Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Symbolism in MASH: now it can be told

Every so often I’ll read an article or term paper or passage in a book that references a MASH episode my partner and I wrote. The piece is most always complimentary; sometimes overly so. But invariably the authors will analyze the episode. They’ll identify the symbolism, how when Hawkeye hangs up his laundry he’s really representing the Anti-Christ, and they’ll find all kinds of mythological parallel, subliminal messages, and odes to other works of literature. They’ll compare Klinger to Jane Austin, find significance in jeep license plate numbers, and detect hidden codes in Radar’s dialogue.

I’d like to be able to shrug my shoulders and say yes, all of that is in there. David and I write on many levels. Our scripts are challenging intellectual puzzles to be solved by only the most advanced sophisticated minds. Thanks for noticing.

I’d like to say that but it’s all bullshit! There’s no symbolism in our MASH scripts. There’s no attempt to send covert messages in Hawkeye’s Groucho routine. Sorry, we’re not that deep. We were just trying to write a funny show with substance and heart. Our goal was to entertain. Period. Even the Viet Nam comparisons to Korea – we never pointed to that. We didn’t have to.

There are series that do consciously employ symbolism. LOST for example. MAD MEN for another. Pay attention because every detail has added importance. I love both of those shows. And I’m always thrilled when I catch one of these symbolic nuggets. But don’t go looking for them in MASH, at least in our years. They’re just not there, folks. We used names of ballplayers, former girlfriends, and my family dog, but that’s about it.

People have deemed MASH a television classic and I’m humbled and grateful but at the time we were making the show we never for a moment thought we were writing a “classic”. We probably would have been paralyzed if we had. Or, at the very least, pretentious as hell.

And it makes me wonder -- all through school our teachers have analyzed and interpreted the crap out of great works of literature. We’re tested on intent and correct meaning. Well, what if the teacher has no fucking clue what she’s talking about? What if she has no idea what the author was trying to say? Or worse yet, has grossly misinterpreted it? If my personal experience has taught me anything it’s that books and plays and scripts and Billy Joel records may in fact be just what they seem.

I imagine if you asked Shakespeare about the ambiguity of HAMLET he might say, “Yeah, about that. I was really slammed for time. I figured I’d just clarify during rehearsals but something came up. The Globe needed some repairs and I had to interview a few contractors. Jesus, those guys will soak you. But people seem okay with the play as it is, so what the hell? Plus, I’m working on my next and that bad boy just does not want to fall into place.”

The next time you watch one of our MASH’s, trust me, I will be more than pleased if you just laugh at the jokes and enjoy the story. There’s something wrong when the viewer spends more time analyzing a script than the writer.

Update: Check out the comments section. There's a lively discussion on whether writers include symbolism even when they don't realize it.

Update 2: Now included in the comments is a note from John Rappaport who oversaw the writing of MASH for the last four seasons.


Jennifer said...

If it makes you feel any better, as a high school English teacher, I always tell my students we don't know what Willy Shakespeare meant because he's dead. If only he'd had a blog to clarify it for us.

Thank you for your insights. Always entertaining!

Larry said...

Hate to change the subject, but I have a question. A few weeks ago you told us not to watch the latest film from someone as reprehensible as Mel Gibson. Just wondering if you'll do the same for Roman Polanski?

Word Verification: nonsunme. How to refuse a tanning salon.

Dave Lifton said...

"And it makes me wonder..."

That's a reference to Stairway To Heaven. There's gotta be some deeper meaning in this blog post!

Anonymous said...

David Lee here, still refusing to sign in on Google. Ken, my friend, on one level I'm with you here. But I have become convinced that underlying meaning and symbolism can sometimes be imbued in work without the author's conscious knowledge. I have had people point things out to me in some stuff I've done where I had to admit, "Wow, I never intended that, but now that you mention it..." I think it is the nature of creativity, not all of which is controlled by the conscious mind. This in no way diminishes my feelings, however, that a few college media profs are full of shit.

Chris Hansen said...

I second what Anonymous/David Lee said - I was about to log in to say essentially the same thing. It's not always about intent -- good writers imbue their work with stuff that they aren't even aware of, and analysis and interpretation doesn't just have to be about intent. It can also be about looking at what's there, regardless of intent.

Unknown said...

That's exactly right. You've said it now, John Lennon said it years ago. The people who actually believe there could possibly be the type of symbolism you suggest early in this piece in a thirty minute sitcom are deranged.

Sure, if you really wanted to you could place all that symbolism in something if you wanted to. But a lot of those things you mention seem to be that they would fall more under the direction of the art department or director in some cases anyway.

It's a TV show. Most songs I listen to-and I know and listen to thousands upon thousands of songs-probably 150 different ones from all eras and all musical styles in a given day on average-are just that. They're songs. The writer is relating an idea. But the idea is to be direct as possible. Symbolism defeats that-of course there are exceptions but the job of writing a hit movie, a hit TV show or a hit song is tough enough without trying to add in obstacles like that at every turn.

Mary Stella said...

So, Ken, what you're saying is that I should stop playing the episodes backwards?

Nathan said...

I had a class during my freshman year of college where we'd sit in this room in horrid old creaky wooden desks watching silent films and then listen to our prof. pontificate about what the films really meant. I'm still pretty sure those train robbers blew up the safe so they could get the money out of it.

For most of the semester, a friend and I sat in the back row and took turns bringing a thermos full of martinis. Thank God the drinking age was still 18 when I was in school.

Rinaldo said...

David Lee said it for me. Sure, plenty of those finders-of-meanings are full of it. And symbolism, as such, doesn't do much for me anyway. But don't rule out that there may be layers and connections beyond what you consciously put in.

I think it's almost a definition of an outstanding creator (writer/composer/whatever) that they put more into their work than they consciously realize. At the moment they're creating it, they make a choice because it "feels right," and they don't care why, they're just trying to get the job done. But why does it feel right? That's where the genius (or well-practiced craftsmanship, if you prefer) comes in.

