The Trap of Perfection and Being Ready

The number of projects I have not begun, have begun but not completed or have nearly finished but essentially abandoned is large. When my defenses are working properly there are many wonderful reasons for all of this unfinished work. None of them are terribly original or interesting. In nearly every case the actual reason is the same: what is/was in my head did not/will not be as good when I make it. Perfection is a trap.

Today I was looking through the folders on my computer, for what I no longer remember, and I stumbled down a rabbit hole of past projects and memories that lead me, much like Alice, on a strange and mysterious journey. The journey concluded when I went to my YouTube page and saw that the last video I uploaded was two years ago.

Now, to be fair, YouTube for me is an afterthought. If I make something and want to share it I use Vimeo. The lack of commercials and the overall straightforward nature of the site is why it has become the place where I publish video content. Yet I do try and publish on YouTube because I can use all the views I can get. I am unknown and would like to change that.

Now before you start following links or Googling me the sad truth is I have made very little content to share with the world. Largely it is because I am a stay-at-home dad who mostly shoots videos of his children. I share these videos with family members who say they watch them.

So why am I writing all of this? Where is the bit about perfection?

I came across a video I made in 2007 today. It is called Marty. I am embedding it below. It is less than two minutes long and it would make me happy if you watched it now.

I’ve shared it on this site before but since I had forgotten about it, I am sure you did, too. Now, this is a very short film with almost no story that I made when I knew much less about how to make short films. Yet, it is one of a handful of short films I have made. And I think it is okay. Not amazing but not terrible either.

This past year I have gone to a number of film screenings in Vermont and I’ve connected with numerous filmmakers and watched their work online. What I have taken away from these experiences is fairly simple – it is better to make something and have it be “okay” than to make nothing. Pretty standard stuff, I know. Yet, how many of us are not making things, not sharing things because we feel it isn’t good enough? How many times have you sat down to write but stared at the wall, picked up your guitar only to put it down again, or closed your NLE because you felt your project wasn’t good enough.

I’m not a self help guy and I certainly spend more time feeling like a failure than a success. But, if I have learned one thing in the past year it’s this – people are winning awards making things I would be embarrassed to share. Don’t take this as me being snobbish or looking down my nose at others. Take this for what it is – these people are getting recognition and awards for doing – while I am forgetting videos I’ve made and staring at the wall.

“Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.”
Joss Whedon

Computers, Technology and Hoopla

I would like to be a tech savvy person. I would like to sit down at a computer, any computer, and immediately be able to do all the tasks I wish to do and never need to touch the mouse. I would like to pick up a digital camera and effortlessly navigate the menus in order to arrange all of the settings and presets so that my pictures rival anything out there.

I would like this and it will never, ever happen. My experience with technology is, I think, much like everyone else’s: a big game of catch up. Whatever the piece of technology is I am attempting to figure out the “right” way to be using it. Which is to say I figure things out, mostly, but there is usually something I am not doing quite right. Even if I do not know that I am doing something incorrectly.

Which brings me to one of my many current technology related problems – iPhoto. A while back I bought a DSLR (technically a DSLM but that really is being pretty picky) and I started taking pictures. A lot of pictures. Everything I have read about being a “real” photographer (who is shooting digitally, because there still seems to be a pretty big debate over film vs digital and “realness”) told me that I should be shooting in the RAW format. Yes, you have to write RAW in all caps for some reason. I have heard it and I have forgotten the reason and so should you. Just write the word in caps.

Anyway I have done this and I have then used iPhoto to try and store and manipulate these photos. Which has caused near exponential growth in the size of my iPhoto storage. Which has caused all kinds of computer problems. Which has lead to me playing catch up as to what is going on and how I can fix it.

As far as I can tell I can’t really fix the problem. Or I can but it would involve deleting most of the photos, which isn’t really a solution in my book. So I have begun looking at alternative programs to replace iPhoto. And I have found them. They just cost money and I am adverse to spending money I do not have to on computer programs. Call me cheap. That’s fine. I can take it.

