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There's Gotta Be A Change

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 30 2016 · 87 views

Essays, Not Rants! 202: There’s Gotta Be A Change!

A big part of movies is the protagonist’s arc. As in they begin in one place, and end in another; they change. Tony Stark learns to take responsibility for his actions. Rey chooses to embrace her destiny. Duncan gets his own back in The Way Way Back. Change is a vital part of a story.

But I’ve been thinking about The Iron Giant a bunch recently (because reasons) and something’s been nagging at my mind: Hogarth doesn’t change all that much. He doesn’t find himself making some massive choice towards the end that sums up his growth throughout the film. Maybe he proves that he can take care of something, but there’s not much of an internal change in Hogarth. But the movie works — why?

I will perpetually hold up Hot Rod as being a fine (albeit surprising) example of excellent storytelling. Seriously, I consider the Lonely Island’s comedy to be near-perfect. The plotting is impeccable and if you wanna learn how to tell a story watch that movie. Now, Rod changes over the course of the movie — somewhat. Sure, he gets his mustache of self-actualization, but Rod at the end of the movie is still very similar to Rod at the start.

The idea of a protagonist changing comes with it the idea of something big. Tony Stark makes a very conscious decision to begin making reparations, and at the end of Iron Man makes a sacrificial play — something he would never have done at the start of the film. Rey takes Maz Kanata’s advice and looks ahead for her belonging rather than waiting on Jakku and, at the end, takes up a lightsaber in the Coolest Moment of 2015. Duncan becomes more assertive through his job at Water Wizz and ultimately makes a stand for himself. But Rod starts as a dude who does stunts and ends the movie as a guy who does stunts. Over the course of his stunt-doing he is able to win the girl, earn the money for his step-dad’s surgery, and then kick his step-dad’s butt. But why? Rod’s arc still works so how does Rod change?

Let’s go over the plot of Hot Rod again. Specifically, when he recommits for good: he’s realized that everyone thinks he’s a joke and he gives up being a stuntman to be an ‘adult,’ donning a button-up shirt and purchasing a shopping cart of liquor. His crew calls him out, saying the best thing about him was how he was always himself. But Rod’s having none of it until that night when he drives his very high friend to the hospital, who too tells Rod how much he means to everyone. So Rod recommits, makes good with his crew, and (attempts to jump) a whole bunch of school buses. At the end, Rod is vindicated. He doubles down on the essence of his character and thus self-actualizes. So no, Rod doesn’t change in a revelatory way (he doesn’t give up stuntmanship in favor of becoming an investment banker), but he makes a decision to really commit to being himself. Rod at the end is accepted by his community (and his step-father) because he is himself. Rod’s arc sees the very fiber of his being put to test and him deciding that himself is the best to be. The change happens in the eyes of those around him, he goes from loser to hero by being himself.

I suppose then, that Rod’s arc is not unlike Hogarth’s in The Iron Giant. Like Rod, Hogarth doesn’t change too much in the film, he reminds a hopeful kid who’s willing to love unconditionally. Also like Rod, Hogarth is ultimately vindicated, with the Iron Giant he vouched for saving the town of Rockwell. Furthermore we get to see Hogarth’s actions reflected in the Giant, who because of Hogarth’s influence is willing to be a sacrifice. Hogarth remains true to himself, and in light of that, the way he is perceived changes around him. He is faced with an ultimate test of character, and by not backing down, saves the day. There’s an arc there, and the status quo, for Hogarth, is different from where he started.

In all honesty, this rant essay my own rambling examination of how arcs work. To sum it all up, I figure changes don’t have to be inside a protagonist, but can also be how the world sees the protagonist. Just so long as it’s done well, but then, that’s a caveat with everything.


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We Get The Subtext, Alright?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 23 2016 · 145 views

Essays, Not Rants! 201: We Get The Subtext, Alright?

Being stuck in a plane for sixteen hours is only somewhat alleviated by in-flight entertainment. Which is somewhat undermined by a dismal selection of comedies. Because when you’re trapped in a flying aluminum tube, you don’t wanna have to think too hard. Also, I once watched Fruitvale Station on a plane and I was in no mood to have a repeat of that emotional rollercoaster.

So I decided to watch The Iron Giant for the first time in over a decade, ‘cuz hey, I remember it being a good movie and I wouldn’t mind watching it again. And wow.

