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Category Archives: Craft of Writing

Ethnocentricity and Gender Violence: Where Sense8 Failed

I was quite upset last year when I found out there would be no more new episodes of Sense8, especially when the last episode ended on such a kickass moment. But a year on, I realized an issue with the show that I hadn’t noticed when actually watching the show. There were glaring issues that were present in my mind as I watched the show. But this one that I’ve more recently thought of is quite possibly the biggest issue in the crafting of the show. And that is the issue of the whitewashing of Kala’s experience in India to be basically the same as any privileged American woman. Spoilers below.

The Characters

Some characters had very personal issues while others had issues that dealt with major national and global issues. Sun, who lived in South Korea, had to deal with the fact that no matter how good or capable she was in her life, she was often seen as inadequate based on her sex alone, and her brother could be the worst person imaginable and still be considered better than her. We see this in her decision to sacrifice herself to the law to hide her brother’s embezzlement of the family’s company funds. We also see this in the fact that to compete in her favored martial art, she had to do so under an assumed name and eventually quit competing altogether. Nomi was a trans woman, who had to face her family’s rejection and even the rejection of other women of her identity. Her mother continually dead named her whenever her family deigned to contact her. And some feminists saw Nomi as a man trying to take more from women. Riley’s issues were much more personal. She had to deal with the underbelly of club life, but most of all, she had to deal with her grief over losing her husband and child. Wolfgang had to deal with the gang life of Berlin, trying desperately to both stay alive in a dangerous world and carve out a place for himself in it. Lito, living the predominantly Catholic and highly toxic masculinity soaked Mexico, had to hide who he was from the world in order to continue the career he loved. This was definitely the most turmoil filled of the character issues. Capheus had to deal with the difficult task of getting his mother AIDS medication and surviving the very dangerous violence of poverty-stricken Kenya and possibly corrupt government. Will, a Chicago cop, had to deal with the very adversarial nature of policing an area that hated the police and divisive community that both wanted help and was suspect of it. Kala was asked to marry the son of an affluent man who owned the company she worked for and deal with meshing her religious family with his non-religious family.

Some of these storylines grew and development or were dropped entirely by the end of season two. Eventually, Sun just worked to murder her brother, Nomi spent most of her time in hiding from the law but also developed a better relationship with her sister, Riley had a pivotal moment wherein she had to at least stop suppressing her memories of her deceased family but then simply spent season two helping Will, Wolfgang continued to try to find himself a place in the organized crime of Berlin, Lito was outed and his Mexican film career was ruined but his career was opening up in the US after giving an amazing speech at a Pride parade, Capheus was pushed to run for a political position to help his community with integrity, Will developed a heroin addiction but also spearheaded the fight against the shady organization after them, and Kala married her wealthy paramour and found out that many of their poorly produced meds went to the areas that needed them the most, such as Kenya.

Gender Inequality and Violence in India

Back in college, I took a course in Global Women’s Issues which covered problems that women faced the world over. For example, FGM in Africa or Bride Burnings in India. If like me, you’ve paid attention to the gender violence that goes on in India, you would notice that it hasn’t slowed down much. First off, women are not highly valued in their infancy but many communities in the country cannot afford numerous children. As such, there aren’t currently many women in India. Counter to most statistics elsewhere, men outnumber women in India. Recently, the NYT covered this subject, but the number of women there is trending upward. But not only are women outnumbered by men, but due to the lack of plumbing infrastructure, there are many public bathrooms throughout major city centers that require people to pay for their use when defecating. Last I read, men’s bathrooms far outnumbered women’s bathrooms beyond the male to female ratio, and since it is hard for a woman to prove whether or not she had only urinated without a major invasion of her privacy, going to the bathroom costs women money more often than men. These two things seem minor, however, in comparison to the violence perpetrated against women in India.

First of all, I had previously mentioned Bride Burnings which involve the killing of a young woman recently married for either her family not paying a dowry, not paying enough or more in the dowry, or when the husband dies and the husband’s family does not wish to pay or care for the young bride. These women are not killed and then their bodies burned. They are burned alive. Unfortunately, the India government, mostly local courts, has turned a blind eye to most of these murders, with a conviction rate of only 33% in 2008.

More commonly, rape is a very prevalent crime in India, despite the idea that it has one of the lowest rates of rape of all countries. This is because rape is not often reported in India. One of the most known incidents was the rape and murder of a student on public transport back in 2012 in Delhi. A male friend of hers was badly beaten during the incident and all six other men, including the bus driver, raped her. She was also violated with a metal rod, severally damaging her internal organs, leading to her eventual death. After this, the public outcry against this kind of extreme gender violence broke out into protests, the demands of which included better safety for women in India. Fortunately, the court did convict the rapists of multiple charges, including rape and murder. All levels of the Indian government got  involved, including the parliament. But this didn’t change too much, as not even a year later, another student was gang-raped. But the men who raped this woman in 2013 got the death sentence, so the government was trying to make rape less and less appealing to gangs. But even as recently as this January, an eight year old was raped and murdered by eight men including two political party members. There have even been reports of mass rapes, which included children and elderly women. The anger over all this gender violence once came to a head in 2004 when a crowd of about 200 women lynched a rapist who called one of his victims a prostitute. The women had stated that he had been bribing the local authorities to prevent arrest or prosecution.

In cultures where women are not valued as equals to men, rape tends to be pretty common. Rape has a much worse impact on women and communities where women are not valued as equals, because a woman’s body and virginity are the way by which the majority of the society values them and how they are able to create livelihoods, not as prostitues but as wives. Rape damages their worth in the society and lowers the number of women considered viable for marriage even when the overall number of women is already too low. One would think that the act of rape would result in the worst possible punishment in communities that bases women’s values on their bodies’ worth as wives and mothers, and while India, the nation, is trying very hard to fight against rape, local governments are fighting against the tide to punish rapists to the maximum limit. The tide is shown below. It shows absolutely and without a doubt what rape culture looks like when it runs amok.

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The American Gaze

The average American has no idea about any of those issues in India. Feminists tend to know about it, and some other people have a general vague idea about these problems. But American news tends to focus nearly entirely on the United States. A person typically really has to dig to find out what’s going on in other countries. It’s not because interest in other nations went down. It’s that a wider American audience was wanted for the news so more US stories tended to get a wider view. So when most Americans hear about another nation, they tend to put an American cultural context on it. And the American cultural context is almost impossible to untangle from slavery, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement. The United States literally sees most things in Black and White, even though those aren’t the only races in the US, let alone the world. Sometimes jokes that are meant to be about regions are seen as racist against Black people. One great example of this is the Brittish conductor’s firing from an American music festival for making a joke to his long-time friend from the South about his possibly wanting grits. This friend happened to be Black. A White woman overheard the joke, which was long-running between the two who traded barbs on a regular basis about what the other one culturally was more likely to consume, assumed it was about his Blackness, then reported it. The music festival never once asked the person who was supposedly subjected to this so-called racism what he thought about it. Their administration made a unilateral decision and fired the conductor. This is far from an acceptable way of handling an accusation of racism. If one simply ignores the cultural differences between Americans and Brittains, but just looks at the fact they didn’t ask the Black person if it was racist, but decided for him that it was, that can be considered racist to the extreme. But the fact that the conductor was Brittish is important. We hardly acknowledge that other countries and cultures have a different and unique history with Black people, let alone consider the interplay between other races. We often don’t pay attention to those issues that affect other minority groups in other countries. We don’t hear about them either, because the US media focuses almost all its minority attention on how Black and White people interact in the US only. As such, the average American tends to apply this filter to all issues in all countries without knowledge or context. You can see such reactions to the attempt to protect women on transport through segregation below. I’m not sure if this will actually help, especially considering the aforementioned victim who died was also raped by the bus driver, but I understand that they are trying something.

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I appreciated the fact that more informed tumblrs were willing to share their information. But since we don’t know the sex of anyone on tumblr, we can’t say for certain that those who brought up segregation were all male nor that all of those who were informed were female. It’s surprising who is and is not informed of other nations’ issues and violence against women. To me, the funnist and most ethnocentric comment is that it reminds them of something “everyone” has learned in school. Do people truly believe that all the intricacies of US history is taught in all other countries in the world? Because that’s just ignorant.

Sense8’s Failing

My real issue with Sense8 in connection to all the above problems is that Kala’s story is whitewashed. It’s about a woman feeling pressured to marry an affluent man (something that still happens in the US) while she’s in love with another man (another thing that happens in the US) and dealing with a pharmaceutical company’s unethical practices (definitely happens in the US). We get a glorified love triangle. To not even mention the very real physical dangers that women in India face, when the show seemed to pride itself on showing the issues facing people of specific demographics around the world, is an unforgivable oversight. And if it was a conscious decision to do so, then the show wasn’t nearly as progressive as it liked to appear. We need more awareness of these issues in India, not to have them glossed over in a TV show that could have exposed a global audience to the gender violence in India.

Maybe they were planning this in another season, but the show was cancelled and I don’t believe that they were planning it, because it’s not even in the background. Kala behaves as if rape isn’t a possibility in her life, going to public places alone and without some kind of defensive device all the time. Even most of her clothes are very Western by comparison to what some of the women in India wear on a day to day basis. I just can’t help but think that this is a great disservice to the women of India. I’m not saying Kala needed to be raped on the show. I’m saying that it should at least have been a topic and fear that she had to deal with on daily basis. Instead, her experience and story feels very Western, and while Western women still worry about rape and rape culture still exists in Western societies, the degree to which Indian women must deal with both is in a much greater extreme. This needed to be shown. Realizing how much this subject was ignored in the show in favor of a love triangle really bothers me and I will most likely not watch the show again, as I have other cancelled or completed shows, because it is just plain bad writing, which is sad considering that Jessica Jones deals with rape in such a poignant fashion.

But What Do You Think?

Were there any other topics that you felt this show ignored that were ripe for showcasing? Were there other shows that ignored a major issue in a culture? Do think it’s purposeful or an accident? I’m interested in what you have to say on the subject.

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I’m Not a Female Writer; I’m a Writer

I remember once during my grad school time, I took a class on creative writing theory. One essay we read was by Langston Hughes, and in it he said that the young black writer who doesn’t want to identify himself as a black writer is wrong. Of course, discussion followed. I was against this idea. My professor hit the nail on the head when he asked me if I want to be identified as a “female writer”. I gave a very quick and very loud, No! in return. I’ll explain why this is so important to me.

To Be Identified Is To Be Qualified

We don’t say that Stephen King is a white writer or a male writer. We say he is a writer. Some may say he is a horror writer, and that is a qualifier of a different sort, but with all the minimization that the genetic qualifiers are used with. Identity social protest and politics are very in right now. I’ve never been behind them, and I’m not behind them in art either. When our identity is put before everything else, it pigeonholds us. It’s a qualifier. “Miceli is a female writer” vs “Miceli is a writer”. It’s clear to me that one of these implies that as a writer, I’m not on equal footing with others. It implies “less than”, a niche, a special case. We get the same thing with athletes and scientists. It’s not necessary to say a person is a woman. Let other people figure it out on their own.

To say that Stephen King is a male writer is to suggest that we can’t expect good women from him. But his first novel blows that theory out of the water. To say that he is a white writer is to suggest that we can’t expect him to understand the issues that ethnic minorities face. That’s also disproven. To say that I’m a female writer is to suggest that you can’t expect good male characters from me. Empathy is supposed to bridge these gaps. It is a writer’s greatest tool and we can stop qualifying people at any point.

The Womanly Effect on Writing

Well, being a woman has an effect on my writing in the same way that being a man effects a male writer: minimally, if you wield empathy correctly and well. I have no control over the sex I was born with, nor even with the sex I identify with; however, I’m a strange person. I don’t get along with most women. We often have less to talk about. I don’t wear makeup, and I get haircuts every two years. I hate fussing with my appearance and don’t like kids. This is basically the opposite of most women I know. I do identify myself as a woman, but about as much as I identify myself as a human being. All of us are human beings, and a little more than half of us are physically female. It’s what I am. It’s not who I am. I have other things that I feel make up who I am a little stronger than those two things. Those are foundation, not home.