Anyway, I do a fair bit of video work on my computer and now time lapse photography, which is where I ran into trouble with my hard drive space. So the reason I have written this long and not terribly exciting account of my photo woes is that even when a cheap person like myself finds solutions, which I have (Darktable is a free, RAW image editor) it seems you simply replace one set of problems for another.

So I spend three days trying to find an iPhoto solution that does not involve me deleting all of my photos and it leads to a new program. I use the new program and can find no way to make it pull photos off of my external hard drive. Now the point of this rant, if there is one, is when does it end? At each step of trying to do something (because believe it or not I am sparing you the video component of the time lapse saga that goes hand-in-hand with this) there are more obstacles, more problems you did not know existed to then find solutions and encounter a new set of problems.

Which is really another way of saying – I am tired of working for my technology. We all take pictures now and lots of them. Our old system was imperfect but the storage of the photos was rather simple. If we printed the pictures we then stuck them in an album. We kept the negatives in something or other and pretended that twenty years later we were going to find those negatives and do something with them. Maybe we made a large print of a picture we liked and put it in a frame. That was it. You found a place to put your albums and then every once in a while you took them out flipped through the pages and then put them away.

Now I have three external hard drives on my desk and slow desktop because I tend to dip below the recommended level of storage on my internal hard drive and this is a no-no. My photos are now technically stored in the “cloud” so that they take up less space and I can access them on all of my devices that I have linked to the “cloud”. This is also supposed to be a safer way to keep them should anything happen.

Now I will end here but I want to share my silver lining to this problem and my working through this problem. I started writing this post a year ago. I stopped did other things and came back at various points. In that time I glommed onto this idea of how things used to be. I watched a film called Side by Side which talked about the perils of digital and chemical process filmmaking. And something clicked for me.

At the moment the only future-proof format that motion picture films (Hollywood, baby) have is film. Analog. You put it into canisters and store them in those climate controlled dust free something or others. There is a system, we don’t really know what it is but people do and you do it. And then, you can play it on any device that plays that format of film. Even if that particular piece of machinery is already 100 years old.

So how does this relate to my pictures? I spent about three days, sifted through 20,000 digital photos and chose about 900 I cannot lose. I then order 4×6 prints of each picture bought some albums and put them on my shelf. They had been there for about six months now and already I have sat down with my five year old daughter several times and flipped through them, like I used to do with my parents. And I know, if there were some catastrophe and I had time to rescue something from my home I would not try and grab my iMac, I would grab these albums of pictures and run outside.

See it Again (reborn)

A few years ago I had the idea to try and create content specific for different social media sites. I had been paying attention to the online articles and advice columns that all said the same thing: if you want to be a successful X you have to use social media and use it well.

So here we are, a few years later, and I am not really using social media much, or well. The fault lies with me of course but also in the second, more important (and left unsaid) part of this advice – be yourself. I could quote Hamlet or 50 other well-known and somewhat pretentious sources to make my point but my guess is you already get it.

I have attempted to find people whose work I know and respect, filmmakers, writers, comedians, musicians, actresses and actors to follow on social media. By and large I have either quickly unfollowed these people because I dislike the way they use social media or I could not find them using these sites.

The reasons I stopped following people I am sure you are familiar with: either all they did was promote their work in a steady, uninteresting stream of posts or tweets or they shared personal information and images that I would have rather not seen.

What should they have been sharing? I am not sure. I follow Olivia Wilde on several sites and I generally likes what she posts, even though nearly everything fits into the two categories I listed above. Why do I still follow her?

I believe I still follow her because she is honest and truthful and (seemingly) not using social media to promote her “brand”. Perhaps she is and she is excellent at making self-marketing feel like personal interactions.

In either case, it works and that is what I wanted to get at here – authenticity. So much of what I have attempted to share has not been authentic, has not been me in most regards, because I don’t like the notion of sharing your personal life with strangers.