I talk a lot about the meaning of stories, how stories — the really good ones — are saying something more about the world. But there’s a fine line here: no one likes preachifying. If you break up a story to spend a few minutes on a soapbox discussing why This One Thing is bad you’re just gonna annoy your audience. Especially if it’s only tangentially related to the story. Doesn’t matter what your genre is or who’s your audience; you give your story meaning by working it into the plot.

The Iron Giant is a great story that does this very well. Because the central dramatic thrust of is based on the titular robot’s identity — is he good, evil, a weapon? — the film’s subtext is all about identity too; is Kent a protective g-man or a power-hungry spook; is Hogarth as an over-imaginative child or a kid in need of a friend? None of these roles and identities are set in stone, each character has the agency to choose who they want to be. Hogarth chooses to befriend the giant, Dean decides to help Hogarth and the giant, Kent refuses to see the giant as anything but a monstrosity. Because this subtext is within the entire film — in addition to the central question of what is the robot — when Hogarth tells the Iron Giant “You are who you choose to be” it doesn’t come out of nowhere. Yes, it’s a pretty explicit summation of the movie’s themes, but the movie gets away with it — and not just because it’s for kids. Why?Because it’s a pointed question that the film has been building towards. For a couple moments the subtext of the film becomes overt and it punches you right in the feels because you can suddenly see the choice ahead of the characters. The Iron Giant makes his choice of self-sacrifice, bringing everything to a circle and showing how much of an impact Hogarth’s willingness to love has had.

Hang on, I’ve got something in my eye again.

Brad Bird and the others behind the movie gave the audience the benefit of the doubt and assumes they’re of the thinking sort. Which is wonderful, especially because the primary audience for the film is kids. If a movie is built around a central theme — as this one is — the meaning behind it becomes clear without having to spell it out. I mayn’t have been able to express this nearly as well when I first saw The Iron Giant back when I was eight, but I definitely understood the central themes (and the climatic heroic sacrifice is firmly etched in my mind). The subtext is so artfully done I get it, whether I’m eight or twenty-four. A story having to spell out what it’s really about is a sign that the teller isn’t sure they’re being clear enough or that the audience is smart enough to pick up on it. It’s why District 9 doesn’t have a moment where Wikus and Christopher talk about how Apartheid was bad, or Scott Pilgrim vs The World has a discussion about what’s essential in a relationship. Return of the Jedi doesn’t have Luke say “I believe Darth Vader, my father, is still good and I won’t fight him because good will win and despite my all black outfit, I too am good.” Rather the line “I am a Jedi, like my father before me” and his throwing away his lightsaber speaks volumes more because it brings Luke’s arc to completion and gives voice to just the right amount of subtext. “We are Groot” is incredibly more poignant and effective than someone saying “We’re a family now, Pete!”

have to give the audience — adults or children — enough credit to understand what they’re about.

Great stories have their theme woven beautifully and clearly into their narrative. But they also have to give the audience — adults or children — enough credit to understand what they’re about. Don’t preachify with all the subtlety of a cartoon anvil; do like The Iron Giant and work it seamlessly into the narrative so that Vin Diesel saying “Superman” in a robot voice makes a grown man all weepy-eyed.


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Performing Truth

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 16 2016 · 118 views

Essays, Not Rants! 200: Performing Truth

Twelve years ago I went to the Grand Canyon. While in a town nearby, a couple of guys dressed as cowboys did a shootout. Blank firing guns and all; twelve year old me thought it was real cool. This past Thursday, part of my school trip here in South Africa had us watch a group doing a collection of traditional dances. Also cool. Were they authentic? A cowboy shootout isn’t particularly typical of modern Arizona and Tribal dances celebrating a good hunt aren’t exactly common in South Africa anymore. But it’s what we expect of these places,

There’s this concept of performance, which, put simply, is when we do something we are performing what it should be. We perform politeness, which looks different in the United States compared to China. And we perform culture, which is part who we are and part what’s expected of us. So those cowboys in Arizona and the dancers in South Africa were both, in some way, performing culture. The dance the other night, for example, had a piece of choreography ripped right from Marty McFly’s concert at the end of Back To The Future. Air guitars were probably not a thing when these dances were first done, but contextually it makes plenty of celebratory sense. Authentic or not, it’s true.