One of my favorite composers would get exasperated when reading analyses of the subtleties of his work, and grumble "Apparently I have a very clever subconscious." Well, of course he did. Maybe you do too.

Ted said...

Really puts the kibosh on Dan Brown's next book. Robert Langdon's TiVo was gonna solve some pretty big mysteries for us.

Unknown said...

That brings up an interesting point now that you mention Dan Brown (would never read any of that obvious BS he writes or have any desire to watch the films) about all the symbolism people put into The Bible and all the endless analyzing they put into analyzing what certain verses mean-there are an awful lot of people that make that their life's work and they think they're getting closer to God. I probably get closer to God hearing the Nine Inch Nails song of the same name once every couple weeks than they do. It's just insane what people will write, think and do in the name of religion and religious symbolism. I do like Landover Baptist (satirical church website) they seem to have a much clearer meaning of the Bible's actual interpertations than any of these complete nuts that spend their days writing and answering the many religious blogs I've seen on MySpace, for one.

Mark Potts said...

Many years ago I attended a meeting of a very academic group devoted to the analysis of popular culture. Paper after paper was presented on finding all sorts of symbolism and hidden meanings and subtexts in all sorts of then-current movies and TV shows.

I finally asked the organizer, "Um, why don't these scholars just call up the people who wrote these shows and ask them what they meant?" And the guy shrugged and said, "Because they're all English professors."

Chad said...

There's an Isaac Asimov short story I read years ago where Shakespeare is somehow brought into the present, takes a class on Shaakespeare and flunks it.

john brown said...

I remember an old Bob Dylan interview, might have been in Rolling Stone magazine, where the interviewer asked a long and convoluted question about the lyrics to on of Dylan's songs. Searching for what he was really trying to say.

Dylan's response was something like, "I'm just tryin' to make it rhyme."

D. McEwan said...

Next you'll be telling us that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, when we all know better.

I have to sign on the the David Lee POV here. I've had too many cases of waking up and having revelations about where my story was going, and then discovering that stuff I wrote in it earlier perfectly sets up what I had no conscious idea I was setting up, not to know that the real creative work is done below the conscious mind, and we just get to know about it when it offers it up to us. I learned to trust that, and to find how to put myself into a state when writing that lets it come up, instead of blocking it off.

and I sometimes find, when rereading my own work later, sometimes even years later, that there are levels, including symbolic levels there that I never consciously intended, but that are there nonetheless.

As one teacher of mine once put it, Melville may have had no idea how deep Moby Dick was.

Trust the work, not the artist.

All that said, it can be fun when we see someone take something way too far into analysis. That episode of Dhamra and Grace may not have actually shown the secrets of the mind of God, and maybe Duck Soup isn't a profound exploration of the human soul.

But then, maybe it is.

Jayne L. said...

There is absolutely *nothing* wrong when the viewer spends more time analysing a script than the writer. Aside from the very good points made about the unconscious contributions writers/musicians/etc make to their work (you never know how smart you are until someone else points it out), keep in mind that there are people in the world who just find such analysis adds an extra bit of fun to their experience of the work in question. (People with English degrees who've found zero practical use for their hard-won Analyzing Skillz in the Real World, for example. Or the devoted members of that most dreaded segment of any given audience: fandom. [Academia and fandom may be separate entities, but they can and do overlap--often with hilarious results.])

If a viewer can find enough depth in a TV show to roll about in happily like the proverbial pig in...let's go with "slop"...I say good on 'em. And good on the show's creator/writer/production team for making something that can engage the brain beyond simple passive consumption.

[/former English major] [/fannish type] [/wordy broad]

CAPTCHA: "platudd" - the sound platitudes make when they land.

i could be a bob said...

I wrote a fantastic paper in college how Cheers was "the hotbed of American communism." Where everyone knows your name. Indeed.

My professor saw through the tongue in cheek writing. Drat.

Unknown said...

I suppose it is true that when I write sometimes there are much deeper things going on than which I am aware. Indeed the entire writing path and project was completely unplanned and it was only highly unusual real life situations that even compelled me to do so and I had absolutely no idea what I was doing at first but I did it anyway.

There have been several times entire segments appear in my mind as if an epiphany and while I do not believe in the God of the Bible whatsoever the things that set this in motion and continue to happen are so bizarre that what is going on is likely at least partly driven by something that is much greater than myself. I always felt that way from the very moment I met the woman who is the model for the central character.

So there is more going on in my writing than I am aware and the path is the most bizarre thing I have ever experienced in my life by far.

By Ken Levine said...

I see what David Lee and everyone are saying about your subconscious mind adding layers you may not be aware of at the time, and I agree with that. Especially if you write from a place of honesty. And I'll agree to any theory that makes seem even better than I am.

But I think there's a clear distinction between that and consciously inserting symbolism and double meanings into your script. And again, there's nothing wrong with that. It's half of why I devour LOST each week. And if there wasn't symbolism in AMERICAN PIE, then Don McLean just wrote an incoherent mess.

And the fun comes when we try to determine whether the symbolism in question was conscious or subconscious. Did Arthur Miller name his lead character in DEATH OF A SALESMAN Willy Loman because he was "low man" or Miller just opened the phone book and pointed to a name with his eyes closed?

len dreary said...

One can write a essay on symbolism in Dora and the Sad Red Daffodil or in Jeff Corwin Meets Godzilla.
The 70's were full of university courses that did exactly that except they also cultivated an elite dictionary of important nonsense words that made the punters feel they were getting more bang for their buck.

MASH was symbolic AND funny.

Unknown said...

The human brain is a massive computer designed to make sense out of nonsensical inputs. We do this by the manipulation of symbols. Words are symbols.

That writers and artists make use of symbols in their work all unaware is an insight both trivial and profound -- even sacred and profane.

Not every drummer has to die to make his ghost tap dance along your spine. Sometimes all he needs is a high hat if he can catch a ride.

Neither is every indivisible Inuit an apolitical Aleutian, sometimes the words just want to play.

len dreary said...

I'll bet ten bucks that Hawkeye Pierce) as a name for a surgeon didn't come from the phone book.

blogward said...

