Monday, March 31, 2014

Inside and outside Llewyn Davis

If you want to read some interesting commentary on Inside Llewyn Davis, I suggest you check out Todd Alcott's discussion of it (starting here).

Although my mom was a folky and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, I was never really all that knowledgeable about the folk scene or movement; as illustration of that, if I have the choice of watching This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, I'll always choose Spinal Tap. Inside Llewyn Davis seems like it's even more referential to the real folk scene than Guest's Might Wind--just Google Image search for the cover of Llewyn's album and compare it to Dave van Ronk's album Inside and you'll see how close they are. So there's lots of references that I won't get and we can argue about how close this is to the historical situation; but at the end of the day, this is also a movie. So how's it work as a movie?


I mean, take apart a Coen movie into its constituent parts and what do we find:

  • a protagonist who gets pushed around by the environment and other people; a protagonist searching for home or identity (think of the Dude launched into action because his rug was ruined--the rug that "really pulled the room together"; or think of O Brother's Ulysses trying to put his family back together; of Barton Fink in a crappy hotel room staring at a picture of a beach);
  • a group of secondary characters that verge on the cartoony and grotesque (an angry character in a Coen brother film is always ready to be angry, a dumb character is on the edge of being too dumb to live, etc.);
  • some sort of quest, often to see or placate the Big Man/father figure (the studio director-turned-general in Barton Fink, the rich-not rich Lebowski, the mob/political boss of Miller's Crossing);
  • and some dark, weird humor.
And while Llewyn Davis seems different in some ways--Llewyn is less rakish and charming than many of their damaged protagonists--it's also pretty straight-forwardly Coenly:

  • Llewyn is a folk singer without a home: he floats from couch to couch, gets various boxes that people are no longer willing to hold for him; he's so homeless that he doesn't even have a grand story arc--no single quest to drive the movie;
  • Lleweyn is surrounded by New York grotesques: the Columbia professoriate who are only interested in things academically, his goofy folk scene compatriots--Justin Timberlake's aching eagerness, the military folky Troy's aching sincerity and simpleness, the grasping or incompetent agent Mel (who likes funerals more than sending out records), etc.
  • a series of quests around family and fatherhood: getting the cat back to the childless professors; getting the money for an abortion; learning about the child he has out there since one girlfriend didn't go through with her planned abortion; getting ancient jazzman/heroin addict/voodoo practitioner across the country; performing for big macher Bud Grossman, owner of a folk theater and kingmaker ("Gross" is big and/or disgusting, but with the first name "Bud," it's also "grows"); satisfying the older men at the Merchant Marines' union; playing for his legendary seaman dad, who has become senile; and finally going out to meet a shadowy figure who beats him up for making a scene with his wife;
  • and some unexpected laughs.
What's most interesting to me in this film is how the big man role and the quests seem to fracture. Which, from a craft perspective, is an interesting choice: it keeps the story moving and changing, but it doesn't give the viewers a comfortable hook to grab on to take them through the film. And it's not like the quests lead to each other: Llewyn doesn't go meet Bud Grossman because of anything that John Goodman does. Some of the quests don't go off at all--he never goes to Akron to meet his child--and the ones he does complete go wrong as often as not--he never finds the right cat to bring back to the professors' house, he doesn't get the go ahead from the big promoter, his dad doesn't respond to his music except by shitting himself, etc.

In a way, that series of quests and failures makes this movie the most bleak of the Coen brothers films. And I think we have to ask ourselves what success would even look like for Llewyn Davis. Is folk success fame and money? Authenticity? Getting out of the business entirely? It's hard to imagine a happy ending for him--which may be why the film opens and closes with some of the same images and ends by petering out: instead of chasing after the father figure that just beat him up and left him in the alley, Llewyn merely waves him off.

(Or does he say "au revoir"--until I see you again?)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 220: Emma Frances Dawson, An Itinerant House (#220)

Emma Frances Dawson, "An Itinerant House" (1878) from American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny from Poe to the Pulps:

OK, there is one super-important bit of historical information that the LoA page tells you that makes this story slightly less eerie, which is... ready? I don't want to spoil anything for you, so read on if you want a slightly less eerie story: some of the 19th-century houses in San Francisco were pre-made iron structures that were made to be portable. So when the title promises "An Itinerant House," the double meaning is both that this is a house for itinerants and that the house itself moves around. Which makes the story slightly less eerie, but slightly more historically weird: when the protagonist goes into a room and remembers the room where that Traumatic Event happened, we're meant to understand that this is actually the room where it happened, not merely the narrator's psychic slippage.

And "slippage" is going to be the word of the day for this piece: not only does the house move around, but all the characters move around abruptly, and history itself jumps. For instance, in one line we might be in San Francisco, and in the next everyone has moved on, then met up again on a ship in NY in the next line, and then, in the fourth sentence, the long sea voyage is over and we're back in San Francisco. And I haven't even mentioned the most serious slippage of all, which is the way these characters keep slipping in some artistic reference or quote. Seriously, if you took out all the references to pre-existing work, this story would be half as long.

There's some justification for that, since these characters are all artists, but it gives the whole piece an unreal vibe. I'm trying to think of a good movie comparison here--Whit Stillman's dialogue is very mannered--but there's nothing quite like this non-stop quote-fest. Of course, they are using these quotes to express their real feelings (not like those guys you went to high school with who use Simpsons and Monty Python quotes to hide their feelings), but it still gives the story an unreal atmosphere, especially with the jumps in time.

Which is why it's so disappointing to find that this sort of house really was portable and this isn't all in these people's minds. Because the story's style and tone is so heightened and strange that it's a bit of a let-down to find this bedrock of reality.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Would I cruise again?