Which brings me to Hamilton, the broadway musical about the titular American Founding Father. It’s biographical, but unlike many other biographies it chooses to dispense wholesale with any concerns of historical accuracy. Not to say that the play takes egregious liberties with Alexander Hamilton’s life, but rather decides to play fast and loose with exact way of presenting this truth. For starters, Hamilton himself is played by a Latino actor. And Aaron Burr is black. And not only is there singing, but there’s rapping; these showtunes are hiphop anthems. Even if we can forgive the presence of songs — which all musicals do —, the racelift and music genre is a fairly egregious corruption of ‘authenticity’ that essentially throws out any semblance of an accepted interpretation of reality. But it makes the story of Hamilton’s life surprisingly accessible and relatable. The spirit is preserved. Like a man dressed as a Zulu warrior strumming an air guitar, Alexander Hamilton rapping about not throwing away his shot mayn’t be accurate, but it’s true. Hamilton performs a subversive version of the truth that allows it to better capture the youthful energy of revolution.

Fiction is inherently a lie. There’s no such thing as hobbits, magic rings, or Mount Doom. We don’t have superheroes, and we don’t have spaceships. But a show like Firefly [is able to better capture the feeling of life on a ship than anything else. The Lord of The Rings speaks beautifully about the indomitable nature of hope. Sex Criminals contains the best discussion of depression and intimacy I’ve ever seen. A good storyteller is full of rubbish who says otherwise is wrong (or writing a different essay). In story, as Tim O’Brien puts it in The Things They Carried: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” We don’t need things to be accurate — Hamilton being a white dude or an African not strumming an air guitar — but we need things to be true. When Hamilton raps we don't think about the factual inaccuracies, instead we get lost in the feeling of excitement and energy of it all. The truth of a strong story lies not in it perfectly matching reality, but rather in it moving the audience. The truth of a story lies in its emotional core; we'll willingly swallow the most boldfaced lie about the world so long as deeper within the lie is a truth of being.

There was a thrill to watching those guys dance the other day. An excitement[?] that overruled any care about the question of authenticity. They may not have performed a reflection of reality, but they performed the truth. We don't need a factual blow by blow for a story to bury itself into our heart, we just need it to be true.


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2015 In Review

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 09 2016 · 122 views

Essays, Not Rants! 199: 2015 In Review

Well. It’s 2016. Since it’s tradition, let’s take a look at my rants essays from this past year.

Five Most Popular/Viewed Posts

#5: Let’s Talk About That Whole Black Widow Thing

Hoo boy, yeah, that’s one way to start off this year-in-review. I stand by this post (that there’s nothing inherently problematic with Black Widow’s characterization in Age of Ultron, rather the real issue is that we have one female character to tell every female narrative) and yeah, that’s about all there is to say about that.

#4: Masculinity in Age of Ultron

While we’re on the topic of Age of Ultron, one thing it did well was offer multiple narratives for how masculinity looks (which it could have stood to done for Widow, see above). This one was fun to do, ‘cuz I do always like getting into the bits and bobs of story.

#3: Sorry Nate, There’s No Princess In This Castle

2015 is when Essays, Not Rants! inadvertently became a mildly feminist blog. Combined with A Manic Pixie Dream Problem and Another Boyband Saving The World, I accidentally spent three weeks really digging into the way woman are portrayed in fiction. It’s not something I have much of a background in, but it is certainly something I enjoy.

#2: But What Is A Strong Female Protagonist?

Speak of the devil. I guess there is a demand of sorts for this sort of essay. What I wanted to do here was look at the idea that ‘strong female protagonists/characters’ have to physically kick ######. They don’t They just gotta be written like actual people who want stuff. Who knew?

#1: Why I Take Issue With Johnny Storm Being Black

I’m sorry. That’s a clickbait title if I ever saw one. I’m worse than Buzzfeed. If you don’t wanna click the clickbait, basically it’s great that they’re willing to diversify the Fantastic Four. Less great is that it leaves me wishing they went all the way and decided to make Sue black too. Again, sorry about the title.

Josh’s Pick of Three

#3: Just So We’re Clear, Rey Is The Best

I have no other reason for listing this one except for the fact that Rey is very much the best.