When I hear art critics talk about an artist's 'intentions', I scream quietly, "he was just trying to pay the rent, you moron!". But Ken, don't you often find when writng, or trying to write, that the same phrase will come up coincidentally in daily conversation, or on the TV or something? It must be that you're unconsciously listening for the phrase, or that your brain is in a particular 'pattern-making' mode.

WV: rescret = secret regret

By Ken Levine said...

I find this discussion fascinating.

Erin -- very well said. I'm guessing you're a writer too.

blogward -- The creative process is a fascinating mystery to me. I have no idea how I do what I do. But I'm sure, as Erin suggests, the computer in my head connects the dots. And those dots may be stray thoughts, phrases I may have heard, who knows?

But the key is paying attention to the world around you and recognizing and storing information for later use and hope the computer can store it in the right file.

YEKIMI said...

I have [correction...had] a friend who we used to watch The Simpsons when he taped it and every damn week he went through the opening of the show frame by frame convinced they were hiding secret messages in it [like when Maggie gets scanned at the store register he was sure there was a secret message flashing on the register display]. He the started doing this with other shows, then started running the shows in slow motion to see if they were slipping in subliminal messages so it ended up taking 1 1/2 hours to watch a 30 minute show. I quit going to his house when he started that shit. I should have figured he was going off the deep end because now he is convinced that EVERYTHING going on all over is being orchestrated by the New World Order. I stay away from him just in case it's contagious .

carol said...

I've always felt Shakespeare added 'exit, pursued by a bear' in A Winter's Tale because he couldn't figure out how to get rid of Antigonus, caught sight of the nearby bear pit and said, 'meh, that'll work.

Anonymous said...

From Jan:

I agree with David Lee, Chris Hansen, Rinaldfo, and D. McEwan. Sometimes the author doesn't even realize what's there. Trust the text. If you can support what you say with examples from the text, it doesn't matter if the author says he/she had the exact opposite viewpoint. It's not what the author "intended" to say, it's what was actually said that's important. (BTW, I'm an English major.)

Tony said...

"Especially if you write from a place of honesty."

"If there wasn't symbolism in AMERICAN PIE, then Don McLean just wrote an incoherent mess."

I'd go with an incoherent (not to mention dishonest) mess: Buddy Holly died in a BLIZZARD in the middle of winter, yet Don could drive to the levy and find it dry?

PatGLex said...

Before I go ahead and read the other comments, I just want to say that the reason I didn't go to school to become an English teacher (despite my college English instructors' pushes in that direction) was because of the situation you mention in your column: anyone's writing is open to interpretation, and how the heck do I know what they meant to do? :-)

My major? Well, I started out in math education, and realized that I didn't want to become a teacher. So I switched to journalism (still writing), and now am in publishing, where I get to work on books where other people make grand philosophical interpretations of other people's works. LOL.

thomas tucker said...

Mark- great story. I majored in English in college and finally got tired of the mental masturbation, so I ended up going to medical school.
wv: khish. A smooch from someone with poorly fitting dentures.

Paul Duca said...

To Len Dreary....I don't know how the man who wrote the original novel of MASH (no astericks) got his character's names, but he did pick his pen name in honor of how he played golf--Richard Hooker.

To Tony...the image in AMERICAN PIE "drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry" I understand means wherever the narrator was located. That is in intriguing intellectual leap of yours to take it as representing a pilgrimage to the actual crash site of the doomed plane.

Emily Blake said...

I'm with Jennifer. I just tell the kids it's up to them to decide. The other day I was actually teaching Hamlet and a kid practically had a melt down because she wanted to me to tell her whether or not Hamlet was crazy or pretending and I told her I didn't know.

She really wanted me to tell her.

Tom Quigley said...

Well, I guess this whole discussion kills my theory of I LOVE LUCY being an allegory for mankind's fall from grace... BTW, anyone listen to "DARK SIDE OF THE MOON" lately?....

Jonathan said...

As a media professor (and on who is hopefully not full of shit)I want to add something here. Any person who claims to have insight into an author's intentions better have some good evidence to back it up. Which is why I try to interview television writers and producers if I'm talking about their work (hint, hint, Ken...I'd REALLY love to do an interview with you). But, as many here have argued, sometimes "intention" is sometimes different than the product. This seems especially true in the case of a highly industrialized form of creativity like television, where a writer's vision may or may not be what makes it onto the screen in your home.

What I try to do in the classroom is 1). highlight what the production process is like (i.e. ground a television show, film, advertisement, etc in the material context of its creation), 2). encourage students to approach any textual analysis first on the terms that the "text" (the series, the episode, the film, etc) offer you, 3). Go ahead and look for "deep structures" that seem to be driving certain kinds of stories, series, genres, etc. For instance, while the King of Queens isn't really very rewarding if you are looking for symbolism, it may be a good example for thinking about larger social and cultural questions: for example, how do situation comedies of the 1990s tend to construct marriage as an institution? How do these representations speak to earlier representations in shows like The Honeymooners or All in the Family? How are they different from other forms? Or how does a show like Will and Grace actually represent homosexuality in contemporary society? What might this series tell us about the larger social and cultural tensions bearing down on that debate. Certainly not everything? But perhaps something.

To put it more directly, looking for symbolism seems like a waste of time, unless the author really intends for you to do so (Ken's example of Lost and Mad Men work here). Any media studies professor worth her/his salt wouldn't spend too much time on it. BUT, popular culture IS an excellent "tool for thinking" about some of the big ideas of our day because the products of popular culture are built upon widely held assumptions (whether intentional or unrecognized) about who we are and what matters. While popular forms are rarely as complex and intellectually sound as we might like them to be, they do tell us something about ourselves, if we're willing to do the hard work of asking good questions.

I hope I teach my students that anyone who thinks they can unlock the secrets of the creative mind will surely be brought up short by reality. But that as long as they are aware of that, they should feel free to ask the bigger long as they keep their feet on the ground and their heads out of the clouds.

RikerDonegal said...

