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February 26, 2003

Tell, Don't Show

Friedrich --

I recently finished Paul Johson's magnificent History of the English People (out of print, but Amazon will do their best for you here), as well as John Keegan's elegant short biography of Winston Churchill (buyable here). Thought I should know a little more about English history than the eensie bit I did -- they have royalty, some white cliffs somewhere, and produce many programs for Masterpiece Theater.

First-rate books, both of which I listened to on audiobook. I don't understand why more people don't use audiobooks, which are a great way to spend commuting and traveling time (beats the radio), as well as exercising time (I got tired of my music tapes pretty quickly). Audiobooks also spare middle-aged eyes, something I'm appreciating more and more. Did someone say "expense"? But renting audiobooks turns out to be quite a cheap way to go through books. The Paul Johnson is a long work of history, yet, renting it from the excellent Blackstone Audio (here), my total cost was about 20 bucks -- a steal, really. (Another good rental source is Books on Tape, here.)

Arty flibbertigibbet that I am, my main reflection on finishing the Johnson and the Keegan was about the writing. Well, one aspect of the writing. American teachers and critics often go on and on about the importance of "showing, not telling," advice that tends to enrage me. Why the general preference for one over the other? There are times when it's appropriate to tell, and times when it's appropriate to show. Plus, heck, my tastes run more towards telling anyway. Stendhal, my favorite author, is in "tell" mode probably more than half the time. Aaron Haspel (here), a "tell" buff himself, points out that one of his favorite authors, the great Heinrich von Kleist, almost never "shows."

Johnson and Keegan, bless their hearts, are both primarily tellers, not show-ers. When they feel they need to, they'll zero in on a detail or a setting or a anecdote. But most of the time they're simply telling you what you need to know. Why not?

I wonder if this is partly a British/American thing. American writers and publishers (and presumably at least some readers) seem to be crazy about show-ing: "On the evening of August 8th, 1764, a small boy in a straw hat was whittling a piece of birch with his father's penknife..." My response: who cares? (My other response, which I'm a little ashamed of: What a bunch of rubes we Americans can be!...)

A biography-buff friend of mine shares my aversion to excessive show-ing, but claims that it's the quality of the writing that makes all the difference. According to him, there are a couple of biographers who can make "show" mode really sing.

I'll take his word for it. As for me? Hey, authors: When you've got something to tell me, tell it to me. You want to keep it lively with a few concrete details? Fine. Otherwise, shut up.



posted by Michael at February 26, 2003


A small observation on your main point--I would guess that the medium most addicted to showing instead of telling is the cinema. Which is of course why so little "content" can generally be packed into a feature film. Telling--either in the manner of a documentary, a newscast, or otherwise--would enormously increase the information content of a film. When I was watching "The Quiet American" last weekend, my strongest impulse was to get a copy of it and intercut footage showing other salient aspects of the Vietnam situation--like the wave of assasinations of non-communist leaders in the North during the consolidation of Ho Chi Minh's regime. Just thought it would make the film a bit more, well, interesting.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 26, 2003 11:49 PM

Yeah, the dramatic arts are a puzzle, aren't they. How to tell rather than show. Offhand, the main elements of the puzzle seem to me to be

1) The sense of "drama" seems largely to come from specifics and details, especially of character and situation
2) Back off too far, or for too long, from the specifics and the sense of "drama" seems to dissipate. And the audience strays.

How to juggle this? First, I guess, does it need to be juggled? Maybe dramatic art simply is an artform of specifics, and why should that need to be opened up to more in the way of "telling"? Tons of great experiences come to us via the straight dramatic arts. Too much voice-over and a fiction movie can start to seem like a narrated slide show -- ok, I guess, but nothing that's going to hold a lot of people, if that's anything worth worrying about.

I may be more fond of traditional movie and theater forms than you are. Even so, yet, yet ... the monotony of it too, at least sometimes...

So, anyway, I certainly like watching the narrative experiments and trying to figure out whether they come to anything. I come up offhand with a few candidates, and am eager to know how you think they worked out. I won't spare you my thoughts.

