The Power of the Monologue: In Movies and in Real Life

Movies are great. We watch them for all sorts of reasons, mostly to escape our own world for a while and experience someone else’s. Ironically, we have the opportunity to enter foreign worlds all the time if we simply listen – really listen – to the people around us.

Listening is a skill that is in short supply. If you eavesdrop on the average conversation, you will often hear people talking at, or past, each other. People are simply waiting for their chance to talk. They are not letting the words of the other person sink into their consciousness. They do not ask follow-up questions, nor do they allow an ounce of silence to leave the impression that silence often does.

Or you might hear one person dominating a conversation while the other person struggles to cram in a few words here and there, desperate to complete a thought. When there is no listening going on, an opportunity is missed. We fail to gain understanding, to indulge the perspectives of those we claim to care about. We forsake the opportunity to experience, and provide, genuine connection.

That’s one service movies provide. A movie is like one long monologue. You are not expected to talk. You are supposed to listen and pay attention – rest your jaws long enough to be told a story, to learn something, to connect to an entirely different perspective. The beauty of the actor’s monologue is that it’s a monologue within the monologue of the movie. It’s a chance to learn something not only about the character speaking, but about the other characters as they react. It is a chance to connect with other humans in a situation you will likely never experience in real life.

The above clip of Tangina’s monologue in Poltergeist (1982) is a perfect example. She is a tiny person with a soft, high-pitched voice, a southern accent, and the power and inner strength of a warrior. She literally has the rest of the cast on their knees as they (and we) hang onto her every word. On the surface, she is educating them about an entirely different world – the world of spirits, a world they know nothing about. Underneath the surface, she is establishing a hierarchy. This tiny, soft-spoken woman is “bigger” than they initially imagine. She’s in charge. They had judged her by appearances when she first walked in. She is proving them wrong. She is teaching them, and us, that we shouldn’t judge by appearances.

Carol Anne, in her naiveté, is also judging by appearances. She sees “The Beast” as a child, like her. On the surface, he speaks to her like a child, “he says things only a child can understand.” Beneath the surface, he is using her to prevent the other spirits from achieving spiritual liberation and joy. He is tricking them with the artificial light of Carol Anne’s youth and innocence, distracting them from the true Light that represents their Final Freedom – a freedom which The Beast cannot and will not ever experience.

The movie is teaching us that there are false lights and true Lights. We see this with the boss, Mr. Teague, in that he fell for the false light of money and greed, distracted from basic human decency. “They’re just people,” he says about the human remains he plans to build on top of, too cheap and callous do anything more than move their headstones. Similarly, Carol Anne’s dad, Steve, as he stood with Teague on the hill that overlooked his neighborhood, wondered how anything bad could happen in such a beautiful neighborhood, on such a perfect sunny day. Underneath all the money, comfort, and normalcy was a secret that had literally been buried years prior. A secret that would violently rise to the surface and make itself known.

Secrets, in movies and in life, are often revealed by watching, listening, paying attention. Tangina’s monologue, and all monologues – in movies and in life – are an opportunity to learn something. Movies, through entertainment, compel us to listen. People in our lives, however, will not force us to listen. We can choose to listen, or we can choose to interrupt, wrestle the conversation back to ourselves, cut the other person off, or judge them for whatever they were trying to say. That is our choice.

But if we resist that urge, if we pay attention to each other as closely as we pay attention to movies, we might just learn our loved ones’ secrets. Then we won’t be blindsided when their secrets can no longer remain buried, when they finally do force us to listen through actions that shock us and disrupt everything we thought we knew. Monologues – in movies and in life – are golden moments of connection if we listen, really listen.

So, be aware of the monologues all around you. Allow them to happen. See how many worlds you can explore. The people around us are trying to make a connection. We are wise if we hear them and learn something.

Have a beautiful weekend. And remember – things are not always what they seem.

Raven

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Midnight in Paris: The Whiny Writer

Full disclosure: I don’t belong to the film elite, the people whose opinions move and shake the film industry. I am also not someone who is compelled, either through scholastic training or peer pressure, to mold my opinions in accordance with those of the film elite. In short, I like what I like; I hate what I hate. I don’t care how many Oscars and “Oscar nods” a movie receives.

In light of the fact that Midnight in Paris won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and received nominations for Best Motion Picture of the Year (wow), Best Achievement in Directing (hmm), and Best Achievement in Art Direction (Sure, this. It was a gorgeous movie), I still wasn’t impressed. The film was not memorable for me. It did not stimulate me past the outermost layer of my skin’s skin. In other words, it was very pleasant, just not impressive.