I have a learning disability. It made me incredibly different those around me. It made learning how to read and write so much harder. Yet all the rewards were so much sweeter. I am an atheist, not by choice (it’d be easier in this world to believe and I tried), when everyone around me was devout. I had to discover Christianity and discover that I didn’t believe in it, nor anything else resembling creation, the divine, or an afterlife. I more recently discovered that I suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and had to learn how to deal with that. These things more greatly explain the kind of person I am and explain the kind of writer I am a lot better than simply being a woman. Being a childfree woman has more of an effect than just being a woman.

Being a woman is so simply a part of me that it is hard for me to focus on it. Just as I imagine being a man is hard for men to focus on. I think only people who want to simplify themselves focus on their genetic differences. It’s easier to feel like you’re part of it all when you can pick out others who look like you and feel the same things you do. But I identify with no one and everyone, because everyone feels differently and feels the same. I think that’s what writing and art is supposed to show us, which is why what the writer is doesn’t matter, just what they write.

Proud to Be a Woman and My Name?

First of all, my name is Alex. It is not Alexis, Alexandrea, Alexa, or Alexandra. My first name really is just Alex. Yes, people have thought that I was male before meeting me on occasion. This doesn’t usually bother me too much. I am not proud of what I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t accomplish being a woman. That doesn’t mean anything. I didn’t control it. Genetic chance doesn’t seem like something I should be proud of. I’m proud of the things I do. I’m also not ashamed of things out of my control, like genetic chance. It doesn’t make any sense to me to be so. I feel like pride and shame should be wrapped up in actions, not chance. So I’m proud of this blog, my Patreon, my published play, the awards I’ve won, the stories and poems I’ve written, the actions I’ve taken to help others.

I Am Woman; Hear Me Roar?

I care about women’s issues. I  also care about men’s issues. I care about poverty issues. I care about animal cruelty. I care about messed up beaucracity. I care about everything that feels like it is hurting another living creature. Some are higher on the list of emotional response, such as women’s access to sterilization in the US and animal cruelty or the treating of animals as property. I don’t necessarily let these things guide my writing however. Instead, I let my writing guide itself. Will it be effected by these things? Of course, they are all in my head, and what’s in my head invariably comes out in my creations. I don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write about animal cruelty”, unless I’m writing here in this blog or for a paper. In my creative work, I’m writing from an image or a character first, not an ideal or an injustice. Let the work be interpreted as audiences are wont to do. I know I interpret work I experience.

I’m Simply a Writer

The end goal of equality should be to be seen no different than someone who is different. Of course, that doesn’t apply when I go to the doctor, except that the doctor should still see me as someone who is smart enough to make decisions about my body. Overall, though, I am simply a writer. This is who I am above all things. I’m reading about Jonathan Swift right now, and I keep having some eerie feelings while doing so, because his attitude is so much like mine (Everybody can fuck off, but I worry that you’re being treated like shit). He lived centuries ago, in a different country, and with a different set of sex organs, but I keep getting the idea that I would have loved this man and also never hung out with him, just as I never hang out with anyone. I don’t like people when they are in front of me, but I certainly care about them. This seems to be something a lot of other people feel, and it doesn’t seem to be effected by gender. It’s an example of how characteristics transcend obvious genetic differences. They can also transcend cultures and times. We can all find something that connects us to someone else. Anyone else. We can all empathize, if we try, with everyone in the world. And that effects my writing more than my sex.

 

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Rules, Rules, Rules Were Meant to Be Broken

I’ve got a formal education in creative writing. That means I was given techniques, criterion, and rules by which to write. This included how to form beautiful and interesting yet clear sentences, character development, story arc, setting description, and a boatload of things not to do. Don’t say it was all a dream. Don’t kill the main character off at the end of the story. Don’t write in baroque style. Don’t write about violence or death. Now it was okay to break grammar rules as long as it was done on purpose, but the majority of the rules were about what you could write and these always grated with me. So I’ll explain why at a certain point a writer needs to start trusting their instincts and break any rule they’ve been told should never be done.

The Red Cape

Now, throughout all of my educational career when a teacher would tell me I couldn’t write something, I basically said “Well, screw that. I’m gonna write it.” I was like a bull and their rule was a red cape flying in my face. Don’t say it was all a dream? Allow me to present a short story wherein the realist moments only happen in dreams and the most surreal moments happen when awake. Don’t kill off the main character at the end? Allow me to present a novel wherein each chapter is close limited third about a different character wherein they die at the end. Don’t write purple prose? Allow me to present stories with poetic and baroque style. Don’t write about violence, suicide, or the so-called dregs of society? Allow me to present a story about a former child prostitute dying of AIDS. Don’t write genre fiction? Allow me to present a novel about a woman who lives forever, a short story about a woman who flies, a graphic novel about two supernatural beings/superheroes, a romance novel, and so on. Don’t show sex? Ho, ho, ho! Telling me I can’t do something as a writer is the surest way to make me do it to try to prove you wrong. My teachers often let me get away with it because what I gave them didn’t lack in technique or criteria of writing. It was my point to do the best at it I could, so as to show that these rules weren’t hard and fast. They didn’t prevent the work from being good. Maybe it meant a writer had to work harder at it, but I don’t think so.

Realism vs Magic Realism

“It was all a dream” is possibly the most cliche sentence in the English language, so yes, it is probably best to avoid this sentence in writing. That doesn’t mean, however, that writing dream sequences or whole narratives in dream is a bad thing. Watch Waking Life if you don’t believe me. There is always a way to go about this, and it usually involves the use of Magic Realist techniques. Treating dreams as reality only makes sense. We dream. It is a subject we should write about. Realism, to me, often means dry writing. Writing without spark or real interest, usually because it is combined with other rules, such as a lack of dark subjects, poetic language, or unrealistic elements of any kind. This is what all of my teachers wanted us to write; as such, there were a lot of stories about characters going to a funeral, planning a funeral, the journey to see a family member die, a marriage that wasn’t quite working out. Most of these never showed death and the characters when faced with making hard decisions often chose stasis over change for the better. That’s all very real. Most people are like that. But they started to blend together for me. The stories that stick out from those classes were the stories that weren’t very real such as the couple who had an octopus for a baby. The reality of realism fiction is that we’ve read basically all of those stories and they have to be done so well as to stick out that our minds are blown away. Dream sequences, houses that are spiteful, the finding of a baby hand in the living room, the questioning of what is real and what isn’t are new ways to tell the same ideas. Is it a hook? Of course it is, but at least it is entertaining as well as interesting.

Chekhov and the Dead Character

At one point, one of my teachers brought up an essay by a writer wherein every time she gave a rule to her students, she would then read a Chekhov story that broke that rule. If you don’t know this one, it is called “Learning from Chekhov” and it’s by Francine Prose. Now according to everyone who knows anything about literature, Chekhov is a giant of writing. Apparently. Once when writing my novel about the girls who all kill themselves (called When the Lights Flicker Out), said same teacher tried to tell me I couldn’t kill off the characters at the end. I rebutted, Chekhov did it, and she said something along the lines of I’m not Chekhov. Now this feels like a backhanded compliment meant to be a put down. I am not a fan of Chekhov’s writing. I’ve never felt he was very good. The subtext everyone claims is there feels like major digging to me and he has characters do exposition dumps in his plays. So to me, not being Chekhov is a good thing. I’m smart enough to know, however, that said teacher thought of Chekhov as not just a good writer, but a great writer. Yeah, I’m not Chekhov. I’m good with that. I’m Alex Miceli. I write the stories Alex Miceli would write, not the stories Anton Chekhov would write. Creative writing is completely subjective. I wouldn’t try to ape even a writer I did like. But the idea behind the statement that “You’re not Chekhov” isn’t that you’ll write like Chekhov; it’s that you aren’t as good as Chekhov or that you haven’t earned the right to do what Chekhov has done. Well, you and every other writer won’t be better unless you try and you aren’t trying much if you aren’t pushing yourself to do hard things. Basically, you can’t know if you’re good enough to have your character die at the end until you try and then try harder.

Sensationalism/Sentimentalism vs Dark Subjects

I understand why sometimes teachers want their writing students to shy away from dark subjects such a violence, rape, murder, suicide, and other nasty business, which is all a part of life too. A good amount of writers can’t do justice to those subjects and it comes from an inability to prevent their prose from becoming sensationalist or sentimental. Neither of which is good writing. However, that doesn’t mean these subjects can’t be written about without becoming sensationalist or sentimental and can even be written with some dignity and gentleness. It’s harder, obviously, but it also doesn’t mean that again writers shouldn’t try and try harder to write about these subjects. Part of the problem, though, is that sometimes critics and teachers associate these subjects so much with bad writing that they don’t judge the piece in front of them but their past experiences with the bad writing. They also may find these subjects just too uncomfortable to read about. That’s fine, but they should acknowledge that sensation and separate it from their thoughts on the work critically. Art that makes a person uncomfortable because it forces them to face the worst parts of life is a good thing. Art shouldn’t shy away from these subjects but, yes, they must be treated delicately, which means with prose that doesn’t make it a sideshow freak or a tearjerker.

Purple Prose vs Baroque/Poetic Style

Purple Prose is hard to describe. Examples of it can be pointed out easily, such as much of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the best way I have to explain it is to say that emphasis is overstated and adjectives and adverbs are overused. It is not the same as using a very baroque or poetic prose style. Baroque almost edges into purple but skates back from that edge instead of tipping over it. Most likely because while descriptive words are heavily uses, the emphasis is not overstated. Poetic style is similar but more closely follows the techniques of poetry than of prose. Figurative language is heavily used and sound is a factor in the configuring of sentences. While figurative language is often used in prose, the focus on sound is not typical. I prefer the language in my fiction to be more baroque or poetic because it helps create tone in the work without being overt. Purple prose is at odds with that in that it is overt. The tone is stated instead of created. While poetic style and baroque language can both use a lot of adjectives and adverbs that does not make them purple. The idea that a lot of either of these sentence parts is automatically bad is not correct. Description is important but style effects the sensation it creates in the reader. Mostly a writer needs to back off from telling the reader how to feel.

The Merit of the Genre Fictions

Early in my writing education, a teacher said that a writer, much like a woman, couldn’t be a wife and whore at the same time. Putting aside the very erroneous idea that matrimonial love and exclusivity are one in the same, I’ve already written my disagreements on this subject. The idea that all of the work that has ever existed in genre fiction is without merit simply by being genre fiction always puts me off. It is a kind of prejudice. I don’t believe that any medium can be judged by the sub-type it happens to be. This includes music, film, TV, and poetry in addition to fiction. I won’t say all rap is bad simply because it is rap. I won’t say all horror movies are bad simply because they are horror movies. A person is allowed to not like a specific genre. But a personal preference is not the same as prejudging all of the content of the genre as being without merit as an artistic endeavor. We still have things to learn from genre work. We can still discover ideas and amazement in genre work. Of any medium. Stephen King, who for the longest time was simply considered a horror fiction writer, is now being taught in classrooms as a technically adapt and thematically interesting writer. Does that mean that all his work is worthwhile? Of course not, he writes two thousand words a day. No one keeps up that much momentum without having bad days. But Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is taught in classrooms and has been for years, but for being published in serial, it suffers from serious structurual issues and could have done with several more edits. And until the middle of writing that book, he was a genre writer, focusing solely on adventure novels. A bit of these genre roots can be seen in his epic novel, but his best work is actually the short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener“, which showed that he had the ability to write beautiful and thought-provoking narratives that weren’t long-winded or structurally unsound. Melville could have been pigeonholed because of his past genre work, but we didn’t do that to him, and no writer or work of fiction should be prejudged based who wrote it or to what genre it may belong. Writers are not in stasis and neither are their skills. They may surprise you.

When Can You Break the “Rules”?

