Monday, December 30, 2013

Anchorman 2 vs. Hot Fuzz

Here is a spoiler for Anchorman 2: Ron Burgundy starts off with everything that he needs--his family and their love--but he throws it all away for something that he wants--a career. But by the end of the film, he gives up what he thought he wanted (carerr) because now he wants what he needs (family).

That's a classic film arc, where the character's wants and needs conflict at the beginning and align at the end. Or put another way: the character faces the same situation at the beginning and end, but changes his attitude/decision. This classic arc shows how the character grows and changes.

Now look at Hot Fuzz: At the beginning, P.C. Nicholas Angel is a hard-charging officer who never has fun and hates the idea of moving out to the countryside--where he is banished by the London police. At the end, Angel has more fun with his police work, has grown to care about other people in addition to his police work, and likes the idea of staying in the countryside.

So why is Hot Fuzz a much better movie? Part of it is simply that Anchorman 2 has sequel issues: you loved the news team fight in the first one, so they'll give it to you again, but bigger/sillier. That works for some jokes and not for other jokes. Or for characters: you loved Brick being dumb in the first movie, so here's a lot more of that. Or: you loved Chris Parnell and Fred Willard, so here's some more of them (even though they are given very little screen time).

But a lot of the difference is that Hot Fuzz makes its comedy more part of the characters/structure and less of the focus, whereas Anchorman 2 is just a joke-joke-joke machine. In that way, it's more like Airplane, which was willing to throw as many jokes as possible out there, hoping that a few would land. And so, not only do many of the jokes fall flat, but many of them feel extraneous to the actual storyline.

You can almost see this in the cutting, which is very fast and uneven in some ways: they filmed so many different versions of things, that when they put together the best jokes/episodes, the cuts don't entirely fit.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 208: James Thurber, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (#208)

James Thurber, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" (1939) from James Thurber: Writings & Drawings:

The classic reading of "Walter Mitty" is that he's an archetypal Thurber character, much like the characters in his cartoons: little men paired with large women. (Remember that cartoon of his where a man is returning home--and the house has a scowling woman's face? Yeah, like that.) So Mitty escapes his wife with various fantasies where he's the best at something--usually something ineluctably masculine, as the 1939 mind would have it: he's flying a Navy plane or fixing machinery or performing surgery or on the stand declaring his superior marksmanship before knocking out a man for insulting a woman, etc.

So, if we were writing a paper on this (how's that for a fantasy?), we definitely would have to address the issue of gender and masculinity. But we also should notice that Mitty's world is circumscribed not just by his wife but by lots of men in manly roles: the police officer who tells him to get a move on, the parking lot attendant who shows off how much better he is at driving, etc.

There's a lot of humor here in the overblown fantasies of Mitty and in his humdrum put-upon life and in the made-up language (fake medical jargon); but the whole thing is overlaid with a real sense of sadness--and pettiness. Walter Mitty can go around wishing his life was more adventurous because he lives in a very stable situation--while he may be an office drone (there's no evidence, but we can assume--and let's not minimize the hell of that position), he's not exactly suffering from real life drones or any of the other significant survival problems faced by many people in our and his world.

In a way, it reminds me of my favorite/least favorite Twilight Zone episode, "Time Enough at Last," about a man who wants to read but is put-upon by his larger wife and various men in positions of authority over him. When I was young, I saw that as a terrible tragedy inflicted on an innocent man who just wanted to read. As I got older, it was harder to see that Mitty-esque hero as a real hero: sure, everyone around him is needlessly mean (unlike the people here, who aren't really all that mean to him), but his triumphant trade-off at the end shows a real lack of humanity: would it be worth destroying the world in order to get what you want?

Mitty isn't that bad, but it also reminds me of how many of my friends reacted to Swingers or other movies where the people in it are somewhat cool on the surface. But if you look below, you'll see they've got some issues, which is why I always thought it was weird when people seemed to identify with the Swingers guys. Same here: to all you people who identify with Mitty, you might want to take a look at your life.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Dodge City and the limits of post-hoc criticism

I've been interested in Westerns lately, both the classics and more recent Weird Westerns (that generally are considered pretty bad--The Lone Ranger, The Wild, Wild West, Jonah Hex, etc.). As part of this, I've subscribed to Richard Slotkin's course, Western Movies: Myth, Ideology, and Genre over at iTunes U, where he lectures on the history of the genre and analyzes the movies.

