Friday, November 2, 2012

Upcoming Posts

Just notes to myself.

Upcoming entries:
Gore or Horror
Pt. I
-gore is uncomfortable but not inherently scary
-violence is not inherently horrifying
-motivation and context sell the scare
-gross-out factor vs legitimate fear

Pt. II

Hannibal Lecter's monstrosity(?)

Friday, July 27, 2012

How To Invalidate Your Own Story: The Dark Knight's Downfall


When I walked into the theater to watch "The Dark Knight Rises," I went in with blind faith in Christopher Nolan's ability to masterfully craft a story, to make it empathetic, riveting, and amazingly satisfying. With his track record, he had earned that blind faith from me. Anybody who can pull off "Memento," "Inception," and "The Dark Knight" earns a bit of leeway.

Unfortunately, only parts of DKR lived up to my expectations. And maybe that's part of where the problem lies. When you set yourself up as Christopher Goddamned Nolan, people are going to expect a Christopher Goddamned Nolan movie from you. Once that happens, even the slightest misstep is a grievous error. So with that as part of the context, these errors made the movie less than I'd expected from Christopher Goddamned Nolan, but still a superb movie compared to other filmmakers.

The first thing I figured out early on was that Miranda Tate was a baddie. The moment Bruce Wayne ceded power of Wayne Enterprises to somebody else, it was a dead giveaway that something was amiss in the Wayne Universe. The world's greatest detective doesn't give up anything unless he's been tricked into it, and trickster myths from any/every culture include the trickster taking control of what the victim gives up. So I knew at that moment that Tate was going to be a big reveal later in the movie. I was largely okay with this, because I care about the execution more than the surprise, and really, how many people would have figured out the Trickster bit? Not many, I'm guessing.

But when Bruce was in The Pit and had his hallucination (that's what it was, right? A hallucination? Because if we're suddenly starting to introduce phantasms into the Nolan Universe that's based so greatly in reality, that was a BIG misstep) of Ras al-Ghul, I knew she was Talia. That one, again, I'm okay with. Anyone familiar with Batman canon knows that Ras only had one child, and it was a daughter. Okay, so, I know Miranda Tate is bad, and I know she's Talia al-Ghul now. So much for those surprises.

As for Blake being Robin, that was kind of a gimme. Not even going to address that.

That was the smallest problem I had with the movie. From here on out, it's bigger stuff.

Bane is supposed to be bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, BETTER than Bats. Batman's fights with Bane are supposed to be the result of being forced into a situation he knows he's going to lose, and he does it anyway. And that was where the movie was pointing us. Batman's fight with Bane was a sacrifice he made for the people of Gotham, where he showed that he was willing to give himself up to protect the city, or has to pull some ace out of his sleeve with which to surprise the villain and beat him. And his surprise weapon is...punching? Seriously? The world's greatest detective, a technological genius, billionaire, crime-fighting superhero just wants to punch a guy? The only "gadget" he uses is some kind of smoke pellet thing that doesn't do anything, and he tries to melt into the shadows so he can...PUNCH! Wooooooow. I mean, it's not like you have sedative-lased Batarangs or anything. Clearly the ones you use in the later parts of the movie are new things that you couldn't possibly have used before. That's just bad logic consistency.

Also, Bane's mask. The cool part: It symbolically made Bane the antithesis of Batman, as he is supposed to be. Get it? He's the BANE of BATMAN'S existence! Ohhhhhh. So yeah, that was cool. Bane's mask covered his mouth only, while Bats' mask covers everything but his mouth. That was a cool bit of visual storytelling. Problem was, it didn't look like it actually did anything. There was no tank of sedatives it was hooked up to, so how exactly did it keep him numbed up on morphine? That's a physical substance that takes physical space. You can't just have some tubes on his mouthpiece hooked up to nothing, the world doesn't work that way. But if I was fighting a guy with a mask over his mouth, call me crazy, I'd go right for it the first time. Not way later, by accident. But I'll come back to that later, after...

Bruce Wayne is in The Pit, doing sit-ups after failing yet another attempt to climb out of the prison. The Mystic Doctor tells him that he can't be afraid, and he says, "I'm not afraid. I'm angry."

Wait, what? That's it? That's the key to the story? You get angry? That's kind of a fucked up moral. Look at me, I got angry and could jump farther and higher and do more and push myself harder because LOOK AT ME I'M ANGRY! Batman's solution is literally to go "HULK SMASH!" So he gets angry (presumably this is because of the suffering of Gotham, and not because he simply lost a fight), jumps farther because he's angry, manages to get back to Gotham from some prison in the middle of nowhere because he's angry, and decides to fight Bane again because he's angry. Everything that happens after that moment of dialogue is due to the fact that Bruce Wayne/Batman got angry. That goes against everything that he had done up to that point, and everything that he did after that point. At no point do we see his anger again, it's just there and gone. Something to push him through one moment and then create a huge inconsistency through the rest of the story. So not only is it a poor choice as a moral, it's illogical from a narrative stance.