I understand the idea that when first learning writers should focus on structure, technique, character development, the well crafted sentence, and so on, instead of trying the harder stuff. However, I believe critics and teachers should trust writers’ instincts more as well. Perhaps they have already mastered those things and are ready for the harder stuff. Perhaps forcing them to write content they don’t care about will make their craft suffer. As Flannery O’Connor said the writer will write the kind of stories they want to read. A person has to care about what they are working on to give it their all. She and I may have been very different in our beliefs and styles, but I’ve never agreed with another writer more. I certainly believe that grad students should be encouraged to break the rules and experiment. That is definitely the time in which the student has proven that they are capable at their craft and need to be challenged. It is better that they face challenges in their work with some guidance, instead of waiting until they are out from under the thumb of academics. And if a writer decides to strike out on their own without any academic guidance, then more than ever they need to trust their instincts. All that being said, every writer, no matter what level of skill or education, has to trust in the work to guide them to the proper places and ignore rules if the work requires them to be broken.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2018 in Craft of Writing

 

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A Sensation in Horror: The Saw Movies and the MDQ

 

 

A couple of years ago, I watched all of the Saw movies in a row. I recently redid it when they all became available on Amazon Prime because they tend to stick in my head. It’s not the gore that gets me. It’s the writing. I believe there was a reason these movies were some of the most financially successful horror movies of all time, and I believe that the reason is the writing. Spoilers for the Saw films and, strangely, Speed. I talk about the most recent one, but don’t spoil it. Before you read this, I highly suggest you watch all of the original seven. And Speed. That’s a good movie if you can look past that archaic title card. You can skip to the bottom of the Saw sections to see my ratings for each; however, I spoil previous movies in talking about next movies, so hopping around is not suggested.

The MDQ

My first semester of college I took a writing class wherein I was introduced to the Major Dramatic Question by a playwright by the name of Evan Smith using a movie I knew quite well: Speed. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen that movie, but the answer is surely more than seems necessary for an action romance movie. Before I get into the MDQ, let me just say, that the stunts of that movie are some of the best and most ballsy ever done. Especially for the time, considering it would have been unimaginable to have your lead actually on a mechanic creeper under a moving freaking bus (Reeves was always dedicated and crazy) or to actually jump a bus with a stunt driver inside it across a gap. Insane. And awesome. Totally unsafe. Back to the class: Smith asked us what the climax of the movie was. Most people don’t know the movie as well as I do to remember the subway train after the bus. But after the bad guy has been defeated, there’s still more movie. Jack (Reeves) can’t get Annie (Bullock) free and can’t stop the train, which means she’s probably going to die. Once that pesky business is out of the way, the movie ends with Jack and Annie kissing and a sense of completion in the audience. Because the major dramatic question of Speed is “Will the guy and girl get together?” Answer: Yes, until the sequel and Reeves is too expensive to hire again or something.

A major dramatic question is usually presented pretty early on, in the first act. Character-focused movies can have one per major character, usually best for ensemble casts, but a movie without one is very blasé. It’s a movie most people walk away from without ever wanting to watch the movie again, without being able to remember the movie very well, and without a feeling of satisfaction. Due to rewrites, poor writing, changing directorial hands, and studio interference, some movies make it to audiences without this question. I’d say that blockbusters require these more than any other film. Indie films are actually allowed to get away from the MDQ because they are sometimes instead character studies. Movies that focus on a twist can sometimes get away from this if the twist is well set up (see The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable for the best examples and none of the rest of Shyamalan’s movies–including the much enjoyable but nominally twistless Split). Most movies though need to use an MDQ and answer it to be successfully entertaining. A lot of viewers get bored without one, but for established franchises, ala Star Wars and Star Trek, people are willing to give them a pass because they are fans. I’m usually willing to give Star Trek a pass, except for the new ones, but First Contact did have an MDQ focused on Picard (Can he overcome the violation the Borg perpetrated upon him? Think about it: the movie starts with a Borg-based nightmare he’s having). Typically though I won’t watch a movie again without an MDQ because it isn’t satisfying. It’s like if you took three bites of your meal and then your waiter just whisked it away from you. It’s just unfulfilling. The number one reason I believe I enjoy the Saw movies is the fact that the majority of them have an MDQ.

Saw

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t watch any of these in the movie theater. I wasn’t interested. One month a couple of years ago, the first four were available on Netflix, so I decided to watch them. Wild hair and all that. I very much enjoyed the first one. It has a rawness to it the rest don’t have mostly because it comes from new faces in Hollywood, James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who happened to be given free reign and a new studio to work with, Twisted Pictures. The two were fresh out of film school and had an idea, and they even filmed a bit of it to show to studios. Their idea was picked up, but they were given very little budget. This is pretty obvious in the movie, especially when compared to the others. I’m sure a lot of the budget went to hiring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, and Dina Meyer, but even with what little they had they did a fantastic job, using CCTV footage to round out the movie and having Whannell step in for one of the parts and some shots of other characters to make sure they got everything. The rawness of this movie reminds me a great deal of The Evil Dead (the original, not that run-of-the-mill remake). Wan moved quickly when filming, managing to get all of Shawnee Smith’s scenes done in a day, while she had a fever. The bathroom scenes were filmed sequentially, which is virtually unheard of, but lends a realness to those scenes, as the griminess of their clothes and skin increase true to life the longer they are in there. Is it the best movie I’ve ever seen? No. It is one of the best horror movies I’ve ever seen. Is the acting amazing? No. Elwes is often fighting to act through using an American accent and Whannell is unrefined. But they both do an amazing job during the dramatic climax, which is what matters most.

That scene is amazing and answers the MDQ of the movie: How far will Dr. Gordon go to save his family? Answer: Pretty freaking far! One of the reasons that scene is so good is that most of the sawing is not shown. Instead we see the start of it and then most of the shots are of the two characters’ faces as it happens. The horror and pain on their faces are enough to make the audience cringe. This is also the most graphic thing to happen in the movie. The other movies are very much torture porn but the first one is not. I also believe that it brings up a very good point. In previous games shown in the movie, the victim is only fighting to save their own life. In the main game of the first movie, he is fighting to save that of his family. Most of the previous victims were not able to save themselves, but Dr. Gordon wasn’t fighting to save himself. And while he wasn’t able to do it by the due time, he was still more successful than most of the other victims. There is an emphasis on mind games and traps in the other movies, but in the first one, Dr. Gordan and Adam must solve puzzles and riddles, not work their way out of elaborate traps. Jigsaw is still playing mind games in this one, partially by being in the room the whole time, but the mind games are rarely focused on the actual victims of his games in the later ones and instead are focused on the police as a whole and on his disciples. So it seems obvious that while the first one and a few that follow involve writing by Whannell, it is also obvious that this first movie is different, partly due to its budget constraints (notice the fact that there are almost no exterior shots) and partly due to its freshness which comes with some sophomoric qualities but produces a movie well worth watching. My score is 7/10, IMBD has a 7.7, and the Metascore is a failing 46. On an estimated budget of $1.2 million, it made $103.9 million, giving it a return rate of 8558%.

Saw II

This movie was actually written by someone not connected to the first one and then the studio thought it would make a good sequel. I’m not usually a fan of this way of making movies, as I mentioned in my adaptations post in relation to Bug Hunt at Outpost 9 vs Starship Troopers (and making 10 Cloverfield Lane a sequel when it was not intended to be as written makes JJ Abrams again an asshole because a viewer spends the whole time wondering how it is related to the first one and not giving the story shown their full attention), but the studio was smart enough to bring on Whannell for rewrites. He even stayed on set to make sure any changes could be made to the script and sometimes didn’t have pages for them until they were ready to shoot. Now that can lower the quality of a movie, but that’s what multiple takes and good editing are for. Overall, this one lacks the rawness of the first one, pumps up the use of traps ala the reverse bear trap, and is a tighter movie. A second watch actually makes John Kramer’s comments to Dave Matthews somewhat tongue-in-cheek in a good way. “A safe place?” Hardy-har. On a first watch, I spent a good deal of time trying to place the brunette woman (Emmanuelle Vaugier) until I just looked her up and saw that she was in one episode of Supernatural. But besides that distraction, the movie did a really good job. I did not see the twist coming, even though the first one had a twist. This early in a franchise, it’s too hard to tell what methods will be carried over to other films, so a twist wasn’t necessary at this point in creating a Saw movie. This one still wasn’t really torture porn. It wasn’t overly graphic while still being horrifying. However, the scene where Xavier cuts off his number is a bit–okay, a lot–corny. It’s just not very well edited and the whole production of it makes it out to be more horrific than the actual situation calls for. It’s far more horrifying when Dave Matthews is screaming in anger and fear in the dark bathroom. Bloody gruesomeness is less horrifying than the idea of dying slowly in the dark alone. The MDQ: Will Dave Matthews be able to restrain himself? Answer: Apparently not! I also give this one a 7/10, which has an IMDB rating of 6.6 and a Metascore of 40. With an estimated budget of $4 million and a gross of $147.7 million, it had return rate of 3592%.

Saw III

Whannel wrote this one, and gore is kicked up a notch. The story is like the second one, split in two: we have the doctor working to save Kramer and Jeff going through a maze of traps. This is the first movie to have the single-person maze/journey, as Jeff is the only person running the maze, whereas in the second movie we had a big group of people. At this point, they have finally solidified how they are writing these movies. Either it is a group of people who are supposed to work together or it is one person trying to work out their issues as they solve the traps. I feel the single journey movies are stronger, because the focus is narrowed, unlike in the multiple people traps. That’s a stronger foundation, but it doesn’t mean it will be better. The idea that Jeff is so wrapped up in his anger that he is incapable of letting go of the past, moving on, and forgiving is such an interesting idea. It is also the major dramatic question, and each of the rooms are designed to test it. The parts with Lynn, Kramer, and Amanda are a little distracting to this, and this is really when the movies start to bring in their overall storyline, which they barely pulled off at times. When Amanda opens that note and starts crying, it is incredibly frustrating and distracting because we don’t get an answer to what it was about until a later movie. I felt the gore was just below the threshold of “too much”, but no other movie takes it just to the edge as this one did. The twist was actually pretty good. Jeff was too much of an idiot to be able to forgive, and it cost him a lot. The beginning of blending the movies makes this movie not as good as it could be. This one also gets 7/10 from me, has an IMDB rating of 6.2 and a Metascore of 48. It had an estimated budget of $10 million and earned $84.6 million, giving it a return rate of 746%, making it the first to drop below a thousand percent return.

Saw IV

This movie is similar to the one before it in that it is about a single person. All his tests are based on the same question, which is also the MDQ: Can Rigg prevent himself from running through an unsecured door? At the same time, Agent Strahm is chasing after him and is a general dick about everything. This movie is one of the most focused because they don’t show us what’s going on behind the traps, and there is an awesome reason for that! This was my favorite twist of the whole series. Not Hoffman. That was surprising but not as amazing as how much they hid the timeline. Whannell did not write this one, but what brilliant writing. They didn’t even cheat. Unfortunately, this means the movie cannot stand on its own at all. To enjoy it, a person would absolutely have to see the third movie. That and Rigg’s less than compelling character prevents this movie from being better than the others even with its tight focus and amazing twist. Again 7/10 from me, but it has an IMDB score of 5.9 and Metascore of 36. With an estimated budget of $10 million and a gross of $139.4, it has a return rate of 1294%.

Saw V

This movie starts immediately after the fourth one, and it’s when the series kind of loses focus. While I enjoyed it, mostly because of Julie Benz, who is enjoyable in anything, I could see it wasn’t very good. Hoffman is a dumb character and weak antagonist and while Strahm is played by one of my favorite TV actors, he’s still just a major dick. Now the movie is pretty much all about the behind the scenes crap with Jigsaw’s disciples. The story of the five people in the trap is the most interesting part of the movie and is minor in the plot of the film. This is also where the gore is ramped up to comical levels. For all that, the movie is lesser than the others and has gone off the rails of the original intrigue and intensity. We’ve got a problem in that our MDQ isn’t the focus of the plot nor related to the main traps: Can Strahm follow instructions? Now we’re down to a 6/10 from me, and it has a comparable IMDB score of 5.8 and a Metascore of 20. The budget was estimated at $10.8 million and the movie grossed $113.9 million, resulting in a 955% return rate.

Saw VI

The quality drops a notch further. Again the traps and the main focus of the plot are unrelated. The real question is if the FBI and police can figure out that Hoffman is the new disciple. While the best work is done with Easton, the CEO of the insurance company that denied Kramer an experimental procedure that might save his life. It brings up important issues with health insurance and shows how mercenary and unempathic those who work in that industry can be. This is where the real writing is being done. But we have so much with Hoffman, who is just bleh. And something’s going on with Jill. Jeeze, who cares? The gore level is now outrageous and sensationalist. Not worth the time they put into it. I only give this one a 6/10, the IMDB score is a matching 6 even, and the Metascore is 30. The estimated budget was $11 million but it only grossed $27.7 million, giving it a low but profitable return of 152%, which shows that people stopped caring so much at this point.

