Sunday, April 12, 2009


I watched Deliverance last night for the first time in years. It is still a good film, pretty gripping. I guess the environmental side of it - which I didn't really take much account of when I first saw it - was ahead of its time, and the way it engages with the river and the landscape almost as characters in themselves I'm coming to realise is typically Southern.

I have to be honest, though, I cringed at the writerliness of it with its carefully set up scenes. There is the section where Ed goes into the mountain to try to shoot an animal for breakfast and, despite having a perfect shot, fails to kill a deer. "I never understood how you could kill an animal," he said.

So from that moment on it's absolutely inevitable that the climax of the film is going to revolve around Ed having to shoot a man in the same circumstances. And yes, that's exactly what happens. We're even usefully given a scene just before that when, for some bizarre reason while he is teetering at the top of a cliff edge, he takes out his wallet with picture of wife and kid and other symbols of civilisation, only to drop it into the water - literally, civilisation disappearing into the rapids.

This is close to Coetzee territory - author as jigsaw puzzler, quietly sliding all the elements into place so that in the end they form a nice, clear picture. This approach feels increasingly false to me: life isn't structured so conveniently. The result, for me, is that I'm taken out of the story and made aware of the author.

I do wonder if, in twenty or thirty years time, we will look back on this type of writing and find it unacceptably arch and contrived. I believe we will.


Brad Green said...

Wow, that's a pretty bold prediction saying that people will still be reading in twenty or thirty years. You rebel, you.

Donigan said...

If you are aware of the writing, the writer has failed. I know, I fail all the time.

Tom Conoboy said...

Brad - Ha! Actually, though, I'm quite confident that reading will undergo a renaissance. Each generation reacts against the previous ones, and I think we've reached the end of the road for the slacker/ cultural dullard generations. The next lot are bound to react against us by wising up.

Donigan, yes I agree. I find it frustrating when writers lose it by trying to be too clever.

And yes, I fail all the time, too...

Brian G Ross said...

That's an unfortunate dismissal of the movie, Tom.

I understand what you mean about the set-up and punchline, but a lot of good fiction works in this neat-and-tidy way. The readership (in general) wants this - it helps them understand character motivation, etc. Also, if you want to appeal to the lowest common denominator, you kinda have to wrap things up this way...


Tom Conoboy said...

Hi Brian, thanks for commenting.

I get what you're saying, but I don't really agree with you. I don't think we should be appealing to the lowest common denominator. I think the trouble is that it leads to aspiring writers like us being given completely duff advice. We're told that everything has to resolve neatly. We're battered over the head with the old Chekhov quote that if a gun appears in Act 1 it has to be fired in Act 2 (I've quoted it in crits many, many times myself) when the principle may be right, but the interpretation becomes too rigid.

This is the problem, I think. We get into too regimented a way of thinking. Sure, things have to resolve, sure characters have to react in recognisable ways, but I think it goes too far, and when that happens the writing becomes formulaic.

Deliverance actually isn't a good example, because by and large it's a damned good film. But that one scene I mentioned did seem to me to go too far and become predictable and formulaic.