Tag Archives: The Princess Bride

Metanarrative, Cervantes, and The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride is (probably) my favorite movie. It also happens to be based on a book, which I first read in my mid-teens. Now, the book caught me off-guard. It was far more cynical than the film and there was this whole mess about William Goldman’s personal life. I read it again a few years later and finally understood it. See, the novel The Princess Bride is a postmodern exploration of metanarrative wrapped in with a deconstruction of adventure narratives. Like Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Wait, what?

Let’s break this down. Much of The Princess Bride is William Goldman telling us about his life, his psychiatrist wife, disappointing son, and his quest to find the book his grandfather read him as a kid. Sadly, the book (by S. Morgenstern) is long and filled with boring bits. So Goldman skips them, interrupting the narrative every now and then to tell us what he’s skipping and why.Really, who wants to read three chapters about economics anyway?).

Of course, this is all fabricated. There is no S. Morgenstern, Goldman’s wife isn’t a psychiatrist, and he has two daughters. But within the book it makes for a beautifully postmodern story; Goldman is fully aware of how stories work and merrily draws attention to it in the metanarrative. At times it’s a story about stories. Meanwhile, he pokes fun at the conventions of the adventure and fantasy genre, deconstructing a lot of what we take for granted in them.

A few hundred years earlier, Cervantes did the same thing in Don Quixote. Like Goldman, he presents the central story as one that he’s researched extensively and is relaying here for us. But the ‘research’ often interrupts the story. A memorable moment early on sees Quixote in a duel with a Basque, they’re poised to deliver fatal blows and then the narrative stops and the narrator informs us that that’s where his copy of the story ends. We’re then treated to a few pages of how he got a hold of the next chunk of the story.

Cervantes is playing with the very idea of fiction and stories. He’s messing with the narrative, blurring the lines between fiction and reality. It’s a lot of fun and lends Don Quixote’s story an almost mythic quality, which is further enhanced by the style of the narration.

Throughout it all, Cervantes is endlessly making fun of the chivalrous novels that were popular at the time. How? He takes someone who gets caught up with the notion of being a knight errant and, taking the books as gospel, sets out in an attempt to have a grand adventure and sees what would really happen.. It doesn’t go well, one because books don’t mention these knights bringing changes of clothes, money, or provisions; and secondly, someone who goes around meting out his own brand of justice while violently defending any insult of his honor actually looks a lot like a vigilante bandit. Naturally, hilarity ensues and Don Quixote and his squire wind up being attacked in response (all to our amusement).

Stories like The Princess Bride and Don Quixote are important. They take what we know and play with it; not just be deconstructing the tropes of the genre they’re using, but also by playing with the idea of stories themselves. It’s not just books that do this; the famous “Duck Amuck” cartoon not just demolishes the fourth wall (postmodernism) but uses the very metanarrative of animation as a plot. Actually, if you want a good representation of what I’m talking about, that’s a great place to start.

I love postmodernism and metanarratives in stories, mostly because I love stories in the first place and it’s wonderful when they play with it. It’s fantastic and often adds an additional layer to already great narratives.

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The Reels Are Alive With The Sound Of Diegetic Music

Here’s a word that no one uses unless they want to sound smarter than you: diegesis, that is the type of story that’s told by a narrator. Which means what, exactly? Well, in The Princess Bride the Grandfather is performing an act of diegesis when he tells the Grandson the story. The interactions he has with the Grandson are thus non-diegetic. Of course, it’s all a narrative being told to us, the audience, by the filmmakers in turn carrying out diegesis. In film criticism it gets a little more specific, referring to what happens in the film in and of itself.

Anyway.

Diegetic music is when music is played in the narrative itself. The band playing when Han and Obi Wan walk into the cantina in Star Wars is an example of diegetic music. The characters hear it, and so do we. As a bonus it adds texture to the world. It helps that it’s iconic enough that you’ve probably got it going in your head now.

It doesn’t have to be that big, though. (500) Days of Summer uses diegetic music as plot points; it’s Tom listening to The Smiths that helps strike up a conversation with Summer. No, it’s not a grand epic sequence (compare the Fairy Godmother singing “Holding Out For a Hero” during the climax of Shrek 2), but it serves the plot’s development and also provides an important touchstone of Tom and Summer’s relationship. We, the audience, are allowed to share in what brings Tom and Summer together. The film is not just telling us but showing us too, making the whole thing more immersive and more intimate.

And now I’m going to talk about Guardians of the Galaxy.

Diegetic music plays a huge role in Guardians, but not in the way it does in Star Wars. We’re not treated to a band playing local alien music as one would expect from a piece of fantastic science fiction. Instead, well, it’s pop music from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. As in Earth’s ‘60s and ‘70s. And it makes perfect sense.