I don't think the author/artist/whatever is the authority on their own work.

Sometimes, I feel, they pour their heart and soul into it without every understanding what it's really about. Deep down.

So the subtext, the deeper meaning, is always there. Always.

Anonymous said...

I have been insisting for years that Animal Farm is about talking animals. And that's it. My high school English teachers did not take kindly to this theory.

alkali said...

There is symbolism in the MASH scripts, but it's so straightforward that you might not even recognize it as such. Radar's teddy bear is a symbol. The name "The Swamp" is a symbol.

Pauline Kael once said of Citizen Kane that it was a "shallow masterpiece," suggesting that the symbolism and other literary devices in the film were not complicated but extremely well chosen. Radar's teddy bear is a simple, very well chosen symbol.

Annie said...

You remind me of one of my favorite movie scenes, I think it was Annie Hall (too lazy to look up anything, just going on memory) Woody Allen is in line at the movies and behind him some pretentious twit is going on and on about the true meaning behind some author's work that Woody is familiar with. Woody turns and challenges the guy, saying he's wrong, and the guy replies, "But I'm a prof and I teach a class on this author, so I know of what I speak, you foolish non-prof" yatta and Woody pulls the author himself out from the side, who goes on to pwn the prof, saying, "You know nothing of my work, absolutely nothing".


Woody mugs for the camera, saying, "Don't you wish real life were like this?"

I LOL every time I see that scene.

Will-i-am Shakespeare said...

I was deeper than you think!

Jeffrey Leonard said...

"Mash"...not so deep. "Monster Mash" very deep!

alopecia said...

Isaac Asimov once sat in on a college class (could have been a graduate seminar, I don't recall) that discussed the deep meanings to be found in one of his stories. He found the experience deeply irritating and at the end of the discussion went up to the professor and politely informed him that there were no deep meanings in the story.

The professor regarded Asimov for a moment and replied, "What do you know? You're just the author."

(Word Verification: quann. Isn't that what Kirk yells in the second Star Trek movie?)

emily said...

There must be a bazillion web sites where fans disect LOST on a daily basis. I'm sure the producers have a ball loading those little mind traps in there every week.

By Ken Levine said...

John Rappaport oversaw the writing on MASH from the time we left until the series end. I asked him if he or the other MASH writers layered in any symbolism during his tenure. Here is his answer:

"Ken, its a scary thing how they want to add brilliant meanings to things. Alan Alda and I wrote an episode called "The Life You Save" in which Winchester becomes absurdly fascinated with death when he is almost killed by a sniper's bullet. So, he subsequently goes to the front and dramatically asks a dying young soldier what he was experiencing. Alan and I then wanted to insert a totally meaningless response to completely mystify and bewilder Charles. We came up with the soldier saying, "I smell bread." Then he dies. Satisfied with our "shaggy dog" ending, we took a break and had a snack. A week after the show aired, I got a letter from a high school civics teacher, who wrote that she devoted an entire class period to discuss the meaning of "I smell bread." And, they reached the conclusion that it represented "The second coming of Christ."... Other than that piece of metaphysical brilliance, nothing immediately comes to mind."

Unknown said...

It is true that in Breaking Bad Season 2 which is a brilliant series that there were clues all season long that led up to Walt being indirectly responsible for the crash of the 707 over Alberquerque that people dissected continually on the web and Vince Gilligan wrote in an interview with a New Jersey newspaper (I forget which one-probably NJ that he did deliberately put those clues in there. I didn't care about it much I just wanted to enjoy the series.

In the Cutting Confessions script among other bizarre things the numbers 11 and 17 play a huge part in the script as they did in real life but in a subtle way (they're winning roulette numbers towards the end and anyone knows the odds of winning two rounds in straight up Roulette are 1 in 38 times 1 in 38-almost impossible-anyway, 11 and 17 played a huge part in real life for some reason and for the life of me I can not remember why now. But they get their representation in the film that way and as far as what actually makes them significant since I can't remember (and the real life details would probably be mundane in comparison with the rest of the story) I'll have to make up why this is so.

Kevin Broom said...

Fascinating discussion. I ran into this when a short story I wrote got dissected in a creative writing class. I thought I'd written a straightforward story about an old horse trainer finally getting to see one of his horses win the Kentucky Derby. My classmates found layer upon layer of symbolism. They said it was an allegory for something or other.

I was astonished -- it was a story about a horse race and an old guy winning after a lifetime of disappointment.

I had similar experiences with something as simple as writing about basketball. I'd report things players had said -- simple quotes -- then find my readers finding hidden meaning and intent behind the words.

All of this leads me to agree with David Lee and several others. Whether it's intentional or not, ALL stories are symbolic in nature. Even if we writers don't concsiously use symbolism, our readers will find it. As a writer, I find that encouraging and liberating. Because now I don't have to be "brilliant" by intentionally creating symbolic depth -- my reader will do it for me.

benson said...

I read all the MASH novels as a teen, and I believe "Hawkeye" gets his nickname from "Last of the Mohicans".

I'm surprised no one has mentioned some folks saying Gilligan's Island's characters represented the seven deadly sins. That's right, little buddy!

wv: hypogra...the really good Viagra

Kirk said...

I hate to get off the subject, but that drawing of Shakespeare was by the cartoonist David Levine, who died recently.

Any relation?

thomas tucker said...

Kevin- seems to me then that the interpretation says more about the person doing the interpretation than it does about the author or the work. It acts as a Rorschach test.

Anonymous said...

David Lee again. It isn't exactly the same thing, but relates to what people see or don't see in a TV show. On WINGS every once in a while we would do a story that was based on a play or novel. This was to amuse ourselves (we were easily entertained) and, quite frankly, to just get another friggin' story out. I remember an episode we did that used the basic structure of a favorite play of mine, Friedrich Durrenmatt's "The Visit". Tyne Daly starred. Another was based on Thornton Wilder's "The Bridge of San Luis Rey." Started with the plane going down, then went back to see how seemingly minor decisions led to each character being on board that particular doomed flight. How it relates to this discussion, I guess, is that not one person has ever recognized the source material--or if they have I haven't heard of it. And now back to my couch.

