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Wednesday, April 4, 2018


I may have mentioned that one of the perks of Carolina Meadows is Saturday night screenings of old and not so old movies, complete with free popcorn.  A week and a half ago, Susie and I took in Stranger Than Fiction, a 2001 fantasy/comedy featuring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson, a pretty classy cast.  It is a charming little film that raises some really profound philosophical questions [quite possibly unintentionally, although that may be underestimating the author of the screenplay, Zach Helm.]  While I await the opening of the stock market to see how big the drop will be, I thought I would talk for a bit about it.  It would make a great topic in a Philosophy seminar.

Will Farrell plays a lonely, anal obsessive IRS auditor who one day starts hearing a voice in his head – not voices, but a single voice, that of a woman.  She is not talking to him but rather about him, in the manner of the narrator of a novel.  Eventually Farrell finds his way to Dustin Hoffman, a professor of literature, who after asking a series of questions [to determine whether Farrell is a character in a comedy or a tragedy, for example], determines that he is a character in a novel being written by a quite successful but writer’s block stuck novelist, Emma Thompson, who has not published anything in ten years.  [Thompson’s publisher has sent along a professional writer’s block baby sitter, Queen Latifeh, who assures Thompson that every one of her clients has met the publisher’s deadline.]  Thompson, who writes rather dark novels, is stuck trying to figure out how to kill off her main character, Farrell, in an artistically interesting manner.  Farrell seeks out Thompson, and gets a copy of the unfinished novel, which he takes to Hoffman.  Hoffman declares it a masterpiece that can only be successfully completed with the death of the main character.  He advises Farrell to submit quietly to his own death for the sake of art, pointing out that we all die anyway sooner or later.

There it is.  The movie ends with an entirely gratuitous and completely incompatible happy ending that unites an alive Farrell with Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose sole function is to provide an irrelevant feel good love interest. 

Where to start?  I could build an entire Introduction to Philosophy out of this movie, with sections on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, the Philosophy of Language, Social Philosophy, and of course Aesthetics.

Let me begin with the Philosophy of Religion.  As I have several times written [including in my essay “Narrative Time,”] the core of Christian theology is the claim that the universe is, as it were, a story told by God, with a beginning [The Creation], chapters [Eden, the Fall, the Old Testament, the Incarnation and Resurrection, the New Testament], and a conclusion [the Second Coming and the Last Trump.]  True believers believe that they are characters in this story, and that on occasion, if they are blessed, the Author and Narrator speaks to them, either directly, through a personal revelation, or indirectly through His chosen church.  Our divine calling is to play well the role that God has written for us, even if that role calls for our death.  So the movie could be viewed as a meditation on the Christian concept of a Calling.

Or Aesthetics:  many novelists say that characters come to them and demand that their stories be told.  What can we say of characters who say that a novelist comes to them and demands that they submit to the narrative strictures of the plot?  Could characters form a united front against the author and demand a different ending for the novel?  What if Natasha does not, after all, want to marry Pierre?  Or if Elizabeth Bennett, against all authorial pressure, falls in love with Mr. Collins?  What if Mitya, Ivan, and Alyosha decide to go into business with old man Karamazov?

Metaphysics:  What is the ontological status of a character in a novel?  Or of an entire fictional world?  Can Phileas Fogg meet Sherlock Holmes?  How?  Why not?  What is the relative time location of the worlds of Gandalf, Ethan Frome, and Obi Wan Kenobe?  Should a degree from Hogwarts carry any weight in a Harvard application?

Well, the market is open, so I shall stop.  Not bad for an evening with popcorn.


Paul said...

"What can we say of characters who say that a novelist comes to them and demands that they submit to the narrative strictures of the plot? Could characters form a united front against the author and demand a different ending for the novel?" By surprising chance I just finished Muriel Spark's "Loitering with Intent." It's a wonderful book that explores those questions.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Paul, more, more! What does she say?

Paul said...

I wouldn't want to give away the plot! Here's an excerpt from this linked Guardian article:

"The novel is written in the first person, framed as a memoir, as Fleur Talbot, the celebrated writer, looks back, "in the fullness of [her] years", to the weeks and months of winter 1949-50, when she was working on her first novel, living in a bedsit, supporting herself by working in secretarial jobs. "All men, whatever be their condition, who have done anything of merit ... should write the tale of their life with their own hand," wrote Benvenuto Cellini, the 16th-century goldsmith, from whose famous Autobiography Fleur borrows the phrase: "And so by the grace of God I go on my way rejoicing." As her other literary model, Fleur adduces the 19th- century cleric Cardinal Newman's account of his conversion to Roman Catholicism: "I must, I said, show what I am, that ... the phantom may be extinguished which gibbers instead of me." Spark had converted to Rome in 1954, and liked dropping hints about the experience in her subsequent work.

One job in particular supplies most of the novel's action. Fleur takes a position as secretary to the Autobiographical Association, a forlorn gathering of upper-class twits and victims, under the direction of the evil Sir Quentin. For the twits, it's a writing group, therapy, self-help; for Sir Quentin, it's all about earthly power. Weirdly, Fleur starts to notice that the plot of her novel-in-progress seems to prefigure the activities of Sir Quentin and his sorry gang; when the book goes into proof, Sir Quentin is also alerted. Fleur's closest friends accuse her of libel, plagiarism, the purest malice; one steals her only typescript from her flat. And then the sudden deaths start, as predicted by Fleur's book ..."

I've just discovered Spark at the relatively old age of 63. She's really smart and very funny. I see that her first novel, The Comforters, also shares some plot points with the film you mention. This is from another Guardian article:

"But Caroline, who is working on a book about 20th-century fiction called "Form in the Modern Novel" ("I'm having difficulty with the chapter on realism"), is about to be subjected directly to the mystery of reality, when she starts being plagued by regular visits from an invisible being she names the Typing Ghost. The Typing Ghost interrupts her with sounds only Caroline can hear, of tapping typewriter keys and a voice that's both singular and plural, "like one person speaking in several tones at once". The voice insists on her fictionality, and that of everyone she knows. "They speak in the past tense. They mock me." Caroline is, understandably, a bit hurt to be told that her present-tense life is already a foregone conclusion, and that she isn't real.

Is it real, the voice? Is it a literary version of the Holy Ghost? Or, as all her supposedly helpful friends insist, is she "imagining things", suffering from a "mild nervous disorder"? The hearing of voices is an age-old manifestation of saintliness, or madness."

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I love it! Thank you.

Jerry Fresia said...

I understand that Beethoven often wrote "ditties" after major work. Following your Marx series, might this be a playful ditty?
manifesting virtuosity nonetheless?

Just delightful. Ah, variety!

Brian said...

very amusing - the Last Trump joke in there.

I haven't seen the film - but its been on my list for some time and I had seen the trailer like 5 times.
A creature of my time - I am with that - ha.
Anyway, this discussion reminds me a lot of Pirandello's work - especially Six Characters in Search of an Author. The play makes experiential the emotional turmoil of these questions from a few sides. Its even more remarkable creative work considering it was decades ahead of our post-postmodern times where these possibilities are now explored in contemporary pop film.

So how did he do this ? - is my interest. In his biography - if i recall correctly - included a prolonged period with a deeply paranoid and jealous spouse who was regularly accusing him of fictitious misdeeds and motives.
>former UMass student of yours - Brian Block

And as I write that- I now realize that your frequent use of films to explicate philosophical issues in classes inspired me to watch many many films in the two years after graduation, which in turn contributed to my pursuing other visual cultural interests - thanks for that + I would love to read some more of those here - if you were so inspired !