Thursday 30 March 2023

What's good about The Wheel of Time? Reflections prompted by Blade Runner

I was reading a review about all the things that are wrong and bad about the Ridley Scott movie Blade Runner and why, therefore it was Not a Great Movie. 

And when I got to the end, it struck me that the criticisms were factually correct but grossly missing the point. Indeed, I felt that the Arkhaven author ("Dark Herald") had loved the movie to begin-with, but then picked and picked at the movie's flaws, until he had eventually persuaded-himself that Blade Runner was Not great. 

But the point is that Blade Runner is great - or, at least, if any movies are great; then Blade Runner is one of them. 

For example, it is true to my own experience that Blade Runner did not make a huge impact on first viewing (I saw it on the first theatre release in the UK, without knowing anything about it)... This reflects its early mediocre box-office earning performance. 

Yet it is the power of the movie that it works on the imagination such that - for the first time ever - I returned to the theatre and watched Blade Runner again, just a short while later. 

I have watched and re-watched it over the forty-plus years since (at intervals of a few years, typically) - during which I discovered its troubled production, its last minute changes, the dissatisfactions of various people, that the director re-cut it a couple of times etc... I had many reasons to down-revise my original opinion - not least that I have changed, and most art-works lose their effect on repetition. 

And yet when I watched it again last year - I was again powerfully moved, and filled with thoughts and reflections afterwards. 

My point is that Blade Runner works - and if we do not consider it a 'perfect' movie, then maybe we need to think a bit harder about what we mean by perfection. 

What should be fascinating us is why - when it is so easy to pick holes and point at absurdities - Blade Runner still manages to pack such a charge - again and again? 

It would surely turn-out that those flaws must have something vital to do with its excellence; and therefore that our idea of 'perfect' in the sense of every component part being un-criticizable/ standing-up-to specific scrutiny... must have something seriously wrong with it. 

Therefore, the highest form of criticism - the only really valid form - would begin with the fact that Blade Runner is a great movie, and then help us to understand why

When it comes to Robert Jordan's fantasy series The Wheel of Time, then we are dealing with something much less successful and coherent of its kind than Blade Runner. Indeed, WoT is probably way-beyond the boundary of impossible to do successfully. To write a 14+1 volume novel (+1 = prequel), especially when each volume is so big... and when the author dies before 'completing' it... 

Well, I do not believe it can be done by anyone; and clearly not by Robert Jordan. 

I would also argue that such an entity can never be completed in the same sense a novel can be completed - thus The Wheel of Time becomes (after the first three volumes) more like a Soap Opera than a long novel; and - like a Soap - more concerned with finding new things to say and keeping-itself-going, then with reaching a satisfying and cohesive end.  

So, Wheel of Time is at a lower level of success in art than Blade Runner. Yet, The Wheel of Time was a hugely-loved and life-shaping work (at least in the USA - in the UK it is all-but unknown, hardly to be found in shops or libraries; certainly I never heard of it until after it had been ended). 

I eventually read Wheel of Time through 2017 (in the audiobook version, mostly); and was aware of all sorts of problems and annoyances. Picking-out flaws is like shooting fish in a barrel - I did not even think it ended well (which is, for me, usually a lethal problem). 

And yet... In the first place I kept reading/ listening-to WoT, right to the end (and the prequel). And, more importantly, I have - over the past six years - gone back and reread the whole thing at least once, and parts of it several times...

In other words, The Wheel of Time works - in its annoying way, it has won my affection and goodwill. 

Several of the characters have become like old friends - and archetypal for Life. Several of the events have tremendous and lasting power.  

A valid critique of WoT therefore ought to start with this fact: that it works; and the most important thing criticism can do, is help us understand why it works. 

This 'why?' understanding cannot be about such things as influences and influence. The Arkhaven retrospective on Blade Runner makes this mistake - talking of the cinematic precursors of the Blade Runner aesthetic (Such as Lang's Metropolis - which I find unwatchable), and its literary consequences (such as Cyberpunk novels - which I don't like). 

