The mystery box, again.

by waxbanks

Attention conservation notice: 800 words on familiar themes with a familiar cast of characters, hopefully enabling me to put this stuff aside and concentrate on bigger things.

The trouble with JJ Abrams’s inexplicably beloved ‘mystery box’ story-cum-theory of storytelling is that asking lots of questions of the form ‘What’s in the box?’ doesn’t actually take imagination. None at all. The act of imagination is what comes next: building a world inside the box. Brainstorming isn’t creativity.

You’ve seen Lost, right? Started well, then started going to shit the instant its creators needed to start actually answering the Neat-O Questions their premise had raised. Abrams was only a minor force in the making of the show after its first season, as I understand it, but his influence is all over Lost, including its embarrassing finale — that arc from ‘Everything we put onscreen means something’ to ‘Something something nondenominational purgatory because the important thing is that we have shared a TV show together‘ is the most JJ Abrams-y narrative collapse I can think of. (That doesn’t let Damon Lindelof off the hook, of course, but he was awfully young after all…)

I’m not convinced that Abrams actually has an imagination. He can write snappy dialogue, he’s a skilled cinematic mimic, and like several TV directors/showrunners he seems to work well with actors. But he seems to possess no capacity for vision, none at all.

Better a clumsy visionary than a skillful nullity, I say.

That said, I’m sure he’s a nice man, professional, and I’m sure his shoots all come in on time and under budget. I bet he’s kind to children, his wife, his dog. Alas, all I get of him is his work.

What, again with The X-Files?

I’ve written a couple of times that George Lucas is the Chris Carter of film — influential, gifted creators, maybe geniuses of a sort, who nonetheless shouldn’t be allowed within typing distance of their own work. Neither can be counted on to write credible dialogue, but each found his way to making some of the definitive American entertainment of his time on the strength of a creative vision. That term comes up over and over in the superb Empire of Dreams documentary about Lucas and Star Wars — interviewees involved in the film will go on about his limitations (none more wittily than Carrie Fisher), but over and over they’ll come back to his ‘vision,’ by which they mean not only ‘intellectual property’ but something like his unique, idiosyncratic conception of their shared project.

Just go with it, is the repeated refrain, trust in George’s vision. Which is to say both that Lucas’s ability to communicate with his cast and crew was limited because he was a young nerd (‘Faster! More intense!’), and that there was something coherent and in its way beautiful that no one else in the project could quite picture, which everyone involved trusted Lucas to possess and to nurture. Once the first one made a mountain of money, it was easier to trust in Lucas — he could buy trust — which is why the original Star Wars has an infectious joy, a sensawunda, that none of the other films in the series ever duplicated. It does more than just ‘work’ because it might not have worked. When you watch Star Wars, you see hundreds of people making art without reassurance that any of it actually go off, engaged in esoteric labours surrounded by strange icons and images, directed by a dreamer rather than a studio professional.

Carter doesn’t have the same reputation, but his work follows the same pattern: the overall conception of The X-Files — not the ‘concept,’ the logline (FBI agents investigate gov’t conspiracy and Fortean weirdness) but what you might call the guiding world-principle (marginal seekers navigate the American mythosphere in the twilight of empire, dogged by apostles of order and power, searching for transcendent truth) — is Carter’s unique irreducible contribution, a way of seeing rather than a specific sight. What’s compelling about the show, after all these years, is its sense of a specific time and place, a specific ‘multi-user shared hallucination,’ filtered through a particular sensibility.

Creative ‘vision’ isn’t content, it’s understanding: a structure of knowledge, . It tends to be interested in style only provisionally, as a solution to a communicative problem. That’s why visionary art tends toward formal incoherence (genre-crossing, lapses of ‘taste,’ stylistic improprieties, ill-proportioned and anticlimactic narrative) but is often experienced as extraordinarily vivid and immersive, as ‘truer than true’ on a level beneath conscious expression. (As usual, think of Southland Tales.)

The X-Files and Star Wars don’t depict ‘worlds’ in the sense of Westeros, or Middle-Earth. They give accounts of dreams, of myth, and like those imaginative experiences they don’t concern themselves with making sense after the fact, in the critical/analytical domain — myths become mythoi, dreams become dreamworlds, and deep transformation is achieved that can’t easily be explained (which is why we go on about ‘alchemy’ and ‘the soul’ and ‘the cosmic’ and other such nonsense).

We’re sliding towards talking about psychedelia, so this is where we pull back on the reins for the time being.

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