Monthly Archives: May 2012

On A High Note

There’s this quote I read once but for the life of me cannot find (no, not even on the legendary internet). Well, starting an essay with a quote is pretty trite and I think I’ve averted that, so there.

Anyway, CS Lewis was once asked why he chose to end The Chronicles of Narnia after ‘only’ seven books. He essentially said that it was better to end it when people wanted more than to end it when people were tired of it. Y’know, end on a high note (title drop!).

In 1995 Bill Waterson decided it was time to bring an end to Calvin and Hobbes. After ten years of adventures of the eponymous boy and his stuffed tiger it was over. Everyone wanted more. Seventeen years later we – I – still want more. They’re good stories, full of life and imagination, silliness and insight. But he ended it how he wanted to and when he wanted to. We got a conclusion, and it ended. Now it’s fondly remembered as one of the best comics ever.

Compare that to, say, The Office. The show is several seasons along and, by most accounts not what it used to be. Not to say it’s not still entertaining, it’s just not as good as it used to be. Fun as the show is, the general populace doesn’t really care too terribly much about it anymore. We’re (almost) tired of it (maybe). If it ends now in seventeen years we’ll be discussing how it was ran into the ground and how good it was at first. It’s not that it outright sucks anymore, it’s just that, well, it doesn’t measure up to what it used to be.

The Star Wars movies are another great example. When Return of the Jedi concluded the Holy Trilogy in 1983, that was it. People loved the movies. People wanted more. But we wouldn’t get more: it was over.

Only it wasn’t. Come 1999, we got The Phantom Menace; more Star Wars! A dream come true! But, for reasons that are for another rant essay, they didn’t measure up to the Holy Trilogy. Yes, we were excited for each new installment, but, well, we slowly realized that we didn’t need them. We got what we wanted and it wasn’t quite what we had hoped for. Look, the prequels aren’t the worst movies ever, they just, well, aren’t the Star Wars we grew up with. Maybe it would have been better to leave us clamoring for more.

It’s not always by choice, though. I would do quite a lot for a new episode/series/anything of Firefly. There were only fourteen episodes created before the show met its untimely cancellation. Each of these episodes was a terrific example of good science fiction; telling stories about people and their lives, the artificial family they formed, and the adventures they got up to. But it was canceled. And it ended, leaving us (you know what’s coming next) wanting more. We did get more, a very satisfying conclusion that brought it to a definitive end. But still, another few episodes of Firefly would be nice, wouldn’t they?

It doesn’t matter if we get more, though. The show was fantastic and the movie Serenity tied everything together. What better way for it to end?

Well, not ending would be a better way.

Point remains, though. It’s easy to follow the temptation to keep giving the audience more. It’s what they want, it’ll shut them up, and you’ll get money. Just keep doing it until the audience drifts away and loses interest. Once your source of income’s gone, well, that’s it then. Done is done, time to move on, right?

No. Think about posterity. Find a conclusion, end it well. Give your audience closure and leave them with fond memories of your work. Let them be satisfied with dissatisfaction.

The final strip of Calvin and Hobbes is arguably one of the best of the entire run. It’s Calvin and Hobbes looking at freshly fallen snow and getting ready to go sledding through the woods. “It’s a wonderful world, Hobbes ol’ buddy…” says Calvin, “…let’s go exploring!”

Now that is ending on a high note.

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Doth Mother Know You Weareth Her Drapes?

Yes, another entry about The Avengers. I’m fully aware it came out two weeks ago and I should probably stop going to watch it every so often, but, well, no. The movie is, simply put, great. It sets a new standard for comic book/superhero movies and, more than that, proves that a movie of this nature can be of the same caliber and quality of those dainty arthouse dramas. ‘cause yes, the script is exceptional, acting top notch, and direction impeccable. But, far and beyond everything else (including Scarlett Johansson), The Avengers is just plain fun.

The recent trend in ‘pulpy’ fiction (y’know, genres like action, scifi, fantasy, superheroes, etc; those ‘entertaining’ movies) has been to add copious amounts of grit to the formula. These days it’s not enough to just have a simple romantic adventure, you have to make it dark and amp up the edginess. A quick look brings up Nolan’s Batman movies and fare like District 9 or The Hunger Games. Not to say that these movies are necessarily bad (in fact, they’re pretty great), they’re just indicative of this current trend.

Joss Whedon and The Avengers merrily threw that to the wind.

This movie isn’t a character study, it’s not a depressing deconstruction of superheroes in real life nor is it some grandiose observation on how people would react to a world-conquering alien invasion. No, it’s an adventure! Start to finish, The Avengers is first and foremost an adventure. We’re talking an adventure like Star Wars or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid! An adventure like each of the Avengers’ own movies were, just taken up to eleven and then some. The Avengers is a pure adventure.

