Tag Archives: Chuck

I’m Going To Use The Word ‘Intertextual’ Because I Want To

Intertextuality is a fun word to say. It’s an even funner concept: it’s the idea that one text will reference another. And I’ve been on a vacation of sorts this week so I’m going to write about it.

See, when intertextual literature lets its world be informed by the outside. Chuck, for example, uses it to inform characters. Characters’ references to Tron or Back to the Future lets us in to their heads and gives us an idea of who they are. When Casey tells an amnesiac Morgan that there are only three Indiana Jones movies, we know that he does actually care about the guy he’s always found insufferable. First off, the show at-large is tapping into general consensus that Crystal Skull, the fourth Indiana Jones movie, was comparatively awful. But more importantly, it’s got Casey entering into Morgan’s nerdy world, something he usually doesn’t entertain. But because he does, we know how far both his character has come but also his relationship with Morgan. Outright telling Morgan he cared would be clunky (and also not true to the character), but the smaller reference feels far more natural. All because of an Indiana Jones reference.

Of course, when talking about intertextuality and characterization, it’s hard not to bring up Ulysses, but that’s mostly because I’ve read it and the book’s kinda taken over my head. The tome portrays a day in Dublin from deep within a couple characters’ minds. Bloom and Stephen, the main characters whose heads the book spends the most time in, both use contemporary culture in their thoughts, but both do differently. Stephen, the intellectual young man, quotes and references Shakespeare and Catholic funeral rites. The former because it’s what he’s familiar with, the latter because of residual guilt over his mother’s death. Bloom, on the other hand, being a rather normal middle-aged man, has advertising slogans and popular songs crawling through his head. Since Ulysses is meant to be as close to life as literately possible, it wouldn’t make sense for it to not have this. Intertextuality here serves to make James Joyce’s Dublin feel even more real. Then there’s also the fact that much of what they reference has to do with their own internal conflicts (see Stephen and his mother) and also elucidates more of the book, but that’s an essay rant dissertation for another day.

Intertextuality, however, extends beyond simple references. Star Wars is deeply intertextual, although it takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far far away where contemporary pop-culture isn’t a thing. Rather the plot as a whole is heavily influenced  by traditional mythology as well as classic Japanese cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress featured many ideas and plot beats that were integrated into Star Wars.  This isn’t to say that Star Wars is derivative, no more than The Lion King is for taking a lot from Hamlet (or, for that matter, Lion King 1/2 and its relationship to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead).

Rather it makes you realize that literature — and that’s literature insofar as film, books, video games, television, comics, and any form of telling a story — is inherently interconnected. Everything references something else and now, with the internet making pop culture osmosis prevalent enough that I can mention Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and know that a good many of you will get it even if you, like me, haven’t read it.

All this to say that intertextuality isn’t going away, and isn’t necessarily bad. Rather, it’s a fancy word for a normal enough thing that, when used well, adds layers to a story that wouldn’t otherwise.

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A Real Swell Guy

Let’s talk about Chuck, because it’s a fantastic show that you should watch if you haven’t. And not just ‘cuz Chuck and I are basically the same person, but because it’s a well put together show with a lot of fun stories and great characters.

But those characters are a big reason. You’ve got Chuck and his two spy handlers and their dynamic and interactions, but they’re not who this is post is about.

This post it about one of the supporting characters: Captain Awesome (or Devon Woodcomb as he’s actually named and sometimes called). Awesome is Chuck’s sisters’s boyfriend-then-husband who, in earlier seasons, lives with Chuck and his sister, Ellie). He’s a cardiothoracic surgeon who enjoys adventure sports, and flossing. He’s plain awesome.

Which makes for a great contrast with the protagonist, Chuck, especially at the top of the series. Chuck didn’t finish college, doesn’t have a girlfriend, and is stuck in a dead end job. His life is going nowhere. Awesome is everything Chuck is not.

Awesome, as a character, was conceived by the writers as “the worst possible person for Chuck to come home too.” And he is, in a way; he’s the one with his life together, he’s everything Chuck is not which accentuates just how much of a loser Chuck feels he is. So as a storytelling device, Awesome works well, perfectly.

