Welcome to a Hidden World

The more I read, the more I read for an author’s offering of interior access to his or her characters, and for years I have felt that fiction is the narrative art that best enables this access. With a simple “He thought” or “She imagined” in a text, we as readers are welcomed into a hidden world—the thoughts of others, to which we have no entry in our daily lives. We simply cannot hear the unadulterated thoughts of other human beings, and we never will. But in fiction we can.

For years I have always emphasized to my fiction writing students that movies and television are primarily visual narrative forms, and so aren’t as well equipped to express the depths of interior revelation. No matter how expressive an actor’s face, for example, the emotions conveyed there can’t reveal as much as the detailed memories or fantasies of a character in a novel or short story.

Over the years, I’ve found more than enough exceptions to my criticism. Of course. Art always finds a way to try to express the inexpressible, whatever that art might be. My favorite examples are Being John Malkovich (written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (written by Charlie Kaufman—him again!—and Michel Gondry, and directed by Michel Gondry). In these movies, all the attention seems to be directed at cracking open the brains of the characters and looking inside.

In Being John Malkovich, a strange little portal is found behind a filing cabinet in an office, a portal that leads to the brain of the actor John Malkovich. For fifteen minutes, a person can enter into his thoughts, until being dumped in a ditch in New Jersey (ho ho). The movie is also a hilarious dig at the narcissism of actors—in Malkovich’s thoughts, everyone has his face, even babies! This film is breathtaking in the risks it takes, its humor, and the new territory it carves out for film (should anyone care to follow).

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Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is just as audacious, but far more emotionally affecting. Turns out there’s a medical practice in town that employs a technique of erasing memories from willing patients. Want to get rid of a traumatic event, an annoying relative? Well, now there’s a place you can go. So when a couple in the movie has yet another cruel argument, first the woman and then the man go through the procedure and erase each other from their lives. Problem is, at bottom they are truly in love, and so the story proceeds with their halting efforts, in a dangerously altering dreamscape, to try to remember each other.

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Which brings me to the immediate reason for this post, a video of the song “These Days” by Ane Brun, a Norwegian singer/songwriter of impeccable pop artistry. The complexity and clarity of her storytelling/songwriting chops, and her singing, place her in a hang-out pantheon with Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell.

In “These Days” we are confronted with Brun only, her ashen face bordered by a black hoodie, singing directly to us. At first, it seems that she is singing to an ex-lover, and this remains one of the possibilities embedded in the lyric. It hasn’t been an easy ride:

There were nights and mornings
When you came to me
Found your way into my bones, my joints
Into my veins
Like an animal you coiled your darkness around me
You spelled your name in charcoal
All over my body

Brun’s face is starkly expressive, anguished. And yet slowly, after about a minute into the video, thin lines begin to appear across and up and down her face, appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. They seem to reflect the scars left behind after this relationship, or at least the marks of change that can’t, normally, be seen from the outside, and yet are certainly there. Everyone has been marked in life by troubled relationships, and those marks remain largely invisible to the world. The brilliance of the video is the exposure of this reality, one that everyone has experienced—it enables us to see our lives anew.

The song, however, isn’t necessarily about a physical ex-lover. The lyrics also hint at a different kind of relationship, with one’s inner voice of self-doubt and criticism:

The things you’ve shown me over the years
The roads you blocked and how you’ll define me

Here, the antagonist of the song cannot ever be truly escaped. Our negative inner voice will always be there, at best, perhaps, managed at a distance:

These days
I let you stay
A little further away
But I walk with you
These days
I let you stay

In this interpretation, those sinuous lines tracing the singer’s face are generated from within, patterns of self-reproach and doubt that remain part of the invisible fabric of her inner life. And we all have such lines that others cannot see.

Either way (or perhaps both, depending on one’s interpretative mood?), this song and video display how a visual narrative form can find an inventive way to crack open the façade of appearance, and approach the insinuating interior depth of fiction’s power.

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Postscript:

Soon after writing this post, I became aware of a marvelous short film by Julie Gautier, “Narcose,” that explores the hallucinations experienced by a diver, Guillaume Néry, who can hold his breath for several minutes at a time (those hallucinations are caused by carbon dioxide narcosis as his dive extends in time). Here is another film that digs a little deeper into mental landscapes, a brilliant display of the physical drama of Néry’s dive, juxtaposed with the unfolding drama of his dream-like inner life that occurs at the same time.

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