#2: (Re)Constructing Narratives

The past six months have been big for me. I wrote (and defended) what is essentially my thesis at school and a lot of the posts on this blog have been related to it. This one especially, and it actually has the name I’d eventually give my concentration (Narrative (Re)Construction).

#1: Jessica Jones: Not Your Victim

This was a post well outside my wheelhouse, and I’m pretty proud that I managed to write it kinda successfully. Essays, Not Rants! is often a place for me to sound out ideas or tackle subjects I’m not used to. This is one of those, and it’s moments like that that make the blog for me.


So there you have it. A post about a bunch of other posts. That, well, that would have been 2015. Onwards to 2016!


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Diversity: It's That Easy!

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Jan 02 2016 · 169 views

Essays, Not Rants! 198: Diversity: It’s That Easy!

Claire Temple, played by Rosario Dawson, shows up in the last episode of Jessica Jones, providing a quiet link between that show and Daredevil. She tends to a wounded Luke Cage, because it takes a special kind of doctor to treat an (incredibly hot) man with unbreakable skin. Malcolm, Jessica’s neighbor, shows up too and the three share a scene.

And suddenly there are more (important) people of color interacting on screen than in any other Marvel property. If anything, Jessica Jones shows how simple it is to diversify a cast. Why not make the cutthroat lawyer a woman? Why not make the police officer they interact with black? This intentional mindset of ‘why not’ really affects the overall look of Jones. New York in the Netflix series is diverse, far from the overwhelming whiteness of How I Met Your Mother and Girls. The prominence of women in the story also allows for different narratives, avoiding the problem of Age of Ultron. It gets to the point that it’s hard to find a prominent white male character in Jessica Jones who could be classified as a hero ‘cuz those spots are all taken.

Diversity in media oftentimes comes down to being willing to make a big deal about little decisions. It means not defaulting to “white dude” when creating or casting a character and realizing that archetypes and narratives can belong to anyone because everyone has a story to tell. Or even just because everyone wants to see themselves in a story. Especially as a hero.

J.J. Abrams does this exceptionally well in The Force Awakens. There’s a decided effort in the film to diversify Star Wars and yet doesn’t feel forced. Yes, the main characters are very different (the woman, Rey, is the protagonist [and the best], the ex-Stormtrooper Finn is Nigerian-British, and the hotshot pilot is Guatemalan-American) but the movie’s attention to diversity really shows in the background.

Think about Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi. With very few exceptions, all of the bit-part Rebel and Imperial officers were white guys. General Veers and Jan Dodonna have barely a couple lines each, but both were, of course, white men. But The Force Awakens does away with that tradition and switches it up. Imperial Officers are also women and minorities, besides being white. Ken Leung (of Lost fame) plays one of the Resistance’s admirals and a Trinidadian actor plays another. The small band of X-Wing pilots include, besides Poe and a couple aliens, a black guy and an Asian woman. Even the villainous First Order gets in on it: the random Stormtrooper that alerts Kylo Ren to the escaped Rey is a woman. That’s right, in The Force Awakens Stormtroopers can be not only black, but women too. And that’s in addition to the random officers who also just so happen to be diverse.

This is what I mean by making a big deal about little decisions. It means being willing to not just phone it in but decide “hey, maybe this person can look different?” We’re seeing steps being taken in this direction — and not just in Jessica Jones and The Force Awakens. Marvel’s recent slate of comics has been pushing a more diverse range of superheroes as does work like, say, Pacific Rim. It’s small details, yes, but do you know how cool it is to see someone like you on screen? It’s really not as hard to do as it seems, which is one reason why I’m a huge proponent of it. And if it’s not something you’ve thought about, well, you’re in luck.


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Just So We're Clear, Rey Is The Best

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 26 2015 · 253 views

Essays, Not Rants! 197: Just So We’re Clear, Rey Is The Best

Rey, of The Force Awakens, is one of those characters I really like. Not just one those who I think’s really cool (Captain Marvel, Han Solo, Aragorn), but the ones who, for me, go beyond that (Iron Man, Nathan Drake): Rey’s one of those characters who I don’t just really like, but the sort I wanna be.

So what is it about Rey’s that captured my imagination (and everyone else’s)? What makes her so special?

Obviously, spoilers for Force Awakens follow.