Have I posted pictures of my children on Instagram? I have and feel weird about it and writing it here makes me think I should take them down. Do I post one line movie reviews on Twitter? Yes and I feel dirty afterwords and often delete them.

Because what should I be sharing? This. Long, long posts where I share my thoughts and thought processes about things that interest and concern me. Or I write about things I love, or hate, in great detail. Because that is who I am, it is what I do and if it does not interest you then it would be best if we part ways.

I gave this post a title which most likely does not make sense. I created a category of posts called “See it Again” in which I write about a film that I feel people should give another chance despite poor reviews, low profits or just negative feelings overall. I added the reborn in parentheses because I want to start over with this category. Allow me to explain why.

I don’t care about box office returns and unless you stand to profit from a film, neither should you. This is some weird, oversharing, marketing technique to make people care or be interested in films simply because they are successful. It makes no sense. Just today I saw this article – How Avatar made $2.7 billion and garnered almost no fan base. Which I think sums up this point somewhat well.

Critics and their reviews of films I think are equally unimportant. They become exponentially less important when you lump them all together, give their scores a rating and then average these scores together. To not take into account who the critic is, what they like and dislike and what they actually said is to diminish an already marginally interesting and important activity into something of equal value with an infomercial. If a pretentious, literate, snobbish fop who only likes a fraction of high-brow art films reviews something like Mission Impossible and comes away with something positive to say, this is slightly interesting. To then take their B- grade and throw it in with the rest renders their review meaningless.

Finally I have no idea how you measure negative feelings, especially of the general population. As we are learning the Internet does not reflect the general attitude or mood of anything (other than the Internet). A strong online fan base for a filmmaker, who then creates a film based on their ravings and support does not mean that any of them will actually watch the finished product. The examples are endless and you know many yourself. So how do we measure this general attitude? We can’t. We can pay attention to the media, or advertising or the Internet or what people at work say. The truth is we don’t really know, which is why I am throwing this by the wayside.

So instead I will leave all of this off, the ratings and the earnings and the lack of awards (I forgot that one but then I think they are best forgotten) and just be using my own, strange internal criteria to determine the films I think you should give a chance (second or otherwise). And you, of course, are free to pay me no mind.

This strikes me as a much more rewarding system and one which I hope to make better, fuller use of.

Wes Anderson – Reality and Magic

It pains me to write it but for eight years I did not have much of an appreciation for the work of Wes Anderson. Shortly after viewing The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou I felt that Mr. Anderson had begun to engage in a form of filmic navel-gazing. I was not alone in having this opinion and the chorus of voices agreeing with my assessment made it all that much easier to dismiss his works.

What I would like to put forth here is something of an explanation as to how I stopped appreciating the works of Mr. Anderson and, more importantly, how I began again. I would like to start with a quote:

I think there should be distance between an audience and what they’re watching on the screen. I don’t want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real.  Well, dammit, it’s not real. It’s a story. I don’t want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I’m watching on the screen.  Otherwise there’s no magic there. And I think that’s probably what’s missing a lot now, no magic.

Gordon Willis

The first Wes Anderson film I saw was Rushmore. I went in with no expectations and I came out bemused. It was unlike anything I was watching at the time and although there were a number of people in the cast I recognized it did not have the aggressive approach that the film Magnolia did with its casting. I do not come to Bill Murray with the same same attitude that so many seem to today. I think he is a fine actor and, especially in a Wes Anderson film, capable of complex and interesting performances. His laid back attitude and general air of detachment do little for me. His past films do not sway me in his favor. He is, like many actors who rose to great heights in the 80’s, a little boring to me. I find him self-satisfied and not terribly interesting.

 

I do not write this to tear him down. As I already stated I think he can turn in quite wonderful performances. I do feel that he needs proper handling to do so and the person who seems best equipped to handle him is Wes Anderson.

While Rushmore did not feel like reality to me it did not feel as removed as The Royal Tenebaums and certainly nowhere near the level of abstraction as The Life Aquatic. I liked Rushmore and I liked the quirkiness and style but I connected with the “reality” of the picture. It has a heart and that heart is of a wounded high school boy who pours everything he has into the love of his school.

