The other day Michael Blowhard and I caught a matinee of Irréversible, which runs backward chronologically, as you have now become the last to hear. The climax is the first scene in the movie, at a gay sex club, filmed through a red haze at dizzying camera angles. You don’t know the characters, so when one guy you can barely see beats another guy you can barely see to a pulp with a fire extinguisher, you’re thinking, “Gee, some guy just got beaten with a fire extinguisher. What was that all about?” And backward we proceed, for there is nowhere to go but backward.

Radical conventions tend to be radically confining. If you’re going to adopt one it should be for some purpose higher than confusing the audience and establishing your avant-garde bona fides — as in Memento, where reverse chronology succeeds by placing the audience in the same position as the amnesiac hero. Start with normal chronology, and you can take some liberties. The audience will tolerate an occasional fast forward or flashback because it’s securely oriented in time. You cannot profit from the expectations of your audience by turning them on their head.

Vers libre, another radical convention, runs up against similar difficulties. You gain in heightened emotion, a sort of breathless urgency that William Carlos Williams and H.D exploit brilliantly, with their tiny poems about fire trucks and pear orchards. But in the rush you lose the opportunity for meaningful variation against the background that rigid meter provides. It becomes impossible to write anything even moderately intellectual, and you exclude the greater part of human experience.

The last variation, as J.V. Cunningham wrote, is regularity.

(Update: Michael has a far more thorough and entertaining version of our outing. He discusses the Kaurasmaki film we also saw — which I didn’t mention because it didn’t fit my thesis, and I’m the sort of blogger who always needs a goddamn thesis — and provides links to genuinely useful sites, with pictures of Monica Belluci without her clothes on.)

Aaron Haspel | Posted April 2, 2003 @ 10:50 AM | Culture

2 Responses to “The Uses of Convention”

  1. 1 1. Alan Sullivan

    This puts me in mind of Martin Amis’ novel, Time’s Arrow.

  2. 2 2. Aaron Haspel

    Exactly. I’ve read every Amis novel but that one. I tried, but just couldn’t bring myself to do it, largely for the reasons discussed.

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