I’ll start with what I did like. I liked the movie as a love letter to Paris. There were beautiful shots of Paris in the opening scene, and throughout the film. I liked the funny dialog, which, of course, is synonymous with Woody Allen movies. I could run naked through his dialog. I also always enjoy how people are gently ridiculed in Woody Allen movies; but it never feels mean-spirited. There is a lot of whining in Allen’s films, usually by the main character – Owen Wilson in this case, instead of Woody Allen himself – but I tend to forgive the whining because it’s funny.

I liked the cardboard stereotypes of the fiancée, Inez, and her parents, not because they felt original, but because, by using exaggeration, the characters illustrated a typical problem in relationships. The couple, Gil and Inez, love each other (or, at least, they are attracted to each other), but they really have nothing in common, do not respect each other, and envision completely different futures for themselves. Inez’s parents are living manifestations of a future Gil is desperately trying to avoid. Gil’s attempts to interest Inez in his dreams are just as futile as her attempts to squash them.  Despite the humor in this, it’s pretty realistic. Sometimes two people just really don’t want the same things. In that case, the kindest thing to do is to let your loved one go his own way. For a while, this means allowing Gil to explore his fantasy of the Roaring’ Twenties.

I very much loved the characters of the 1920’s. Although they also seemed like stereotypes of themselves, they were delightful – especially Hemingway. Hemingway was masculine and resolute, unlike Gil. Kathy Bates’ character, Gertrude Stein, was the only woman in the film that interested me. Adriana, the alluring French muse, pretty as she was, did not hold my attention. However, she seemed like the perfect person to project one’s unfulfilled fantasies on. So, in that sense, she was perfect.

Now that I’ve hailed the film as basically pleasant, I’d like to try to articulate why the film left me flat and uninspired. It wasn’t anything major – it was several small things that added up. Just like with a brief and uninspiring relationship – it’s not terrible, there are just several things that combine to turn you off.

First, Gil felt one-dimensional and un-nuanced to me. He was about as deep as a used tissue stuck to a wet back on a hot summer day. His grand epiphany was something the “pedantic” Paul said some ten minutes into the movie: “Nostalgia is denial. Golden Age thinking…is a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.” So, although this is hardly a revolutionary statement, we have to wait a couple more hours for Gil to reach the same conclusion (without crediting Paul, of course).

Secondly, although inspiration comes in many forms – not the least of which is where we live – it seems simple to attribute a lack of literary success to living in the wrong city. It seems just as simple as attributing magic to a certain time period, which the movie critiques. Some of the best writers live in towns I wouldn’t give two eyelashes for. If Gil has any future success in Paris, it will be because he finally stood up for his dream. It won’t be because he relocated to Paris.

Thirdly, there is a hodge-podge of annoying odds and ends that, as I said earlier, worked to leave me cold. Gil jabs his father-in-law with little political digs, but somehow the father-in-law never has any real comeback. I’m sure this feels good to write, but it’s not at all realistic or fair. All the conservatives I know are just as opinionated and bull-headed as the liberals. Also, it’s unfair and disingenuous to depict screenwriting as easy, something to look down one’s nose at (easy to say when you have money and a string of successes behind you – I’m talking to you, Woody!). This is yet another case of the grass being greener on the other side. But the character seems oblivious to it. We also never really see him writing. Gil gets his review from Gertrude Stein, goes back, and bangs out Hemingway-worthy prose the next day. This, even though all he’s done thus far are screenplays. Gil himself admits they are not the same. I know it’s a movie, but let’s not insult the craft!

Writing is not easy, though the ones who do it well make it look easy. Acting is also not easy. Most of the acting in this film was fine. I’m not sure I ever really bought Owen Wilson as a self-effacing writer-type, though. He does has a way of aping Woody Allen’s speech patterns. Nevertheless, I’m sorry to say, I still didn’t buy it; nor was I all that invested in what happened to him at the end.

But, the good news is – no one cares what I think!

Cheers and happy writing,

Raven

What Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining Taught Me About Being a Writer

This week I watched The Shining for the second time. I was reminded of how valuable it is to watch (or read) something more than once. (I also read the book, a long time ago). This time around I noticed certain details. The long opening scene – the seemingly endless drive up the highway – feels like exposition at the beginning of a novel. Even if you knew nothing about the story, you’d get a sense of isolation, monotony, and a journey towards a destination. Two of the film’s motifs are the isolation of one mind from another – and how thoughts eventually manifest as actions; and the idea that certain encounters with people (or hotels, in this case) are predestined, meant-to be.

 

But, unlike most books and movies, The Shining does not give us a good sense of the main character’s condition before the events in the story. There is no “before and after” with Jack Torrance. Even before he and his family arrive at the hotel, there is no sense that Jack has any love or respect for his wife and son. He shows no affection toward Wendy; and Danny is afraid of him. Maybe he had to marry her because she got pregnant, and that’s why he treats her the way he does? Is that why he tells her she ruined his life? Who knows.