It may be unfair to judge cruises by my experience of a non-cruise; but I think being in port on a giant floating hotel/waste factory gave me at least some idea of cruise life. So would I cruise again?

When Sarah and I debriefed about the good and the bad of the Navigator of the Seas/Royal Caribbean, the first thing that came up was the boat itself and the people who worked there, which were all positive. The employees were all helpful. (And I'd love to talk to them about their stories--it's like a floating French Foreign Legion there, with people from all over. So what brought them here?) The boat was fine: easy to get lost in windowless halls, but enough space in the facilities, like the restaurants. There was even enough space in the hot tub, even though the teens seemed to congregate there. Ugh, teens.

Then there's the food, which was fine and plentiful. Honestly, there wasn't anything so great that I'd cross the street for it; and considering the buffet style, I can see how cruises get their reputation for excess. (I did hit the pineapple pretty hard, but I do that on land, too.) The fancy formal dinner was fine for me, and very easy to choose the lactose-free option, though I'm not sure it's worth loading up my suitcase with suits.

The activity list was a little screwed up by the change of plans and cool weather in Galveston. For instance, I never got to try the rock climbing wall, so I can keep the fantasy that I'd be very good at it. Still, I was a little disappointed to find so many paid events and so many seminars clearly designed to get people to pay. Even with those, there may be enough events to keep one busy, and I brought a lot of my own stuff to do anyway. (Though this raises the question: if I'm interested in watching Orphan Black, do I need to be on the ocean to do so?)

And some of the activities and some of the guests... well, look, I understand that the cruise ship isn't going to invite a Marc Maron to come talk about dark shit or an Andy Kaufman to come challenge our expectations of stand-up. But our comedian R. T. Steckel was just so 80s, joking about how Asians can't drive and doing an extended musical mix about the evolution of love. Some of what he did was funny and interesting, but so much more of it was hacky--and the audience didn't seem to care. (I'm not even talking about being offended, I'm talking about being bored. These were the same jokes I used to hear as a kid staying up late to watch stand-up on Friday night.) I know that 30 Rock vastly lost ratings to The Big Bang Theory, but I don't need to be reminded of that so starkly on my vacation.

Which brings me to what may be the worst part of the cruise, which is the other people. Oh, sure, there's enough space; and yes, it was nice to chat with some people about their dogs; and yes, I even like seeing families having fun together. But on the other side, I don't need to hear senior citizens talking about how terrible Obamacare is; or how the wetbacks take so long at the bank since they're illegal immigrants and sending money home (real conversation); or about how America is changing.

So would I cruise again? Sure, though I'd prepare myself for all the lines and be sure to avoid talking about politics. Or, heck, maybe I'd go around arguing with people all the time. That sounds pretty fun, now that I think of it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A supposedly fun thing that didn't really go off as planned.

Here's the story, with no digressions:

I've never been on a cruise and never really had the urge to, but Sarah wanted to celebrate her MA graduation with a vacation we didn't have to plan.

We picked out a Royal Caribbean cruise for seven nights, a western Caribbean cruise stopping in Roatan, Honduras; Belize City, Belize; and Cozumel, Mexico. We arranged with some Houston friends to watch our dog. We got audiobooks for the 6-7 hour drive to Houston. I bought some new ties for dinner time.

The drive to Houston on Saturday went fine. The dog settled in fine. The food in Houston was pretty good.

But on Sunday, when we were supposed to drive to Galveston and board the cruise ship, we got news that the Port of Galveston was temporarily closed due to oil spill. In the larger scheme of things, we were doing OK: we weren't stuck like the people on the ship or in danger like the sea animals and birds in the area.

That night, we got the all-clear to come to Galveston and board the ship, which was a series of long lines--a car line to drop off our luggage, a car line to drop the car off at the parking lot, a long human line to get through security, then another long line to get our ID cards. It was 1:30am when we got to our room. It had a virtual balcony, which is a large monitor-like screen that shows the outside world. In this case, it showed the port.

The next morning, it showed the same thing. Being stuck on a cruise ship at port is probably not all that different from being on a cruise ship at sea; though due to cool weather and rain, a lot of the outdoor activities were cancelled. So we explored the ship, hit a hot tub, went to the gym. Really: not a bad life.

The only annoying, niggling thing was the uncertainty. When were we going to leave? Eventually we got told that Roatan was cancelled, but we'd get more news about leaving later that night.

Then, at the formal dinner--where we shared the table with some dog-loving and straight-laced senior citizens and avoided talking about politics or religion--we got told that the cruise would be totally cancelled. People could leave the ship when they wanted to; or they could stay and use it as a hotel/buffet. Either way, we'd get a full refund and a discount for our next cruise.

For a lot of people--for example, for the retirees from snowy states--this was perfectly good news.

But Sarah's vacation days are a finite resource and she really wanted to snorkel in Roatan and see some Mayan ruins in Belize. So we decided to cut our vacation short, save three vacation days (and not stick our friends with our dog for longer than necessary), and hopefully re-book at a future date.

It was too late to leave Monday night, but on Tuesday, we packed, picked up the dog, and drove back to San Angelo.

Here, if you're waiting for it, is the final kicker: around halfway through the trip home, I got a message from Royal Caribbean saying that they were going to leave for a quick trip to Cozumel.

And that's my story of the cruise that didn't happen--at least, not for us, not this time.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Groundhog Day's odd structure/regular structure

Groundhog Day is a great movie that connects very easily with a universal fear/hope: being trapped vs. getting a do-over. (Check out how many of the secondary characters feel trapped and have some regrets from the past.)