After watching Rushmore I discovered that Mr. Anderson had already directed a film, Bottle Rocket. I vaguely knew of the two lead actors and when watching it I was surprised when James Caan came on screen. Again it was an interesting and unexpected bit of casting that added to the story and did not detract from the film. I enjoyed Bottle Rocket very much, it was even more realistic and, to me, accessible picture.

 

The connection that I feel with the characters of these two films was absent when I watched his third, The Royal Tenebaums. There are many possible reasons for this. His use of a narrator and the strange detachment all of the characters have, to themselves and others, certainly play a part. The unreality of New York City, a place I had visited a few times, seemed to call attention to itself as if to say, “See I am not real,” which confused me.

 

I have never been a fan of artifice. The costumes in this film, the styles of speech, the bizarre moments that seem to be connected to little else (the hawk on the rooftop) all jolted me out of the film. Ultimately what tainted the experience for me was the cast. This is the first time that the casting called attention to itself in a Wes Anderson film. Nearly every central character is played by someone I knew well from other roles (the Wilson brothers in part from Wes Anderson films). Several cast members, in particular Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller, are playing against type. She is sullen, secretive and withdrawn. He is terrified, abrasive and overprotective. What I experienced with this, as I am sure many others did, was the undesirable experience of being pulled out of the movie at numerous points because of these associations. Watching Danny Glover walk around in his very specific, very artificial costume will always be jarring to me.

I could continue on but I feel I have belabored the point already – what worked in the first two films, most likely because of casting, did not for me in The Royal Tenenbaums. This experience, coupled with negative reviews undoubtedly contributed to my initial response to The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.

 

What strikes me now is how funny this film is. Yes, Bill Murray is doing his thing being emotionally distant and disaffected. Yes the film contains more artifice than any of his earlier ones. Yet, as strangely as it is told the story is relatable. It is very human and knowable and, yes, it is often outrageously funny. At the time none of these things registered with me. What I took away from my initial viewing of The Life Aquatic was that Mr. Anderson had stopped caring about the viewer and started making films for himself.

So now, finally, I would like to discuss what changed for me. It is my sincere hope that by sharing my own “revelations” I might help others who have ceased enjoying these films (or never began). For me the change came about after watching The Fantastic Mr. Fox. For those of you paying attention this means I skipped The Darjeeling Limited. I also avoided Moonrise Kingdom, waiting until the spring of 2014 to give Mr. Anderson’s films another chance.

 

The reason for this was the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Madcap, zany and filled with Ralph Fiennes- I thought, for the first time in nearly a decade, “this looks interesting.” So why start with Mr. Fox? First, it is an adaptation, which made me think that the self-indulgent aspects of his filmmaking would be less prevalent. Second the film is animated, which led me to believe that my prior issues with well known actors jarring me out of the film would not occur.

I can safely say the film greatly exceeded my expectations and did so largely for the very reasons that had caused me to dislike The Life Aquatic. Here the attention to detail, with the costumes and the sets, even the music, all worked in the film’s favor. I never forgot that it was George Clooney speaking (although I did with Meryl Streep) but it did not matter. I was not looking at George Clooney in some strange costume moving mechanically. Because the film was animated I was not distracted by his hair or clothes or car. Since I was not familiar with this particular Roald Dahl story I was not annoyed with the changes made for the adaptation. In short it was exactly the experience I needed to reignite my interest in Mr. Anderson’s live action works.

 

The next day I sought out The Darjeeling Limited. The scales had not been lifted from my eyes but I did feel that perhaps I had been too quick to judge. What struck me while watching the film, almost immediately, was the playfulness. The warmth Mr. Anderson clearly feels  for the characters, despite how they act or what happens to them, is undeniable. There is no villain in the film. There is no ‘bad brother’. As the film continued I began to notice the attention to detail, whether with the train itself or with the character’s costumes, and how it did not strike me as simply artifice. In this story the clothes that Adrien Brody’s character wears matter. They are important to the story being told and they inform who the character is.