As experiencers of art; we don't (except as a very secondary activity) care about influences: rightly, because these do not make a work good or bad. 

Influences do not affect whether something works - or, insofar as they do, only by being a means to an end, subsumed within the effect.

Why then does Wheel of Time work? Why did Blade Runner? In both instances, I think we need to look outside the work itself, and consider the nature of the persons involved, and their motivations. 

The work cannot be greater than the artist, and the artist at the exact time he actually-did the work - greatness doesn't happen by accident; but by aiming high.

From reading interviews with Philip K Dick; it seems to me that director Ridley Scott cared very intensely about Blade Runner (which was adapted-from, or inspired-by, Dick's novel Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?), had thought about it a lot, and put extreme efforts into the movie... In several aspects, Scott's efforts were way, way beyond that of any previous movie ever made.

Such motivations are the necessary background to the greatness of Blade Runner.  

I think the same applies to Robert Jordan. Jordan was, it seems to me, an interesting and thoughtful man; who was deeper than most modern writers, and certainly had greater inner goodness than most modern writers. 

Jordan's previous fiction was mostly of the 'hack' variety; and with Wheel of Time he was doing his own thing for his own reasons, writing his own book for the first time: he clearly regarded WoT as his magnum opus - and put his best efforts into it over many years.

Jordan's best efforts were not much directed at artistic form, or concision, or coherence - it was, for him, more a matter of putting-in as much of possible of things that interested and concerned him. The unexpected sales success of the series enabled him to do this, to indulge himself in this respect - to the detriment of the overall work. 

But it was that impulse which led to what is good about The Wheel of Time, and what sends its readers back over and again. 

Therefore; a valid critique that attempts to answer "why it works" should primarily be focused on these engaging aspects of WoT; and should refrain (except secondarily) from the easy but misleading activity of picking it to pieces... until we have eventually convinced ourselves (and maybe others) that it is nothing-but a sprawling-mess. 

The really interesting fact is that The Wheel of Time is indeed a sprawling-mess; but a worthwhile and appealing sprawling-mess!       


Inquisitor Benedictus said...

This reminds me of T. S. Eliot's piddling remarks contra Shakespeare's Hamlet. Eliot preferred – or pretended to prefer – Shakespeare's Coriolanus (which is a decent play but not even in the league as Hamlet) because Coriolanus was more formally / structurally "perfect", whereas he thought Hamlet was severely flawed because Prince Hamlet's melancholy lacked what he called an 'objective correlative'; in other words, his melancholy exceeded the formal boundaries of the play, which, for Eliot, rendered it a failed work of art . . . (look up Chesterton's review of Hamlet as a refutation of Eliot).

I think an unmistakable element of 'greatness' in art is abundance. All great works of art seem to proceed from an abundance of imagination, inspiration, a fertility that seems to exceed the author themselves. Think of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Dickens' Pickwick Papers, Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Paris' Cathedral of Notre Dame, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, Michelangelo's art in the Sistine Chapel . . . When you approach works like these, you simply get lost in another world, because of the sheer excess of the artist's imagination not leaving you room to stop and think. And I think it's this very excess, this artistic over-abundance, which the petty sort of criticism always despises – because it's this very element of art that's, in and of itself, beyond all criticism.

Hamlet is one of these works of excess or abundance. It's the one play where Shakespeare himself even can't seem to get fully to grips with it, and in which he seems to permit himself indulgence after indulgence. Blade Runner is also a work of such abundance. I didn't really 'get it' the first time either, but the imagery and 'world' it creates is so rich in texture and depth that you simply can't criticise it. It's compelling by itself. From what you've said, The Wheel of Time also seems like a work of this sort.

I think you can easily spot such abundance in art by the sheer excitement the artist seems to have had in its production. There's almost a giddiness to such works where you can see that they're trying to get so many ideas down at once. Again, criticism tends not to like this, because criticism wants to take things part by part and, logically and patiently, construct a whole out of the parts; but its this abundant imagination which is the proverbial "greater than the sum of the parts."

