Dec 302016

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

Nov 072015

Luminaries CoverThe Luminaries by Eleanor Catton engages with the realist novel most obviously through its stable of peculiar characters and its sordid situations that together recall Dickens. But it also engages through its embrace of the supplement, an offering at every occasion of a more that suggests the plenitude of the world. The obvious reference for this technique is Balzac’s evocative lists of objects, but Jack London’s lists, which, in their too-muchness sometimes grind the narration to a halt, are worth noting as well.

Catton’s engagement with realism through the supplement strikes me as fundamentally post-modern and her realism, as an instance of miming.

The realist effect is perfect; the insight into the characters, the complexities of plot, the juggling of narration, they are all perfectly done. Yet (and I mean this) the too muchness of these perfections are also simply and plainly impossible. And so the novel glistens and sparkles as a perfectly accurate representation of a very old-fashioned kind of book that shouldn’t exist but does. This self-consciously perfect performance of something out of time seems to me to be the core of the book’s thought.

Catton is miming realism, and her novel reminds me of those late-century, transgenic, glow-in-the-dark rabbits. Just like those rabbits with their bits of jellyfish DNA, this realist novel has 20th century, modernist bones. There is the profound introspection and slowness of a novel like Sartre’s Nausea, as well as the narrative unreliability of a novel like Absalom, Absalom!. The book’s post-modernism emerges in the distance it maintains–a distance that reads as performance–of that brazenly perfect fusion of what we have taken as opposing approaches to narration.

This should all be exciting, but I found it exhausting rather than pleasant. And while I was stunned page after page by the skill and effort involved in making this book, I’ve walked away thinking of this novel the same way I think of the trompe l’oeil hanging in the corners or side hallways of museum galleries: it’s impressive but I’m unmoved and left cold.

Jul 302014

Lucy 2014Like this year’s other great summer blockbuster The Edge of Tomorrow, Lucy organizes its narrative according to the logic of a video game. In The Edge of Tomorrow the character learns zones by replaying them ad infinitum. In Lucy the character must level up. The Edge of Tomorrow is a shooter; Lucy is an RPG.

The level framework is laid out in voice-over at the beginning of the film and text screens helpfully track Lucy’s progress. Each time she enters a new zone or begins a new encounter, the screen goes black and we’re told “7%” or “10%” or “20%,” etc. As she collects blue crystals, the numbers climb, unlocking new skills along the way. As she approaches level 100, her body becomes a progress bar, tracking her rapidly climbing XP.

The film commits to this structure completely, foregoing all traditional narrative goals. (My friend Colin Burnett discusses this absence from a different angle in a post on his new blog.) Lucy must “reach cap” within 24-hours and no explicit justification for doing so is given. There’s some mumbo jumbo about immortality early on and later some more about sharing knowledge, but neither seem to motivate Lucy. She reaches max cap because that is what you do in an RPG. And that logic, it turns out, is enough.

The clarity of the structure and the strictness with which it’s followed frees up the film to do other things, and at moments it reminds me of Speed Racer, which borrows its physics and spatial logic from video game design. These films are very different, but in both cases, importing an external but familiar set of rules and expectations clearly enables them to experiment with (or at least play with) form to an extent that’s rare in big-budget movies.

Jul 152014

Mark Bernstein asks some basic questions of craft as he tries to write a hypertext page turner. Now, I don’t know Bernstein so it’s probably presumptuous for me to chime in on this and also foolish given how little I know of the hypertexts that have been written in the past twenty years or so. I’m also not a fiction writer. [note]As context, I’ve read only a few things that are available online. These include: Luminous Airplanes, “Changed,” Letters from Ireland, and My Body. Truth be told, these things are so different from each other, I’m not even sure which of them others might call hypertexts.[/note]

But I do know a fair bit about traditional poetics and am interested in the problem. So I’m going to take a risk and share a few thoughts and ideas I’ve come up with as I’ve made my first stab at writing an argumentative hypertext, a different but I think oddly analogous task. [note]In my hypertext, I’ve been working without the benefit of anything other than ordinary web links. So all of what I say here arises from coping with the situation where a reader can easily go anywhere in the hypertext regardless of what they’ve read or not. There are no gateways to cross.[/note]

In a rough way, I think a page-turning plot (or argument) is one that creates a desire to know. But it is also a plot that delays or frustrates that desire in a measured, carefully paced, and pleasurable way. Hypertexts create a problem for telling these kinds of stories because they pass control of sequence and, to an extent, narrative focus off to the reader. How do you elicit desire to understand or create suspense without controlling what readers know and when?

I have three ideas.

“Why?” or “How?” may be more powerful than “What next?”

Mysteries, one of the most heavily plotted, page-turning genres around, introduce the corpse early and spend the rest of their time working to figure out what happened before the book began (i.e. when the victim was still alive). By the same token, three narratives that I have begun to think of as “proto-hypertexts”–Citizen Kane, Rashomon, and Absalom, Absalom!— all begin with the ending of the story. In each case, the narrative is driven by a desire to know why or how something happened rather than what will happen next. And the only way to find out is to get mixed up in and explore the stories of various standers-by. (Something similar happens in the otherwise very different Pale Fire, although it is less ferociously plotted.)

I think this same trick–starting with the end and working backwards–is suited to hypertext plotting.

