What Can We Steal From Trapped in the Closet?

Title of Work and its Form: Trapped in the Closet, feature film?  I don’t even know.
Author: R. Kelly (on Twitter: @rkelly)
Date of Work: 2005 – present
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The first 22 chapters have been released on DVD. The Independent Film Channel has also created a site at which you can view each installment.  (Thank you, IFC!)

Bonuses: If you’re having trouble following the Trapped in the Closet saga, the humor site Something Awful has created a study guide to help you out.  Cool: the brilliant Chuck Klosterman wrote an essay about the work!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Tension

Discussion:
Trapped in the Closet, to some extent, defies description.  The saga begins at seven o’clock in the morning, as the rays of the sun wakes Sylvester, a man who spent the previous night cheating on his wife.  In short order, her husband comes home, only to confess that he is also cheating.  Sylvester’s life seems to have been a fun whirlwind that was under his control.  Now, however, he is trapped in a series of increasingly outlandish conflicts between increasingly outlandish characters.  The only real way to understand Trapped in the Closet is to clear an evening and watch the whole saga with friends.

Here’s the central dilemma of Trapped in the Closet: a lot of is is genius, and a lot of it is really, really bad.  No matter what, you can’t stop watching.  (Please: don’t die having seen Trapped in the Closet, but not having seen Citizen Kane.)  What should a writer do when confronted with a work of art that has serious flaws, but soars to such ridiculous heights of beauty?  If there is a genuine creative spark behind the work, there’s at least one thing to appreciate about it.  Can you really dispute that R. Kelly clearly loves his work and has spent a great deal of time trying to create the best hip-hopera that he can?

I’ll go a little crazy if I write about every installment of Trapped in the Closet, but I thought I might offer thoughts about some of my favorite installments.

Trapped in the Closet – Chapter 1

R. Kelly begins the saga at the beginning of the protagonist’s day.  As I noted in my essay about the pilot of Cheers, this is a felicitous choice because it mimics the way we all experience life.  This is THE DAY SYLVESTER’S LIFE CHANGES FOREVER, so why not begin the work where it does?

“You’re not gonna believe it, but things get deeper as the story goes on…”  R. Kelly and his narrator (also R. Kelly?)  delight in their roles.  They recount the story with enthusiasm and they know that they are on a ride with the audience—and it’s a wild ride.

Most of the chapters end with a cliffhanger, and the first chapter is no exception.  Chuck is opening the closet door as Sylvester readies his gun.  R. Kelly certainly gives us a reason to keep watching.

Trapped in the Closet – Chapter 9

Officer James is confronting his wife, Bridget.  The woman is clearly hiding something and James is quite determined to uncover what is going on.

If you’ll notice, R. Kelly sings the voice of each character differently in the same manner that a parent changes his or her voice when reading to a child.  Each different voice lends characterization.  For instance, we wonder where is Bridget from.  Pimp Lucious, introduced in a later chapter, has a pronounced stutter.  (The stutter stops up the drama somewhat, but at least it keeps things interesting.)    Each of your characters should be granted the same individuality.

At one point, the officer remembers that his wife is allergic to cherry pie.  The fact that the cherry pie on the table is missing a piece confirms his suspicions that Bridget is cheating.  At first, I thought the detail was a kind of cheat.  Oh…Bridget just HAPPENS to be allergic to cherry pie.  Why would a wife make a pie that she can’t share with her husband?  Well, it turns out that Mr. Kelly explained this in a previous chapter.  We’re told that cherry is Officer James’s favorite kind of pie.  (Come on, now; who doesn’t love cherry pie?)  Because R. Kelly gave us specific foreshadowing of that clue, it seems perfectly reasonable that a wife made her husband a pie she can’t eat.  Why?  Because it’s his favorite?

The narrator LITERALLY stops the story as Officer James opens the cabinet underneath the kitchen sink:

Now pause the movie because what I’m about to say to y’all is so damn twisted

Not only is there a man in his cabinet, but the man is a midget…midget…midget…

This move is very interesting because the narrator is explicitly STOPPING THE NARRATIVE.  I suppose some folks could argue that the move is beneficial because it increases suspense and prepares the audience for an unexpected development that might otherwise seem outlandish.  Here’s the deal: Trapped in the Closet is inherently outlandish.  The world R. Kelly established in the previous chapters allows for a little person to appear (and then to defecate himself).  Think of it this way: a teenager who has dented his parents’ car will include this narrative roadblock as he releases that exposition:

Mom…Dad…I want you to sit down.  Okay, you’re not going to believe this—and don’t worry, everyone’s okay.  It’s really not a big deal, everything’s going to be okay…but…I slightly bumped into a parking lot guardrail just a little bit.

Mr. Kelly underestimated the work he had done to construct his world.  I don’t know about you, but I am perfectly comfortable with the fact that little people are capable of just about anything, including committing acts of infidelity and being “blessed.”

Trapped in the Closet – Chapter 12

Mr. Kelly asserts his prerogative as narrator and returns to Cathy and Chuck and Rufus, the love triangle that began Trapped in the Closet.  Sylvester has just left, allowing the three of them to begin to discuss the issues that are bothering them.  Cathy (understandably, but somewhat hypocritically) expresses her concern that Chuck has given Rufus an STD, one that could potentially have been passed to her.  Chuck responds angrily and a fight begins.

The backing music actually stops and the three characters threaten each other a capella.  This is a cool move for a couple reasons.  Mr. Kelly is keeping our attention by playing with the repetitive format and is allowing all of the characters to express their emotions at once.  This reminds me of an ensemble, a term that comes from opera.  During an ensemble, all of the characters are united  onstage and each typically drops the veil on his or her feelings.  The ensemble can summarize the story and carry the audience into the second act (as it does in Les Miserables’ “One Day More”) and can provide a vocal showcase during a trio (as it does in Trapped in the Closet).

One of the parts of storytelling that challenges many writers (especially beginning writers) is determining how much STUFF to include about the movements of the characters.  R. Kelly goes a little bit overboard in this chapter of Trapped in the Closet and in others.  Mr. Kelly spends an awful lot of time singing about who is moving where and what facial expressions they are wearing.  Include only the most important movements; each should have its own significance.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appreciate creative work on its own terms and try to learn from every creative work you experience.  Like it or not, Trapped in the Closet offers a great deal of writing advice.  Instead of simply dismissing it, why not see what we can learn to improve our own work?
  • Invest your whole heart into your work.  The best writers clearly care deeply about what they produce.  Parents believe their children are the most attractive and talented in the world; you should have that same feeling about your stuff.
  • Invent variations on themes and other elements that occur in your work.  R. Kelly knows that we don’t want to hear the same three-plus minute backing track and same rhythms in every chapter.  Instead, there are times when he changes the melody or stops the music entirely to sing a capella or does something else to maintain the audience’s attention.

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