It would be really easy for the show to just stop there. Leave Devon as a bit of a caricature who pops in to a scene as his awesome self and leaves shortly after. Alternately, Captain Awesome could be a major jerk. He’s fully aware of how great he is, so the writers could really have pushed the Mister Perfect angle and made him utterly insufferable. If they did that Chuck would have had an antagonist whenever he came home: here’s this guy who not only has his life together but has everything going for him and he will remind you of it at any moment, especially if it helps bring you down. So bam, between tension at his day job, all the fun and games of being a spy, and Devon waiting at home; Chuck’s life is rife for conflict.

Yet, fortunately, Captain Awesome is not remotely like that.

Instead of being huge pain, Devon is instead one of the most genuinely nice guys, well, ever. For example, when asked by Jeff, one of Chuck’s deadbeat coworkers at the BuyMore, if Awesome’s ever had a dream that’s never come true, Devon thinks a beat before simply saying no. Again, this is one of those scenes where he could come off as conceited, but its the sincerity with which he says it that helps you love him. He’s just a good guy who, even though things have always gone right for him, is willing to help anyone else. Though he’s never had a dream not come true, Devon offers Jeff a (potentially disastrous) chance for his to come true. Devon’s written earnestly and is a wonderful character on the show. If the main characters of Chuck made Captain Planet, he’d have the Power of Heart.

I cannot stress enough how fine a line the characterization of Captain Awesome walks. He could have become someone we’d desperately want Chuck to punch in the face, or even just a total pushover who gets walked over by everyone else. It says a lot about the writing and Ryan McPartlin’s performance that he feels plain genuine. They could have deconstructed the character, or maybe given him a dark backstory (think Rich of Community’s “Beginner Pottery”), but instead they had him, well, as him; as someone too perfect to hate or be hated. Captain Awesome as a whole says a lot about the caliber of characterization on Chuck. They were able to take characters who, by all accounts, should have been one note but make them interesting. Devon is one of them and, man, he’s just a real swell guy.

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For Want of a Glass of Water

Kurt Vonnegut once said, “every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” This piece of advice functions as a very simple and straightforward way to ensure a character has some semblance of depth.

What’s important about a goal? A goal gives a character purpose and gives an audience a reason to invest. In Star Wars, Luke wants to leave Tatooine. In How I Met Your Mother, Ted wanted to meet the mother (or at least we thought he did). In Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow wants his ship back. As viewers, we want characters to want something. It’s dull if a character just exists with no want (i.e. Ted for many of the later seasons of Mother). Chuck begins with a very complacent Chuck who’s just floating through life. Receiving the Intersect gives him a purpose too.

Characters then have to do something about it. Solid Snake crawls trough a microwave chamber in Metal Gear Solid 4 to stop the Patriots. Katniss famously volunteers as tribute. Taking a proactive role about their goals is what separates Katniss from Bella Swan. The former may want Edward and/or Jacob, but she just sits around; Katniss actively fights for not only her life, but for those of her friends. It’s not enough for a character to have a goal, they have to do something about it. Jack Sparrow spending two hours talking about how much he wants the Black Pearl would be a terribly boring movie.

Those are the fundamentals of having a potentially interesting character. Following that we need conflict. There has to be something stopping the character from getting what they want. Harry wants to be a wizard with the sense of family and acceptance it entails, Voldemort wants him dead. That conflict of interest fills seven books. This so called ‘external conflict’ as your High School English teacher called it can be far more subtle. In The Last of Us, Joel’s goal becomes to protect Ellie whereas her goal is to make her life count. For the most part the goals don’t interfere, but when they do we get some magnificent, quiet drama.

Additionally, having the protagonist conflicted makes them that much more interesting as we get to watch them change or resist it. Columbus in Zombieland already has the zombies interfering with his goal of staying alive. His emergent want to win Wichita’s heart, though, also screws with his sense of self-preservation. Suddenly, Columbus has to make a choice: what does he value more, his life or Wichita? A conflict like this forces the character to change. Columbus has always been a wimp, someone who’d rather cower than take action. His interactions with Wichita force him to nut up and grow.

But what if she doesn’t get the water? Sometimes the most interesting thing to happen in a story is for the character to not achieve their goal. Tom’s goal in (500) Days of Summer is to win Summer’s heart, then to stay with Summer, and then to win her back. It’s his proverbial glass of water and what the film centers on. Tom, however, doesn’t end up with Summer. The complete destruction of his goal forces him to reassess everything and, eventually, gets him back on track to doing what he wants in life. Losing the goal he thinks he wanted reveals what he really wanted. Like a conflicted desire, it gives added layers to his character.

