Monthly Archives: August 2013

A Close Reading of Pentecost’s Speech

Time to do something different. In literary criticism a close reading is, according to wikipedia “the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text.”[1] Usually this is reserved for works of literary consequence (think The Odyssey or Heart of Darkness). But because this is Essays, Not Rants! and I can do whatever the heck what I want so I’m doing a close reading of Marshall Stacker Pentecost’s speech in Pacific Rim.

Let’s do this.

Backstory, in case you don’t know which speech I’m talking about. Stacker Pentecost is the leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps and the fight against the Kaiju. As the film draws to the climax it’s time for their final stand. In classic movie fashion, Pentecost takes this moment to address the Jaeger crews and everyone else, to give that Final Speech.

Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time…”

We’re not quite in the meat of the speech yet, this is just to set up the gravitas of it. Pentecost (and by virtue Travis Beacham, the writer) are reminding us that this is it. If this doesn’t work, nothing will. We’re at the edge. Game over, guys, game over.


“…we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves but in each other!”

There’s a choice to be made, the characters could have chosen to run for cover or to stick it out and fight. They chose this fight. But not only that, but they chose each other. One thing that Pacific Rim emphasizes is that we’re in this together. America’s not saving the day, it’s multinational effort built on trust. It could be argued that this is reflective of the growing global identity younger people have fostered by the internet, but I digress (though that is a cool idea).

Today there’s not a man or woman in here who shall stand alone!”

Something quick to point out is how Pentecost/Beacham doesn’t just say “there’s no one” but rather “not a man or woman”. It serves to emphasize that it’s not just the men leading the way, but the women too. Mako Mori, one of Gipsy Danger’s pilots, is exemplary of this and the speech does not forget her. Moving on, we’re again reminded of the bond between everyone involved. No one’s alone in this, no country or person is alone in the fight. Again, it’s reflective of a global united identity.

Today we will face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them!”

Again we see the word ‘today’. The speech’s a call to action, no one’s sitting around. It’s like Aragorn’s speech in Return of the King or the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Henry V, it’s about today. It’s about doing it now. Moving on we see a declaration that we aren’t going to run or wait for them to come at us. We’re going after them, we’re facing these monsters. Argue that the Kaiju are the embodiment of problems thrown at a younger generation or just beings of hopelessness, this speech says that we will face them and fight them head on. There’s this hope in the speech.

Today we are canceling the apocalypse!”

This might be my favorite line in the movie. It embodies the tone and feel of the movie. The end of the world hasn’t happened yet, it can be stopped. It can be canceled. It’s oddly optimistic in a movie about giant monsters destroying the world. More than that, it’s defiant. It can be read as reflecting the desire of people to see change in the world, for the seeming inevitable downward spiral to be righted. It can also be seen as a declaration that the world’s not gone yet, that we can cancel this apocalypse.

It’s easy to write off an epic speech like this as just pontificating for the sake of it, but I think that Travis Beacham and Guilermo del Toro had a bigger point to say in this speech. It’s hope in the face of tragedy, it’s defiance. Sure, it’s literally about Kaiju, but when you really take it apart it, like the movie, is so much more.

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35mm

Two things were announced yesterday: Ben Affleck will be the new Batman and Dan Mindel will be the Director of Photographer for Star Wars VII. This one is about the second one.

The announcement of Dan Mindel was accompanied with the information that the movie would be shot on 35mm. That is: film. Alright: history lesson. Attack of the Clones was known for being one of the first films shot entirely on digital. It was different, and coupled with its groundbreaking use of CGI, a harbinger of what digital filmmaking and effects could be. It was a big deal, and rightly so.

Then Revenge of the Sith came out a couple years later and time enough passed for the prequels to settle in. And, well, they aren’t so bad, but they aren’t that great. Least nowhere near the quality of the Holy Trilogy (that is, the originals). There was this distinct feeling of style or substance. Where the originals placed a strong emphasis on characters and their story at the heart of an epic conflict, well, the prequels were more caught up in the flash of the conflict. Much of the blame for this has fallen squarely on George Lucas’ shoulders and his love affair with CGI and green screen.

