Thursday, May 31, 2007

Little Children

Scott and I watched the movie Little Children without knowing anything beyond what the rental said on the back of the box. From the opening moments of the movie it's clear the movie is a novel adaptation. A disembodied narrator is with us for most of the story. As the film opens we see Sarah, played by Kate Winslet with her three year old daughter and three other suburban mothers and their children in a playground setting. I assume it’s being narrated from Sarah’s point of view. Several minutes later, the point of view switches to Brad, a stay at home dad referred to by the three women who are regulars at the playground as “The Prom King”. I then assume the story is being told from the omniscient point of view, simply because the ethereal male narrator’s voice is so god-like and detached. I realize soon afterward that the narrator speaks only from the point of view of two of the many characters.

I can’t recall ever seeing a movie narrated so heavily throughout and I can't think of any narrated from multiple points of view. It took me slightly off guard initially, but it was very effective. When I read a novel told from multiple points of view, I tend to “hear” a different voice for each character.

The story was so interesting, the characters – and there were quite a few -- so well developed and the many major conflicts were so elegantly wrapped up that I was interested in finding out more about the author, Tom Perrotta and the book. I found out that in addition to writing Little Children, he wrote Election, which was also adapted to film in 1999. In all he’s written six novels, his newest, The Abstinence Teacher due to be published in October. He’s also written a number of short stories and essays.

I found an interview with Tom Perrotta that was done prior to the film adaptation of Little Children in Post Road Magazine – incidentally, the same literary magazine where P. Amy MacKinnon of The Writers Group is a fiction slush reader. In the Post Road piece, Tom Perrotta answers 20 Questions related to writing and has some pretty interesting answers.

When the movie finished, I realized that for the last few years, no matter what the medium, whether it’s a novel, a movie, a short story or even a television show, I find myself dissecting stories -- the good ones -- and noticing technique in a great deal of detail. A couple of years ago, Scott and another painter were having a spirited discussion about a particular group of paintings in an art magazine. I was a little amused and thought that as an art lover, but not a painter I could derive more enjoyment from artwork than they could because they were incapable of not analyzing the technique and I didn’t know enough to do it. I went to the ballet several years ago and had a similar experience. I knew enough about ballet from a couple of humbling years as a beginning adult student to appreciate how incredibly difficult even the simplest things are, but not enough experience to notice small mistakes in particularly difficult moves. I overheard two young women behind me making a big deal about something that had happened right before my eyes during a lift that was apparently near-catastrophic, but the dancer recovered and only the most discerning eyes in the audience ever knew the difference. I was watching and I didn’t.

Does experiencing art of any kind with a critical eye add or detract from your enjoyment of it? Does the analysis take us out of the experience? How do you view art, literature, dance, music or other art forms when you have an intimate understanding of them? Once you've immersed yourself in an art form, can you ever give your inner critic the day off?


The Writers' Group said...

Lisa, it's as if you & I are sharing our thoughts this week. I've been pondering this same point lately, largely because of the tumult at NBCC. Who is capable of being a critic? What must one bring to the table before offering a legitimate perspective? I'm open to the various arguments, but inevitably I believe all are moot because art is what affects the individual.

As for Tom Perrotta, he's as mesmerizing in person as his words on the page. I urge everyone reading this to buy his books, study his technique. There are few better teachers. Heck, just read for the pure pleasure of it.


kristen said...

This is such a thoughtful post. I find that on the occasions when I allow myself to simply read and put aside thoughts of technique and craft, my enjoyment is on a different level. Not better or worse, just different.

That said, I do enjoy falling in love with a book or a photo or a painting that is never going to be critically acclaimed. There's an innocence to it that appeals to me.

You are on a great roll here Lisa with your posts. I'm reading and thinking right along with you every day now. Thanks! I'm off now to explore your Tom Perrota links.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I don't know that I ever completely turn off that analytical eye -- perhaps I spent too many years as a teacher and now as a writer. But I also think much of it is unconscious. I'll read a book and enjoy it, then later have an aha moment as it relates to my own writing. Something alogn the lines of, hmm, I could try it that way. Of course, sometimes I read things and think, huh, she/he could have done it better by x y or z. And then there are times I just read and revel in whatevr mastery I'm in.

Scott Mattlin said...


This post asks several really interesting questions which, although I'm just BEGINNING to sip my first cup of coffee this morning; has sparked an unusually high level of thought just 15 minutes after getting out of bed!

For some, I believe that an intimate understanding of an art form may well increase their appreciation of excellence, when they percieve it .However, the ability to turn off the "inner critic" seems essential for joyfully immersing myself in any experience.

Personally, those earlier and more innocent times of viewing spectacularly gifted musicians, artists, and even expanding to fine woodworkers, architects, and fine glass craftsmen;...were awe-inspiring to a young man with little understanding of HOW ANYONE could create such magic;- so apparently effortlessly;).
After the understanding that talent, experience, and most abundantly; VERY HARD WORK OVER a PERIOD OF TIME was what created that apparent magic; the initial soul stirring awe and reverence faded a bit.
However, that awe was replaced with a more mature appreciation for true excellence when seen in any endeavor.
All-in-all, it became an inevitable trade-off for me.

