Mark Terry

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Snakes On Brokeback Mountain

August 20, 2006
Samuel L. Jackson was talking to the media to promote his latest movie, "Snakes On A Plane," and at some point, partly in frustration, I expect, he said, "Look, we're not talking 'Snakes On Brokeback Mountain.' We're talking 'Snakes On A Plane.'"

This resonated strongly with me, especially after I stopped laughing. Because what Samuel L. Jackson was saying was, "We're not talking about a movie likely to win the Academy Awards or go down in film history as a great work of art. It's a horror movie!"

And one of the reasons it resonated with me is that sometimes critics don't get it. One of my key criteria when I reviewed books was: "Did the author accomplish what they were trying to accomplish?"

So if you're writing an adventure novel and it's not exciting, but it sure has plenty of imagery and symbolism and seems "literary," I can't help but feel the author may have missed the point. Example: "The Crown of Columbus," by Louise Erdrich and her ex-husband whose name I forget. Michael Something. (That's sad, as he's now dead, committed suicide, I believe). Anyway, this story is about a historian (I think) who may have clues to where a "crown" of some sort is hidden that Christopher Columbus brought with him while exploring the New World. In point of fact, the crown is the the crown of thorns that Christ wore when he was crucified. This novel had all the makings of "The Da Vinci Code" only it was written about 15 years earlier, and although the writing was without a doubt better than Dan Brown's, it was not, to my mind, a better book. Why? Because the authors had a different agenda than writing an adventure novel. They were writing a mainstream "literary" novel and as a result, the novel seemed schizophrenic and didn't--to my mind--succeed as either thing. It sure as hell wasn't "thrilling" or "exciting" or an "adventure."

I don't want to get too much into the art versus commerce argument here, although I actually have pretty strong opinions on the subject. But I do want to make a point. The process is almost entirely identifical.

Let me say that again: The process of creating art and creating a commercial book (movie, etc) is almost completely identical.

The process that Samuel L. Jackson and the director and the writer and all the other actors in "Snakes On A Plane" took is almost entirely identical to the process they would take if they had been making "Ghandi" or "Brokeback Mountain" or "Casablanca."

Yes, it's possible people will walk their way through their work. Yes, it's possible they'll do it entirely for money.

My point here is when Samuel L. and company decided to make "Snakes On A Plane" they decided they wanted a film that was scary and fun and thrilling and suspenseful and funny and designed to give laughs and shivers and screams, etc.

When everybody concerned went about making "Brokeback Mountain," they weren't looking to make scary and fun and thrilling and suspenseful; they were intent on raising another set of emotions and moving people to think and to feel a certain thing.

The PROCESS is essentially the same. The INTENTION is different.

And for the record, I've never seen "Brokeback Mountain," because it's not my type of movie, ie., a romance (the gay theme doesn't bother me). I love romantic comedies, but straight romances, like "The Horse Whisperer" leave me cold. For that matter, I have no intention of seeing "Snakes On A Plane." Although I love thrillers, I hate snakes. Yeah, me and Indiana Jones. Although the snakes in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" don't bother me that much, I can guarantee you that I would have a hard time with "Snakes On A Plane" and all its POV shots of slithering snakes. It's a family joke: "Let's drag Dad into the reptile house at the Detroit Zoo."

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I agree with you that it's no harder to write "literature" than anything else. In fact, considering how self indulgent some self-styled "literature" seems it might often be easier. Mind you, the writer needs to be tuned in to what he's doing. It'd be hard for me to write a literary novel because that's not my thing. But when you come down to it, writers are all faced with making words do what they want them to do. I think I'm saying this was a terrific little essay and I can't really add a thing!

9:44 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Thanks Eric. I'm not sure I could write "literary" stuff either, given that my tastes don't run that way and I generally want to move the plot along.

5:41 AM  
Blogger Ron Estrada said...

If I write a long novel and realize that I really don't have a plot, I'll sell it as literature.

You snakeaphobes! My wife called me the moment I arrived in Houghton Lake a couple of years ago to tell me there was a snake in our yard (this is post Keble Lane, so don't panic). I told her to set the mower blade to 1 and press onward.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

Well, we've had a snake in our yard off and on. My philosophy is, leave me alone and I'll leave you alone.

I heard an interview with a snake expert once who suggested that people who liked snakes were afraid of spiders and vice versa. I don't mind spiders much, although I don't think I'd be too thrilled with finding a tarantula on my pillow. Then I heard an expert on spiders talk about some spider in south America or somewhere that was about the size of your fist that jumps. He said if you try to use a broom to get it out of the house it can jump onto the broom or even onto you.

So although I don't much mind Daddy Long Legs, I think I'll avoid this jumping spider.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Rob Gregory Browne said...

I've always been a commercial beast. I write and read pop fiction. My brain just works that way.

The best reward for me as a writer would be a reader putting the book down with a satisfied smile on his or her face.

Literary? What exactly IS that?

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