A month ago, Kathleen Kennedy, producer of Episode VII, said that they were taking their cues from the originals. That they want to capture the feel of the originals, find what made them work, they want to go after real locations (think Luke actually crawling through the snow in Norway instead of Anakin miming his way through a digital droid factory). Not only that, but story and characters are key for them. They want to make this work, they want to do right; to the point where they don’t want to film on digital.

Now, I think digital’s great. It’s a cool format, it’s allowed a cheap way for people without studios/money/training (read: me) try our hands at filmmaking. There’s nothing wrong with digital. Guillermo del Toro, a self-professed huge fan of using film, used digital for Pacific Rim on account of it simply working better for what he was aiming to achieve. There’s a time and place for digital and film, but we’re at the point where the two are almost indistinguishable. Unless you’re a super film nerd, in which case I apologize for making such a sweeping and obviously inaccurate statement.

Anyway.

All that said, what’s the big deal about J.J. Abrams and Mindel deciding to film with film instead of going digital? After all it was Star Wars itself that pioneered digital filmmaking, isn’t it? What’s the big deal?

It’s symbolic. The prequels leave a poor taste in many fans’ mouth, not solely for being less-than-amazing movies, but for being bad Star Wars movies. They lost that feel of adventure and lived-in science fiction that made the Holy Trilogy so great. They were flawed and are usually excluded from Star Wars marathons (or at least from mine). Abrams and crew want to distance themselves from them and instead hew closer to the ones we know and love. They’re making the sequels, a continuation of A New Hope, Empire, and Jedi, not a follow up to the prequels. Thus far the actions by Abrams and the others have been to reassure us.

Some of the original cast will be back, there will be a focus on story and characters, they’re going to aiming for practical locations, heck, they’re filming on 35mm film. They’re telling us that, in the inverse of 2009’s Star Trek, this won’t be the Star Wars we saw ten years ago; this is gonna be our fathers’ Star Wars. They’re working for our trust.

Now I just hope they use miniatures. Those are the best.

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No Detail Wasted

I’m reading the Harry Potter books again. What really strikes me, even more so than the last time I read them, is just how well planned the whole series is. I don’t just mean the incredibly well-developed characters here, I’m talking about how J.K. Rowling clearly had the whole story prepared before she began writing.

Sirius Black gets mentioned in the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone, but doesn’t come into play until The Prisoner of Azkaban. Grindewald is also mentioned in Stone and only becomes important in The Deathly Hallows. Even the location of the seventh Horcrux (a major plot point in Hallows) is foreshadowed/basically revealed during a short conversation between Dumbledore and Harry in The Chamber of Secrets. Tiny details that seem to just give the world some color end up affecting the story in a big way. In other words: Chekhov’s gun.

Now, Chekhov’s gun is not foreshadowing. When Nick Fury tells Tony about the Avengers initiative in Iron Man, it’s hinting about the plans they have for the story. Chekhov’s gun, as described by Anton Chekhov himself, is that if there’s a gun hanging on the wall, the gun will be fired. If Tony encounters an icing problem when testing the Mk. II it will come back in some way.

Rowling unquestionably excels at this. There’s a great economy to her exposition. She’ll describe a pretty looking diadem in one book only for it to gain significance in the next. A ghost will be covered in blood for seemingly no apparent reason, only there is a reason that comes in to play later. Here’s the thing: not only do these details serve the story, they add detail to the world. The motorcycle Hagrid rides in the beginning of Philosopher’s Stone could have belonged to anyone, even himself, but by mentioning a Sirius Black this world we’re stepping in to suddenly seems so much bigger. There’s more to this world than what we see. Sometimes these details don’t need to serve the plot (though they usually do), sometimes it just makes everything that much more real.

Consider Roy Batty’s Tears in Rain speech in Blade Runner. He mentions things like c-beams and the Tannhäuser Gate. What are c-beams and the Tannhäuser Gate? We’re never told. We don’t need to be, but the mention of it implies so much more than what we see. In a more contemporary example, when we’re introduced to Cherno Alpha in Pacific Rim we’re told the pilots and their jaeger have defended the Siberian Wall for six years. Again, we don’t know that means, just that it’s important and adds texture to the world. Sure, they could have just said that Cherno Alpha’s one of the best or that Cherno Apha’s defeated four kaiju; but by adding a detail like ‘perimeter patrol, Siberian Wall’ gives the world that much more. Maybe the writers do (Travis Beacham has a horde of story information on the world of Pacific Rim), maybe they don’t (the Tears in Rain speech was ad libbed), but it adds to the world all the same.

