Monthly Archives: January 2016

There’s Gotta Be A Change

A big part of movies is the protagonist’s arc. As in they begin in one place, and end in another; they change. Tony Stark learns to take responsibility for his actions. Rey chooses to embrace her destiny. Duncan gets his own back in The Way Way Back. Change is a vital part of a story.

But I’ve been thinking about The Iron Giant a bunch recently (because reasons) and something’s been nagging at my mind: Hogarth doesn’t change all that much. He doesn’t find himself making some massive choice towards the end that sums up his growth throughout the film. Maybe he proves that he can take care of something, but there’s not much of an internal change in Hogarth. But the movie works — why?

I will perpetually hold up Hot Rod as being a fine (albeit surprising) example of excellent storytelling. Seriously, I consider the Lonely Island’s comedy to be near-perfect. The plotting is impeccable and if you wanna learn how to tell a story watch that movie. Now, Rod changes over the course of the movie — somewhat. Sure, he gets his mustache of self-actualization, but Rod at the end of the movie is still very similar to Rod at the start.

The idea of a protagonist changing comes with it the idea of something big. Tony Stark makes a very conscious decision to begin making reparations, and at the end of Iron Man makes a sacrificial play — something he would never have done at the start of the film. Rey takes Maz Kanata’s advice and looks ahead for her belonging rather than waiting on Jakku and, at the end, takes up a lightsaber in the Coolest Moment of 2015. Duncan becomes more assertive through his job at Water Wizz and ultimately makes a stand for himself. But Rod starts as a dude who does stunts and ends the movie as a guy who does stunts. Over the course of his stunt-doing he is able to win the girl, earn the money for his step-dad’s surgery, and then kick his step-dad’s ass. But why? Rod’s arc still works so how does Rod change?

Let’s go over the plot of Hot Rod again. Specifically, when he recommits for good: he’s realized that everyone thinks he’s a joke and he gives up being a stuntman to be an ‘adult,’ donning a button-up shirt and purchasing a shopping cart of liquor. His crew calls him out, saying the best thing about him was how he was always himself. But Rod’s having none of it until that night when he drives his very high friend to the hospital, who too tells Rod how much he means to everyone. So Rod recommits, makes good with his crew, and (attempts to jump) a whole bunch of school buses. At the end, Rod is vindicated. He doubles down on the essence of his character and thus self-actualizes. So no, Rod doesn’t change in a revelatory way (he doesn’t give up stuntmanship in favor of becoming an investment banker), but he makes a decision to really commit to being himself. Rod at the end is accepted by his community (and his step-father) because he is himself. Rod’s arc sees the very fiber of his being put to test and him deciding that himself is the best to be. The change happens in the eyes of those around him, he goes from loser to hero by being himself.

I suppose then, that Rod’s arc is not unlike Hogarth’s in The Iron Giant. Like Rod, Hogarth doesn’t change too much in the film, he reminds a hopeful kid who’s willing to love unconditionally. Also like Rod, Hogarth is ultimately vindicated, with the Iron Giant he vouched for saving the town of Rockwell. Furthermore we get to see Hogarth’s actions reflected in the Giant, who because of Hogarth’s influence is willing to be a sacrifice. Hogarth remains true to himself, and in light of that, the way he is perceived changes around him. He is faced with an ultimate test of character, and by not backing down, saves the day. There’s an arc there, and the status quo, for Hogarth, is different from where he started.

In all honesty, this rant essay my own rambling examination of how arcs work. To sum it all up, I figure changes don’t have to be inside a protagonist, but can also be how the world sees the protagonist. Just so long as it’s done well, but then, that’s a caveat with everything.

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We Get The Subtext, Alright?

Being stuck in a plane for sixteen hours is only somewhat alleviated by in-flight entertainment. Which is somewhat undermined by a dismal selection of comedies. Because when you’re trapped in a flying aluminum tube, you don’t wanna have to think too hard. Also, I once watched Fruitvale Station on a plane and I was in no mood to have a repeat of that emotional rollercoaster.