By the end of the film I was certain that I was wrong about The Life Aquatic and The Tenebaums. I had the terrible realization that I, for whatever reason, had been missing the point. When I watched Moonrise Kingdom the following day the matter was settled- I had been a schmuck.

 

The revelation, for me, is that Wes Anderson has his own unique approach to story-telling. The artifice, which so clearly indicates what you are watching is not real, is not there to diminish the characters or undermine the story being told. I believe this is simply how he frees himself to tell the stories he tells. It seems apparent to me now, having re-watched his films with this understanding, that how he tells the story is as important as the story being told. Mr. Anderson makes these movie worlds because he likes them. Take a moment and think about this: the director is telling these stories in this way because he likes the stories themselves and the act of telling them. Now name another filmmaker who consistently does the same.

The more I have thought about this the clearer it has become, Mr. Anderson in making worlds that he himself wants to visit. The characters speak the way he wishes people would speak. They dress the way he wishes people would dress. They are able to live in a way he wishes we could, whether in a luxurious New York City home complete with its own hospital room, or in a modified ship that contains (among many other things) an editing suite and sauna. When you view his films with this in mind I feel you can see that so much of his world-building is just him creating things he wishes existed. The train in the Darjeeling Limited is a wonderful example of this. Perhaps it symbolizes something, perhaps it represents something- I choose to see it as a fantasy train made real. I think each film is populated by these places and things not to distract and not to dominate but simply to exist.

So to conclude with the quote I have yet to comment on,

I think there should be distance between an audience and what they’re watching on the screen. I don’t want reality. Somebody can say, oh, it looks so real.  Well, dammit, it’s not real. It’s a story. I don’t want to blend the two, I want distance between me and what I’m watching on the screen.  Otherwise there’s no magic there. And I think that’s probably what’s missing a lot now, no magic.

Gordon Willis

I believe that Wes Anderson is in full agreement with this statement. He is not looking to capture and present reality; which is not to say that his films are pure fantasies or that they do not deal with real, important matters. Most of his films deal with loss, often death, and although many aspects of the film are whimsical and playful he is never dismissive of the importance of these loses concerning his characters. What I believe he seeks to achieve (and I think he does) through the use of elaborate sets and costumes is this distance between the audience and the film. The artifice clue the viewer in early to the truth, ‘this is not reality’ and allow for the magic of filmmaking to take place. We can watch this particular story told in this particular manner and enjoy it because it is not reality. We can be captivated, allow the different techniques in the telling of the story to transpire because we know we are watching something that is not real. That these stories are told with such loving care and attention to detail only enhances them; it increases their value and the payoff, I think, is that much greater.

 

Two Rules for Storytelling

Working principles.

A story, whether it is screenplay, novel or something I am whispering in your ear should satisfy one or both of the following conditions. They are listed in order of importance.

1)    The story should entertain/titillate/engage the reader/listener/viewer.

2)    The story should teach/inform/educate the reader/listener/viewer.

I am sure I have stolen this almost directly from someone but since I cannot remember who I have decided to accept my unintentional theft and move forward.

So in my world the most important question to ask is – is this boring? Because despite the fact that your story is loaded with pearls of wisdom that could change the life of every person on the planet, no one is going to get past page one. Because it is boring.

For a very long time I took issue with this approach to storytelling. Why? Because people should have the wisdom, the fortitude and the decency to struggle through the boring bits to get to the genius that is this story. You, the writer, have devoted tremendous amounts of time and energy to telling this story – is it too much to ask that the audience meets you halfway? That they put a little effort in?

You bet.

How did I come to think this? I started sharing my writing friends and family. I soon discovered that many of them did not even bother to finish ten page stories. My loved ones! Those that did offered up the kiss of death – “I liked it.” No further comment beyond that phrase.

That is where I learned a very valuable lesson. If you can’t get your best buddy or your own sister to wade through your story, you will never get a complete stranger to do so either.

