A quick note on "show vs. tell": This weekend, we watched "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood's take on a grumpy, old, white man's journey as he comes to terms with a changing world. It's a pretty good flick, visually rich and morally compelling. But I was a little worried after the first few minutes, when the movie opens at the funeral of Walt Kowalski's (Eastwood) wife. Walt snarls like a badger as a gaggle of giggling, sloppily dressed pre-teens and teenagers slide into a front aisle. Clearly, his grandkids, particularly when we see their parents sit behind them and glance worriedly at Walt. Great - we see Walt's character (uncompromising) and his family's indifference. But then, the movie goes and tells us all the things it just showed us so well. One of Walt's sons leans over to the other and grumbles how nothing is ever good enough for Dad, and did you see how he looked at Ashley. Um, thanks Mr. Eastwood, but I think we got you the first time.
The movie snagged in that way a few more times in the beginning, but eventually it took off and let the acting and the camera show us what the story was about. Phew! I mention this here just as a reminder to all of us that even the greats, in great pieces of work, can hit the wrong notes.
A brief example of masterful "showing," from Alan Furst's amazing Night Soldiers:
He found it an hour later. There was old wainscoting by the door, poor-quality wood with the varnish flaking off, and as he moved the lamp the shift of angle in the light revealed the marks. He moved his fingers across the wood, confirming what he saw. She had, after all, left him a message. He sat down heavily and cried into his hands for a long time. He didn't want anyone to hear him. Time and again he touched the wall, traced, with agonizing slowness, the faintly marked outlines of the four scratches her fingernails had made as she'd been taken through the door.