A movie I've seen recently and that I hope is playing near you—actually I loved the film so that I saw it twice—proves what I assert here and proves it in spades: The Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills (check out his Facebook page for the film) operates with the deftness and concreteness of a poem. The performances are terrific, but it is the screenplay that stuns. Watch the trailer by clicking on the title of the movie. Then run, don't walk to see it.
The movie itself is transformative because the concrete details of the lives of all the characters, even Arthur the Jack Russell terrier, are specific, non-generic and thus the movie achieves a startling universality about love, grief, living and beginning. And it earns all those abstractions I just used to describe it without ever using those words.
What I want to do here today is get you to that film and learn from Mike Mills.
I also want to show you what I mean. Again, the more concrete we are the better we communicate. Let me know how I do here.
Two quick and easy exercises will be my proof. I'll discuss both and I invite your comments and discussion:
Make a list of feelings that come to mind. I've made a list of my own. Yours may be different, of course:
(This last may not seem like a feeling, but think about this one).
Consider now these two brief lists and see if you think one list is better than the other, meaning more powerful, more punch, evocative:
1. A dozen long stemmed roses
2. The lion and the lamb
3. A black cat
1. An empty doorway and a maple leaf
2. The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea
Exercise two, first: The two lines in List Two rely on both what you know and the surprise that you know it.
The trite relies only on what you know—that is why the first three in List one are cliché or trite. That doesn't mean I don't want a dozen long stemmed roses. The roses do that work when you hold them in your hand from another's hand. What I mean is that the phrase a dozen long stem roses won't do much work for the proof of love. The Lion and the Lamb phrase skirts the line of the trite--and of course, William Blake made that image strikingly original in his poem "The Tyger." But then he compared the tiger to the lamb.
In both prose and poetry we should avoid the cliché unless we knowingly use it in dialogue or want to take the cliché on, write about it and make it new in that way.
Exercise one: Much as these feelings, in your list and mine, are key to our conversation and how we may describe ourselves, these words are abstractions and poets and good prose writers use these words, of course, but with care. If you've ever taken a writing class, you probably know the old saw: The proof is in the details. As writers, we need to earn our abstract words. That means we need to prove them. If you write in abstractions or judgments, you are not writing concretely, You're not using the particulars that prove, and that proof is the foundation of fiction and poetry—and, as Mike Mills knows, a great screenplay. The "particular" is the building block for creating what John Gardner calls "the continuous dream."
Let's read a poem. The lines in List two above come from this poem that teaches us how to write:
A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
|Here's a book worth owning|
As old medallions to the thumb,
Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,
Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.
A poem should be equal to:
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
The Beginners by Mike Mills, the film that I'm wild about and the screenwriter I adore, leaves you breathless with the details of his deeply human characters, particular in their natures and their flaws—and the film does not mean; it breathes.