A Building, A Program, A Story

The fire yesterday at Notre-Dame Cathedral set off many thoughts, one of which took till this morning to announce itself. In 1981, I opened The Atlantic to find a story called “Cathedral” by Raymond Carver. I knew the name but hadn’t spent any time with him, his oeuvre being slight and the volume of stories that would make his name, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love only appearing that same year. Still, the magazine had been pretty reliable as a source of good-to-great fiction, so I read it. I was instantly hooked despite the unsavory quality of the narrator/main character, or maybe because of that. His voice and attitude fairly screamed, “something big is bound to happen to him.” And it did. After complaining about “this blind man” who was coming to visit his wife, the nameless main character (whom the blind man, Robert, calls “Bub”) reaches his revelation while watching a program about building cathedrals and helping Robert draw one by guiding his hand, that being the only way Robert can “visualize” a Gothic cathedral. In Emily Dickinson’s words, it blew the top of my head off.

But so did something else: I had watched that program a year or so before the story appeared. It was the moment when I learned how flying buttresses worked. And even what they were. Suddenly, I had a personal point of contact with this piece of fiction. That never happened with Dickens or Joyce. From that unlikely commonality, the story lodged itself in my consciousness, and I inflicted it on decades of Intro to Fiction students, who seemed to like it well enough even if they hadn’t seen that program. 

That sentimental attachment came back yesterday, watching Our Lady of Paris in flames, complete with burning roof and tower, and a falling spire to do Yeats one better. While we all thought of Victor Hugo–whose tale involving a hunchback is actually titled, Notre-Dame de Paris in French–I felt, although it took a while to recognize the sensation, the tug of a much smaller piece of writing by a contemporary about sin and redemption and hope, which especially during Holy Week is the message the great cathedrals were built to convey.


Freddie Mercury Proves Film Is Narrative Art

In Bohemian Rhapsody, we see Freddie Mercury walk from the dressing trailer to the Live-Aid stage twice.  The first time is at the end of the opening sequence. He preens, stretches, nods to people, and generally goes from Freddie Mercury, civilian, to Freddie Mercury, rock god.  The performance is about to begin. The movie closes with that performance, Queen’s triumphant mini-concert to the adoring masses. The critical moment in terms of telling its hero’s story, though, is not the music itself but that same stage walk-up we watched earlier. Except that it’s not. Everything he did the first time, he does the second. Same actions, same people and objects crossing his path, the works. But there’s an addition.

This time,  we see his bandmates close behind him, between “us” and the him. So we didn’t get the whole story the first time.

That tracking shot conveys two pieces of information. First, they were with him the whole time, ready to support him, to share in the glory, to be stars in their own right. And second, on the first trip the camera was interposed between Freddie and the other three. The early shot says, this is Freddie’s movie. The second, that he didn’t get here by himself. 

So here’s the thing about those two shots: they select which information we see, and that selection is the essence of narration. The camera lens does not merely present; it includes, excludes, chooses. Does that make movies the same as novels? No, but it does mean that they control the flow of information in a way that resembles written fiction more than it does drama, despite the presence of actors and directors and such. This isn’t my original observation; Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg made it back in 1966 in The Nature of Narrative, a work I probably first read a decade later. But it is something that all serious moviegoers need to learn at some point. The language of film is visual, not verbal (else there could not be silent movies), but the mode is narrative. Kind of makes your head hurt, doesn’t it?