Today’s column is the second in what I envision to be a multi-part series, disputing some claims made by noted film critic Roger Ebert. I think Ebert is perhaps our foremost film critic today, and I agree with much of what he says. But occasionally I come across something I think is just wrong, and I’d like to talk about those remarks and what I see as their implications.
Ebert, from his review of the film Being There: “In the much-discussed final sequence of Being There, Chance casually walks onto the surface of a lake…When I taught the film I had endless discussions with my students over this scene. Many insisted on explaining it: He is walking on a hidden sandbar, the water is only half an inch deep, there is a submerged pier, and so on. ‘Not valid!’ I thundered. ‘The movie presents us with an image, and while you may discuss the meaning of the image, it is not permitted to devise explanations for it. Since Ashby does not show a pier, there is no pier — a movie is exactly what it shows us, and nothing more.’”
I have two responses to this passage, toward which I actually have a great deal of sympathy. The first response is about the phenomenon of story itself, and the second is about how we deal with narrative boundaries. I will discuss them in that order, and then try to fit them together in such a way as to show why I sympathize with Ebert’s comments here, especially in his criticism of his students, and also why I think he is wrong.
I. We Live Inside Stories
Recently, I received a package. It was locked in a package box, and there was a key to the box in my mailbox. I read the box number on the keychain, put the key in the lock of that box, and turned. It wouldn’t budge. I tried for several minutes, thinking perhaps that the lock was stuck. Finally, I gave up and concluded that the mailman had dropped the wrong key in my mailbox. As I turned to go, I noticed another box without a key. An idea struck me. Sheepishly, I tried to open the other box. The key worked without a hitch. I had misread the number.
Yes, yes, go ahead and laugh. It was dark, and the number was faded. But you see what I did? I tried something, expecting a particular result. When the result didn’t come, I cycled through explanations for why. It never once occurred to me that there was no explanation for why I couldn’t get my package. Maybe the lock is stuck, I thought. Maybe the mailman messed up. As it turns out, I can’t read a stupid faded number in low light. But I never wavered from my assumption that there was an unknown fact that, once known, would make the whole situation perfectly understandable.
We live inside stories, you see. Experience teaches us that when some specific cause happens, some specific effect (or one effect from a specific set) happens. We put forth certain stimuli, and expect certain responses. When they’re not forthcoming, we’re puzzled. And we try to explain why things turned out differently than we expected.
This is the reaction of Ebert’s students. We are conditioned to expect that when someone steps into water, they will sink. Yet here, Peter Sellers’s character Chance violates that expectation. It is only natural to attempt to explain that violation away. To justify his rejection of that attempt, Ebert must demonstrate that we should react to art differently than we react to life. He has provided no such demonstration.
II. Every Narrative Has a Boundary
As it happens, I think Ebert is right in his implicit assumption, though. We should react to art a bit differently than we react to life. In art, things can be made to appear to happen that would never happen in the real world. If a character bursts into song in a musical, and we hear an invisible backing orchestra spring up to accompany him or her, the important questions to ask do not involve the location of the orchestra. The important questions to ask involve why the character is singing, and what the music and lyrics tell us about what the character is feeling. We accept the music as a part of the event we’re seeing onscreen.
This is where I think Ebert was coming from in his response. You can try to explain the event in terms of its meaning, but not in terms of its cause. We should accept that this sort of thing can happen, and trace the implications from there, as Ebert tries to do: “What are we to assume? That Chance is a Christ figure? That the wisdom of great leaders only has the appearance of meaning? That we find in politics and religion whatever we seek? That like the Road Runner…he will not sink until he understands his dilemma?”
And yet…those who know about narratives also know within the first few minutes of each film, and usually after simply watching a trailer, that there are certain boundaries to what can take place. The Dark Knight will not turn into a musical farce about a man with a cape and some serious psychological issues. Oklahoma! will not become a serious drama that examines the class struggle between farmers and cowboys in the turn-of-the-century frontier.
Like Ebert, I think it is normally improper to resort to explanations of a work that include things not explicitly or implicitly present within the work itself. You can criticize the historical perspective of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind as flawed. But you cannot criticize Mammy’s actions within the novel on the same basis. If you think something she does isn’t ringing true, you must resort to explanations about her character or the events as presented in the text. Mitchell defined the boundaries of the world Mammy exists within. If you want to criticize Mammy, you have to stay within the boundaries Mitchell drew. If you want to criticize the boundaries themselves, however, you have to criticize Mitchell.
When boundary expectations are violated and there is a good explanation within the context of the story, we rightly proclaim the genius of the creative team for misleading us into a surprising twist. When those boundary explanations are violated and no good explanation is given, however, we are well within our rights either to come up with one of our own in an attempt to save the work’s integrity, or else to turn on the work and label it compromised.
I do understand where Ebert is coming from here with his criticism of his students. Yet I think the students have the upper hand. Their problem is not that their reaction is wrong, but that it is uneducated. (Which is not their fault, since they’re students.) They did not make sufficiently clear what their problem was; perhaps they didn’t know themselves.
Ebert treats their reaction as an improper expression of the phenomenon I discussed in Section I. If I thought he was right, I’d agree with him. But in fact, I think he’s wrong. What the students are doing here, on my view, is attempting to resolve what they see as a violation of narrative boundaries. The event we’re talking about happens in the very last shots of the movie. Up until this point, nothing has been presented to the effect that any character could walk on water. Yet out of nowhere, Chance does exactly that. The students are perhaps justified in their reaction to call out the event as somehow needing explanation.
I say only “perhaps” because I’m not sure. An argument could be made the other way, that the students simply misread where the boundaries were. Being There is particularly dry satire. And in satire, unreal things can happen. But even in this case, Ebert’s reaction seems to be misdirected, and therefore, unjustified.
At least that’s what I think. Thoughts from readers?