Matt Bird said...

I was watching "Star Trek" one day when I suddenly realized something-- Kirk was the Id, Spock was the Ego, McCoy was the Super-Ego, and most of the planets they went to represented real-life emotional challenges. Each episode was a metaphor for the internal debate within a person when confronted with a new situation.

Does this mean that the writing staff was necessarily thinking of the show like that? No.

Later, I was watching "House"-- an episode before he replaced his original interns. He was on a plane with a sick passenger and he could no longer think straight without their chatter in the background, so he appointed three of his fellow passengers to adopt the personality traits of his interns-- self-interested, skeptical, and compassionate. Or: the id, the ego and the super-ego.

Dr. House had come to the same conclusion that all dramatists do- it's easier to work out a problem if you create a dialogue of extreme points of view.

Scholars find symbolism in drama not because the authors put it in because the most naturally dramatic dialogue comes from concocting an external conflict that also symbolizes an internal conflict. "Star Trek" did it. "House" does it. I'm sure "MASH" did it too.

Or, in other words, the whole idea of dramatization is based in symbolism, whether the writer is thinking about it or not.

That said, a lot of scholars are idiots, absolutely.

MikeM said...

Great Discussion!

If you really think hard about symbolism in everything, I believe that we think too hard about life.

You know how during Lent the Christians are supposed to have meatless Friday's? I think it was because one of the biblical author's Mother told the author, "Help your brother out-the fishing business is tough. Put something in their about giving up meat once a week!"

Anonymous said...

In 1974, I was in the 8th grade - as naieve Radar O'Reilly and my english teacher made us listen to "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon (over and over) and write about what we thought clouds in your coffee meant.

To this day I don't know the answer.

Maybe I should have written that it smells like bread. Warren Beaty, I'll bet he smells like bread.

thomas tucker said...

No, he smells like broad.

Charlie Brown said...

Hi Mr. Levine-
I have a question on this topic, as I am writing a paper on "The West Wing." I know you didn't work on this show, but I was wondering if you could say anything about potential parallels to actual presidencies and if you think they were intended or accidental. Thanks.

D. McEwan said...

Annie, yes, it was Annie Hall, and the author was Mashall McLuhan, so it wasn't a discussion of a fictional story, but of McLuhan's theories of media aesthetics, which is hardly the same thing as discussing hidden meanings in fiction. (And I didn't have to look it up. Although it's been over 25 years since I last saw the film, that scene is still vivid enough to remember it was McLuhan without resorting to looking it up. Great scene.)

Yekimi, I sypmathize. I have a dear friend whose years of crystal meth abuse left him increasingly paranoid. Although he has kicked the drug, the paranoia remains. He is convinced that the Illuminatti, the Skulls fraternity, and a vast, centuries-old set of conspiracies, runs everything. I tried watching INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS with him, but he was off on how it all showed how Speilberg and Lucas were in the conspiracy with Bush and Obama (He believes the Bushes & Obama are in it together. Anyone in any position of power is in the conspiracy), and eveyrthing in the film was a symbol of the Illuminati. He sends me aerial photos of traffic islands to show how the hedges have been shaped into "The All-Seeing Eye" symbol, "PROOF" of the conspiracy, although how shaping hedges in traffic islands into arcane symbols only visible from above would further this consiracy's aims is beyond me. I took him to Disneyland last year, and we saw helicopters fly overhead. Unfortuantely, they were black. "You see those helicopters, don't you?" he asked me. When I confirmed that I saw them, I was told how they were black ops rehearsing to impliment the Obama-Bush-Illuminati plot to round us all up (appranetly the entire population) into the camps when he "takes over." At Disneyland, everywhere were symbols that showed Walt Disney was in on "it." And of course the eyes all over INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF THE FORBIDDEN EYE sent him into panic mode. The idea that a secret conspiracy to take over the world would probably not paint symbols annoucning their presence and intentions all over everywhere did not sink in.

The mind's ability to find patterns and meaning in everything is a terrible thing when it turns on itself.

Again, trust the work, not the artist. Poor old right-wing, arch-conservative Robert Heinlein was made miserable and angry when his novel Stranger in a Strange Land became a Bible of sorts to people who found in it meanings that were highly opposite to his own. He found himself a guru to people he was revolted by. (I'm afraid I was among them. I read it the first time at 14, and it changed how I thought about everything. I reread it over 20 times. More than any other one book, more even than Catch 22, that book altered my life.)

Now whenever I smell bread, I'm going to have a panic attack. Thanks loads. I used to love the smell of fresh-baked bread.

Paul Gottlieb said...

Don McClean himself explained the meaning of "American Pie" perfectly. "American Pie," he explained, "means I only work when I want to."

Buttermilk Sky said...

A couple of years ago I wrote what I meant as a parody of critical theorizing about popular culture. Reading it again, I'm not so sure.

End of commercial. Fascinating topic, Ken.

rhys said...

Rodney - the interview with Vince Gilligan you are talking about was done by Alan Sepinwall, TV reviewer at the Star-Ledger and prolific TV blogger at Very good reading for anything TV related. The interview is here:

bevo said...

I will add an observation before finishing with a comment.

While getting my MA at the University of Iowa (please, no applause), I had the misfortune of sitting through a postmodern theory class. My buddy and I referred to it as "Making Up Shit As We Go."

In modernism, we defer to the creator for meaning. In this instance, we would ask Ken Levine or John Rappaport about a particular phrase, blocking, or prop. Ken or John would then provide the meaning.

In postmodernism, the meaning resides in the consumer. That is, we as the viewer decide and agree on meaning for Radar's teddy bear.

Yes, this thought represents how critical thinking has been turned on its head in the Humanities. And these guys wonder why they cannot attract students beyond the survey courses?

A comment to John Rappaport: thank you for clarifying the "I smell bread" line. I saw that episode in the original airing as a kid. It has haunted me ever since.

