Monthly Archives: August 2012

In Between

Most stories are about going somewhere. The quest in The Lord Of The Rings is to get to Mordor and destroy the ring. In any Indiana Jones movie he’s trying to get whichever artifact it is he’s after this time. A New Hope is about getting the princess and defeating the Empire.

But sometimes a story’s point isn’t actually the destination or the goal or whatever. The MacGuffin is negligible to the point of being unimportant. The characters’ goal is either arbitrary or nonexistent. In these stories the characters are in between.

“You don’t seem to be lookin’ at the destinations,” says Kaylee to a wandering preacher in the pilot for Firefly, “what you care about is the ships. And mine’s the nicest.” In actual fact, the destination doesn’t matter much to any of Serenity’s crew, because none of them have a destination.

They’re lost, more or less depending on the character. After the Unification War, Malcolm Reynolds doesn’t know where he belongs, just that this ship is his home. The Tam siblings are on the run, but they don’t know where to. They’re just running, getting away. Like the rest of the crew, they have no actual, tangible destination.

The idea of people traveling but going nowhere isn’t limited to Firefly, though. Zombieland, a 2009 zombie/comedy was about a group of survivors who meet up on the journey of, well, survival. The four protagonists; Columbus, Tallahassee, Wichita, and Little Rock, are all just wandering the zombiefied United States. Yes, Wichita and Little Rock are trying to get to an amusement park in California, but that’s not their destination. They’re lost, drifters, people who are neither here nor there.

Like the crew of Firefly, they’re people in transit trying to find something. And, like Firefly, they find a sort of home and family in each other, making the drifting that much easier to bear.

Lost in Translation is probably one of the purest examples of this sort of plot. Unlike Firefly and Zombieland, this isn’t just a factor in the plot, this is the plot. We’re introduced to Bob and Charlotte, two people visiting Tokyo. They don’t know each other at first and neither of them have any actual want to be where they are. They’re there because they have to be.

They’re both lost, trying to find some purpose in their visit to this country. Eventually they meet and connect. Bob and Charlotte and still drifting through their time in Japan, but now they’re drifting together. Their connection grows and becomes the focus of the film. It’s these two wanderers who found another one.

But the story remains in limbo. There’s no sense of finality to it all. It’s about a brief moment in time when these two meet and then return to their lives. It’s not about closure or finality: it’s a slice of these two lives. In all the quiet you’re asked to just empathize with them.

I’m writing this a few hours before my train leaves. I’m moving – again. This subject is something I’m more than a little familiar with; long layovers in airports and days spent packing. Maybe I can blame the late publication and poorer-than-usual quality of this particular essay on that. Go read last week’s again for quality.

And now we reach the point where the hastily written essay reveals its true motive: a friend and I published a book this week. The short story collection, entitled In Transit, is about people, well, in transit.

We’ve been working on it for almost a year now, editing it, fixing it, finishing it, and polishing it to the ebook you can now buy on Amazon.

So support a couple aspiring writers and buy our book, I promise you it’s better than this week’s essay.

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One Kind of Folks in the ‘Verse. Folks.

A quintessential part of an American High School education is reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Well, most educations. It’s presented as a classic coming of age tale set amongst racial tensions in the south as seen through the eyes of a young girl.

Cool.

Except that’s not what it’s about.

To Kill A Mocking Bird is about people. It’s about how people are just people. Most chapters highlight one person, be it Calpurnia, Boo Radley, or even the Ewell family and show that no matter how poor, rotten, or outcasted they may be, they are still people.

Scout and Jem have to spend a month working for Mrs Dubose, the mean old lady down the street who yells at them and insults their father. While yes, it’s a growing moment for both of them, the crucial part comes after she passes away. Scout and Jem still hate her, but Atticus Finch tells them what was really going on. She was a morphine addict desperate to get clean. Behind her ill temper was a woman desperate to be free. Atticus goes on to say that she was the bravest person he ever knew.

It’s not just the spiteful crone who get treated with a measure of sympathy. The white trash Ewell family are clearly malicious, yes, but Atticus demonstrates that they are still worthy of being treated with the respect befitting any people. Time and time again the book makes it clear — more often than not through Atticus’ example — that people are people.

Forty-two years after To Kill A Mockingbird was published another piece of fiction emerged with similar themes.

Granted, Firefly isalso a lot about family, freedom, and everything in between, but something crucial to it is the fact that folk in the ‘Verse are just people.