Batman gets his Deus Ex Machina flying machine and frees the cops with it. Cool. Robin "gave him an army." And he uses that army (who suddenly trust him with their lives) to march down one street. In formation. This scene made no narrative, logical, or tactical sense. These cops would be trained in ways to enter buildings and clear them of bad guys, the could have easily surrounded the main force of bad guys in a ring, or from rooftops, or come up out of the tunnels, or...well, anything else, really. Marching like infantry in medieval battle made no sense. What made even less sense was that both armies had guns, but fought each other in melee combat. Why? No, really, why? This served no purpose except to get Batman back to..

Batman has now gotten angry, gotten an army, and is ready to get even. He's so ready in fact, that he charges up and starts...punching again. Only this time he gets lucky and accidentally hits Bane's mask, causing him immediate pain. Because, y'know, there's no withdrawal period from sedatives or painkillers. The moment you stop getting exposed to them, you start feeling pain. Riiiiiiight.

Oh, wait, NO. That makes no sense!

And Bane won anyway. Not in that he beat the Bat, but he did what Joker couldn't: He made Batman willing to kill. Maybe you didn't catch that, but Batman used Bane's line against him. "Then you have my permission to die." Subtext: I won't save you. Congratulations, Bane, you made Batman go against his own moral code. Well fucking done, sir! Batman is now no longer Batman, he is truly a vigilante in pursuit of vengeance and not justice. Remember that, that's important in a little bit here.

Except that before Batman can win, he's stabbed by Talia al-Ghul, who then begins...

Holy shit this movie is full of it. One almost flows right into the next during the entire movie. Alfred, Blake, Batman, Gordon, Bane, Talia, Lucius, I think everybody here has at least one monologue. Alfred's was so long it actually needed a flashback to show some action. (Flashbacks and hallucinations/visions, two things introduced in DKR that we never saw in BB or TDK.) Oof.

But perhaps my two biggest problems were with the ending.

The whole ending sequence was so unbelievably neat that it shocked me out of the movie. Everybody got an ending. In a world meticulously constructed to be gritty, dirty, morally ambiguous, full of grey zones, and realistic, we got a little piece of everybody's storyline ending. Loose ends? What loose ends? We're gonna tie everything up. Even the Bat gets his storyline tied up with a giant...

Okay. Seriously. Batman needed to die. No, really, he needed to, in order to protect the integrity of the story. In this movie, Batman fell victim to his anger, using it as a weapon, led people into a fight where they were sure to die, and became willing to kill an enemy. These are three things that Batman simply does not do. He has compromised himself so greatly that by the end of the film the only thing left that he can do is sacrifice himself. That, plus all the talk about how Batman was a symbol, how he was more than the suit, and how in previous movies he was always working towards the end goal of not being the Batman anymore. Everything for three movies was all pointing to a sacrificial ending. AND WE GOT IT! Holy shit, Batman flew a nuclear bomb out of Gotham and showed the city what a true hero does in the face of unbeatable odds. That was pretty goddamned brave.

Except that by pulling that whole bit at the end where he's sitting with Selina Kyle at the cafe, it was no longer about the sacrifice. The three movies we spent engaged and watching for the inevitable end of the Bat suddenly turned into "I got away with it, too!" The audience was robbed of the moment of sacrifice and instead given a wink and a nod from the film, showing that everything was alright. Somehow, Bruce Wayne was able to live with himself after having compromised everything he devoted himself to, causing unknown casualties in his battle with Bane, and ultimately even losing his own moral compass so badly he was willing to become the villain. In TDK, Harvey and Batman both say "you either die a hero, or you live long enough to become the villain." Remember that? Clearly the movie didn't. Though, to be fair, I suspect that may be Warner Brothers' influence on the story. Nolan may have wanted to kill his character.

Also, there's the "how" of it. How exactly did he manage to get far enough away? Did we simply not see him eject from the Deus Ex Machina machine? Did he have Indiana Jones' lead-lined fridge in there? What exactly happened? We saw him close his eyes and we saw the bomb go off, but unless he put the auto pilot on during a point where he was still over land...there's just some logistics missing here. Including, how did Selina and he hook up afterwards? But really, that's secondary to the "why" for me.

So yeah. Lots of great things in the first half of the movie. The second half? Not so much.