The role Rey plays in the story is not new, by no means. She follows the hero’s journey; one we saw done with Luke Skywalker in ’77, Harry Potter, and of course Emmet in The Lego Movie. It’s the monomyth, a nobody is actually quite special and is essential for saving the day. Finn’s arc within Force Awakens has a few of the same mythic beats, but it’s Rey’s that most closely follows it. And it’s not just men who get to be the heroes, we had Katniss and The Hunger Games a couple years ago, also a story about a young woman that embarks on her own hero’s journey. What is it then that sets Rey apart?

First off, it’s the obvious one: it’s Star Wars. This is arguably the biggest film franchise in the world, so the scale Rey’s featured in is massive. There’s six movies of continuity already in play, an issue that new characters like Harry or Katniss didn't have to deal with when their books came out. There was a lot riding on this movie and, by extension Rey herself, but it also gives her a huge platform. That’s an opportunity few stories get.

Now, this is also a franchise famous for seldom having more than one woman, and in this one Rey the protagonist (and also not the only female character with lines — it might just barely squeak by on the Bechdel test, and yes, Rey is the only new female lead, but at least there are a few more women who speak in this one). Also, Rey gets to be a Jedi. Or at least one in training. Or at least a Jedi-to-be. It’s the seventh installment and we have, for the first time, a named female character turning on a lightsaber. That’s a big fricking deal.

Putting the Star Wars branding aside, is Rey still all that different? In The Hunger Games series, Katniss had her go at the hero’s journey and the resistance narrative too. Except, she is. Rey’s adventure isn’t gendered. While Katniss’ intertwined with her gender (see: dresses, pregnancy, men-wanting-to-protect/control-her, etc), Rey very much has an everyman story. No, there’s nothing wrong with a feminine story — look at Agent Carter!but it’s such a great change to see that everyman a woman. Rey’s gender is never mentioned. Sure, Finn does keep grabbing her hand in the beginning, but it takes all of five minutes for her to get him to stop — and establish her own independence in the same beat. But that’s not all: Rey’s not underestimated because of her gender. She’s frequently described as “the scavenger” (not “that girl”) and summarily dismissed as such. She’s just Rey the scavenger. It’s refreshing to see this, and even better that it’s something as mainstream (and awesome) as Star Wars

There are a bunch of other reasons I like Rey: snarky, excitable (ie: her and Finn celebrating their escape from Jakku), courageous, and occasionally downright gleeful. She’s a wonderful, winning character and I couldn’t be happier to have her as the new Star Wars protagonist. Then, of course, we come back to the whole Star Wars-ness of it. Deep beneath the spaceships, Force, and lightsabers is the narrative about being more than you thought you were; it’s the wish fulfillment of getting to go on a great adventure. And for Rey — and, personally, one of the many reasons I love her — this also means a search for belonging.

tl;dr: Rey’s awesome, go watch The Force Awakens (again)


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An Actual New Hope

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 19 2015 · 135 views

Essays, Not Rants! 196: An Actual New Hope

One of my earliest memories involves, unsurprisingly, Star Wars. I, and another kid, were talking about Empire and how Luke loses his hand and gets a robot one. I’m sure in there was talk of Darth Vader being Luke’s father and all that. Now, I couldn’t have been that old; based on where we were I doubt I was more than four. Which shows just how inborn my Star Wars nerd is, but also, wait, I was four and talking about Empire? The darkest of the original Star Wars movies? We’re talking losing limbs and finding out your dad is the villain.

And yet, here I am, twenty-odd years later and decidedly not emotionally scarred. There’s no denying that Empire is dark, darker than I realized as a kid. But, this is Star Wars. Even though it’s a bleak ending, it’s still one with hope. When faced with the fact that Vader and his father are one and the same, Luke chooses to sacrifice himself instead of turning surrendering to his father. Han’s only mostly dead and Lando and Chewie have teamed up to find him. And, of course, Luke gets his hand back.

There’s a romantic optimism to Star Wars amidst its background of a cosmic Good and Bad. It’s Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, which is big, but it’s rife with hope. There’s no cynicism to Star Wars at its best: something can’t be ruined forever. No matter how far down they’re forced, good will be able to come of it. Luke’s father is Vader, but Vader can be redeemed. This isn’t something that would fly in the more recent slate of movies (besides the Marvel Cinematic Universe): whereas can the love between a father and a son be triumphant? Star Wars unapologetically wears its heart on its sleeve, which by today’s standards seems a little old fashioned.

