Fairness in storytelling

Dinosaur 13: Statement Pictures, 2014

Behind the Curve – Dinosaur 13 (2014)

A while back there was this bit on Last Week Tonight that showed footage from a interesting zoological study to illustrate its point. There were two monkeys placed in adjacent cages. The researchers had them perform the exact same task. One was paid with a grape; the other with a cucumber slice. The monkey who received the cucumber promptly tossed it on the ground. He threw a tantrum, rattling the bars of his cage. Clearly, he had been cheated.

That monkey’s anguish should be familiar to most people. It’s the same feeling you got when your brother or sister got something that you didn’t. Our primate minds appear to naturally recognize the concept of fairness. We see what another gets and think “I should get at least that much. And when we feel this internal justice has been violated, it cuts us deeply (unless, of course, it’s violated in our favor).

From nationalgeographic.com
From nationalgeographic.com

We carry this innate sense of justice with us to to our. The characters who illicit some of my most vitriolic hatred are not murderers or rapists; they’re cheaters and manipulators. Characters who take more than they’ve earned, or who have managed to avoid punishment for a transgression. Dinosaur 13 contains an excellent example of this character. Maurice Williams is a landowner who sold the T. Rex skeleton, “Sue,” to the small group of paleontologists who found it on his land for $5,000, more than any fossil had sold for at that time. You can see him agreeing to the sale on video. Williams used legal loopholes to steal the skeleton back (I don’t know if the paleontologists got their money back). While never actually breaking the law, we can all agree that this is a crappy move. Yet, Williams does not pay for his crappiness. He eventually makes 7.6 million from it. Meanwhile, the federal government prosecutes the aforementioned paleontologists for a bizarre collection of non-crimes. One of them ends up serving 2 years in federal prison for “failure to fill out paperwork.” If you’re anything like me, that turn of events ought to piss you off.

The human instinct for fairness can be invaluable to the storyteller, allowing him to create powerful emotion in the audience relatively early to get them hooked. But don’t forget that the audience will expect you to follow through. We wait eagerly for the villain’s comeuppance. We want to see Hans Gruber falling off the building.

Let’s look at Game of Thrones, a series that has elicited more of this fairness indignation than any show in recent memory. But they are inconsistent with the payoff. It’s fantastic when we get the satisfaction of seeing Joffrey’s stupid, evil, Justin Bieber-esque face as he chokes and dies. But that’s the exception. More often it seems as if nothing comes of it. The Freys and the Boltons are still living quite comfortably on their ill-gotten gains. Eventually the indignation dies down and it leaves me, as an audience member with a feeling of mild disappointment. I feel that there’s something incomplete about the experience.

Dinosaur 13: Statement Pictures, 2014
Dinosaur 13: Statement Pictures, 2014

I dislike this effect in Game of Thrones because it feels like an accident. But leaving the audience with a feeling of incompleteness can be an asset to your story. Dinosaur 13 doesn’t have the option of paying off its injustices. The story came from the real world, a notoriously unfair place. The filmmakers understand this and allow us to embrace our outrage inherent in the story. By the end of the documentary we’re stewing in a kind of bitter, defeated acceptance of the status quo, which turns out to be quite powerful. I think we need a wobbly ending sometimes to remind us that our world could still use improvement.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay) (2015) – Monday, January 4
  • Movie: Léon: The Professional (1994) – Thursday, January 7
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11
  • Documentary: Super Size Me (2004) – Thursday, January 14
  • Book: On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957) – Monday, January 25

The novel as a movie incubator

Jurassic Park: Universal Pictures, 1993

Behind the Curve – Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990)

Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, I think Jurassic Park the book is destine to be always overshadowed by its cinematic counterpart. Before Michael Crichton’s dinosaur thriller even hit shelves, the movie rights had been bought up. Crichton himself helped adapt it to screenplay, although his script was drastically changed by subsequent screenwriters. When Jurassic Park the movie became one of the most beloved and influential blockbusters of all time (it currently occupies a place in my personal “best movies of all time” lineup), the book’s fate was sealed. It will always be supplementary material.