 

But there is no indication that Jack was ever happy, normal, kind, or even sane. So, his “descent” into madness really isn’t a descent at all; it’s more like the culmination of a journey he had already been on for years. Or, depending on how you interpret the ending, perhaps this is his inheritance or legacy – evil, or madness, handed down to him from a previous generation. Or perhaps he has “always” been a part of the hotel, like Mr. Grady.

 

There is a lot of creepy foreshadowing that adds to the fear factor. Foreshadowing, when done well, slowly draws out the emotions and feelings that will manifest later in full. In that sense, foreshadowing is kind of like forePLAY. The little actions leading up to the main action set the tone. They march us towards the emotional intensity of subsequent events in a teasing way. The movie is patient; it plays with us until it is ready to unleash its horror in full.

 

For example: Early on, we learn of the prior caretaker’s brutal murder of his wife and daughters. Mr. Hallorann, the cook, warns Danny to stay away from room 237, but insists he’s not afraid of it. Jack, alone, bores a dazed and predatory stare into a model of the hotel’s garden maze, then the scene cuts to Wendy and Danny walking in the real maze outside. We hear a television news report of a wife who went “missing” after being out on a hunting trip with her husband. These examples are all dark droplets of sinister information, telling us that these “loved ones” are somehow to become each other’s enemies. By the time we find Jack asleep at his typewriter having a violent nightmare – after which he goes back to drinking and takes complete leave of his senses – the fearful transformation is complete. Jack’s mind has gone off on its own way.

 

Danny’s mind, special as it is, is trapped in the body of a child.  Jack’s mind is demented and liquor-soaked. But both Jack’s and Danny’s minds are dependent; they each need outside help. Danny needs his mother’s help; Jack needs the help of Grady, his predecessor. Wendy, weak as she seems in the beginning, is us – or how we would be if everyone around us had gone mad at the same time. She tries to convince herself, for as long as she can, that everything is okay. In effect, she wants to ignore the mind altogether and focus on the external world. At the center of the horror is not some external force, though. The epicenter of the horror is the weak, impressionable, violent mind of a frustrated writer.

 

As a writer, Jack is eager to expel the demons inside of him and drop them onto the page, but he blames the fact that he can’t on his wife, on noise, on the environment, etc. The following exchange is telling, as we can see the tension between Jack the writer, and his non-writer wife. Her ignorance of what he’s going through as a writer, and his barely-contained contempt and resentment of that ignorance, is just beneath the surface. She starts in on him, innocently trying to help:

“Any ideas yet?”

“Lots of ideas; no good ones.”

“Well, something will come. “It’s just a matter of settling back into the habit of writing every day.”

(sarcastically) “Yep, that’s all it is!”

 

Most artists, especially writers, have had to deal with people’s ignorant or condescending remarks toward their art. People tend to think that writing is easy. Everyone thinks they can write a book, though precious few people do it well. Everyone thinks, like Wendy, “Eh, that’s all there is to it.” In that sense, I feel Jack’s pain.

 

On the other hand, as writers, it is easy to do that – blame others. It is easy to think that, with the perfect environment, with the perfect support, with the perfect circumstances, we would be the next Ernest Hemingway. Some even embrace the “crazy artist” stereotype and convince themselves that they need to hold onto their demons and vices in order to make great work. However, sobriety and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Jack eventually gives up on both sobriety and creativity.

 

Not only does he destroy himself and his family, he fails to create great work. In surrendering to his inner demons, he is exposed as a hack. All he has written is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over and over again, for pages and pages and pages. Not only is this “work” mind-numbingly repetitive, it’s not even clever or original. Instead of transferring his madness to the page, he has become one with it. In doing so, he abandons his role as story-teller and becomes the story – just another man gone mad at The Overlook Hotel. Something for the townspeople to gossip about. He becomes a writer’s worst nightmare – a cliché.

 

As someone who considers herself a writer, I pay attention to protagonists who are writers. So, although I doubt that this was either Stephen King’s or Stanley Kubrick’s main reason for making their respective works called The Shining, here’s my take-away:

  • If you can’t write, it’s your fault, not your family’s, not your friends’
  • You don’t need to be isolated in order to write
  • You don’t need to drink, or abstain from drinking, in order to write
  • If you’re crazy, that doesn’t make you an artist
  • If you’re an artist, you don’t need to be crazy
  • If you stay in a room labeled 237 (or 217), terrible things will happen to you

 

Have a great weekend full of creativity and fun. And if you happen to stay in any hotels, remember – some of them “shine,” just like some people do.