Cadences and harmonies of verbal and dramatic narratives

Several years before his death, the famous Estonian semiotician Yuriy Lotman came to Prague and the thing that I still remember from his talk is an admonition that boundaries are the places to study because that's the most interesting phenomena happen (or come to the surface) at the border between two stereotypes (my words not his).

One such boundary is high quality (not necessarily high-brow) narratives and low quality narratives. Leave the whole conundrum about the subjective and relative nature of any such value judgments. Let's (for the time being) accept that, or ratings are accurate reflection of some intrinsic quality of a piece of art (in this case a film).

I was watching a film called Uptown Girls which is a true 'boundary' piece of art. Like many Steven Segal films (and so much else) it displays its building blocks and framework for all to see. But it is not just the building blocks that are in plain view - the projected meaning is also plainly displayed for all to see. This earned it an IMDB rating of 5.5 and a RottenTomatoes rating of 14%.

Here are two statements about it from Rotten Tomatoes:

"Yakin and the great cinematographer Michael Ballhaus give the afternoon such a primal, heartbreaking sadness that you feel like you're watching Lillian Gish in a D.W. Griffith melodrama."
-- Jeffrey M. Anderson, SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER

"It's excruciating, a film of forced humor and fake, grating sentimentality, featuring two lead performances that elicit neither affection nor empathy."
-- Joe Baltake, SACRAMENTO BEE

Unfortunately, I couldn't get the full text of the first review any more so I'm not sure about the context of this accolade but it seems that the film had the same effect on both reviewers, but both integrated it differently. One of them describes them as 'heartbreaking' and the other as 'excruciating'. Some more 'objective' descriptions that seem to describe the same kind of feeling.

"You can snicker and enjoy all at once."

"Entirely unoriginal and unbelievably predictable, but director Boaz Yakin knows how to create Kodak moments for the crowd that desires such fare." -- John Venable, SUPERCALA.COM

I was only half-watching this film while working on my website's design and it was obvious to me (how I don't know) that it wouldn't be very good. So I was all the more surprised to find myself having an emotional approach to the final moments of the film - where the words that have been said before are said again to show the character's growth and also the resolution of the plot twist. Now, this is a purely introspective observation but I think the analogy might have some meat in it. The feeling had a certain inevitability about it reminiscent about reactions to certain kinds of music. For example, the minor chord (or scale) is typically expected to evoke a maudlin feeling - at least in the Western musical sense. It is almost as if listeners have no control over their reaction - even though they may actually dislike the music. Somebody pointed out that many of Sting's tunes sound like love songs but when one listens in they are about saving the rainforest or something of collective worth. In the same sense, a particular narrative device may have that effect on its recipients (at least those acculturated to it) without giving them much control over the physical aspect of the reaction. Whether these feelings are interpreted positively (the interpretor integrates them into something relevant to their lives) or negative (the interpretor sees them as deceptive) will depend on a lot of factors that would be interesting to investigate more deeply. Some of them may be the momentary mood or life context (I wish I could find this quote from this completely non-memorable thriller I read years ago but basically it said - 'when you're in love, the words of a silly pop-tune will start having deep meaning for you'), it could also depends on whether having a particular emotional response to a piece of narrative is sanctioned by the community - which in this case is the critical community. Drawing conclusions about life based on Shakespeare is valid doing the same with Buffy is not (I consider both to be of equal narrative and literary worth).

The problem with this analogy (at least on the surface), is the same problem that faces structuralism. Namely, where is the meaning. We've reduced the narrative to some sort of functional structure without any individual meaning. But I think the meaning is one of the layers that is a part of the structure. One cannot exist without the other but in this analogy, I'm focusing (for the sake of abstration) on the structure. But it does bear keeping in mind.