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The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 21 2014 · 112 views

Essays, Not Rants! 118: The Dynamics of the Buddy Movie

Im on vacation. As such, heres 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 everyones 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, thats 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 shes 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 theyre safe but to reverse them. Here we see the tension between Johnnys people-orientated nature and Reeds 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. Its when Reed pursues her and momentarily abandons his focus on the task on hand that strain between him and Ben develops. Many of the films 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. Its 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 ids 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 Hermiones 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 doesnt 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 ###### be as headstrong as Harry, other times hes with Hermione trying to talk down Harry from doing something reckless.

Though theres little infighting amongst the threesome (especially compared to, say, the Fantastic Four), their differing personalities still serve to accentuate each others traits. Harry and Rons laid back attitudes sharpen Hermiones studious nature, just as Hermiones tendency to sit back and figure things out contrasts against Harrys 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 Lolas identity. Charlie wants her to hide who she is in Northampton for fear that people will think ill of him, whereas shes proud of her identity. The tension between their points of view and what they represent colors much of the films 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 latters family. Over time, Ruth opens up to Idgies adventurous life and their friendship grows. Their differences help each other: its Idgies feisty boisterousness that causes her to get Ruth out of her abusive relationship with Frank; and its Ruths level headedness and warmth that help give Idgie a home. Theyre 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, BZP Lovers, 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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In Defense of Michael Bay

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 15 2014 · 180 views

Essays, Not Rants! 117: In Defense of Michael Bay

Michael Bay gets a bad rap. His movies are criticized as being low on plot and depth with anything worthwhile being substituted with mindless explosions. His characters are either terribly dull or more resemble caricatures than actual people. Also, sometimes they’re Megan Fox. Michael Bay makes movies that, when boiled down to it, are just excuses for big action set pieces that feel ripped from a lousy Saturday morning cartoon.

And, way I see it, most of those are reasons Michael Bay is excellent at what he does.

Some storytellers are known for having very particular styles. Joss Whedon is known for strong women and witty banter. Chris Nolan’s films are often told in a non-chronological fashion. M. Night Shymalan has his twists. If you watch one of their movies, you know what you’re in for. A Quentin Tarantino film is going to be ridiculously violent and have women’s bare feet. A Tarantino movie isn’t bad whether or not you like his over the top violence, rather it’s a vital part of what he does.

This goes for Michael Bay too. Transformers never claimed to be more than a story about giant robots beating up other giant robots, though some humans got in the way. This issue was rectified in the third one where the human-to-robot-action ratio is much better and, way I see it, Transformers Dark of the Moon was all the better for it.

See, Michael Bay, like Whedon, Nolan, and the others, has his trademarks: explosions, ‘Murica, and butts. You know what you’re getting into when you watch one of his movies. Pain and Gain was a mess of storytelling. However, it had everything you’d expect from a Michael Bay film: things explode, there are American flags a plenty, and lots of poolside shots. Pain and Gain’s failure wasn’t inherently in any of those three things, it was in it trying to be more than what it was. It’s hard to fit a moral conundrum and a descent into darkness in a movie that feels plain goofy.

Most of Michael Bay’s movies — particularly the often derided Transformers series — never try to be more than what they were. The first Transformers was a typical coming-of-age film (which it pulled off alright) with giant robots (which it pulled off better). It had its off beats, but when it came time to do what it set out to do (giant robots) it excelled. Revenge of the Fallen had a ridiculous story, but great actions scenes. Dark of the Moon was overwrought but, again, I saw it because I wanted to see giant robots beating the stuffing out of other giant robots while laying waste to Chicago. That’s all I wanted.

I don’t go into a Michael Bay movie expecting a deep plot and to have something to stick with me afterwards. I go into a Michael Bay movie to turn off my brain and see flashy colors (which are often explosions and, lately, giant robots). If I want both, I’d watch Pacific Rim, which layers its Saturday-morning action with much deeper character and subtext. But, if I want to see Optimus Prime charging into battle on top of a robot dinosaur while brandishing a broadsword, well, Age of Extinction seems the right choice.

Some movies aim high and succeed (The Avengers), others aim high and fail horribly (Hereafter). Then there are some movies that have no idea what sort of movie they are (Need for Speed). Then there’s most of Michael Bay’s filmography: his films have no illusions about what kind of movie they are. His movies are big, dumb action movies. And all the better for it.