Saw 3D: The Final Chapter

Man, if only. Again, the focus is not on the traps, which are being navigated by a false victim who wrote a book about his experiences before, during, and after as a Jigsaw survivor. There’s more about Hoffman and Jill. Oh, and look, Dr. Gordon is back. Unrelated, I wonder what the twist will be about. Obviously, I’m not a fan. We also don’t even get an MDQ, so we don’t even know what we’re waiting for. I have a problem also with the fact that Bobby doesn’t manage to save anyone, even his girlfriend, who had no idea he was a complete liar. Guilt by association is not something early Jigsaw would have done. Then there’s the 3D gimmick. Also by this point I am sick of hearing that twist music and that horrible metal music in the credits. Now, we’re at a 5/10 from me, a 5.6 from IMDB, and a 24 from the Metascore. It had an over-bloated budget of $20 million and grossed $136.2 million, giving it a return rate of 581%.

Jigsaw

I’ve not seen this one yet, but it doesn’t involve Whannel or Wan as writers or directors, who moved on to Insidious and The Conjuring—though Wan is a producer. Instead, it is directed by the Spierig brothers, who have done Daybreakers (which I enjoyed), and written by Pete Goldfinger, most of his experience being in horror films no one has ever heard of, and Josh Stolberg, who has worked with Goldfinger on many of the same movies, but his most well known film is Good Luck Chuck, which is absolutely a completely different genre of movie. I’m not sure what to make of this combination of major players. The premise also seems off the mark from the cannon ending of the seventh film which is that Dr. Gordon and the two young men from the beginning of the movie are going to continue the games. Whereas, the description I read says that a new series of murders is taking place and it seems like it is John Kramer. Maybe since it was so bad, most people won’t remember that ending, but it was such a shock to so many viewers that I’m sure fans will remember it. Or maybe they are pulling a Bryan Singer ala Superman Returns and ignoring some of the later, and frankly worse, sequels. But look how well that turned out for him! I imagine they are just going to retcon it, especially considering I’ve not seen Jigsaw hitting Elwes’ IMDB acting credits. I’m not expecting much from this movie except to say that it will be a studio beating a dead horse. Currently it is sitting at a 5.9 from IMDB and a 39 from Metascore. The budget was a respectable $10 million and has grossed $38.1 million. This puts the return rate so far at 281%. As I said, not much hope.

Too Make a Long Blog Post Short . . .

Too Late! Horror as any genre can be done well, but like any genre of film requires focus on a singular question. Without which, the audience will not know what they are waiting for and will no longer care, shown partly by lowered return rate over the course of the series. The shine has also worn off by the sixth movie. It may have been too soon to try again. There were only seven years between the seventh and eighth films, but that could mean that the cooling off period was too short or long, in that either people were still sick of Saw films or that people no longer cared for them at all. It’s hard to tell and depending on who you talk to you might get different answers. To be honest, while I give my opinion on things, I do not much care for the aggregate opinion on most things. Critics don’t like horror films, and a lot of regular joes don’t either, thus bringing down the scores of horror films in general. But to gauge audience retention, aggregate scores are helpful. Overall, I believe the Saw movies have merit. There is often good writing being done, in that the focus is sometimes there and the themes are at the very least brought up if not exhaustively explored. Obviously, horror is capable of being thematically capable as shown by It (2017) and Stranger Things. Without focus and theme coming together, a movie of any genre is not going to be good in my book, and I will not judge a horror movie (or any other genre film) by the same expectations beyond those two metrics across genres. Which is why my scores may seem high for some of these movies. I would say that there was a reason for the outrageous success of the first film, and it wasn’t the twist, and it wasn’t the gore. It was the focus on Dr. Gordon as a character and just how far he would go to save his wife and child from that goddamn Benjamin Linus!

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2018 in Craft of Writing, Uncategorized

 

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Doctor Strange: A Comparative Review

Spoilers below for Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War,

I just recently watched Doctor Strange for the first time. Afterwards, I immediately went to two of my three favorite reviewers to see what they had to say about the movie. Screen Junkies and Hishe both compared the movie heavily to Iron Man, saying that it is basically the same movie. Instinctively, this felt wrong to me, mainly because I was thinking of the main characters and how different they were, despite everyone seeming to think they are the same. So I went back and watched Iron Man again, because let’s face it, it’s been a while, and luckily it was on Prime (btw, Iron Man is distributed by a different company than later MCU movies, along with Thor and the first Captain America movie, so it is doubtful that you will see all of the MCU movies on the same streaming service or in a box set). Having watched it again, so quickly after having watched Doctor Strange, I can tell you without a doubt that the only two things these have in common are that they are both hero’s journey stories (which is one of like five stories you can tell) and both superhero origin stories (which is needed when you introduce a new superhero. Duh.). Otherwise, I found these movies very different.

“But Aren’t They Both Just Arrogant Jackasses?”

Arrogance is a trait both Tony Stark and Stephen Strange carry; however, in truth, Strange only seems arrogant. Many people have previously called Stark a narcissist. In point of fact, by psychological definitions, he is not. Strange, on the other hand, very much has narcissistic personality disorder. Stark is full of himself, but he grew up in money and prestige and genius with a demanding and distant father. As such, Stark doesn’t care about much except having a good time when we are first introduced to him in Iron Man. He is child without adult supervision. He has fun whenever he can, however he can. He doesn’t care if the company is truly successful or how, just that it keeps him in money (i.e. fun). He has no real goals. It’s just party, party, party all the time.

He plays craps when he should be getting a prestigious award and gives that award away to a stranger on a whim, because awards from society or friends don’t matter.

He races his bodyguard/driver to get to his private jet, where he left his more serious friend to wait hours.

His flight attendants bring him drinks and double as strippers. It’s all fun. And it is all pointless. His lack of care is what almost got him killed. If he had been more on his guard, more involved with his company, he would have figured out that Stane was selling their weapons to terrorists and kicked him out long ago. But he didn’t care. He was having fun. What did Yensin say to him? “Don’t let your life be a waste.” Most everyone puts Tony Stark as either an ENTP or J. You can look up their profiles here and here.

Now compare that to the Doctor Strange we are introduced to at the beginning of the film. He prides himself on knowing useless information so that he can stump his coworkers, a way to one up them. He also prides himself on beating his coworkers down when they make a mistake. He’ll do this in front of everyone and make sure everyone knows that the gravity of his coworker’s mistake and that he’s the one to fix it. He wants to break new ground medically and wants procedures he creates named after him, even though he has to be reminded that he alone did not create those procedures. He loves going to award ceremonies for himself.

He has only the best home, only the best clothes, only the best accessories, and only the best cars.

Only the best.

All his past awards are displayed in a rather large and showy case, so that anyone who comes to his home knows just how awesome his is. He has to pass all other drivers to show that he is the best driver. He refuses to take cases that others can solve and refuses to take cases with a low probability of success. For him, everything is about status. Showing to the world around him that he is the best. That no one is as good as him at anything and that he is perfect and never fails. What does the Ancient One say to him? “You did it because of your fear of failure.” I would put Doctor Strange as an INTJ because he is a jack of trades when it comes to knowledge, has a great memory, doesn’t see the point in much social interaction, is a self learner, and rules that don’t make sense are ignored, but once they make sense from new information, they are followed. Others have agreed with this, while others disagree. But personality types are hard to lay out on a character in the first place, but the two in question are obviously not the same type.

Inciting Incidents

These two men are faced with very different psychological problems. There isn’t really a disorder for what Tony has (maybe there should be: HPD, hedonistic personality disorder?), but it is clear that Strange has NPD. Tony Stark is shown to have no fear of failure, and he shouldn’t because he is an inventor. They fail all the time. It’s a constant working through set backs and failed versions. We get three different Iron Man suits in the first movie. We get multiple tests that go haywire too. None of that seems to set Tony back at all. He just keeps going, working out the kinks. In fact, we laugh with him as he works them out. While his lack of care got him into trouble, that trouble got him out of his apathy. When Yensin dies, he suddenly has a reason to care. He realizes that by ignoring his company, innocent people were getting hurt and that was his fault. So he was going to do something about it. Failures be dammed.

Strange’s own psychological problems led to his own downfall as well, but Tony obviously recovered much quicker and better than Strange did. He could still work no problem. The car crash, caused by Strange’s desire to be the best at everything, resulted in the loss of his abilities as a doctor. This destroyed everything Strange had been working for all his life. He couldn’t work anymore. There would be no more awards, no more breakthroughs, no more adulation. He wasn’t just a failure; he couldn’t even try. Unlike Tony Stark, who became a better person for his inciting incident, all the worst traits of an NPD were maximized in Strange upon his accident. NPDs are hard enough to be around when they are successful, as they tend to rub everyone’s nose in their success, but they are far, far worse when they have failed. They lash out at the people around them in cruel and hurtful ways and may even become violent for it. So failure only worsens their condition, which is why Strange avoided it all his life and career. Strange becomes obsessed with fixing the cause of his failure as he sees it: his hands. The reality is that his failure came from his fear of it because he had to be the fastest driver. It is almost cruel of a writer to do what happens to Strange, not because he was such a nice guy, but because he was functioning somewhat well even if he couldn’t have healthy personal relationships.

The Journey

Tony Stark’s journey is pretty straight forward: shut down the weapons manufacturing, create a better suit to help the people his weapons have hurt. He gets a little side-tracked on the second part because it is more fun, thereby making it harder to do the first part. He’s still a little too focused on the fun. But it’s not much of a sidetrack really. Iron Man, by and large, is a very simple, plot-based movie, so it’s hard to give the hero’s journey too much attention. Tony actually keeps choosing the more fun options throughout most of the movies. Fun for Tony is also about what is most interesting from a scientific standpoint. That’s why he made Ultron. It’s not until after Ultron that Tony finally realizes that scientifically interesting may also mean dangerous. That takes quite a while.

Strange’s journey is more focused and interesting. He has to learn “that it’s not about [him]”. The Ancient One keeps recognizing exactly what’s wrong with Strange and saying it to him point blank. This is where things take an interesting turn from a psychological and social standpoint. NPDs never seek professional help, because they don’t think anything is wrong with them. After all, they are perfect, the best of the best. Everyone else has a problem. But when Strange loses the use of his hands and Western medicine cannot help him at all, he becomes so desperate that he is willing to look for answers in places that don’t have the kind of controls that modern medicine has. He has looked everywhere else for the answer, so now it’s time too look in the shadier corners. When he comes to the Ancient One, he believes that she is still a scientist, but that she is doing something illegal. When it turns out that she is more of a mystic than a scientist, he scoffs at her ideas. Until she blows his mind. Now we don’t have the ability to blow the mind of an NPD the way the Ancient One did, but if we did, I imagine it would have a profound psychological impact on them. After he asks her to teach him and she refuses, we see just how low Strange has been brought. He is there for hours, begging to be let back in. The last thing he says before they open the door is “I’ve got nowhere else to go.” Strange truly has been destroyed at this point. He is a complete and utter nothing. But when they open the door, amazingly, the first thing out of his mouth is a feeble “Thank you.” It gets a laugh, but it also shows something interesting. I do not believe that had he fallen through a door before he had been brought this low that he would have said “thank you.” Instead I believe he would have berated the person for opening the door while he was leaning against it. He has been changed. Finally.

But he is still arrogant and still afraid of failure. Well, a cure for a personality disorder doesn’t happen in one fell swoop. Now, some psychologists and laymen don’t believe that personality disorders can be cured, especially not NPD. It’s just who they are, right? Why else would they call it a personality disorder if it wasn’t a personality? Well, they’ve found that with certain treatments some people can lose symptoms of a personality disorder, thus sliding out of the DSM requirements to be diagnosed with that disorder. The one that seems to have some of the best results is borderline personality disorder, which with certain medications, one-on-one counseling, and group DBT therapy can cause actual recovery. The problem is that too many psychologists don’t try to get their patients to recovery, just through the day to day, and too many sufferers of personality disorders consider themselves unworthy of treatment, incapable of recovery, or, in the case of almost every NPD, perfectly fine the way they are. Now there is not a lot of research into if NPDs can recover because of the very fact that they don’t think anything is wrong with them. Doctors can’t research patients that don’t go to the doctor. But recovery from any ingrained psychological condition, especially one that took someone as far as it took Doctor Strange, is time consuming and not at all quick. So yes, Strange is still kind of a dick. But why is the Ancient One’s method’s working at all?