Jurassic Park: Universal Pictures, 1993
Jurassic Park: Universal Pictures, 1993

When people see that iconic T-rex skeleton in a red circle, they think about the movie. I’m sure plenty of people have no idea Jurassic Park was ever a book. This seems like both a blessing and a curse for the author. I’m sure Michael Crichton is proud to have created something that’s had such a profound cultural impact, that’s touched so many people’s lives and imagination. But on the other hand, it must be frustrating to write a novel and see it reduced to an ancillary product. Like a digital comic book or a novelty lunchbox.

While I was reading Jurassic Park, comparisons to the movie were unavoidable. I couldn’t help myself. I’d analyze the characters, how they differed from their cinematic counterparts. Dr. Alan Grant was described in the book as having a rugged beard, but when I pictured him I envisioned Sam Neill’s clean-shaven face. I’d spot quotes that were used in the movie, perhaps uttered by a different character at a different time, and I’d think, “Ah, I’m glad they kept that in.” I had to keep reminding myself that the book came first.

Certainly I enjoyed the book; it’s an excellent (if overly-expository) example of science fiction thriller that’s enjoyable on its own merits and has a lot to say. There are even some moments that surpass the movie, such as when the characters find a raptor nest and learn why they want to get off the island. But the previous experience I bring to it; that every reader from now until eternity will bring to it, dilutes the experience. As someone who believes books should be able to stand on their own merits, I feel like Jurassic Park the novel is failing on a fundamental level.

Jurassic Park: Universal Pictures, 1993
Jurassic Park: Universal Pictures, 1993

I foresee situations like this will become more common as the movie industry continues to rely on novels and comic books for material. As a writer it’s hard to know how to feel about this. On the one hand, I have daydreamed about my characters making it to the big screen. But on the other hand, I feel it’s a betrayal of the print medium. A novel should be so much more than a movie incubator. It should first and foremost be a piece of the written storytelling. It should be a full novel, if that makes sense; not a blueprint.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Dinosaur 13 (2014) – Thursday, December 31
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay) (2015) – Monday, January 4
  • Movie: Léon: The Professional (1994) – Thursday, January 7
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11
  • Book: On the Road (Jack Kerouac, 1957) – Monday, January 25

Is it racist or illusion racist?

Big Trouble in Little China: TAFT Entertainment Pictures, 1986

Behind the Curve – Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Big Trouble in Little China is an interesting film, to say the least. There’s certainly a ton of energy on display. The film jumps spasmodically from one explosive, special effects-filled martial arts punch-up to the next, taking us on a world tour of it’s colorful version of San Francisco China Town filled with psuedo-Chinese mythology. The whole movie is absurd, but one of it’s tricks is never lingering long enough to let us think about its absurdity. Why did the bad guy kidnap the girl? Because she has green eyes, of course! Don’t worry about it. Watch this guy! He shoots lightning! I respect that to a point. And our hero, tough-talking every-man Jack Burton, makes for a fun audience surrogate through the whole thing.

Big Trouble in Little China: TAFT Entertainment Pictures, 1986
Big Trouble in Little China: TAFT Entertainment Pictures, 1986

The movie should be a blast, but I couldn’t shake this lingering worry in the back of my head: isn’t the whole thing just a little bit racist? The film clearly takes inspiration from martial arts B movies rather than genuine Chinese mythology, and those films are known to be – let’s say “cavalier” – with Asian heritage. One could argue that Big Trouble in Little China is a satire because of it’s ridiculous, wacky tone, but I don’t buy that. If so, it’s a satire in the same way Scream is, doing basically the same thing as what it’s satirizing but occasionally pointing to itself and giggling.

Despite having about three non-Asian cast members, the movie seems to embrace Asian stereotypes (both positive and negative) wholeheartedly. For example, every Asian in the movie knows martial arts. Even Burton’s sidekick, who seems to be an older version of Short Round from Indiana Jones. But the villain is probably the worst example, possessing that distastefully lecherous aspect of Asian stereotype that puts me in mind of Mr. Yunioshi from Breakfast at Tiffany‘s.

