Thursday, February 28, 2013

Super Short Review: Mission Impossible (4): Ghost Protocol

I understand the urge not to number your sequels, which might make your product look derivative or cynical; but it's also just helpful to your customers to keep things straight. (This is especially true with Apple iPads: trying to buy things for your first-gen iPad can be a pain since the third-gen is also just known as "iPad"--there's far too much small-print reading involved.)

One nice thing about sequels is that you generally know what you're going to get, up to a point. Case in point, the Mission: Impossible franchise: do you like big action sequences tied together with exposition sequences? Then you might like this film.

When I saw this in the theater, I loved the action sequences, which had a cartoonish kineticism and disregard for the characters' health. On the small screen--especially at the gym--I still love the the action sequences, though the exposition sequences seem slightly worse and any pretense of an emotion other than excitement seems more awkward.

The action sequences seem especially well done because of the way they keep piling problems on our protagonists and play with certain expectations. For instance, when Ethan Hunt has climbed up the world's tallest tower, he sees a sand storm, but that's not the problem--the problem is that one of his gloves malfunction and his glass cutter malfunctions and there's no way to get him back unless he jumps out one window and towards another. And what's great about that jump is that, rather than barely make the distance and end up grasping on with only his arms, he overshoots the jump and ends up bashing his face into the top of the window and not holding on with anything.

No one goes to an M:I film expecting great exposition, because they're essentially heist films with multiple heists (or tricks). In a heist film, the purpose of the exposition is purely to exposit for the heist--not to express/build character and rarely to build conflict or heighten tension. So here, there're a few nods towards making exposition interesting: when the Secretary is telling Ethan what he has to do, his analyst is clearly uncomfortable with that. But most often these nods are pro forma or worse; for instance, heading to the Burj Khalifa setpiece, the characters are in a car and have to swerve suddenly to miss camels. Why the sudden swerve? Could the driver not look ahead on that perfectly clear day and straight stretch of road and not see the camels? That moment seems like a poor way to create "drama."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The New New Thing: Ted Kosmatka's "Cry Room" and "The Color Least Used in Nature"

I've recently run across two stories by Ted Kosmatka, stories which have sold pretty recently, and so which might bear some more analysis. (He also works at Valve, which raises lots of interesting questions about the possibility of writing for digital media, but that's another topic entirely.) I'll include links for both stories and then I'll spoil the heck out of them.

"Cry Room" (published at John Joseph Adams's Nightmare Magazine; read recently for Pseudopod) is a straightforward story, very straightforwardly told: a man goes to a church, but his kid starts making noise, so he is sent to the Cry Room. (Apparently this is a real thing. I wonder if synagogues have them or do parents just guilt their children into behaving?)

Naturally, the kid is worse than all the other little angels, and so is sent to a further crying room--and another and another. Eventually, dad and kid end up in a scary room, and the kid chooses to go further down, and dad chooses to follow. If this were improv, we would say that the story's "game" is very simple: the kid is always terrible, they move further and further down. There's a nice inversion at the end: instead of the dad dragging the kid down, the kid chooses to go on and the dad follows. Which also nicely gives this an uplifting, if unsettling tone.

"The Color Least Used by Nature" (read for StarShipSofa) is a different beast entirely: a somewhat rambling vignette that takes place on a sort of fantastical Polynesian (Hawaiian) island, with a boat builder whose love affairs with women and boats get him into trouble.

Now, this story was printed in Fantasy & Science Fiction (read an interview with him here), but there's very little here that seems fantastical to me. There's an island story about "walking trees," but it's just that--a story that people tell, and the walking trees have no bearing on the plot. So it might be secondary world fantasy, but it's soft fantasy, fantasy as a reason not to research Polynesian culture and trees. That might sound dismissive, but I get it: sometimes, you don't want to tell the story of your research, you want to tell your story.

The story here is very rambling, a novella-version of a bildungsroman, with the boat-builder starting as a kid, learning about love, making a few mistakes, and trying not to make the same mistake for his kid. I would like to summarize it and spoil it for you, but the plot made less an impression than one of the final scenes, with the boat builder facing death from the child of his lost love (which might or might not be his child).

Monday, February 25, 2013

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Tamarisk Hunter"

If you want to read this story, here; if you want to listen to it, here.

"The Tamarisk Hunter" was first published in High Country News, an environmentally-directed news outlet that employed PB as an editor. It's a present-tense story about a man named Lolo who rips out tamarisk (or salt-cedar) from the banks of the Colorado River (I think) as a way to make a living; what's especially important is that he gets a water bounty for that work, which enables him and his wife (and camel) to survive on a little patch of dry western land. And while other tamarisk bounty hunters have had to move on, Lolo keeps himself in business by secretly planting tamarisk; and this scheme could go on forever, except the river is being walled in more and more. So the story ends with some National Guardsmen telling Lolo that there's no more water bounty, which means he won't be able to survive there.

Now, I live in a city that knows drought, so this story might hit me in a different way, but here's what I got out of this: a view of the future of water scarcity and state (and city) claims on watersheds. But the story itself is very thin in terms of plot and characters: Lolo does what he does, he's worried about his wife Annie who doesn't like cities, but that's not a major part of the story. Rather the wordcount focuses on very realistic information about the effects of drought on many communities. It's an important topic, but not a moving story.

Still, it was republished in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, so someone liked it.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Super Short Review: Mama (2013)

Sarah and I weren't very compelled by the Guillermo del Toro-produced Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, but we loved the Guillermo del Toro-presented The Orphanage. So I was prepared to go either way with this movie, also produced by GdT (not spelling that out again). And I mostly liked it.

The core story is two little feral girls get taken in by family, but bring supernatural protector with them. So it's got that "haunted person rather than haunted house" vibe. Except the protector/ghost is also tied to the location out in the woods where the horror happened, which felt a little bit like they were trying to split the difference: a scary haunted house plus the scary "your home is being invaded" trope.