Many Western philosophies deal in the idea of the individual and the importance of each individual. Things such as subjectivity vs objectivity, perception, sensation, aesthetics, and signicance tend to run through most of these philosophies. Many Eastern philosophies, on the other hand, deal greatly with the unimportance of self, the destruction of the individual, sacrifice of self, all to achieve a greater unity with the world. NPD, which most laymen will understand is about narsicsim, is all about the self. The self is most important. Especially, the perception of others of that self. So perceptively, the Ancient One doesn’t buy the bull that Strange keeps trying to sell her. She repeatly calls him Mister and corrects him when he tries to correct her. Every time he tries to tell her who he is or what his motivations are, she calls him a liar. And he confirms what she says too. He has been brought low by his accident, then shown how insignificant he was when she showed him the multiverse, and she will not let him lie about who he is. He is experiencing a distruction of self. Whether he likes it or not. It’s interesting to note at this point that most psychological disorders do not cross cultures. The WHO is trying to come up with an international way of looking at psychology, but it seems that culture ties too tightly into what is considered disordered and how disorders form. As such, I’ve never heard of NPD in China and the like. An ingrained cultural sense that the self is unimportant may in fact prevent NPD altogether. So perhaps the correct treatment of NPD is the destruction of self.

Because what happens at the end? Doctor Strange is destroyed, and again, and again, and again, and again. And again, and again, and again. In fact, as he puts it he’s losing over and over again. Finally, Strange understands that failure is not to be feared. In fact, at times, it is the only way to succeed. It is also interesting to note that Dormammu was played by Cumberbatch as well, adding into the internal struggle metaphor of Doctor Strange. Not only did he set it up so that he would fail over and over again, but is also being destroyed by himself every time.

Now some would counter that Strange doesn’t really have NPD because he loves Christine and NPDs and some other personality disorders preclude the capability of love but I just believe it often precludes healthy expression or experience of love. No where in the DSM definitions of personality disorders does it list a symptom as “incapable of love”. It may say “poor interpersonal relationship skills” or something to that effect. So please stop saying these people are incapable of love. Strange displays the required number of symptoms to be diagnosed as a NPD, and by the end of the movie he has lost enough symptoms to be considered cured. He is humble and self-sacrificing. A complete 180.


Vs Iron Man

We just don’t get the kind of in depth character ark or metaphorical play in Iron Man that we got in Doctor Strange. It was the first attempt. They didn’t have much of a script. And they didn’t really know what they were doing. We’re now in phase three. The characters are starting to become better out the gate and the older ones, like Tony Stark, are becoming more complex real people as well. It’s not really until Iron Man 3 that we see that Tony can be vulnerable, it’s not until The Avengers: Age of Ultron that he allows fear to get the better of him, and it is not until Captain America: Civil War that we see him try truly to make up for the mistakes he made as Iron Man. Iron Man’s journey is actually the journey of the MCU. It’s all fun; whoa, things just got scary, better step it up a notch; crap, I went too far. In fact, in Iron Man it’s all fun even when killing people, which Tony has no compunctions about. Which makes sense given the fact that he grew up on the money of weapons manufacturing. Doctor Strange, on the other hand, is introduced in the “crap, I went too far” stage, so he kills one guy and is immediately upset by it. After all, he is a doctor. The Ancient One kind of calls BS on him again, but I don’t believe Strange is really lying when he says he’s upset for killing that man. He was fighting for his life and he gets that, but he’s not okay with how far he had to go. He didn’t want to be part of a mystic war. In fact, he said just that right before the fight started. Tony has no issues killing what he probably thinks of as “enemy combatants”. There is no moment of “Oh, my god. I killed someone” for Tony in the first movie. Probably because he knows as a weapons manufacturer he has blood on his hands and to him making and selling the weapons is no different than firing them. It is actually an admirable stance for Tony to take for it makes it clear that to him he is responsible and that is his fight in the first movie. But it is barely touched on. The whole movie is party and doesn’t go too deep into the ideas of responsibility or hedonism.

Finally the Facial Hair

Interestingly, Stan Lee has stated that Tony Stark was based on Howard Hughes and Doctor Strange was based on Vincent Price. Now, Stark was based on Hughes’ personality wise, the high-flying, the girls, the parties, etc. Strange was based on Price’s look. He’s often voiced in a Price kind of way too. Luckily, we didn’t get that in the movie from Cumberbatch who just played him straight. So the beards seem kind of like a coincidence to me. I’ve never quite gotten Stark’s facial hair to be honest. It’s just a very strange look, that they even did in the movie. It tends to go back along his jaw but not all the way along his jaw and up around his mouth but not to meet his mustache. That’s weird. They did eventually change it in the movies to just a bushy, dark van dyke so that it wasn’t so weird. Strange’s on the other hand is a pretty straight forward thin van dyke. I can dig that. It’s been done before. Stark’s not so much. Who the hell takes the time to do that to their face? Stark apparently. I guess he is rich. Probably has a barber come in and do it for him on a regular basis. They’ve also pretty much updated it in the comics too. For which, I’m glad.

Conclusion

Way better than Iron Man. Like a thousand times. And Iron Man is enjoyable. It’s just not got the depth and social implications and work that Doctor Strange has. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Doctor Strange as much as I did, but I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Ant-Man or Guardians of the Galaxy as much as I did either. My favorite Marvel characters are Spider-Man, Wolverine, Psylocke, Deadpool, and Black Widow, and so far Ant-Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Doctor Strange have been my favorite movies. It’s hard to please me when four out of five of my favorite characters are not readily available to MCU. Now Spider-Man is and I’ve been disappointed by what they’ve done with him so far. It’s hard to top Spider-Man 2 for story and character development. And I am not a fan of Iron Man knowing his identity as no one is supposed to know who he is. Overall, I think the greatness of Ant-Man, Guardians, and Strange come from the actors and/or great story and character development. Doctor Strange was directed by a (creative) fan of the character, which I believe we can all agree can be very important to the success of an adaptation. See below.


Here’s a singular idea: don’t direct it if you weren’t a fan. It means you didn’t understand or care about the central themes. That’s important to creating a new story with that IP. More than the world creation or plots. Scott Derrickson got that and that’s why he did such a good job with Doctor Strange: themes, not plots, matter.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

P.S.

I will be going to a double feature for Guardians fo the Galaxy tomorrow before it premiers on Friday, so look for my first thoughts this weekend. I usually like to watch a movie several times and think about it a while before I write my full review but I’ll try to give a recommendation at the very least. Happy watching and reading!

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2017 in Craft of Writing

 

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Premature, Mature, and Postmature Cancellations: TV Show Endings (All in Running Metaphors!)

Some T.V. shows are cancelled before their time, some go on too long, some should never have been made, and some lucky few actually have an ending, and some of those few are even luckier to have a good ending. Everyone has that one show they loved that they wish was still on the air, the one they wish had never been made, and the one they wish hadn’t gone off the rails. I’d like to examine some shows I’ve watched and explain why they should, shouldn’t have, or were cancelled. So Spoilers!

Running Past the Finish Line, Way Past: Supernatural

This is the only show on this list still on the air, and therein lies the problem. Supernatural is a great show. It’s funny, heartbreaking, dynamic, epic, and totally worth watching. However, of late, there have been some great stinkers of episodes. Such as, in season nine when they introduce Oz into the mythos. What was with those ruby slippers? I could find better quality shoes at Payless. Don’t get me wrong. There have been some great moments still. Timothy Olmundson is just amazing in any part he plays. I mean, look how angry he is. Every moment, even when calm, he looks like he will murder everyone around.

But a lot of recent episodes are poorly written and some lack good research, such as Artemis, goddess of hunters and virgins, having had a lover. Do they know nothing of Greek mythology? The only reason the show is still watchable at this point is the actors and the characters they play. Ackles, Padalecki, Collins, and Sheppard still bring their all to the show, making their interplay still really fun to watch. The characters are still dynamic. However, if you watch the entirety of the show over a roughly single sitting (not truly possible, but watch them all in a row stopping for sleep and work), you’ll notice some weird cyclical character developments:

  1. Sam’s done something bad or thinks he’s evil, Dean’s mad at him, Sam tries something drastic to make up for it: Sam drinks demon blood, tries to kill Lilith; Sam frees Lucifer, quits hunting/sacrifices himself to the cage; Sam thinks he’s just b-b-b-bad to the bone, does the trials to close the gates of hell.
  2. Dean tries to sacrifice himself for the greater good/Sam because he doesn’t believe he is worth saving: Dean sells his soul; Dean wants to do the trials; Dean takes the first blade. (1 & 2 are what I like to call: One of the Winchesters is trying to dive off a bridge.)
  3. Sam wants out of the life, tries to help others stay out, Dean tells him it’s impossible: The many freaking times Sam has quit.
  4. Dean tries to help others stay out, Sam tells him it’s impossible: Speaking to Adam about the life. (3 & 4 are The Godfather Part III: “Everytime I try to get out, they pull me back in!”)
  5. Cas does something he thinks is for the greater good, Dean gets mad at him: Betraying the Winchesters for the Angels (which time am I referring to?), Working with Crowley, Staying behind in Purgatory, Working for Hannah (even if brainwashed).
  6. Crowley is their friend: During the Apocalypse, Against Abaddon.
  7. Crowley is their enemy: During the fight for Purgatory, During the trials. (6 & 7 are essentially the daisy game: He likes me, He doesn’t like me, He likes me . . .)
  8. Dean thinks all monsters deserve to die, Sam argues otherwise: the good vampires episode (also the introduction of Gordon), Ruby (though he is right about this one), the episode with Jewel State (the kitsunke).
  9. Sam thinks all monsters deserve to die, Dean argues otherwise: Crowley (Sam never trusts him) and Dean thinks they should work with him, when Sam meets Benny. (8 & 9 are the dumbest flip flops on the show).

Some of these are paired together because they show a switch of positions, but all of them happen at least twice in the show. But why do all these pop up again and again? Well, that easy. They’ve run out of ideas to make the characters grow and create conflict. Why? Also easy. Season Five was the real conclusion of the show. Armageddon was stopped, Sam made up for his most drastic mistake, and Dean lived out a happy life with Lisa and Ben. The end. No more. But the show was too good and too profitable to stop there. I totally don’t blame them for continuing the show, a big part of me is glad they did. I love this show. But I can’t deny as a writer that the complete (cannonical) piece is just five seasons. This is why we get some pretty crappy episodes and cyclical character development. Because the characters and the actors are so good, Supernatural is doomed to repeat the same developments over and over again until one of the major actors quits. No major plot development can compare to ending the Armageddon. It’s basically impossible. Also impossible is continuing dramatic conflict with having your characters actually, permanently learn from their mistakes (sounds like the opposite of a soap opera). Like that’s ever going to happen, Looking at you Cas!

Tripped Mid-stride: Lost

This is the juggernaut of the list. Critically acclaimed. Loved by nearly all. I was patently uninterested when it was airing, because I refuse to watch shows one episode per week, especially when they are as confusing and complex as Lost. Everyone was telling me I should watch it, but I held off until it was over and on Netflix in it’s entirety. Then I tried watching it. I got bored, really bored, mid season six and about a year or two later, tried coming back to it. I started where I left off, had no idea what was going on, so I went back to the beginning of the season. I was still completely lost, so I went back to the beginning of the show. I watched it all in a row. (Unfortunately, someone else was sometimes in the room saying things like “Oh-kay”, “Aaall right”, and “What the fuck?” every time something weird or dramatic happened, which is freaking always!) This is a great show. It has a great story. It has great characters. It should not have been six seasons long. It should not have had so many character groups. Half the watching time is trying to remember who the hell this or that person is. For example, we have the fuselage passengers (or main characters), we have the Others (who by the way are never explained as how and why they are on the island), we have the tail section passengers, we have the Widmore mercenaries, we have the Dharma Initiative members, and we have the Ajira flight passengers. And that doesn’t include people from the past who are meaningful to the main characters, Desmond, Daniel Faraday’s mother, Rousseau (and the original members of her team), Richard Alpert, Jacob, the Man in Black, their mother, their real mother and her people, the past Others. THIS IS TOO MUCH. When Illana was introduced in season six, along with her crew, all I could think is “I. DON’T. CARE.” But this is just a problem of trying to create an opus of a T.V. show. The real problem is the weird floundering that happen halfway through the show when the Writer’s Strike happened.