For instance, his lecture on Dodge City (1939) starts off with a rough taxonomy of Westerns--how the 1930s movie Western grows out of gang/mob movies, how the Western provides several different responses to the Great Depression and the New Deal, as well as the old question of capital/labor/technology. Then Slotkin notes how Dodge City avoids almost all racial questions by being almost all about white outlaws and white law-men, with the one black servant being a comic character in the prologue. (Where his joke is basically, "I can't keep up with these modern times," which is why he's not around ever again.) Also: no Indians.

If you're really into genre and history, then it's really interesting to see how this Western thinks about the growth of civilization. (And also how it takes part in the 1930s "heroic Confederacy" myth: the good guys are all ex-Confeds, while the bad guys are Union. In fact, if you liked the scene in Casablanca where patriotic French out-sing the Germans, you might want to watch the Dodge City brawl where the heroic position is taken by the Confederates singing Dixie over the ex-Union men singing "Marching Through Georgia.")

But if you're interested in writing a Western, this sort of film school analysis has its limits. It's not bad to have an eye on questions of politics and personhood. (Are all your black characters minor and there for comedic effect? Maybe consider a revision.) But a lot of this stuff is post-hoc for a reason: You're not going to write something very interesting/lasting if you've got one eye on "how does my movie address this current legislation?"

(Actually, on my trip up to Chicago, I listened to this one Jack Benny show from 1946 where half of the jokes were so topical that I couldn't at all understand them. I'm not saying that you shouldn't write topical material and only write "universal" stuff, only that there's a definite lifespan for certain issues and stories in your entertainment.)

This sort of post-hoc critique can help you think through big issues, like your main character's plot arc (or lack thereof--in Dodge City, Errol Flynn's character becomes a sheriff and vows to bring law to Dodge City, but when we first see him, he's... bringing law to the wilderness). And it's always good to expand one's film vocabulary, I think. But there are limits to this sort of criticism if you're looking to write the thing being criticized.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Lone Ranger (2013)

You can almost pinpoint the moment where the writers/producers said, "We need to make this movie more family friendly--throw in some poop jokes and stuff." Which is a real shame because there's a lot of interesting stuff in this tonal mess of a film--genocide! horseshit joke! themes of brotherhood! wacky Johnny Depp!

If you list all the famous actors, famous directors, and famous writers that you know, you'll see that the first two lists probably dwarf the third list. (Or as 30 Rock put it, announcing a Janis Joplin biopic: "starring Julia Roberts, directed by Martin Scorsese, and written by the best screenwriter in the world, whoever that is.") So I don't want to lay all the faults of this movie on the screenwriters, Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio (whose script apparently leaned more towards the supernatural) and Justin Haythe. Some of the problems are clearly in the production. For instance, the casting of Johnny Depp to play a wacky Native American, whose wackiness is not too dissimilar from Jack Sparrow's from the Pirates of the Caribbean. (Actually, there's one moment where Tonto boards one train from another that seems straight out of Pirates in its images.)

At the same time, I don't want to let the writers here off the hook... and yet, while watching the film, I could see that a great deal of craft and thought went into the bones of the story. For instance, protagonist/antagonist mirroring: Dan Reid is a law-minded civilizer from the East. He's back from law school to make the West a civilized place. And Tonto is a half-mad wild-man who operates according to his own symbolic rules of contract that have nothing to do with Eastern/governmental laws. On the other side, the two villains--whose names I have to look up, which surely is a problem--are Latham Cole, the would-be railroad tycoon who can quote Locke as easily as Dan Reid does; and Butch Cavendish, the wild outlaw who operates according to his own rules, including eating the hearts/livers of his enemy. (Shades of Liver-Eating Johnson there.) And just as Dutch's outlawry secretly hides a contractual/brother relationship with the railroad tycoon and the railroad tycoon's civilized exterior hides an outlaw core; so Dan Reid's journey here is to become a little wild while maintaining the urge towards justice and law.

