Thursday, August 22, 2013

house of leaves - a critical analysis.

House Of Leaves

Mark Z. Danielewski

as promised a few days ago, here is a look at one of my favorite books. much like any of my "formative films" or any album that left an indelible mark on me, I remember exactly when and where I first experienced mark z. danielewski's house of leaves. as luck would have it, this was also around the time that I started listen to heavier and more extreme music. my own art, while always dark, began to take on a much more deliberate and calculated nature, not leaving anything to chance or circumstance.

but my personal connection to this book and it's influence on my own work is not the subject of this post. instead, I'm going to take a look at what the book itself says about the fields of film and literary theory and criticism. through the use of varying typography, footnotes linking to obscure and diverse philosophical texts, and critical interpretations of "the navidson record," what is danielewski saying about the world of academia? what is he saying about those who critique instead of create?

like any great work of art, house of leaves can be taken at face-value and appreciated as nothing more than a fantastic, multi-layered story filled with complex characters and a mind-bogglingly creative setting. when one begins to peel back the layers, not just those of story but those of structure, the book slowly reveals itself as a critical reaction to the varied fields of art criticism. as any fan of danielweski knows, the guy is smart. and not just in the "tortured genius artist" kind of way - he's incredibly well-read, and knows every different class of film theory, from psychoanalytic to apparatus to auteur. having studied literature at yale and cinema at USC, he has no excuse not to know these differing theories. but unlike most cinematologists and literary critics, he's a creator, not just an interpreter. 

the foremost problem with most theoretical and critical disciplines is simple and yet frighteningly important: most critics do not create. they learn to analyze, interpret, hypothesize, and reach conclusions without any idea of what goes in to the actual creation of that piece of art they're so quick to categorize. as a cinematologist myself, I can attest to this firsthand: while at tisch, in the cinema studies department, there are no required production or dramatic writing classes. every core class is based around theoretical interpretations of genre, director, era, you name it - but it's just theory. there's no significant look at the tools (and people) that go into the making of these films and, as such, no one ever learns about authorship. 

as anyone who's made a film, feature, short, or documentary, knows, there is rarely a single author on a film. there are obviously exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, anyone who is given money by someone else to make a film doesn't have complete say over that film. unfortunately, too much criticism is dependent on a film having a single "creator" who is solely responsible for the shots, the mise-en-scene, the writing, the direction, and the overall message of the work. 

and this is rarely the case.

having studied the theory as well as actual filmmaking, danielweski saw the disconnect between the two and, at it's core, house of leaves is an analysis of that great chasm in addition to simply being a great, endlessly creative story.

whether or not the house itself is a metaphor is not at issue here. in fact, I'm going to proceed as though neither the house nor navidson's actions nor any of the actions within the "film" represent anything other than a superb story of vulnerable characters coming to terms with surroundings they cannot possibly begin to comprehend.

instead, we need to look at the criticism and commentary provided by zampanó and his primary (and secondary) sources. because it's that criticism, as I'm sure danielewski discovered, that can pervert and change (or seek to change) what is nothing more than a great, well-told story.

right from the beginning of zampanó's analytical tome, we're introduced to the footnotes that will run throughout the duration of the novel, some of which even compete with the novel for the reader's attention. structurally, the footnotes echo the narrative arc of the novel - as the paranoia intensifies, so do the abstract, rambling quality of the references. but the layout and structure is not nearly as important as what the footnotes say about the world of academia.

the reference material all too often seeks to interpret the house and reinterpret the views of others regarding the house. but these statements, often in the context of deep philosophical insight, often stand in stark contrast to the events of the film themselves. they assume a directorial and circumstantial control that, as danielewski makes blatantly obvious, the filmmakers do not have. but this never stops the critics from reading the source material in the most pretentious ways possible. as academics are wont to do, they view minute details as overarching metaphor where no such thing exists. 

what amazed while I was in school was the unfortunate fact that no theory is ever really wrong - when buffeted with proper evidence, any theory, no matter how ludicrous to the casual observer, is accepted into the zeitgeist of criticism without hesitation. I can't even begin to tell you how many completely absurd readings of films I was subjected to, all backed up by misinterpreted references, that were each lauded by published professors. these critics, these academics, it's almost as if they are, themselves, desperate to invent a reason to exist, to prove that their ideas are new and different.

but unfortunately new and different bear absolutely no relation to correct or even rational. this doesn't mean that many filmmakers don't leave certain details and themes up to interpretation - they absolutely do, and that's something that I strive for in my work as well. that ambiguity is essential to bring viewers back over and over again, to find new details and meaning as their own lives and thoughts change.

those who purport to make a living philosophizing on the meanings of completely insignificant details and actions, however, are instead doing just the opposite: killing the ideas and meanings they seek to illuminate. I'm not here to propose that critics are inherently detrimental to the work they critique; with the deluge of creative work coming at us from all mediums in the modern age, it's important for consumers to be able to sift through everything in an effective manner. but, and I think this is the point that danielewski is trying to make, critics overstep their boundaries in a desperate attempt to add to the work itself. instead of merely commenting and letting the end user arrive at his or her own conclusions, these critics are desperate to contribute something, anything, to the conversation that it almost doesn't matter what they say - just that they are heard.

it's too bad that this usually involves adding layers of meaning to works of art that simply aren't there. and I wouldn't be surprised if some of them viewed it as a game - how absurd can I make my theory and still "prove" it to the reader? and house of leaves takes this little game and ups it tenfold, exploring and subsequently mocking these critiques, theories, and philosophies be demonstrating that much of the time, they simply aren't true. at this point I'd point to specific lines and instances in the text itself, but, honestly, that's pretty much the whole book.

the way in which danielewski contrasts the facts with the theories is nothing short of revolutionary, an artist finally striking back against those who (deliberately or otherwise) misinterpret the very work they seek to understand. but like the house itself, there's no end to this criticism, and stepping into the world of academic criticism and philosophy is very much like stepping into that first long, dark hallway - you're now in a different world with different rules that bear very little resemblance to the reality you once knew.

(buy a copy of house of leaves from amazon.)

1 comment:

  1. Little solace comes
    to those who grieve
    when thoughts keep drifting
    as walls keep shifting
    and this great blue world of ours
    seems a house of leaves

    moments before the wind.

    Nice analysis!