But it isn't exactly a normal movie in many ways. As this article on points out, Groundhog Day makes a lot of odd choices, from hinting at some really dark events (Phil freezes to death?) to completely avoiding the usual guide/rule-setting of this sort of supernatural/spiritual fantasy. (No Three Ghosts of Christmas, no even setting the rules as in Switch or Defending Your Life.)

What's curious to me is how the movie doesn't really set up a standard three act structure. Here's what we'd expect from a three-act Groundhog Day:

  • Phil gets himself into trouble, perhaps by getting an opportunity;
  • Phil gets himself into deeper trouble, reaching the lowest point, the darkest moment;
  • Phil finds the strength/makes the sacrifice/gets a chance to remake some decision he made at the beginning, only now he makes the right decision.

(That last one is particularly funny: so many films have some parallel between the opening mistake of the character and how he reforms at the end. But Groundhog Day is nothing but parallels and repetitions.)

Or we could put this in David Mamet terms:

  • Once upon a time... there was a real jerk named Phil Connors who... well, what?
    • was a jerk... or
    • was a jerk and started to relive the same day over and over, which gave him the opportunity to be his truest jerk self.
  • Then one day... well, what?
    • either he starts to repeat the same day or
    • having gotten the opportunity to repeat the same day and live without consequences, he realizes that there's something shallow about this all, and so he sets his goals on the previously rejected and unattainable Rita (Andie MacDowell), but she continues to reject him.
  • But there was one thing they all forgot... which is that either
    • Phil could still reform for Rita, or (more likely)
    • Phil could reform for himself.
So there really is a classic story here: jerk discovers his own heart of gold. Or, as one reviewer put it, schmuck repeats the same day until he gets it right.

And when you lay it out like that, we can see a pretty clear three-act structure:

  • Phil is a jerk
  • Phil gets interested in Rita
  • Phil becomes a good person and so becomes interesting to Rita

But then, if you try to fill it in with many of the traditional markers of act structure, you'll hit something of a wall: Act 1 ends (in many structures) when the character is committed to the adventure--but when is Phil committed? When he can't leave Punxsutawney? When he starts to repeat the day? When he starts to enjoy re-living the day? I definitely think we should look at that last option as the most significant of his stuck points--but it's worth noticing how he has a few points-of-no-return that lead him to that.

Similarly, Act 2 ends (usually) at the lowest point in the protagonist's story. So where's the low point for Phil?  Well, being stuck in Punxsutawney is pretty bad; being stuck in one day is pretty bad; trying to make a chance by killing yourself over and over is pretty bad; realizing that the person you like (sorta) doesn't--won't--can't--like you back is probably the worst part...

But again, we see how the worst part of Phil's story (for Phil) is preceded by a whole slew of bad events.

And thus we can also see how in Act 3, when he finally reforms and convinces Rita to love him, his good end is preceded by a bunch of tiny good moments: saving people, trying to save people, giving the little people the time and space to be themselves, etc.

So there is a regular three-act structure, but all of those acts consist of some repetitive action or feeling--which is one of those observations that should lead to forehead-slapping. Well, of course Groundhog Day is repetitive... except for where it switches around those act breaks.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 219: David G. Farragut,The Capture of USS Essex (#219)

David G. Farragut, "The Capture of USS Essex" (1879) from The War of 1812: Writings from America’s War of Independence:

Today's Story of the Weej is another naval adventure (of sorts) from the War of 1812, David G. Farragut was only 12 years old at the time, a young midshipman on board the USS Essex under David Porter, Jr. (Farragut's adopted father and naval sponsor). Farragut later wrote his memoir for his family (according to the headnote) and they published it in 1879, giving all the world an early glimpse of torture porn.

No, that's a little unfair: I haven't read any of his memoir; and though this section is pretty graphic in terms of the violence, it doesn't sink to pure horror tittilation. There is some bleeding out and some shot off legs and such, but there's also a lot of patriotic death-bed speeches and people jumping to their death after being mortally wounded so as to help their fellow crewmembers.

I can't really recommend this as a piece of work--rhetoric or fiction--but as a source for historical research, it is pretty interesting. Assuming, of course, that Farragut's memoir hewed closely to the historical truth.

Friday, March 21, 2014

So... MacGruber

I haven't been writing here lately because I've been busy with other things and I haven't seen many movies lately.

Except just the other day I watched MacGruber, the film version of the SNL sketch about a MacGyver parody. It tanked at the theaters, but has since grown in reputation as a film for film- and comedy-nerds.

But I'm not entirely sure why. There are many things to like about the film, starting with its po-faced seriousness: the opening 15 minutes or so really have no out-and-out jokes, but could seem like any action-hero opening, with the bad guy stealing the weapon and the salty old mentor finding the hot-shot who dropped out of the game. In fact, depending on your temperament, you might not find any jokes at all in the opening.

Which is a funny thing to say about a film that is an extended MacGyver parody in parts and includes the hero using and re-using the line about the villain Von Cunth that he's "going to go pound some Cunth." That is, while the film is really out-there sometimes--explosions are accompanied by jaguar sounds--it's also really subtle in other parts.

They have a lot of fun playing with the action hero tropes, some of which are really fun and demented, from MacGruber always dressing up his allies as him to use them as bait, to the obligatory soft-core sex scene, which starts out in traditional sentimental form and then transitions into two people being sweaty at each other. But it's all so strange, that I can see why people didn't like it; and a lot of it is so straight-forward that I can see why some people thought it was boring or disjointed.

