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No Detail Wasted

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Aug 17 2013 · 422 views

Essays, Not Rants! 074: 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 Beachman 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.


The One With Aristotle

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Aug 10 2013 · 423 views

Essays, Not Rants! 073: The One With Aristotle
Around 2,300-odd years ago this guy named Aristotle wrote a thingy about what makes good stories. Yes, I’m referencing Aristotle; this is definitely an essay and not a rant. Now, I think storytelling as a whole has progressed beyond some of his ideas (his limitation of fiction to tragedy, epic poetry, and comedy, for example), but one thing that still sticks is his idea of catharsis. Aristotle figured that a story should arouse a lot of emotion in its audience, and then purge it in the end: catharsis. So, why is this vital to a good story/movie/book/video game/tv show/ballad?
Super 8 is a story on many different levels. People call it a story about an alien in a small town, I say it’s a story about kids making a movie. But underneath all that, is the story about a boy growing up and learning to move on. The movie carries this theme and tension, we see it when he interacts with his dad and with his friends and it’s reflected in the conflict with the alien. For most of its runtime we’re drawn into Joe’s turmoil, we feel his refusal to let go and understand how he has to. This is the thing that Aristotle called ‘arousing feelings of pity and fear.’ The movie culminates in Joe letting go of his mother’s locket, symbolically expressing his willingness to accept life as it is now and, with that, purging us of all that built up emotion. That feeling you get when you watch the ending of Super 8? Ladies and gentlemen: catharsis.
Using that dramatic structure thing you learned back in middle school, this is called the resolution. But resolution implies that everything has to be resolved, catharsis does not. Take The Empire Strikes Back, for example. It ends with Han frozen and captured, the Rebels scattered, and Luke finding out that Darth Vader is his father. There’s little resolution to be found (Will Han be okay? Obi Wan lied! Who did Yoda mean by ‘another’? [I bet it’s Han!]), but it feels complete all the same. We got our catharsis through the escape from Cloud City and the scene aboard the medical frigate. Unlike the second movie in many two-part trilogies (Dead Man’s Chest, Matrix: Reloaded), you get that sense of closure even without the third entry. Interestingly, the same goes for The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. During the Breaking of the Fellowship or Sam’s speech about the stories that really mattered we find our catharsis. Though the plot is tied up yet and though the ring is yet to be destroyed, we feel fulfilled.
Catharsis, if done right, can be more important than tying up plot. Like the finale of Lost, which, yes, I will constantly and vehemently defend. Instead of trying to tie up every loose end, Lindelof and Cuse opted instead to give the audience catharsis for their emotions. Sure, we didn’t find out why that one green bird said Hurley’s name that one time, but we did get the resolution that despite all the stuff they went through, the survivors were reunited. They got their happy ending, and we felt all the better for it. Least we did if you weren’t watching Lost just for the mysteries. And why not? Focusing on the mysteries of Lost rather than the characters resulted in an intellectual rather than emotional investment, and thus, none of Aristotle’s desired feelings of fear and/or pity.
It all comes down to caring about the story. If we don’t give a hoot about what’s going on, we won’t feel anything with the inevitable catharsis (for example: Hereafter). We go to the movies, play video games, and read books to feel something. Maybe it’s the wish-fulfillment of shooting up the Covenant as Master Chief or the sense of familiarity from watching Firefly, we wanna feel something. We just need that moment of release afterwards.
And yes, I did actually read Poetics, though it took Michael Tierno’s Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriters for it to really make sense.
Note: When done right the lack of proper catharsis is catharsis in and of itself. See: the ending of The Last of Us, though it could be argued that the catharsis comes during that final chapter. Either way, it still works due to our heavy investment in the characters and Druckmann’s incredible script.


Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Aug 03 2013 · 410 views

Essays, Not Rants! 072: Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse
Did you ever read The Day of the Triffids? It’s by John Wyndam and was probably the first piece of proper post-apocalyptic fiction I read ten years ago. It’s typical of the genre. We’ve got the world impairing event, the monsters that begin wiping out humanity, and of course the few survivors who band together to try and find a way to continue civilization. It’s a classic.
Now, like I’ve said before, science fiction provides a great way to examine reality and the issues therein. As such, it’ll heavily reflect the world in which it was written. So let’s see what The Day of the Triffids says about culture then. It was written in 1951, six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post-apocalyptic fiction began to flourish then, reflecting the horrific visions of what humanity could do and how we kept looking for more ways to destroy the world. This is what happens in Triffids; nukes in space blind most of the population and genetically engineered killer plants set about, well, killing people. Humanity brought this on themselves, their hubris caused the apocalypse.
We see this in more recent (post)-apocalyptic fiction too. In The Terminator we created Skynet with our computers; in The Matrix our drive to technology created The Machines and enslaved us. Within this and, yes, Day of the Triffids and countless zombie movies too, lies the implicit fear that as society delves into technology we’ll destroy ourselves. The solutions vary. InThe Terminator our heroes destroy the evil technology. The heroes of The Matrix and The Day of the Triffids find a way to overcome their creations to create a new civilization. It could be argued that it reflects some of the sentiment we find today; the world’s so screwed up the only solution is to start over.
Yet the trend in recent fiction has been to focus less on the how of the apocalypse and more on the what now. We never find out what caused the fungal outbreak in The Last of Us, but we do see Joel and Ellie develop twenty years later. In Zombieland, Columbus mentions that no one knows where the zombies come from. No longer are we watching us destroy ourselves, now we’re figuring out what we’re doing in the aftermath. We see the relationships form, we see the recreation of a family. Fiction like The Last of Us and Zombieland presents a world where the protagonists are handed a lousy hand and make the most of it. Starting over may be rough, but there remains that glimmer of hope.
If anything, Pacific Rim takes that conceit and fires it at other apocalyptic fiction. Suddenly, the technology classically feared is not the root of our problems but instead a savior. As protagonist Raleigh puts it early on: “You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.” Today’s culture is reflected in Pacific Rim in that technology isn’t something to be feared, but something to be used. How? To fight back against what we cannot control and to become closer to one another.
Pacific Rim introduces drifting, two people sharing a mind to control a Jaeger. The closer the pilots’ bond, the better they’ll fight. We love to deride the Internet and all as the death of true relationships, but Pacific Rim accepts this sort of digital connection and physicalizes it. With that, the film acknowledges the growing global identity facilitated by these connections. The heroes in Pacific Rim aren’t just all-Americans; we have an international coalition of Americans, Japanese, Australians, Russians, British, Chinese, and Idris Elba saving the world together.
It all culminates with where Pacific Rim goes with its story. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re a self-perceived failure, an egotistical kid with daddy issues, a haunter young woman, or a research scientist you can hardly walk properly: you can save the world, you can be a rockstar. It is paramount that Pacific Rim takes place before the world ends: the protagonists refuse to accept it. When the authorities opt to cancel the resistance and to hide behind a wall instead, the heroes choose to fight on. In the traditional pre-final mission heroic speech, Stacker Pentecost declares that they will “face the monsters that are at our door and take the fight to them!”, they will stand up the end of the world because they refuse to accept that the world they’re given. We don’t need to start over from scratch, we can make a better world with what we have. Or as he says a moment later: “Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” It’s no longer important who caused the end of the world: we’re stopping it.
Jon Foreman wrote a piece for the HuffingtonPost a few years ago reflecting this dream of a better world. As he says: “Against all odds, against all that we know about this world, we could choose to hope for a better one — to hope for love, for peace, for a form of contentment and solace that we have never fully realized.” Pacific Rim is saying the same thing: no matter how bleak the world may seem, we can hope to save it, to fix it. It isn’t so much that we’re no longer blaming ourselves for the world gone wrong; it’s that we know we can make it better, with or without giant robots.
Though giant robots would be nice.
Credit where credit is due: This sort of ‘close reading’ of Pacific Rim grew out of this Tumblr post. Jon Foreman’s column is named "What's in a Word?" and can be found on the HuffingtonPost website.


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grew up on a ship

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frequently found writing in a coffee shop, behind a camera, or mixing alcohol and video games

August 2013


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Josh works for LEGO at the LEGO Store at Rockefeller Center. Despite this, any and every opinion expressed herewith is entirely his own and decidedly not that of The LEGO Group.

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