The movie also leans hard into certain tropes and structures: the unethical third person (a psychologist) who does all this research; the slowly pieced together story, involving boxes that characters look into but the camera doesn't; the aloof mother-figure who fights the ghost for the children at the end.

Which leads us to some problems of structure. Jessica Chastain's punk-rock "don't call me mama" girlfriend turns out to be the protagonist, not the boyfriend who is the blood relative of the feral girls. Considering that the movie already starts with a prologue setting up the horror, this switch made me feel like I wasn't sure what to look at.

Similarly, as some reviewers note, the eventual story turns toward the routine: a crazy woman escaped from an asylum, killed herself and her kid, now wanders around looking for that kid. (La llorona?) It's never addressed, but how did she get pregnant in the asylum? Or even before--the potential story of rape might be worth thinking about.

There is one interesting issue about the ending, when ghost and adoptive mom fight over the kids, which is that each kid chooses a different mama. Unlike the ghost's original kid (who dies), the little girl here turns into moths, which makes the ending stranger and more uncertain.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Ethically consuming the products of the unethical; Or, my favorite authors tend to dislike people like me

In the subtitle to this post, I speak mostly of H. P. Lovecraft, whose views on Jews and other minorities was complex at best, hateful at worst. There are elements of his stories that I may cringe at, in the way that people cringe today at yesterday's racism, sexism, et ceterism. But I never worry about buying a Lovecraft book or seeing a Lovecraft-inspired movie because Lovecraft is very, very dead--he's long given up the fight against blacks and Jews, so if I give money, it's not going to come back at me in the form of anti-Semitic commercials and laws.

But let's take the case of Orson Scott Card, whose Ender's Game is finally being made into a movie. Let's say you like this book (I don't) and want to go see the movie, but are turned off by Card's political views, which seems to be the situation that Alyssa Rosenberg is in. (If you hadn't heard, Card's anti-gay opinions stretch as far as contemplating revolution against a government that endorsed marriage equality.)

Here's the decision tree I've worked out. If you answer "Yes," at any time, stop; but if you answer "No," go to the next question:

A) Does the work in question endorse the political view you disagree with vehemently? If yes, then skip it. (Though we should note that there's room for debate, there may not be room for propaganda in this. So you might go see a movie which included homophobia; but not a movie that endorsed it.)

B) Does my consumption materially support an opposing political view? Which is a complex question, so I'll break it down:
1) Does the creator (or creators) work towards this political view or contribute towards this?
2) Does the creator (or creators) benefit from my consumption?

As it turns out, this is a very short decision tree. Let's see how it works in practice for Ender's Game the movie and Card's homophobia:

A) I don't think Ender's Game is homophobic, so go on to question B.

B1) Orson Scott Card definitely works against LGBT equality: he's on the NOM board at least. He probably also financially supports such groups, though that's less clear.

B2) This is a harder question to answer. First, I don't know if Card's contract gives him a percentage of the movie profits. And I also don't know if an Ender's Game success will inspire people to option other Card novels and make them into movies: I don't see a Speaker for the Dead movie or some Alvin Maker movies, but I suppose it could happen. Because Card works against gay rights, this question requires more research (does he profit from this movie?) and speculation (will a success here lead to profit from other movies?).

So if Card stands to make money that he might use against (not to put to fine a point on it) my sister, then I might skip this movie even if I were interested in it.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Can Podcast Magazines Work?

I like podcasts a lot. I was talking to a friend the other day, noting all the creative projects I enjoy or want to be a part of, and oddly, podcasting is up there towards the top. I listen to many non-fiction podcasts, from news and analysis (The Economist) to interviews and panels (The Nerdist Writers' Panel, WTF with Marc Maron). In the last few years, I've also gotten into fiction podcasts, like the three put out by Escape Artists, Inc.: Escape Pod, Podcastle, and Pseudopod, each of which puts out a story a week.

I've just recently decided to try out a few other podcasts that seem more like magazines, so that each episode contains several different segments: for instance, the most recent episode of Geek's Guide to the Galaxy started with an interview with Karen Russell and segued into a panel discussion on the weird in speculative fiction. This episode of StarShipSofa that I'm listening to started with a look at the boom in utopias after Bellamy and now has a story by Ken Liu. So I'm only beginning to listen to magazine-like podcasts, but, surprise surprise, I already have some thoughts.

First, on iTunes, it's a pain to see the whole description of the episode, which means that I am often starting an episode without knowing what's in it. Second, if you have a multi-part episode, you should consider putting in chapter breaks so the user can see a quick table of contents as well as how long each segment is.

Third, I don't know how long the multi-part anything is long for this world. There is something nice and serendipitous about downloading a podcast for one reason (oh, a Ken Liu story) and then finding something else of interest (oh, Utopias). But in a world of entertainment on demand and discrete units, I'm not sure this magazine format has a long life. Why not go the route of various podcast empires (Maximum Fun, Earwolf, Escape Artists, etc.) and separate out your podcasts, but include them under one corporate umbrella?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Does horror need an unhappy ending?

I'm going to tentatively say, "no, horror doesn't need an unhappy ending," but I'm as tentative about that as a man contemplating going down into the cellar of the house he just bought, even though he doesn't have a flashlight and he might have a dark secret in his past. Or maybe he flatlines for fun with his friends and he's worried he brought something back?

All horror really needs is some sort of anticipation-release mechanism for the viewer/reader. Which shouldn't surprise us as that's the same required mechanism of melodrama and pornography--the other two "body genres" that Linda Williams identifies. Only in horror, the anticipation-release has to do with fear.

And yet, let's note that the anticipation-release in those genres comes at the end: That is, you may cry during melodrama, but you're meant to leave the theater crying; similarly with pornography, when you're done, you're done. So, transposing this to horror, we could say that the big release should come towards the end. Which is another way of saying there shouldn't be a lot of denouement between the climax and the credits.