So let me revise: I can see why some people think this film is better than it was received as; but I can also see why it failed at the box office.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 218: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Birds of Killingworth (#218)

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Birds of Killingworth" (1863) from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems & Other Writings:

The other day, a friend complimented me on my blog and the thought I put into these LoA posts, which of course comes back to bite me today when I'm given a bit of poetry to read. Now, I've previously said that I'm not a poetry person.

Which reminds me of another discussion I had/listened in to this last week, which was about one of those on-going fights that science fiction has with itself. This time, as usual, the argument revolves around how progressive and welcoming science fiction is--and whether the fandom community has any touchstones. One particularly screwy post harkened back to a Golden Age where Heinlein was our lodestone or guiding star--everyone read Heinlein and no problems were so serious that a good rereading of Starman Jones couldn't solve. (What's screwy with that is the history or the idea that Heinlein was some rock.) 

But it reminded me of the fights that would go on in academia, which very often stem from a slip from action to identity verbs: "I read Heinlein" becomes "I am a Heinlein-reader" much like "I like Marx's theories" becomes "I am a Marxist." Some of this is probably unavoidable and maybe necessary in community formation. (There's no fandom without someone who slips from "I like sf" to "I am an sf fan.") But these identities becomes problematic when they become inflexible and so ego-oriented that any attack on the object of devotion becomes an attack on the self. Which often calls up a defense or aggressive offense. And so we get despised science fiction fans arguing for their inherent superiority to normal people ("Fans are slans!") or this notion that any attempt to stretch science fiction is an attack on oneself.

Which is a long way of saying: relax about not being a poetry person. I've seen a lot of people freeze up when the notion of poetry comes up, as if poetry were some advanced discipline and they couldn't get into it, and any attempt to do so would be wasted energy on their part or an affront to poetry/culture.

If that happens, give them Longfellow. When I started this poem, I felt that cramp one gets trying to do something new. But really: it's a narrative poem about a town that votes to kill off the birds they think are bad, despite the fact that one speaker at the town meeting totally nails what's going to happen--with the birds gone, the insects will destroy more crops--and then that happens and everyone is sad, until they're able to rebuild their bird population. On top of that simple narrative, Longfellow adds a lot of description of the people and the birds, and there's a lot of comparing going on, which you could write a paper about, if you wanted to. Or you could just take it as a very simple story in poetry form. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Believable character change and likable in Ruby Sparks

I recently watched Ruby Sparks, the updating of Weird Science and parodic deconstruction of the manic pixie dream girl archetype.

Or something.

Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) is a sad sack of a genius, wunderkind author: his first book is beloved, but he's never been able to follow it up. The film doesn't really pull punches about Calvin's sad-sackdom: his brother is a successful professional (lawyer?) who has a good but realistic marriage and whose primary hobby seems to be hanging out with Calvin and getting him to go to the gym. Calvin is friends with some other famous novelists and has a supportive (and demanding) agent. And he's got a therapist who lets him vent about his ex-girlfriend and gives him a stuffed animal to cuddle. Calvin lives in a nice house, has a cute dog, and apparently is well-supplied with typewriter ribbons, since he's still typing on one of those. Also, girls throw themselves at him.

And he can't write.

What do we call a character who has every opportunity but can't get anything done? We might call him a loser, or a sad sack, or depressed, or lazy, or traumatized. Is this a flaw in him we can identify with? A flaw that makes him unlikeable? Or something that was done to him?

Ruby Sparks doesn't exactly want to pathologize Calvin by diagnosing and dosing him, which leaves us with someone who has an unidentifiable situation for most people (he's a wunderkind, with a beloved first book and/or a wealthy family that apparently allows him to live a life of relative luxury) with a semi-identifiable problem (he's blocked, procrastinating, self-loathing, whatever--which is why the problem is only semi-identifiable, because it's only semi-identified by the movie).

Which means that we're watching a movie about someone we don't really like.

Eventually, he's confronted by his problems--his ex-girlfriend points out that he's a self-centered jerk, he uses his magical writing power for completely self-centered reasons by turning Ruby from a person into a puppet for his amusement. And he... changes?

I mean, that's what the movie should do, structurally: take an anti-hero or man with a flaw and allow him to fix himself. That's what the movies wants us to believe in some ways: he gives Ruby her freedom, finishing his book and putting it out into the world, to do its own thing.

And yet, it's not really believable and Calvin has already built up so much ill-will that it's hard to give him a break here. On top of that, it doesn't help that he doesn't actually pay any price or give anything up to make things right: he writes a book, keeps his house, gets along with his family, and even gets the girl again in the end.

So, in a way, I found it hard to get into and harder to swallow.

Think of another movie that swirls around similar issue: Scott Pilgrim. That movie/comic does something smart in making Scott likable and then confronting him with his issues in a way that recasts his protagonist status--and then allows him to fix them. Or take 500 Days of Summer: another likable schmo, with a narration and heightened reality to give us some distance from him, whose problem is easily sketched out and whose course runs him through a ringer of punishment.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Frozen, part 2 (random lessons for aspiring writers)

While I was writing some thoughts on Frozen, I had a whole bunch of other thoughts. Which serves as a lesson: don't write your thoughts out, because it will just make more work for you.

And here's some other lessons from Frozen:

Hiding exposition:
Frozen does this nice trick where it hides exposition and boring plot points in dialogue that seems like something else. For instance, when Hans tells Anna that he has 12 older brothers, they do so simply in a bonding scene that quickly gets to Anna's unhappiness with her sister. And the fact that Hans has 12 older brothers is a crucial plot point for his motivation. So Anna will say yes to his proposal because she's lonely (which we already knew), but we'll learn later that Hans only proposes because of this issue.