As an undergraduate, I took a world religion class. The professor talked about creation, life, and death for major religions. One religion believes that you gain perfect clarity at death.

Now, I was probably stoned for that day's lecture but I do remember thinking, "perfect clarity smells like bread." I am pretty sure I then wrote a short essay for that course using this theme. And if memory serves, I was stoned when I wrote it.

Hmmm.... bread.

Jonathan said...

A question about John Rappaport's example: thought the civics teacher was certainly over-reaching in her analysis of the meaning of the line (probably just high on the excitement that her students were willing to talk about something in class), couldn't a case be made for a reading of that line as somehow resonating with a larger theme of the show: the meaninglessness of war and the death that accompanies it? In other words, why did you make that decision to include a "shaggy dog" line like that? Was it just a gag? I'm guessing not. So, it must have served SOME purpose. Certainly not as grand as the second coming of Jesus. But the series (and the film and the novel) DOES encourage a viewer to contemplate the absurdity and meaninglessness of war.

I have to say, I've really enjoyed this conversation, but two things have really stood out for me. First, a palpable disdain for teachers -- college professors specifically. Why? I know it's fun to take pompous clowns down a few pegs, but most of us are pretty regular folks (with actual skills even) who have chosen to make a living in a certain way because we enjoy learning and researching and sharing what we find out.

The second thing that stands out is the desire of so many creative people to deny that their work has any real meaning. Why would you write a story about an old horse trainer who finally wins the race of his life if it didn't mean anything? Why would you write for a television series if you weren't trying to reach an audience on some level (through a shared sense of meaning) via humor or melodrama or tragedy?

Anyhow, I really do think this is a fascinating conversation. Kudos to Ken for sparking it to life.

p.s. my verification word was "commi". Has blogspot been reading my diary again?

Annie said...

D. McEwan to Annie (it's) hardly the same thing as discussing hidden meanings in fiction.

Uh...I never said it was the "same thing". I was just reminded of the scene and thought I'd mention it.

And I'm baffled at the tone of the rest of your comment to me as well. I mean, it's great, I guess, that you remember all that information but did you really mean to come off like such a haughty bastard?

Because you did. :(

You know what really pisses me off? I won't be able to see that scene anymore and feel the same way about it. I'll remember you and how you responded with "well, you know, Annie, that isn't the same thing as what we're talking about at ALL. Not only that but I remember EVERYTHING about it and I didn't even have to LOOK IT UP, NYAH NYAH NYAH and blah blah blappity-blah" and then instead of laughing at the scene the way GOD and Woody Allen intended, I'll be thinking about what a dick you were to me.

And that really sucks.

By Ken Levine said...

My only problem with teachers in this regard -- giving tests based on their conjecture of meaning. Taking off points if students don't get the answers "right". Otherwise,I love teachers!

And again, to clarify on a personal note: Yes, everything I write is designed to have meaning. And I'm always asking the question "What is this REALLY about?" If I can't answer that question I don't start writing. And within the context of the script I do assign meaning and subtext to certain things or actions -- a la Radar's teddy bear -- but more often than not they're to better inform you about the character. You try not to have a character baldly say what he's thinking, so you use behavior and certain items to fill in the blanks.

But that's different from slipping in additional meanings and references.

Re Post Modernism -- I have no problem with people assigning their own meaning. If you can personalize a piece of art and it speaks to you on some level that's great. We all do that with songs. Just don't mark off points because your meaning is not the same as someone else's.

Unknown said...

Well clearly for me there have always been messages and morals in Cutting Confessions because a number of them and the story itself have had a huge and direct impact on my life-there are probably five life lessons and morals in the story-getting there has been very tough in that I mean taking the idea from point A to point B to point C on paper and in my mind has hardly been easy. On top of that it required learning a skill I didn't think I would ever use in any serious fashion-writing.

The extremely frustrating part is a lot of it is for naught thus far without an agent-also, every single thing that's been done so far is me and no one else. While a number of my ideas are extremely solid as is the story itself, the fact is it would benefit with input from other more experienced writers who would know how to connect certain plot points better and to punch up existing dialogue and scenarios.

There's no doubt in my mind that I'm now a writer and not only a writer but a writer with some pretty unusual stories that will translate well to screen and print. The problem becomes convincing others of that, especially those who ultimately control the purse strings that want to know that what they read and what they see can generate a profit and just as importantly a valued catalog item which has always been my intention for both Cutting Confessions and the TV series idea which utilizes my love and knowledge of Top 40 music and other music using the period of time when AM radio was the undisputed king of reaching an audience and how in the words of Joe Pesci narrating Casino "We had it all they gave us the keys to the kingdom and it all fell apart. It was the last time guys like us were ever given something that valuable." To take that basic idea and run with it over six seasons or more telling the story of how the consultants and business managers basically screwed the golden goose by squeezing the life out of Top 40 when the guys that really took it the highest level were the Landeckers, Lujacks, etc. of the business and how the bean counters become the very thing that in essence destroys the very thing they thought they would improve. But, naturally, over the course of those six or seven seasons or whatever it is all the creativity, good times, and top music of the era come to life. Like Mad Men, but about 70's radio with the type of quirky storylines that are over and above reality sometimes-but not all the time, because the idea is to keep it believable for the most part, that you see in Nip/Tuck for just one example.

D. McEwan said...

Re: disdain for college professors: Back in college, one semester I took a course in literary critcism, and a course in theatrical criticism. Since the roots of both these related fields lie in Aristotle's Poetics, this was asensible thing to do, as both classes were studying the same book at the same time, cutting my reading load in half.

But is also meant that I was being taught the same work by two different professors at the same time.

You'd never know it was the same work. They had radically different interpretations of the work, its meaning, and its importance. One felt it an important work, the other felt it was out-of-date and of only academic interest, to be studied historically and then rejected.

And not-too-slowy but very surely I came to realize that the professor who valued it was teaching me interesting and useful insights, while the "This-is-dated" professor was full of crap, didn't know what the hell he was talking about, and not-infrequently got his facts wrong as well as his theories.