*"Election." Lots of voice-over, as I recall. Or am I mixing the movie up in my mind with "About Schmidt"? Both seem to have worked fine for a cult-sized audience. Allows for some irony, and for moody, free-floating visuals, which can be nice in a painterly, evocative way. Though I enjoyed the more traditionally-told "Citizen Ruth" better...

*"Zelig." Seems to have worked for a lot of people, though it didn't for me. The movie never seemed to get going as a movie, and I was conscious of it as a stunt throughout. Using a collage-y, heavy-on-the-voice-over approach would certainly seem to make sense for a certain kind of comedy. But 90 minutes, that's a long time. People seem to want to sink into a movie after the opening 30 minutes. And it seems to takes a real virtuoso (like Sacha Guitry, a real one of a kind filmmaker), at least judging from movie history, to pull this kind of thing off at 90 minutes.

*I don't care for the Oliver Stone movies except in a campy way (I enjoy the frothing-at-the-mouth pill-popping excess of them). But you've enjoyed his everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, haven't you? Interested to hear if you think it's got promise for film language generally, or if you think it's just an entertaining way for a megalomaniac to freak out onscreen (my take).

* Early Elizabethan theater -- Marlowe, Kidd (am I spelling that right?), etc. Lots of pageantry, lots of using tableaux, soliloquy and narration (as I recall, anyway). I'm a big fan of this stuff, though I concede I've only seen a couple of productions of it, and both of those long ago. The general view seems not to be that this was a cool style/period in its own right, but that it was a half-baked approximation of the real thing, namely Shakespeare. But WS was pretty free and wild in his use of stage language too. Love it, as I love the couple of plays by the 19th century Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault that I've seen -- immensely junkball premodern/postmodern things, and tons of fun. I get very depressed watching the typical Chekhov-lite realistic contempo play, generally, and applaud just about any loosening-up of that. Although many of the new, more academic-theortical postmodern plays have also proven to be a snooze. Still, bring the devices and tricks on. If the stage isn't a place where symbolic and highly-imaginative kinds of staging can take place, I get pretty droopy.

* Stanley Donen did a TV version of A.R. Gurney's play "Love Letters" maybe 8ish years ago that I thought never got the credit it deserved. How do you turn a play that consists of people reading love letters to each other into something more visual? Didn't work for most people, I guess, although with TV it's hard to know. But Donen was pretty ferociously imaginative, and by the end I was kinda involved with the characters, despite the high level of artifice. Pretty daring, actually. Not sure how it'd have worked in a movie theater, but it did suggest to me that these kinds of mongrel, freewheeling approaches might be better suited to TV than movies, or maybe just somewhat easier to pull off on TV.

* Did I ever get you to watch that Cuban film "Memories of Underdevelopment"? The most novelistic movie I think I've ever seen, at least that worked. Voice over, stylized and various kinds of imagaery, staged stuff and quasi-documentary stuff, essayish stuff and straight-drama stuff. It worked, and made it seem easy and straightforward. Why shouldn't zillions of movies follow suit? But they didn't and they don't. Pure industry pressure and fear? Or is it something that's next-to-impossible to pull off?

Push "telling" too far and a play or movie tends to turn into a documentary or essay, or an illustrated slide show ("Age of Innocence" was an illustrated side show, as far as I was concerned). Which is part of the genius of Chris Marker. He starts with essay (lots of unstaged footage and voice-over) but then projects here and there into fantasy. What's onscreen remains "documentary," but he gets a fiction film going in your head, and then weaves that into the overall experience.

Hmm. Your thoughts?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 27, 2003 1:41 PM

I guess--to the very small extent that I've thought constructively about this--that a layering approach might be quite interesting. Sort of like "fisking" a movie--take someone else's story film and add in additional material in a manner that allows viewers to follow which parts are traditional story and which part are commentary. (One approach might be to make the commentary black and white.)

As for your examples: I liked "Election," didn't like "Zelig," liked "JFK" for its technique, not exactly for the substance, I've never seen an early Elizabethan play staged although I enjoyed the ones I have read (e.g., Dr. Faustus), might have seen "Love Letters" but can't quite remember it, remember "Memories of Underdevelopment" fondly.