But I also realized something.
Batman = Neo
Lucius = Morpheus
Rachel Dawes/Selina Kyle = Trinity
Ras al-Ghul = Agent Smith
Alfred = The Oracle
Robin = the kid at the end of Matrix3
Gordon = Tank/Dozer/other guy who jacks them into the Matrix

Think about it. The two storylines share an awful lot.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dinner Conversation

I recently had dinner with my parents, during which my mother and I began discussing the screenplay that she's writing. I had the unpleasant task of explaining to her all the reasons why her story was being structured wrong.

My father, an accountant who reads Jonathan Kellerman novels, was sadly lost during most of this, though when I touched on points where the story would just be boring he was able to offer his support to my argument by saying "he's right, I'd be bored by that."

It was a strange experience. My mother was the one who first helped me develop my voice as a writer, learn to focus what skills I had, and is my biggest fan--just ask her. She's the reason I learned to indulge in my imaginings, no matter how dark they got. I would not have the ability to stop a "what if" in my brain and catch it before it flees, learning to turn it over in my hands and examine it for the nugget of story contained within the layers of "what if." Suddenly having to explain to her about story structure, point of view characters, narrative arcs, and all these things that I know she knows was more than a little surreal.

This is not to say that my mother is suddenly dumb, far from it. She just embodied that moment in all of our story development where we wrap our arms around our stories in a protective embrace and scream "NO! It's mine and it's perfect just the way it is!" It's a part of the process, and it's very helpful at this point in the process to have somebody whom you trust and who will know how to break your story apart without tearing you down in the process. Friends, editors, colleagues, whatever or whoever you have, use them and trust them when they tell you that you've got the world set properly but you haven't found the right story yet.

My father bore witness to this for at least an hour over dinner, my mother defending her choices and me explaining why they were the wrong ones.

At the end, I'd said all I could say and had begun to repeat myself, and my mother's arguments had grown shorter and shorter until she saw that, while I might not be right, I was at least on the right track. (Maybe that's another post I should put up, how to listen to your critics...) I got up and cleared the plates off of the table.

From the kitchen, I heard my parents speaking in low voices and then laugh. I called to them asking what was so funny.

"You're going to make a wonderful professor," my father replied.

This is not the first, second, or even tenth time somebody has told me something about me being a professor using "when," and not "if," in the statement.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Heroes and stereotypes, or Why I Refuse to Watch "Lost Girl"

Giving your hero everything he or she needs is boring. Stop that.

Stop giving your heroes weapons and gadgets. Or, if you give them every advantage they can possibly hope for, take it away.

I am sick of stories coming out featuring some kind of solo, me-versus-the-world hero who has access to weapons and tactics and all the toys a kid could need to take out the Bad Guys. It's cheap story crafting and eliminates the really interesting part of your character: getting to know them.

Between the super spies, super heroes, demigods, half-human creatures, and other stories that have super-saturated the market over the years, the stories that involve heroes that already have access to guns, explosives, military tactics, support staffs, and all the other goodies that you could hope for, I just can't find it in my heart to watch, read, or otherwise subject myself to yet another tale featuring the same old tropes.

I get it. I really do. You want your character to have that shoot-out at the O.K. Corral or on Main Street at high noon. You want to have some incredible fight scene with swords (incidentally, there are way cooler swords than a katana. STOP USING IT.) or some other key scene. But you know what? Those have already been done. And probably better than you'll do them.

Give me something new. Instead of giving me a character who knows how to fight, give me a protagonist with a limp or a bum knee from high school football who has to find a way to pursue the Bad Guy. Instead of a character who is a crack shot, give me a character who just had all his shit stolen while he was having laser eye surgery and has to rush into the daylight before his eyes are healed and OH SHIT I'VE DAMAGED MY CORNEAS! Instead of giving your character a sword, or a gun, or any kind of weapon or martial arts training, give me a character who breaks his hand throwing his first punch because he has no idea how to fight or survive on his own. Oh, and make him an alcoholic, or a recovering one if that's too dark for you. THEN make him--or her, I'd dig this in female characters too--struggle to find out how to survive in a world where everything is stacked against them. There's no ex-Army Ranger one cell phone call away who can roll up with automatic weapons, explosives, and a team of master badasses who will ride in and save the day. There's no Super Secret Big Sword That You Must Have, or The Sword That Killed My Father, or My Favorite Gun, or any of that nonsense. Having your character already equipped to face the climax of your episode, movie, or story makes their journey one-dimensional and I WILL NOT CARE.

Change it up.

Or, going back to my original point, give them everything, and then take it all away and make your protagonist claw his/her way back from the brink. Got a super powered character? Not anymore. Bam. Superman II that shit. Take it ALL away. That's when you give your character lots of moral and ethical shit to work through. Do they sacrifice all or part of themselves? How much do they hold on to? Why do they make that choice? What happens if it doesn't work out? How do they get or get back to what they need in order to succeed at the end? Do they, or do they die trying? Those are much more compelling questions than "How hard is the Bad Guy's face gonna hit the ground when the Good Guy is mopping the floor with him?"

