backwards and upside-down. Even if we’re happy with our eyes in their current form, it’s possible to conceive of alternate versions, like the eye of the octopus, which evolved along independent lines. And since we’re so accustomed to the eyes we use, it requires a real effort of the imagination to conceive of anything different.

The same holds true for genres. Like the eye, genres originate as a series of solutions to specific problems, and the best ideas—all of which emerge from the needs of individual authors tackling particular stories—are gathered, codified, and packaged over time. Horror provides a good example. The quintessential slasher film is as ritualized as kabuki: you’ve got a masked killer, a series of nubile teenage victims, the jump scare, the use of sexual behavior as a proxy for guilt or survival, and the moment when the killer seems dead but probably isn’t. Part of the pleasure of watching a horror movie with a large audience is our shared knowledge of those beats, which have accumulated over decades with countless refinements: Psycho laid the groundwork, with an assist from Peeping Tom, while Halloween codified the standard and its successors raised the bar for gore. It all seems weirdly logical, but it isn’t, and it’s only when we look back at its successive stages that we realize how many other turns the genre could have taken. Why the mask? Why teenagers? Well, why not?

Human eye and octopus eye

And the best way to appreciate the role of chance is to look at films from different cultures, in which genres have evolved features that seem incongruous to Western audiences but perfectly reasonable within the context in which they arose. We might find it strange for the protagonists of an epic crime thriller to pause for a musical number, but that’s part of the package in Bollywood. (A visitor from another culture might find it equally odd that an otherwise hardbitten cop in a Hollywood movie would pause to deliver a one-liner just before dispatching the villain.) I’ve always been fascinated by the movies of South Korea, which seem to have emerged out of a fantastically different conception of what kinds of conventions and ideas can exist comfortably within the same story. I’ve never seen a Korean film—from Oldboy to The Host to Nowhere to Hide—that didn’t seesaw radically from one tone to another, with slapstick giving way to surrealism and ultraviolence. And they serve as a vivid reminder of the constraints and limitations we’ve accepted in our storytelling without knowing it.

Constraints aren’t necessarily a bad thing: genres assume a certain shape because they do a decent job of solving the problems that stories present, and there’s no shame in doing good work within a genre that we’ve come to know well. But I’m still grateful for a movie like Snowpiercer, the English-language debut of South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, which I finally caught over the weekend. Snowpiercer is all the more striking because it’s being promoted as a straightforward dystopian action movie, only to spiral off on increasingly strange tangents as its protagonists move closer to the front of its titular train. Around the halfway mark, I realized that I didn’t know what to expect from one scene to the next, and that collision between the movie and the expectations aroused by its marketing campaign—which will always strive to fit a film into familiar categories, no matter how unconventional the actual product—results in a weird, giddy ride. It isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s teeming with ideas, and I expect it to stick in my head longer than most conventional entertainments. For the most part, I’m happy to look through the eyes I have, but it’s good to remember from time to time that there are other ways to see.

Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2014 at 9:49 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 11, 2014 at 8:12 am

Posted in Quote of the Day

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