Similarly, the silver that is stolen from the Indian river at the beginning of the story (not the movie, but the story) is returned to a river at the end of the movie. And the theme of history is continually played with, from the emphasis on pocket watches to the continued talk about heading towards the future. (Actually, it could be argued that this theme is hit a little too hard.)

So with all this care and craft, why did this film misfire? I think it's partly the tone/mood, which can never quite settle on one thing, both visually and emotionally. And aren't those the same things in a film? I mean, the movie starts with a dark view of a carnival, which has a Gore Verbinski-esque shadowyness; but then we have the wide-open bright spaces of the Western desert. And the dark mines. And dark spaces in trains. And bright mountain-tops. And night-time meetings with dancing bonfires. I'm not arguing that your film needs to be all day-time or all night-time scenes; but the see-sawing between light and dark is matched by a similar see-sawing in the film, from wacky Helena Bonham Carter as madam with a fake leg that is also a gun, to scenes of gatling guns mowing down Native Americans. It's hard to yee-haw after a scene like that.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 207: Katherine Anne Porter, A Christmas Story (#207)

Katherine Anne Porter, "A Christmas Story" (1946) from Katherine Anne Porter: Collected Stories & Other Writings:

"a lament in the form of a joyous remembrance"
-Katherine Anne Porter, private letter, 1974

Porter tells about a pre-Christmas day in the life of her soon-to-be-passed niece, a day spent telling Jesus stories and going shopping for something for Porter's sister/the niece's mother. The stories are interesting in their own right if you're used to the nicey-nicey image of Jesus. Many of these old stories are taken from non-canonical texts, like the one where Jesus gets switched by his mom with a willow branch for being a brat and so curses all willows. (I still prefer the one where he commands bears to eat the children who are bullying him until an adult tells him he can't do that.)

But the main focus of this piece is split between Jesus (questions of his innocence and upcoming sacrifice, the time of his birth shadowed by his death) and Porter's niece, who is growing up before our very eyes (but who will soon die). So there's some nice parallelism there, with the implicit question of theodicy: why does this innocent niece have to die? In Jesus' case, the sacrifice is part of a happy story, but in the case of Porter's niece, is there any upshot? Doesn't seem to be.

(In fact, Porter's letter to a friend in 1974 says this explicitly.)

And for those interested in the history of Christmas, there's some of that too, with Porter critiquing the way that Santa has displaced Jesus; and the way that the old songs about Jesus are being replaced by consumerism. It all fits together since Santa is a character that promises all of the good stuff with none of the sacrifice of Jesus.

(Process notes: I am writing this on my iPad while riding up to Chicago. So how's that for commitment to a posting schedule?)

Friday, December 20, 2013

What's right/wrong with Constantine (2005) and what can we learn?

Constantine is not a terrible film, but it's very mixed. As it fits one of my favorite genres--urban fantasy, where magic is a small part of our real Earth--I think it's worthwhile looking at Constantine to see what it does right and what went wrong as a movie. There's probably more, but here's some loose thoughts. (And apologies for some of the cutesy names. I was looking at TV Tropes recently)


  • Some of the exposition/background occurs in dialogue that overlaps with some plot-related moment
  • Salvation by suicide: turning a lot of what we expect around, the movie delivers an ending where Satan saves the day and John's embrace of suicide turns out to be OK--since it was for right reasons--it's theologically shaky, but a good surprise/repay of the opening
  • Casting: Peter Stormare makes an engaging and creepy Satan and Tilda Swinton should be in all the movies