Conversely, achieving a goal may crush the character. Zero Dark Thirty ends with Bin Laden dead and Maya Lambert successful. She’s achieved her goal, but her goal was all consuming. The film leaves her suddenly aimless and without purpose, adding a sense of somber hollowness to it all. Just as giving a desultory character a goal yields interest, so does robbing a purposeful character of hers.

Wants and goals fuel stories. Look at Game of Thrones, everyone wants something, almost always at the expense of someone else. These goals breed conflict and add depth to characters. Just make it more than a glass of water.

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Nerd Culture, The Big Bang Theory, and Chuck

I stopped watching The Big Bang Theory a couple years ago. Part of the reason was because I was growing tired of it, other part was I simply couldn’t be bothered to keep up with it. For a class, though, I have to write a scene for The Big Bang Theory. This means watching episodes of the show to get a hold of the rhythm and voices of the show.

I started watching Big Bang during its second season and enjoyed it for what it was; a sitcom about a bunch of nerds. I got the references they threw around, had or wanted some of the memorabilia in their rooms, and remembered when that Rebellion poster in Leonard’s room was announced. This show speaks my language.

So did Chuck, another show I began watching around the same time, although it spoke it differently than Big Bang did. In Chuck the nerd shout outs came as frequently and as accurately as in Big Bang, but in this show they felt more a part of the plot. Maybe it’d be meta gags like an entire episode following the structure of Die Hard or guest stars quoting characters they’d played in Terminator or Firefly. Other times the show would work it into the story: Chuck and Bryce speaking Klingon so they won’t be understood or Casey telling Morgan there are only three Indiana Jones movies. Chuck used nerd culture to enhance the story, partially because the protagonist himself is a nerd, partially because it’s that sort of show.

The protagonists of Big Bang are caricatures more than characters; Sheldon the insufferable genius, Raj the funny foreigner, Penny the clueless blonde, and so on. The entire premise of the show stems from their nerdiness and inability to mesh with the ‘real’ world.

Chuck of the eponymous show, is a far more rounded character. Yes, we’re told he can quote Wrath of Khan word for word and he does employ the Wookie prisoner trick on a mission, but it’s all part of who he is rather than who he is.The show’s about a normal, nerdy guy who gets brought into a world of spies and intrigue, and sometimes it’s his nerdiness that saves the day, other times it can be his sheer gumption. Chuck’s identity goes beyond his nerdy traits.

This yields different treatments of the characters and their nerdiness. Take gaming as an example. Rock Band is played for laughs in Big Bang, whereas Chuck brokenheartedly playing Guitar Hero while drinking whiskey leads to one of Season 3’s most heartfelt moments. Halo Night in Big Bang is often used as a gag or an opportunity to show how unchanging Sheldon is, even if the other guys would rather be doing something else. Early in Chuck’s first season, Chuck and Morgan are discussing something while playing Halo. The former presents Halo as being a gag in and of itself, whereas Chuck presents it as just something guys do.

And there’s the central conceit of the nerdy humor in The Big Bang Theory: It’s funny because they’re nerds. The characters playing Dungeons and Dragons or reading comics is funny in and of itself, not because of anything they do with it.

Compare Community, which just aired their second Dungeons and Dragon episode. Once again it features the characters playing a relatively realistic game of D&D. It’s funny, not because they’re playing D&D, but because of what they bring to it. Hickey using his ex-cop interrogation techniques on a hobgoblin or Dean Pelton’s overcommitment to his character’s relationship with his father. It wasn’t funny because they were playing D&D, but what they did while playing it.

Now, Chuck ended in early 2012 and I stopped watching Big Bang shortly after. In the years since I started watching these shows nerd culture has, as a whole, become far more mainstream. The Avengers happened, superhero movies are topping the box office, suddenly it seems like everyone’s watching shows like Game of Thrones or Doctor Who. Nerd culture and pop culture are overlapping more and more. Big Bang is steadily becoming out of touch with where things are headed. A recent episode has a gag about how girls don’t play D&D though I know more than a handful who play tabletop off the top of my head.

What I love about Chuck and Community is their willingness to embrace nerd culture for all that it is. For someone like me, someone who’s been neck-deep in nerd culture and general geekiness since before Iron Man became a household name, it’s great to see shows who love this and celebrate the fun of being a nerd. With regards to Big Bang, well, I’ll quote Penny Arcade: “In Big Bang being like me is the punchline.”

