Tag Archives: Harry Potter

The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

I’m on vacation. As such, here’s an essay I wrote for class during my Spring semester. We were assigned seven movies and had to compare the lot of them. Hence writing about The Parent Trap. Enjoy.

The buddy movie is one of the most prolific genres in cinema. With movies as diverse as the classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, recent blockbusters like The Avengers, and animated films such as Toy Story; chances are everyone’s seen some variation of a buddy movie. One of the things that keeps the genre timeless is the myriad of buddies they can feature. We could have four characters who start out as friends and have their friendship tested, or they could be rivals who learn to work together. Alternately it could feature a pair of old friends who decide to roam the world together, possibly saving it in the progress; or two people with opposite personalities and a common goal. Point is, these different character dynamics are what make the genre unique.

At its basest the buddy movie genre allows for two characters to work together towards a similar goal. Such is the case with The Parent Trap. Annie and Hallie, the long-lost twins, are essentially the same character, though in English and American forms. The first portion of the film focus on them meeting, disagreeing, and coming to terms with each other whereas the remainder of the film follows them as they strive to reunite their parents. Here the characters compliment each other, their shared goal and similar personalities allow them to work together perfectly to achieve this goal.

Of course, that’s just one personality. Things get more interesting when more personalities are in play. The ancient Greeks put forth the theory of the four humors; that is that personalities could be divided into four temperaments: sanguine, choleric, melancholic, and phlegmatic. The definition of these fall on different ranges, being extroverted and people-orientated, extroverted and task-orientated, introverted and task-orientated, and introverted and people-orientated; respectively. Writers — and viewers — can use these to identify the roles characters have in a group. Take Sex and the City as a key example. Carrie, the main character, tends to be introverted and focused on her work (within the film she’s not seen as being terribly outgoing). Samantha on the other hand, is much more extroverted and focused on the people around her, as seen by her frequent flying from California to New York to visit her friends as well as her constant interest in the people (particularly men) around her. Miranda and Charlotte fall between choleric and phlegmatic respectively. When the buddy movie features an ensemble of four, each character will usually embody one of these temperaments. These contrasts allow for tension to build between the characters and conflict among them which, in addition to the central conflict, makes for an interesting story.

The titular foursome of Fantastic Four fit these roles with near perfection. Reed Richards is the cool, collected, melancholic leader of the group; he wants to create a machine to reverse their transformation. Ben Grimm too is task-orientated, though tends to be more outgoing and fulfills the role of the choleric. Johnny Storm is even more extroverted than Ben and lives for the attention of people around him so he clearly is the sanguine member. Lastly, Sue Storm is the mediator of the three focused more on the team themselves and falls under the heading of the phlegmatic. The Fantastic Four fit the temperaments and with it conflict is born.

Johnny, the sanguine, is eager to embrace his powers and go public with them. Reed, however, wants to not only make sure they’re safe but to reverse them. Here we see the tension between Johnny’s people-orientated nature and Reed’s tendency to pursue tasks. This same dichotomy is where a measure of the romantic tension between Reed and Sue stems from: his want to finish his machine and undo the effects of the cosmic storm and her want for him. It’s when Reed pursues her — and momentarily abandons his focus on the task on hand — that strain between him and Ben develops. Many of the film’s key moments, the incident on the Brooklyn Bridge and the fight outside the stadium, for example, are born out of the tension between these personality types. It’s only when they learn to work together that they are able to beat the villainous Victor von Doom and truly become heroes.

Removing one character from the foursome creates a different dynamic, one which website TV Tropes dubs the Power Trio. In this set up the three characters contrast and compliment each other, often (but not necessarily) with each one embodying one aspect of the Freudian ideas of the id, ego, and superego. The id is wild and impetuous, frequently jumping headfirst into situations; the superego is the id’s foil, rational and willing to look before leaping. The ego exists between them, balancing out their extremes. It can be seen in the original Star Trek TV show, with Kirk balancing out the hyper-rational Spock and the instinctive McCoy.

This also serves as a lens to look at Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s relationship in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Harry is clearly the id of the trio; when he accidentally makes Aunt Marge float he doesn’t think twice about leaving home and charging out into the night. We see this aspect of him again later when, upon hearing that Sirius Black betrayed his parents, he adamantly declares that he will kill the convict. On the opposite end of the spectrum, assuming the role of the superego, is Hermione. She is heavily focused on her studies, going so far as to have one of her professors procure her a time-turner so she can take a large number of classes. Furthermore, she is also the most sensible of the group, often exhorting the other two to calm down and listen to reason lest they get themselves hurt or in trouble at school. Ron stands between them as the ego. Sometimes he’ll be as headstrong as Harry, other times he’s with Hermione trying to talk down Harry from doing something reckless.

