• Thank You

    Ugh. reading my own entry in silvertide’s journal, checking to see if my lj-cuts were executed the way I wanted them to, and I spotted Kill Bill 2, which i also saw this weekend. Read your entry full-on out of curiosity and got hit with the following sentence :

    “…..what’s interesting to me is how easy it is to make supposedly intellectual arguments for emotional reasons.”

    Dear stranger, thank you for bringing me back to myself. Getting my own emotional arguments out of the way and tucked within the safe haven of my journal helped, but no single sentence could have summed up my own experiences today better than yours, and from one stranger to another I thank you for articulating what my brain had blocked out as a possibility. The more I say it out loud the more true it feels. I wish I had read this an hour and a half ago 🙂

    April 25, 2004
  • I think if you try to pick style and substance apart from each other, you wind up with a bunch of clumsy metaphors: there’s always another layer to the onion; the entire sweater unravels; you get lost in the hall of mirrors.

    Style and substance intertwine; eventually, you just have to make your decision as to where on the continuum or transition you lie.

    And as far as Molly Ivins and Gisele Bundchen: Molly Ivins, in her 20s, was probably a lot less attractive that Gisele, in her 20s. However, Gisele Bundchen, in her 60s, could well be a lot less attractive than Molly Ivins is. OTOH, if Molly Ivins had had a “swimsuit gallery” link on her bio page, I wouldn’t have clicked on it..

    April 25, 2004
  • For what it’s worth, I felt exactly as you did about Volume 2.

    Style and-vs.-versus substance. In a perfect world everyone looks like Gisele Bundchen and thinks like Molly Ivins.

    Okay, that’s not quite it, but when properly balanced, style serves substance and substance influences style in a marriage of their respective virtues. This is my goal for my writing, and I think I’m getting better at it with time.

    We have a tendency to claim that anything we think of as good or important has substance, while anything we think is shallow or unimportant is considered to be all about the surface. People say Bach’s cello suites (or Beethoven’s symphonies or whatever) show substance, but when you get right down to it all instrumental music is about surface. We don’t learn anything from it (except about other music and sometimes mathematics); we’re not exhorted or educated or anything we might think of as substantial.

    Music is a surface we explore by listening. But music moves us and can change how we feel or think. So it’s important, definitely, and good — and still just a surface.

    So what makes something substantial? This has to be the heart of the issue. Is it content? I said instrumental music neither exhorts nor educates, but presumably that’s not what makes something substantial, since love songs exhort us all the time and they have about as little substance as words can have. Is it the ability to change and move people? Maybe, but it gets tricky when people are moved by, say, Gisele Bundchen’s beauty.

    Back to the specific instance of Molly and Gisele, which I think is a fascinating comparison. It is easy to despise Gisele as being shallow and substanceless, and to esteem Molly as being substantial. My theory is we (the ones who like to think of ourselves as having substance) are still recovering from our biology. A monkey pack tends to prefer the monkeys like Gisele (or even more appropriately, Barry Bonds), who are apparently physically fit and potentially productive, to the monkeys like Molly. Children (who are not especially advanced monkeys) are attracted to the traits of health, vigor, and physical conformity; since these things show up on the surface, with maturity this can change into an attraction to surface. And as we substance monkeys mature, we overreact against the surface, having often been on the short end of the health/vigor/conformity stick.

    What we substance-monkeys are complaining about, I think, is not that Gisele is no political expert, but that Gisele is making so much more money than a political expert, and is being allowed access to the mass media the political expert is not. But the problem is that we (substance-monkeys and style-monkeys alike) take these people whose importance is in their surface and demand substance from them. Once in a while (as with Princess Diana and her work against landmines) they step up to the plate, but generally it’s a mistake, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

    Well, and the media, our culture, and our biology.

    April 25, 2004
  • I’m not sure I entirely shared your reaction; I did think it was silly and utterly superficial, but I enjoyed it. Style without substance isn’t always bad, and substance without style can get terribly dull. Thinking musically, I’d rather listen to the Ramones, who were fairly light on substance (what did they average? about 25 words a song?) than to [name of thoughtful, serious and dull folksinger elided to protect the innocent].

    I was actually thinking about this Friday night; the last song we did was “Sea of Galilee,” an old gospel song, and I’m belting out a low harmony to lines like “My Jesus is walking on the sea…” and feeling a great spirit in the room, even though obviously I have no Jesus to speak (or sing) of. It’s a beautiful song, though, and singing harmony is always a special feeling particularly with a roomful of people. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it had the substance of the song been offensive, but I don’t need to feel a connection to it to enjoy it. (Are the lyrics the “substance”? That’s another conversation.)

    I think in the end perhaps the distinction itself doesn’t make sense. Everyone has a style even if it is to look like they don’t. That in itself is a statement, and Molly Ivins has a clear persona, a public image she works to maintain, as much as Gazelle Boobjob or whatever her name is.