I have many more thoughts on this; but perhaps they are best saved for interesting (hopefully:) dinner conversation between the two of us:)

I love you, -Scott

Larramie said...

Whenever I choose to become immersed in an art form -- of any type --, it's because of a desire to escape, be entertained and (hopefully) awed. So I automatically turn off my inner critic and allow myself to feel the art rather than think it.

However, quality is quality and -- if I'm not escaping, enjoying, etc. -- a "tune-out" switch clicks off somewhere inside of me until after the event is over. It's then that the inner critic has free rein. ;o)

Lisa said...


What a thought. I didn't even connect my thoughts on Little Children with the ongoing tumult about online reviews, etc., but I suppose posts like mine could be exactly what a lot of people are complaining about or defending -- although the real purpose of noting my observations on the movie was to ponder the impact our personal observations have on our enjoyment of the art. A hazard to keep in mind for future posts. This is the worldwide web after all :)

I'm glad to get a Tom Perrotta reading recommendation from you. I've seen two movies and studied what I could find on him but I've not actually read one of his books. I'm always up for a good book that is written well.


I think there are definitely times when it's easier to just go with a book, painting, movie and enjoy it in a less analytical way. I suspect it has to do with our expectations. If I pick up a light beach book with no other expectation than entertainment and a good laugh, it's a different experience than picking up a book with that silver "Pulitzer Prize Winner" medallion stamped on its cover. I'm also a big fan of the unsung artist. I'm pretty indifferent to critical acclaim and widespread recognition in the arts and don't make any connections between those things and the quality of the work. There is a constellation of amazing writers and other artists in the world who we will never have the opportunity to know and there are some we've all heard of but could probably do without. Thanks for hanging in with me. There seems to be a wavelength this week that we're all tuned into.


I am delighted you were so intrigued by the question that you were commenting before you finished that first cup of coffee! I agree that there was something so wonderful about the uneducated awe we all felt when seeing that first watercolor painting a grandmother did, or on hearing a high school garage band or reading a poem from a high school sweetheart. Before seeing or hearing them with a more educated eye/ear, it was exciting to think that someone we actually knew could do something that seemed to require a certain magic. Once we are able to understand what's behind the curtain and realize that a lot of it can be learned with hard work and determination we can then appreciate some things even more than we did with our innocent eyes -- but in a way, maybe it's like the old saying about sausage -- you don't necessarily want to know how it's made. I guess there are pros and cons to seeing art from both perspectives, but it's pretty hard to unscramble an egg. Am I craving breakfast food?

And yes...I would love to continue this conversation at dinner. :) xo


I admire your ability to automatically turn that inner critic on and off! I tend to be a little too obsessive (great when I'm working on a project -- not so good when I try to go to sleep!) and I haven't mastered that skill, but it would be fantastic to learn how.

reality said...

Hi Lisa,
I think Scott made an astute observation as to how the inner critic may be tamed by learning the craft and substituting the initial awe with a real sense of understanding of the work.

My inner critic has never bothered me so far. Perhaps I mentally multi task, trying to understand what the author achieved and how; without losing the pleasure of reading.

Also, there is a lot to be learnt from poorly written books; on what not to do.

Leslie said...

I think it is natural to be critical of your own work (and that of those in your own field). And yes, if you are expert at anything you probably tend to view it differently than those who aren't (whether it is art, medicine, engineering, cooking, computer programming, landscaping or plumbing...) We can also recognize and appreciate talent in areas where we don't have that level of understanding. It doesn't take an expert to see that you are a brilliant writer (although I'm confident that those in the field would agree). I don't have the words to compliment you properly or to describe how your writing makes me feel and think. Every post is a joy to read. You are amazing and incredibly talented. Awesome stuff.

Lisa said...


You're right about Scott -- I gain a lot of insights from him all the time. And good point about learning from poorly written books as well. I read one a few months ago and the author had a really annoying habit that took me right out of the story every time she did it -- which was pretty often. Not only did it reinforce how distracting bad habits can be to the reader, it made me realize that publishers apparently aren't investing a whole lot into editing new writers. Prior to reading that book, I'd imagined all authors would have an editor finding and fixing those kinds of mistakes, but that is apparently no longer the norm.


You are much too flattering, but thank you. If someone reading your comment didn't know any better they'd probably think we're related :)

Therese said...

In short: my inner critic is silenced by terrific storytelling.

Now and then I'll start a book and find myself so swept up by the story that I've "forgotten" to read critically.

Then once I've finished the book, I'll re-read for how-to lessons. :)

Lisa said...


I think I'll eventually settle down and be able to let myself go when I read something great -- it happens for brief periods now, but I'm in such a learning mode and I get so obsessed that I almost can't stop myself from analyzing every book I read and every good movie I see. If it doesn't stop eventually, I'll probably have to seek the help of a good shrink and some psychotropic drugs! :-)

Therese said...

Lisa, I'm sure you're right. I know how that learning mode obsession goes! Skip the shrink, just get the drugs. :)

Lisa said...

Even better! :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf