NORMSTOR-Y

September 14, 2018

 

I just put on Talking Heads 77 - the debut album of David Byrne's musical enterprise. I've heard Talking Heads before, playing from the artsy speakers of friends cooler than I am. Psycho-Killer was a regular jam of a band that used to play college gigs. I guess I'm late to the concert, as usual. To be honest, I found Talking Heads pretty boring up until now. They were just so normal. The lyrics seemed to be speaking about nothing-issues, and David Byrne's voice is not exceptionally beautiful. To me, David Byrne sounds like an accountant who, tired of his grey life, has found himself at a K-Town karaoke bar, drunk an arsenal of sake bombs, and took to the stage to to live out his dream of being David Bowie for one night only. 

 

And therein lies the beauty of Talking Heads, I suddenly realise! The normality of Byrne's voice, the almost awkward guitars and confusion of his lyrical explorations speak to the insanity of 'normal' middle-class life. The repression of every office worker, whose signature animal call is a sigh. The struggle of keeping up with the Jones', of feeling pressured to desire Things like cars and houses and an authentic set of Japanese chef knives. Talking Heads treat normality as a subject for art. 

 

I think this is a challenge for films - and storytelling in general. There are certain authors who do this kind of 'normcore' narrative very well -- David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo spring to mind -- but there's an absurdity to the banality of it all that their postmodern prose can exploit. Those who have conquered Infinite Jest will know what I mean, or indeed White Noise. But film finds this harder; visual storytelling tends less towards concept, and more towards event and action. It's more visceral, less intellectual; and it suits a gunfight better than it does a 10 minute scene of someone shopping for detergent brands at Walmart. I'm not entirely sure why. But it presents a challenge -- how do we tell 'normal' stories visually so that they access deep emotion? 

 

American Beauty or Office Space offer possible examples, but even these stories contain high drama with a suicide, a high-stakes robbery, and naked teenagers. These are not situations that most of us encounter from day to day. What about the despair of trawling the Facebook feed once 4PM rolls around at the office? Seinfeld made a career out of this kind of material, but it never reaches down to our emotional cores. The Office of course is superb - but we have time to get to know the humanity of its characters over the course of seasons of material. Mumblecore, the Canadian normcore movement, attempted normality, but I find those films unspeakably boring. And filled with a certain niche 'alternative' cuteness.

 

So: how do we tell the story of the office worker in compelling, intense, heart-breaking and smile-cracking honesty, without resorting to stylisation? What is the filmic version of David Byrne?

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