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Feels Like It

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jun 07 2014 · 221 views

Essays, Not Rants! 116: Feels Like It
 
Ever played Star Wars? No, not Force Unlesahed or Rogue Squadron, we’re talking the Star Wars game, the original 1983 arcade game from Atari. It’s not the most complex game out there. In lieu of sprites the game uses crude vector graphics to give you an outline of TIE Fighters (that shoot fireballs), laser turrets, and the classic trench run. Using the yoke you fly through space, attack TIE Fighters and dodge obstacles. Like the Millennium Falcon, the game may not look like much but it’s got it where it counts. Star Wars the game feels like Star Wars the movie. You get to fly a freaking X-Wing, zipping around the Death Star and firing lasers. It controls smooth and, yes, you can also fire a proton torpedo into the exhaust port.
 
This ‘feel,’ that an adaption must capture the spirit of whatever it’s adapting, is terribly important. A movie-from-a-book has to provoke the feeling of the book, as does a sequel. The Hunger Games needs to carry over the books’ feeling of desperate insurrection, Star Wars Episode VII has to have that sense of wonder and high adventure the Holy Trilogy had.
 
It’s equally important in video games, which adapt reality (or semi-reality, or fantasy, or abstract ideas) into an interactive medium. While developing Super Mario 64, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to make sure that just controlling Mario was fun, regardless of the environment. Game feel, as this is called, is crucial to gaming. Pac-Man has to respond to quick changes in the joystick and the car you’re driving should move like one too. If it doesn’t, it breaks the connection between the player and the game. That’s game feel which, important as it is, isn’t quite what I’m talking about.
 
When you’re playing a game, particularly one adapting an established work, gameplay has to reflect that work. Like I said before, flying that X-Wing in the arcade feels like how you’d imagine flying an X-Wing would. If a game about flying an X-Wing wouldn’t let you fire proton torpedoes or make those wonderful sound effects, it wouldn’t be as good.
 
A game that does this really well is Spider-Man that came out for the PS1 in 2000. Sure, it’s not the most graphically advanced (or even feature rich) game by today’s standards, but it feels like Spider-Man. You can swing around levels, stick to the ceiling and climb along the walls. Spidey doles out wisecracks and quips along the way as you beat up thugs and villains like Mysterio and Rhino. For all intents and purposes, you are Spider-Man. And thus the game is an absolute joy to play. Newer Spider-Man games, for all their open world New Yorks, longer playtimes, and additional features, can get bogged down in trying to find a special gimmick when, really, being Spider-Man is the biggest feature the game needs, so long as it feels like a Spider-Man game through gameplay and story.
 
The game LEGO Marvel Super Heroes is another great example of a game that gets it right. There’s an open world New York City to explore between missions that, well, isn’t exactly accurate (the Empire State Building is not that close to the Brooklyn Bridge!), but hey, it seems like it well enough. More importantly, the super heroes feel like the super heroes.
 
Let’s start with Iron Man. In the Mark VI, Tony can fly around (and double tapping X speeds him up with a spiffy sonic boom effect). Fighting mooks has him firing repulsors or punching aided by his repulsors. Alternately he can fire a charged blast from his chest or aim at a bunch of targets and he’ll fire rockets (y’know, like in that scene). This wonderful. Playing as Iron Man feels like Iron Man. Just flying around New York and destroying street lamps with your rockets is a pleasure.
 
The team behind LEGO Marvel Superheroes show that they love the source material throughout the game. Fighting as Black Widow can trigger finishing moves ripped straight from the films. Playable characters include all of the Sinister Six, Ms Marvel, Deadpool, and even Howard the Duck. The game is interactive fanservice, and it is wonderful. Playing the game evokes the same sense that the movies, comics, or even the culture around the Marvel property does.
 
Games like this are great because they capture the escapism that makes the concept so great. The Arkham series lets you beat up thugs and supervillains with the smooth, restrained brutality you’d expect from Batman. Halo allows you to be an unstoppable supersoldier. Burnout Paradise gives you the thrill of racing through a city. Basically, what I’m saying is if a game’s gonna let you fly an X-Wing or be a superhero, it had darn well better let you.
 
Further Reading: Henry Jenkins’ article on Narrative Architecture, particularly the section Evocative Spaces beginning on page 5. I may not completely agree with him, but he makes valid points that had a bearing of influence on this essay.


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Merited Futility

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 31 2014 · 107 views

Essays, Not Rants! 115: Merited Futility
 
I like playing video games, I really do. I write about them a lot too. Gaming is great: it’s a great form of catharsis, sometimes carries unique stories, and it’s just plain fun.
 