But when a work of horror ends on a hopeful note, the big release is a different flavor than if we end on a sad or on a mixed note. That's pretty close to a tautology: a happy ending makes you feel different than a sad ending. But I think it's worth noting that our genre notion of horror can take in these different flavors: the protagonist fails (morally, physically), the protagonist succeeds in sacrificing, the protagonist succeeds.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Fluted Girl" (2003)

On his website (where you can read this story), Bacigalupi notes that this was his first published story after a failed period of trying to write novels; and in some ways, it seems to return to the themes and form of his previous story, "Pocketful of Dharma" (covered here).

Like that story, this is the story of a poor, crippled, exploited person and the pitiful stand they take against the system that's using them. In that story, Jun is a poor country boy whose back is hunched from disease or malnutrition; who gets caught up in a search for a datacube between powers that are far beyond him and whose struggle he doesn't even understand; and whose rebellion takes the form of climbing down a giant tower, not knowing if he'll even survive the climb, let alone if he'll survive life on the hard streets below.

Here, the main character Lidia is one of a pair of twins who have been bought by the media super-star Madame Belari, who has shaped the twins through a series of grotesque surgeries into perpetual children whose bodies are also musical instruments. (The performance they put on is a mix of decadent pornography--twins! underage girls!--and music.) So here we see a slight change between the stories: Jun's crippling was incidental, Lidia's (and Nia's) was intentional.

Like Jun, Lidia doesn't really understand the wider world, though she has an information source--a fellow slave who tells her all about how there are places out on the coast where people control their own lives, not these "fiefdoms" where rich people consume the lives of others. This definitely helps to give Lidia's story some explicit depth (though you've got to wonder where fellow slave Stephen got all this info).

"Fluted Girls" also has another axis here, in that Madame Belari may be a rich star, but she's also at the whim of certain market forces. In fact, her desire to make profitable freaks of Lidia and Nia is motivated by a desire to stay free from TouchSense. The irony here is thick, almost too like an anvil: Belari consumes others in order not to be consumed herself (like Ed Harris in The Truman Show, whose desire for privacy was bound up with his total surveillance of Truman).

It's a rich, political story, and I mostly like it, though there were times where the description seemed to repeat itself to no purpose--except maybe to delay te reader and heighten anticipation? Maybe, but it wasn't always successful. The other slight misstep I felt here was the open ending: it's a nice mirroring of the opening--Lidia holds the poison in her hand, weighing the possibilities of it. But her sudden realization that she could feed the poison to Belari was just that--too sudden.

I may be in the minority there, though, since this was republished in both Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-First Annual Collection and Ellen Datlow's The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

My own private Indiana Jones 4, part 4: act breaks

Once we've got something of a throughline (even a very rough one), we can move on to the rough idea of Acts. Now, different writing handbooks may define acts differently, but I like the idea that an act break occurs when an irreversible change occurs. So, if Indy goes from Nepal to Cairo, that itself is not an irreversible change--he could always go back to Nepal. But when Indy picks up again with his old flame as a partner, that's a serious change.

So, let's look at Raiders for some act breaks, using some formulaic sentences like "Indy wants":
Act I: Indiana wants to find Abner--but instead discovers that Marion Ravenwood has the Staff of Ra headpiece AND a chip on her shoulder. Irreversible change: he's got a partner now.
Act II: Indy wants to find the Ark--and this desire is to strong that he continues with his quest even after (a) he thinks Marion has died and (b) he discovers she didn't die but doesn't rescue her. Irreversible change: he knows where the Ark is and he picks it over Marion. (Note: Only half of that is irreversible.)
Act III: Having found the Ark, Indy wants it. Here's where Indy digs up the Ark (success) and then gets buried in the Ark room with Marion and lots of snakes (failure). We then get a whole series of success-failures as Indy tries to retake the Ark. Is it on a plane? Or a truck? Finally, Belloq succeeds in getting both the Ark and Marion. Irreversible change: Indy is left totally free and totally alone.
Act IV: Indy wants to rescue Marion--but he can't bring himself to destroy the Ark to do so. Here's a strange thing about this screenplay: in any other Hollywood movie, the hero would choose the girl / to be a good guy, but here, Indy seems to give in to his most Belloq-like nature. Luckily, there's the power of god around to smite the Nazis when Indy fails. But there is still an important change here: instead of approaching the Ark only as a historical artifact, Indy seems to accept its supernatural woohoo. Which is why the final scene is Indy arguing with the government about their treatment of religious objects.
So, using the same formulaic sentences (because formula helps when breaking structure, even if you wouldn't want to start every sentence in a short story with "Main character wants") and plugging in some place-holder names (which I've stolen and repurposed from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), let's break out some acts here.
Act I: Indiana Jones wants to be relevant and exciting when all the world seems to be telling him to hang up his hat and go home. Not just because he's old, but because he's burned as many bridges as he's built. So when Iris Spalko comes to ask for his experience in dealing with Oxley, he jumps at the chance. But what concrete object does Indy want? He wants to find Oxley's secret dig--the one that drove him mad (not that Indy believes that).
Act II: Indy wants the skull that he thinks is an Oxley fake to prove that this whole alien thing is fantasy. After investigating Oxley's booby-trapped house in Mexico, Indy figures out that Spalko is actually a Russian agent, with her own organization muscle behind her, whereas he's just a single guy. What's worse, Indy's old protege shows up leading a rival expedition that turns out to be a complementary one--another Russian group, both as co-worker and rival to Iris's group. (The protege was lured into it by promise of his old mentor being in trouble.) Indy at first thinks that Oxley wants the crazy tech to prove his theories correct. And in the bowels of some department store (whee! department store fight!), Indy finds some evidence left over that Oxley failed to get, evidence which points towards South America.
Act III: If the first act was "Indy wants in," Act III is "Indy wants out." Oxley hasn't gone to South America to find aliens, and when Indy and estranged protege head in that direction, they're kidnapped by Oxley's agents who take them to L.A. (So instead of the red line of global travel transitioning between scenes, part of this scene takes place during that travel.) (And the "clue" that's supposed to lead them to the next place is actually the key to the tech. I see a false reveal here, where Indy gets uncrated at what looks like some South American jungle, but turns out to be an LA garden or film set.) Having accidentally delivered one last part to the Oxley cult (with Jack Parson at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory?), Indy begins to realize the enormity of this power: Oxley won't use aliens to get himself back into the academic game, but to become superhuman. (Like the old Woody Allen joke: I don't want to achieve immortality through my works, I want to achieve it through not dying.) Indy wants to keep Oxley from putting together his alien artifact. Does that mean teaming up with the Russian when they show up? Unfortunately, Iris Spalko is part of Oxley's cult for her own gain, so Indy will have to rely on the person he least wants to rely on--his hotshot, hotheaded protege.
Act IV: Perhaps this act takes place either in the desert, with all the stories of tricksters and UFOs, or in the South Pacific, with its cargo cults and atomic testing grounds. Either way, Indy and protege race against Spalko and Oxley, to try to stop them from tuning the radio to the gods/aliens. Finally believing the truth of this and seeing the potential for World War III, Indy and the protege try to sabotage the item/ritual, which at least allows the item to connect to and reject the cult. Indy wants to live again, but also to see his protege go on after him.