  • Much of the exposition/background is given with dialogue that is pretty bland or outright campy (as when Angela pushes aside info on "the Spear of Destiny" with "I know, I'm Catholic")
  • Opening title card tells us, as boringly as possible, some backstory on that Spear: blah blah, lost since WWII--but how much cooler it would have been if some guy just found this old spear wrapped in a Nazi flag and we had that mystery about what it was rather than that answer?
  • Too cool as a rule: there's a thin line between being a jaded demon-fighter and having the dry cool wit of an action hero (as the Simpsons parody of that style goes)--and John Constantine mostly comes off as a rote action hero
  • A Q for every hero: So much of the battles here are purely super-weapon vs. demon, which decreases suspense--so that many of the battle scenes have no emotional tension (not even the suspense of "how will he get out of this?"--we know how he'll get out of this, we've seen the flamethrower)
    • Scene without tension: when John faces a room full of half-demons, one of them helpfully says "Holy water" before they all start burning and then Constantine starts shooting, which looks OK, but has no emotional weight
  • Repetition: Characters occasionally tell each other things that we the audience already know; once, John uses a magic means to watch the prologue of the movie that we already saw--which is important for him to know, but boring for us to watch
  • Didn't we see that already?: In a climactic scene, two guys join forces to exorcise a woman. Sure, lots of exorcisms look the same, but why invite the comparison with The Exorcist?
  • That final message from Constantine about god having a plan; and that post-credit scene where Chas is/was a half-angel--both overwrought
  • Casting: Keanu Reeves does a nice "Zen blankness" (as one critic noted), but isn't quite right for the jerkiness of this character
  • Occult inconsistency: We're told that God and Lucifer aren't allowed on Earth, but half-breeds can intervene, so then what is Tilda Swinton's Gabriel and Gavin Rossdale's Balthazar? And the end, when Satan shows up?
  • Character motivation hard to connect to: Constantine has a clear, but odd goal: as a suicide, he's doomed to go to Hell, so he tries to please God by sending demons to Hell... which means that Hell would be full of people who hate him. Given that Constantine can be part of the battle, if his motivation is pure self-interest, why isn't he fighting for Satan, so that his arrival in Hell would be a home-coming? And while the movie has a fine arc for John of self-interest (get me to Heaven) to other-interest (save Angela and her twin sister), I feel like they try to get our interest in him by making him cool rather than making him human/identifiable.
  • Do we need him here?: Constantine's ally Chas disappears for a good chunk of the movie. So why is he here--along with Constantine's other allies, Angela, Beeman, Hennessy, Midnite? (Alt question: who isn't on Constantine's side?)
  • Sudden but inevitable betrayal: we hear that Mammon needs Godly help to get to Earth, which is one piece that sets up Gabriel's heel-turn (or reveal as a villain if you don't like wrestling lingo). But there's no real heft to that betrayal/position?
So, overall, I think Constantine's problems really have to do with the delivery of information about this strange world--it's at its best when it can dramatize that info; and with the strangeness of characters within that milieu (i.e., what does John Constantine want?).

Monday, December 16, 2013

Framing Indiana Jones (or, No Stills, Please, We're British)

When I was young, I used to "watch" a lot of movies by putting them on in the background while I flipped through roleplaying books. "Shouldn't you watch the movie?" asked my dad. "I'm listening to the dialogue, so I know what's going on," I shrugged.

Sure, I know better now; but even after getting into photography (depth of field! rule of thirds! silhouettes! stopping down! solarization!), visuals are more like a second-language than a mother-tongue to me.

And maybe that's why I was so blown away by Raiders of the Lost Ark this time around, now that I was actually paying attention to the still compositions and to the way that Spielberg and cinematographer Slocombe move the camera.

Aside: One danger of film analysis, in my experience, is that people pay too much attention to the still image and talk about framing as if each still was a separate photograph. Sure, there's some talk (especially starting in the 60s and 70s) of how one shot leads into the next--eyeline matching and one-two dialogue shots. But it still tends to see the image as something still. I mean: you can talk about eyeline matching in painting.

(Even really good analysis of visuals can fall into this pattern of talking about composition as if films were just photographs, over and over. See SEK's analysis of Mad Men, Walking Dead, etc., which occasionally falls into this pattern.)

