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Month: March 2009 (page 1 of 4)

“stand by me” from the playing for change project

This came across my desk today. It’s a clip from the Playing for Change: Peace Through Music documentary project where musicians from around the world are united in the spirit of peace. Check it out, comment, and share it with others.

the perfect human irks students

We kicked off a unit on microfiction in my creative writing class the other day. This segment of the course will be focused heavily on the idea of revision–sometimes arbitrary, always gut-wrenching. The process we’re following is one I’ve been developing with a colleague of mine based on the film The Five Obstructions. The very basic idea of the film–and the idea of our project–is that an original short work is remade a number of times each time with a set of obstructions (or difficult rules) that will force the writer out of his or her comfort zone and into new creative territory. It becomes a kind of diabolical game where obstructer tries to trip up the writer–to ruin his or her work. The goal of the writer is to embrace the obstructions rather than resist them–to see them as gifts to be used for advancing his or her art.

Anyway, I showed my students the original short film The Perfect Human that filmmaker Jorgen Leth is asked to remake five times by Lars Von Trier in the feature-length film The Five Obstructions. I thought this would be a nice starting point for our own obstructions project, and I was curious to see if students could appreciate the narrative similarities between short film and microfiction. Here’s the film:

The reaction from my students was less-than-impressed. One student went so far as to say he thinks they should show a film like that to prisoners of war who are being interrogated. They would most certainly crack within the twelve minutes of the film run-time. While my student’s hyperbole generated a laugh or two, I found it curious that reactions would be so negative to this little gem of a film. Granted, it’s not what most of the students are likely used to, but what makes it so unbearable? Is it because it’s “old” and in black and white? Is it the foreign language and the need to read subtitles? Is it the “artsy” feel or the slow methodical examination of the characters? The slight and subtle story arc? I’ll continue to think on this as we progress through the project. Perhaps I will understand it in a few days…

conflict: the stuff of life, the stuff of storytelling

My fiction writing students and I often argue around the matter of what makes for a story. The debate usually begins when I encounter either one of two stances on the issue: 1) sometimes nothing happens in a story, there is no particular conflict, and the characters never change, or 2) everyday life is boring, so stories must have some kind of twist or something sensational to make them interesting. (Sigh.) I encounter these stances more than I care to think about. What I feel so many of my student writers don’t at first get is that the human experience is about conflict–and so any story that hopes to relate to the human experience must, too, have conflict. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love a wonderfully subtle story in the tradition of Nabokov or Chekhov where life is not methodically presented along a clear, linear plot line only to be neatly resolved in the end. I love a story where more is implied than outright said. There is a beauty to this. But even the subtlest of all stories has conflict. I think the debate I find myself having with my students stems from a common misunderstanding of the nature of conflict–both internal and external. It doesn’t need to involve laser blasters, car chases, or zombies who want to eat brains, for god’s sake. The seed of all conflict comes from striving and falling back again. It can be as simple as that. It is the stuff of life.

Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?
  –Robert McKee from Adaptation

Anyway, when my students hold tightly to their notions that real life is either too boring to write about or that stories about life do not necessitate conflict, crisis, and change (presumably because that’s not the stuff of life), I am tempted to show them this clip from the brilliant Spike Jonze film Adaptation. Of course, the screen-writing guru Robert McKee (a real guy) is being parodied here and throughout the film as much as Kauffman, himself, is, but just the same, in this clip, he speaks a basic storytelling (and life) truth. Check it out.

I just wonder what my dean might say if I took the same tone with my students that McKee takes with Kauffman. Perhaps I’ll give it a try one day soon in the spirit of better fiction. It couldn’t hurt.

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