So I decided to watch The Iron Giant for the first time in over a decade, ‘cuz hey, I remember it being a good movie and I wouldn’t mind watching it again. And wow.

I talk a lot about the meaning of stories, how stories — the really good ones — are saying something more about the world. But there’s a fine line here: no one likes preachifying. If you break up a story to spend a few minutes on a soapbox discussing why This One Thing is bad you’re just gonna piss off your audience. Especially if it’s only tangentially related to the story. Doesn’t matter what your genre is or who’s your audience; you give your story meaning by working it into the plot.

The Iron Giant is a great story that does this very well. Because the central dramatic thrust of is based on the titular robot’s identity — is he good, evil, a weapon? — the film’s subtext is all about identity too; is Kent a protective g-man or a power-hungry spook; is Hogarth as an over-imaginative child or a kid in need of a friend? None of these roles and identities are set in stone, each character has the agency to choose who they want to be. Hogarth chooses to befriend the giant, Dean decides to help Hogarth and the giant, Kent refuses to see the giant as anything but a monstrosity. Because this subtext is within the entire film — in addition to the central question of what is the robot — when Hogarth tells the Iron Giant “You are who you choose to be” it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Yes, it’s a pretty explicit summation of the movie’s themes, but the movie gets away with it — and not just because it’s for kids. Why?Because it’s a pointed question that the film has been building towards. For a couple moments the subtext of the film becomes overt and it punches you right in the feels because you can suddenly see the choice ahead of the characters. The Iron Giant makes his choice of self-sacrifice, bringing everything to a circle and showing how much of an impact Hogarth’s willingness to love has had.

Hang on, I’ve got something in my eye again.

Brad Bird and the others behind the movie gave the audience the benefit of the doubt and assumes they’re of the thinking sort. Which is wonderful, especially because the primary audience for the film is kids. If a movie is built around a central theme — as this one is — the meaning behind it becomes clear without having to spell it out. I mayn’t have been able to express this nearly as well when I first saw The Iron Giant back when I was eight, but I definitely understood the central themes (and the climatic heroic sacrifice is firmly etched in my mind). The subtext is so artfully done I get it, whether I’m eight or twenty-four. A story having to spell out what it’s really about is a sign that the teller isn’t sure they’re being clear enough or that the audience is smart enough to pick up on it. It’s why District 9 doesn’t have a moment where Wikus and Christopher talk about how Apartheid was bad, or Scott Pilgrim vs The World has a discussion about what’s essential in a relationship. Return of the Jedi doesn’t have Luke say “I believe Darth Vader, my father, is still good and I won’t fight him because good will win and despite my all black outfit, I too am good.” Rather the line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” and his throwing away his lightsaber speaks volumes more because it brings Luke’s arc to completion and gives voice to just the right amount of subtext. “We are Groot” is incredibly more poignant and effective than someone saying “We’re a family now, Pete!”

have to give the audience — adults or children — enough credit to understand what they’re about.

Great stories have their theme woven beautifully and clearly into their narrative. But they also have to give the audience — adults or children — enough credit to understand what they’re about. Don’t preachify with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil; do like The Iron Giant and work it seamlessly into the narrative so that Vin Diesel saying “Superman” in a robot voice makes a grown man all weepy-eyed.

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Performing Truth

Twelve years ago I went to the Grand Canyon. While in a town nearby, a couple of guys dressed as cowboys did a shootout. Blank firing guns and all; twelve year old me thought it was real cool. This past Thursday, part of my school trip here in South Africa had us watch a group doing a collection of traditional dances. Also cool. Were they authentic? A cowboy shootout isn’t particularly typical of modern Arizona and Tribal dances celebrating a good hunt aren’t exactly common in South Africa anymore. But it’s what we expect of these places,


There’s this concept of performance, which, put simply, is when we do something we are performing what it should be. We perform politeness, which looks different in the United States compared to China. And we perform culture, which is part who we are and part what’s expected of us. So those cowboys in Arizona and the dancers in South Africa were both, in some way, performing culture. The dance the other night, for example, had a piece of choreography ripped right from Marty McFly’s concert at the end of Back To The Future. Air guitars were probably not a thing when these dances were first done, but contextually it makes plenty of celebratory sense. Authentic or not, it’s true.

