Monday, November 27, 2006

better than fiction

I went to see Stranger Than Fiction the other night, and now I can't stop thinking about it. It's by far one of my favorite movies in years. Every single person in it was phenomenal, especially Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell. I've always loved Emma Thompson, but only in recent years have I started to appreciate Will Ferrell, his abilities, or his comedy. Elf made me appreciate his comedy, and now this movie made me realize how skilled an actor he really is, and honestly, I think he deserves an Oscar nomination for this performance. He was just so vulnerable and funny and sweet and charming and subtle and annoying and boring and vibrant...and everything that most normal people are at various times. Other comedians-turned-serious-actors tend to struggle with keeping their stand-up or sketch-comedy behavior in check when doing something more complex. For example, Robin Williams has the ability to be an amazing actor, but only when he reigns in his silly stand-up comedy behavior, which he sometimes has a hard time doing. Same can be said of Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey. But Will Ferrell was so in control the whole time, and I am utterly impressed.

Ferrell's performance aside, I am mostly in awe of the story and what it implies, or rather, how it handles those implications...if that makes any sense. The story deals with so many things, but one which speaks loudest to me is the issue of life versus art. Is art so important that life should ever be compromised for it? Is any art ever worth the loss of any life? Art---in all its forms, especially literary---is of supreme importance to me and how I prioritize my values. However, I've thought about this very issue before, but in a different context. (It may seem unrelated at first, but bear with me.) I am slightly obsessed with writing from the American south. There are the obvious examples, like William Faulkner, whose work I adore. But I also love the less obvious, lesser known writing, be it fiction or non-fiction, the stuff that can be found in current literary journals and magazines (check out my link on the right here to Oxford American...fabulous magazine). However, I believe that a large reason for the uniqueness of southern writing, that elusive quality which makes it a genre of its own, stems from the distinct--and not terribly uplifting--history of the south. That history is just loaded with extreme poverty, racism, bloodshed, natural disasters, starvation, etc. Not to mention the climate. There are of course endless wonderful things about the south, which also make it unique. But my point here is this: From all of the horrific and tumultuous moments in southern history came some of the most important and beautiful writing in human history (ok, that's subjective, but there's no denying its impact on literature and art). Was it worth it? If we could compromise and possibly even erase all of southern literature and its impact on other areas of literature and humanity in return for undoing the more unfortunate events in the south, would we? Should we, especially considering the longer-reaching impact such important art has on the rest of humanity?

I'm sure a million other contexts exist for the questions raised in this movie, but the issue of southern writing is the context closest to my personal affections, not to mention the fact that I've contemplated this very issue many times before. So seeing this movie has set this contemplation into motion again. The characters in the movie are faced with the choice between Will Ferrell's life (or that of his character) versus what could be one of the most important and beautiful novels of the time. Is one person's life valuable enough to sacrifice such a meaningful work of art? Or maybe nothing is really sacrificed after all, but merely reconsidered. The movie seems to say we can have both, the life and the art.

The other issue it brings up for me, which I'm not going to spend as much time on right now, is the presumed division between fiction and non-fiction. As I've said so many times before, in recent years, I've developed a deep love of and respect for creative non-fiction, a term which in itself says so much...the very idea of mixing "truth" with creativity, a concept that seems at once totally contradictory and utterly unavoidable. Is there really so much difference between fiction and non-fiction? Especially when the creative tools of storytelling (such as dialogue, narrative, and plot development) are used to convey a "true" story? The brilliance, of course, in creative non-fiction is as much the writer's ability to see the stories real life offers as it is to write those stories and to write them well. Emma Thomspon's character in the movie thought she was writing a novel, something that is, by definition, fiction. And yet her protagonist turned out to be a real person, living an actual life of his own, and her story was his real life. Does that by default make her novel suddenly a memoir or biography, rather than a novel (which implies fiction, something that didn't really happen)?

Oh my god, the questions this movie raised for me are endless, and if I continue to write them here, I'll have a never-ending blog post. I have plenty of my own hypotheses and beliefs to some of those questions, but mostly they are my own personal theories. The questions in my mind are--I think--more interesting than any answer I or anyone could attempt to give.

So all this was to say that I really liked the movie.


At November 28, 2006 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your first paragraph about other comedian turned actors. I haven't seen this movie yet but it is definitley on my movie list.

What did you think of Robin Williams in that one movie where he played the film developer and he fell in love with the family. That was one crazy movie and although I am definitley not a fan of his he did play this part well because he just seemed completely creepy which i think he is anyway. it must be that hairy chest from mork and mindy that scared me.


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