Though there’s little infighting amongst the threesome (especially compared to, say, the Fantastic Four), their differing personalities still serve to accentuate each other’s traits. Harry and Ron’s laid back attitudes sharpen Hermione’s studious nature, just as Hermione’s tendency to sit back and figure things out contrasts against Harry’s impulsiveness. The different views that Harry, Ron, and Hermione bring to the table enhance the characters and give their interactions — and by proxy their adventure — a great dynamic. It can also be seen in the key adults at the end of the film, with wild Sirius Black as the id, the mediating Remus Lupin as ego, and calculating Severus Snape the superego.

Narrowing the number of characters further results in foils; two characters who may share a similar goal but contrast sharply with each other. In Kinky Boots the tight-laced, somewhat-sheltered Charlie Price is paired up with the vivacious drag queen Lola. Their differing personalities clash on occasion, primarily over the subject of Lola’s identity. Charlie wants her to hide who she is in Northampton for fear that people will think ill of him, whereas she’s proud of her identity. The tension between their points of view and what they represent colors much of the film’s tension and the themes of acceptance and coming to terms with your identity.

Alternately, one character can influence the other. In Fried Green Tomatoes, the straight-laced Ruth becomes friends with the wild Idgie when asked to by the latter’s family. Over time, Ruth opens up to Idgie’s adventurous life and their friendship grows. Their differences help each other: it’s Idgie’s feisty boisterousness that causes her to get Ruth out of her abusive relationship with Frank; and it’s Ruth’s levelheadedness and warmth that help give Idgie a home. They’re opposites, yes, but their personalities compliment and strengthen each other, making for a compelling dynamic.

Another common incarnation of the buddy movie is the buddy cop movie. The conceit usually incorporates two police officers of contrasting personalities and, frequently, different races who have been ordered to work together. Films like Rush Hour, Men in Black, and End of Watch have done this to great commercial success. Lethal Weapon too was a commercial success and is unquestionably the quintessential example of a typical buddy cop movie.

Like other buddy twosomes, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtagh are opposites. Riggs is young, white, impulsive, and somewhat suicidal. Murtagh is middle-aged, black, reserved, and has a wife and kids to worry about. What Lethal Weapon, and other buddy cop movies, does is accentuate these differences to near extremes and forces them, by virtue of orders from their chief, to work together. This handy trope explains why the two opposites have to be together and provides the catalyst for the inevitable fights between the two.

And fight they do. From their initial meeting, Riggs and Murtagh find themselves at odds with each other. Something as non-dangerous as dealing with a jumper displays their different approaches: Murtagh stays near the car and tries to talk him down whereas Riggs climbs up to the jumper, cuffs themselves together, and jumps off onto the inflatable bag with him. This conflict amongst the cops compliments their struggle against the antagonists. It’s only when they are finally able to reconcile their differences and work as a team that they are able to defeat the bad guys, as we see in the iconic moment when Riggs and Murtagh shoot the villain Joshua together.

The buddy movie is a genre as diverse as its characters. Different combinations, be they based off the four temperaments, embodiments of Freudian ideas, or plain old opposites provide interesting dynamics that add an additional layer to the conflict and tension not usually found in other, single protagonist films.

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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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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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Red Pills

So y’know how there’ll be this story but there’s this one break from reality? The one thing that makes this world just a little different from the normal one?  It’s pretty much the foundation of the story; the one pill that the audience has to swallow to make the whole story digestible.

If we can believe that ‘reality’ is really just a virtual construct and the real real world is a dystopian post-apocalyptic wasteland ruled by machines, The Matrix makes perfect sense. Since the world is virtual, running on walls and dodging bullets seems natural. Like Neo, we’ve gotta swallow that red pill and enter this world.

Or Harry Potter where  there’s a secret society of wizards and witches and other magical people living right under our Muggle noses. If we can believe that, then the Ministry of Magic, Centaurs, and all the rest fit right in.

An audience’s willing suspension of disbelief is vital to a story. If they don’t buy it, they won’t invest. A lack of investment means they won’t care about it. And that’s terrible.

So how do audiences swallow this pill?

Well, a little bit of grounding helps a lot. Iron Man establishes Tony Stark as being a genius within the first fifteen-odd minutes of the film. With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe that he could build an Arc Reactor and a suit of powered armor in a cave with a box of scraps. It’s been established that he’s outrageously intelligent, so we buy it. When we see his garage/workshop we see that he has a couple of robot assistants with a limited amount of AI. Though this (and Jarvis, and his holographic workspace) is well beyond 2008 technology, we accept it because not only of how intelligent Tony is, but with the lack of focus he gives it. It’s simply there, it’s part of his world. Since it’s normal for him, it’s normal for us.

