Saturday, March 26, 2011

Of Inevitable Endings

I saw such a beautiful film last night, called Of Gods and Men. It did what I love in a story, binding a deeply understood character to an exactly matched situation.

In this case the character is a group of monks living in a monastery in Algeria. They are each drawn individually, yet they also function as a single character by nature of their bond of community. The coming war threatens to break them apart, as they disagree about whether or not to stay or to leave.
A good story! Simple and engaging. Should one face danger if he doesn't have to?
It depends. The conditional nature of the answer invites the dramatist to enter and explore how this one group of people made the decision they did.

The filmmaker, Xavier Beauvois, has a truly beautiful and penetrating vision, a moral vision. When an artist sees so clearly, he or she arrives at an ending that is inevitable.
I have been thinking all day about this--how surprising the inevitable is, compared to how dull the predictable. And how the two may be exactly the same on the surface--the same ending. The climax of this film wasn't a surprise in the sense of not being able to see it coming. It was foreseeable from way off. Yet it still upset me. I knew, but I didn't really know. The fullness of the end was made known to me in the gestures and feints of the film.

The inevitable surprises because it isn't a straight shot. A character takes an action or arrives at a decision not just according to the facts--neither in the world, nor in what he knows of himself. He acts or decides based as much on what he doesn't know as on what he does. He has to move forward, and the movement connects him with all of the unknown. He is walking into the dark. He is uneven--we all are. Smart in some ways, dense in others.

The author penetrates this jumble. Careful, sensitive discernment perceives inevitability rather than predictability. This thinking can take a very long time, as Edith Wharton, Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James have all noted in writing about their work. A character may seem real to an author because thinking about his creature--really thinking and asking--makes the author more real to himself. It is hard work, and demanding, because to make up a creature who is other than oneself you have to be able to see beyond yourself. Most of us have such conflicted feelings about ourselves that we are blocked from true insight.

If we can see, if we can create an other as complex as a living person, if we can portray a constellation and connect the stars, the energy of creation communicates to the reader--the character comes alive.

Inevitability is surprising, because it contains the whole mystery of a human being. Predictability is unmoving, because there are no distant notes being struck inside a soul as it struggles to decide.

The film was a portrayal of an artist in this process of a deep discernment of his subject. What happened in that monastery? Why did the monks do what they did? It was its own story, and also a metaphor for a mind torn different ways, even in full faith.


  1. I love this: "how surprising the inevitable is, compared to how dull the predictable." Such an important distinction for us as writers. I'm now motivated to see this movie. The Beethoven music as background to the trailer was beautiful, the composer's own agony and resignation, the inevitability of his deafness, a suitable accompaniment to the monk's predicament.

  2. Thank you for your response. I love the comparison to Beethoven--the funny thing is, the music wasn't in the actual film. I suppose whoever added it to the trailer really understood the film.