So, when I watched Raiders a few weeks ago, I really wanted to talk about the composition of the shots: how Spielberg loves to play with Indiana Jones as this mysterious and occasionally cold character by putting him in shadow or silhouette in the foreground, while keeping the background in focus and well-lit. Take, for instance, Indy's confrontation with Belloq in the bar in Egypt after the supposed death of Marion Ravenwood:

Belloq in white, with his lit face, matches the background a lot more than Indy, which is something we see a lot here: Indiana separated/against the world, a perfectly logical position for an adventurous guy like Indy, who keeps finding himself surrounded by snakes or fire.

In this particular composition, we can see that Indy is literally shadowed, darker than the world. Which makes sense since here he's haunted by Marion's death and not really responding very much to Belloq. As I said, Indy isn't just against the world, but somehow apart from it in this scenario: what could tether him to the world in this moment? Belloq makes the claim that Indy is just like him: they don't care about people or about the things Nazis are interested in, but in history. Belloq's whole speech about how this cheap watch would be made precious by time ignores the central fact: he's holding a goddamn watch. Yes, fine: Belloq cares about history, not the inevitable mortality that's haunting Indy.

But what happens if we add movement to these scenes? Take  a look at this video of the longest shot in Raiders: the first is this scene between Indy and Belloq; the second is when Brody comes to Indy to say that he's been approved to search for the Ark for the government. The essay attached focuses on how long a scene it is, which is a good lesson for some directors. It ignores the movement of the camera, which tells us somethings very clearly.

Notice here that Indy's room basically has two parts: an office--books, shelves, a desk with a globe; and a bedroom, with a closet. When Indy is excited about the prospect of this job, he's in the office area. For all that I've talked about his separation from the world, I should note that Indy is very much a man of the world--at least, in the sense of his being a faithless materialist. (I mean "faithless" both in his failure to believe in something larger than himself and in his faithlessness to Marion's love and Abner's affection in his backstory.)

And when Indy is wondering about Marion, he's standing in the bedroom area--his personal rather than professional area. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, he's standing in front of his closet because that's where he keeps his secrets.

And when Brody starts talking about the dangers of the ark, the camera moves to focus on him. Who is Brody? Besides being the font of information and advice, he's also a very still person, not at all like Indy as a man of action.

So when Indy disregards Brody's advice, note that he walks across Brody, slapping him on the shoulder good-naturedly. In doing so, he takes the focus away from the cautious Brody and reminds us that Indy is a man of the world, of action, of the professional world rather than the closet/personal world. Which introduces us to one of the weirder tools of the archaeological field: the pistol, which crosses worlds from the office side to the bedroom side.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 206: Ralph Adams Cram, The Dead Valley (#206)

Ralph Adams Cram, "The Dead Valley" (1895) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

You can say a lot about my "Story of the Week Read-Alongs," but one thing you can't say is that I'm usually lukewarm. Lovecraft? Love him. Cather? Pass her.

Ralph Adams Cram? Uh, well... hold on... it'll come to me.

The story here is one of a handful of ghost/horror stories he produced over a few years, though he's more famous for his religious-related architecture--often Gothic, like his stories. Lovecraft apparently liked the regional horror of "The Dead Valley," though we might question what that means. My general rule of thumb: Lovecraft is always right about quality, but not always right about analysis.

See, the story is told by a Swede about a horrible valley in Sweden, but it doesn't feel any more Swedish to me than it does New England--or Appalachian or Texan or etc. It's about two boys who go on a trip to buy a dog and find a valley that's full of poison gas and malevolence. Why isn't that a Texas story? OK--if it were a Texas story, the boys would probably ride horses across the valley.

Set aside the a-regionalism of this story--what about the story? The man tells this story of his boyhood, so we know he survives. As soon as they get a dog and meet the weird fog, you know the dog's going to get it. And when the post-brain fever boys get together and one completely denies the experience--well, that in itself isn't too surprising and it's not surprising that this denial leads the other boy to his own investigation.

So there's really very little reason I could point to and say, "that's why this is a good story." (Sure, sure, maybe all the weaknesses I'm pointing out are really strengths: it's so predictable and so non-regional that we can all easily sink into the dread. As an argument, that strikes me as blah.) And yet, for all that I don't know why I like this story... I like it.