One of the members of Serenity’s crew is Inara, a companion. Companion here meaning prostitute. The captain of the ship, Malcolm Reynolds, isn’t a terribly huge fan of her profession and persistently berates it. However, the second someone dares define her by what she does and now who she is, Mal will leap to defend her. Be it challenging her client to a duel or risking his and his crew’s lives defending a brothel from a tyrant, Mal doesn’t like it when Inara and women like her are treated as less than human.

Because they aren’t.

We come to love Inara — a sort of person most people would look down on — not because of her high social ranking within the ‘Verse, but because we know that despite her day job she’s a woman too, a mostly-ordinary person like the rest of us. It’s easy to write her character off in the beginning as just being an excuse for sex-appeal or what-have-you, but she’s just as fleshed out as the rest of the crew. The question is can you see her as a person and not just eye candy?

Great deal is spent making sure we understand every member of the crew. The mercenary Jayne or the oddly-lethal preacher Book; they all come from somewhere different, but we learn that each and everyone of them is a person with a story worth telling. We learn not to judge someone as a ‘doctor’, ‘mechanic’, or ‘soldier’ but as the person carrying the title. They’re all people.

Towards the end of To Kill A Mockingbird Jem and Scout are discussing different types of people. White and black, rich and poor, accepted or rejected. “Naw, Jem,” says Scout at one point, “I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

That’s the point made by works like To Kill A Mockingbird and Firefly. Though Bob Ewell thinks the color of his skin makes him better than Tom Robinson, they’re really not all that different. Shepard Book is a preacher and Inara is a companion, but they’re both people caught up in life aboard the same ship.

Don’t matter if it’s almost eighty years ago in Maycomb, Alabama or five hundred years away out in the ‘Verse, people are people, folk are folk.

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Shawarma

So the other day I was looking for lunch and ended up ordering shawarma at a falafel joint. As such there is a picture of me taking a Thor-sized bite out of it on Twitter. To those curious, it tastes more like a doner kebab than a gyro, just different toppings and stuff. And more Middle-Easty.

But why shawarma? I was hungry, but why’d I pick some middle-eastern delicacy over barbecue, burgers or brisket? It wasn’t cheaper and I wasn’t even sure if I liked it (but I like meat, pita bread, and food, so there’s that).

If you stayed to the end of the credits of The Avengers — and by the end I mean the end after every last name has rolled past the screen — you’ll have seen this wonderful little scene. It’s the titular heroes sitting in a restaurant and eating shawarma. There’s no dialogue; it’s just them eating after the battle.

It’s a quiet scene, and a bit of a joke too since there’s no big epic stinger as was the case for the other Marvel movies.

But it’s important, because it’s about them. The shawarma scene shows that after saving New York City and the world, they need a break. Again, it’s about them, taking time together at a point where there’s nothing left to say.

I’m not going to lie: these sorts of scenes are my favorites. I love character relations in my media (see: Firefly, Community, Super 8…) as much as I love adventure.

So what are some other great examples of quiet character moments?

Avatar: The Last Airbender is rife with them. The episode ‘The Runaway’ focuses on the personality clash between Toph and Katara. We’ve got shenanigans aplenty in town and bits of excitement strewn all over. But the best part?

Toph and Sokka sit down and talk about Katara and how they all work together. It’s just talking, but it accentuates who they are.

Better still is a moment during the finale. Team Avatar is getting ready for Aang to confront the Fire Lord and save the day. Everyone knows there’s a massive epic battle coming up. One of the ‘members’ of Team Avatar, Zuko, spent most prior episodes as an antagonist. He’s helping them now, but he feels like an outsider.

There’s a group hug for reassurance before they set out, and Katara sees that Zuko chose to stand it out. Now, Katara was the one who distrusted him most, the one who just about hated him. But now she turns to him and tells him that “being part of the group also means being part of group hugs”. That’s it, no big spiel about forgiveness or redemption, just acceptance.

Later on the finale Zuko is reunited with the uncle he betrayed. He feels undeserving of even speaking to him and quietly waits at his bedside for him to wake up. When Iroh wakes and sees his nephew, he doesn’t even let Zuko get a word out before capturing him in an embrace. We’ve followed these characters for three seasons, we feel the same relief as the prodigal nephew and the same joy as the loving uncle.