Another tactic to use if you're going to ramp up a character trait to the point of super power is show me how awful that really is. That was one of the only good things about the movie "Troy," Brat Pitt's Achilles was shown as this mighty, powerful warrior who was so bored by his existence that he wanted to die. Literally. He wanted to die. Go back and watch it again if you need to, that character has a death wish for most of the movie.

Look, whether it's Superman somehow finding ways to put himself in situations where he knows he's gonna get his ass handed to him, Batman finding ways to keep fucking things up or having things keep getting fucked up around him, or Achilles being so bored he wants to die, these are all viable ways of subverting the archetypal heroic mold that everybody seems to be drawing from.

Next time you're facing a moment where you need your character to have a weapon, a skill, a side-kick (read: support character), or anything of that sort, ask yourself "how would my character react if that didn't work?" The answer you get is probably going to be much more interesting than what you had come up with originally. And the "why" of it is very simple. Triumph. If you have a character who is so perfectly suited to the dangers he or she is facing that triumph is the only likely outcome, then the triumph isn't all that spectacular when it happens. If we know going in that the Good Guy is going to win, it's not engaging. If there's doubt that the Good Guy will even make it back alive, then we're engaged because we want to see the triumph.

Basically, if you have a character with some kind of bad-assery, make it irrelevant, obsolete, or otherwise negate it. What does that character do then? In the face of insurmountable obstacles and infinitesimal odds, how does a character with nothing going for him or her work up to the climactic battle against the Bad Guy? THAT's interesting. THAT's something that I'd watch or read.

And this isn't even touching on the believability aspect of things.

Monday, April 16, 2012

On Monsters

I was asked recently what I think makes a good monster, a scary monster. This is my answer:

One of the first things I employ in creating a monster is giving the reader just enough detail that they can use their imagination, but not so much detail that they don't have to. Stephen King's book "Danse Macabre" relates an analogy of a closed door with a strange sound coming from behind it. If you open the door and have a ten-foot bug, part of your reader's mind will say "Oh thank god, I was afraid it was a HUNDRED-FOOT bug!" If you give your reader a hundred-foot bug, part of your reader's mind will say "Oh than god, I was afraid it was a SWARM of bugs!" Point is, your reader's imagination will always create a monster that is contoured specifically to them, and is infinitely more terrifying than anything we could craft. Our job is to give them the (heh) bare bones.

Next, the monster has to serve as a vehicle for the main character's dual confrontations. One is Man vs. The Unknown, and the other is Man vs. Himself, if you're familiar with the types of conflict. The Monster represents the unknown on a literal level, but on a symbolic level represents the main character's journey that has been taken to bring about that climactic moment of confrontation. I subdivide horror thusly: Fright. Terror. Horror. If a monster eats some poor shlub at the end of a dark alleyway, that's fright. When the monster eats the guy standing right next to you, that's terror. The moment in which you realize that you're next, that's horror. Good use of a good monster is employed when the character (note that I am not using the word "hero" anywhere here) is taken through a journey of discovery, choice, perhaps revulsion, and finally confrontation not just with the monster, but with who that character is and/or has become/has to be. Taking away that journey will simply leave a hero (Ta-da!) rushing to do battle with a dragon, and the reader is spending the whole time in the story rooting for the final battle rather than going along for that journey with the character. The monster should help take the reader along for that same journey and force that same confrontation in the reader as it does in the character.

Thirdly, a monster should be created first, then that information used to inform the specifics of the main character. Whether it's a hero, an anti-hero, a tragic character, or anything else, the situations and circumstances surrounding that character's rise to significance (after all, they are your main character) are all informed by the hell which you as the author choose to unleash upon them. Clarice Starling's character wouldn't have had that story about running away if it wasn't for Dr. Lecter's ability to see so deep into her psyche. The crew of the Orca would never have gone shark hunting if it wasn't for Quint's story about being predated upon by sharks off Japan's coast, but he wouldn't have told that story if the monster wasn't a killer shark.

Stephen T. Asma's book "On Monsters" talks about the purpose that monsters serve as moral compasses, as well as with issues of angst and catharsis. He relates a story of Eli Roth's "Hostel" being shown to troops in Iraq which is a fascinating perspective on catharsis. Jason Zinoman's "Shock Value" deals with some of the same issues, but also a lot of social and political influences on the use, style, and deployment of monsters. But nothing has yet touched the import or significance of Lovecraft's essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" for me.