Big Trouble in Little China: TAFT Entertainment Pictures, 1986
Big Trouble in Little China: TAFT Entertainment Pictures, 1986

But perhaps I’m blowing this out of proportion. I admit that most objections stem from the large amount of white guilt I carry around with me. Perhaps I’m over-sensitive to this kind of thing. I don’t hear the Asian community en mass complaining about Big Trouble in Little China, so why should I? If it had been about Western mythology I’d never have batted an eye, so it’s possible I have something of a double standard.

And most importantly, there doesn’t seem to be any malice in Big Trouble in Little China. Perhaps that’s because it never had anything to say about race to begin with. It just wants to provide a fun, explosive, video game-esque ride.

 

Coming up:

  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28
  • Documentary: Dinosaur 13 (2014) – Thursday, December 31
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay)(2015) – Monday, January 4
  • Movie: Léon: The Professional (1994) – Thursday, January 7
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11

Why society needs death

Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988

Behind the Curve – Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988)

Sometimes writing about Star Trek episodes feels like cheating. With things like Sopranos or Inside Out, I have to mull over the stories for a while before coming up with a blog topic. Star Trek is courteous enough to scream the topics directly at my face.

In other words, the show can be a bit heavy-handed. But we love you anyway, Star Trek!

In this episode, Data finds 3 frozen bodies on an old derelict ship. They’re all humans from a time suggested to be around present day. Each died of a malady that was incurable during their time, but the Enterprise is able to easily correct the problem and revive the individuals.

The episodes revolves around their old world values clashing with the more advanced Federation society. For example, one of individuals is a financier who wants to check on his investments, but money as we know it is basically nonexistent in the Federation. Classic Fish-out-of-Water plot. And at the end of the episode there’s the mandatory “how far we’ve come” moment where the bridge crew reflects upon the greed and ignorance of the past.

Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988
Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988

But what’s interesting to me, and what seems to go unremarked through most of the episode, is that the ancient humans’ greatest ignorance was their lust for life. The fact that they froze themselves in the first place demonstrates a greed for life and fear of death that seems primitive.

The idea of immortality has probably been around since humans first became conscious of their inevitable doom. Since then, nonexistence has been our biggest fear. It’s why the idea of an immortal soul is so popular with religions around the world. Bodily death is less frightening if it’s not the end of consciousness. But the fear of death is powerful among secular society as well. Scientist and futurists talk about extending the human life indefinitely, either through medicine or cybernetics or virtual storage. Some futurists believe human death will disappear within the next century.

While I certainly see the appeal, such immortality has always struck me as greedy and shortsighted. A dream born of primitive fears.

Think about the problems that arise if nobody dies. First of all, you create a shortage of some kind of resource. It might change depending on the nature of the immortality. For example, it consciousness were digitally stored we’d eventually reach a shortage of hard drive space. There’s ultimately a finite amount of raw material in the universe that can be used to make hard drives. It’s a big number, certainly, but it’s finite.

Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988
Star Trek The Next Generation: Paramount Domestic Television, 1988

However, I suspect the resource crisis will be something more mundane. Imagine if every person who’d ever existed was still alive here on Earth. It wouldn’t be long before the problems popped up. Food shortages, over population, runaway pollution and greenhouse effects from all the people using energy. Some countries have these problems today. We could stave off the problem for a good long while if we begin exploring the universe, but not forever. Nothing is unlimited.

And then there will be the cultural impact on younger generations. Human growth has always fundamental been a process of stepping up the social ladders as you grow older. This happens in all organizations and all family units. Take for example a police force in a large city. You start out as a lowly patrol officer. Eventually you work your way up to detective. When your captain retires, you’re chosen to replace him. Eventually the Chief of police retires and you take over the position. As you move up the ranks, you’re bringing with you new ideas and modern attitudes. The man who was Chief before you couldn’t operate a computer. The man before him hated black people. You’re a more efficient Chief for the modern era.

But that only happens when people get older, weaker. If people retire and die. If not, the old people in power will stay in power forever. That’s not a good thing. It means that archaic ideas will never be challenged or revised. And if the young people are robbed of their opportunity to move up the social ladders, that means each new generation will simply occupy the lowest rung on the ladder. We’d have to keep adding rungs lower and lower.