Friday, February 15, 2013

My own private Indiana Jones 4, part 3: the basic story

After brainstorming, I came up with some questions and issues that have their hooks in me; now that I have some ideas that interest me, I'll try to write out the major plotline in synopsis form. For comparison, the Raiders of the Lost Ark synopsis would go something like this, in its roughest, shortest form:
The Nazis want to get the Ark of the Covenant, and are being helped by unscrupulous archaeologist Belloq, who may not be as good as Indy, but sure is unscrupulous. Indiana Jones actually fails to stop the Nazis, who are stopped by magical powers from God. Oh, and there's a woman involved.
That doesn't sound like too much fun, but it helps to emphasize the action of the story, which is actually instigated by the Nazis. Similarly, while the movie looks simple, there's some interesting twists here; for instance, we probably want to say that the Nazis are the antagonist, but then, what of Belloq? In some ways, he's more the dynamic relationship character: The Nazis want the Ark for its power, Indy wants to keep the Nazis away from the Ark, and Belloq wants the Ark for... Well, it's unclear: sometimes he sounds like he wants the historical Ark, sometimes he sounds like he wants the mythological Ark. But this is precisely the journey that Indy has to make, from historical to mythological interest.

So in that form, we can see what the protagonist and antagonist are fighting over, and where the dynamic relation character fits. The short, rough story of my version of Indy 4 is
Soviet agents use Indy in search for alien technology in America, in race against cuckoo archaeologist/researcher and protege he no longer believes in. Indiana has to recognize his passing and the potential skills of protege in order to stop dangerous organizations from taking control of power beyond their understanding.
Or something like that--there sure do seem to be a lot of antagonist figures here, potentially. One danger of brainstorming like I did yesterday is that I end up with lots of ideas that seem cool; as Tina Fey notes in Bossypants, one of the biggest tasks of the creative person is to prune back that creativity.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

My own private Indiana Jones 4, part 2: brainstorming plot

Just brainstorming ideas:

Indiana Jones is older now. He's out of step with the 1950s, the era of big organizations--the man in the gray flannel suit, agency panic, the rise of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology, post-war boom, and trauma. Indy isn't interested in keeping up with the Joneses or in going to get psychoanalyzed.

And what does Indiana Jones want? Jones doesn't usually want to be part of the adventure, he's either recruited by the government, falls into another adventure, or has to go rescuing his dad. For all his derring-do, Jones is a classic refusenik, as if all he wants in the world is to quietly collect a few artifacts and go on teaching, though he's a little old for the first and I don't see a lot of people painting their eyelids with "I Love You" anymore.

Well, what if we reversed that--what if Indy, afraid of being put out to pasture, was actively trying to get into the game? What if his safety net--Marcus Brody, the college, his dad--were all gone? Could he jaunt off and put himself in danger on purpose? Could he have a secret death wish--better to burn out than fade away? Might he already be dying of something or other? Cancer, heart problems? (After all, his mom died, probably of cancer. Note: Just did some research and she either died of scarlet fever or flu, so nix that.)

What would Russians do with some ancient alien artifact? Or is perhaps the artifact the guide to some secret cache of technology? Or perhaps the Russians searching for the artifact aren't loyal Soviets? The maverick Irina might be in it for herself, she might have some family legacy of state purges that she wants to get away from. Perhaps the maverick Indiana might find a partner in the maverick Irina, only part of his journey will be towards some form of community, while her interest in independence is unbending.

Theme: community and/vs. the individual? Indiana Jones, bereft of his community, has to rediscover the connectedness of people. Maybe the prologue should feature some failure--he fails to get the diamond, fails to save the cross from the rich speculator. Or does he succeed, but his associate lays down the "this is the last time, Indy" line. Indy may be experienced, but he's also kind of a jerk. With all the people who would put up with his issues gone/dead, Indy needs to figure out how to appreciate people.

People or just a few persons? A romantic angle? It makes sense for them to bring back Karen Allen, as the idea of senior citizen Indy picking up someone completely new might seem a little odd. But who says we really need a romantic angle: there was Karen Allen in the first, but his deepest relationship in the second is with Short Round, and in the third, it's his father.

A fight in a department store--there's a dig going on. A booby-trapped house: an Oxley-like ex-professor, exposed to the paranormal, started a cult, became too extreme. Wernher von Braun--"I was just trying to kill you a few years ago, now we're working together." Jet Propulsion Laboratories and the esoteric interests of Jack Parsons. Atomics. Space race. Lost Atlantis--aliens have been here before.

Mirrors of Indy: the Russian maverick who is more ruthless than Indy about preserving her independence; the superannuated crazy professor whose isolation has driven him to extremes (and vice versa); the hotshot expert kid who is too hotheaded to listen to others.