Or rather, I like it in this very peculiar way where I want to write a comic book based on it; or write my own story based on it; or write an anthology movie of various death-fog stories. Maybe that's the secret: so little happens here that you want to fill in your own story.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Why "Thor" is a better movie than "Thor 2"

There's a lot of pressure on sequels and people have a lot of ready-made b.s. to unload. I understand the idea that the sequel has to live up to the first in some way--while also not simply recycling what worked about the first. But there's that attitude that the sequel is destined to be crap because it's just a naked cash grab--that makes very little sense. What was the first, just done for some altruistic reason other than cash?

That said, I went into Thor: The Dark World with no pre-made animus against sequels and franchises, and just a hope that it would continue the fun and interesting work done in the other Marvel movies. (What are we at now? This was the eighth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's a lot of baggage to carry--though less once you realize that the second movie was Norton's Hulk movie.)

This being a professional work of craft, there are a lot of things that went perfectly right or that can't really be complained about. So: things are pretty, both real things--they had a credit for a leatherworker--and not real things, like dark elf spacecraft. And the acting is good. (Also, I saw someone complain that there wasn't a personal touch in the film, but except for Whedony dialogue in The Avengers and Shane Blacky dialogue in Iron Man 3, I'm not sure what sort of overt personal touch there is in many of the other movies. So that seems like a critique that hasn't quite had time to bake.)

That said, the story isn't very interesting, starting (as these things so often do) with the antagonist: Malekith. So the dark elves lived before the universe and want to plunge it back into nothingness. At the same time, the dark elves live on one of the nine realms that exists in the universe. I can get past weirdness like that (there's a way to reconcile that), but we still have a really big goal (destroy everything) with a very abstract drive (I am king of nothing). It's a very unengaging villain goal.

Which is probably why Thor 2 is set up so that much of Thor's conflict is with his dad, which is pretty ho-hum and a bit of a replay from the first movie. Sure, dad now approves of his son but disapproves of his son's love life (as opposed to the first, where he disapproved of both). And there's some argle-bargle about how Odin is acting so bad that he's as bad as Malekith. Wait, the guy who wants to protect his realm is as bad as the guy who would sacrifice everyone in order to end the universe?

Once again, the best parts of the movie center on Thor and Loki and Loki's confused status: he's a giant, but he's also an Asgardian; he's beloved by his mother but less so by his father; he wants power and respect, but what would he actually do if he had either?

Monday, December 9, 2013

Retro-future or just retro-retro: very vague thoughts on The Rocketeer

Why does The Rocketeer work? Wait, does The Rocketeer work? I've only seen it two-three times; and I see that it barely made back its investment in domestic box office (and hardly did more internationally). But I think if you released it now, people would be a lot more interested in the Art Deco-design. And maybe Disney might market it under a slightly different label so people don't think it's a kid film.

But no matter how poorly it did, it's a fun, light-hearted movie, even though it involves Nazis and gangsters and men down on their luck. How did it do that? Part of the issue is that no one is just waiting around for the protagonist to fix everything. Part of what makes it work is that the main characters have multiple, conflicting desires--even if those are pretty ordinary desires (usually career success/romantic success--and who can't identify with that?).

And as wacky as it is--Nazis! gangsters! Howard Hughes!--it keeps pretty close and simple at first and only builds to that wackiness. It's a very easy film to watch, since the world is totally normal at first and only slowly spins away from what we know.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 205: Willa Cather, A Gold Slipper (#205)

Willa Cather, "A Gold Slipper" (1917) from Willa Cather: Stories, Poems, & Other Writings:

Hard-headed, conservative businessman goes head-to-head with outrageous singer from California/Europe. Cather doesn't pull any punches--or, in other words, she doesn't bother with too much subtlety. The man is not just compared to rock (or rather, brick, since rock is probably too natural), but works in coal--though of course he doesn't actually work with his hands. And he's so anti-doing things that he didn't even go see this singer when he was in Paris, even though there's nothing to do in Paris. Add in a rim-shot and you've got a comedy routine there.