Similarly, Kristoff drops the information about this winter coming from the North Mountain in small talk about the weather. Is there anything more boring than small talk? And yet, Kristoff does this in front of Anna, and it's crucial that she knows this. Hmmm... so this example isn't so much "hiding exposition" as "getting crucial information out in a natural way."

Set up the turn:
Dumb snowman Olaf is given some of the important revelations in the movie--that Kristoff loves Anna being the most important. It might seem like a cheat to have this sidekick suddenly provide the revelation. Except we've seen that Olaf is very observant, even if he doesn't know the significance of what he's observing. For instance, he talks about how Elsa is probably very warm and sweet right as he walks into some impaling ice lances and then he comments that he's been impaled. And so on: Olaf observes constantly, so it's not surprising that he's the one who observed Kristoff's affection.

Make a joke of it to get double the fun:
When Anna comes to Elsa's ice palace, she hesitates to knock, which shows--for once--some hesitation in her action. (Usually she's a charge ahead person; but where it comes to her sister, she's... a little torn.) And then Olaf makes a joke of it--"Does she know how to knock?"--which gives the scene another source of entertainment: Anna's character and the joke.

Repeat problems:
A hallmark of film structure is that you give your hero the same situation, with some crucial differences. Usually the difference is in the hero: he used to think his job was important, but now he realizes, blah blah blah. Frozen does some of this, but it also changes the world. So, we meet Anna at the beginning as someone who is locked out in the hallway while her sister is on the other side in the room; at the end, we see Anna locked in the room by Hans and rescued by... we'd expect her sister, but really it's Olaf, a representation of the sisters' childhood love.

Avoiding explanations:
I don't quite understand why Sven the reindeer makes Kristoff go back to rescue Anna from Hans. After all, Sven doesn't know the danger Anna is in; and he's not been set up like Olaf as the observant one. But just as the movie avoids talking about magic and trolls in this world (they just are, here are the rules you need to know, get over it), the filmmakers make a smart move here by giving Sven some agency--especially since he doesn't talk and can't explain himself. (Also, very smart of them to give Sven the personality of a dog, so that the reindeer-less viewers can understand their relationship a bit.)

Rooting for both sides:
When Hans goes to confront Elsa, the film pulls a good trick on us so that we can root for both Hans (the heroic prince, we think) and Elsa (the soon-to-be gay rights icon): they give us secondary characters that we can root against. So between Hans and Marshmallow, the giant scary snowman, we root for Hans; between Elsa and the evil duke's thugs, we root for Elsa. No one has to really suddenly change their personality totally--Elsa still wants to be left alone, Hans still wants to do the right thing (we think)--but we're able to root for both of them.

Interrupt a scene to change the direction:
When Kristoff and Anna are being married by the trolls, they don't have to totally object and start talking about how they don't want to be married. No, just give Anna an attack of her magical cold. (How convenient.) When Anna and Elsa are arguing in the ice palace, have Olaf or Kristoff walk in. Have Hans show up. Olaf discovers stairs so Kristoff and Anna don't have to argue. There are a lot of ways to keep a scene from just spinning its wheels over one issue by having another character interrupt, either changing the direction or giving weight to one side.

The importance of theme:
Sure, this movie is about sisterly love and how terrible it is to fall for the first guy you see; but both Anna and Elsa are struggling with parallel thematic journeys, from fear to love (Elsa) and from false love to real love (Anna).

Monday, March 10, 2014

Frozen, part 1 (move forward and songs)

I was going to try to write a whole series on Frozen, a la my posts on Sneakers; but after listening to the Scriptnotes podcast interview with the screenwriter Jennifer Lee, I'm not all that sure it's worthwhile. I mean, they have such a good discussion and talk about most of the things I would want to talk about.

It's also interesting to hear the background/production issues and see how that affects the writing and making of the movie. For instance, I read the script, and I noticed that there's a lot of things that are not really explained or described. So the first scene, of the ice harvesters, describes them simply as "dressed in traditional Sami clothing." What does that mean? Well, if you were writing a spec script, you might have to say more to help the reader picture it. But this script gets away with being less descriptive because most of these elements already have art work. So when we first meet Elsa and Anna, they have no description other than their age--but these characters are probably already drawn up and these drawings are available to anyone who needs to know what they look like (casting directors, voice directors, actual animators, etc.).

That said, it's also worth noting (as they do in the podcast) how this script and this movie doesn't spend a lot of time lingering over things; it's always moving forward in some way. So, the ice harvesters sing about how dangerous ice and cold are AND we get introduced to the solitary group of Kristoff and Sven; then we see how Elsa and Anna love to play together AND that Elsa has magical powers AND then we see Elsa hurt Anna with magic. And so on: every scene moves.

Which is why, instead of the sisterly confrontation being at the end, it's in the middle. Which is why, instead of filling in backstory explaining why Elsa is magic, all we get is one line from Papa Troll asking "Born with the powers or cursed?"

(Side note for academics: there's a dozen papers to be written about this movie along some semi-traditional lines: class (do you play with snow like royalty or work with ice like the Saami?); gender (ice is stronger than 100 men according to the song, but it's under the power of one girl); etc.)

In addition to how fast it moves, Frozen would also be a good movie to study for transitions. Some of its transitions are pretty plain--like fading to black and then fading up with the title card "Three Years Later"; but other transitions are a little more organic: the use of the king's narration about the plan for the future blending in with seeing those plans put into action; the fade between a fountain frozen into a threatening ice-form to the threatening mountains that Elsa trudges up; the visiting dignitaries talking about the princess's beauty to a smash-cut of her napping messily; etc.