Which then makes it odd when I say I have trouble justifying gaming. See, it sometimes feels like a waste of time. After all, outside of the magic circle in which gaming takes place, it has no effect on, well, anything. That’s what a game is, isn’t it?
 
This applies more so to digital games. Physical games, such as sports, have the benefit/excuse of being exercise. At least the guy playing soccer all day is getting a workout. Digital games don't have that. You've seen the gamer stereotype: overweight, friendless, hasn’t seen daylight in a while. Unless you're a championship DoTA/StarCraft player there's not much real world application to gaming.
 
Or is there? Digital gaming is all about problem solving, whether the problem being solved is how to take out that squad of Elites or what's the best way to use those portals to make that friendly cube land on a red button. It could be argued that these skills could be given real world applications. Everything I know about rocket science I learnt from Kerbal Space Program, for example. Studies have also been done that show that people who play a lot of FPS's are better at taking in lots of information at once and thus are better drivers, soldiers, and surgeons. Cool.
 
But this is all minutiae. Rocket science is hardly a useful everyday skill unless you’re a rocket scientist (compared to the running skills built by playing soccer). So where then is the merit of games? Graeme Kirkpatrick thinks that games are aesthetically pleasing. He figured that the movements of the player's hands translated onto the screen are a sort of dance. The way, for example, an adept player can make Pac-Man spin in place reflects skill and ability. It’s like what a ballerina does, only less feet and balance and more hands and reflex.
 
I like this argument. It makes gaming sound like it's, y'know, worthwhile. By this logic video games are like dancing. I can begin to justify spending all day playing a game like FTL because the way I decide how to utilize my ship’s power while ordering my crew about is a dance in and of itself. There’s value there, if only on an aesthetic level. I’m not wasting my time.
 
But what about a game like The Sims or Kerbal Space Program? There’s not much dancing going on there. Sims just has you clicking about and Kerbal is a lot of mathing than it is epic mid-flight space maneuvers. They lack the need for agility and reflexts that characterize Kirkpatrirck’s dancing. They aren’t dancing, so where’s there value? Kerbal gets the “it’s science!” justification (sometimes, anyway), but what about The Sims? Where’s the value in playing The Sims?
 
While discussing Kirkpatrick’s idea with a friend, he dismissed my rationale for liking it by point out that he didn’t need an excuse to play games. Games — video games — are their own activity and have their own merits. Sure, you’re usually indoors and most of the time you’re alone, but where’s the harm? They’re fun. Like derping around on the internet or watching TV, they’re just another way of fun. Not only that, but beating a game is a valid accomplishment. Spending a couple weekends collecting all the trophies in Uncharted 2 is something. It’s not fair to just write it off; to do it required not only skill but a great deal of patience. And if nothing else, the perseverance to do that is commendable.
 
So I’ve decided to play games for their own sake. I’m not ‘wasting my time,’ this is what I do. Sure, maybe I’m learning skills in tenacity, problem solving, or rocket science, but importantly it’s fun. I play games because they’re fun. And that’s enough.


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It's Topical!

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 24 2014 · 95 views

Essays, Not Rants! 114: It’s Topical!
 