In my opinion, attempting to live forever is selfish and unfair to the younger generation. But the desire is understandable. Everyone fears death. It’s the ultimate unknown. We don’t know what happens, and it represents a point of no return. But remember that death is also a natural and necessary part of being human. By dying, we make room for a new generation of with fresh ideas. Overcoming our primitive fear of death will be challenging, but I believe it’s critical for humanity’s intellectual growth.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Thursday, December 24
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28
  • Documentary: Dinosaur 13 (2014) – Thursday, December 31
  • Show: The Jinx (Chapter 1: A Body in the Bay)(2015) – Monday, January 4
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11

Art is bulls**t

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Paranoid Pictures, 2010

Behind the Curve – Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

Exit Through the Gift Shop not a film about Banksy as I initially assumed. Within the first 5 minutes, we were presented with Banksy’s silhouette telling as much. No, this movie is about the strange man who filmed Banksy.

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Paranoid Pictures, 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop: Paranoid Pictures, 2010

Thierry Guetta, currently operating as “Mr. Brainwash,” is a French-born Los Angeles-based videographer and “street artist.” You’ll understand later why that’s in quotes. More than anything, Guetta reminds me of Philippe Petit from Man on Wire, which may hint at my feelings towards him if you’re a regular visitor. Guetta used to lead a normal life, but one day he picked up a video camera and started filming everything. Literally everything. By chance, Guetta stumbled upon the burgeoning street art scene and became acquainted with many of the big players, including Banksy. Although hesitant about being filmed (because they were technically committing crimes), the artists allowed Guetta to tag along because he claim to be making a documentary. The only problem? He wasn’t.

Guetta filmed. That was it. In his own words, tape was basically dead to him once he stored it. He was recording thousands of hours of footage, and then stuffing it away in unlabeled boxes. Maybe Guetta had the vague intention of putting something together, but it feels like a low priority. Anyone with video editing experience knows you’re just making more work for yourself.

At Banksy’s urging, Guetta did eventually piece a movie together. Only it sucked. It basically consisted of a series of disorienting jump cuts and a screeching soundtrack. Like Guetta had pieced it together randomly.

Appalled, Banksy took it upon himself to make a legitimate street art documentary from Guetta’s footage. But first he distracted Guetta by suggesting the videographer produce a street art show in L.A. Guetta takes that mission to heart and takes on the moniker “Mr. Brainwash.” Then through eccentricity and media manipulation, Guetta’s debut show becomes a huge hit. Despite being a complete amateur, Mr. Brainwash is suddenly one of the biggest street art stars.

I don’t typically summarize a story so thoroughly, but there’s a lot of junk to unpack here. Perhaps most important are the central questions of the film: Is “art” a real thing? Is “good art” real? And if so, can people recognize it?

Exit Through the Gift Shop: Paranoid Pictures, 2010
Exit Through the Gift Shop: Paranoid Pictures, 2010

The primary problem the film has with Guetta is that he never earned his success. First of all, he’s an amateur. Sure, he occasionally helped street artist while filming, but he’s only created it for a very short period of time. For him to have his own art show is like the NFL signing a contract with a middle school football player. The other problem is that Guetta doesn’t actually create much of the art in his show. Judging from the movie, he seems to come up with an idea he likes and then delegate its execution to various builders and graphic designers. It was very factorylike. I’m not saying art can’t be a collaborative effort, but I don’t think Mr. Brainwash can claim he personally “created” that piece. If I just had to come up with ideas for novels and let others do the actual writing, I’d be a Pulitzer winner by now.

I can’t personally speak for the quality of the pieces; I’m not really a portrait and sculpture guy. I get the impression that not a lot of thought went into them. Guetta seemed more interested in promotion, media relations and sales.

But despite all that, there’s no denying Guetta’s success. Over 50,000 visitors went to his show and he sold a fortune in art pieces. And people loved it. They called Mr. Brainwash a genius. So how do you explain the success of such a man? Is Guetta an eccentric genius? Or are people just that gullible? A little of both?

