Friday, March 28, 2008

The Denial of Something Essential

Last weekend I read a Q&A column by San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle, in which a reader asked why modern film actresses don't get the same loving attention to lighting and cinematography that, for example, Von Sternberg lavished on Marlene Dietrich. The reader asked, "What's missing?"

"Black and white is what's missing," LaSalle replied. "The denial of something essential (like color) creates a longing in the viewer, which translates into an arresting image."

I think exactly the same thing happens in cartooning. It's all about "the denial of something essential," distilling characters and situations into the fewest words and lines possible--just enough to communicate an idea. When information is missing, readers fill in the rest--they yearn to fill in the rest--and the less the cartoonist gives them, the more invested they can become. Paradoxically, the more abstract a story, the more real it can seem. Somehow, a few squiggles of ink become a boy waiting by a mailbox for a Valentine's Day card that never comes. A few squiggles of ink can make you happy or sad. That's amazing.

I've mentioned this before, but I got a modest glimpse of this with Mom's Cancer when I heard from a few readers who said, "I'm not like you, my family's not like yours, and we weren't dealing with cancer, but it's just like you were in our living room." None of the details fit but somehow it still hit home in a way that felt very specific. That's also amazing.

Even more than black-and-white film, I think cartooning demands that its readers do their share the heavy lifting. That's one reason the characters in Mom's Cancer didn't have names: if I don't tell you what they're called, maybe their name is the same as yours. That's also why my editor and I didn't want to put a family photo in the book: it would've turned those abstract characters who maybe sort of resemble you and your family into real people who don't look anything like you at all. The more details I give, the more opportunities you have to find differences between us. I've thought a lot about how and why cartooning sometimes seem to tap directly into a reader's brain, and I think that's close.

I really like LaSalle's "denial of something essential" formulation. Of course for that to work, you also have to provide something essential and meet the audience half way. Otherwise, you've denied them too much to make any connection with the work at all. I think that's the difficult and rewarding (when it works) give-and-take conversation that the best writers, artists and cartoonists have with their readers or viewers.

1 comment:

Mike said...

This is true of all art, and I think the balance an artist hits between what people want to have delivered and what they are willing to bring to it themselves is critical. Turgenev criticized Tolstoy for using the same descriptors throughout "War and Peace" -- Lisa's short upper lip, Pierre pushing his glasses back up on his nose -- but they functioned as a quick reminder that helped the reader keep the many characters sorted out. And Homer had the same sort of thing -- Ajax tamer of horses and Diomed of the loud war cry" -- to sketch in the characters of the Iliad. It's much more useful to the reader than stopping the action for long, flowing descriptions of a person or a scene, because they will essentially add their own content anyway.

At first blush, you would think Schulz's characters would be too crudely drawn to be able to do subtle facial expressions, but that was not the case. Still, I think he had a more limited range in that regard than some with a bit more fluidity and realism in their drawing ... but of course, many of them don't have his capacity to make the most of a tiny change, which is why he's among the immortals.

As for movie lighting, I'd like to find the guy who decided to go realistic in castles. Yes, I know they used rush torches and had small windows and I'm sure it was quite dark in there. But historic realism be damned -- I'd like to be able to see what's going on. At some point, light really does become something essential that the audience can't supply for themselves!