Problem: although Temple of Doom isn't as jet-setting as 1 and 3, there's some sense of jet-setting, and right now, most of my ideas revolve around America. (After all, most UFO sightings tend to be in America, a country sort of haunted by the idea of immigration and the future.) But if I want a more global setting, what? Easter Island? Nazca lines? Bermuda triangle? Tunguska?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My own private Indiana Jones 4, part 1: Past greatness and present themes

After listening to an excellent podcast analysis of Raiders of the Lost Ark by John August and Craig Mazin on Scriptnotes, I was reminded again of how disappointed I was by Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In fact, I was so disappointed when I first saw it that I started sketching out a bit of fan-fiction, something I've never done before.

This wasn't some completely original adventure, insofar as I wanted to take some of the same themes and issues of Indy 4 and make it into a better film; much as if I were hired (ha!) to fix the script before it went to production. And now that I'm thinking about it, I think I just have to go ahead and write it down in outline form.

But first, a quick reminder of the tone, themes, and formula of the first three Indiana Jones films, in list form (my favorite form of all):

  1. Formula: All three movies mimic serial adventures by starting out with the end of some crazy adventure, which might connect to the current adventure by: 1) introducing a major antagonist (rival archaeologist Belloq), 2) leading directly to the current adventure (getting into a plane owned by gangster Lao), or 3) showing Indiana's childhood. (That last one isn't really connected to the new adventure except for the introduction of his dad.)
    1. Lesson: start with some unrelated adventure.
  2. There's crazy paranormal stuff in this world, but it's often considered crazy and paranormal. When American agents come to Jones to ask about the Ark, he kind of shrugs, as if to say, "That's the power of god or whatever."
    1. Lesson: Indy can never take the paranormal for granted
  3. In fact, Indy 1, 2, and 3 all chart something of the same character arc: Indy starts out as an unbeliever and becomes a believer. He starts out interested in the artifact (Ark, Grail) or in plain injustice (the exploitation of the village); but he's not interested in what the artifact says about the world (God exists, Shiva is awesome, Jesus is awesome). Only through the action of the film is he able to pay reverence to the artifact--and let the physical object go / return it to its rightful place.
    1. Lesson: Indy's arc tends towards wonder and belief
  4. While each film charts Indy's growth as a believer, they also focus on some other, related theme: in 1, it's about his relation to the Ark and his relation to Marion--he never treated either good enough; in 2, it's about his relation to his quasi-son, Short Round, a stand-in for the exploited kids of India; in 3, it's about his relation to his dad.
    1. Lesson: Indy's arc is also towards relationships
  5. Indiana Jones is in over his head, but still pretty awesome and action-oriented. For instance, take the idol-stealing scene from the first movie, where we see him replace the idol with a bag of sand very carefully, which looks awesome--but is also not entirely correct. But then, when the temple traps start to go off, he doesn't stand around looking worried; he runs away and does so in a way that looks flustered and great at the same time.
    1. Lesson: Indy is smart, athletic, resourceful--and fallible as any human.
  6. Indy may be over his head, but he's the one who figures things out: in Raiders, he finds the Ark; in Temple, he frees the kids and kills the cult leader; in Crusade, he figures out how to get through the traps to the Grail.
    1. Lesson: Indy is active, never just an observer.
Now that's all the past greatness from the first three movies. Instead of going through Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and noting where they failed, let's just look at what they tried to do and what I can copy. Again, lists are great.
  1. Primary Enemy: the Soviet collective (Irina Spalko, psychic agent; Dovchenko, the bruiser)
  2. Artifact: The crystal skull of Ancient Alien visitors
  3. Relationship: Son, Marion (again) 
  4. Theme: Experience vs. knowledge (according to Todd Alcott's analysis)
  5. Set-pieces: Red ants, attacked by natives, quicksand, vine-swinging, three waterfalls, etc.

So, no promises that I'll keep all--or any--of that, but what would I rather watch?

Monday, February 11, 2013

"The Ballad of Lost C'Mell" (1962) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #3)

We've already seen (medical advance) how the Instrumentality humans beat death (with the Nostrilian drug stroon); and we've seen (military power) the Instrumentality enforce peace (with the Nostrilians defending stroon from the thief-planet. and the Instrumentality destroying the threat of Raumsog). Now we get a taste of the the third leg of Instrumentality power, the economic power of a permanent underclass used as slave/serf labor.

And let's not mince words here: although the underpeople here are related to animals, this story was published in the 1960s, around the time of the Freedom Rides and the March on Washington (1963). Unlike Steven Spielberg's recent Lincoln, which focuses on the machinations of white politicians instead of the roiling rebellion of blacks, Cordwainer Smith gives his underclass a central role, even naming the story after the cat-related C'Mell rather than the Lord of Instrumentality who helps her, Jestocost. Not so fast though: the C'Mell in the title is "Lost" and if we ask "Who loses her?" or "What is she lost from?" the story turns on us.

Lord Jestocost is a strange dude for a Lord of Instrumentality: he likes Ancient English, old tapestries, and justice, which is why he works to give more rights to the underpeople. His entry into their world is through the girlygirl C'Mell--and here's Cordwainer Smith eviscerating the "sexy cat-girl" trope as he invents it: because C'Mell is purposely bred and trained as a geisha-like courtesan, but her sexy cat girl aspects are all irrelevant to the action and even a distraction from the important thing about her, which is that she is not yet a full person under the law. It's the sf equivalent of Strom Thurmond working against civil rights for blacks but also having sex with African-American women: if you find a cat girl sexy but work to keep her an under-person, you are extra-specially terrible.

Jestocost is rather the opposite: because of his commitment to justice for underpeople, he forgoes any personal satisfaction for political satisfaction, which is one way that C'Mell ends up lost, going on to live a full life of personhood without Jestocost. (There's one great gibe against condescending reformers here, when Jestocost meets C'Mell later and makes a joke about the cat-people having litters; which is true, C'Mell admits, but even though her family looks inhuman and strange to him, she loves her children as much as any human loves theirs.)

