One of my family members recently quipped that I should change the name of this blog from ‘Musings of a Lazy Writer’ to ‘Musings of a Dead Writer’ because of how often I post. However, as I now have an hour to myself, no internet access, no homework and it is cold outside, I find myself without excuse. Here goes….
We, as human beings, crave closure. One of the most attractive qualities of fiction is that it can present people, worlds and situations in tightly controlled environments. In these cases, everything is subject to will of The Author, The Director or, more often than not, The Hack. Having spent time trudging through a confusing existence, fiction presents an opportunity for us to experience lives that have immediate (and often obvious) purposes which lead to logical (if not always happy) conclusions. It offers a welcome break from complicated, mundane life.
We are able to journey with Character X as he/she/it travels from Point A to Point B, and cheer when that conclusion is reached. Hurrah! On to the sequel! There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. Far be it from me to sniff at a hard-earned happy ending, or reject a well-reasoned sad one. What happens, though, when Character X’s journey doesn’t take him lead him to Point B but on a slog through the entire alphabet , only to find that he has returned to his starting point? No, I’m not talking about the ‘homecoming’ brand story, where the character discovers he had everything he wanted where he was. What I want to explore is the idea of cyclic stories-stories that end as they begin. The more I explore literature, film and theatre, the more of these narratives I encounter. What do they mean?
A fairly recent example is the Coen Brothers’ latest film, Inside Llewellyn Davis. Set in the early 1960s before the advent of Bob Dylan, it follows a struggling folk singer as he attempts to ‘make it’ in the industry. In the hands of a different director, this would be an inspiring tale, but this is the Coen Brothers we’re talking about. I’m sure the concept of an easy, sappy ending has never been seriously entertained by their mischievous collective mind. There is no victory for Llewellyn Davis. Despite obvious talent, he seems doomed to play the same songs at the same café for the rest of his professional life. The film charts several of his attempts to prove otherwise, but to no avail. What is the point of making, or even watching, a film where this is the case?
As I said above, Davis is not untalented. However, he is unlikable. Arrogant, narrow minded and smug, he looks down on his ‘careerist’ friends who actually make money off their art, and smirks at his ‘normal’ family. This mentality stops him from moving in any direction, save in circles. The story begins with him being beaten up outside the Gaslight Café for heckling during a performance, and ends with him being beaten in the same location and for the same offence. Is Llewellyn Davis stuck in a time loop? Yes, a very real one at that. A personality can easily doom it’s owner to make the same mistakes, mistakes which turn very easily into habits. It is in our nature to work ourselves into these cycles, and, as the somewhat overused saying goes, ‘Art imitates life’.
A very different film, August: Osage County, also uses a somewhat cyclic narrative. A family crisis brings the fractured Weston family together and, like the new housemaid Joanna, the audience is forced to watch as three generations worth of secrets and bitterness bubble to the surface. Unlike Inside Llewellyn Davis, the film does not imply that the same week is being repeated but shows the long-lasting effects that dark secrets and broken relationships can have on a family. The oldest Weston daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) dethrones the malicious, pill-addled Violet (Meryl Streep). It is an effort to hold things together, but what it reveals is more disturbing; perhaps the same secrets and lies that looked like they were driving the family apart may have been the only thing holding it together. Faced with becoming the venomous harpy she unseated, Barbara flees, leaving her mother as she was when the movie began- alone in the company of others.
Cyclic narratives can be so uncomfortable because they speak to very real fears; the fear of failure, the fear of mediocrity or the fear of becoming the thing you hate. It is easy to remain at Point A, even if we don’t want to, and sometimes it takes the cold, disarming side of fiction to draw our attention to this and to jolt us out of our reverie.
I’m off to find Point B.