Besides Avatar, I begun watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer this summer. The premiere episode for season two, ‘When She Was Bad’, has Buffy acting remorselessly towards everyone else, friend and foe alike. She alienates and manipulates one of her best friends and later viciously tortures a vampire for information. In the aftermath she’s scared and feels terribly alone.

The next morning she goes to school, unsure of where she stands. The way she sees it she doesn’t deserve to be forgiven or even treated with a shred of warmth by her friends.

But they’ve saved her a seat, they make plans for the day, joke about teachers and the events of the night before. The camera pulls away and their conversation fades out. Without outright saying it, we know they still love her and still accept her as one of them. It’s simple, quiet, and wonderful.

Character moments are special, since that’s our most basic way of relating to them. Like them, we have relationships, we have friends who see us at our best and worst and put up with our crap. We have that sense of familiarity when we see it happen on screen, whether it’s an impromptu game of what might be basketball in Serenity’s cargo hold or a group of superheroes sitting together silently.

In any case, I liked my shawarma.

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The Avengers > The Dark Knight Rises

You read that title right: The Avengers was better than The Dark Knight Rises.

Man. Always fun to stir up some controversy.

Why do I think this? So glad you asked.

But let me preface all this with something: I’ve loved Batman for as far back as I can remember. I loved The Dark Knight, heck, it was one of the first movies I added to my BluRay collection. I’m not some Batman hater championing The Avengers because it’s not Batman; I legitimately think The Avengers was better.

The Dark Knight Rises is called the end of the Dark Knight Legend. Which it certainly is. Unlike it’s predecessor(s), however, it doesn’t stand alone. Rises depends on The Dark Knight and Batman Begins for the plot to have impact. It still works without them, it just nowhere near as well and winds up feeling incomplete.

The Avengers has no such problem. Having seen the prior movies does help us understand the characters more, but the script is deft enough to sum up what’s relevant to their characters quickly. Even a hitherto unseen character like Hawkeye (besides a brief cameo in Thor) has development and character.

In addition, each of the main characters in The Avengers (The titular team and Loki) are given their own character arcs. The characters in this film feel complete and round, as opposed to the archetypes of Rises.

Another thing that’s comparable about these two movies is the presence of a woman that spends a lot of the time in a catsuit. The Avengers has Black Widow, Rises has Selina Kyle. Both are remarkably good protagonists, both use others perception of them as women as a tool, both have their own goals.

But it’s Black Widow, and not Selina Kyle, that sticks out as being better. Unlike Selina Kyle, Black Widow has a much fuller character and development. In Rises we know Kyle’s a master thief, and we know what she’s after. It’s implied in passing she perhaps fancies herself a modern day Robin Hood, but that’s it. We’re never told why nor are we given a personal reason for her actions. We can see what she does, but never does she come into her own person.

Black Widow is given a couple of key scenes where we meet the woman wearing the catsuit. We find out that she has red in her ledger that she needs to clear, and that’s her motivation for wanting to achieve her goal. Selina Kyle’s steals to get something that will clear her name of her previous thefts. As great as she is, she feels like just another archetype.

The other thing is The Avengers has you pour more investment into it. Yes, Gotham at risk is indeed a serious threat and we want to see Batman rise to the challenge. But in The Avengers we watch a group of people who are heroes in their own right learn to set aside their differences for the greater good. It’s a different conflict, but one was handled better than the other.

Furthermore, Batman and Iron Man are both called to make sacrifices. Batman’s feels like an eventuality, something that had to happen. Iron Man’s was a culmination of the development of Tony Stark’s character within the film. We have an investment in him and the people who care about him due to the events in the film thus far. Rises had a few moments, but focused too strongly on Batman as a symbol and not enough on the actual people around him.

In The Avengers we legitimately care about the characters and who they are. Not just the fate of New York/Gotham, but the fate of the very heart and soul of these characters. Sure, The Dark Knight Rises had it too, just The Avengers had it more.

Then there’s the heroism. No moment in The Dark Knight can compare to the shot of the assembled Avengers in New York City ready to save the day. None.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a perfect ending to an excellent trilogy with regards to both plot and theme. And maybe comparing these two movies is like comparing apples to pipebombs. One’s an epic, the other’s an adventure. Both are very different and both succeed at what they set out to do.

At the end of the day though, The Avengers was just a better film.

 

Writer’s note: I realize there’s much more I could get into here (like how The Avengers had more heart and humor, etc), but I’m already past my self-imposed deadline and have to go to work soon. My apologies.

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