Presaging William Gibson's tendency to make the big action happen off-screen, Cordwainer Smith shows us all the prologue and the epilogue to the great underpeople civil rights movement: the oppressed underpeople, the conspiracy between C'Mell and Jestocost, their heist of important information, the post-negotiation peace. But we never see the actual marches and negotiations.

Which raises an interesting lacuna here and some questions. First, while Jestocost and C'Mell are plotting, there's a third entity, a strange telepathic presence who remains mysterious here. (In Nostrilia, we learn more about this presence.) Here, E'Telekeli is the mastermind behind the whole info heist, the one who rides in on C'Mell into the sanctum of the Instrumentality and who stores the info called up by Jestocost. So in a very real way, the mechanism of rebellion remains off-screen and fantastical.

But second, why do we never see the rebellion/movement in action? Is it because picturing such a movement would involve some depressing compromise of justice? (I mean, for every C'Mell/Dubois, there's got to be a Booker T. Washington giving an "Atlanta Exposition Speech," about how underpeople don't need all the rights in the world.) Is it because Smith can't picture a successful underclass rebellion? As a technique, I love skipping scenes, bringing us up to the edge of world-historical action and forcing us to imagine it or take it for granted. But what if we can't actually imagine that event?

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Going on: Community without Dan Harmon, Cheers without Shelley Long

This past week saw the return of Community for the first of its post-Harmon shows. If you're not a comedy nerd (everything I do, I nerd out about), the backstory is that show creator Dan Harmon was removed as showrunner for this season, and two new people were brought in to run the show. There was lots of hand-wringing by fans over this move, because people who loved the quirk of Community felt that a lot it came from Harmon, who is crazy according to everyone who works with him. Would the new showrunners bring in a laugh track, some cheap sexual tension, or otherwise blandify Community?

Well, not exactly: the showrunners and writers clearly lean into the controversy here, starting off with a laugh track that isn't for the show, but for the imaginary show that's running in Abed's mind, the kind of show that Community would never become (we fervently hope). It's the kind of joke that Harmon might have used. And yet, despite using many of the same types of Harmonic jokes, there's a tonal shift that makes the jokes stumble as they land. For instance, a "Don't ask" line gets pointlessly followed up by a pro-forma "Don't tell."

I can't blame the new showrunners wholly for this; lots of ongoing shows find themselves descending into re-use that verges on self-parody. One of my comp teachers likened this sort of thing to wanna-be basketball stars imitating Michael Jordan's tongue-moves rather than his basketball moves. Or we could switch it: if you're just going through the basic motions, you might miss the charm of the inessential.

And I was thinking about this slight disappointment when my girlfriend and I began season six of Cheers, the first season that sees Shelley Long's brittle, beautiful Diane replaced by Kirstie Alley's hard, sharp Rebecca. Many of the jokes survive the transition--Carla is mean, Woody is dumb, Sam is a womanizer--but the feeling is off. Sam's womanizing, which often carried an undercurrent of loneliness and depression, has become outward-focused as anger and meanness. It's the same sort of joke, but it's no longer as funny. And I cringe at the upcoming attempt to make Rebecca and Sam an item.

So, Community season 4 and Cheers season 6 are only starting for me, so maybe it will take a few episodes to iron out the issues, as with many a new show. But it reminds me that sometimes, the dynamic of multi-part machines likes this is not repeatable, even when the jokes are.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The New New Thing: Paolo Bacigalupi's "Pocketful of Dharma"

Here's another ongoing but intermittent project: instead of rediscovering some older works, I'll be reading some newer stories to see how they succeed or fail. First up, Paolo Bacigalupi's first published short story, "Pocketful of Dharma."

Unfortunately, this story was first published in 1999, which makes it less interesting for the purposes of finding what's being published and read now. "Pocketful of Dharma" comes across as a pleasant diversion: no great shakes in the plot or characterization department, it leans heavily on the vision of a bio-punk China, with a giant luxury building being grown in the middle of Chengdu, while everyone else gets coated with soot and smoke. This is arch-cyberpunk, down to the recording of a person's personality in a tiny datacube. That's the Mcguffin of the piece, with a Dalai Lama's mind being a bargaining chip for some trade commission, wanted by Chinese authorities, Tibetan rebels, American businessmen, and the triads. And it falls into the hands of crippled orphan Wang Jun, a kid from the provinces who begs in the city.

The story is primarily told from Jun's POV, with one notable exception; and since Jun is a dumb pawn, we don't get a super-clear idea of what's really at stake here. The only thing we know is that Jun is living a hellish day-by-day existence, which may be why he feels some kinship with the frozen personality of the Dalai Lama. Like I said, the characterization here could be more explicit; and the fact that the narrator breaks from Jun's consciousness once makes it seem arbitrary not to dip into anyone else's mind at any point.

Still, the image of a crippled beggar climbing down the outside of a spongy living building is worth the price of admission.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wooster Agonistes; or, What Does Bertie Want?

Perfect Buddhism would be the end of storytelling as we know it. That is, stories need some motivating desire--someone wants something, which often sets the story in motion. This may be the protagonist: "I'm sick of this job and want a promotion!" This may be the antagonist: "I will take over the world!" But that desire will incite the action of the rest of the story. (As long as there's conflict. "Man wants sandwich" is a fine motivating desire, but a terrible story unless there's something preventing him from getting that sandwich.)

But what about Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories? Bertie Wooster is a rich bachelor who just wants to go on enjoying the good things in life, such as his Aunt Dahlia's chef and his fine bespoke suits. Jeeves, like all good servants, has no particular desires of his own. So for any J&W story, the inciting desire will really have to come from outside--something external will have to break up the status quo.