J.J. Abrams and crew all quit writing for the show and took to the picket lines. While this ultimately was good for T.V. writers and writing, it was not good for Lost. Why? Writing a specific piece is about being in a specific mood for that work. It’s hard to sustain creative motion after stopping. Sometimes one can get back into that mood by re-experiencing the progress so far. However, sometimes the work is too big and too deep to get back into that mood. And T.V. shows have added constraints of compromises with the studios that produce them. Which is why Annie (can you possibly remember this character without me showing you a picture?) is dropped like a bad habit in Lost. It is why the dark versus light foreshadowing of the first season is not brought up again until season six, which most viewers would have forgotten in the first place, but is the main point of the show. Instead of getting bogged down in what stupid thing Locke is doing now or what contrary and stubborn thing Jack is doing now, we should have been reaching more main point stuff much earlier on. Season Six: Oh, you remember those caves from season one? No, here they are. Remember those bodies and the stones in the cave? No, here they are. Now we can show you Jacob’s origin, since you forgot all that stuff long ago (even if you watched it all within one month, let alone the six years it was on the air).

There is some great character development in Lost though. Locke desperately wants his faith affirmed, Jack will say no just because someone asked, Kate will run away, Sawyer will sabotage any interpersonal relationships, and everyone loves Hurley, because duh. But eventually, Locke realizes his affirmation of faith is not as important as people, Jack says yes because he believes, Kate stops running, Sawyer can have a stable relationship, and everyone still loves Hurley, because duh, but also Hurley doesn’t think he’s crazy or cursed anymore. So watch it, but be prepared for some missteps (the whispers are the Others as confirmed by Ben when he takes Alex from Rousseau–No, wait, we meant the whispers are the sounds of the people who died on the island who can’t move on as confirmed by Michael when he speaks to Hurley as a ghost) and some dragging.

Crappy Equipment: Eureka

Eureka is one of my all time favorite shows. It was just so funny. But it only has five seasons. I’d say this is the best amount, because there was a chance for Eureka to have a season six of six episodes but their budget was being pulled by Comcast. The creator and producers decided instead of doing six really crappy episodes, they would use the much smaller budget to create a finale to the show. Bless their hearts, because I’d rather have a conclusion to the show than have six badly made episodes wherein we get no closure afterwards. It sucks that the show had it’s budget dramatically reduced, but to some extent this is because viewership started to drop off.

This happens for three reasons in our current television age: 1) the channel keeps changing the time/day on which the show is aired, 2) the channel does not advertise new season premiers enough, 3) viewership is calculated through ratings which do not take into account online viewing on the channel website or paid streaming services such as Amazon Video, Amazon Prime, Hulu, Hulu Plus, or Netflix. The first two are totally Sy-Fy’s fault, and they did do these. I remember Eureka was changed to Tuesdays from Fridays between two seasons, and I missed the premiers of new seasons of all their shows because I never heard about them until after the fact. Sy-Fy, when I was watching cable or satellite T.V., has a tendency to not advertise new seasons enough or evenly across all shows and over advertises new episodes of currently airing shows, which is usually when I found out a new season had premiered. The third one is because ratings, and studios by extension, have not caught up to the changing technology of viewership. I have left the ratings count completely, and I’m sure there are a lot of other people who have too. Which means studios need to get with the program and stop defunding shows that possibly have higher viewership than they are currently willing to count. How people watch T.V. is changing rapidly, and no matter how many stupid mail flyers Cox, Dish, or Direct T.V. send me, I am not going to pay $150-$300 to have annoying ads most of the time, censored/truncated content, inconvenient air times, and channels I will never use (Looking at you, CSPAN and ESPN!).

But back to Eureka: a show losing it’s budget is a good reason to just close up shop. Some may disagree with me and want as many episodes as possible, even if they suck. But I’m no fanboy. I want the story and the production to be of quality, so I’d rather have shows do what Eureka did than have them flounder out weak, shoddy episodes. This is a case of quality over quantity. I miss Eureka, but I consider it, for what it is, to be nearly perfectly done (one major misstep, read further below). It had a formula that it stuck to, but the characters grew and their lives changed. I’m glad it exists and will always treasure it.

Fell Face First Right Out the Gate: Charmed

I watched a couple of seasons of Charmed, and to be honest, I’m not sure why it lasted as long as it did. Frankly, I’m surprised it made it past the pilot stage. There are a couple of shows that are awful from the very start: the production is low quality, the writing is passe, unrealistic, or lazy, the acting is phoned in. This is one of those shows. Some people love that show. I’m not sure why. The one good actor on it, Julian McMahon, didn’t have much to work with. Shannen Doherty was unwatchable. And the rest of the actors were pretty green. Other shows like this include Roswell (Twilight anyone? You know before Twilight was written) and Bones. I like Bones, but I like David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, so maybe that’s the only way shows like this work.

One of the worst things Charmed ever did was shoehorning in the night club wherein a different flavor of the month band would play every other episode. They did this on T.V. shows a lot in the nineties, and every once in a while a show will try it again, Bones again. Thank you for wasting two to five minutes of each episode to a band no one cares about anymore or maybe even by the time the episode aired, instead of, you know, spending the time resolving the plot in a meaningful and acceptable way, instead of going “We need to tie a bow on this, got to get to the band scene!” This is a bad idea. Don’t do it. Most shows are cutting out theme songs and actor shots (ala Lost style) to save that time too. Don’t waste even more time than that on a stupid band I couldn’t name two seconds after you announced it.

On shoddy production, Charmed takes the cake, and sets it on fire. Almost all of the show is shot in about two locations, which could be fine, but the real problem comes with the special effects quality and the monster creation. It’s certain they didn’t spend any of their budget on writing, but with how the show looks, one wonders where the money went. I could say something catty about the actors, but I’m going to refrain because the joke lacks any truth, I imagine. Shows of the nineties, and Supernatural, have an annoying habit of having monsters and aliens just be people, more times than necessary professional wrestlers specifically, wearing weird makeup, latex, and/or contacts. Never is it something completely inhuman. They’re all upright bipeds with two arms and basic facial features. Sometimes, the show just says they’re something inhuman, which is only displayed by powers (ala the dragons and phoenix from Supernatural–why not show us what the freaking dragons looked like picking up a chick? Because now I just picture that guy doing it in cargo pants and a zippered jacket. Not very exiting.). This is the sign of a low budget, or a budget that isn’t valuing creating the world. I gave Farscape a pass on this because Jim Hensen’s Workshop did Rigel and Pilot, and those were awesome concepts, but Star Trek (all of them, even the recent movies), Charmed, and Supernatural display a complete lack of imagination when it comes to showing us crazy, different forms of life. I’m not saying every monster needed to be something totally different, but at least the ones that are traditionally so and a few every once in a while. If Buffy can do it (ala the mantis from season one), so could they. Charmed was the most pathetic when it came to showing us interesting monsters. Oooh, Cole really looks like a WWE member with red and black makeup on. How intriguing.

Charmed really never should have been made. It didn’t really have anything going for it, and I watched a couple of seasons, so you can’t say that it was the season one growing period. There just wasn’t anything there of substance or quality. Maybe it was made and sustained entirely on girl power, which just makes it all the more insulting to the discerning viewer. I’m all for strong women kicking butt, but this show was more about showcasing “sexy” women’s butts (Milano & McGowan are sexy) and telling us they were strong. It was a relief beyond measure when Doherty was no longer on the show, like when someone gives you morphine after you’ve been stabbed, but it’s not like the show got all that better afterwards, what with that stupid elusive enemy of The Source. The Source of What?!

Lost a Shoe in the Middle of the Race: House, M.D. and Two and a Half Men

The cast of a show is as important as its writing. Writing is limited by what actor is available after a certain point in a show’s lifetime. Bewitched lost the original Darren, Dick York, but replaced him with Dick Sargent, when they really should have just cancelled the show. Eureka lost Ed Quinn. Lost lost Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (wow). Charmed let Shannen Doherty go. Misfits lost Lauren Socha. Two and Half Men dropped Charlie Sheen, and House, M.D. lost Kal Penn to politics and Lisa Edlestein possibly over her not wanting to take a pay cut. Actors leave T.V. shows for many reasons: they get sick, they want to do other projects, they get sick of the show, they get arrested, the show gets sick of them, or they argue over money (match ’em up). But this affects what the show can do. They can replace the actor as in Bewitched, which sucked after the change. They can write a goodbye episode, wherein the actor is still used, as in Eureka, Lost, or Charmed. They can write the character out of the story after the actor is gone, as in both cases of House, M.D. Or if the actor they lost was a main character, they can try to desperately hold on to the structure of the show around a new character, as in Two and a Half Men.

Some think that Kutner got a goodbye episode in House, M.D., but a goodbye episode requires the actor be there, which is why when Kutner dies, it is completely out of left field and the writers are trying to salvage the situation. I’m not sure why Penn didn’t stick around for at least a goodbye episode considering how he appeared on the show at least two more times after his character’s death. It was, however, quite clear that Edlestein was done with the show completely once she left it, but it seems her leaving had more of an impact. Possibly because the main dynamic of that show is House, Wilson, Cuddy, and Team (which can change without too much impact because of the other three). Some believe the show unfinished because Cuddy wasn’t at House’s funeral and feel that the House/Cuddy question was never resolved. While stuck with the fact that they could not include Cuddy because the actress would not take part or because they did not wish to work with her, the question can be pretty well resolved within the story of the show. She wasn’t at his funeral. She left the hospital. She obviously didn’t want anything more to do with him. There’s your answer. Maybe it wasn’t the one you wanted, but it is still an answer. If you want your answer, try to imagine House five months after the end of the show. Maybe he killed himself. Or maybe he went and found Cuddy and apologized for all he did, and she took him back. We don’t know. But the show lost something when it lost Edlestein. The interplay between House and Cuddy was very interesting, but the show took a major misstep when it broke them up over his relapse, especially considering that he was contemplating relapsing when they got together and she told him it was his choice. It’s like they weren’t watching their own show. I do not blame the writers for concluding the show at that point. It was a pretty good conclusion, but I wish they hadn’t introduced two new characters in the last season, because like Lost it was too late in the show to make anyone care.

We all remember that Charlie Sheen kind of went off the deep end a few years back. As a result, his presence on Two and Half Men was no longer a good idea. Nor was the continuation of the show. By that point, the show had gotten boringly cyclical: Charlie sleeps around, he meets a serious woman whom he considers a serious relationship with, he’s in a serious relationship with her, he messes up the relationship and it ends, he sleeps around, he meets a serious woman whom . . . and so on and on until Sheen was no longer on the show. I’m not sure why people kept watching it after three seasons, but I’m especially not sure why the writers and studio decided to continue the show after he was gone or why anyone kept watching it. Maybe to see how bad it got. I’d understand that. If in season five of House, M.D., Hugh Laurie quit the show, I wouldn’t have expected them to continue the show. Nor would I in shows that don’t involve a title character but a main one, such as Quantum Leap, Supernatural, or Eureka. I can’t imagine what would happen if these shows lost Scott Bacula, either of the JSquared, or Colin Ferguson, and decided to keep going. That just seems crazy. Some shows are built around a single actor, and sorry to the other One and Half Men, but Sheen was the main character. It seems like the show, that already wasn’t that good, was a wash at this point and should have been cancelled instead of calling in Ashton Kutcher to try to take his place in some strange way. Sorry to those fans out there, it hurts but the truth often does.