We can take Star Wars as an archetype of an adventure. There’s peril and plight aplenty, but it doesn’t leave us moping and brooding; every tragedy is a catalyst for the next course  of action. In The Avengers we have our tragic moments. But it doesn’t slow down the adventure, it gives our characters depth and a motivation to rise. Whereas in films like The Dark Knight  a character’s death sends out hero into deep self-inspection; a death in The Avengers spurs them on to, well, avenge it and save the day.

Why? You should know this; because it’s an adventure!

The movie is made of fun. It’s somewhat grounded in reality but doesn’t let that hinder the delight of the film. We get to watch a team of superheroes save the day with all the awesomeness and wisecracking it entails. If you’re me, you would have had a massive grin on your face throughout most of the movie (each time you’ve seen it) and every now and then muttering words like “frick yes!” or just cheering.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for the brooding hero. The Dark Knight firmly proved that, if done well, the dark and tortured hero can create a compelling and engaging story. And The Avengers proves that there’s still space for a movie that sets aside the grim solemnness for fun.

But here’s what’s so good: The Avengers pulls it off. There are movies out there, fare like Transformers: Dark of the Moon or, say, The Losers that are fun movies in their own right, but don’t quite leave you thinking “man, that movie was great”. See, as much as The Avengers runs on fun, it backs it up at every turn. Like I said in the beginning (and in previous entries), it’s well developed. Characters aren’t cardboard stand-ins and the plot isn’t just some vehicular shell. Without this foundation the fun would be unwarranted and shallow.

Sometimes, the current trend can be bucked and bucked well. In a day when big blockbuster fare tends to be epics like Avatar and Deathly Hallows Pt. 2, weird/creepy supernatural romances (Twilight) or mindless action films (Transformers, Fast Five, etc), it’s refreshing to see a proper adventure doing so well. But The Avengers surpasses other recent adventures (Ghost Protocol and John Carter come quickly to mind) in that it’s so consistent.

What’s my point? The Avengers is an adventure and it’s fun. Furthermore it’s a great example of summer movie fare that has depth and astounding quality without sacrificing thrills.

So I’m gonna go watch this movie for the fourth time in a few hours. This is a movie that bears watching over and over again because well, it’s so dang fun.



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The Artificial Family

I grew up on a ship. Well, not really grew up exactly, more spent four very key years of my youth onboard a ship. It’s a long story. The thing about living on a ship, though, was that with only two hundred people on board it was a small community. Smaller still were the number of kids on board. I’m not kidding when I say there were a handful. Out of necessity we became more of a family than a group of friends. Life’s changed and gone on, but even though it’s been several several years since those days I still find myself drawn to stories about that sense of community, about building that group of people who aren’t so much friends as they are family.

There’s this Japanese word, nakama, that has no proper English translation. A rough rendition of it means something to the effect of a deep friendship not unlike family. Everyone can think of people fitting that description. And if not, well, I’m so sorry, you’re missing out.

This concept of friends who are family is everywhere in literature. Like Harry, Ron, and Hermione in Harry Potter. Once they became friends nothing stood in their way. They fought with each other, but, when they chips were down, they were there for each other. They were those good friends who came out on top. You’ve got the protagonists of Zombieland, or the members of the Bartlett administration in The West Wing, the heroes in Chuck, Drake and Sully in Uncharted, or the Fellowship of the Ring. It’s that group of friends who, even if they don’t always like each other, will stick together through it all.

Lost shows just how strong that relationship is. The survivors on the island don’t get along. They fight, they steal, they kill; they really don’t get along. But the relationships that form over time are real. They might not always be friends but throughout the six seasons they come to be something like a (highly dysfunctional Arrested Development-esque) family. Their bonds are to the point where in the end, it’s all that really mattered, and as long as they have each other, they will be content.

So what draws this people together? CS Lewis describes friendship as “the moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one!’”. There’s this movie out now called The Avengers that you may have heard of. The titular Avengers are all lonely people in their own way; Joss Whedon said so himself. Their connection that forms comes from being lonely together. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner – the two scientisty characters – have a conversation about it; about having something that is both a blessing and a curse. It was their moment of realizing they weren’t the only one alone. The seed of friendship, leading to that team, that community of people who can’t be broken.

Then there’s Community (did you really think I’d let that semi-forced transition slip by?). The Study Group has the common ground of all being students Greendale Community College. Over the seasons they’ve grown closer and had their moments. Like all of these artificial families; they break at the edges. But the heart of it is simple: they were all at Greendale lacking something, needing someone, lacking stability, or any host of reasons. They found what they needed in each other, creating that familial bond in the process. Yes, they are (in their own words), a dysfunctional and incestuous family, but they are one all the same. A, you know, community. Hence the name.