Let’s talk about science fiction. Again. One of the things I’ve said I love about good science fiction is its way to address things without overtly addressing them. That is, science fiction can often be seen as a sort of allegory, or even to write out things that wouldn’t work otherwise. You can read the short stories in Olivia Butler’s Bloodchild and get a very real sense of alienation and the idea of The Other. Which makes sense, given that she was essentially the only African-American woman writing science fiction in the ‘70s. District 9 deals, rather bluntly, with Apartheid, fitting South African director Neill Blomkamp.
In Star Wars the good guys are under the threat of being obliterated in one fell swoop by the bad guys, courtesy of the Death Star. It seems nondescript, until you remember that Star Wars came out in 1977 — during the Cold War. Impending annihilation was a topical threat: to have the threat realized in space and ultimately destroyed was somewhere between propaganda and wish fulfillment. That the film and its successors are still enjoyable (and somewhat still topical) today is a testament to how science fiction can be timeless, Admiral Motti chiding Vader about the missing data tapes notwithstanding.
Which brings me to God\jira. Not the recent Godzilla (that comes later), the original Japanese 1954 one. I’ve heard it aptly described as ‘psychic national catharsis,’ since it came out only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gojira is a very real manifestation of the atomic bomb. When he finally makes landfall proper he unrelenting devastates Tokyo. The military tries in vain for much of the sequence, until he’s finally warded off by jets. Afterwards we get several shots of the aftermath, of survivors trying to, well, survive. There are far more of those than you see in a ‘normal’ disaster movie (think 2012); it’s almost as if the director is presenting a case.
The case being the killing of Gojira. The scientist Serizawa, while trying to create a new energy source, accidentally made a superweapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. A subplot of the film is him wrestling with whether to use it. Does Dr. Serizawa want to be remembered for making a superweapon? Is it worth becoming a monster to destroy another? Through it all, director Ishirō Honda is asking the audience a troubling question: If you could have stopped the atomic bombings at the cost of your collective soul, would you? There’s no easy answer, and though they do end up using the Oxygen Destroyer, it’s not without its own bittersweet moments: Serizawa sacrifices himself and the death of Gojira is not without a sense of loss.
It’s befitting, then, that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is topical in its own way. Rather than dealing with nuclear fallout and such, Edwards and team instead looks a little at the folly of humanity and more at the power of nature. The destruction wreaked by the M.U.T.O. is a result of humanity’s mistakes, but what’s striking is that Edwards doesn’t ever condemn the scientists or military; rather, he treats them as people who, well, messed up. Godzilla, instead of an executioner, takes the role of cleaning crew. He’s a force of nature who resets the balance of the world upset by humanity and the M.U.T.O. Though Edwards lacks the punch of Honda, the topicality of it still shines through: nature was here before and it’ll still be here after. The Dr. Serizawa of this film, played by Ken Watanabe, puts it succinctly: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” In Godzilla, just as in his prior Monsters, Gareth Edwards is looking at the sublime: the awful majesty of nature manifested by Godzilla. The pursuit of the sublime is further enhanced by the human angle the film takes; we’re shown the kaiju and the destruction through the eyes of people. We’re powerless compared to them.
 
Science fiction can be a mirror and a lens. Warren Ellis addressed the growing interconnectivity of the world in Extremis, Gravity looked at what it means to be alive. Gojira and Godzilla both use the idea of an unstoppable monster to look at ideas that would be unfeasible otherwise. After all, this is what science fiction does.
 


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A Real Swell Guy

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 17 2014 · 135 views

Essays, Not Rants! 113: 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 ######. 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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Computer-Mediated Communi-what now?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 10 2014 · 184 views

Essays, Not Rants! 112: Computer-mediated Communi-what now?
 
Being a big fan of his other stuff, I saw Jon Favreau’s Chef last night. It’s a wonderful movie full of heart and food porn. Seriously. That movie will make you hungry. Really hungry.
 
It’s remarkable for more than just salacious shots of food, though. There’s the fun character dynamics and the great soundtrack. There’s the fact that it avoids the obnoxious Bad Thing Before the Third Act that’s so commonplace in comedies and other films like Chef. But what I wanna talk about is its use of social media.
 
Oh boy, there’s that buzzword.
 
Social media and other forms of computer-mediated communication, as it’s known in Conversation Analysis (which is a thing, and I’m taking a class on it), are becoming more and more common. Heck, you’re probably reading this ‘cuz I posted the link on my Facebook or Twitter.
 
In Chef, the protagonist, Carl Casper, sets up a Twitter account and gets involved in a flamewar with a critic. It’s delightful to watch because of how it’s presented: we see an overlay of the Tweet box which, when sent, becomes a small blue bird that flies off screen. But what’s really great is that it’s treated not as a fad or something insignificant, but rather as a legitimate means of communication. In the world of Chef, just as in the real world, Twitter (along with texting, Vine, and Facebook) is a perfectly normal way of interacting with other people (and drumming up noise about your awesome new food truck).
 
The TV show Sherlock and the film Non-Stop both use an overlay effect for texting and present it as a normal means of conversation. Non-Stop uses its potential anonymity and discreetness to hide the identity of the hijacker and to build tension, but it never feels like a gimmick. Characters in Sherlock, well, mostly John, will get texts during conversations. As viewers we now get to watch the all too familiar tension that comes from being stuck in one conversation when there’s another waiting in the wings. Wonderfully, Sherlock also treats texting as something people do. It’s as commonplace as phone calls and given equal weight.
 