Though the story begins with the drab businessman being dragged along to a concert, the bulk of the story is actually the dialogue between the two: they happen to be taking the same train. The singer is outrageous but also very smart and charming and honest, as when she notes that the culture has convinced even her that drab office-working stenographers have some better claim to morality than she does.

Which leads to the final prank: she leaves him a gold slipper, which starts as an insult and becomes a cherished item for him, a reminder of youth and happiness.

But let's be clear on one thing: though this singer may be a good singer who, like Elvis, is proud to support many people (both family and entourage), she seems to have her mind on the main prize as much as the businessman. As we see at the beginning, most of her affectations are chosen so that she becomes a household word. In other words, a little outrageousness is just the thing to separate the rubes from their money.

Or as The Onion noted about Green Day's rock-musical American Idiot,
The protagonist ultimately realizes that fulfillment doesn't come from rigid societal conformism, but from a mild, inoffensive brand of nonconformism that is easily digestible—even widely marketable—to the masses. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Characters and stakes: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tootsie

I recently watched two classics of the 1980s that both, in their own way, help focus on the idea of character and stakes. Now, there's something I've been hearing in various interviews with screenwriters: that executives give notes asking for the stakes to be raised, which usually means to put more people in peril, usually ending with world-destroying villains or even worse.

Now, maybe a month ago, I heard some brouhaha over a discussion on The Big Bang Theory related to Raiders: that Indiana Jones fails to actually impact the story. That is, at the climax, Jones is tied to a post and it is the Ark itself that destroys the Nazis. Someone on Twitter even opined that Jones made things worse since, without him, the Ark would've been opened in front of Hitler, thus killing the Fuehrer. This is wrong--the only mention of Hitler in relation to the Ark is that he's uncomfortable with this Jewish ritual that includes opening it up. But even though that's wrong, it shows you that people are willing to recognize that Jones doesn't really save the world in Raiders. Which is meant to mean that he's not really important.

Which is bullshit.

It is totally correct to argue that Jones doesn't save the Ark. In fact, since he's the one who uncovers the Ark, you could argue that he's the one who put it in the Nazi's hands. So, yeah: Jones doesn't defeat the Nazis, the Ark has to do it itself. (Though we could also note that the Ark fails some times too: it burns off the Nazi markings of the crate in the hold of Katanga's ship--but the Nazis still find it. Stupid Ark, can't you do anything right?)

But Jones does do two very important things in the movie: he rescues Marion from the Nazis in Nepal; and he reconciles with her and makes himself a better person. Which is one way this movie heavily diverges from its pulp ancestors: the old pulp heroes would save the world and the girl but remain the same. Jones changes through the action of the film, finding not only faith but the worth of other people.

And this was driven home when I compared it to Tootsie: like Indy, Michael is great at what he does (acting), but is also a giant asshole who undervalues women--and who acts for his own gain. (Indy leaving Marion in the tent; Michael hiding his Dorothy persona by having sex with Sandy, played by an amazing intense Teri Garr.) And Michael doesn't save the world: he doesn't raise the status of women all that much; and he ends up hurting a bunch of people along the way. But in the end, he comes to be a better person.

So what are the stakes of Raiders and Tootsie? Simply that the hero can become a better person.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Lessons from odd places: The Tick (2001)

I was a huge fan of the 1994 animated series The Tick, starring an obtuse, nigh invulnerable superhero named the Tick, who had no particular tick-related abilities besides his antennae. He was partnered with sad sack ex-accountant Arthur--who dressed in a moth suit that was continually mistaken for a bunny costume; and had several parody superhero friends, including American Maid and Der Fledermaus. When I was in high school, this show really hit hard with its evisceration of superhero tropes. For instance, when the Tick attacks a group of villains called The Idea Men, he asks them what the big scheme is behind their attempt to ransom the city's dam.
Tick: OK Idea Man! What’s the big idea?
Idea Man: Well, we thought we’d steal a lot of money, and then we’d be rich, and we wouldn’t have to work anymore!