In many ways, Guetta’s life feels like a work of art in its own right. Specifically, it’s performance art that’s intended to demonstrate how flimsy the concepts of art and culture are in our society.

 

Coming up:

  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988) – Monday, December 21
  • Movie: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Thursday, December 24
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28
  • Documentary: Dinosaur 13 (2014) – Thursday, December 31
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11

Objectively stupid – the problem with objectivism

Bioshock: Irrational Games, 2007

Behind the Curve – Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007)

Wow. Objectivism is a really awful philosophy, isn’t it? I mean even describing it as a philosophy seems charitable. If you’re unfamiliar, objectivism is the school of thought created by novelist Ayn Rand that says working exclusively for one’s own self-interest is not just a human right, but a moral imperative. She describes the essence of objectivism in Atlas Shrugged: “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.”

That’s the theory. In practice it lets rich people act like selfish pricks with the smug justification of moral superiority.

As you may have guessed I’m not a huge fan of Miss Rand. I find objectivism a vile and shortsighted philosophy which discourages charitable work and humanitarian cooperation in favor of simple greed. The philosophical equivalent of a spoiled brat. It’s the kind of thinking that would, hypothetically, lead to an asshole CEO buying up the rights to a lifesaving drug and jacking the price up by 5,000%. Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Bioshock: Irrational Games, 2007
Bioshock: Irrational Games, 2007

To this day, objectivism is popular among the political right in America. Rand’s most famous novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, have been championed by libertarians and conservatives for years. I find that a little weird since conservatives are always going on about Christian values and objectivism is straight-up anti-Christian. I’m not just talking about the overarching philosophy, which is frankly incompatible with Christian teaching (If I remember my Bible study, Jesus didn’t care for greed). Objectivism is direct in it’s opposition to Christianity. Ayn Rand herself dismissed religion as primitive superstition. In fact in Rapture, the objectivist society whose ruins you explore in Bioshock, the Bible was banned. They crucified smugglers who brought it in.

Bioshock does a great job exposing the fallacies inherent to objectivist thought, and by extension lot of conservative ideology. For example, objectivism essentially advocates a meritocratic society, where the best ideas and businesses survive and all others fall by the wayside. Sounds great. But for that to work there needs to be an economy that is an equal playing field, which has never happened in the history of humanity. Economic success has always been influenced by the success of one’s parents, as much as Republican presidential candidates are loathe to admit it. That’s one way we get income inequality.

The wealth gap in Rapture was even worse than here in America. The rich held all the power, and it was stupidly easy for them to keep it. The objectivist policies of Rapture allowed rich business leaders to charge as much as they want and pay as little as they want.

We learn that Rapture’s downfall came when Frank Fontaine (get it?? The Fountainhead?) went to war with the the city’s founder, Andrew Ryan (get it?). Fontaine set up charity programs throughout the city and used them to win goodwill and build an army. Fontaine explains in an audio log: “These sad saps. They come to Rapture, thinking they’re gonna be captains of industry. But they all forget that somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets.” There were sharp divides between the rich and the poor in Rapture. Fontaine was able to exploit that inequality to his advantage and create a people’s revolution.

Bioshock: Irrational Games, 2007
Bioshock: Irrational Games, 2007

Sound far-fetched? It shouldn’t. It’s happened in real life. The most famous example would be the French Revolution, where aristocrats were publicly beheaded by a furious working class. Turns out people get angry when they’re not getting a fair deal.

It’s worth remembering that not everyone on the planet can be a small business owner. There will always be toilet scrubbers. We need to make sure those people are treated fairly. Not just for the sake of the toilet scrubbers; but for the sake of the 1%-ers as well. Their lives may literally be at risk.

 

Coming up:

  • Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Thursday, December 17
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988) – Monday, December 21
  • Movie: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Thursday, December 24
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28
  • Game: Amnesia: The Dark Descent (Frictional Games, 2010) – Monday, January 11

Inside Out is Pixar literally showing us how it’s done

pixar

Behind the Curve – Inside Out (2015)

When it comes to American animation, Pixar has been the undisputed king for years. It was a hard-won crown. They had to wrestle it away from Walt Disney Animation Studios in their prime back in the late 90s; no easy fight. From then until now, we’ve lived in the Pixar Era of animation.