Sadly the drawback of storytelling is that is takes time. A good story needs time to unfold, to envelop and sway an audience. Unlike a photograph or a painting, a story asks for something more than the attention of the audience. It asks for time.

Which takes us back to rule number one – don’t be boring. If you are going to take up a person’s time have the courtesy to keep them interested. As a storyteller you are fighting for those minutes or hours needed to tell the story and the best way to get them is by entertaining your audience. If you are lucky or very talented you might be able to work in more than murder and mayhem, but if you can’t do that at least let the audience walk away feeling properly sated.

3:10 to Yuma

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I would be telling a lie if I claimed to be a fan of westerns. I think I have seen my share although there are a great many classic westerns that I have not seen nor do I plan to see. Why is this? I think my expectations as to what a western should be are not in line with what most westerns are and this usually leads to a lackluster viewing experience.

All that being said I have seen a few that have made a lasting impression on me and oddly enough most of these films were released in recent years. The film — The Proposition – for example, was an experience, much like 3:10 to Yuma that caught me completely by surprise.

I suppose all of this is a very roundabout way of saying that I don’t expect much from westerns and that coming across one that moves me is a special occasion. This is why I am writing now.

3:10 to Yuma is what I call a man’s man kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie that I cannot imagine many women watching and enjoying. In part this is because there are so few women in the film and in part because it’s a movie about quiet resolve, longing and regret and sticking to your guns. Which is not to say that I don’t think women face these issues as often as men do, it’s just that the cinematic solution for men is often to run off and do something terribly brave (read: stupid) in order to try and solve these issues while women make sure that the children don’t die of tuberculosis and that the herd are fed so that the men have something to come home to. I imagine someone has made the movie that focuses on the latter part but Yuma is concerned only with the former.

I make those snide comments about westerns because 3:10 to Yuma is quite different from most in many regards. The hero isn’t facing bandits who murdered his family or sinister lawmen who beat him and left him for dead. His problem is that he can’t make payments on the loan for his house and he’s going to lose his home and ranch. Unlike a film such as The Unforgiven our hero isn’t a former criminal, and more importantly, he’s never been an exceptional anything. He now faces a very normal kind of problem, he has to find some kind of risky way to get the money he needs. When a dangerous opportunity presents itself he has no choice but to take it.

I’m not a movie reviewer and I won’t try to review the film here, I am sure it has already received the treatment it deserves. I did want to take a moment and write a little bit about how impressed I am by this film. It’s a simple story with few twists or big reveals. When you look at the cast, and I am sure the budget, it is apparent that this isn’t some small, independent film. It’s a remake of a classic Hollywood film, and yet, there is nothing that feels revamped or reworked here.

Perhaps my opinion would be different if I had seen the original, I can’t say. I can say that I have never had any desire to and I don’t imagine I will any time soon. The experience of watching this version of 3:10 to Yuma is exactly what I hope for each time I sit down to watch a movie. It’s an engrossing story that I can relate to and because of this it seems quite real. I found the moments later in the film, when the two characters tell each other things about themselves, to be both touching and compelling in a way that felt natural.

As a writer I am constantly striving to find a way to imbue my characters’ speech with more meaning than what the words convey. I try and find ways to have actions remain consistent with the character’s true nature (despite the words that come out of their mouths) and to inform the reader (or viewer) as to who these people really are. Yuma impressed me tremendously in regard to these two aspects, all the more so because the two actors shouldering this film are such big stars and because I already have distinct impressions of them because of their celebrity.

About halfway through the movie it occurred to me that however the film ended, whether Christian Bale’s character succeeded in getting Russell Crowe’s to the train station or not, really didn’t matter. It was an odd thought because, from a plot perspective, this is all this film is about. Does he do it or not? I think the point of the movie is this realization. I feel that to have this realization while watching (this strikes me as something you conclude after thinking about a film for a while) and to still be interested and invested in the characters is an amazing feat.

That, ultimately, is why I felt I should try and write a little something and say my piece about the movie. It’s a good film and from a creative point of view I find it very inspiring. I hope you do too.

