Monday, April 4, 2011


To ask if a story is "experimental" can be misleading. As one wag put it, every original story is an experiment when one is working on it.
So I can't exactly say which of my stories is most "experimental." However, I can say that my short story "Moving Pictures" has sometimes proven to be challenging for some teachers and students who aren't familiar with Western philosophy and Buddhism. Its plot is simple, even deliberately minimalist, but the story dramatizes how we create and are responsible for every aspect of our lives---right down to the level of perceptual experience.
On the surface, that story, told in second-person viewpoint, is about an unhappy novelist-turned-screenwriter, who is sitting in a Seattle theater in the mid-1970s, watching a film (a corny western) he wrote. His life is an almost cliched digest of the usual post-modern complaints---divorce from a trophy wife, job dissatisfaction, selling out his literary dreams to make a buck in Hollywood, and cynicism. At the story's end, he leaves the theater, sees his car has been broken into, important papers in his glove compartment stolen, and after a moment of rage he collapses under the weight of his grief. 
But, earlier, as he watched the movie he scripted, he recalls (in the pre-digital era forty years ago) seeing reels of film for the movie "hanging like stockings" in the editing room: scraps or rags of footage. There, as the film's editor assembles its scenes together in post-production, he, the curious hack writer, looks at the film through a viewer, seeing each frame individually. 
With that editing room scene we enter deeper, philosophical waters. The story eases into an exploration of our perceptual experience, of how moment by moment our minds create Samsara (the world of illusion) when we project our desires and memories onto objects and others. The magic of the mind in conjuring our experiential "world" is analogous to the magic involved in experiencing a film that causes us to laugh, cry, feel suspense, catharsis, etc. At first, the screenwriter perceives through the viewer each frame "as a single frozen image, like an individual thought, complete in itself, with no connection to the others, as if time stood still; but then the frames came faster as the viewer sped up, chasing each other, surging forward and creating a linear, continuous motion that outstripped your perception, and presto: a sensuously rich world erupted and took....nerve-knocking reality." 
No one---absolutely no one---who wrote about this story saw how the experience of watching a film is used in "Moving Pictures" as a metaphor for the way perception operates, driven by desire and intentionality and the ego. That is, until Dr. Gary Storhoff, one of this nation's finest literary scholars and a follower of Dharma, made the story's meaning perfectly clear. In his superb critical study, Understanding Charles Johnson (University of South Carolina Press, 2004), Dr. Storhoff brilliantly says this:
"The protagonist's question about the perceived unity of his sensuous experience is answered in his full viewing of the feature film, first in the cutting room and then in the theater. The two film versions are Johnson's allegory of human apperception, employing both Western and Buddhist theories. First, Johnson creates a subtle dramatization of Immanuel Kant's theory of epistemology in Critique of Pure Reason. As viewed frame by frame in the cutting room, the protagonist's senses do not apprehend the world as a unified totality; instead, he perceives an apparently pointless procession of discrete phenomena, one unique object after another. The filmic world through the viewer appears discrete and intractable, where objects exist independently of other objects and move disparately and in randomness. When the projector is activated and the protagonist sees the film as it appears on the screen, the filmic experience is suddenly organized spatially, temporally, and causally---an actual stream of experience that does mysteriously hang together. These 'scraps of footage' do finally 'cohere'.
 "Yet it is clear for Johnson as a Buddhist, the perceiver's mind does much more than process reality in this Kantian viewing the film filtered through his personal biases and emotional requirements, he is not aware that he is producing illusions stimulated by the film's sensory data and mistaking these experiences for an emotional reality...In other words, the protagonist's epistemology is marked by his emotional cravings (that is, his wants, wishes, felt needs, regrets, and so forth)...The theater's screen is in fact "empty" in a Buddhist sense; as a blank screen, it denies the reality the protagonist projects onto it...For this unenlightened protagonist, knowing the movie, like knowing the world itself, is filtered through his own personal desire...His spirit-shattering sorrow results directly from his flawed epistemology. Of course, the protagonist may yet revise his theory of reality since he is in charge of his life---'producer, star, director in the longest, most fabulous show of all'." 
Needless to say, I feel eternally indebted to Dr. Storhoff for recognizing all I intended to express in "Moving Pictures," and for so eloquently walking a reader through that in his outstanding scholarship.

1 comment:

  1. For those of us without tv's, & who are big Charles Johnson fans, might this become available one day as a transcript? or DVD?

    "Motion Pictures" struck me as explained above but I thought that was obvious: what's really amazing is how bright tight & light the execution of the concept is in the actual writing; text as weaving, inner & outer, word to word to sentence, sentences to paragraphs, paragraph to paragraph.

    p s

    This week marks the assassination of Dr King. May we all carry on his legacy.