Many ambitious studios have attempted to usurp the king over the years, but to no avail. The power struggle has been excellent for moviegoers, giving us animated treasures such as Ice Age, Wreck-It-Ralph and The Lego Movie. Dreamworks, probably Pixar’s most dedicated rival, has put out excellent entries like Shrek, Antz and How to Train Your Dragon. But it was never enough. Even during these last 5 years, while the king had been in something of a rut. Pixar’s last 3 movies (Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University) were considered comparative disappointments. The stage was set for Dreamworks or Disney Animation to step forward and take the crown. But they never could. And now Pixar is making a strong return with Inside Out.

No one can touch Pixar when it comes to comedy animation that any age can enjoy, and I think it’s because they take the genre to the next level. Sure, Pixar movies are funny, but so is Dreamworks. The animation looks fantastic, but so does Dreamworks. The reason Pixar movies are in a class of their own is because they hit us on a deep, emotional level. We smile while we watch, but we also find ourselves crying. Pixar makes us care about animated characters with a consistency no other studio can match.

Inside Out: Pixar, 2015
Inside Out: Pixar, 2015

That’s a formula Pixar has perfected. And in a bizarre demonstration of meta storytelling, Pixar actually explains their formula within the plot of Inside Out. The story follows the adventures of anthropomorphized emotions inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, Riley. The main character, Joy, leads a team of Riley’s emotions. She’s kept Riley happy all their life, and indeed seems totally driven towards this goal to the point where she openly questions the need for Sadness, her fellow emotion. At one point when Joy and Sadness are both trying to return to the control center, Joy even attempts to abandon Sadness. But it is only through Sadness that both of them get back. Joy realizes that Sadness is necessary for Riley to become a mature adult and have more complex and ultimately more satisfying emotional experiences.

That message coming through loud enough for you?

Inside Out: Pixar, 2015
Inside Out: Pixar, 2015

This movie is Pixar explaining, in as direct a way as possible, why they need to keep making us cry. This is why Nemo fights with his father. This is why Carl’s wife dies in the first 5 minutes of Up. Far from diminishing our enjoyment of these movie, the moments of sadness enhance it. Without darkness, we have no context for the light. Animated movies that are all upbeat with no dip are actually much like the character of Joy at the beginning of the movie; forced, shallow, small-minded, and even a little obnoxious.

Coming up:

  • Game: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) – Monday, December 14
  • Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Thursday, December 17
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988) – Monday, December 21
  • Movie: Big Trouble in Little China (1986) – Thursday, December 24
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28

Tone juxtaposition done poorly

Star Trek The Next Generation: CBS, 1988

Behind the Curve – Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E25: Conspiracy) (1988)

This episode of Star Trek has a very gory scene. God knows I’m not above a spot of gore in my entertainment. Just last month I watched both Aliens and Hellraiser, and I enjoyed every flesh-ripping and bit of both. But then again, I knew what I was getting into with those movies. There was an expectation of gore. Star Trek had no such expectation. It has always been a relatively tame, family-friendly affair.

Which is why I found it surprising when Picard and Riker blew up a dude’s head. And then an alien burst from his chest. And they blew the alien up. Uh huh. Isn’t this supposed to be an all-ages show?

Star Trek The Next Generation: CBS, 1988
Star Trek The Next Generation: CBS, 1988

It’s a bizarre juxtaposition of tone, a concept I find myself thinking about more and more these days. In my opinion, tone is a woefully underestimated component of storytelling. Subtle, nearly invisible, and yet it can have a profound effect on how audiences experience the story.

