Tuesday, September 04, 2007


Is there any dynamic in the construction of meaning more powerful than the parsimony principle? The principle, which is derived from the linguistics work of Paul Kay, states that the reader, viewer, listener, consumer will – or perhaps should – incorporate the fewest extraneous details needed for the creation of coherence. It does this by presuming, to use the formula I first employed in a discussion of Joe Ceravolo & Rae Armantrout in my book The New Sentence, that

whenever it is possible to integrate two separate schema into a single larger frame-structure by imagining them as sharing a common participant the reader will do so. (ital. in the original)

The example I give in that book is of a section of Armantrout’s poem “Grace”:

a spring there
where his entry must be made

signals him on

Whenever I’ve asked students to “tell me what this means,” whether at San Francisco State in 1981 or at Naropa as recently as last summer, I’ve been offered a variety of narratives – I mention three in the book that were given at SF State, two of which I’ve come across repeatedly over the years, one being the idea of a diver in that instant leaving the board before the arc & splash of the event, the other that of the “step into character” that comes over an actor or actress as they make their entrance from backstage. Never in 26 years has a student offered the narrative Armantrout herself gave me when asked, that of vaginal lubrication.

But this doesn’t make any of these narrative scaffolds wrong. All three, in fact, line up the key terms in this passage into roughly the same configuration, tho Armantrout’s own version is the most intimate. New Criticism, wild child of 1930s academia, insisted on something akin to a Lou Dobbs approach to the parsimony principle – Brooks, Wellek, Warren, Tate, Ransom, Jarrell et al hoped to build a border wall around the text that would keep all of those migrant nuances on the far side. They had about as much success as Dobbs is going to have with his wall against undocumented Latin American workers.

Thus by the 1950s poets were already playing with the possibilities of just this dimension of reading: Creeley’s famousI Know a Man” derives much of its power from precisely the fact that the reader situates the key verb, drive, into two possible contexts, one in which the word belongs to the narrator, the other in which the word belongs to John “which was not his / name.” Creeley himself said that the former was his original intent, but even he had to acknowledge that readers everywhere could hear both. The ambiguity in the term drive ties right back into the two narrative figures of compulsivity – “because I am / always talking” and this journey through the dark, which somehow is not now occurring in the necessary “goddamn big car” – rendering this a text about primal need in an existential universe, one hell of a lot to get into just 12 lines.

I saw a really interesting use of the parsimony principle while I was vacationing in a recent film by Jim Jarmusch, Broken Flowers. In the narrative, retired computer exec Don Johnston (played by Bill Murray doing his best Buster Keaton impression) has his live-in girlfriend (Julie Delpy) walk out on him just as he receives an unsigned letter from a prior one informing him that he has a teenage son who may be on a road trip trying to find him. Thanks to the machinations of his next door neighbor (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, Murray heads off to check on the five women with whom he was involved during that general time frame, searching for clues as to which one wrote the note, typed on pink stationery. The movie thus turns into a Don Juan’s meditation on the meaning of relationships. The first (Sharon Stone) is the widow of a racing driver with an oversexed teenage daughter named Lolita, the second (Frances Conroy, the mother Ruth Fisher from Six Feet Under) the wife and partner of a real estate developer, the third (Jessica Lange) an animal communicator who may be romantically involved with her secretary (Chloë Sevigny), and the fourth (Tilda Swinton) living rurally on a farm with what appears to be a biker gang. All make conspicuous use of pink – Swinton has a pink typewriter, no less, lying in the grass – as does departing current girlfriend Delpy (who also seems to know more about the note than she ought). None ever admits to being the author of the note – in part because Murray never asks directly – or to being the mother of his child, but in each case the language used is exceptionally legalistic. The real estate developer says that she didn’t think she could have been a good mother to her husband’s children, but never says whether she ever had any other children.

That Jarmusch knows he is doing this, and wants you to pay attention as well, is underscored by the use of names in the film. Everyone Don Johnston meets thinks it’s funny that he has the same name as the star of Nash Bridges and Miami Vice. Except, of course, he doesn’t – his surname has a t, as he continually points out. Similarly, neither Sharon Stone nor her daughter (played by Alexis Dziena) have ever read Nabokov & think nothing of the fact that the daughter is named Lolita, even as the 16-year-old parades in the buff in front of Johnston, talking on two cell phones simultaneously. There are two characters in the film named Winston & a florist who patches up Bill Murray’s black eye is named Sun Green (Murray’s character comments that her name is “perfect”).

The scene on the biker farm is where the use of the parsimony principle reared up for me. Murray asks Swinton, who is the least pleased of the four to see him, if she had borne his child. She responds with the F word & runs inside the farm house, while two of her compadres rush over to grab Murray. One runs inside to see what is wrong, then returns to tell Murray that he was being exceptionally rude, punctuating the manners lesson with a blow to the eye. What is the meaning of this scene? Why did Swinton turn & run? There is no answer to this that I can see other than what a viewer brings to the scene (e.g., Swinton had wanted a child but had had an abortion because Murray made her do so, and has been bitter about this ever since). There’s no evidence for any interpretation whatsoever, but the viewer who wants (needs?) to interpret feels compelled to look for a rationale.

I’m not going to tell you how Jarmusch resolves this conundrum, or even if he does, but one detail that I picked up during the DVD’s extras that fit right in – besides Jarmusch’s claim that he’s not responsible for the meaning of his films, that’s the audience’s job – is the fact that Jarmusch had each of his major women characters, in rehearsal, write the original pink note, in character, to Murray, and then combined elements from all of them in the final version. Which is to say that every key actress was led to believe that she was the mother & thus played her scenes with this back story somewhere in her head. Never were the silences between characters so pregnant.

A second film that I saw just last night at the local art house in Phoenixville – the same theater that appears in the cinema scene of The Blob – is John Carney’s Irish indie musical Once, starring Glen Hansard, the lead singer of The Flames, and Markéta Irglová. Personally, I abhor musicals & am not a big fan of the sweet little romance genre either, but this film is an almost perfect argument for what can be done with these. It won an award this year at Sundance & totally deserved it. While it doesn’t have any of the meta-narrative shenanigans that Jarmusch loves, Once does make superb use of the parsimony principle in how it lets out details about the girl’s life over the course of the film. Who she is and what is possible between the two main characters transforms dramatically over the length of this film (just 96 minutes) – if we knew everything we understand at the end at the very beginning, there would be almost no dramatic tension, so the elaboration of details about her is every bit as much the narrative of this story as is the tale of two kids, the busker & the maid, and how they got together & made a demo disk of their music.

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