A Mouthful Of Stories Dept.

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2013-12-24 15:00:00 No comments

This week and the next one are likely to be slow, due to the holidays and some other stuff going on, but here's some (metaphorical) food for thought.

One of Paul Krugman's more interesting essays -- one I've cited before -- was about English cuisine ("Supply, Demand, and English Food"). His thesis was, in part, that a free-market economy is great at breaking down barriers and introducing things to places where they weren't before, but not so great at preserving the diversities introduced by such a system. "You may say that people have the right to eat what they want," Krugman wrote, "but by thinning the market for traditional fare [as opposed to mass-market foods], their choices may make it harder to find -- and thus harder to learn to appreciate -- and everyone may end up worse off."

This flanks another narrative I fall back on often: the way Hollywood was immeasurably enriched, for much of its lifetime, by an influx of people who weren't originally "movie people". Once upon a time, the only "film school" was the Film School of Hard Knocks. You just showed up, made yourself useful, and eventually made your mark. What's more, you brought in expertise that was specific to your former walk of life, and enriched the whole thing as a result. It's hard to say where such diversity can be found after the narrowing of the industry down to people funneled in mostly from film schools and MBA mills.

Most of the really interesting stuff that happens in any such system, be it publishing or Tinseltown, comes in by way of people from the outside. This doesn't mean that every random stranger that shows up is an undiscovered talent --- pace the reams of buck-a-book self-pubbed Amazon indies, most of which are overpriced by 98 cents -- but it does mean you can't rely on the mainstream to shake itself up in a good way. You can count on it to deliver an incrementally-refined version of yesterday's hits, but the cannibalism has reached a point where a sizzling heap of refried 3D grease like The Lone Ranger can be passed off as an A-list entertainment (and, perhaps, where it can lose out to something genuinely good like Gravity or Pacific Rim).

Good storytelling is more like good cuisine than good entertainment. A well-made meal tastes good because the chef has chosen quality ingredients and done justice to them, and because the flavors in the meal are varied and complementary. All those things, I'd further argue, come from -- how would William Blake put it? -- the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where the defianty arty and the itchily nonconformist are forced to live cheek-by-elbow with the tidily productive and mechanically competent. Sometimes they're forced to coexist inside the same skin, and when they do, the results are nothing short of a moon shot.

It's too easy to get accustomed to food whose basic tastes all come from sugar, salt, and fat -- flavors which we were genetically programmed to crave back when we lived as hunter-gatherers on the savanna, because any meal we would get might well be our last one for days, or our last one at all. In the same way, the stories that taste the best to us are too often just stories that satisfy one of the basic tastes we already know so well.

But those things are a base and not the whole of the dish, let alone the entire meal. "The good guys win" is not the sum total of what's so special about any given story about good guys winning. It's because that flavor is complemented by other things -- for instance, because it might be leavened by slightly bitterer tastes. Yes, the good guys win, but it does not cost them nothing; it does not always mean their heroics are known or remembered; and it might only be a success in the light of the moment that they live in.

Some time ago I scribbled down an aphorism that I plan to expand on: "All our entertainments are art, whether we like it or not." Meaning even the things that we think are mindless throwaways are not: they're reflections of who and what we are, and also who and what we choose to be. We should not approach them frivolously, for the same reasons that an incompetently-cooked meal can sicken someone. Or kill them.

Tags: Paul Krugman art cuisine entertainment storytelling writing