There is a limit, of course. In Iron Man 2 they filmed a scene where the Tony and Pepper’s jet flew in the upper atmosphere, where gravity no longer affected them. It’s no big deal for them. Ultimately, Jon Favreau and crew chose to cut the scene as it wound up being just too much. Introducing the idea of a jet essentially going into space would have been one piece of tech too much in a movie with AI and powered armor. It would have shattered the suspension of disbelief. There’s a limit to how much you can give the audience.

The Mass Effect games’ fantastic technology is all explained by the titular mass effect. It’s a fairly basic concept (currents applied to the mysterious Element Zero will either increase or decrease an object’s mass) that allows for faster than light travel, artificial gravity, and all that. Add some mysterious ancient technology and bam! Humanity joins the galactic community and gets caught up to speed with the other races.

It’s not another world (like Star Wars) or flung way in the future (Halo, Firefly, or Star Trek), but it’s believable because of the simple technological conceit they present. Furthermore, the idea of mass effects is not only exhaustively fleshed out in the game’s databank (encyclopedia) but is internally consistent. It has its limits: mass effect fields can do a lot but they aren’t magic. All this keeps it believable.

So we have movies with basic conceits: cursed treasure exists in Pirates of the Caribbean, the zombie apocalypse finally happened in Zombieland, Back to the Future asks you to believe that if you hit 88 miles per hour you will see some serious …stuff, in Up we believe a house can fly. It’s that doorway into the world.

Of course, like all things, it’s not set in stone. Sometimes you can just say the Earth was demolished for a hyperspace bypass and if you make it fun enough we’ll play along. Because sometimes the only rules you really need is the rule of of fun; so you can have Scott Pilgrim do battle with the psychic-powered vegan or Westley and Buttercup fight a Rodent of Unusual Size. These movies are fun, serious logic need not apply.

Unless, y’know, you break one of the rules you’ve already set up in your world. Then bam goes our suspension of disbelief.

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Worlds Need Rules

I like writing. No, not just my weekly essay (which is certainly not a rant), but fiction. Sometimes I write stuff grounded firmly in this world, but I really enjoy building worlds of fantasy or science fiction. I’ve got a science fiction side project I like to fiddle with here and there and I run a fantasy RPG with some friends. For both of these I’ve made intricate worlds with some semblance of a history and culture. But just as important as the setting of a story is the exact nature of the world. Any ‘magical’ force, be it mystical or scientific, needs rules to go with it.
Mass Effect is set several centuries in the future, after humanity has made contact with not only the technology of an ancient race that came before but with the various alien species that populate the world today. How does this work? The titular mass effect fields that can increase or decrease the mass of a volume of space time. This technology allows usual science fiction tropes like shields, faster-than-light travel, and artificial gravity; or provides mundane justifications like how buildings can be so tall or preventing spaceships from being hit by space debris.
What makes this so wonderful isn’t just the encyclopedia’s worth of pseudo-science, it’s that everything within the universe adheres to this rules. Because of this we can’t have, say, a ship the size of the Normandy obliterating a planet. No matter how much you’d want to chalk it up to a mass effect field, the rules of the universe prevent it. The writers have their rules to limit the extent of their technology in the world. So long as they don’t supersede these rules, the universe works.
Harry Potter is about magic. Simple. You say a spell (or do it silently if you’re good enough) and magic happens. Feeling lazy? Accio remote!* Someone’s making you really mad? Avada Kadavra. Of course, that means you really do mean it and have created a very permanent solution to what was probably a very minor problem, you overreacting overreactor. But want to make yourself immortal, or make someone love you? No can do. That’s the rules of the universe.
Prior to writing the books, J.K. Rowling spent years detailing exactly how magic would work in her world. She had to set limits and rules on just how it worked. Something couldn’t come from nothing, for example. The world still has to function, magic or not.
*Yes, I know wizards don’t use remotes. Relax.
The ‘physics’ of bending are established fairly early in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Like how benders need the element to control it (except for firebenders who channel their own chi into fire). That’s the main rule and anything that the characters do follows that paradigm. Were Katara to suddenly conjure up a burst of water in a desert our suspension of disbelief would be broken. Not because she can control water, but because the show broke their own rules.
We like to get lost in other worlds. But we need these worlds to be believable. This doesn’t mean whatever phlebotinum or plot device you have must be ‘realistic’ or particularly grounded in reality, it means that if you say something is a certain way, than that is the way it must be. We, the audience, will willing suspend our disbelief so long as the fantastical element remains internally consistent. Call it Aristotle’s Law Of Identity or Magic A is magic A, it’s the foundation of a believable world.
And if we can’t believe it then we won’t be invested.

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