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January 22, 2004

TT: The butler did it (not)

Says God of the Machine:

Nothing is worth seeing or reading that isn't worth seeing or reading twice, and the second time you know how it turns out. Dickens wrote three endings for Great Expectations; Hollywood tests movies with alternate endings all the time. What happens in the last two pages or the last thirty seconds just cannot make that great a difference. The chick in The Crying Game is really a dude, and Kevin Spacey's Keyser Soze, OK? If you're watching a movie or reading a book to find out what's going to happen, I suggest, with all due respect, a more productive use of time, like filing your corns or catching up on the details of Britney's annulment.

Read the whole thing here.

With all due respect to a smart blogger, this is only half right. As I once wrote (in a radically different context) in a New York Times piece about series TV:

The term "classic" is commonly used to describe fondly remembered TV shows of the past. (I searched for the phrase "classic TV" on Google the other day, and came up with 86,300 hits.) To call a work of art "classic," however, implies that it is something to which we return time and again, making new discoveries with each successive encounter. I can't tell you how many times I have looked at George Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, but though I suppose the day may come when it no longer has anything new to say to me, I still find it a source of apparently inexhaustible interest, and try to see it at least once a year. Every art form has produced innumerable masterpieces which, like The Four Temperaments, demand to be experienced repeatedly--every art form, that is, except for series television....

Hill Street Blues was the first TV drama I ever went out of my way to see, and were there world enough and time, I might even consider watching the first few dozen episodes again. But while I still remember how much I liked Hill Street Blues, I can't recall much else about it--only a few isolated moments from two or three episodes--whereas I could easily rattle off fairly complete synopses of, say, Citizen Kane or A Midsummer Night's Dream, or whistle the exposition to the first movement of Mozart's G Minor Symphony. To qualify as a classic, a work of art must first of all be good enough to make you want to get to know it at least that well.

On the other hand, our first experience of a work of art is qualitatively different from all successive experiences, precisely because we don't know what's going to happen. The lure of cumulative revelation is not trivial, but significant: it helps to build the tension that is ultimately discharged in catharsis. Forget the precisely balanced phrases, the delicate half-tones and perfect edits. If you're not watching a movie or reading a book to find out what's going to happen--or listening to a symphony, or watching a ballet--then you're missing the point, at least on the first go-round. Every truly great work of art is coarse at first sight. That's part of its greatness.

As for me, I'd never want to know how a masterpiece ends prior to experiencing it for the first time. To be told what happens is to be cheated of the opportunity to sprint breathlessly from beginning to end, propelled by the overwhelming desire to know--and what happens in the last two pages, or the last thirty seconds, can make all the difference in the world. Think of the finale of The Four Temperaments, with its spectacular, gravity-dissolving lifts that sum up all that has gone before. Or the explosive stutter of the final chords of Sibelius' Fifth Symphony. Or the very last sentence of "The Turn of the Screw," which slams like an oak door in the face of the stunned reader. No one should be deprived of the opportunity to come completely fresh to those climactic moments, any more than a child should be deprived of its childhood. The more refined pleasures that come with repeated exposure can wait--and will.

Posted January 22, 2004 12:01 PM

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