Texting is showing up in books too. The Fault in Our Stars has Hazel and Gus texting each other. Like in the other examples, it’s treated as a normal part of life. People text to talk. It’s a thing. The Fault in Our Stars has a very, well, contemporary, attitude to texting. It’s not a Big Deal or even some magical piece of New Technology or a sign of Declining Sociality; instead it’s downright normal. It’s not trite, it’s just a part of life. You don’t have to call someone, you can text them instead — which is often more convenient.
 
What sets these examples apart is how well integrated they are. A lot of shows and movies either ignore the presence of cell-phones or only use them on occasion. It’s seldom to see texting and social media as integrated into a story as in Chef, Sherlock, and The Fault in Our Stars.
 
The world’s changing. Computer-mediated communication is becoming really commonplace. Not only that, but it’s steadily being scholarly accepted as a legitimate form of communication (seriously, I read a paper on gossip in instant messaging). Yet pop-culture has been oddly slow on the upkeep. There aren’t many shows like Community where everyone’s digital lives are presented as normal, including Jeff’s constant texting and Troy’s Clive Owen Tumblr. Granted, it can be a slow or overwrought way of communicating exposition, but it can be done well and, as in Chef, it can be visually interesting. I want to see more movies, shows, and books like this; where computer-mediated communication isn’t necessarily nerdy or reclusive, where a Vine and Facebook can be a bonding moment between a father and son.
 
Because hey, this is the world we live in.


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A Narrative Is A Train

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! May 03 2014 · 94 views

Essays, Not Rants! 111: A Narrative Is A Train
 
So I saw The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Though the final act is excellent, the film as a whole tends to stumble where the prior movie succeeded. Why? It lacked a central through line to follow. See, the first Amazing Spider-Man had a core theme: Who is Peter Parker/Spider-Man? Every thread in the story’s web (ba-dum tish) comes out from that; his tension with Uncle Ben is a question of identity, the conflict with Curt Conners is Peter looking for his father, his romance with Gwen Stacy is him coming into his own. It all served the central question.
 
I was told by a professor to think of a film’s narrative as a train. The plot is the engine, the driving force of the story. The subplots are the carriages that make the whole thing worthwhile. A plot is hollow without subplots to give it weight, and subplots don’t really do anything without a plot. They need both, and they have to work together.
 
Let’s look at The Avengers, a movie with no less than eight central characters that could easily have gone wrong. What’s the central through line/plot/train engine? What to do with Loki. Each character’s conflict emerges from that question. The tension between Iron Man and Captain America, for example, is their disagreement over how to deal with Loki’s threat. All the other bits — betrayal return, Nick Fury’s disagreement with the World Security Council, the highlighting of Black Widow’s red in her ledger, and so on — never feel tangential to the story since they’re rooted firmly in the central plot. This means that the film is free to explore character’s motivations and relationships without bogging the story down. The film still feels like a cohesive whole.
 
But back to Spider-Man.
 
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is, sadly, not as strong as its predecessor. It’s threads are all over the place. We have the subplot of who really were Peter’s parents that’s so peripheral it’s on a train unto itself. The main villain this time ‘round, Electro, doesn't have a plot nearly as intertwined with Peter’s story as the bad-guy, Curt Conners, in the 2012 film (or Norman Osborne and Doc Ock in Sam Raimi’s 2002 and 2004 films). Even when Peter and Electro’s plots interact, it ends up giving Peter a whole ‘nother plot to follow, especially when complicated with Harry’s involvement. Meanwhile, his relationship with Gwen — and the question with where it stands — is its own plot.
 
Here we have Peter, our protagonist, following four plots that don’t really have any bearing on each other most of the time: who were his parents; should he help Harry; the Electro situation; and working on his relationship with Gwen. The reason these are all plots (and not subplots) is because they’re all on different tracks. There lacks a central train pulling them all together. As such, it feels discordant.
 
Something else I was told, by the same professor, is to always give solutions when finding flaws. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 needed a through line. Maybe it could be Peter and Gwen’s evolving relationship. Better yet, why not the question of why is Peter special? Electro is mad that Spidey gets all the attention, that he’s the only special one. Harry wants to know what makes Spider-Man special, why he survived being bitten by the radioactive spider. Gwen wants to help Peter, that he doesn’t have to bear it all alone (and her choice matters too). Peter, meanwhile is trying to balance all the responsibilities that come with his specialness. There we have four subplots that all follow the main one and the central narrative becomes much stronger. Four carriages on the same train on the same track.
 
