First, listen to this 6-minute song (you can skip through but I don’t recommend it):
For those of you who skipped it, what you have are 3 chords cycled over and over again: G then A then Bm. It’s a scalar step up that feels like a step down, but the point really is that it goes on and on and on. I’m a devout Bill Callahan fan—or I have been, I no longer am, and what’s changed is what I’m writing this post on forms in artmaking to find out—and this song is my favorite of his, probably, from what’s historically been my favorite of his like 49 records.
When I listen to Knock Knock I’m once again living alone in an attic apartment in Pittsburgh, cooking freezer-aisle pierogies or Wishbone-marinated chicken breasts on the gas stove in the tiny alcove of my kitchen, or I’m washing plastic plates in the wide shallow sink, this record playing across the room on the turntable I keep under my cabinets, next to the microwave my parents bought when I was 7. Callahan’s cycles are cycling, and I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life now that I’m out of school and all of my school friends have left Pittsburgh for bigger places. Those were lonely years, and I was deeply, woefully closeted to myself, but I can look back on them fondly.
The point: what Smog songs did for me was strip art formally bare and still present an enormous lush world rich with emotion. The form is this: put 2 or 3 chords together, repeat that forever, and then either throw a new chord in, briefly, or shift to a one-line refrain that resolves the tension of repetition as surely as a tonic chord resolves a dominant seventh. More than the romance of Bill Callahan’s world—a world of horse textures and river-longing where each of us listeners becomes a quiet traveler alone in our thoughts far outside of towns—my fandom was built on this minimalism.
Bill Callahan is different now. Now he’s rhapsodic:
Rhapsody or collage? The new idea is that there’s this part of the song, and then once it’s established it’s time for a new part of the song. Then let’s do this. Then let’s do this. Let’s end once some effect is achieved.
If “River Guard” is a poem, or a prayer, “Breakfast” is an essay. Why don’t I like it?
What I mean by “is an essay” is that one formal characteristic of the essay is that it has no set form. Essays don’t have prosody to break down their wholes to component parts, and they’re unlike narrative which has causal progression and a “beginning, middle, and end.” Essays’ formlessness disturbs basically every student I teach: we all want someone to give us a structure. I try instead to teach the embrace of formlessness. It’s a feature of essays, not a bug. (I’ve written about this before.)
Now watch this video with Callahan pal and labelmate Will Oldham, where he talks to schoolkids about how he learned songwriting practice:
Oldham’s idea is “why try to reinvent the wheel” when the classic form of songwriting “works”. “The only reason it has to be new is you want to claim something for yourself,” he admits, which is true of most artists. But, newnesses are possible within old forms. If you skipped the above video, here’s the song he gives as an example (and then elaborates more on the idea afterward):
I don’t need to spell out all its newnesses. The great big useful point Oldham makes is that once you’ve established a familiar form (in this case by following a verse with a chorus) then you can get away with unfamiliar content. “Anything you want to put into a song can work when you put it into the song.” You can be weird or dark or unusual in what you sing and how you sing it, because the form indicates to wary, unsure listeners that they’re still on steady ground, and something of what’s expected will soon return.
Anymore Bill Callahan keeps his ground unsteady. I don’t think he’s stopped singing about rivers and horses and brambles, but his forms’ songs feel less to me like worlds I’m invited inside and more like landscapes blurring out the window of a train I’m on, one that’s not stopping anytime soon. I was open to this years ago, and maybe I’ll need it again soon, but not this year.
So what does this have to do with essays? And what does it have to do with Hallmark Christmas Movies?
Well, everything. I’ve said before that HCMs are like sonnets—or probably I said that they are as formally predictable as sonnets—and lately I’m trying to figure out if I’m an HCM formalist or something else. (One flaw in English is that there’s no adjectival equivalent for “content”. That is, we’ve got nothing good to complete the analogy, form : content :: formal : _____. “Semantic” comes close, but not close enough. “Material” is closer.) Maybe I’m an HCM materialist.
If HCMs have 9 acts, then Act 1 is “Demonstrate the Woman is good at her job.” Last night we watched an HCM where the Woman was Lacey Chabert and told a shopowner in Brooklyn how a judge ruled that the owner of his building can’t legally raise his rent, so he won’t have to close the store that’s been in his family for generations. The Woman is good at her job of Being A Lawyer. Before that, we watched an HCM where the Woman had a hairless cat’s face and told a panicking bride-to-be that red and white roses would make a far better bouquet than the white peonies her flower shop was out of. The Woman is (questionably, for those of us not in the target audience) good at her job of … it wasn’t clear what her role there was but you won’t be surprised to learn she leaves that job by the end of the movie to plan events at an enormous wintry inn.[*]
I’m going to do my best to list every job I recall the Woman having in an HCM:
- Event Planner
- Cafe/Coffee Shop Owner
- Bookstore Owner or just small-scale retail shopowner in general
- Reporter/Online Content Producer
- Lifestyle Blogger
- Scavenger Hunt Designer
- Lawyer (rare as hell)
- Teacher (rare as hell)
- Executive Assistant
- Violinist (twice this year alone!)
We haven’t watched the one where Holly Robinson Pete plays the titular Christmas Doctor who has a background in the military, but there’s a doctor-soldier for you. My point here is look at that list. If you know anything about HCM formulaicness it won’t surprise you—the oldest joke about HCMs is how baldly aspirational their Womans’ jobs are, how they seem to flatter something the target audience secretly believes about themselves.