Tripped End Over End and Ate Dirt: Heroes

I watched Heroes religiously when it premiered. I loved it. I loved Mondays because of it. Every episode was a treat. The conclusion of season one was a bit of a letdown, just wasn’t as climatic as it should have been. Season two premiered, and I eagerly watched. That wasn’t all that awesome. Season three I watched on Netflix, and that was awful, and then I stopped watching halfway through that season. What happened? How could it all go so horribly wrong? I’m not entirely sure. I can’t remember another show that fell apart quite so badly, to the point where the show became a punchline on The Big Bang Theory (“They lowered the quality season by season until we were glad it was cancelled.”) I haven’t done a lot of research into this phenomenon, but when something like this happens it can usually be because of one of three reasons: 1) The main creative force left the show, 2) The main creative force has run out of ideas, or 3) The studio has a different idea for the show than the main creative force. Either way the quality of the episode stories decline rapidly as a result of a loss of focus. I’m still really surprised by how bad this show got, especially when it started out so good. For example, Peter left his Irish girlfriend in a horrific future and never mentioned her again! That’s insane. The writers forgot about her? Didn’t care about her? The studio wanted to drop that storyline? What? Tell me. If you have some backstory on this, I’d like to know it. Another example of bad writing is when Sylar kind of becomes a good guy, at least he’s not killing the other heroes. He’s traveling around with Elle and is kind of at peace. That is until suddenly and out of no where he decides that he’s still a bad person and kills her. There isn’t really any impetus for this decision. He just does it. We saw him develop into a less evil person and then suddenly for no reason he decides to go back to his old ways. I think maybe people were unhappy with the turn that Sylar’s character took, or maybe the studio blamed the decline in viewership on the turn, so they told the writers to make him evil again, and because this change didn’t happen organically like the first development, it was done poorly. The show only gets worse from there. Don’t know how I feel about the upcoming Reborn series.

Took It Way Too Seriously: Warehouse 13

This show was always pretty campy. It was very silly, which is why to some extent it made sense as being part of the same world as Eureka but not so much Alphas. The villains were always rather cartoony and the artifacts were often silly. That’s not to say that the characters didn’t have problems or that the plots didn’t go to darker places. In one season conclusion/season premier, all hope in the world is destroyed, one of the agents is stuck in a cell just big enough for her body, and another agent is shot. But that all seemed to be a progression of the plots already related to the warehouse. What wasn’t a progression was Myka getting ovarian cancer. It had nothing to do with stopping villains or the warehouse. She just got cancer. As people do. But the show was silly to begin with, so bringing in this very heavy real world issue seems to be a big ole damper on the viewer’s fun. We understand that people get cancer, but they shouldn’t on a show where a man switched brains with a dog. That’s just incongruous. The show was cancelled before the thrilling conclusion to if Myka was okay or not, then returned for a final season to conclude it. I haven’t watched this last season yet because it’s not on Netflix, but I can’t image that the tone is repaired after such an out of character conflict. It’s very important that a show stick to the tone it started with; otherwise, viewership is lost. I don’t expect a laugh riot with Lost, but I did with Warehouse 13 (especially with the hilarious Christmas episodes).

Decided to Run Back and a Lap and Try It Again: Fringe and Eureka

These two shows are both hour long sci-fi stories, but that is where the similarities end. Fringe was a serious police drama as well, while Eureka was a small town comedy (the theme song said it all; Andy Griffith meets The X-Files). However, because they are both sci-fi, they both made a drastic mistake, one I hope all sci-fi shows learn from: Timeline Shifts. Now, this is okay in one episode wherein everything is back to normal at the end of the episode, such as the conclusion of season one of Eureka. But it becomes a major problem when those changes are permanent. Eureka and Fringe both did this at the beginning of season four. In Eureka, several things changed. Allison wasn’t head of GD, Fargo was head of GD, Lupo was head of security for GD (who did this before?), Zane was still an ass, Henry was married, and Kevin was no longer autistic. Those are the changes that were made obvious to audiences immediately. Questions, though, were left up in the air, because everything we knew happened didn’t. Was the artifact ever at GD? Did it go in Kevin? Did Nathan still die? Did Kim still die? Etc, etc. We have no idea what all happened in the past. If it happened as we saw it on the show or if it happened in an entirely different manner. Obviously, it was different. And we didn’t see it happen. That’s frustrating.

Fringe did the exact same thing, and we had to question even more when the change was that Peter died as little boy. How did Olivia get to see Walter when they said only family could see him? Peter is how she got to him in the first place. Half the problems on Fringe in the first three seasons are solved because of Peter, so now the audience has to question the outcome of all the past cases. Olivia went to the other universe to get Peter back and that’s when Fauxliva becomes a part of the story, so why in the new timeline did she still replace Olivia when Olivia had no reason to go to the other universe in the first freaking place because Peter didn’t exist? Then Olivia remembers everything as we do, and that just makes everything more confusing. I have no clue what happened in the timeline of the first three seasons of the show as the characters know it, so I can’t help but feel like the show is worthless at that point. My impetus to watch dropped dramatically in season four and disappeared almost entirely by the time I reached season five. You can see why voiding everything the viewer knows up to this point is a bad idea. It leaves too many questions that are almost never resolved and makes the viewer feel as if their time has been wasted.

Trying to Teleport down the Track: Fringe

I wrote above that season five of this show left me basically devoid of any reason to watch it and that is the other time pitfall shows tend to fall into: jumping into the future. I don’t mind a quick jaunt into the future (the episode before the conclusion of season three is a good example) or months or maybe a year tops into the future, but anything more than that makes me question the writing of a show. Fringe first jumped into the future in season four episode nineteen, and it ruined all tension of the season four plotline. Gee, do they stop Bell? Well, I don’t know. The earth was still there in episode nineteen, so I guess so. Thanks. They tried to not give away what happens to Olivia at the season four conclusion, so that still had some surprise to it, but the major dramatic question (Will Bell succeed/Will they win?) was resolved before the climax by that stupid episode. Then we have the huge jump in time between season four and five. Why do those decades destroy the show? Mostly, it makes viewers feel like they are missing out on stories, it creates a need for flashbacks (which lets face it, if the show wasn’t already utilizing those, it’s a bit late to be adding them in) which are typically not as active and therefore interesting as current scenes, and puts your characters on development ice. Now for some of the years, they were frozen in amber, but for some they weren’t, wherein we would imagine the characters went through some growth as per usual. The most important development we missed out on is probably the Observers decision to invade. I mean, that’s huge. Now, they tell us why they invade, but since these characters were already pretty central to the show, we needed to see their point of decision. The loss of this moment due to the time jump makes their actions seem completely out of character after the invasion and the invasion itself is questionable at this point. Time jumps leave far too many questions and a feeling of having missed major events in our characters’ lives.

Mimicking Another Runner: The Event, Flashforward, Insert-Lost-Copy-Name-Here

Lost really isn’t the first show like itself (that sounds really strange). Instead, I can name The 4400 as the first otherworldly mystery dramatic epic (that’s a lot of adjectives, but that is pretty much the best description of Lost, its fore-bearers, and successors). However, Lost made this type of show a seemingly money-making setup. A large group of people, something weird happens (sci-fi or magical), and they have to deal with it and their own personal problems. This also almost entirely describes the Global Event Magical Realist form. Shows starting popping up all over cable and broadcast trying to follow this format. For most of them, it didn’t pan out. The two big failures are The Event and Flashforward. Both these shows only lasted one season, and left us all with a bunch of questions. The Event was especially bad. In the first episode we see the main character in a past event with his girlfriend on a cruise ship and now trying to stop an airplane. Never in the entirety of the show do we see how he got from the cruise ship to trying to stop the plane. How did he know he needed to stop the plane? How did he physically get from the cruise to chasing down the tarmac? No clue. No answer. Most likely they didn’t have a plan for that. The show ends after one season on a cliffhanger. Flashforward, which also ends on a cliffhanger after one season, was based on a work of fiction that was not an epic dramatic mystery so much as it was more typical sci-fi that asks questions about how science affects our understanding of life. This show is better done than The Event, but still tries too hard to be Lost. They did hire Charlie and Penny (no, I’m not going to look up their real names). The show also, like Lost and The Event, was too bloated with too much going on. Most of these Lost copies don’t do all that well because they tend to lack vision as Lost had. Most come out of a desire to make that Lost money, as opposed to someone having a good idea.

Running in the Wrong Direction: V

I’m a big V fan. I can watch the original miniseries again and again. It has direction and good imagery (some of which is stolen for Independence Day). It’s heartbreaking at times in very real ways and its play on Nazism is very well done. The Final Battle is okay by comparison, and I never watched the series. I did watch the new series when it came out a few years ago. First of all, I hated the fact that they kept saying V stood for Visitor. I hated Tyler. Most annoying teenager ever. They were far too in love with the green screen. But that’s beside the point. The real problem with this show is how the rebels, for whom the audience was rooting, never won a single fight. Not only that, but somehow, everything they did kept making things easier for Anna. They blow up a shuttle, she makes it look like it was full of humans. They try to destroy her power plant, instead they knock out all the human power. They try to kill her, instead she looks like a brave hero and kills her mother. It’s the most frustrating plot progression ever. The only ground they ever gained is when Erica killed all the soldiers. After that, it’s all a pretty smooth ride for Anna. Hell, she even gets the hybrid. Second season was especially bad for this, and they tried to make it more palatable by having Diana and Marc Singer. That was nice, I guess, but it’s no coincidence that Anna basically won all of Earth and then the show was cancelled. It’s not an underdog story if the underdog doesn’t win.

Tripping Up on the Second Lap: Battlestar Galactica

I’ve never seen the original TV show, but I watched the new mini-series and series. I, for the most part, enjoyed the show. Gaius Baltar and Caprica Six were very interesting. It was fun trying to figure out if he was crazy or if she was really there. Though the show took things too far at times with the mysticism, such as Starbuck’s storyline. Bringing in Admiral Cain was a major misstep, because her character and her methods were so hateable, it made it hard to watch the show. Rape as a form of interrogation is not just the most ridiculous and detestable of ideas but also a form of sensationalist writing that the show should have avoided. The series finale tried to compete with The Return of the King for most endings, to the point where I stopped caring and just wanted it to end so I could move on with my life already. Then there was Dean Stockwell’s death at the climax that seemed so slapdash and quick that for a moment there I thought I was watching a parody. The show started to show its true issues in the first episode of season two. No progress in plot was made in this episode. It was all a stall to not answer questions or resolve issues. They couldn’t remove the bullet from Adama’s stomach but were able to open his chest and perform open heart palpitations? That’s insane. Open chest surgery involving a person’s heart is so much harder than removing a bullet from the abdomen. I remember being confused as well by the sudden appearance of Ty Olsson as Capt. Kelly, but at the time, I hadn’t been able to see the miniseries yet. I wonder what Olsson had been doing instead for all of season one. The reason why this first episode was all a stall is that a show usually has way more time to develop season one than they do season two. As a result, season two can sometimes suffer from rushed pre-production. If you pay close attention, you can see that this also happened in the first episode of season one because the real first season is the mini-series which had more pre-production time than the first season of the show. Second seasons have a tendency to be kind of weak story-wise, but some are more weak than others, namely Battlestar Galactica and Heroes, both of which premiered their season two with lackluster stories. For some strange reason that is completely beyond me, a lot of people liked the season two premier of Battlestar Galactica. Nothing happened in that episode. Nothing. What’s there to like?

Going Too Slowly: Caprica

This attempt at a spinoff wanted to show BSG fans how the cylons were made (but, doh! the show it spins off from gives conflicting origins, Oops!). It could have been really interesting. But it totally wasn’t. This is the main reason it never took off on its own. That show is boring. It’s hard to believe that terrorists, parents dealing with the loss of their children, the invention of AI, and really cool technology couldn’t hold any interest, but when the show goes at the pace of snail making its way through mud and dicks around with far too many subplots, viewers tend to lose interest. I don’t believe this show was just cancelled because it was boring, but also because it was contrary to the plots of Battlestar Galactica. There isn’t much to say about shows like this because nothing much happens in them. Well, it was okay, but I’d rather watch something else even if I’ve seen it before is the most one can say when it comes to boring shows. Could’ve been good, wasn’t.