Still, I never got around to watching the 2001 live-action version of The Tick--even though I read the comics--largely because it seemed like a terrible idea. I mean, I loved the cartoon, with its mix of absurdism and (don't laugh) gritty reality. For instance, Tick once fought this terrible Soviet supervillain--which is absurd. Except since the Cold War was decades ago, this ancient supervillain was just that: ancient. Not really the villainous dynamo he once was, which is why I say it had some gritty reality mixed in. This supervillain also hung out with a man-eating cow, which could go either way.

But the comics were a little too dark for me: instead of just being an obtuse superhero, the fact of the Tick's serious issues were sometimes alluded to. I mean, here's a guy who doesn't know who he is and is probably an escapee from a mental institution. In bright, animated colors, that's funny and ignorable. But put Patrick Warburton in a big blue suit and what you basically have is the story of a mentally-challenged man-child and his overwhelmed caretaker. For instance, there's the episode where the Tick has to learn about death.

Not exactly hilarious.

And yet, the show is funny, if a little sad; and has some good lessons for writers interested in TV.

Which is what I wanted to talk about and the rest is just preamble. Which I won't cut because I love the animated Tick so.

For instance, take the episode "The License," where the Tick's identity becomes an issue: he doesn't have a superhero license, so Arthur tries to help him find his real identity. The Tick is identified as some woman's husband--which in another show would bring us to a plot about a black widow or a scheme. But no: she's just a mentally-unstable woman who is so lonely that she has delusions of being married to some men who dress up in costumes. And though the Tick still sort of thinks he's married to her, his desire to be a superhero tells him that this isn't going to work out.

But what's great about this episode is how this question of identity gets replayed in the sub-stories for the other main three characters: sidekick Arthur without the Tick is just an accountant; the American Maid-analog Captain Liberty tries to hide her superhero identity in order to date a normal; while the hyper-sexed Batmanuel tries to raise his visibility by hiring a PR agent and planting photos in the newspaper.

Now, those last two subplots don't really affect the main story (it's very much A: Tick finds wife, Arthur loses Tick; B: Captain Liberty hides suit; C: Batmanuel highlights suit), but you can see how, even in The Tick, the episode is structured by a common theme that helps unify the episode.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 204: Lucretia Mott, No Greater Joy Than to See These Children Walking in the Anti-Slavery Path (#204)

Lucretia Mott, "No Greater Joy Than to See These Children Walking in the Anti-Slavery Path" (1864) from American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation:

This is Lucretia Mott's speech from an 1863 anti-slavery convention; and we lose a little context in not hearing the other speakers at that convention. At least once, Mott makes a direct reference to something that was said in a speech and the remarks made in answer to that speech. All that is not here. What we do have, however, is a short speech that happens to name-check some very early abolitionists and also extend a welcoming hand to new abolitionists; a speech that recognizes the main task of abolishing slavery, while also nodding at the future quests: equality for blacks and equality for women.

In fact, I thought Mott dealt with the issue of women very generously, noting

  • Women may have some special understanding of those who are denied their natural rights
    • "We might, as women, dwell somewhat upon our own restrictions, as connected with this Anti-Slavery movement.";
  • That those rights are not replaceable with chivalrous attention, as when some abolitionist women went to an anti-slavery convention in London and learned that "persons" did not include women; and where they received "flattery in lieu of our rights";
  • But that she would pass on without delving too deeply into the woman question.
Classic Mott, am I right?

But the overwhelming message here is that there's so much more still to do: "we should keep on our armor." Which also gives us part of the title of this piece: the old-time abolitionists have done some of the work, but the future struggles are for the new activists. And what about those johnny-come-latelys--the people who used to make fun of or not join in with the "radical" abolitionists, who have now come over? In 1863, with the Civil War on, this seems like a sightly hopeful question to ask. But Mott's answer is also very hopeful: we should "welcome them at this eleventh hour" and give them all the praise that's due to them--if they pitch in and do their work.

Now, the LoA page notes that Mott was a little too optimistic and that the abolitionist movement would splinter over many issues (including the issue of equality for women); but I don't know if I can fault Mott for her optimism, which seems measured against the enormity of the struggles to come.