Peter Quill, the protagonist of the film, was taken from earth in ’88, his only belongings what he had in his backpack, the most important of which is a mixtape of songs his mom made him before she passed away. It’s very much Quill’s only physical and emotional tie to Earth as he gallivants around the galaxy under the name of Star-Lord. There’s a good reason for the parachronistic anatopism that is his music. Furthermore, the placement of some of these songs is often key. Hearing a prison guard manhandle his Walkman and listen to “Hooked One a Feeling” provokes him into a fight, for example. The songs are personal for Quill.
They can be personal for the audience too. Guardians of the Galaxy is outlandish on a Star Wars level, which is odd for any movie, let alone one that shares its world with Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Having Star-Lord listen to “Come And Get Your Love” while exploring a ruin on Morag immediately clues the audience in that, yes, we’re still in the same world of the 1988-set prologue.Having the characters listen to it also gives us a connection to them. Look at the spectators stomping and chanting “We Will Rock You” during the opening joust of A Knight’s Tale. Like inGuardians, it gives the audience something in common with the characters. We’re all listening to the same music.

Diegetic music can be used to great effect. Film critics love to cite the infamous patricidal mambo from Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind as a prime example, but I’m gonna throw in Guardians of the Galaxy too. Diegetic music done right can do wonders to a film, be it through adding texture, granting intimacy to the audience, or serving as a character’s emotional touchstone. That and it’s pure fun to see Star Lord fly through space to “The Piña Colada Song.”

And yes, a lot of the music in The Sound of Music is diegetic, what with it being a musical and all.

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Dialogue in Fight Choreography

Did you see Man of Tai Chi? Don’t bother; the acting’s questionable, plot is tenuous at best, and the dialogue is stilted. And that’s just the surface. The one thing that makes the movie remotely remarkable is its choreography: more so than in many other movies, the fight scenes seem to convey not only the growth of the protagonist but a sort of dialogue between the characters as well.

Let me explain (and I will spoil everything because there’s no need to see the movie besides this). Tiger (yes, that is the main character’s name) is a naive practitioner of Tai Chi. His first fight or two are in tournaments where he’s primarily defensive and uses his opponents’ strength against themselves. After he’s recruited as a prizefighter by Donaka and becomes more accustomed to it, his fighting style shifts to a more aggressive form. So great. There’s character development. Big deal.

Where Man of Tai Chi gets really interesting is during the more important fights, that is Tiger versus his mentor and Tiger versus Donaka. The way each combatant fights speaks in lieu of meaningful conversation or much in the way of substance. In the former fight we see just how far Tiger has fallen: he’s gone over to the kung fu dark side and he attacks his mentor who deflects every blow as Tiger grows more and more frustrated. It’s this fight (especially in comparison to an earlier training scene) that informs us of their shifting relationship. Where before Tiger was content to be bested, now he vainly tries to overpower his master. When Tiger mirrors his master’s stance in the final showdown against Donaka, we see that he’s come back to the light side. That and the fact that he’s fighting the villain/his prior employer, obviously.

This isn’t anything new. The exponentially better film The Princess Bride has the famous duel between Inigo Montoya and The Man In Black. Yes, they talk throughout the fight, but there’s no dissonance between their swordplay and intentions. Each has garnered a measure of respect from the other and, if anything, the fight seems friendly. Neither are employing dirty tricks to gain the upper hand (thereby showing that killing the other is his priority) nor is one taunting or baiting the other. In light of the duel is it any wonder we readily accept both of these seemingly villainous characters as heroes by the end?

It’s this sort of communicative swordplay that made the duels in the original Star Wars films so captivating. Where the prequels had a lot of flash and epic scores, the classics had character. Look at the duel between Luke and Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Vader lets Luke take the offensive for much of it. Why? Because Vader’s plan rests on him imprisoning Luke rather than killing him. Like The Princess Bride, we’re told this beforehand but it’s reflected even stronger in the choreography. In The Phantom Menace, why do Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul end up in the exhaust shaft? Is Maul leading them there or is he being pushed back? Where’s the dialogue?

Now, Neo fighting a seemingly endless number of Agent Smiths or Gipsy Danger brawling a Kaiju aren’t duels in the same way as the other examples. Sure, there’s an understood dialogue to those fights, but it tends to be limited to deciding who’s better. Duels like in The Empire Strikes Back or The Princess Bride have a conversation to them. In the case of Man of Tai Chi the fight choreography carries more than anything said verbally. Still doesn’t redeem that movie, though.

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Earn Your Ending

Did you see Warm Bodies? Because you really should. It’s a great movie (and has zombies). And I mean a really great movie. We’re talking that sucker gets added to my BluRay collection the day it comes out.

Of course, the comparisons to Zombieland are inevitable and rightly so: both have the same ‘genre’ and tone: zombie films with a level of comedy and romance. It’s their themes, however, that set them apart. Warm Bodies is overflowing with heart. See, Warm Bodies decides to set aside the dark and somber mood oft considered a prerequisite for a zombie film and instead gives it a blast of life and hope.

Warm Bodies has a legitimately happy ending. Not like I Am Legend or Zombieland but a real happy ending. Even though things got dark, even though sometimes it looked almost hopeless and the world was coming down, they still got their happy ending. A real happy ending, not the “the world’s gone to hell but they have each other” ending, a proper happy ending.

It’s the same sort of ending you find in Paperman or The Princess Bride or Star Wars. That sense that there’s good in the world, that it can be found no matter what. But more than that it’s the sense that what’s wrong can be set right, that happy endings exist.

Sometimes the idealistic happy ending doesn’t work. I love Serenity, but that movie’s ending is more bittersweet than happy. It’s not bad: good stories don’t need happy endings. Sam said it best in the film adaption of The Two Towers when he tells Frodo about the stories that really mattered. They’ve got darkness and fear, but they’ve got heroes too, the ones who keep going even when things look bleak. But good wins and there’s hope. The Lord of the Rings embodies this so well. Aragorn and the rest are fighting a hopeless battle against the forces of Mordor, Frodo and Sam are struggling to get to Mount Doom. But the Ring gets destroyed and good wins.

What’s important is that the characters earn their ending. They can’t have it just given to them like in fairytales, they have to fight for it! The guy in Paperman could have given up and gone back to his life, Westley could have not rescued Buttercup. Mal could have aimed to behave. But they didn’t and we get the story, we get the ending that leaves us hopeful. We see them prevail, we seem them fight for it.

In order for an ending to provide the appropriate catharsis there needs to be a a something at stake. It doesn’t have to be life threatening: look at Paperman. If we hadn’t seen the guy’s dull job and his boredom with normalcy we wouldn’t have cared about him trying to win the girl. Knowing that he’s tired of life as is, knowing that he wants this break. Furthermore, if we hadn’t seen him fail and fail again we wouldn’t have wanted him to succeed as much. All this makes the happy ending worth it.

I first read Life of Pi seven years ago and now I’m reading it again for school. At the end of Part One, right as the family gets set to sail to America, author Yann Martel takes a break from Pi’s story to return to the metanarrative of Martel listening to Pi tell his story. Martel recounts him running into Pi’s son and shortly after seeing Pi holding his daughter with all the love a father can muster. At this point in the story we don’t know what happened to Pi, just that it was something terrible that haunts him to the present. But we get this glimpse of him with his young daughter and it’s here that Martel writes one of the most important lines in book:

“This story has a happy ending.”

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Protagonists and Such

Call him the main character, the lead, the hero, the player character; most every good story has a protagonist. He (or she) is the person we follow. Either because they provide the viewpoint and let us into the world or because they’re out on a grand quest. A lot of stories rise and fall based on the protagonist (or lack thereof).

The lack of a protagonist in The Phantom Menace is one of its shortcomings. Obi-Wan would make a great one, only he winds up playing second fiddle to…well, everyone for much of the film (and sits out all of Tatooine). What about Anakin? He doesn’t get introduced until Tatooine and has no character arc (what’s his motivation?) beyond being the kid who wins the podrace and blows up the droid control ship. Heck, he hardly does jack on Coruscant.

Padme, then! Only she doesn’t do much of anything (besides the senate thing) and her duplicity as to who’s actually her and who’s a handmaiden hamper our getting into her as a main character.

Fine! Qui-Gon! He’s awesome, he gets the plot moving, he can be the protagonist, right? Only no. He plays the mentor archetype, the one who guides the protagonist along. Qui-Gon is a static character who guides the plot, but has no personal investment. Plus, at the climax, the duel with Darth Maul is (sad to say) completely irrelevant to the plot.

Basically: there’s no protagonist in The Phantom Menace, no one for us to root for besides the umbrella of “the good guys”. It hampers our investment in the story. It worked for The Empire Strikes Back because we already had our investment in Luke and Han from A New Hope, but in the latter Luke was unquestionably our viewpoint character and protagonist. Menace has no such luck.

Not to say having a clear protagonist means we’ve got a good story on our hands. Let’s look at Twilight (having read a crappy book makes for good examples). Bella is unquestionably the protagonist, but she lacks anything that makes us care. She has no motivation past getting Edward to fall in love with her. She’s boring and has little characterization/use besides being an avatar for the reader. If the protagonist has no proper characterization, arc, or motivation it becomes hard to get invested.