I grant you that my type of movies wouldn't be as popular--at least with young people--as standard films, but they might appeal to older people who have developed an interest in, say, history as opposed to an interest in novels (like me.) I mean, the History Channel does okay. I suspect, however, that such "histories" wouldn't come from our current makers of "comedies and tragedies" because the form would demand a very different set of skills and intellectual background.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 27, 2003 3:55 PM

The History Channel! Absolutely right. Why weren't we thinking of the whole staged re-enactment thing? Bizarre (occasionally satisfying, I find) use of "fiction."

I wonder what Godard thinks of these new TV developments. I remember freaking out when I saw my first episode of "Cops" years ago. Who's the director? What an amazing concept, to flood a city's cop cars with cameramen with dinky videocams, and then edit together something that seems kinda coherent from the hours and hours of tape. I guess the concept guy, the producer and the editor together kinda become the director?

I read somewhere an article about the WWF - the pro-wrestling league. Or was it a documentary I watched? My mind is turning into a milkshake. Anyway, I hadn't realized it before, but there are actual screenwriters (or whatever you want to call them) behind it all. They kind of improvise their way through a season, working out story and character arcs, and modifying them as things come up -- crowd favorites, accidents, scandals, working all that kind of thing into the, er, texture of the season. I've got no basic attraction to the stuff, but I deliberately watched a show or two of it, and it was like watching heavy metal -- it's really rather well-done entertainment for young working-class men, and kind of impressive in its own terms, which deserve a lot more of a looking-at than I'll ever give them. You can sense the talent, brains and resourcefulness behind it. Have you ever eyeballed a WWF show? It's not like I'm recommending it, but when I did watch I found myself fascinated for a few minutes...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 27, 2003 4:12 PM

As for professional wrestling ("the blue-collar ballet," I've heard it called)... The WWE (as it's called now -- the WWF with the panda sued) has caused to be printed several wrestlers' autobiographies. I've read the Hulk Hogan and Jerry Lawler ones and my jaw dropped at their candor. Wrestling used to be a secretive business: even though everyone whose IQ was more than their age knew the sport was "fixed," the inner workings were a mystery. Now it's openly admitted that there are script-writers for the matches and the on-going storylines, and apparently the admission was finally made for the simple reason of avoiding paying the same state licensing fees that govern boxing. Both the Hogan and Lawler bios read like the guys just talked into a tape recorder and the ghost-writer later made sense of it, but their approaches are a little different because they're two different wrestlers. Hulk Hogan was a phenomenal superstar in his day; there was never anyone quite like him before or since. His story is interesting for its own sake but it's hardly typical. Lawler was on a much lower level, a star in his hometown of Memphis but hardly anywhere else, a hard-working mid-level guy with a quick mouth and a talent for promotion but not a world-class act the way Hogan was. Lawler's book is probably the better one for its insider look at the day-to-day grind of professional wrestling down where most of the guys live. Also, Lawler is just a funny guy and quick with one-liners. But where Lawler's book is really astonishing is its honesty, and willingness to talk about things that make you wonder if he should be really telling you all this. His personal life is the kind of thing where his second wife calls him to tell him that the bank called her (because he was on the road and out of reach) to say that his third wife is cleaning out their bank account. And it sounds like Lawler lived a teenage boy's fantasy in a way. Wrestling made him a big man in his home town (he eventually ran for mayor of Memphis and despite his years of clownish stunts as a rassler actually drew a respectable number of votes), he never had to really work at a drudge job, he made a lot of money, a succession of beautiful women came and went in his life... I can imagine myself at 17 reading this book and saying, "Yeah! That's what I want to do with my life!" Every once in a while, you do get a hint that there's a still-hidden dark side. The cruel jokes the wrestlers play on each other, behind-the-scenes violence... there's a deep strain of outright thuggery that disturbs me. Er...have I told you more about this than you wanted to hear?

Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 28, 2003 3:26 AM

No, that was great, thanks for the info, Dwight. I've got nothing like your experience with the subject. I've spent all of a couple of hours paying attention to pro wrestling, but came away thinking, Gee, that's a much more interesting phenomenon than I thought it was going to be. I'm trying to remember the name of that documentary I saw.... A Canadian thing, about some blonde wrestler ... Anyway, it was fascinating. The guy took it all very seriously -- he was a performer, he was discussing an art form. (Oh, I think he feuded with Vince what's his name, and wound up getting scripted out of the scene. Had some sons who wanted to wrestle too.) Had his creative ups and downs, fought for his character in battles with scriptwriters, had certain rituals he went through in order to find the inspiration, etc. I mean, it was like a straight-faced, respectful documentary about a serious artist, only the guy was a pro wrestler. At first I thought it was a put-on, and I'm not 100% sure it wasn't something of a put-on. But I decided to go with the straight-facedness of it and got a lot of out of playing that game. Well, these guys really are performers, and no doubt have their up and their down days, and who's to say they don't suffer creative agonies, etc etc.

Did you ever see that one? Thanks for recommending the books.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 28, 2003 12:19 PM

Yeah, well, while you and Herr Doktor Friedrich von B. were communing with the muses, reading great books, attending the symphony, and perusing the works of the Masters at the musea, there I was, watching wrestling. I took an interest in it in the '80s when pro wrestling first went big time and became noticed in the larger media. At first my reaction was part fond nostalgia for the low-rent wrestling I'd see on TV as a kid, then it was more like, "What IS this stuff?", and finally chanced upon "insider sheets" published by knowledgeable fans that gave the low-down. My curiosity largely satisfied, I pretty much stopped following things around 1991 until now, when I chanced to pick up the Hogan and Lawler books. The story behind all this is that before the '80s, professional wrestling in the US was a lot of independent local outfits or territories. They would work together to the extent of trading talent when somebody got stale in one territory or a fresh face was needed in another, but they were all pretty much separate organizations that respected each other's territorial monopoly. Then Vince McMahon, a third generation promoter and head of the WWF, then a regional promotion in the Northeast, decided to do what his father never would have: take his wrestling organization national. He picked off the local groups one by one, made nationally recognized stars out of his wrestlers, changed the look of wrestlers from beer-bellied old men in trunks to gimmicky steroid-enhanced young body-builders with ripped physiques, and transformed the sad old Saturday afternoon at the Armory kind of show into big-money entertainment on Pay-per-View. The wrestling scene is now very different what it was 25 years ago.
As for whether it's an art...I think it would fall into whatever classification you would put circus and carnival. There are some inside wrestling terms that seem to come straight out of carny argot, so I suspect there has been some influence there. These guys are performers, true, but in a very brutal form of show business where competition is at its most Darwinian. It can be a fascinating glimpse of a hidden side of Americana to read about, but I don't think you or I would actually want to live the life.
Professional wrestling has been around for a long time and I don't think it has ever been an open, un-fixed competition. What's funny is that I came across an issue of the Globe, Arizona newspaper from around Labor Day of the year 1911, so far back that it had ads for stagecoach service to all points. Much of the front page coverage was devoted to the community's Labor Day festivities, but the main headline and lead story were given over to an account of a professional wrestling match in Chicago. (Like this was the most important news of the day to the citizens of Globe, Arizona?) The match itself sounded excruciatingly boring by modern standards (one guy tying another guy up in a hold for half an hour of mutual motionlessness was not considered out of line then), but the article also went into an account of associated skullduggery outside the ring, with one contender apparently trying to maim his opponent the day before. It all sounded suspiciously like an "angle" you'd see on TV today.
Well, the blue-collar ballet can be fun in moderation and taken lightly. My dad likes to tell the story of being in his late teens around 1940 or so, just before America entered the war. He had his driver's license and was always glad for a chance to practice his driving skills. A local businessman then hired him as a driver. The businessman had to go to the nearest big city, Columbus, Ohio (about 45 miles away) once a month to see his suppliers, but as he only had one arm, he needed someone to drive for him. Dad would drive the one-armed man to Columbus, who would then give Dad some money to kill the afternoon at the movies while he took care of his business. Then Dad would meet him for a steak dinner, after which they would spend the evening at the live wrestling matches, then drive back home. I think Dad has said he had a notion rasslin' was fake even then, but it all sounded like for a kid in his late teens circa 1940, it was the most fun you could have without having any girls along.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on February 28, 2003 8:33 PM

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