Friday, January 21, 2011

The Big Lebowski and the Whole Brevity Thing Cont.

I was feeling good that I had tentatively decided to model myself after one of the ancient Spartans and resolve to become more laconic in my speech and writing in the new year. (See: The Whole Brevity Thing)

But soon I hit a bump in the road. I had so much to communicate about brevity that I couldn't be brief in my written disquisition upon the subject.

It was all part of an ongoing situation. As much I wished for it, I never seemed able to write a short post for The Van Winkle Project.

This puts me at odds with our overall culture.

Aren't we people who desire these days to keep everything as short and condensed as possible?

A sound bite, not a speech? A song, not a whole album of songs? A tweet in place of a tome?

Befuddled, flummoxed, and metaphorically bloodied by my failure, I did what any reasonable 21st Century person might do.

I sat down and watched The Big Lebowski. Again.

Enter the Dude
Long ago the Coen Brothers' film The Big Lebowski (1998) reached cult film status. A cult film is, of course, one that you watch repeatedly like a monkey eating another banana and soon you start to memorize all the funny lines. Which can come in handy as you start to plug them into everyday speech and thus amuse your friends who are on a lifelong quest for the Kingdom of Mirth.

So the film is rolling (or spinning in the age of DVD and Blu-ray) and I am still trying to figure out if and how I can be a sterling example of brevity and scale back these Van Winkle Project posts.

I'm into the first half hour of the movie when the Dude (Jeff Bridges) suddenly speaks to me. Actually he speaks to the Big Lebowski which is not the same as the Lebowski who is the Dude because the Big Lebowski is a millionaire in a wheelchair whereas the other Lebowski is the Dude...

If you haven't seen the movie, it's a tad complicated.

But the point is that the way the Dude seemed to offer something special just to me, a guy sitting in a room watching a movie about him 12 years after the film was committed to celluloid, is not unusual or startling. This is what the Dude does. This is just one example of how "the Dude abides."

So here's what the Dude said that threw sudden halogen headlights on my dilemma concerning brevity.

Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not "Mr. Lebowski". You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.

The Dude discourses on nomenclature

You only have to watch the first minute of the film and see the Dude in bathrobe and shorts slopping along ,sniffing his way down the dairy aisle of a Ralph's grocery store and then writing a check for .69 cents at the checkout to know that, personally, he is a major fan of brevity.

You can also see this predilection for brevity in how the Dude seeks the least complicated solution to his problems in contrast to his ever elaborating, scheming, heat-packing friend Walter (John Goodman).

 But, more than that, the Dude's a fan of whatever works. Be brief if you want, his life illustrates for us, but if you'd like to tack on a few more syllables he's cool with that, too. It's the same flexibility he shows when at Maude's house he finds no half and half to add to Kahlua to create his signature White Russian, so he uses Coffeemate.

The 69-cent check. Financial brevity a la Dude

Thrilling Conclusion
The Spartans' cultivation of the laconic phrase serves as an example to me that brevity can be a beautiful thing. If what I want to say in conversation can be condensed and said with the fewest possible words, it can have more impact than an over-garnished torrent of language. And it leaves me more time to listen to the other person.

The year 2011 seems to be beckoning me to do this sort of thing in my verbal communications.

I wish to speak less and listen more.

As for writing, it is the Dude who has given me permission to go the other way. To not necessarily always be into the whole brevity thing. Here's why.

Certain human thoughts, insights and passions seem to deserve more respect than what can be offered by a string of words that are short enough to fit on a bumper sticker or the screen of a mobile device. They require more than two intakes of breath and a sign off on a blog post to do them justice. What they need is elaboration, meditation, and extensive relocation of one's mind to a mental space where one can dwell with them.

Meet the Culture Bandit

As slam poet Vanessa Hidary says in her classic Def Poetry Jam Season 1 performance of  "The Culture Bandit":

"Some people think more is less. I say more is more. Less is less!"

The hard truth is that as much as we extol its virtues, brevity at some point offers diminishing returns. Eventually what wishes to pass for brevity begins to approach vacuity. You get what you pay for.

Make no mistake. I hear the outcry of those who say no one has time to read anything l-o-n-g anymore. Perhaps this is so, but I'm reminded of an old phrase used by customers of honest butchers or other tradesmen who sold their goods by using a scale to acquire the size  portion the customer wished to buy. The customers said, "He (or she) gives good weight."

Writing that is brief, and seems to offer content but leaves the reader with a minute or so of eyeball movement, nothing they'll even remember an hour later, and then the reader moves on, is the modern equivalent of the writer putting his or her thumb on the scale. See right here? It's ten pounds of real mental sustenance (wink, wink).

It's not giving good weight.

It's a promise of sixty-nine cents inscribed on the piece of paper, a promise that ought to be for much more or why go to all the trouble to use ink and write a check in the first place? Instead, put down the pen; just lay your handful of coins on the counter and go.

I believe I'd rather say something at a bit greater length and not have anyone read it, than write down-sized, lightweight fluff and be one more soul around the globe stuffing the Great Internet Fortune Cookie with slivers of what passes for human thought and feeling.

So, El Duderino, thanks for showing me. That I'm not really into the whole brevity thing.

Brief in speech, but not always brief in words. That will be the Van Winkle resolution for 2011. - V.W.


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