Following on my recent post about the narrative weight of action scenes, it's also interesting to look at the songs as action scenes. As we'd expect in a musical, many of the songs are primarily useful for telling us about characters. (That is, in many traditional musicals, you break into song when words can no longer do your emotions justice.) So we learn about Olaf's innocence-to-suicide when he sings about summer; and we learn about Anna's excitement and Elsa's dread in "For the First Time in Forever"; and we learn about solitary Kristoff's feelings on society; etc. There's also the pure spectacle of the songs, as when Anna and Hans dance in an entertaining way (their shadows cast on a ship's sails, them doing the robot with mechanical clock figures). There's also a lot of theme work going on in those songs; for instance, in Olaf's song, which is fun (spectacle) and gives us his cracked perspective (a snowman who wants to see summer?), we also get hints of the thematic struggle in the movie between desire and fear.

OK, I have a few more lessons to learn from Frozen, but that's long enough for now.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 217: Edith Wharton, Autres Temps... (#217)

Edith Wharton, "Autres Temps..." (1911) from Edith Wharton: Collected Stories 1911–1937:

I didn't mean to read the whole thing standing here. It's a 30-page story about complicated social mores of the past, featuring less than five major characters, none of whom is particularly funny or interesting on their own:

  • the older (widowed?) Mrs. Lidcote who broke off her marriage to run away with another husband and has since been unwelcome in American high society--and has internalized that feeling till now she always expects people to cut her (socially, I mean--to avoid her); 
  • her daughter Leila who has just tossed over one husband and picked up with another, but who seems to have gotten away with it because times have changed and whose major personality trait is that she's happy; 
  • Franklin Ide, the suitor of Mrs. Lidcote who tries to convince her that times have changed and that they can now marry without any social problems;
  • assorted family members--Leila's new husband and her cousin-aunt-majordomo (a standard family position for an unmarried older woman, as the helper to someone with greater status/money);
  • and a bunch of society people, including the powerful and old-fashioned Mrs. Boulger (who can help Leila and husband get a post in Italy, near Mrs. Lidcote), and many others.

And yet, despite the fact that this has so little plot, with so much time spent in and around Mrs. Lidcote's head--as she tries to figure out whether times really have changed--I read the whole 30-page thing in one standing. (OK, I shouldn't make too much of this standing issue: I have a standing desk set-up on one of my bookshelves that I try to use every day. So really, I read this whole thing standing here because I'm supposed to be standing more.)

Or maybe I read it all in one go because it's such a slow, thoughtful piece about a period that's long gone. (Which is what the title refers to: "Other times, other manners" is both the reference in the French phrase "autres temps, autres mœurs" and also the original title to this piece in 1911; Wharton retitled it in 1916.) Because it doesn't really speak to our time in its particulars, we might be able to see how the general trend of it fits in with our lives.

Or let me put it this way: in Mad Men, there's a gay character (Sal) who is deeply in the closet--constantly talking about women, married unhappily, the whole sad nine yards. Then, a few years later, Sal meets a young up-and-comer who explains quite undramatically that he's gay. And the look on Sal's face--the "that's an option?" look--is pricelessly shattering.

I get a very similar feeling here, when Mrs. Lidcote (at first) can't quite get her mind around the fact that her daughter is really fine--that everyone in society is fine with her leaving her old husband, that her old husband is so fine with this that he's trying to help Leila's husband. And then, after Mrs. Lidcote makes that turn to understanding that maybe things are different, Wharton pulls the rug out from under us again: things have changed, but not for Mrs. Lidcote. And everyone else understands this thing that Mrs. Lidcote needs to figure out. It's a murder mystery story--but what's been murdered is Mrs. Lidcote's chance for happiness and just because she was born at the wrong time.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Almost Human: Too far, too close

He's a curmudgeonly cop with a tragic backstory; his partner is a young gun from a despised minority, itching to make the world--and his partner--better; the chief has her eye out on the curmudgeon, helping to nudge him along towards health; the cute tech has an eye on the curmudgeon--but will they or won't they?; the weird tech is good comic relief; and the other cop at the precinct is kind of a jerk; and every week, some strange new murder or crime comes up that they have to solve--and some of these crimes are ripped from the headlines.

Does that sound like every cop/procedural show in existence? Probably. But I'm talking about Almost Human, the science fiction cop show where the curmudgeon goes to a "recollectionist" to recover his lost memories about an ambush that nearly killed him; and the young cop is actually a recently re-activated robot of a model that was de-activated for mental health reasons.

And the crimes they deal with every week (with spoilers):