Over four years I had a number of classes with each of these men (They were number 2 and number 1 respectively in our Theater Arts Department, and that was my major), and I was directed in multiple stage productions by each. I found the former, the department's number two man, was consistently a better teacher, and a better director than the other, the head of the department, who was a major bullshit artist, not nearly as knowledgable as he pretended (I lost count of how many times I caught him out in factual errors), and was a dreadful, indulgent theater director. Also, pretty girls in his classes quickly learned that sitting up front in very short skirts got them better grades from him. (The good teacher was gay, and very private about it.) He was, however, good company for a stoned evening of bullshitting. By the time I left college, their positions in the department had reversed.

Way too many professers like that lousy one is the reason people dump on college professors.

Jonathan said...

Ken, yes, that would be crappy teaching. Anyone who insists on their own interpretation to the extent that they would penalize students for thinking differently ought to find another profession.

And I really appreciate your point about the difference between fleshing out a character and making overt references/allegories/etc. For my money, that's what separates good writing from tortured writing. Thanks again for this conversation.

D, McEwan said...

"Annie said...
You know what really pisses me off? I won't be able to see that scene anymore and feel the same way about it. I'll remember you and how you responded"

Why would you grant me all that rent-free space in your head? Should I ever watch Annjie Hall again, I certianly won't be giving you a thought, because I'll have dismissed this comment from memory.

Maybe if you gave more headroom to rememebring facts, and less to remembering perceived slights (I just typed words. You supplied the mocking tone yourself), you'd remember such a "favorite scene" accurately.

And there is no God.

Annie said...

No worries, D, my memory is obviously so bad, I'm sure I won't be remembering this exchange the next time I see Annie Hall anyway.

And I didn't watch Annie Hall in order to remember facts but to *laugh*.

I read Ken's blog because *I want to laugh*.

When I DON'T want to laugh, I can always find someone like you. (Now, see, THAT was funny! me...*grins*)

D. McEwan said...

"Annie said...
I'll remember you and how you responded ... and then instead of laughing at the scene the way GOD and Woody Allen intended, I'll be thinking about what a dick you were to me."

6:28 PM

"Annie said...
No worries, D, my memory is obviously so bad, I'm sure I won't be remembering this exchange the next time I see Annie Hall anyway."

7:02 PM

Well make your mind! Have I scarred your enjoyment of Annie Hall forever, or just ruined it for 30 minutes? Sheesh! You flip-flop faster than Senator Bohner on Healthcare. Whichever position you think you gives you some high moral ground is the one you'll adopt.

You're too insignificant a fly to remember --- what was I talking about?

Pick a position. I'll accept that I'm a dick. It's not a new accusation, but for heaven's sake, which prick am I? Be consistant.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Analysis and criticism of works can change over time, so sometimes the analysis and criticism can say as much about the consumers and their socio-psycho-religio-economic epoch/world as it says about the work itself. Should we then analyze the analyses, and then analyze the analysis of the analyses?


I entertained some drunk frinds of mine (well, I was drunk, too) one night by explaining that the Wizard of Oz was actually populist satire, and that Die Hard was an expression of American frustration at loss of world standing. It's fun!

But I always thought the 'message' to MASH was that sometimes an appreciation and embrace of the absurd was the only rational response to a world gone savagely nuts. The show didn't need symbolism; its theme was played out in human stories.

I loved that show, and I wanted to be Hawkeye Pierce. But I've grown up now, and I think I'd rather be Alan Alda.

Unknown said...

I agree your subconscious can build links and solve problems you may be unaware of and appreciate those who go the extra mile and build stories with layered meanings. But I know people over analyze shit.

In college we weren't allowed to make suicide movies, dripping faucet films as my professor called them. Far too boring to sit through anymore. So the challenge was laid. No one would complain if I made an action suicide film. Hah!

My idea was to have two sides of a suicidal student's personality, the one that wanted to die and the one that wanted to live, chase each other around campus. Every shot was first person…a subconscious ode to your MASH episode? Great fun making. I was either chasing a guy with a camera in my hand or being chased and shooting over my shoulder.

Since this was shortly after the discovery of fire, we still had to process film. In the soup something went wrong and the film had a strange shimmer throughout. My film was ruined. And, since this was college, I had procrastinated until the day before it was due and could only submit what I had.

Apparently everyone else saw a different movie. They found it incredible I put their spirit between them! The student's SOUL was in the balance!

I was a genius. Genius I tell you.

Jayne L. said...

Certain bits of this discussion remind me of that Frasier episode where Martin befriends one of Frasier and Niles's favourite authors, a reclusive genuis with only one novel to his name. The boys get hold of the author's draft of his second book, read it, and pronounce it even more brilliant than his first, due to its echoes of Dante's Divine Comedy; the author, who had been completely unaware that his narrative structure paralleled Dante's, is disgusted with his perceived plagiarist hackery, and burns the entire manuscript, vowing never to attempt writing again.

Judging by some of the comments here, I'm starting to wonder if this episode was based on a true story.

I'm always bemused by the general resistance to the idea of TV shows as valid subjects for analysis, from writers who maintain they just threw something together to get a paycheque. Is it humility? Self-esteem issues, as in the Frasier ep? Why so resistant to being fawned over for your intellectual and/or artistic prowess (and/or utterly unintentional, coincidental brilliance)?

Like a few others here, I was taught to leave the author out of the picture entirely when looking at a work: authorial intention/personality/beliefs/etc may or may not have influenced the finished product, but it's the text itself that's the point of examination--the text, how the text interacts with its audience, how the text informs or is informed by the society/culture that is its timeframe, how the text does or does not recall other texts, etc.

Sure, if you're not careful, media analysis (and literary analysis, and political analysis, etc etc) can degenerate into truly, eye-rollingly impressive displays of intellectual fappery. Still...deep down, Writer-Type People...doesn't it kinda make you feel good? ;)

CAPTCHA: "imines" - Apple's controversial first step into creating armaments for the war industry.

Speedman said...

