Art and Story

My plan for yesterday was to spend the entire day immersed in the beta for the Electronic Literature Directory’s new site, and post about it here. Unfortunately, I woke up feeling as though gnomes had scoured my throat with steel wool, and had then smacked me between the eyes with a sledgehammer. It was all I could do to hold my head up.

So I didn’t. I whined a bit until the husband left to do some work, and then I plugged in the 3-hour “Dangerous Days: Making of Blade Runner” DVD extra. I’m in the midst of thinking about how visual storytelling can add depth to the narrative, and as Blade Runner is such a key narrative in terms of visual storytelling in the film medium, I thought I’d write a paper on it with another PhD in my department.

In between bouts of passing out, then waking up and having to rewind and rewatch segments, I gained a lot of information about how the film was made, how the story was put together, who contributed what, what the thought processes were behind certain choices (most came down to either “Ridley said so” or “we couldn’t afford X, so we did Y”), etc. There’s been a ton written about BR, of course, and I’m looking forward to it.

What really got me thinking, however, was a comment my husband picked up on toward the end of the doc. One of the filmmakers was talking about adding in the voiceover to the original theatrical release – the voiceover that had been in the original script, that Harrison Ford said was shite, and Ridley Scott agreed, so they never put it in.

But when the edit came through, and the test audiences came out of the screenings with the “I don’t get it” look on their faces, the suits said “Do the voiceover, or the film will flop – no one will get it otherwise.” Scott said, yeah, okay, sure. (BTW, it’s really funny to listen to the tapings of the voiceover sessions – Ford thought it was utterly asinine, and was not silent about it.)

The filmmaker, talking about it on the DVD, said what they’d wound up with was an art film, not a money-making theatrical hit. It made sense to me, but my husband asked, “What exactly is an art film?”

And of course, as when anyone asks you to define something you believe you know perfectly well how to define, I was flabbergasted.

After a moment, I said, “It’s essentially something that has great meaning for the maker, and in film generally has so much depth that the story is actually secondary. The depth in the visuals, or the combination of audio and visual, is the point – not the plot. Story is essentially sacrificed for the sake of the art, the effect.”

He took that on, no problem. But it made me think: what is it we’ve been doing with digital fiction? We’ve been creating art. We appreciate it, and other scholars and artists appreciate it. But the general public? Nah. The conceit is too much when they’re looking for entertainment.

The film industry hit mainstream fairly early – they had to; filmmaking is fracking expensive. If they didn’t have a way to make money back, the whole art would have gone under. But yeah, they still make art films. Not as many, without the big budgets, but they still make them because there’s still a place for them.

Digital fiction, on the other hand, is generally not terribly expensive. Most of us can create our work with the tools we already have at hand – a computer, maybe a software package or two. We don’t need investors, and we don’t necessarily have a bottom line, so we create digital fiction that has meaning and depth to us. Cool.

But so much of the blogging I see about digital fiction is concerned with how we start to make a living off it. If you can’t make a living as an artist, it remains a niche art. The best digital writers, so far, still offer their work for free. Even painters and other fine artists have a hope of gallery shows and print sales.

For those of us interested in bringing it to the forefront of storytelling genres – to stand on equal footing with film, book, and play – we need to keep the story at the forefront. We need to find ways to create depth without it obscuring the story (as they did with Blade Runner). The neon signs in the film had meaning – they’re not just collections of Japanese or Chinese characters. That provides depth – that provides art. But it didn’t stand in the way of story. It enhanced and bolstered it, so that by that final scene, when Roy Batty is dying in the rain, the dove flying from his hand, the audience lives in that completely constructed world, and feels empathy for a mere machine.

Story is still king, yo.

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