Throw down your thesis
Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2009
In my beginning writing classes, the one idea I spend the most time on is something that’s often called the thesis statement. It isn’t enough that a college essay—or any essay, or any piece of writing, or film, or play, for that matter—have a topic. It has to have a specific thesis within that topic. The thesis statement is like chess or go—it takes a few minutes to learn, and a lifetime to master.
It doesn’t have to be long or complicated, but it does have to be a specific assertion. “My summer vacation” is a topic. “My trip to Disneyworld last summer was the best vacation of my life” is a thesis. (“My summer vacation, the first my husband and I took in our twelve-year marriage, saved our relationship” is an even better one, but we don’t always have as much drama in our lives as a writing class would like!) One sign of a bad thesis, or no thesis, is boredom in the face of crisp prose and strong action—when readers don’t know where the story is going, it’s impossible to keep their interest.
Once you have a thesis, you know just what to write—what to include, and, equally importantly, what to exclude. Unfortunately, a thesis doesn’t always come to us tightly wound, whole, and perfect, like a new ball of soft colorful yarn. And so sometimes we start in, thinking we’re writing about one thing, and it turns out we’re really writing about another. I once heard the writer Liz Braverman say, writing is a product of the struggle “between the words in your head and the words that come off the page.” The path to a thesis sometimes looks like the ball of yarn after the cats have played with it all afternoon.
I tell my students that often you don’t know what an essay is about until the first draft is done. When you read the draft over, think about what the thesis of the actual essay—the essay as it exists on the page—is. Then reread the essay with an eye to what comports with the new thesis and what does not. Every section, every paragraph—and eventually, after the final polishing, every sentence and every word—ought to advance the thesis in some way, so add and subtract accordingly.
Which brings us to Throw Down Your Heart, a documentary film about a trip the musician Béla Fleck made to Africa. It opens today, but I saw it back in November at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2008 Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival.
First, let me say that it was a wonderful evening and a wonderful show to watch. And the film is destined to be popular, and well-liked by anyone who likes Fleck’s kind of music, or just the wonderful sounds that can result when one culture’s symbols are made to clash with another’s. The movie gets an astonishing 8.1 out of 10 on IMDb, though only 15 people have voted, and I notice it won an audience award last month at SXSW, among others listed on the film’s website.
How could one not love a film named for a story that when men from Africa’s interior were brought to a certain coastal port in Tanzania, from which they would be shipped overseas, never to see their families again, they were advised to “throw down their hearts.”
That said, Throw Down Your Heart fails as a film. It fails for the same reason many of my students’ essays fail—the failure to rethink and rewrite the work, after the true thesis emerges from the first draft.
The film’s original idea was apparently to take the instrument Fleck is most closely associated with, the banjo, back to Africa. It was described that way in the promotional material that drew me to the AMNH. It’s described that way in the IMDb blurb: “A film crew follows the well-known banjo player Béla Fleck on his travels to Africa, where he learns about the instrument’s origins.” This thesis is still expressed in the movie’s trailer: “Where the banjo has come from” “A lot of people associate it with white southern music,” “There’s an instrument [in Africa] that may be the original banjo,” etc., and it’s expressed in the first few minutes of the film.
And indeed, throughout, the movie contains vestiges of that thesis, including the intinerary that forms the backbone of the narrative, taking Fleck and the crew through four candidate countries for the origins of the banjo (Uganda, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Mali).
In looking for the precursors to today’s banjo, some of which are instruments that are still played in Africa, Fleck encountered extraordinary musicians, some famous, some known only within a single village but of world-class caliber. It was, perhaps, inevitable, that the movie would devolve into a celebration of those musicians, and Fleck’s interactions with them, including a couple of terrific duets and other performances in which Fleck not only plays the banjo with them, but some of the precursor instruments as well. And that’s fine. But that’s a very different movie.
Worse still, there was a third thesis available to director Sascha Paladino, hinted at in the movie, and it is in fact the movie he should have made. The AMNH viewing ended with a Q & A with some of the film’s crew. In the course of describing how hard Fleck worked, we were told that he stayed up far into the night trying to learn new forms of music and getting the hang of those African instruments. Fleck didn’t allow those late-night moments to be shown.
It’s understandable that an eight-time Grammy winner wouldn’t want to be seen making bad music late at night with unfamiliar instruments he had only just been given. But the story of one of the world’s great musicians struggling to master new instruments and new musical forms would have turned a enjoyable music travelogue into an unforgettable musical odyssey.
The New York Post put up a short review of the movie yesterday that unwittingly gets it exactly right. “The movie is at least 20 minutes too long,” the Post wrote—an extraordinary thing for a review of a 97-minute musical film in which the music is called “infectious.” (Karina Longworth, in a generally very favorable review at Spout.com, agreed, calling it “somewhat overlong.”) Boredom is the inevitable consequence of a defective thesis.
The anonymous NY Post reviewer also wrote, “Fleck fails to provide any personal charisma.” Exactly. By withholding Fleck’s failings, the movie withholds its central character. Béla, if only you had thrown down your heart.