One pleasant side effect of this lack of desire, as far as Wodehouse is concerned, is that Wooster never wants to change, which is why Wodehouse could have (theoretically) spun out story after story, as long as the market demanded them.

Which is another way of saying that Jeeves and Wooster aren't really the protagonists of their own stories. (At least in the stories I've read.) The archetypal J&W story begins with someone else coming in and demanding/requesting the intervention of J&W; it can be a friend wanting Bertie's advice about how to approach his rich uncle to introduce a fiancee that the rich uncle will disapprove of; or it can be one of his aunt's wanting Bertie's help in recovering a piece of antique silver.

Lesson: Status quo seeking protagonists need external incitement and active antagonists.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

"Golden The Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" (1959) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #2)

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" is considered something of a classic--for instance, Gardner Dozois published it in his 1992 Modern Classics anthology. By contrast, "Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" is not so classic, though at first glance, it tells a very similar story.

"Golden the Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" (1959) (p. 215-221)
Synopsis: The space dictator Raumsog threatens Earth, so the Instrumentality--which appears as a rather regular boardroom--decides to send out one of their Golden Ships, a giant ship that they usually store in nonspace and only take out to fight off exceptional enemies. Only the Golden Ship is actually mostly made of foam, without weapons or armor, used primarily to intimidate enemies and tie up their navies. The real damage against Raumsog is done by a small ship which contains biological weapons; a monitor (human) that will destroy the ship if it deviates; a "chronopathic idiot" who can move the ship in time; and a psychic who creates a quantum field of bad luck. After the short, brutal war, the Golden Ship pilot realizes that his contribution has given him a strange feeling of pleasure; while the people who actually did the killing get their minds wiped.

Thoughts, analysis: If the omniscience of "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" has gone out of favor--following two main characters and a few minor characters--the omniscience of "Golden The Ship Was--Oh! Oh! Oh!" is downright illegible by today's standards: in six pages we get

  1. a prologue that tells us there was a war; 
  2. a board meeting of the Instrumentality where the chairman proposes to unmothball one Golden Ship; 
  3. a war cabinet of Raumsog where he wonders what they'll do with such a big ship; 
  4. Captain Tedesco, a dissolute who likes to pump electricity into the pleasure centers of his brain, who captains the Golden Ship in its sham war; 
  5. Prince Lovaduck who captains the real attack ship, with its monitor, chronopathic idiot, and psionic talent--a little girl who is a "class three etiological interference";
  6. the story of Lovaduck's attack;
  7. Raumsog's planet's destruction;
  8. Tedesco returning to civilian life and no longer needing the electrical stimulation;
  9. Lovaduck's mindwipe and reward;
  10. a journalist's attempt to get the story of the Golden Ship from one of Raumsog's survivors after their memories have been "discoordinated."
Six pages! I've seen comparisons between Cordwainer Smith and traditional storytelling--fairytales, folktales--and it seems apt. Philip K. Dick could cram this much craziness into a story--time travel, offense use of jinx powers, a psy ops campaign with a giant but useless ship--but he would tell the story in limited third person or even first, sticking close to one person and that person's perceptual bias/madness. Smith has no such interest in limiting the reader, who gets a wide angle view of everyone else's perceptual failures.

Curiously, this earlier work seems a little more prone to use strange words to get an effect. For instance, that "class three etiological interference" when he could just note that she's a jinx or prone to bad luck. Calling her an "etiological interference" sounds strange; noting that she's "class three" reminds us that we're in a different frame of reference.

And yet, what really comes across here more than in "Mother Hitton's" is how arbitrary all this power is. The Instrumentality has psychics and biological weapons and psy ops capabilities, but it's all in support of a system which is repeatedly called corrupt, a system which routinely reworks people's memories, and which nearly depopulates an entire planet because of one enemy. Cordwainer doesn't at all try to defend this system as moral or correct, but simply notes that, when push comes to shove, the Instrumentality will push hard. Prince Lovaduck is left knowing he's a hero, but not knowing why, which is pretty much our position--he's done daring things, but has he done good things?

Monday, February 4, 2013

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" (1961) (Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith #1)

In the science fiction community, we all know that Cordwainer Smith has the best name. True, that's not his real name--that's Paul Linebarger, PhD in political science, and author of Psychological Warfare. Okay, fine, he's got a fun pseudonym and an interesting biography--Sun Yat-Sen was his godfather, he was friends with Chiang Kai-shek--but how are his stories?

That's what I plan to find out in my ongoing project to read all of his 30-odd published stories, most of which take place in his future history called The Instrumentality of Man, and all of which are republished in The Rediscovery of Man. First up, the awesomely named...

"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" (1961) (pages 355-374)
Synopsis (and spoilers): Benjacomin Bozart is a thief from the thief-planet of Viola Siderea and he's been tasked with the biggest heist of all time: breaking into Old North Australia--also known as the planet Norstrilia--and stealing the life-giving drug santaclara (or stroon, in its refined state). Bozart starts this heist by interrogating a Norstrilian child who writes out a clue about Norstrilian defense--"Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons"--before Bozart kills him. Bozart then goes about the rest of the heist--reporting to his supervisors on Viola Siderea and mortgaging the entire planet's productivity to get the heist in gear.

During this same time, the story occasionally shows us who Mother Hitton is and how her Littul Kittons are part of the defense. Apparently, the Kittons are mink that have been bred for psychosis and Norstrilia protects itself by blanketing nearby space with this irresistible psychosis. On top of that, because they have a monopoly on the life-giving santaclara, the Norstrilians also have a huge secret intelligence network, and Bozart's search for information on the "Kittons" have triggered the network. So all of his underworld contacts are really Norstrilian agents who are leading him to his death. And the already rich Norstrilia ends up with a mortgage for the entire thief planet, Viola Siderea.

Thoughts and analysis: There's so much weird going on here. First, the story is told in omniscient third, a POV that has fallen out of favor these days, especially for stories of this length. In 20 pages, we get Benjacomin's plot, Katherine Hitton's preparation, the secret plots and thoughts of several secret agents, and a little history of Norstrilia.