Firefly, another one of Whedon’s creations that I love, is another example of this bond. The crew of Serenity have been with each other through a lot. They’ve seen the best and the worst of each other and they definitely don’t always like each other. But since they’re there together on that ship, they have no choice but to reconcile and stick with it. They can’t walk away from it because they’re in it together, no matter what. Like the members of Community’s Study Group and the Avengers: they’re alone. They’ve left their lives behind and are wandering the black alone together. By the time the film Serenity rolls around they’ve gone beyond just being crew members who live on the same ship.

So yeah I’m drawn to the story of the artificial family. That sense of building a group of friends who will stick with you through it all. People who find what they need in each other, finding strength in their bonds.

A few months ago I met up with some of the others who had been kids on the ship the same time I was. Most of us hadn’t seen or hardly spoken to each other in years. But when we sat down together it was as if we hadn’t missed a day. Life went on and our ship was gone, but our connection was still there.

Makes sense though, we’re family.

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Perilous Tension

Tension tends to drive a story forward. Well, tension and characters. But this is about tension (which relates to characters). Anyway, one source of tension, especially in movies that can be classified as action and adventure, is peril. Everybody loves peril. We see our characters and we ask ourselves “dude, what happens next?”

And that, dear reader, is an excellent question.

See, depending on your personal literary philosophy it’s wondering either who will die or how they’ll get out of it.

Who will die, or, Anyone Can Die, as the beloved website christens it, is a way of causing tension that’s become somewhat common. The idea is that if you kill off main characters it starts to raise the stakes. The logic is if anyone can die then, well, anyone can die. You, as the audience, eagerly wait to find out who will live, hoping to the writers it’s not your favorite character.

Lost pulled this off magnificently. Deft character development through flashbacks and establishing moments quickly created strong characters who we cared about. But since this was Lost, characters no matter how important, had the chance to die, especially/mostly in the first couple seasons and again towards the end. You began to genuinely fear for your favorite character’s life. There was tension, and the pay off was immense.

Of course, this can go horribly wrong. One look at the travesty that was Heroes after the first season and, well, there it is. At some point they figured that a good way to maintain interest was to threaten the death of main characters. Of course, this would work so much better if these characters hadn’t been twisted beyond recognition. If we don’t care about the character anymore, well, we won’t really give half a crap if they die. The ultimate failing of any work of literature is when the audience doesn’t care. When a character we care about dies amongst those we don’t, we start to grow numb.

The other, less lethal, source of perilous tension, is wondering how our heroes will survive. This is the ideal convention for high adventure. We know Nathan Drake won’t die as he runs from a collapsing ruin. Luke, Han, and Leia will escape from the Death Star and defeat the Empire. In Star Wars it’s not about fretting over who’ll survive, it’s about watching them get through it. The trash compactor won’t close on them, we know that; but how do they get out of it? That’s the hook. The story’s an adventure: we want to see our heroes succeed! In an interview, Timothy Zahn (arguably the best writer the Star Wars Expanded Universe has seen) said: “For me, [entertaining fiction] means watching engaging characters I care about get into and out of dangerous predicaments, working and thinking together in order to defeat the bad guys.” He goes on to defend the idea of Plot Armor, saying that if he wanted the realistic anyone-can-die tension, he’d just turn on the news. This is an adventure.

But, like Anyone Can Die, this isn’t without flaws. Done poorly and there’s no tension since you’re convinced no one will die. You find yourself wishing they’ll just shut up and get on with the plot and stop fretting over a death that won’t happen. C’mon Emmerich, we all know you won’t kill off the littlest cancer patient, move on already! When the back of your mind isn’t saying “you’ve got this, almost there!” or “but what if…?”, then the tension’s gone and interest starts to fade.

There’s a moment in The Avengers when we’re left wondering about a character’s fate. The scene is brief, and everything in you screams survival, and yet, due to proper build up, you’re still wondering “they won’t, but, wait, what if…?” Then we get a magnificent bout of comic relief and it’s all resolved. The tension was there and quickly offset by relief. Of course, this tension wouldn’t have been possible without a significant death earlier (and our heroes’ reaction to it).

This is somewhat typical of the writer/director Joss Whedon. From what I’ve seen by him (Firefly/Serenity, Dr. Horrible [I intend to start watching Buffy over the summer]), it’s something of a trademark of his. Kill characters, but still maintain that feeling of high adventure. In Serenity, characters died, catching you out of left field and raising the stakes for the climax. Because even though you’re almost completely sure those big damn heroes will make it out alive, the doubt is there in the back of your mind. You want to see how they make it out of this impossible scenario, but you also can’t help but to worry about their survival. It’s a blend of both literary philosophies, working together.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter which philosophy is adopted, so long as it’s done well. Or you could always take the third option and take the middle road. Again, the thing is to do it right. Tension’s primary purpose in a work of literature is to get you invested. Tension makes you care about what happens next. So pick your brand of tension and run with it. Kill off your characters or pull them out of certain death. Just make sure we care.

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