So maybe this is one of the big places the prequels went wrong. They seemed to teeter a little too far into the realm of tragedy (which, it being Anakin’s fall, it is) without that earnest hope that made The Original Trilogy so great. That galaxy far, far away is one to escape to, one where a backwater farmboy, fumbling smuggler, and planetless princess can save the galaxy. Maybe the prequels got so caught up in their tragedy they forgot about the escapist nature of these movies, where it’s okay for the underdog to be the hero plain and simple. Obi-Wan, for example, is a Jedi, respected albeit inexperienced and not a crazy old wizard. The closest we really got were Jar Jar and Anakin in The Phantom Menace, but neither had an arc worth investing in. As a kid (and an adult), I wanted to be Qui-Gon because he was cool, but that’s about it. But Luke got to be the nobody-turned-Jedi and Han was the selfish-jerk-turned-war-hero. There was a change there — an optimistic one — that the prequels lacked.

The Force Awakens comes a solid decade after the last Star Wars movie. It’s also directed by someone who grew up with the movies and knows, as an outsider, why he liked them so (and they stuck with him). And the movie delivers. Despite containing perhaps the most tragic moment in the entire film franchise (and one that actually works courtesy of deft writing and acting), it remains rife with hope. There’s the declaration that unconditional love beats out hate, even when it seems like hate has won.

There’s an unquenchable joy to The Force Awakens that gives the originals a solid run for their money. Like in the old ones, we want to be a part of this world because there’s adventure here, and even when the adventure goes tragic, there’s hope. Star Wars is fun again.

And also, Rey is the friggin’ best.


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Thoughts On The Holy Trilogy

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 12 2015 · 165 views

Essays, Not 195: Thoughts on The Holy Trilogy
Doing something different this week. In advent of The Force Awakens, the club I run at NYU is marathoning the Original Trilogy. In lieu of an essay, what follows is something of a live blog.
Star Wars
(A New Hope)
  • It’s remarkable how much of the first few minutes are told visually. The first proper dialogue isn’t until Vader interrogates Antilles. Once we get to Tatooine, we’re back to relying on the visuals for Artoo’s run in with the Jawas. The lack of explaining goes a long way to making the world feel lived in and, well, real. This way, by the time we get to Luke, we’re already immersed in this very foreign world.
  • Binary sunset. Freaking iconic.
  • I always forget how downright weird Star Wars is. We’ve got spaceships and robots but an ‘old wizard’ (as Owen calls Ben) and tribal people riding animals. There’s such a delightful mix of past and future that makes it feels very timeless.
  • Ben’s discussion with Luke is very much an exposition dump. But it works because by the time we get to it we wanna know what’s going on with Artoo and Threepio and we’re also very much in Luke’s position in wondering who is he and what’s going on. Also, the exposition isn’t so much on how the world works but on the romance of Luke’s adventure-to-come.
  • Once Leia joins the group she refuses to take ###### from anyone.
  • There’s a wonderful mundanity to some of the world; like Stormtroopers discussing speeder models while Ben shuts off the tractor beam.
  • There’s a strong focus on an emotional arc (rather than a character one). It’s about the thrills and the adventure, not so much about an in-depth character analysis.
The Empire Strikes Back
  • The opening of Empire really highlights the serial inspiration. IV, V, and VI all open with a misadventure of sorts (Artoo and Threepio on the Tontine IV, Luke and the Wampa, Jabba’s Palace) that isn’t unlike a cold open. Helps give the movies the feeling that things have been going on before the start (and will keep going after). The world’s lived in.
  • These movies are ridiculous: we’ve got a muppet fighting with a robot over a lamp. But they commit to it and that sells it. We take Yoda seriously despite how silly he could be because Empire isn’t winking at the audience. It’s played straight and it works so well.
  • Threepio interrupting Leia and Han will never not be funny.
  • There is a major gender imbalance in these movies, but Leia really holds her own among everyone else. She’s a strong character.
  • Unlike A New Hope, Empire focuses far more on character. We’ve got the relationship between Han and Leia and Luke’s own quest to become a Jedi. There’s no less derring-do and adventure than the first movie, but there’s a stronger focus on the character’s own internal emotional arcs.
Return of The Jedi
  • The misadventure cold open is most pronounced in Jedi where it’s in some ways it’s own episode.It’s a crazily convoluted way to get Han back in the picture, but it also serves to reestablish the relationships of the central characters. And it’s a whole lotta fun.
  • Leia getting to kill Jabba is a great moment.
  • Luke’s conflict is so much better than Anakin’s in Revenge of The Sith. Rather than the choice being a very clear Light Side or Dark Side, Luke has to choose between his father and becoming a Jedi. Neither choice is inherently wrong, but the interesting part comes in what each decision reflects: saving Vader is selfless, whereas becoming a Jedi is more self-centered. Luke’s arc in this movie is being willing to give up himself and his conflict along the way is really well done.
  • I know I shouldn’t but I do kinda really like the Ewoks. I think part of the reason is because they’re so reflective of the heart of the movies. There’s this uncynical hope to them that, even if they are people-eaters, fits into the movie well enough.
  • Fittingly, Luke’s brush with the Dark Side (when he attacks The Emperor) comes at the lowest point of the battle; the Ewoks are losing, the Rebel Fleet is being torn apart, and then Luke gives in to his anger. The protagonist’s inner arc is reflected in the larger conflict as a whole.
  • The music, man, the music. During Lando and team’s run on the Death Star it’s not this super-serious musical cue of epic-ness, rather it’s this romantic adventure theme. Star Wars doesn’t get weighed down with itself, it isn’t afraid to be a lot of fun.