    So I don’t know if you need to call off the jihad so much as consider what really ticks you off about these things. Is it envy? I like his movies, mostly, but as I said last night, seeing QT speak makes me want to slap him. He’s arrogant and self-important, and as Maya said last night, basically has made a lucrative career out of an addition to bad movies and television. Am I envious? Somewhat, but I think I’m also resentful of what he chooses to do with his money and media access. Kij said we demand substance from people who are all surface; I think the “substance-monkeys” look at what the “style-monkeys” have and say, wow, what could we do with that? Probably bore the hell out of people until they went channel switching in search of supermodels in swimsuits. So there you go.

    April 25, 2004
  • Good stuff! Monkeys. It’s all about monkeys when you dig deep enough.

    Another movie that many people complain is all style and no substance is the Matrix trilogy. But, deep down inside, it has substance too, just that the style stands out. As it of course would in a stylish movie.

    But look at the current trend (heck, most of its tenure) in the literary fiction genre. It’s just style, style, style. I mean, yeah, life can suck and marriages dissolve and it’s tough to be an outsider and 16 years old. Yawn. What sells that stuff is how it’s written. I see that happening more in SF nowadays, too — style becomes the more important measure.

    Academia might not agree, but if they were honest they might notice that what they value the most is the surface, and tough literature like SF is not appreciated even when it’s mostly substance. Hm.


    April 26, 2004
  • Re: Thank You

    Thanks for the kind words. I read your blog: parallel tracks, huh?

    In rereading what I wrote, I realized that I painted my insight as a kind of Paul of Tarsus moment: that’s not true. My grappling with the issues I talk about here is an ongoing thing; a two steps forward, one step back evolution.

    It’s easy to slip into what I think of as the “columnist omniscient” point of view.

    April 27, 2004
  • I agree that style and substance intertwine, of course. But I think you can talk about them as separate ideals. I think what I wrote is more about what style and substance represent to me, than the actual interplay between them.

    I worked in the public relations office at Pratt Institute for six years, during which much of my energies were taken up with the alumni magazine and other publications. For me it was a laboratory for design versus content problems. I left Pratt with a much better appreciation for good design, but I was disheartened by how often it was pressed into the service of mediocre content.

    April 27, 2004
  • Primatology

    I knew this was going to devolve into a monkey race (a particularly nonlinear competition).

    And as we substance monkeys mature, we overreact against the surface, having often been on the short end of the health/vigor/conformity stick. You speak volumes, Jeeves. I think that’s the source of the envy, mostly.

    I think there’s another layer, too (there’s always another layer: it’s monkeys all the way down). You hit the nail a glancing blow with the music analogy: I think both music and physical beauty (like the Bundchen landscape) speak directly to our monkey emotions in a way that intellectual pursuits often do not.

    Intellectual work and its products are most exciting when they evoke awe, like this Hubble photo of a ring galaxy sent to me by ; or when they tickle our monkey curiosity, like this paper on the flight characteristics of laden versus unladen sparrows.

    April 27, 2004
  • I think in the end perhaps the distinction itself doesn’t make sense. Everyone has a style even if it is to look like they don’t. That in itself is a statement, and Molly Ivins has a clear persona, a public image she works to maintain, as much as Gazelle Boobjob or whatever her name is.

    As I responded to Luke above, I think you can talk about the difference between style and substance, even though they intertwine. Teasing them apart gives us a better idea of how they affect us singly and together.

    I think that the issue of public and private personae (if that’s a word) is a red herring. Everyone has a public and private face (or a variety of them, depending upon social context), but we’re still responsible for the images we project: the Mother Night problem.

    Differences in public persona aside, you can’t debate that Ivins’ work is focused on ideas and events outside of herself, but Bundchen’s work is herself.

    April 27, 2004
  • I understand now. And, yes, I can agree with you there.

    April 27, 2004
  • Re: Thank You

    Thanks for being gracious about visitors…and although I’m flattered that you read my incoherent rant, I’m reluctant to put my experience alongside yours. You were able to step back and hear your thoughts from a place of objectivity, I would have denied it until the truth of my prejudice became unavoidable 🙂

    Anyway, rather invasive to comment on someone’s writing, but I’d already read it and done it so one step further into voyeurism is just one more level of my bad manners, lol. But it really was just what i was looking for, and phrased so well, just…just a good moment of someone acknowledging that the pursuit of an open mind is not without a little internal examination sometimes.

    If you have dealt with this issue before, more power to you. I admit that it heightened the “boing!” sound in my head to see it presented as a moment of revelation for you, but in the end your two steps forward, one step back comment seems a more manageable philosophy than simply riding the enthusiasm of an isolated moment.

    I am curious, though, if you were ever inclined to revisit this topic one day, what your thoughts are on the kind of flowery prose which seems to exist simply to be evocative. I’m referring specifically to a kind of recurring tendency which does not immediately serve the storyline. Would this irritate you in a similar way?

    April 27, 2004
  • Re: Thank You

    I am curious…what your thoughts are on the kind of flowery prose which seems to exist simply to be evocative…. Would this irritate you in a similar way?

    I’m a pretty irritable guy, so what irritates me may not be a great litmus test for bad writing. For what it’s worth, I’m far less irritated by flowery prose than by badly rendered characters in fiction. When I worked at an art college I had to read a fair amount of arts-related writing, much of which was hair-pullingly bad; obtuse, self-absorbed and ungrammatical, not to mention dull.