  1. evil Syndicate that ambushed the old cop tries to break into police headquarters
  2. people are being skinned to use their skin on super-real sexbots
  3. the cops face a hostage situation that is really a cover for a heist
  4. the cops have to clear the good name of an undercover cop by tracing a new drug to its source--within the police department!
  5. witness needs protection from brilliant philanthropist-killer--whose associates are all his clones! (Bonus: the witness underwent some brain-enhancing surgery which has turned her into a psychic who can talk with the dead. No, that doesn't really work)
  6. black-market synthetic organs are leading to deaths
  7. to get the equivalent of YouTube hits, a bomb specialist straps bombs and cameras to people and makes them do things
  8. the cops track down "smart bullets" that can hit people anywhere (and that use the surveillance network)
  9. a killer robot is on the loose!
  10. genetically-engineered perfect kids ("chromes") die of drug overdose, connected to a normal who died of the same (because she felt too much pressure to keep up with the perfects)
  11. after a smart house kills a kid (shades of Trayvon Martin), some hacker takes revenge by turning the smart houses against the people
  12. an ugly man is murdering people to steal parts of their faces with nano-technology
  13. --haven't seen this one yet--
So let's break it down:
  • doesn't need to be science fiction at all (5): 1 (break-in), 3 (hostages), 4 (drugs and corrupt cops), 6 (botched black market surgery), 7 (thrill kill camera version of Speed), 
  • doesn't really need to be science fiction (1): 9 (super-trained soldier works instead of combat robot), 
  • too stupid to take seriously (3): ~5 (psychics?), 11 (tries to rip from the headlines, but ends in this ridiculous hacker-vs.-hacker story), 12 (why not just get regular plastic surgery? why do the nanobots really have to kill the people?)
  • interesting use of future technology used to discuss contemporary issues (4): 2 (exploitation of women?), ~5 (cloning), 8 (surveillance), 10 (genetic alteration, haves vs. have-nots).
So out of 13 episodes (12 that I saw), roughly half don't really take advantage of the science fiction world; and only about a third do so in an interesting way.

And that's one of my big problems with this show so far. I like all the characters fine--I like all the actors more actually--but the whole show just feels too close to an ordinary buddy-cop show. It's Castle without the sexual tension or witty banter or fun secondary character tensions. I can definitely see this as a purposeful idea: rather than scare away people with weird s.f. trappings (says the producer, in my fantasy), let's keep things grounded in what they know.

But the result isn't a show that's relatable, but a show that's a little bland. Despite my newfound love for Karl Urban and Michael Ealy.

What do you think?

(For an alternative take, I think Lauren Davis makes some excellent points in this io9 post, especially about the strangely consequence-free world they seem to be living in.)

Friday, March 7, 2014

Los Angeles Report, part two: Is LA livable?

Yes, LA is totally livable.

Though it depends what you mean by "livable," really. I'd heard that LA was less a city and more a collection of towns--a sort of never-ending sprawl with the occasional town center. The downside to that is that, traffic being what it is, once you're in a place, you might stick there. So, you leave on the east side but your friend is having an awesome barbecue on the beach at Santa Monica... chances are you're not going. I mean, you could if you wanted to--if you had to. But you probably won't.

Or as one friend put it, when he visited, he went out every night and saw people and it was super social; and then he moved there and he hasn't seen anyone since.

So, while there's probably a lot going on and a lot of scenesterism (i.e., you have to go to this bar, it's where everyone goes, there's no parking, but you'll get a valet, it'll be fine), there's probably also a bit of homebodyism, too. Or at least close-to-homebodyism, where you stay around your home or you stay in a certain area or in a well-trodden path.

It's basically like that one story in Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, where everyone sticks so closely to a certain repeated path of life that they can spin these different cities off into their own cities, thus relieving congestion.

Which brings me to the worst and most easily managed part of LA: the traffic. It is terrible. Not always--there were times when I zipped along the freeway pretty easily. Then there were times when I was stuck on a city street for a long time. You can see how people, shuttling between this feast and famine condition, would grow a little harried and shitty as drivers. And you do have to watch out for drivers being shitty drivers. Not evil--just incompetent, short-sighted, with blinders on. Thank god I was driving a newer rental car and not my 18-year-old Honda.

But here's the mantra: this too shall pass. I was stuck in one spot for five to ten to fifteen minutes--the worst traffic I've ever seen, and I've driven in New York, Boston, and London. And eventually, I moved.

The other mantra for driving in LA: some time, some one will realize this is their exit and will need to cross three lanes to get it; and some time, that some one will be you. So treat others as you wish to be treated on the freeway.

So, yes, with the terrible traffic, there is a chance that you might move to LA and discover that you aren't always up for gallivanting around the city to some improv show (probably sold out, plan in advance) or to some dinner party (though you want to go because there's a guy there who works for Laika and you want to make that contact). Sometimes you will be not in the mood to take advantage of the advantages offered by this advantage-stuffed city.

But at other times, you will be--and then it's good to have those advantages at your fingertips.

In short: LA is very livable.

In slightly less short: I'm not sure when or even if I'll be moving there, but I'll be perfectly happy to give it a chance.

And I may even take one of those "learn a foreign language in your car" courses with me. Sehr gut? Çe n'est pas mal.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Fights, sex, and other action scenes

(Note: I'm really thinking out loud here, so I might be wrong about any of these ideas, and would welcome your thoughts.)

I was just listening to the most recent Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff podcast and the first discussion about making fights meaningful got me to thinking about something:

Why are the fights in Buffy so often boring?

And this is true of a lot of action-adventure media... and true of sex scenes in romance/rom-coms.

Now, there are differences between action scenes in different genres: in romance (books), sex is often the reward. After the presumptive lovers beat the final obstacle at the climax, they, well, the pun is too obvious to be rewarding. This isn't universally true: some romance (books and movies) include sex or sexual scenes as both climax and often as act breaks/before other problems arise. "We've rushed through the rain to this abandoned manor house and I can't keep myself away. But now we've had sex and my mother who hates you shows up, so here's another obstacle." So how do writers/makers keep the action meaningful?

In action-adventure media, from Buffy to superhero comics, fights are often climactic (Buffy vs. Spike after she finds his base) and often run throughout (Buffy fighting Spike's minions, getting closer to the source). And while each fight brings Buffy closer to the climax, there's usually a rote-ness to the action. Kick, kick, punch, stake. Ta-da!

In roleplaying, Ken Hite and Robin Laws point out that some fights in D&D can be a little bit like "tolls" on the way to some meaningful end. So how do we make those fights narratively meaningful?