You might like this review of the film –
It's by the youtube personality Razorfist who tends to be very explicit in his language, but I think he behaves himself a bit in that video. I've heard him say many times that Blade Runner is his favourite film, and that in his college days he'd come home every day after his class and watch the film again.

Bruce Charlton said...

@IB - Thanks - excellent comment.

The Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid

wrote a great long poem called "A drunk man looks at the thistle". When he was criticized for lack of formal perfection in his verse, he responded (in line with your comments):

'My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit's egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame, but a lot of rubbish.'

John Goes said...

I agree with your general point about the proper basis and starting point of criticism.

However, while I understand your post is not about Blade Runner specifically, since you brought it up, my own issue with Blade Runner begins with my love of the novel. For me, the novel *works*, and is something that I go back to again and again in my mind. The movie completely inverts the meaning of the novel in such a radical way that I have trouble rewatching it, as fascinating as the atmosphere (soundtrack, cinematography, etc) of the movie is. For instance, in the novel the androids are clearly villains. Their soullessness and inability to understand Christianity, as represented by the empathy box, was subverted by the movie. That has always blocked my appreciation of the film.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - Yes, PKD discussed this with Scott - who knew what he was doing, and that he had made the opposite point from the novel. But in the end Dick was quite happy with this, and regarded the movie and the book as complementary (his word). Indeed, in discussion Dick was quite excited by this idea of complementarity.

BTW - Dick fully realized that Blade Runner was something very special as a movie, and was vastly impressed by the artwork, special effects, detailed sets - and general care in production.

When the movie was being planned, Dick was offered an enormous sum of money to write a novelization of the movie - but he turned this down and instead republished Do Androids... in a new paperback edition with a cover illustration drawn from the movie.

This information can be found in the interviews published as What if our world is their Heaven?; and a memoir The Other Side of Philip K Dick by Maer Wilson (who visited the Blade Runner set with him).

Then PKD died - before the movie was finished fully (although he had seen a fair selection of the rushes/ dailies - the raw unedited footage).

It was through buying the Androids book by PKD after watching Blade Runner that I first began reading PKD - one thing led to another:

John Goes said...

Thank you, Bruce, for the references to those two books about PKD. I am interested to learn more about PKD’s reaction to the film. I was aware of the fact that he technically approved of the film screenplay, and have also heard about him turning down the film novelization, and I suppose falsely assumed that this meant he didn’t endorse the new plot, but just wanted the money for the film. I just ordered “What if our world is their Heaven?” and look forward to learning more.

Epimetheus said...

What a fascinating article. The usual advice one gets is that stories should be ruthlessly pared down to the sleekest possible form. Someone on Twitter (Alexandre Konstantin, I think) took issue with that and quoted Salman Rushdie - to the effect that, when Rushdie edits, instead of paring the material down and removing the excess, he actually adds more in.

I guess it's two different concepts of storytelling. One would hew the perfect shape by removing the excess from a marble block. The other would grow a story as a bounteous garden, with as much variety and excess and abundance as possible.

the outrigger said...

Who holds the better lamp on peak experience/final participation, PKD or Wilson? In the excepts you cited recently I was struck how in the abstract or removed Wilson appeared, when writing about being moved*. Whereas your treatment of PKD sounds like he wrote from inside the experience.

*A tad unfair. But. That post did induce me to wonder how you would fit PKD into your Barfield-ish schema.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Epi - Yes, that's it. Various people have sensed this, and given it different terms, with different emphases. One is Hedgehogs and Foxes:

Bruce Charlton said...

@to - I'd say neither CW nor PKD had any understanding of final participation. Wilson understood peak experiences better, because he had thought about and studied them for decades.

PKD is rather a gloomy writer for most of the time, and his characters don't get much in the way of PEs - but in real life, at least in his last eight years, it is evident from Exegesis that PKD himself experienced peak experiences pretty frequently.

And PKD is probably better at describing his own experiences in a way that evokes them in the reader - but, in my youth especially, I found Wilson's discussions and descriptions of PEs to be very inspiring, and energizing (while I found the opposite effect from most of PKD's work).