Essentially tone establishes an angle from which the audience approaches a show. Let’s look at Arrow and The Flash for our examples. They are two CW superhero shows that share a universe, but they have completely different tones. Arrow takes place in Starling City, a gritty, Gotham-esque place full of crime and poverty. The show is mostly grounded in reality, with few powers or advanced technology. It’s color palette features many dark tones of green and yellow. The characters are serious and melodramatic. The bad guys are brutal and violent, and so is the hero. He has a somewhat wobbly moral compass, often using torture and murder to get the job done. The Flash, conversely, is much more optimistic. The hero and villains both have powers, so our color palette is bright and vibrant. The characters, while maintaining some of Arrow‘s melodrama, are goofy and humorous. Their hero has a strict moral code: he does not kill or torture. His main priority is civilian safety. And even though some bad guys do kill, the fact that they’re using powers and comic book technology to do it lessens the blow.

In other words, the two shows could not be more different. And that is painfully apparent when they do crossovers. The visiting characters end up feeling just a little bit off, like an alien walked on to the set and everyone independently elected to ignore it. The episode actually finds itself forced to address this juxtaposition in the plot, like when Flash finds himself in a moral crisis as he witnesses Arrow torturing a witness.

Arrow: CW, 2014
Arrow: CW, 2014

My point is that Arrow‘s tone was not crafted to fit the Saturday-morning-cartoon characters of The Flash, just as Star Trek‘s tone is ill-suited to an Aliens-style death scene.

Not that juxtaposition is necessarily a bad thing. Last month I praised the Fallout series for their masterful use of juxtaposition to create a beautiful, unique feel. The difference is that Fallout has clearly thought it through. Audience’s can always tell whether something is intentional or just a screw up.

 

Coming up:

  • Movie: Inside Out (2015) – Thursday, December 10
  • Game: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) – Monday, December 14
  • Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Thursday, December 17
  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E26: The Neutral Zone) (1988) – Monday, December 21
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28

Annoying charismatic people

Man on Wire: Magnolia Pictures, 2008

Behind the Curve – Man on Wire (2008)

Have you ever met someone who seems just a bit too enamored with himself? It’s nothing you can put your finger on, just the way he speaks, his gestures, his enthusiasm. He just seems a little too eager to talk. There’s a bit too much energy, too much conviction. You just want to shake him by the shoulders and yell, “You’re not that important!”

Man on Wire: Magnolia Pictures, 2008
Man on Wire: Magnolia Pictures, 2008

That’s the impression I get of Philippe Petit, the subject of Man on Wire. You see Petit is a wire-walker who famously walked between the two World Trade Center towers in 1974. Now that takes guts; I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. And Petit seems to have a lot of heart, but let’s not pretend it was some noble undertaking. The man didn’t cure a disease. He didn’t save a life. It was an unsanctioned circus stunt. His performance was a dramatic, high-risk graffiti.

But they interview Petit for the movie and his blind self-importance is palpable. From his breathless descriptions you’d think he were doing some grand service for humanity. The man is entirely egocentric, but he gets away with it because he’s also incredibly charismatic. During the story, Petit’s friends mention how their individual destinies were gradually obscured by Petit’s grand enterprise. But they still went along with it, even after it became clear that Petit was more dreamer than realist. He clashed constantly with one friend who was just trying to keep his dumb ass alive.

It’s annoying how charismatic people always seem get their way, despite how crazy their idea is. And when you get really enthusiastic charismatic people like Petit, they end up stepping on people without even trying. After being released by the police, one of the first things Petit does is cheat on his girlfriend with some smitten fan girl. I don’t think he even saw it as a betrayal; just a culmination of euphoria. That’s how thick his blinders are.

Man on Wire: Magnolia Pictures, 2008
Man on Wire: Magnolia Pictures, 2008

Maybe I’m bitter because I’ve never possessed that kind of charisma. Petit’s smugness rubs me the wrong way, and I’m sure the French accent doesn’t help. You can call Philippe Petie eccentric, charming or magnetic. Those descriptors are certainly accurate. But after watching Man On Wire, I think the best word to describe Petit is “arrogant.”

 

Coming up:

  • Show: Star Trek: The Next Generation (S01E25: Conspiracy) (1988) – Monday, December 7
  • Movie: Inside Out (2015) – Thursday, December 10
  • Game: Bioshock (Irrational Games, 2007) – Monday, December 14
  • Documentary: Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) – Thursday, December 17
  • Book: Jurassic Park (Michael Crichton, 1990) – Monday, December 28