Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dazed and Confused Teaches Us "lyrical"

First off let me say happy Independence Day to you other Americans. If you are, or if you aren't, go out and take the day down with more than sparklers and watermelon. Do something independent. A wonderful example would to buy an indie book (cough) by a lovable indie writer (cough) whose fab work, such as newly out Sheep that Stray. Click on the lovely illustration by Stuart Downing on the right hand side of your page. As I said in my last post, I'm salivating over this one coming out myself as it is very near and dear to my heart. Today we are tackling some new, yet very familiar vocabulary word. Lyrical Writers want to be it. Readers chose books because of it. The backs of books abound with praise for what a "lyrical" book this is. Can anyone give me a well reasoned shout out telling me exactly what lyrical means? Just give me a solid example. There may be a brand spanking new copy of Sheep the Stray in it for you. The catch is that you may not use the definition or analysis below unless you choose to show me an example instead of define. If you choose to send me an example, please send me a paragraph of text and reasoning in my comments section. I am not digging through abebooks to find your text. Frankly, lyric or lyrical writing is similar to irony or pornography. No one can define it, but we all know it when we see it. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests something musical or having a musical quality. And there we go on a lot of the fantasy books people choose to stick "lyric" in front of. When read, they have a cadence, a rhythm that pulls us in. But is all "lyric" means? I say a resounding no, and take you far from our own genre to prove it. So I will be discussing how the movie Dazed and Confused is lyric. I have to give props to this comparison to a kick ass proff I had. I'd give him that props by name, but I can't remember it. So if he reads this, I hope he forgives me. I do remember a lot. I took his class in Medieval & Renaissance Lyric Poetry. Why did I take it? I had to take something old. However, the prof was on such a level that not only did I understand what we were doing, I really enjoyed it. He originally hypothesized that Dazed and Confused was lyric. I remember everything else about him. He had short, very red hair and a goatee. He wore dress shirts every day, even though we were in a non air conditioned building in up to ninety degree weather and we were at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where no one cared what you wore. Mostly we close read poems, which is how I learned to close read a poem--handy as an MFA. Sometimes he lectured with all the passion of a doomsday preacher. And he had a mysterious wife who he mentioned, and I even saw once, but who most of the female population of his class liked to pretend didn't exist. But I'm bad with names. So apologies and thanks to prof that I really liked. In order to examine a movie about kids coming-of-age in the seventies, aimed at stoners, I am now going medieval on your ass. And renaissance, for that matter. My prof's definition of lyric, and he wrote a dissertation on this stuff, was something that attempted to capture or evoke mood or emotion. Okay, so I'll give you one more hit of clean fantasy before I take you to Richard Linklater. This still fits a lot of what gets called lyric on covers. The beautiful words we already spoke of string together to create a mood for the overall world. Or evoke a tone in a specific mossy glade. Peaceful? Sleepy? This is stuff we all hope we do and hope to read, but some of us do it great. Here, before we dive into how Rich is one of those people, I'll give you a quick run down of Dazed and Confused so that you can finish reading this in case you want buy the physical copy on Amazon instead of the digital and therefore cannot immediately watch it so often that you see not just a kick ass movie, but the underlying why of the kick ass in the script and (ahem) lyric direction. Don't worry. Being stoned is not a prereq for enjoying the movie and you may understand the film's genius better when sober. It will merely make you think you are stoned. The last day of school. You are in 1976 and are going on to your glory as a senior or surviving hazing into being a peon freshman. In one day and one night, every clique in school will interface, change, rearrange or stay the same. In one day and one night, a core ensemble cast of friends will experience more than John Hughes ever had in his, yes, also brilliant skull. The triumphs are smaller, but all the more real for it. The let downs are less epic, and so on point it can get uncomfortable to watch. Now, Randell "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) and Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) on one, and more prominent side, and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) and Jodi Kramer (Michelle Burke) on the other side, are the four sets of character arcs that keep this movie alive. Linklater crammed almost every coming-of-age movie into one, and it should have been a gibbering mess. Thanks to careful throughlines and character arcs, it is an almost amazing dance. Let's examine a scene of driving around, getting high and drinking. Mitch, a freshman Pink has taken under his wing, has never been high before, but agrees to the journey. Kevin Pickford (Shawn Andrews), the res drug dealer, drives while the ride rounds out with Don Dawson ( Directly after Mitch's decision, we jump directly into the car and into rotation while "Tush" by Nazareth plays with the rhythm. We aren't moving at quite speed. Not being a film student, I cannot tell you for sure, but I think they did something to the color to brighten it. At the beginning of the scene, the soundtrack and laid back pace take over for the conversation we can't hear. Mitch gets high for the first time, and we feel it. Linklater stoned his audience. By the time they are having a beer bust out at the moon tower, Mitch has been both drinking and smoking pot for the first time. He's keeping up with the big boys, but in a marvelous piece of "I'm messed up" cinema (and perhaps if you haven't ever been this scene is not so evocative), Mitch wanders through the party alone. Dr. John's "Right Place Wrong Time" has all but eclipsed a faint sound of the party. Most of the time, the other people in the shot are slightly out of focus, but if Mitch turns his head to focus on people, they pop into definition. At times the camera moves as if it, itself, is Mitch. We are inside Mitch. Then Julie (Catherine Avril Morris) grabs him by the shoulders, and bam! Everything is back to normal speed. The background is in the background where it belongs. The soundtrack has receded so that Julie and Mitch talking is brought to the fore. Mitch behaves in an intoxicated, but conversational way. We now watch Mitch, instead of be Mitch. Until Julie touches him, we see Mitch's world lyrically. We have the actual experience of Mitch's mind and emotions. As soon as Julie touches him, we are drawn out of Mitch's world, and instead see the world as the world would see Mitch. So. Besides thinking my prof was awesome all those years ago, why did I choose Linklater over De Lint. Easy. When a book is called lyric in the fantasy world, it most often isn't lyric. I'll base my opinion of De Lint on the one book of his that I read that was very well written but stark cold of emotion and not much fun. De Lint writes atmospheres. De Lint writes the mood of a world, a forest, a novel. And he does it well. In my own private experience, I have found that fantasy books that are called lyric a) have very pretty descriptions and word choices but it isn't meant, or at least doesn't accomplish, creating a mood or emotion. b) is lyric, but all of the lyric is based on establishing the mood of a place. Wait, you are saying, people are lyric with characters all the time, it is called P.O.V. You are in the character's head. Yes, supposedly, you are. But, "God, I'm drunk," informs the reader yes, the character is drunk. Lyric (as I pull this out of my ass) requires more of: "Stomach turned inside out. Hand in pink margarita vomit. Arms holding me up. Andy holds me up. Flop head. No. No Andy. Tony and Robby. At door now." Thank you, thank you for the writing exercise for today. We don't do that as much as we should anymore. We don't read that as much as we should anymore. We may have plenty of lyric atmospheres, places, worlds, but rarely do we see a character written lyrically. So, staying the character girl as always, I'm calling for some lyric characters out there. If you wish to share, put it in my comments.


  1. Evocative does seem to always seem to be connected to scenery . . .I looked it up hoping for some examples, but found a pretty bare bones definition--to call up, to summon. So to summon up states of mind--to evoke memory, or emotion . . . .

    Nice to see Sheep that Stray coming out. This is one of my favorite fantasy books. The characters lives aren't AT ALL like mine--and yet I find their experiences evoke my own memories, moods, experiences.

  2. Thanks debby--glad to see that ARC worked out to my advantage. I'm complimented you think the characters in Sheep hit a broad audience. I wanted a lot of it to evoke a lot of growing up experiences no matter the window dressing. Having characters be evocative or lyrical is always one of my major goals. Thanks!