These details play an essential role in world building, they make it feel alive. In the case of Pacific Rim or Blade Runner they add details, with J.K. Rowling they set up the plot. Timothy Zahn, of Heir to the Empire and other books, also does this. You can bet that just about everything he describes will play a role later, no matter how small. It’s what I referred to earlier as the economy of exposition. Writers like Beachman and Rowling use these details to not just further the plot or establish characters but make it all seem so real. It’s an enviable reality, really.

Anyway, I’m gonna go back to reading The Goblet of Fire now.

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The One With Aristotle

Around 2,300-odd years ago this guy named Aristotle wrote a thingy about what makes good stories. Yes, I’m referencing Aristotle; this is definitely an essay and not a rant. Now, I think storytelling as a whole has progressed beyond some of his ideas (his limitation of fiction to tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, for example), but one thing that still sticks is his idea of catharsis. Aristotle figured that a story should arouse a lot of emotion in its audience, and then purge it in the end: catharsis. So, why is this vital to a good story/movie/book/video game/tv show/ballad?

Super 8 is a story on many different levels. People call it a story about an alien in a small town, I say it’s a story about kids making a movie. But underneath all that, is the story about a boy growing up and learning to move on. The movie carries this theme and tension, we see it when he interacts with his dad and with his friends and it’s reflected in the conflict with the alien. For most of its runtime we’re drawn into Joe’s turmoil, we feel his refusal to let go and understand how he has to. This is the thing that Aristotle called ‘arousing feelings of pity and fear.’ The movie culminates in Joe letting go of his mother’s locket, symbolically expressing his willingness to accept life as it is now and, with that, purging us of all that built up emotion. That feeling you get when you watch the ending of Super 8? Ladies and gentlemen: catharsis.

Using that dramatic structure thing you learned back in middle school, this is called the resolution. But resolution implies that everything has to be resolved, catharsis does not. Take The Empire Strikes Back, for example. It ends with Han frozen and captured, the Rebels scattered, and Luke finding out that Darth Vader is his father. There’s little resolution to be found (Will Han be okay? Obi Wan lied! Who did Yoda mean by ‘another’? [I bet it’s Han!]), but it feels complete all the same. We got our catharsis through the escape from Cloud City and the scene aboard the medical frigate. Unlike the second movie in many two-part trilogies (Dead Man’s Chest, Matrix: Reloaded), you get that sense of closure even without the third entry. Interestingly, the same goes for The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. During the Breaking of the Fellowship or Sam’s speech about the stories that really mattered we find our catharsis. Though the plot is tied up yet and though the ring is yet to be destroyed, we feel fulfilled.

Catharsis, if done right, can be more important than tying up plot. Like the finale of Lost, which, yes, I will constantly and vehemently defend. Instead of trying to tie up every loose end, Lindelof and Cuse opted instead to give the audience catharsis for their emotions. Sure, we didn’t find out why that one green bird said Hurley’s name that one time, but we did get the resolution that despite all the crap they went through, the survivors were reunited. They got their happy ending, and we felt all the better for it. Least we did if you weren’t watching Lost just for the mysteries. And why not? Focusing on the mysteries of Lost rather than the characters resulted in an intellectual rather than emotional investment, and thus, none of Aristotle’s desired feelings of fear and/or pity.

It all comes down to caring about the story. If we don’t give a crap about what’s going on, we won’t feel anything with the inevitable catharsis (for example: Hereafter). We go to the movies, play video games, and read books to feel something. Maybe it’s the wish-fulfillment of shooting up the Covenant as Master Chief or the sense of familiarity from watching Firefly, we wanna feel something. We just need that moment of release afterwards.

And yes, I did actually read Poetics, though it took Michael Tierno’s Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters for it to really make sense.

Note: When done right the lack of proper catharsis is catharsis in and of itself. See: the ending of The Last of Us, though it could be argued that the catharsis comes during that final chapter. Either way, it still works due to our heavy investment in the characters and Druckmann’s incredible script.