That’s the form. Why can’t we all imagine different content to fill it?
Hallmark has done something pretty special these last few years, which is use the textures of yuletide to make a form as formulaic as the romantic comedy far more baroque than it’s ever been[**]. But not too baroque that the rest of us have had any trouble absorbing its nuances. You don’t need to watch this entire 6-minute commercial for a deodorant that wants you to use it on your “private parts — front and back!” but look at how they pack in all the acts:
We watch an HCM as steadily as we hear a verse-chorus-“middle-8” pop song. We always know what will happen next, so why not make what is happening now more interesting?
I’m not getting at a point, I know. What am I saying? More and more I’m watching Hallmark squander the treasure of its form. I think they are extremely insecure about the reasons people watch and what keeps them coming back for more. I think they have a real fear that if the Woman’s job isn’t aspirationally fun or cute or challenging-but-not-too-stressful, then they’d lose viewers/money.
Why, for instance, have I never seen a nurse in an HCM? I’ve seen far too many soldiers, but none of them has been the Woman. I’ve never seen a Woman be a cop (thank God), but this absence has nothing to do with what cops have become in the dominant imagination after 2020’s exposure of their decades of systemic violence and abuse, and everything to do with Hallmark failing in its imagination of what people will readily watch over the holidays, and how the magic of relating to a protagonist works.
N & I are in disagreement on this, and characteristically I probably in my heart believe he’s right. Last night, we watched the Man and Woman walk into a bakery, and there on the floor were big circle-stickers set 6 feet apart from each other, in a line back from the counter, indicating where people should safely stand in a pandemic, and my heart surged and I literally sat up in my chair. I rewound it and verified what I was seeing—evidence. Something real in the fakest of TV worlds. (Never mind that everyone in the packed bakery was maskless, because no pandemics exist in the HCU.)
I repeated to Neal my old complaint that none of this year’s HCMs has even acknowledged the circumstances of this pandemic, and N asked how I think they could do that. How could they do Almost Kiss with masks on? How could actors enunciate their lines and do carol songs during Town Square Christmas Tree Lighting Applause Scene? And obviously they can’t. If the magic of an HCM lies in its content, the HCM falls apart, but I don’t think it does.
So, finally my point, which is Will Oldham’s point: when your form is strong enough your audience will follow you, and don’t conflate your content with your form.
If you demonstrate the Woman is good at her job and then disappear her to a location outside her routine where in time she’ll help a Niece-Daughter with a seasonal creative project, we will watch them do this with masks on, or with unglamorous jobs to have to go back to, or with a skin color that isn’t white and speaking sometimes a language that isn’t English. We will accept aggressively grumpy people or outright horny ones, we will feel less alone. Or I will. I’ll be grateful that Hallmark has in this way said yes to the pain and confusion I feel about being alive right now.
I’m not even getting into the sex-positive HCMs I can imagine, or the HCMs about working-class people living paycheck to paycheck in ever-unaffordable cities. That we don’t have any made-up stories to watch—on Hallmark or any channel—about us living safely together in a pandemic, that we have only the news of this, is one part of why we’re not living safely in this pandemic.
“Once I realized that formalism was on my side,” Oldham says in the above vid, “it made going to work every day a lot easier.” I’m hoping to teach this in the spring, in my Nonfiction Studio course (I’ve abandoned the MFA workshop model, probably for good, a topic for another post). I’m hoping to spend some time thinking very hard about the forms of the essay—and I don’t mean “the braided essay” or the (ugh) “hermit crab essay”.
I mean essay forms that all of us know as well as songs and HCMs. Does that mean only the 5-paragraph essay taught in most high schools? Well that’s the big one. The toast is another. The prayer. If all an essay is is the written-out portrayal of a thought process, putting ideas out there and coming to some new understandings, we do this all the time, and I want to see what happens to my and my students’ writing once we sign on to a form and unanxiously honor it. If you don’t have to worry about losing your reader, where might the art you make take them?
The essays of late Bill Callahan are not, turns out, what I go to music for. Without formalism I need dynamism, I want the sonic equivalents of a sex worker being disappeared to a small northern town over Xmas and finding not just clients but love, and Callahan is keeping his voice steady, and guitar picking understated, and what’s left are his incredible lyrics. (“With kisses / sweet as / hospital grapes”). His newer songs sound the way my students’ early drafts read and the way HCMs feel to me now: magical at times, but hopefully on their way to somewhere better.
- Probably we’ve watched 5 HCMs since I last live-blogged one, and the only thing I can say about my not writing about any of them is that isolation and not seeing family over Xmas has been hitting me hard, and I’ve had little motivation to do anything, and a side effect of this has been to hourly convince myself of my worth-/use-lessness, so to the five or six of you who seem to be enjoying these writeups I apologize. But I also think you aren’t missing out on anything enjoyable. I might be out of things to say.↵
- Though if you watch 1949’s Holiday Affair with Robert Mitchum and Vivien Leigh you’ll be amazed at how many of the HCM acts and tropes they cover, even down to the Woman’s debate between Sensible Man She’s Meant To Marry and Irascible Handsomer Kook She Can’t Stop Thinking About.↵