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Je Ne Sais Quoi

I have an indie band crush. Well, I have a couple. One of them, Run River North, just released their first album this past Tuesday. Now, I have their demo back from July ’12, so I’ve been pumped to get this. Yes, I know, I know, but I go to NYU; most all of us are at least a little hipster.

Anyway. I am in love with their debut album, Run River North, but I can’t really say why. See, I can talk at length about movies, books, video games, television, and stuff, but music?

I can tell you that the occasional strums of electric guitar in ‘Foxbeard’ sound fantastic and that the violin in ‘Beetle’ adds so much to the song, but I can’t tell you how. I know that the music makes you feel something, and I know there’s a method to it, but I can’t put it in words.

I write; I use words and images to do my dirty work. But images, especially of the moving variety, gain another level of impact with music.

Look at Paperman, that gorgeous short from Disney. Sure, it’s pretty enough as it is, but Christophe Beck’s gorgeous score gives it that sort of magic I mentioned a year ago. The score powers the short, matches the emotions of the protagonist gives cues for audience’s investment. Emotion is expressed (somehow) through the music, enhancing the story and adding layers to it. Because music can do it.

But those are scores written specifically for a movie. When it comes to ‘normal’ songs, Chuck is unquestionably one of the best. The TV show’s sound track (which one can find with some googling) runs the gamut; there’s everything on it; big acts like Pitbull and bands without wikipedia pages like Aushua.

What makes Chuck’s selection of music great is how it’s used. Sometimes it can be used as a sort of pun, like playing ‘Toxic’ while the characters are scrambling around poisoned or a snippet of ‘The Imperial March’ when Morgan’s impersonating a villain.

For the most part, however, the songs are used to inform tone. The people behind the show are plenty aware of that inexplicable effect music can have and they use this. Need to establish the feeling of a bunch of guys driving to Las Vegas for a bachelor party? Throw on some Ke$ha*. Trying to create a sense of intimacy? Slow Club works wonders.

*this is the only time I condone listening to Ke$ha. It hurts to write that dollar symbol.

It gets better. There’s a scene towards the end of season three where someone dear to Chuck gets shot. In lieu of some Hans Zimmerian tragic score, Nico Stai’s ‘One October Song’ begins playing. The song, primary featuring just an acoustic guitar and Stai’s voice, carries the sort of quiet, almost helpless desperation that mirrors Chuck’s mental state.

Can I explain on a technical level makes ‘One October Song’ such a beautiful piece? I could mention his shouts in the song and the raw lyrics, sure; but how it all intertwines together with the music and what the chords and notes do? Nah, you got me.

But Chuck uses these songs, especially the ones from indie acts like Nico Stai, In-Flight Safety, and Frightened Rabbit to add emotional heft to crucial scenes. It works, man.

Run River North’s music is in a similar vein. There’s raw passion and emotion to the music; sometimes it’s desperate, sometimes resigned, sometimes happy. It’s a great album that has a, well, I don’t know what to it that does wonders.

Basically I’m saying if Chuck was still on Run River North would have a song in the show.

And you should buy their album.

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Why I (seldom) Write About Ships

I grew up on a ship. I also like writing.

Now, these two should go hand-in-hand. Write about living on a ship, it’s what you know! But then, who lives on a ship. No one would believe that. So I write science fiction. Because it’s easier to believe folks living on a spaceship than on a real ship. Less time explaining stuff. Also, I really like science fiction.

But, and I do get asked this, why don’t I write about a real ship instead? After all, then I can reap the prestige literary fiction. Why do I waste my talents/history on science fiction?

Because, surprisingly, living on a ship is actually quite boring. Yes, you travel, but that’s hardly unique (you could do the same in a bus or plane). The actual parts of living on a ship are terribly routine. You wake up, go to school (or work, but I went to school), come home, read, homework, video games, eat, whatever, sleep. Whether we were in Sierra Leone or Barbados, that’s what we did. Life is life.

So what is it then that makes living on a ship special? Relationships. Bonds. The sense of a weird sort of family formed by virtue of having no one else.

Like in Firefly. I’ve found that show to be the most honest take on life on a ship. Sure, my ship was lacking in the fugitive doctors and smuggling part, but there was certainly that sense of community. On the show Jayne may antagonize Kaylee, but when the chips are down he’s as ready to protect her as the captain. Serenity’s crew has a decided “we’re in this together no matter what” mentality. Sometimes it touches on the idea of family, but, as cemented by Mal’s speech at the end of Serenity, it’s about making a home. You want a story about life on a ship? About what makes life on the ship special? Look at Firefly and Serenity.