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What Makes A Superhero Story?

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Dec 05 2015 · 120 views

Essays, Not Rants! 194: What Makes A Superhero Story?

Spike Lee was a guest on The Nightly Show the other day and one of the things they discussed briefly was people of color as superheroes. Lee offered up Bruce Lee as an example of an Asian superhero. Which raises an interesting question, what exactly is it that makes a superhero narrative?

Could be the narrative type. The typical superhero plot follows an outsider/everyman (so, Peter Parker, Tony Stark, Clark Kent) who has some special abilities (spider-stuff, money and brains, Krpton-ness) that is called on to use these abilities to do some heroing (save New York, save New York, save New York Metropolis). That narrative works well when you apply it to your typical Kung Fu movie. Jackie Chan’s Keung in Rumble In The Bronx is an outsider/everyman (dude from Hong Kong in New York for his uncles wedding) who has some special ability (Kung Fu) which he uses to do some heroing (save a small part of New York). So, sure, Kung Fu movies play into this superhero narrative.

But then, so does, say, Die Hard. It’s about an outsider/everyman (a New York cop in Los Angeles) who has some special abilities (not-giving-up and super-cop skills) and is called on to do some heroing (defeat Hans Gruber). And Hot Rod in which an outsider/everyman (Rod Kimble, stuntman) who has some special abilities (again, stuntman) is called on to do some heroing (do a stunt to save his step-father so he can beat him). It’s in Star Wars, it’s in Chuck. It’s, in some ways, the Hero’s Journey distilled. The obvious issue here is that it’s too broad a definition. Let’s try again.

Maybe the hero can’t do any vague heroing, but has to save the world. Superman saves Metropolis, but he also stops Lex or Zod from going on to rule more. But then, Spider-Man doesn’t protect much more than New York (if that) and Daredevil’s range of protection is a single neighborhood in Manhattan. But no one would argue that those aren’t superhero movies.

Does it have to be a villain, then? Most superhero movies have a villain who’s a dark mirror of the hero: Zod is evil Superman, Ivan Vanko is evil Tony Stark, Joker is evil/crazy Batman, Red Skull is racist/facist/Nazi Captain America. This framework rules out movies like Hot Rod (no evil stuntman) and Die Hard (no evil super-cop) and, conveniently, brings the Kung-Fu flick back in. What’s a good martial arts film without an evil martial artist for the hero to fight? But we also lose out on any Superman movies with Lex Luthor or Guardians of the Galaxy, where that foil isn’t quite at play. Many of the X-Men movies are also very much without the evil inverse of the hero beyond the Magneto/Professor X dynamic.