Second, there's the extraordinary lengths the Norstrilians go to in order to kill Benjacomin Bozart with projected mink thoughts. After Bozart kills the young Norstrilian boy, his actions are almost all directed by Norstrilian agents, whose one goal is to get him into Norstrilian space. Considering the economics of the whole thing--it must be expensive to wake the mink up and get them to project their psychosis--you'd think it would be easier for someone to just poison Bozart before he gets there. (Though, from a legal standpoint, crime prevention-via-death penalty is probably still not accepted in the Instrumentality future. And getting Bozart to sign away years of his criminal planet is a real nice side-effect. Instead of stealing, the thief planet ends up getting stolen--through completely legal means.)

Third, the story matter is unmistakably Cordwainer Smith territory: a secret war carried out with projected mental states and an intelligence apparatus that gets triggered by a planted shibboleth. There's no sentimentality about the thief, who is himself a master of mood manipulation, especially skilled at hiding his own moods, but never a romantic figure.

Fourth, Cordwainer tends to keep his sentences real crisp here, allowing the content of the story to carry the punch. So, for instance, we get simple but nonsense sentences like "One of her weapons snored. She turned it over." Eventually--about ten pages later--that sentence will make sense, when we get the information that her weapons are her psychotic mink. But many of the sentences don't have any delay in making sense. We know what it means when we read "Benjacomin, trained thief that he was, did not recognize the policeman." It means that from the opening gambit, Benjacomin is going to die.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Monty Python destroyed England?

Do you remember when the 1989 Batman came out and we all were talking about how it was an allegory for the '88 presidential election, with George H. W. Bush as Bruce Wayne and Dukakis as Robert Wuhl's character?

Actually, no, I don't think that happened. But fast forward twenty years and suddenly we're discussing whether The Dark Knight supports torture as a means to get information out of the Joker; and whether Bane may be more like the Occupy movement on the left or the ultra-capitalist Romney on the right. Part of this, I think, has to do with a current in the conservative movement which goes something like this: "everyone thinks we're uncool because the commie leftists own Hollywood and we need to take back culture."

And I support that movement: it's about time that conservatives looked at art and said, "I want to express myself too," rather than follow the usual anti-National Endowment argument that says art isn't good for anything and we shouldn't spend any tax money on that.

But as with all nascent movements, there's going to be some missteps and growing pains; for example, the hilarious mess the National Review made all over itself when it tried to gather a list of 25 great conservative movies.

I was reminded recently of how far this current within conservatism has to go to become intelligent discourse (instead of "rar, my guy good, your guy bad") when conservative blogger Kathy Shaidle wrote about her mixed feelings about Monty Python. On one hand, their sketches are funny. But on the other hand, according to Shaidle, Monty Python "unwittingly (or not) destroyed England in a way the Luftwaffe could have only dreamed of." What the what?

See, in Shaidle's mind, Monty Python (along with the Beatles and the rest of the '60s/70s counterculture) used satire against authority in a bad way, which has led to a terrible hash of multicultural leftist junkie thuggery or something. (Amazingly, that was exactly what the Luftwaffe was trying to do.) And the Pythons, by and large, turned out to be leftist traitors of culture.

So why does Shaidle still enjoy them? To salve her political conscience, Shaidle looks at three sketches which she calls the best (but not necessarily the funniest) and kinda, sorta, maybe intimates how they support her conservative views, so she can go on liking them.

I realize that the purpose of a blog post like Shaidle's is less to convince outsiders than to rile up people either for or against you. (Say something provocative to get people talking about you! Have people say mean things about you so you can send a fund-raising letter to the base explaining your victimization!) But, to me, it honestly seems like Shaidle is trying to work through a mismatch between her politics and her sense of humor. I think this is a good project--maybe examining her own interest in anti-authoritarian humor will change her relation with authoritarians-on-the-right. Maybe she'll come to accept the humor and humanity of people who don't hold her politics? Or maybe she'll just come up with some reason why the things she likes all fit within a well-policed category called "conservatism" that accepts Bush's warrantless wiretapping but freaks out over Obama's interest in passing laws banning high-capacity magazines.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Some of my favorite shows get cancelled and that's okay.

Do you remember Bakersfield, P.D., a sitcom about Giancarlo Esposito as a big-city cop who moves to  small town California and gets teamed up with a big-hearted doofus played by Ron Eldard who always wanted a black partner? Or how about EZ Streets, the cops-and-robbers-and-politicians drama? Or Profit, the acid-edged satire of Adrian Pasdar as a sociopathic businessman who had been raised by television standards? Or how about Ben & Kate, the charming comedy about a ne'er-do-well brother moving in with his sister, a single mom? And I seem to recall a space opera/Western named Firefly?

All of these shows were great shows that got cancelled after one season. When a great show gets cancelled, the Rachel-Ross Kubler-Ross stages of grief are

  1. Denial--"I'm sure those television executives can see what a great show they've got, they wouldn't cancel it."
  2. Anger--"Goddamn the audience that's watching Two and a Half Men instead of this show!"
  3. Bargaining--"Maybe they'll make a movie spin-off..."
  4. Depression--"I might as well go read a book or talk to my loved ones, ugh."
  5. Acceptance--"Hey, they're making a SHIELD tv show, that should be pretty cool."

Maybe I'm only in a good mood because 30 Rock ended last night after seven improbable seasons or maybe I'm just impatient, but I like to jump to stage five pretty quickly. As someone who has tried to do creative work, I think it's a miracle that anything as good as Ben & Kate gets made for even one season. And as a die-hard 30 Rock fan who still recognizes that not every one of their 138 episodes is comedy gold, I appreciate the difference between "getting renewed" and "staying great." (See also Heroes and many other shows that overstayed their welcome.)

I'll take one great season over zero seasons any day, and here's hoping that Ben & Kate's cast and creators go on to do great work elsewhere.