But that feels pretty obvious, y’know, Serenity is a ship, of course it’s going to have parallels. What about when there’s no ship?

Well, this might explain one of the many reasons why I love Chuck. Over the series, Team Bartowski and the other characters slowly come together to form, well, a crew of sorts. Even though the lot of them don’t always get along, they’ve formed a sort of family. Yeah, it’s very similar to my example from Firefly above, but it’s that idea again. For much of the series Casey doesn’t even like Chuck, but again, will come through for him when it counts; as will the others for him. Everyone has this forged bond with each other. That’s the essence of life on a ship.

Sure, there’s the incredible sublime feeling of being in the middle of the ocean at night, the ship’s running lights extended less than a stone’s throw away; but it’s nothing that can’t be transported elsewhere or substituted. Because that’s just setting, it’s not the interesting part.

I suppose that’s one reason I love writing science fiction; it gives me liberty. If I want to explore the idea of home I can add a plot device that threatens it. Could be, say, a mysterious box that shows an alternate world. Wanna stress the bond between the Captain and his Bosun? Arrest one of them. There’s a great freedom in a world where you get to make the rules.

Not to say I don’t put everything in science fiction. One of my short stories I’m the most proud of is set in a small town (though there’s a ship in a character’s past) and the screenplay I’m working on with my brother is set in the real world, though on a boat. But the former is about coming home and the latter is about an adventure. Writing about a ship in and of itself is boring. It’d like be writing about everyday life in the suburbs or a city or anywhere.

But writing about home, about family, about leaving? That’s interesting. So I seldom set my writing aboard an actual ship; but I always write about life on a ship.

 

Writer’s Note: Yeah, did something this week. Something almost…bloggy. Stuff in this vein may show up again; for now it’ll have the tag ‘bloggish.’

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Little Things

The biggest difference between fiction and reality is that the former is not real. Duh. Ergo, one of the greatest challenges of fiction is making it seem real. Doesn’t matter if it’s Star Wars, Pacific Rim, or Chuck; it’s gotta feel realistic. Lived in, real.

The crew behind Star Wars, Pacific Rim, and the film adaption of The Lord of the Rings achieved this through set design. There are tiny, almost unnoticeable details all over the movie. The ships in Star Wars are old and worn; the Jaegers in Pacific Rim show signs of years of use. Compare to being told that the heroes in Pacific Rim had been fighting the Kaiju for over a decade but everything looked bright as new. We wouldn’t buy the history nearly as well as when we can see it for ourselves. It’s the same principle as in writing: show, don’t tell.

Take the simple example of the presence of the kill markings on some of the Jaegers in Pacific Rim. We don’t have any context for that, just that Striker Eureka has seen its share of combat prior to the film. It’s never elaborated on, nor is attention ever directed at it; it’s just there for the audience to see. It’s a little detail that gives a great deal of history and context for the story. Hardly anything would be lost without details like that, but its presence belies much.

The same thing can be found in characters’ dialogue. Sure, the world may be (partially or entirely) fictional for us, but not for the characters. Unlike us, they know the world, and, as such, should talk about it as if they do. Some of my favorite examples of this comes from the original Star Wars. When we first meet Han Solo he boasts about making the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. What the crap is a Kessel Run? We don’t know, but Han does (and Luke the farmboy acts like he does too). At one point Leia mentions Dantooine, Obi Wan says something about some ‘Clone Wars.’ What I love is that we don’t know what any of these things are, but the characters talk about them fluidly, as well as someone in our world would discuss London or Atlanta. It makes it all feel that much more real.

But that’s just the world. Characters have history too. They know people, and they know people a certain way. Let’s look at Chuck, because I love that show and am rewatching it. Whenever Chuck refers to his old friend Bryce, it’s most commonly as ‘Bryce Larkin from Connecticut.’ Let’s look at the fact that ‘from Connecticut’ is in it. It’s just two added words, but all of a sudden Bryce is given a home and we learn that he’s from somewhere. It also gives us a measure of context, seeing as it implies that Bryce was from outside Chuck’s usual world (that is, California).

You can see this in The Avengers, when Black Widow and Hawkeye mention Budapest, or Summer’s exes in (500) Days of Summer. The usage of specifics (Budapest, Charlie) lend credence to their past and make it more real.

These little things in movies (and television, books, video games; everything, really) wouldn’t really be missed if they weren’t there, but when they are they help immensely.

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