Which brings me to Hamilton, the broadway musical about the titular American Founding Father. It’s biographical, but unlike many other biographies it chooses to dispense wholesale with any concerns of historical accuracy. Not to say that the play  takes egregious liberties with Alexander Hamilton’s life, but rather decides to play fast and loose with exact way of presenting this truth. For starters, Hamilton himself is played by a Latino actor. And Aaron Burr is black. And not only is there singing, but there’s rapping; these showtunes are hiphop anthems. Even if we can forgive the presence of songs — which all musicals do —, the racelift and music genre is a fairly egregious bastardization of ‘authenticity’ that essentially throws out any semblance of an accepted interpretation of reality. But it makes the story of Hamilton’s life surprisingly accessible and relatable. The spirit is preserved. Like a man dressed as a Zulu warrior strumming an air guitar, Alexander Hamilton rapping about not throwing away his shot mayn’t be accurate, but it’s true. Hamilton performs a subversive version of the truth that allows it to better capture the youthful energy of revolution.

Fiction is inherently a lie. There’s no such thing as hobbits, magic rings, or Mount Doom. We don’t have superheroes, and we don’t have spaceships. But a show like Firefly [is able to better capture the feeling of life on a ship than anything else. The Lord of The Rings speaks beautifully about the indomitable nature of hope. Sex Criminals contains the best discussion of depression and intimacy I’ve ever seen. A good storyteller is full of crap; anyone who says otherwise is wrong (or writing a different essay). In story, as Tim O’Brien puts it in The Things They Carried: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” We don’t need things to be accurate — Hamilton being a white dude or an African not strumming an air guitar — but we need things to be true. When Hamilton raps we don’t think about the factual inaccuracies, instead we get lost in the feeling of excitement and energy of it all. The truth of a strong story lies not in it perfectly matching reality, but rather in it moving the audience. The truth of a story lies in its emotional core; we’ll willingly swallow the most boldfaced lie about the world so long as deeper within the lie is a truth of being.

There was a thrill to watching those guys dance the other day. An excitement[?] that overruled any care about the question of authenticity. They may not have performed a reflection of reality, but they performed the truth. We don’t need a factual blow by blow for a story to bury itself into our heart, we just need it to be true.

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2015 in Review

Well. It’s 2016. Since it’s tradition (and since I’m in South Africa on a school trip and don’t wanna write a normal post), let’s take a look at my rants essays from this past year.

Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts

#5: Let’s Talk About That Whole Black Widow Thing

Hoo boy, yeah, that’s one way to start off this year-in-review. I stand by this post (that there’s nothing inherently problematic with Black Widow’s characterization in Age of Ultron, rather the real issue is that we have one female character to tell every female narrative) and yeah, that’s about all there is to say about that.

#4: Masculinity in Age of Ultron

While we’re on the topic of Age of Ultron, one thing it did well was offer multiple narratives for how masculinity looks (which it could have stood to done for Widow, see above). This one was fun to do, ‘cuz I do always like getting into the bits and bobs of story.

#3: Sorry Nate, There’s No Princess In This Castle

2015 is when Essays, Not Rants! inadvertently became a mildly feminist blog. Combined with A Manic Pixie Dream Problem and Another Boyband Saving The World, I accidentally spent three weeks really digging into the way woman are portrayed in fiction. It’s not something I have much of a background in, but it is certainly something I enjoy.

#2: But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

Speak of the devil. I guess there is a demand of sorts for this sort of essay. What I wanted to do here was look at the idea that ‘strong female protagonists/characters’ have to physically kick ass. They don’t They just gotta be written like actual people who want stuff. Who knew?

