But (as the author of Discours sur les ombres said in reference to another lamplight): I know (je connais) a few (quelqes) readers who will jump up, ruffling their hair.
(preface to Invitation to a Beheading)
We are getting the New Yorker again. I have recommended the magazine for its prose before, and the other night, while reading Nancy Franklin's review of the new HBO miniseries "The Pacific", I was literally struck by an especially well-crafted paragraph. It made me sit up and ruffle my hair and call out to my wife (who teaches rhetoric and composition), "You gotta see this!"
There are nighttime battle scenes that last as long as ten minutes in “The Pacific”—an attempt to give viewers some sense of the unrelenting, terrifying reality of it all. This artistic decision echoes the one that Spielberg made in showing us almost half an hour of the Normandy invasion at the beginning of “Saving Private Ryan.” But authenticity in a war movie doesn’t depend exclusively on the accumulation of gory detail; it also requires emotional and psychological realism. Here, when Basilone dies, the camera pulls up from the splayed body in an aerial shot, as if the angels were lifting him up to Heaven, while generically elegiac orchestral music plays, and then cuts to a shot of his widow with a sunset in the background, as the music comes to a sweetly sad resolution. The scene is a lie about death. (The New Yorker, March 15, 2010, p. 70)
This morning, I want to try to understand what makes this such a great piece of prose. First, let's summarize what this paragraph is saying about the television show that is being reviewed: "The Pacific" lacks authenticity. A slightly more detailed summary would add that it lacks "emotional and psychological realism". The brilliant thing about this paragraph is how it gets that message across.
It begins with two sentences that establish "authenticity" as a relevant criterion for judging the show. Notice that it does this by showing, not telling; the word "authenticity" is not used in those two opening sentences. But by describing an aspect of the show in question and recalling a similarity to a movie made by one of its producers (and starred in by the other), the third sentence's "But authenticity..." makes perfect sense. It is so natural to start talking about authenticity at this point that we don't even notice that the concept is only now being introduced. And it is nicely introduced in a sentence that explains how the concept works and what its application depends on. We are now ready to watch a scene from the movie that violates the principle that has been articulated.
This happens in a single sentence that provides what is really the substance of the paragraph. Let's take a moment to appreciate that sentence in isolation:
Here, when Basilone dies, the camera pulls up from the splayed body in an aerial shot, as if the angels were lifting him up to Heaven, while generically elegiac orchestral music plays, and then cuts to a shot of his widow with a sunset in the background, as the music comes to a sweetly sad resolution.
The first four words efficiently tell us what sort of scene it is. (It is what Ezra Pound would call "the simplest possible statement" of "we turn now to a scene in which one of the characters in the show dies".) The sentence then evokes first a visual and then a musical image, and then repeats this sequence a second time. An inconspicuous comma separates each image. The images do all the work themselves simply by juxtaposition. There is no explicit judgment in this sentence, no subjective evaluation of whether it is a good or a bad scene. It is presented as entirely objective description—and let's assume that it does not distort the scene in question. Still, "generically orchestral" and "sweetly sad", as well as the utter conventionality of the two images, suggests a tone of mild condescension, a note of sarcasm.
All the elements are now in place. The paragraph has articulated an aesthetic principle and has committed the object of analysis to it (the principle has been shown to be relevant). It has described a scene that can be evaluated on its terms (which, again, is convincingly the show's own terms.) And in that description, most readers will already have understood that the scene fails to achieve "emotional and psychological realism". All that is left is to close the paragraph—to realize the potential that this arrangement of sentences represents.
Franklin chooses to express terse indignation. The show does not just fail to be "realistic": it lies. It does not just lie: it lies about death. It takes real ability to express this kind of indignation in writing. The paragraph brings together the wholly serious ideas of "authenticity in a war movie", "emotional and psychological realism", and "a lie about death". Like I say, in my opinion, it brings them together brilliantly.