Running in First, But the Coach Decided to Run on the Field and Tackle Their Own Runner: Alphas and Firefly

Now this may be the saddest thing you’ll ever see on television: a great show, with great writing and production, that’s killed too early. Alphas, Firefly, A Gifted Man. These are just a few of the heroes we’ve lost to consumerism. There is nothing wrong with any of these shows. Alphas lasted two seasons and ended on a cliffhanger. A Gifted Man lasted one season and ended up in the air. Firefly didn’t even get a full season, but we were lucky enough to get a movie. Alphas was great. It was better than Heroes. It had a tight cast of characters and a single direction (unlike Heroes which was far too much like an actual comic book). A Gifted Man was pseudo magic realism and followed one man’s journey into becoming a better person and saving lives in the process. Firefly, like Alphas, had a tight cast of characters but was much more about adventurism. It was better than Farscape. Why were these shows cancelled? It wasn’t the writers, the directors, or the actors. It was the channel and the studio. Sy-Fy strikes again with Alphas by not advertising enough. At this point, I don’t trust Sy-Fy to actually conclude a show ever again. I never heard of A Gifted Man until it was on Netflix and my spouse suggested it. Again, feels like a lack of advertising and not keeping up with changing viewership. Then there was the clusterfuck that was Firefly’s handling by Fox. They put it in the nicknamed “Friday Night Deathslot”. You can pretty much trust sci-fi nerds like myself to stay in on a Friday night to watch a show, but we all already were staying in on Friday nights to watch Sy-Fy’s Farscape, an already established show. I didn’t even hear about Firefly until years after even the movie came out, and I love sci-fi. Then Whedon tried to work with Fox again what with Dollhouse, and we all saw how well that worked out. I hope some execs got fired over there once The Avengers was the top grossing film of the year. Serves them right.

Cancelled

Being cancelled is not always the worst thing to happen to a show. Sometimes they drag on forever getting worse and worse as time goes on. Sometimes they suck from the beginning. Sometimes they go off the rails, and they can do that in several different ways. It is, however, very hard to handle when a good show is cancelled for no good reason. For the most part, it comes down to mishandling scheduling, advertising, misunderstanding viewership, and feeling like the project is “not successful enough”. Not that it isn’t successful, but that the project isn’t making as much money as they would like. They could, in fact, be making money over their costs, but the studio isn’t satisfied with the profit margin. That seems like a crazy attitude. It means that the studio is willing to cancel a sure thing for a possible loss or possible better thing. It just seems stupid. I get wanting to make money, but if you are already making money, why scrap the project? Just invest in getting more viewership, or wait for word of mouth to do it for you. All I’m saying is stop making bad decisions about TV shows, stop fighting with the creators so much. Demographics, statistics, and ratings are at this time very unreliable information. Move with the times, of fall in the dust.

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2015 in Craft of Writing

 

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Subtext: Some Have It, Others Don’t

First, What Is It?

Subtext is implied information. It’s that simple. It comes from high context relationships, wherein two or more people have common knowledge of past events and refer to them without stating an outline of the events and how they effected each other and their futures. Most people employ subtext when talking to old friends and family. An inside joke is the simplest form of subtext, but in writing subtext tends to be a little more sophisticated. Usually because the characters don’t want to really bring that old crap into the light. Subtext in a narrative is the best way to do exposition of plot and explore motivations of characters. Not all writers are good at this. Some writers hit a reader over the head with exposition and motivation. They hit them with signs that say “EXPOSITION!!!” and “MOTIVATION!!!” and most readers and viewers balk at that kind of clunky story telling. But it is easier to show then to tell, so I’m going to use DraculaKill Bill Vol. I, and Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard for my examples, so . . . spoilers.

For those you you who don’t watch this show, this moment happened right when Spongebob dropped the dialogue bomb of why Mr. Krabs had been gone (he was on vacation). It was purposely clunky, hence the title above his head.

Subtext or Are You Reading Too Much Into It?

There is a joke going around the internet about English professors right now that I love. Here it is:

It makes me laugh every time I see it or think of it, because I completely get it. While reading Dracula for a course, I was repeatedly confused by the idea that Lucy was a slut. Not vampire Lucy, but normal Lucy. I don’t get this. The evidence given to support her promiscuousness is the blood transfusions from four different men, one of whom (Arthur) said it made him feel like they were truly bonded in marriage. I get the idea of mingling blood relating to sex as one result of sex is consanguinity as in the creation of children; however, based on how the instances of the transfusions came about negates any agency from her in the act. She was passed out each time, suggesting instead non-consensual mingling of blood, just as Dracula took her blood without her consent. The leap from her lack of say in the blood transfusions to her being promiscuous seems very far fetched as her inability to consent completely throws out the idea of her as promiscuous which requires an act of agency and instead reinforces her as victim. The whole theory also throws out the fact that this was a life-saving medical procedure (do we consider getting a blood transfusion from strangers as a metaphor for sex when we are in a car accident and need one? No, we don’t. We consider it a medically necessary procedure.)

Some have brought up the fact that she had three suitors, like that is somehow evidence. I disagree as she was an heiress of good breeding and sweet nature. In the time period of the novel, three suitors is quite normal, especially considering the fact that before engagement people would refer to each other by titles and surnames. Dating wasn’t really a thing. Instead we would see friends of the girl’s family spending time with her in public spaces and with other family members and guests. There wasn’t really proclamations of love until a marriage proposal was also voiced. Men of this time were also hard pressed to get a woman alone to profess and propose, which was the only time it wasn’t unseemly for a girl to be alone with a man. Lucy’s three proposals are only strange in the fact that they all happened on the same day. If she had acquiesced to each man or showed fickleness in her decision, I could see an argument for a metaphor for promiscuousness, but I did not see evidence of any fickleness. Lucy seemed quite sure she wanted to marry Arthur to the very end. She does say something about how society doesn’t let a woman have as many husbands as she wants, but she isn’t thinking about sex but about the hurt she had to give to Dr. Seward and Quincey by saying no. She also knew it was a silly thought. She was most likely thinking idealistically, not sexually. I had serious doubts that Lucy knew much about sex, as she didn’t seem to come close to this consideration in any of her writings.

Other flimsy arguments that she was promiscuous bring up the times Dr. Seward and Dr. Van Helsing stayed in her room all night or washed her in a bathtub. This is again refuted by looking at their actions from the medical profession. Had they not done these things she would have died sooner, just as with the blood transfusions. Doctors throughout the ages have spent time in female patients’ rooms without it being called unseemly, far before the period of the book. I agree that the time period of the novel is far more stringent in its decrying of sexuality than say one hundred years prior, but medicine and science were gaining ground at this time over perceived propriety as is evidenced by the entirety of the British Gothic genre which includes far more scientific theory than previous genres.

My overall point though is what exactly do people see in that novel of Lucy’s actions pre-vampire to suggest her being promiscuous that can’t be brushed away by other evidence? I feel as though this is a game of rumor that has been going on for more than a century about this novel. Or preconceived notions gained from others’ interpretations such as that very awful movie where Lucy is naked and moaning throughout most of it. The idea of vampirism being about sex is an established theory, but in most instances then it would seem vampirism is about rape, wherein vampires attack and take from their victims without their consent. I think when Stoker has his characters describe Lucy as sweet, poor, or angelic, I believe he means she was sweet, poor, and angelic. I believe she was developed this way to make her undead state more contrasted and horrifying. I also believe she had so many suitors because Stoker needed someway to have a medical professional in (Dr. Seward), a representation of English power (Arthur), and a classical hero (Quincey) all in the story and connected to Dracula in a believable way with a motivation to go after him (the death of a woman they all loved). So I do not believe the subtext for Lucy being promiscuous is actually in the book but is being read into it. The novel does have subtext, just not that interpretation.

The Opposite of Subtext

Years ago when I was in a two year playwriting program, I was made to read Checkov’s The Cherry Orchard. I’m still scratching my head on that one. Not because it was particularly deep but because I didn’t understand what anyone saw in it. Though I’ll freely admit that the names made following it harder, the dialogue itself often left something to be desired. The beginning has a lot of moments where people reminisce. As a writer, I can’t endorse reminiscence as a form of exposition. I can barely endorse it for any reason. It seems too clunky, and in The Cherry Orchard people have a reason for reminiscing, but it still comes kind of out of no where and leaves a lot of emotionality to be desired. Like this moment:

“ANYA. [Thoughtfully] Father died six years ago, and a month later my brother Grisha was drowned in the river– such a dear little boy of seven! Mother couldn’t bear it; she went away, away, without looking round. . . . [Shudders] How I understand her; if only she knew! [Pause] And Peter Trofimov was Grisha’s tutor, he might tell her. . . .”

There is no impetus for this line at all. It is a statement of facts. Telling us backstory. It’s a non-reply to Varya saying “I told them not to wake him.” Where is Anya’s motivation for saying this? It’s no where. I’ve heard that Checkov is a master of subtext, but stating backstory for no reason is the opposite of subtext. I’ve also been hard pressed to hear the subtext in other moments. Another harsh critic of Checkov believes that a good director took hold of Checkov’s work and told the actors how to behave to give the work depth versus it being in the actual text. This sounds like a good theory to me.

Good Use of Subtext

Now I’m a pretty big fan of the Kill Bill movies. They have great dialogue, great fights, good imagery, good acting, and a sense of humor about itself. In a recent rewatch, I realized there was more to the first one than one would think. Mainly, in the relationship between O-Ren Ishii and the Bride. There are some major clues in this movie that O-Ren and the Bride had a close friendship before the incident in the Texas chapel, but let’s go through them.

One: The first person on the Bride’s list is O-Ren, before the obviously easier Vernita Green. But the Bride wants to handle one of the most challenging of her targets first. There could be many reasons for this: she wants the others to know she’s coming (why else would she leave Sophie alive?), she wants to see if she is capable of fighting and killing after so long, she wants to get the arguably hardest challenge out of the way first, or O-Ren was important to her. I do believe that all of these are the truth and feed into the Bride’s motivations for taking down O-Ren first.

Two: The only person on the Bride’s list to get a biography is O-Ren. When going after Vernita, the Bride simply tells the audience where Vernita is now; whereas, O-Ren is shown at an important moment in her life (becoming the Yakuza boss in Japan) without the Bride there. Then we see a quite long and personal anime sequence showing how O-Ren became the woman she is, including the most important moments of her childhood. We do not see anyone else’s, including the Bride’s, childhood in either movie. We do not know what happened to the rest of the squad or Bill as children to turn them into killers, but we do see this with O-Ren. But how does the Bride know any of this? It is my theory that O-Ren told her about these moments as they grew closer in the squad or even before the squad (it is entirely possible that O-Ren and the Bride had teamed up before joining the squad). If O-Ren did tell the Bride about her childhood, it was most likely because the two relied on each and felt they could trust one another. Perhaps the Bride shared her childhood with O-Ren as well.

Three: The report in the present of the movie between O-Ren and the Bride is very easy but lacks overt expressions of motivation or emotion, unlike the dialogue between the Bride and Vernita, which is instead comprised of the digging up of old issues between the two, most likely never voiced. Overall, the best moment of subtext in this movie is an exchange between O-Ren and the Bride that had a lot of people scratching their heads as to the reason it was even in the movie.

While the reference to the the cereal slogan may seem out of place, it isn’t if we consider it subtextually. If based on evidences presented in One and Two mean that O-Ren and the Bride were once close friends, then this moment could be taken as a throwback to earlier dialogue they would have had when working together. Perhaps when they thought an assignment was going to be easy, but it turned out harder than expected, they would exchange these words and get amusement from it. Most people who are close repeat humorous exchanges throughout their relationship, so this is not a crazy conclusion to draw. So by repeating it here, O-Ren and the Bride are bittersweetly referencing their former closeness as opposed to giving a breakfast cereal free advertising.

Their final exchanges were laced with apology and respect. It did not seem as though O-Ren was simply apologizing for making fun of the Bride but possibly also for her part in the chapel massacre, and that the Bride was accepting that apology, but because of who they are (killers) the Bride and O-Ren are going to finish this fight. The idea of giving forgiveness while still fighting to the death is a very old Samurai story theme, making it both deep and in good tradition. O-Ren can’t voice an apology for the massacre because it is too horrible of an action to ask for forgiveness outright, so the scene is very heavy with all that happened between them before they meet this time.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 is chock full of subtext (and some hints as well, like the fact that it was Bill who actually did the killing of O-Ren’s parents) and is worth another watch to suss out back story and connections between the characters.

To Conclude

It is important not to read too much into a work, to read into it what you want to see versus what is actually there. But it is also important to pay attention and think about what is being presented while reading or watching a story. As a writer, it is important to use tact when creating back story as tact is the secret ingredient in creating good subtext.

Are there any works you find are lacking in tact? List them below! Or are really good at subtext? Explain why you feel that way.

 
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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Craft of Writing

 

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