Maybe Spike Lee was referring to Bruce Lee in The Green Hornet, where he played the hero’s sidekick, Kato. That lets us define the superhero movie as one about people who wear masks (or disguises) to fight crime. Even though in the Marvel movies, Iron Man and Captain America aren’t secret identities, they do still wear outfits to save the world. But it breaks down with Guardians or Thor where there isn’t too much in the way of special outfits, least not more than Aragorn and Han Solo have special outfits.

If we are willing to throw Kung Fu films out the window, because at this point the interest is to just find an encompassing description of just superhero films rather than one that overlaps the two neatly, we can use the trusted it’s-based-on-a-comic thing. That gives us all of the DC and Marvel movies — good, but then we have to include Kingsman and 300 while throwing out The Incredibles. We can’t say superpowers, because then if Bruce Wayne gets to be a superhero, doesn’t Gorden Gekko get to too? Y’know, I’m almost beginning to think that the term ‘superhero story’ really doesn’t work all that well as a means for describing a movie.

Doesn't mean don't need an Asian superhero though (c'mon Marvel, make Iron Fist Asian!).


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The Surprising Elegance of Jackie Chan

Posted by Ta-metru_defender , in Essays, Not Rants! Nov 21 2015 · 179 views

Essays, Not Rants! 192: The Surprising Elegance of Jackie Chan

I’ve been on a bit of a different movie kick lately. Watched Attack The Block (finally!) before jumping into a bunch of martial arts flicks like The Raid and Armor of God. The latter prompted a dive into Jackie Chan’s filmography and that’s how I found myself watching Police Story. Which, somehow, I hadn’t seen before.

Which is a real shame. Because, dang, that’s an excellent movie. And not just in the “Good-Jackie-Chan-flick” or even just cool for an action movie. We’re talking great across the board. Yes, the action and stunts are unquestionably top notch, but the central story is quite robust and there are a couple truly exceptional scenes.

Like many a good cop movie, there’s a courtroom scene where the hero cop tries to indict the villain. What surprised me when I watched it was how surprisingly well done it is. Rather than being a scene just there for fluff, it’s a scene treated with as much craft as the rest of the movie. It’s an intense scene with as many twists and turns as an action scene. It’s good, is what I’m saying, something you almost wouldn’t expect to be in this sort of film.

The other thing that Police Story does that so many movies forgo is the use of slapstick. Emblematic of Jackie Chan’s films is slapstick — both within action scenes and in the story itself. This slapstick isn’t just physical comedy, but also fantastic visual storytelling. Take the scene where Jackie’s character, Ka Kui, takes the witness, Selina, back to his apartment. What follows is a great sequence where Selina and May, Ka Kui’s girlfriend, attempt to stay out of his sight as Ka Kui bad mouths her. It’s hilarious and it works, in no small part because there’s actually a great deal of effort and craft put into it. The camerawork is used to hide things for solid reveals and the characters’ blocking move them around, just keeping them missing each other.

But the best part of Police Story is how all of this works together, particularly within Ka Kui’s character. It’s not terribly easy to get a proper read on him, insofar as it’s hard to pigeonhole him into a Typical Protagonist Archetype. He’s not quite the renegade cop or the one good police officer or even the bumbling incompetent sort. Ka Kui is a good, honorable officer, but he’s also not above being a bit of a jerk. But even more noteworthy, the movie balances him being a slapstick character while also letting him be dramatic. He’s not just the comic relief character, he also gets heavy beats. The court scene is a big moment for Ka Kui, an early chance for him to prove himself to the audience. At that point in the film we’re able to take him seriously enough for it to have enough drama, but its ending on a comedic beat doesn’t feel out of place. Yes, it’s a blow to him and his goal, but it doesn’t diminish him as a character. It’s effective because Police Story’s world is one that allows for both deep drama and broad comedy.

It’s an unusual tone not really seen in Western films, where the hero can be the butt of slapstick jokes but still be, well, the hero. Maybe it’s partially born out of a familiarity with the sort of stuff Jackie Chan makes, but it may also be a willingness to think a little differently about storytelling. At the end of the day, I’m honestly not sure. I grew up with all sorts of movies from all over the place, but never realized how well done some of them were — like Police Story. In any case, I’ve a bunch more Jackie Chan flicks on my to-watch list.






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josh

twenty-four


grew up on a ship


studies Storytelling

at New York University


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

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