It seems to me that action--sex or violence--follows the same basic structural rules as most scenes. It's not enough to have conflict. To have readers/viewers care about that conflict, we need some sense of stakes, of consequences. The same old fear and hope that structure most scenes.

If Buffy loses this fight, she'll die--except, even in a Joss Whedon show we don't expect the titular character to die (with some notable exceptions in season finales). OK, so we don't fear that, so add some other fear. If she loses the fight--or wins in the wrong way--some other bad thing will happen: she'll fail to get the antidote to a poison, she'll lose a chance to get a clue to the bad guy's lair, someone else will die, etc. These are the things that happen at the best fights in Buffy, but not all of them.

For romance/sex, fear and hope are a little different, I think. In many cases, the reader may fear the lovers won't get together and hope that they do--but once they're actually having sex, those fears/hopes are answered. And since these moments are often the reward (and not always on screen), I'm not sure you'd want to introduce more fear. I mean, let's be honest: people are reading this to emotionally get off and introducing fear will get in the way. Maybe at the beginning you could have some worry, but that's probably going to go away.

So maybe some scenes are fine just as spectacle. You have some awesome wire-fu fights or wire-fu sex--and then you take that scene and think about how that affects the characters/plot. Some people just did something very intimate and now are feeling pretty vulnerable--how is that going to change them? Or not change them? Maybe for a brief moment, these characters could forget their hopes and fears--but they come back pretty quickly.

Let's also add that fights and sex are useful scenes for expressing character: is your character a risk-taker or risk-averse? Self-centered or other-centered? Serious or funny? All of these issues can come out in any sort of action scene.

(Other options added by Ken and Robin for creating structure/stakes in RPGs:

  • consequences: winning gains you favor/access to other adventure; loss cuts you off;
  • consequences: winning changes the world in some way (now that the dungeon is empty, someone else moves in; now that they've killed the monsters, townsfolk react differently to them, etc.);
  • give the fight emotional weight by giving the players a chance to avenge some previous loss/problem*;
  • associate the random fights into some larger structure (i.e., give all your enemies the same badge or heraldry, so the players get a sense of some coherence);
  • fights that answer questions/ask questions.
*As someone who used to roleplay--and misses it terribly--I can attest to the effectiveness of this. In college, my gaming group's most hated foes were characters who had previously messed up our plans. It didn't have to be a fight; even an evil lawyer springing someone can make for an effective villain you want to beat on next time he shows up.)

Monday, March 3, 2014

At Long Last, Gilmore Girls (Season 7)

Yes, I know the Oscars were last night; and no, I don't have any particular feeling about the winners. In fact, except for Gravity, I'm not sure I've seen any of the major nominees.

Instead of going to the movies to see ::checks online to see what's playing at the local and only theater, realizes that nothing nominated is playing:: some movie, Sarah and I recently finished the last few episodes of Gilmore Girls. And I have thoughts.

Part of me wonders what this last season would have looked like if Sherman-Palladino/Palladino were kept on as writers/producers. I... am not sure. When the season started, I thought I detected a shift in both plots and writing--some things were a little more melodramatic, while the witty banter wasn't quite as witty. And yet, I wonder if that was more my bias than any objective shift in the show. After all, sure, Sherman-Palladino had left and was a unique creative force; but it's not like the new writers had to start all over. All the actors were still there, all the crew too, probably. So when Lorelei and Rory have a walk-and-talk through the town in season seven, there's probably more things that have stayed the same than have changed.

Still, even though the last few episodes wrapped things up nicely in many regards, I'm still not entirely thrilled with the season seven treatment of Christopher.

But looking back, and after talking it over with Sarah, I think Gilmore Girls has a nearly perfect balance of low-stakes angst and low-stakes joy.

Low stakes?
I mean, there are no world-destroying storms or soul-sucking vampires. What's the worst that can happen in the Gilmore Girls world? There's no murder or rape. The worst thing that can happen is that people occasionally get into fights. And they're serious fights about serious issues and real feelings. But they're not blowing up relationships. Things will go on--at least among the main relationships, the Gilmore women.

Angst and joy
Lorelei and Rory may be fantasy figures in several ways--all that eating, no exercise--but for most people, they're fantasy figures because of their close mother-daughter/friend-friend relationship. Not everyone has that relationship. More likely, your average viewer sees a similarity between her own mother-daughter relationship and the rather more angsty Emily-Lorelei relationship. And by giving us both relationships, the show poses us between an aggravating truth and a pleasant fantasy. We can fear that Lorelei and Rory will descend into Emily and Lorelei land; or we can hope that Emily and Lorelei will turn into Lorelei and Rory. Either way, we're engaged with our hopes and fears, between what we don't want to have (but probably do) and want to have (but probably never can really imagine).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 216: Ring Lardner, Carmen (#216)

Ring Lardner, "Carmen" (1916) from Ring Lardner: Stories & Other Writings:

About the whole middle section of this piece is pretty much the definition of light comedy: a not-so-well educated man gives his rendition of Bizet's Carmen, mangling the names and plot, with some jabs about the unreality of opera (the knife that kills Carmen goes nowhere near her, so she musta died of heart problems). It's amusing if you know something about opera or Carmen (the implication here is that I do--the truth is I know very little); but it's very light--there's nothing serious or important or even laugh out loud funny about this section.

More fun (and in Lardner's wheelhouse) is the frame story, about a nameless narrator and his wife and their friends, and how they kid each other--sometimes not so nicely--about their cheapness and ignorance and all the other fun things that lower class people like to tease each other about. It's less jokey than the middle section and more painful and funny at the same time.