#1: Why I Take Issue With Johnny Storm Being Black

I’m sorry. That’s a clickbait title if I ever saw one. I’m worse than Buzzfeed. If you don’t wanna click the clickbait, basically it’s great that they’re willing to diversify the Fantastic Four. Less great is that it leaves me wishing they went all the way and decided to make Sue black too. Again, sorry about the title.

Josh’s Pick of Three

#3: Just So We’re Clear, Rey Is The Best

I have no other reason for listing this one except for the fact that Rey is very much the best.

#2: (Re)Constructing Narratives

The past six months have been big for me. I wrote (and defended) what is essentially my thesis at school and a lot of the posts on this blog have been related to it. This one especially, and it actually has the name I’d eventually give my concentration (Narrative (Re)Construction).

#1: Jessica Jones: Not Your Victim

This was a post well outside my wheelhouse, and I’m pretty proud that I managed to write it kinda successfully. Essays, Not Rants! is often a place for me to sound out ideas or tackle subjects I’m not used to. This is one of those, and it’s moments like that that make the blog for me.

So there you have it. A post about a bunch of other posts. That, well, that would have been 2015. Onwards to 2016!

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Diversity: It’s That Easy!

Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, shows up in the last episode of Jessica Jones, providing a quiet link between that show and Daredevil. She tends to a wounded Luke Cage, because it takes a special kind of doctor to treat an (incredibly hot) man with unbreakable skin. Malcolm, Jessica’s neighbor, shows up too and the three share a scene.

And suddenly there are more (important) people of color interacting on screen than in any other Marvel property. If anything, Jessica Jones shows how simple it is to diversify a cast. Why not make the cutthroat lawyer a woman? Why not make the police officer they interact with black? This intentional mindset of ‘why not’ really affects the overall look of Jones. New York in the Netflix series is diverse, far from the overwhelming whiteness of How I Met Your Mother and Girls. The prominence of women in the story also allows for different narratives, avoiding the problem of Age of Ultron. It gets to the point that it’s hard to find a prominent white male character in Jessica Jones who could be classified as a hero ‘cuz those spots are all taken.

Diversity in media oftentimes comes down to being willing to make a big deal about little decisions. It means not defaulting to “white dude” when creating or casting a character and realizing that archetypes and narratives can belong to anyone because everyone has a story to tell. Or even just because everyone wants to see themselves in a story. Especially as a hero.

J.J. Abrams does this exceptionally well in The Force Awakens. There’s a decided effort in the film to diversify Star Wars and yet doesn’t feel forced. Yes, the main characters are very different (the woman, Rey, is the protagonist [and the best], the ex-Stormtrooper Finn is Nigerian-British, and the hotshot pilot is Guatemalan-American) but the movie’s attention to diversity really shows in the background.

Think about Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. With very few exceptions, all of the bit-part Rebel and Imperial officers were white guys. General Veers and Jan Dodonna have barely a couple lines each, but both were, of course, white men. But The Force Awakens does away with that tradition and switches it up. Imperial Officers are also women and minorities, besides being white. Ken Leung (of Lost fame) plays one of the Resistance’s admirals and a Trinidadian actor plays another. The small band of X-Wing pilots include, besides Poe and a couple aliens, a black guy and an Asian woman. Even the villainous First Order gets in on it: the random Stormtrooper that alerts Kylo Ren to the escaped Rey is a woman. That’s right, in The Force Awakens Stormtroopers can be not only black, but women too. And that’s in addition to the random officers who also just so happen to be diverse.

This is what I mean by making a big deal about little decisions. It means being willing to not just phone it in but decide “hey, maybe this person can look different?” We’re seeing steps being taken in this direction — and not just in Jessica Jones and The Force Awakens. Marvel’s recent slate of comics has been pushing a more diverse range of superheroes as does work like, say, Pacific Rim. It’s small details, yes, but do you know how cool it is to see someone like you on screen? It’s really not as hard to do as it seems, which is one reason why I’m a huge proponent of it. And if it’s not something you’ve thought about, well, you’re in luck.

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