CB 106.2: ”Narrative and Stories,” as described by Marc Maron, Jesse Thorn, Errol Morris, Lawrence Weschler, and others.
Following this train of thought on narrative and story, while writing this I recalled Jesse Thorn had discussed this same point subsequently during another interview. Of course at first my recollection wasn’t so succinct. Did I think of this on my own? Is this an original thought? No. Did I read it in an article? Was it in a film review? It was in the Werner Herzog interview. [listens to Herzog interview] No, it was not. Eventually Thorn’s interview with author Lawrence Weschler came to mind. Towards the end of the interview Thorn brought up the concept of narrative. They both almost simultaneously brought up Errol Morris’s short documentary (only 6 minutes and worth checking out), “The Umbrella Man,” which dealt with an oddly dressed man, as Thorn describes it, “holding an umbrella standing next to the spot where Kennedy’s motorcade is passing as Kennedy is shot, and he appears in the Zapruder film and was for many years the subject of huge amounts of speculation on what this guy’s role was.” On an otherwise clear day, he appears to be the only person in Dallas with an umbrella. Thorn continues:
Thorn: And so naturally there were [years] of people projecting everything on to this point of information. They have this one datum which is this man is holding an umbrella and he shouldn’t be … And the human mind wants to make that into a story. Wants nothing more than to make that into a story because it does not fit the pattern of our expectation. And we want to make anything that doesn’t fit the pattern of our expectation into a story of some kind.
As it turns out the individual later came forward and, as is stated in the film, claimed “it was a protest at the appeasement policies of Joseph P. Kennedy, John Kennedy’s father, when he was ambassador to the court of St. James in 1938/39. It was a reference to Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella.” Nothing remotely close the conspiracy narratives (including the umbrella rocket launcher pictured above) many proposed. It’s the degree to which reality was disconnected from the assumed narratives that makes this such a great case in point. The primary narrator of the film, Josiah “Tink” Thompson, relays John Updike’s reaction:
Thompson: He said that his learning of the existence of the umbrella man made him speculate that in historical research there may be a dimension similar to the quantum dimension in physical reality. If you put any event under a microscope you will find a whole dimension of completely weird, incredible things going on. It’s as if there’s the macro level of historical research where things sort of obey natural laws and usual things happen and unusual things don’t happen. And then there’s this other level where everything is really weird.
Moving on from “The Umbrella Man,” Thorn talks about how there exists a commonality among filmmakers—at least when being interviewed—to identify with being a storyteller, and how being a storyteller strikes at something very basic within us. It gives us “a real rush in our brains because it’s supposed to be there, like it’s the thing that makes us really good at hunting or whatever, and it makes me really worried and uncomfortable that this goes on in all of our brains uncontrollably and is this powerful bias in our lives towards narrative. Unless it’s narrativized it’s not absorbed, and if you narrativize something that isn’t rational, it will be absorbed.” Weschler counters:
Weschler: There’s an interesting problem. I would phrase it differently, I would phrase that in most of our lives we are treated like robots; we are treated like Pavlovian dogs. And I find on the contrary that the capacity for narrative—for experiencing things as narrative and for getting a rush out of the narrative—is actually kind of hopeful in that context … I think in much the way that your gallbladder secrets bile and your pancreas secretes insulin, your brain secretes stories, and that’s not frivolous, that’s great.