Directed by Alan Smithee #6: The Line of Action

A series of musings on movies, memories, and storytelling.

by Cassie Hayes, Fiction Editor

Movies manipulate time. Real time seems to freeze and hang suspended until the final credits, when you stumble out of the darkness and wander around the parking lot trying to find your car, the world suddenly hard and huge and real again—too silent and serious compared to the world of light and shadow that you just left. Even the onscreen dramatic time jumps and flashes back and flashes forward, carried along by music, dialogue, and sound effects. Movies let you feel like you cheated time—you stole some back. For an hour and a half or two hours, you experienced a story that would have taken you days, weeks, months, or even years to experience in real life.

Most narratives do this. Hitchcock famously said that drama is life with the dull bits cut out.

One of my favorite movies is Once Upon a Time in the West. As a very quiet and slightly musically-inclined person, my favorite character in that movie is Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica,” so named because he never gives his real name—he is known mainly by the harmonica he carries on a string around his neck and the mournful musical motif that he often plays. The movie is an epic—set in the magnificent mythological American West, where conflicts of good versus evil, tradition versus progress, and man versus man are played out in operatic proportions. I literally have goose bumps by the end of the movie every time I watch it.

Harmonica is on a quest for revenge—he wants to kill Frank, the cruel antagonist played to perfection by somebody who I had always thought exuded kindness and principle, Henry Fonda. Harmonica goes doggedly after Frank with single-minded focus and unrelenting purpose. The wheezing harmonica motif underscores this determination, this desire for revenge burning inside of a man who seems so cool and collected on the outside.

That sense of grit is romanticized. It reminds me of my dad as a high school freshman going out for football and breaking both wrists on the first day of practice, then going out again as a sophomore and breaking both wrists on the first day AGAIN.

It reminds me of me as a girl going to the week-long softball camp hosted by the Waxahachie High School softball program every summer, and every summer getting sick, turning ghost-white and getting lightheaded and dizzy, the coach always hosing me off, giving me a popsicle, and calling my parents. Every. Single. Summer.

Grit? Maybe. Also, more likely, just being a stubborn idiot.

Stories can get you out of the rut your life is in. Stories can allow you to let go of the stubborn memories of the past and move on. Stories can change your heart, your mind, and your very soul.

Storytelling isn’t self-help therapy any more than listening to stories is. Whether you’re writing, reading, watching a movie, or making a movie, even though you’re probing the mess you are—displaying your dysfunction—you’re also crafting a narrative, manipulating time and facts, and putting on a new identity. You’re rediscovering the world and inviting others to join you in your rediscovery. It’s a craft, it’s a calling, and it’s hard work.

Which brings me to the title of this post: The Line of Action. The almighty “line of action” in movie-making is an imaginary line drawn in front of the camera—you put the camera on one side of the line and don’t cross it, thereby avoiding continuity problems editing. Of course, like most rules, this one gets broken every now and then, but generally it keeps the action or dialogue from being confusing, with random reversals of left and right screen space, when it’s edited together.

Just like with the name “Alan Smithee,” I tie a bunch of meaning to the phrase “the line of action” that isn’t really there and doesn’t have much of anything to do with the concept.

The phrase reminds me of the line in the sand drawn by William Travis at the Alamo. The line of ACTION. The phrase gives me the feeling that you’re about to make a choice that you will act on, a choice like the ones often at the climax of a short story, a book chapter, or a movie scene. You will make this choice and you will change because of it. You will cross the line of action, even if it might be confusing. Your life will take on a new trajectory.

Take a look at Arkana. The small literary journal that’s really a tiny bleep on the radar of hundreds of literary journals popping up online. Yes, there’s stubborn grit and passion that keep us going and will keep us going in the future. Yes, there’s the belief that writing and storytelling is more than just therapy—that it’s not for the individual but for the community.

But more than all that, what will keep Arkana, and all literature, alive is a belief in the power of change.

We are small but mighty. Literature here and everywhere is the line of action. Time builds forward like a stone wall separating what was and what could be, but we cross that wall and carve stories out of the stone, beauty out of the boundaries.

Voices out of the silence.

That’s why I love movies, stories, and being part of a literary journal. The world gives you a million examples of dysfunction and hate to turn you bitter, but as long as there are people promoting, creating, and experiencing art then empathy is being shared and there is hope for the future. There is an audience held together by light they can see through the darkness. There is the hush of emotion, the quiet of reflection, and the smell of popcorn.

And the bitterness fades out.


Cassie Hayes is a scribomaniac, film aficionado, and sometime taco-maker from Waxahachie, Texas. She received her bachelor’s from the University of Texas at Arlington and now attends the Arkansas Writers MFA Program. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in various print and online literary journals.
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