Don’t get me wrong, I still liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I don’t think it was as strong as the first one (which my brother vehemently disagrees with me on), but I do think it felt very Spider-Manish. As someone who grew up on the cartoons and video games, recently began reading the comics, it felt right. Spider-Man quipped, which is important; New York was there (Union Square! The Highline!); and there was a Marc Webb Musical Moment™. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be a messy movie, but it’s a wonderful mess.
 
And the final act is brilliantly done.


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Of Ludonarrative Dissonance

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Apr 26 2014 · 130 views

Essays, Not Rants! 110: Of Ludonarrative Dissonance
 
I say again and again on this blog that video games are a truly unique medium especially when it comes to storytelling. Thing is, storytelling in games is inherently weird. What you do in the game doesn’t always quite line up with the narrative it’s telling. Clint Hocking dubbed it ludonarrative dissonance, TV Tropes calls it Gameplay and Story Segregation.
 
As narratives in gaming become more complex, this dissonance becomes steadily more pronounced. Much of Among Thieves, the second Uncharted game, has Nathan Drake chasing after war-criminal Zoran Lazarevic (and Shambala too). Drake, the wise cracking treasure hunter, is the clear good guy since, well, Lazarevic is a war criminal. At least that’s what the narrative says. During gameplay the player will wind up shooting quite a few bad guys. And by quite a few I mean easily a couple hundred. See, Among Thieves is an action-adventure game and, like many games in its genre, a frequent obstacle for players comes in the form of enemies. There’s some platforming, some puzzles, and several bouts of shooting. It’s fun, but it does make it weird to have Drake calling Lazarevic out on him being a ruthless killer at the end. To the game’s credit, Lazarevic responds by calling Drake out on it too. But that’s not much, seeing as Drake’s, y’know, mowed through a small army.
 
There’s a lot of writing on this, actually, a quick google of “Uncharted body count” brings up as much. I always justified it for the most part by using the cutscenes as the actual story and the gameplay bits as more gamey bits. When Nate, Lazarevic, and the others prepare to enter Shambala there are only a handful of henchmen in the cutscene, despite the several dozen you encounter in firefights. The gameplay and story are segregated. Is it a perfect solution? No, not at all. Is Among Thieves still a phenomenal game? Yes, but the argument is no less valid.
 
Some people feel that this dissonance is a big problem with stories in games. Way they figure, for a game to really tell a good story, gameplay should be story and vice-versa. An open world game, like Skyrim, attempts to reconcile all this by giving the player a ridiculous amount of freedom in their actions. Though there is a main story, the player is under no rush to complete it and can even ignore if they wish. Skyrim becomes a sort of choose-your-own-adventure story, wherein you tell your own story through your actions.
 
Journey takes the opposite route. In the award-winning independent game, the player can only do a few things (jump/glide, move, and chirp; compared to jump, move, roll, climb, shoot, hit, etc in Among Theives) and follows a very linear path. The story is simple, but incredibly heartfelt. The simplicity of the narrative and gameplay allows for little ludonarrative dissonance. It works, but it just doesn’t have the depth that Among Thieves has.
 
So what’s the solution? There are some who say that video games are simply ill-equipped to tell stories at the present (I believe Johnathan Blow said something to the effect of to truly reconcile gameplay and story we’d need an incredible AI to be able to adapt to player input much the way a Dungeon Master would in tabletop). Steve Gaynor, who did Gone Home, thinks that one of the most unique ways games can tell stories is through the environments. Exploring a virtual space can be a story in its own way.
 
I think ludonarrative dissonance is something that has to be accepted. Among Thieves would be a very different game were it have only a few firefights. They have to be accepted as part of the game. Furthermore, to remove the game’s linearity (something that does come up) would wreck the finely crafted narrative. Games are, and I say this a bunch, a very nascent medium. Designers and players are finding new ways to tell stories and hear them told, be they procedural like Among Thieves and Journey or emergent like in Skyrim and The Sims. Unlike much of film, tv, and books, wherein the strength of the work is primarily found in the story; games are not beholden to it: Pacman and The Last of Us are both great games, one has no plot and the former has one that rivals — and beats — what you see in theaters. Video games allow for works all over the ludonarrative dissonance scale; what’s wonderful is that they can be good no matter where they fall.


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For Want of a Glass of Water

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Apr 19 2014 · 107 views

Essays, Not Rants! 109: 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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josh

twenty-three

grew up on a ship

studies Storytelling

at New York University

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