Look, a work doesn’t have to be high art to have a protagonist. Rod, from Hot Rod, is an example of a great protagonist. Does he have characterization? He’s a delusional, hubristic wannabe stuntman, so yes. His arc is to get the girl and save his stepfather’s life so he can kick his ass. Why? Because he wants his stepfather to respect him. Yes, Hot Rod is a (hilarious) stupid film, but there’s a clear protagonist. It works! The Princess Bride has Westley and Buttercup as protagonists and Fezzik and Inigo as deuteragonists. Escape from New York has Snake Plisskin, Final Fantasy VII has Cloud, Chuck has Chuck.

But what about ensembles? Shows like Firefly, How I Met Your Mother, and Lost; who’s the actual protagonist? That’s the beauty of tv, supporting characters can all get their spot in the limelight. An episode like “Ariel” has Simon as one of the primary protagonists, or “The Constant” has Desmond as its protagonist. Several protagonists are far easier in an episodic serial.

Now the big question. The Avengers. It’s got seven main characters (Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Loki). Who’s the protagonist?

They all are. Each one has their character arc and/or motivations (Loki wants to go home, Iron Man grows into a hero, Hawkeye wants to make up for what he did, etc). With or without the prior movies, each protagonist is set up in The Avengers and winds up as a realized character. You can call any one of them the lead (well, maybe not Hawkeye [it’s workable, but definitely a bit of a stretch]), and the movie still works. You can have multiple protagonists, so long as they’re actually protagonists and not a cast of supporting characters.

It feels like it’s the obvious thing. Stories need not just a protagonist, but a good one. Motivations, characterization, an arc and all that. A good protagonist can help even a mediocre plot. Somewhat, anyway. Y’kinda need the whole lot to tell a good story.

But you already knew that.

 

Also: buy my book In Transit! Each story has a clear protagonist!

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Everyone’s Got A Story

If you meet me in person, chances are at some point I’ll ask you what’s your story. Who you are. What brought you from wherever you’re from to where you are what now. Because whatever the reason, it’s your story and tells a good amount about you.

So naturally, when I watch/play/read something, I’m looking for a character’s story. What made them who they are? Sometimes, you don’t need a particularly deep story (Dr Horrible wants to be inducted into the Evil League of Evil, Captain Hammer is going to stop him. Easy), and sometimes just a few hints along the way tells you everything (Russell’s dad isn’t around much, Han Solo made the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs).

But sometimes it benefits us to know more about the character. To know why they are who they are.

Lost went super in-depth. Every episode (at least in the first few seasons) followed a character’s life before the Island. We learnt about Charlie’s struggle with failure and his desire to be able to do something right and why Eko sought redemption so fervently. We were introduced to Locke, the broken man who wants to show the world wrong.

We get to see the defining moments in their lives. We find out why Sawyer is so desperate to be hated, yet also why he will leap to protect someone else. No action is out of character for them since we know them so well. It’s because of the sheer amount of their backstory that we feel like we know them so well. We have their stories.

Similarly, How I Met Your Mother, tells us the story of the group through the narrator and flashbacks within flashbacks (and sometimes within more flashbacks). We learn how the met each other and how they became the pseudo-family that they are. It’s their story, the boyfriends and girlfriends, the wedding(s), the deaths, and the births. We know Ted and friends as well as our own because we’ve learned their story.

The trend of finding out a character’s story is one taken up by the recent Marvel films. In Iron Man and Captain America (and The Amazing Spider-Man too) we’re introduced to them as Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Peter Parker first.

Steve Rogers is the scrawny kid from Brooklyn with an indomitable spirit. We learn why he’s a hero before he becomes Captain America. For us, Steve’s story is enough to draw us in. We’ve seen where he comes from, before the serum, now show us where it ends. Had we met Steve as Captain America and just had hints about him being a skinny idealistic kid, it just wouldn’t be the same.

Uncharted 3 has a flashback too, to Nathan Drake as a teenager. He’s this orphan boy who’s somewhat lost, seeking adventure and wandering around. He meets Sully and we see where their bond came from. That bond then becomes the core of the story, and we care because we saw where it came from.

Then shows like Community or Firefly just hint around their backstories. Telling us key events but also hinting that these people are more than just skin deep. References are made in the Halo games to Master Chief’s prior exploits, To Kill A Mockingbird mentions that Atticus Finch has skills and a past that his children may never know. Hawkeye and Black Widow had quite the adventure in Budapest, Fezzik might have fought gangs for charity. Sometimes we don’t need to know what their stories are, just that they have them.

When we meet a character we want there to be more than just what we see. A good storyteller often has a biography filled with things we’ll never see and maybe just get a passing reference to. But it’s the mere existence — which will usually come out in the story — that helps make them real.

Point is: everyone’s got a story. So if it works for the plot (and it doesn’t always!), tell us. Tease us. Help us get to know them and make us want to follow them to the end of their journey.

Also: buy my book In Transit! Support aspiring authors with characters who have some pretty cool stories!

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