Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The highlights of Character Assassination

In an entry a few months ago, I left a small footnote to a podcast featuring a great interview between film reviewers Bobby Maddox and Barbara Nicolosi. As its transcript has finally been posted online, I had a chance to peruse it again today, and I'm just so impressed with it that I have to put up a full and prominent link here:

Character Assassination: How Hollywood Kills Off the Movie Hero

Her thesis shouldn't be anything new to someone who has heard me talk for more than 5 minutes on the good of storytelling.

Here are a few of the best quotes I'd like to highlight.

we need extraordinary heroes in our stories and plays so that we can be good to the guy next door. A super individual shames us into good behavior in real life.

Today, there is a tremendous cynicism about the capacity of the individual to impact the broader world, and the truth is that you probably can’t make that big of a difference. But storytelling has always been the terrain where someone could.

What I have noticed in the Millennials—the people who are coming of age in this new millennium—is a sadness about the possibility of heroism. This sadness comes from their lack of discipline.

That pretty much captures it. But, in the words of LaVar, you don't have to take my word for it...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Firefly, Farscape, and Fellowship: Or, We All Live in a Yellow Submarine

I've recently found myself spending a lot of time thinking about and defending television as a medium of literature; or in my chosen vocabulary, as "story." I put this out there because I get the impression that a lot of people think TV is just mindless entertainment. They are correct in saying television programming has a lot of mindless entertainment on it (Game shows, sit-coms, celebrity gossip channels...), and you can even say people mis-use it for mindless entertainment, but that would be far from the entire truth of the situation.

The fact is, there are a lot of shows out there which are incredibly powerful mediums of exploring all the realms that good art and storytelling can touch. I think the most notoriously misunderstood genre out there is the Sci-Fi/Fantasy series. Because people are often either affronted or embarrassed by the "childlike" and "otherness" of the settings these shows take place in, they miss some seriously good writing. (C.f. for more on defending fantasy from the "mature adults" read JRR Tolkien's "On Fairie Stories")

That all said as introduction, I'd like to talk about my favorite kind of Sci-Fi show and what they're actually doing.

The basic ingredients are easy, you simply take
-one small group of misfits, outcasts, and colorful characters
-one vehicle
-a serious wanderlust
-a common goal, or badguy.

Mix well and you get the trope commonly referred to as "Walking the Earth." The variant possibilities of this set up are almost endless, you have the Drifter, the Flying Dutchman, the Knight Errant, etc.

Put it in space and you get "Tripping the Universe." Some of the best Sci-Fi shows have followed this pattern. The two best examples I can think of and enjoy are Firefly (probably the second most popular sci-fi show of the decade, second to Battlestar Galactica) and Farscape (possibly the weirdest of the previous decade, unless you count Babylon 5...)

Now, how does all this apply to us? Well, it's all in the story-telling. See, the biggest merit of this trope is that it cuts everything down to character development. When you stick a bunch of characters in a small ship together within a common journey, and you get the best possible vehicle for exploring themes of identity, belonging, and community. And these questions apply to us all the time. When you travel, it's all about who you're travel with.

Think about how often we use the "Journey" metaphor for our own lives. Christian eschatological discourse is full of it. St. Paul in the Bible as well as 1st/2nd century Christian writers constantly use language about being sojourners in search of our homeland.

Take it even one step further into our practical world. Ever been on a road-trip? Think about how formative they are. I've had the privilege and blessing to travel to Europe with friends on a few occasions now, and I can tell you from personal experience nothing makes you think more about the quality of your friendships, about personal loyalty, and questions of belonging than wandering in a strange land. Even on the most "superficial" level, when I'm giving rides back and forth to church, I'm think a lot about those I'm taking with me.

So maybe take a step back into the Sci-Fi again. What's the point of watching it? Partly, it's resonance. As in all stories, we want to see ourselves. And we're all on a journey of one kind or another. But in a larger context, it's the same as any story, we look to the hero. When all the details are simplified to a crisis on a space ship with a crew, what choices does he make?

I'm reminded once again of the dramatic philosophy of Aristotle, who said we as a society need heroes. We watch them, as they are just a little higher-up than we are, a little more Romanticized... and by seeing them do great things, we are encouraged to at least accomplish the merely good.

We're left to ask, are you just a selfish loner, or are you part of a crew? Would you do the heroic thing and not leave your crew-member behind in the face of danger, or will you just fly away? What's the next adventure on the horizon?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Some best of

Vimeo, which is on my links on the side, is just an absolute gem of a web site. It is full of these videos which are just so wonderful. Now, you have to sort through some of the odd gothy animated stuff, or the cinematographic calligraphy essays... but I've found a good handful of really beautiful stories on there.

With my last post which very briefly scratched the surface of stories that just are, I thought I'd leave a few highlights of my favorites to express it a little better than my poor words.

World Builder from BranitVFX on Vimeo.

Charlotte's Red from Colin McIvor on Vimeo.

My Favourite Things from kidswithcrayons on Vimeo.

Cart - The Film from Jesse Rosten on Vimeo.

On Knowing it when you see it

There are stories, and then there are good stories. While it sure sounds obvious, sometimes I really think it's worth reasserting every once and a while.

And the real thing about it is that so often the best stories are the hardest to describe. OK, Transformers the movie. I loved it. Thought it was exciting, heroic and generally just an all-round good time to watch. I'd call it a good movie without reservation. But in comparison, this weekend I stumbled upon a free DVD at a yard-sale that is in a completely different class entirely. It's called The Snowalker.

That was a good story.

I could go on about the beautiful scenery shots, or the character development, or other technical aspects, but none of that would come close to explaining (really) why it was so good. Especially since doing so would point out all the ways it fell short of the popular standards of today's movies. This film would not make it in theaters today, which I think is a shame, because it still hit me like a brick wall. It's one of those stories where its genuineness and power are self-evident. And that's the trait I want to center in on for a just a few minutes of musing.

In the realm of art appreciation, there are two alternating schools. One is utilitarian and technical. You can see the craftsmanship of the brushwork, you can highlight how a story promotes awareness of a social cause, or you can champion the "Mozart Effect" of playing classical music to kids. These are all true and worthwhile things. And they're very useful in convincing the School Board or Principle in keeping your program when budgets are tight. But really, I've always held the opinion that these really miss the point when you get right down to it.

The other school is existential, often called the "Art for Art's Sake" movement. It basically says "there is beauty, why would you not want to promote it?" I think that comes much closer to the real essence of why we artistic types do what we do, why we seem to always be dreaming, and kinda burn inside. There's just something ineffable that is evident all over our world. It exists in the trees and the sunsets, on beaches and in people's eyes. It's captured in stories, on canvases, and in music.

And you simply can't describe it. Not really. And in that frame of mind, I think it's safe to say you can't explain it either. Nor should you. It's just there. And you know it when you see it.

It's my humble opinion that there are a lot of things in life like that. And that we should foster a sensitivity to them as much as we possibly can.