I tried to read all seventy-one comments and didn't see the precise term mentioned, so I'll point out that Wikipedia has a decent entry on the intention issue that I don't know how to label into a link:
It was a fairly early generation of lit professors who claimed we should not privilege the author's statements about intention, as part of the New Critics' trend of trying to look only at the work itself--what the writer said is outside the work. It's not the author who's guilty of fallacy, but those who trust the author's statements of intention as the only authoritative meaning.

The thing about found symbolism, authorial intention and college professors is that it's the professor's job to train the students to argue for their interpretation: structure the points, provide the evidence--it's a rhetorical task, ultimately. Persuade the audience that your interpretation is plausible. What an audience of humanities professors finds plausible may be quite different from a general audience's standards. Positive feedback loops, the kind where you interact mainly with people who resemble or agree with you, can lead to wildly unrealistic views.

Again, since I didn't see anyone recount it, I loved what I heard Tom Stoppard say about critics finding symbolism and such in his work: He said it was like being in line at Customs and they open your bags and find all sorts of contraband and summon the police, and all you can say is, "Officer, I have to admit it's there, but I don't remember packing any of it!"

Rock Golf said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rock Golf said...

So did Radar's teddy symbolize he had a thing for hairy gay men?

Speaking of dumb criticisms of M*A*S*H, this one appeared in an comment yesterday (on, of all things, Conan opening a Twitter account):

That is what I really don’t like about Leno, he really does only “safe” comedy, very bland. Its like comparing 30 Rock vs MASH – 30 Rock will be hilarious becasue it tries different things and I cannot stop laughing whereas MASH was more of a “comfort” tv show – people became familiar and comfortable with the characters and that is why they watched, it really was not funny, maybe a chuckle here and there.

Wow! If there were ever a less "comfortable" humor on a network sitcom than M*A*S*H, I can't think of it.

Friday question: Could a show like M*A*S*H make it on network TV today? I'm assuming the budget was reasonable, but could the content get approved?

Unknown said...

This really got me to thinking yesterday as I rode the train to Pasadena about all the responsibilities I have as a writer (even though so far my work hasn't been published or filmed but it will) and how people are going to dissect the things I've written (especially since Cutting Confessions partially takes place in a psychiatric hospital with two brilliant and somewhat eccentric people in their own rights as the main characters) for a long, long time to come-definitely longer than I will ever be alive which is the case for anyone who writes something that leaves a mark as has Ken and many of his contemporaries. It's pretty fascinating to think about and something up until now I hadn't really given any thought.

Roger Owen Green said...

D. McEwan, Annie - you're giving me a headache.

I was talking to someone about a Social Media seminar, and the problem was that the participants would get so snarky that the positive aspect of the gathering would fall apart.

Annie said...

D, you wanted to know what kind of dick you are (I'll refrain from using your coarser term).

A pompous, bombastic rather floppy one.

Charles H. Bryan said...

As related to MASH, I'm afraid of further analysis because it leads to this question about subconscious choices:

Ya named him 'BJ'?

Edward Copeland said...

Sometimes the writing process can amaze the writer himself. I've been playing around with an unconventional autobiography. I'd written the intro months ago. When J.D. Salinger died, everyone was reprinting his famous first paragraph from The Catcher in the Rye. I hadn't read the book in more than a decade but when I went back and re-read mine, I realized that my opening contained a similar beat and tone to his. It's amazing what gets lodged in your brain and comes rolling out unconsciously. It wasn't meant to be an homage, but now it reads that way.

Anonymous said...

I think that it's still instructive to note that nobody is going around digging for deeper meaning in lame thirteen week wonder series with predictable plots, mannequin casts and stock plots and jokes in the scripts.

It's still a compliment to you, Ken, as well as to the rest of the team that made MASH seem so much like real life, or a life we would want to experience, that people would be willing to make the emotional and intellectual investment necessary to infer symbolism where it was never implied.

Unknown said...

I should clarify-I always believed the things I write will outlive me and make an impact on others-the part that I hadn't thought about before was people dissecting the words.

D. McEwan said...

"Annie said...
D, you wanted to know what kind of dick you are (I'll refrain from using your coarser term).

A pompous, bombastic rather floppy one."

Annie, you owe Roger Owen Green an asperin.

"Prick" is "coarser" than "dick"? I missed the day when they were graded out that finely. Of course, I'm not a cranky, thin-skinned old gramma, just a pampous, floppy dick, so what do I know? I'd rather be what you consider pompous, than you.

You had to start it up again. Well I can do this all day, old lady.

By Ken Levine said...

Kids! Play nice!

Annie said...

My husband says to me (he sez, he sez, lol) "Sweep the leg Johnny"

And I say...

I've read more and I understand more.


Good night. :)

taryn nicole said...

lol, wow, and to think i just watched the show for fun. it never even occured to me for one second to analyze anything. i guess its because i just like to kinda zone out and just enjoy the program and just not use my brain at all. might be a bad thing, who knows?

Johnny Walker said...

This is a fascinating discussion... although I stumbled across it several years too late. I still can't help but throw my oar in -- I came across this discussion, maybe someone else will, too.

In Annie Hall, Allen originally wanted Fellini instead of Marshall McLuhan, which really would have been more appropriate. The person behind Allen in the queue would completely "misunderstand" one of Fellini's films and the director would appear to prove Allen's interpretation right.

The reason this is interesting is because there's a school of thought that says, even if the author declares what their story is about, it doesn't mean they're right. The author is a slave to their own instincts, and try as they might to consciously say one thing, they may end up saying another...

And that's exactly what happened to Allen with Annie Hall.

To this day he's still disappointed with Annie Hall, and how it failed to reach the lofty heights he'd set for himself. In fact, he still considers it one of the biggest failures of his career.

Fans of the film think differently.

Unknown said...

Peirce......Cutting wit
Honeycut.... sweet wit
Burns........ Always hot under the collar
Klinger...... Barely holding on mentally
Flagg...... Always waving it
Potter.......Dowding old man
Spearchucker.......'nuf said
Winchester........always going off

No symbolism? C'mon.