    I suppose the thing that offends me the most is writing that doesn’t have any truth in it. I don’t mean literal truth, necessarily: a piece of fiction can be made up from whole cloth but true in the way its characters move through the world; a magazine “advertorial” can be literally true, but false as hell to the way the world really works.

    That’s why I can’t listen to political speeches, regardless of party: they’re all exercises in obfuscation and public relations.

    April 28, 2004
  • Bundchen’s work is herself. And what’s wrong with that? I love the slippery slope where we explore intelligence and/or attractiveness and their comparative merits.

    April 28, 2004
  • Nothing’s wrong with Bundchen’s palette being Bundchen: I was just making the point that she and Ivins lie far enough apart on the style-substance spectrum to make for worthwhile comparisons; that there is a difference between style and substance, and that we can talk about that difference without making Bundchen the bad guy.

    April 28, 2004
  • Perzackly.

    April 28, 2004
  • Hey, Bob, sorry I haven’t responded here sooner. As you know or have guessed, the harder the question the longer I take to throw in my two cents. :-/

    First I’ll say that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your aesthetic sensibilities. It’s fine to question them from time to time, but that questioning shouldn’t ever lead to forcing yourself to like works that you think you should for some reason. That’s a trap I fall into sometimes, and I try to watch out for it. It’s certainly good, especially for a writer, to investigate your aesthetic sense and try to come up with some reasons for why you like and dislike the things you do. That gives you better critical skills and better tools for honing your own work, and sometimes it might lead to an appreciation of works you didn’t appreciate before. But it doesn’t have to.

    Second, I want to offer a fuller answer to what I meant when I said I liked the movie’s style. I didn’t just like the movie. I loved it. I was thoroughly engrossed. I felt chills and thrills and tugs at the heartstrings. Part of that is my penchant for being seduced by tremendous craft. There’s a big part of me that is a whore for craft. Some of the writers I admire the most are the ones who sit down and turn out smooth, professional, entertaining work year after year, on schedule. Elmore Leonard, Donald Westlake, Dean Koontz. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that, but there it is. Quentin Tarantino has, in my opinion, completely mastered the craft of moviemaking. He has all the moves down. He knows his film history, he’s entirely fluent in the film vocabulary, and he knows how to direct the eye toward what he wants it to see, and how to imply the rest.

    But the craft would be meaningless to me without the content. And the content of Kill Bill (both volumes) did work for me, probably because I have sympathy for the narrative tropes it thoroughly assimilates. The movie is the platonic ideal of revenge/exploitation flicks. It inhabits their mythology with ease, hits all the expected bases, and has a few sly tricks up its sleeve. If you respond to that brand of mythology, I think you can get caught up in a film like Kill Bill the same way some people can get caught up liturgical services. That’s how it was for me.

    But what Kill Bill was not was an epiphany. It had thoroughly absorbed and represented its antecedants, transformed them in some ways, but did not transcend them. That’s why, to me, Kill Bill is an exhilarating film but not ultimately a great film. Pulp Fiction is a great, transcendant film which adds up to something more than the sum of its influences. Kill Bill is not, and as much as I enjoyed it, I’m a little disappointed that it’s a step backward in that respect.

    But you can’t hit a home run every time. And even if you do, it won’t always fly out of the park.

    May 04, 2004
  • Well, we certainly disagree on the substance of the movie, not just its style. I guess the important idea for me in this conversation was the notion that style can have its own kind of substance, if that makes sense.

    I don’t know that I doubt my critical evaluation of the movie as much as the vehemence with which I denounced it. That may well be partially due to watching Tarantino plug it on talk shows: he is, as Ken points out, rather hard to take.

    May 07, 2004
  • And did I mention I met Harlan Ellison in Seattle

    By way of defending the movie, I think I was debunking the idea that style alone is substance, and pointing out that for me style is not a be-all and end-all. When I said I liked the style, I didn’t mean that was all I liked. I don’t generally respond so warmly to style alone.

    To extend the metaphor I used above, you at Kill Bill might be analogous to me at Catholic mass — I can certainly see that it’s attractive to some people, but if anything I’m put off by the spectacle and not moved.

    Tarantino is blowhard, no doubt about it. A lifetime of meeting SF writers, though, is enough to remind me that the author’s obnoxious personality isn’t by itself a reason to hate a work. Unless he’s Orson Scott Card.

    May 08, 2004
  • Re: And did I mention I met Harlan Ellison in Seattle

    I have heard people say that the ritual and spectacle of Catholic Mass appeals to them. Maybe because my attendance was enforced by killer nuns for eight years, I find the Mass numbing and tedious.

    It’s true that some awful people make pretty good art. I said at dinner the other night (shortly before I tried to walk through a plate glass wall), that I try to avoid knowing too much about authors and actors whose work I admire, for exactly that reason.

    May 08, 2004
  • Re: And did I mention I met Harlan Ellison in Seattle

    Yeah, we’re probably all better off not having much hard evidence about Shakespeare’s predilections….

    May 11, 2004

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Copyright © Robert J. Howe