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Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse

Did you ever read The Day of the Triffids? It’s by John Wyndam and was probably the first piece of proper post-apocalyptic fiction I read ten years ago. It’s typical of the genre. We’ve got the world impairing event, the monsters that begin wiping out humanity, and of course the few survivors who band together to try and find a way to continue civilization. It’s a classic.

Now, like I’ve said before, science fiction provides a great way to examine reality and the issues therein. As such, it’ll heavily reflect the world in which it was written. So let’s see what The Day of the Triffids says about culture then. It was written in 1951, six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post-apocalyptic fiction began to flourish then, reflecting the horrific visions of what humanity could do and how we kept looking for more ways to destroy the world. This is what happens in Triffids; nukes in space blind most of the population and genetically engineered killer plants set about, well, killing people. Humanity brought this on themselves, their hubris caused the apocalypse.

We see this in more recent (post)-apocalyptic fiction too. In The Terminator we created Skynet with our computers; in The Matrix our drive to technology created The Machines and enslaved us. Within this and, yes, Day of the Triffids and countless zombie movies too, lies the implicit fear that as society delves into technology we’ll destroy ourselves. The solutions vary. InThe Terminator our heroes destroy the evil technology. The heroes of The Matrix and The Day of the Triffids find a way to overcome their creations to create a new civilization. It could be argued that it reflects some of the sentiment we find today; the world’s so screwed up the only solution is to start over.

Yet the trend in recent fiction has been to focus less on the how of the apocalypse and more on the what now. We never find out what caused the fungal outbreak in The Last of Us, but we do see Joel and Ellie develop twenty years later. In Zombieland, Columbus mentions that no one knows where the zombies come from. No longer are we watching us destroy ourselves, now we’re figuring out what we’re doing in the aftermath. We see the relationships form, we see the recreation of a family. Fiction like The Last of Us and Zombieland presents a world where the protagonists are handed a lousy hand and make the most of it. Starting over may be rough, but there remains that glimmer of hope.

If anything, Pacific Rim takes that conceit and fires it at other apocalyptic fiction. Suddenly, the technology classically feared is not the root of our problems but instead a savior. As protagonist Raleigh puts it early on: “You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.” Today’s culture is reflected in Pacific Rim in that technology isn’t something to be feared, but something to be used. How? To fight back against what we cannot control and to become closer to one another.

Pacific Rim introduces drifting, two people sharing a mind to control a Jaeger. The closer the pilots’ bond, the better they’ll fight. We love to deride the Internet and all as the death of true relationships, but Pacific Rim accepts this sort of digital connection and physicalizes it. With that, the film acknowledges the growing global identity facilitated by these connections. The heroes in Pacific Rim aren’t just all-Americans; we have an international coalition of Americans, Japanese, Australians, Russians, British, Chinese, and Idris Elba saving the world together.

It all culminates with where Pacific Rim goes with its story. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re a self-perceived failure, an egotistical jerk with daddy issues, a haunter young woman, or a research scientist you can hardly walk properly: you can save the world, you can be a rockstar. It is paramount that Pacific Rim takes place before the world ends: the protagonists refuse to accept it. When the authorities opt to cancel the resistance and to hide behind a wall instead, the heroes choose to fight on. In the traditional pre-final mission heroic speech, Stacker Pentecost declares that they will “face the monsters that are at our door and take the fight to them!”, they will stand up the end of the world because they refuse to accept that the world they’re given. We don’t need to start over from scratch, we can make a better world with what we have. Or as he says a moment later: “Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” It’s no longer important who caused the end of the world: we’re stopping it.

Jon Foreman wrote a piece for the HuffingtonPost a few years ago reflecting this dream of a better world. As he says: “Against all odds, against all that we know about this world, we could choose to hope for a better one — to hope for love, for peace, for a form of contentment and solace that we have never fully realized.” Pacific Rim is saying the same thing: no matter how bleak the world may seem, we can hope to save it, to fix it. It isn’t so much that we’re no longer blaming ourselves for the world gone wrong; it’s that we know we can make it better, with or without giant robots.

Though giant robots would be nice.

Credit where credit is due: This sort of ‘close reading’ of Pacific Rim grew out of this Tumblr post. Jon Foreman’s column can be found here.

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