Epics

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It is not surprising that when you come across a tidbit someone said or wrote that is in complete agreement with what you already think, that this discovery fills you with a small amount of joy. Over the past few days I have been rereading a series of speeches that Jorge Luis Borges made (I think sometime in the 1970’s) and were later put into a volume titled, This Craft of Verse.

Among the many gems I find in this book my favorite (of the moment of course) is one concerning the modern novel and its failings. Borges makes the statement that all of the very clever things being done with the structure of the novel may very well be its undoing. In short, what once was merely a form of telling a story has become something rather different and distorted. The comparison he makes is between Joyce’s Ulysses and a line or two of either Shakespeare or Dante. The point he makes, and I find it a very succinct summary of what I knew but did not realize I knew, is that the failing of Ulysses is that the reader knows thousands of things about the two main characters but never really knows the characters themselves. Whereas in Shakespeare or Dante some characters live and die within a few lines, the reader feels that they know these characters intimately.

A few days ago I finished the novel, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller” and although I take issue with other aspects of the book, this point made by Borges neatly covers what bothered me most about the novel. Borges quotes Mencken as saying (and I am not directly quoting here although I am using quotation marks) “The purpose of the modern novel is the breaking down of the characters.” That is to say, most modern novels are more concerned with the psychology of their characters and the eventual unraveling of some aspect of their lives. This unraveling may in fact be quite interesting, but the point Borges is making (I believe) is that this is not as important as the telling of a good story.

All of this is contained within a speech concerned with Epic poetry. I was reading this while my In-laws were visiting and I was so taken with it that I decided to try and share the gist of this section with everyone. While I felt it was a straightforward commentary on the state of the novel and what those writing today (whether poetry or prose) should aspire to, I found myself presented with a question: what is the definition of an Epic? I think this question was made in response to Borges’ claim that out of the two World Wars only one work could attempt to the claim being an epic. Borges felt that, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom” has the qualities of an epic. So to try and be very clear I have visited Bartleby’s website and below is their definition of epic.

A long narrative poem written in elevated style, in which heroes of great historical or legendary importance perform valorous deeds. The setting is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe, and the action is important to the history of a nation or people. The Odyssey, and the Aeneid are some great epics from world literature, and two great epics in English are Beowulf and Paradise Lost. 1 ‡ Figuratively, any task of great magnitude may be called “epic,” as in an “epic feat” or an “epic undertaking.”

Now to try and briefly clarify, Borges knew that Lawrence’s book was not a poem. Earlier in his speech he makes a point of explaining how poetry has changed since the time of Homer, how a split occurred. This split put lyrical poetry on one side and the telling of a story (the novel) on the other. So when he makes the claim that this non-fiction book is the only work resembling an epic I do not think he is confusing the issue of what an epic is because this is in fact only one definition.

So all of this is a rather long-winded way of getting to the simple statement that I agree with what the man said. I started by making this point so it is hardly a revelation, I know. What I think is interesting is that Borges was a poet, he clearly valued poetry and yet he makes statements like, “And this is a beautiful line, although nothing more. I think this is enough.”
What I mean to say is he found it perfectly acceptable for a poem to simply be beautiful and nothing more. For him this was all a poem had to be. He points out that modern readers are generally dissatisfied with novels that rely on a gimmick or trick, that overly clever works are not as fulfilling as the simpler stories told in these much older, often epic, works. I think this is an interesting point because I certainly feel a deeper sense of satisfaction when reading older works, for this very reason. Even in novels where the story seems straightforward and there is little evidence of a brilliant structure, the kinds of stories being written now, and how they are written, never fully satisfy.

Borges offers a number of theories as to why this is and but I will stop attempting to reconstruct this speech. I recommend this book to anyone who writes or is interested in writing. At worst it is a short, somewhat entertaining read that covers numerous languages and flits throughout the twentieth century and I am sure there are worse ways you could spend an afternoon than delving into such reading material.