We may desire most those things we can’t have

All three of my proto-hypertexts abstain from presenting the protagonist’s story except insofar as it is revealed through the smaller-scale “mini-plots” of the characters caught in its wake. All of them enforce this choice by making their protagonists dead before the movie or novel begins. In a sense this places the page-turning story in a black box, making it the only story that the reader can never choose to read, no matter how much they want to. They can only access it through numerous, equally minor stories that cling to its edges, each of which reveals it only partially and (perhaps) with bias.

Bouncing a protagonist’s otherwise inaccessible story off other characters seems like a good way to make readers want to click on links recounting minor characters’ lives.

Saying “no” to readers.

Much of the very limited commentary I’ve read about hypertext celebrates the fact that authorial control recedes and readers “make” or “create” their own reading. This is true in many, many ways. In the various collage, archival or a performance hypertexts that I’ve seen, writers seem to have abdicated authority and simply (!) to have created possibilities to be explored or enacted. Readers are left to experience insight or not, to draw conclusions or not. But there is rarely any “end” to be understood. [note]Except in the frequently occurring case where the text argues implicitly or explicitly the post-modern conceit that author-ity no longer exists. In these cases, there is a point, but not one that needs to be argued.[/note]

Plots and arguments cannot be so open-ended and cannot be left up to the reader; only the choice of which mini-plots they will read in order to understand the story as a whole can be. And because reader choice eliminates the distinction between foreground and background, all of the mini-plots they will choose from have to be written. This includes those mini-plots they will choose to read as well as all of the mini-plots that they will choose not to read! And all of these mini-plots have to, in their own ways, point toward the end we are “turning pages” to discover.

Creating these coordinated options is a lot of writing and a lot of work. To be successful, it seems to me there have to be limits. In fact, I’m tempted to say that the most important question related to plot or argument in a hypertext is going to be “what options are the readers not going to have?” followed closely by “This choice lets the reader get away. How do I close it without seeming to close anything?”

These questions strike me as contrary to the ethos of hypertext as I’ve understood it from the limited commentary I’ve read. I mean really: is there anything more authorial than “Thou Shalt Not!”? And yet, saying “no” seems essential to conveying story.

Mar 112014

Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux are surprisingly similar films and stumble over nearly identical narrative problems: both want to be sci-fi epics with surprise endings. I’d never recognized this as a potential problem, but after seeing these films, I realize that sci-fi world-building and the generation of surprises or twists actually depend upon two very different approaches to providing narrative information.

World building is judged by how completely (and suggestively) an imagined world is explained. Exposition necessarily comes early and is extensive. In this, successful world-building seems to me a bit like a rocket trying to hit escape velocity: it roars full force early on, and if everything goes right, it can power-down and sail to its destination. The long and detailed voice-over narrations that open Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux but then disappear are examples of what I mean.

Surprise endings work in just the opposite direction. Viewers supply a probable ending that the narration cultivates (or at least permits) by providing only incomplete information in the early portions of the film. When at the film’s end the missing information is provided or the overlooked information is brought to the foreground, the surprise reshapes the details of the story into a different plot. In Ender’s Game, for example, Ender (and in the book, the readers) discovers that the game he has been playing in preparation for a war is in fact the war itself. In Aeon Flux, Aeon discovers that she and everyone she know is a clone and that the villain she’s been sent to kill is a hero attempting to save everyone’s life.

The problem these films run into is that no reader can supply an unsurprising ending against which the “true” ending appears a surprise because the initial world and any story outcomes have to be built by the narration. Stated differently, there are no viewers competent to provide an adequate starting point from which a twist can register as surprise. If you tell me Ender plays a game, he’s playing a game. If you tell me he’s fighting a war, he’s fighting a war. I have no basis to assume anything about what is normal or likely in this imaginary world. And if you tell me one thing is going on and then later reveal that that’s not the case, it feels like a cheat. (I think sci-fi novels have a few more easy tricks up their sleeves than films do to work around this problem.)

There are, of course, examples of how to get around this problem. The Matrix and Terminator both have it both ways by beginning in an imagined world that appears to be exactly like our own. As a result, this world needs little explaining and a set of audience expectations are built in. The surprise–which in both cases boils down to different versions of “things are not what they seem”–is also revealed early, roughly at the end of their first acts. In both cases, the familiarity of the initial world and the early presentation of the unexpected “ending” reduces the conflict between surprise and world building. In a sense, in both cases surprise is used as a tool for the world building.

(I also wonder–although I can’t come up with a good example right now–whether, generic expectations can offer a substitute for an initially familiar world as a way of getting around the problem…)

Whatever the case, judging by Ender’s Game and Aeon Flux, pulling off the late surprise in sci-fi is clearly tough to do. And when it fails to come off, the consequences seem pretty dire. It’s easy to wind up not caring. And then everything fizzles.

Mar 082014

I decided to rematch Verhoeven‘s Robocop because I will surely see the remake, especially given how interesting I found the remake of his Total Recall. And when I was done, I was thinking about storytelling.

This film posits an complete world at its outset and develops a clear story with speed and economy. In part this completeness comes from the multiple contrasting points-of-view provided by the many flat, stock characters that populate the film. (This technique reminds me of Henry Fielding’s use of conflicts between what a character wants and what they do to create psychologies.) These multiple points-of-view are kept in check by a story structure that repeats locations such as the factory and the boardroom so as to create order and closure.

This is carefully controlled filmmaking. Even if the subject may not be everybody’s cup of tea.


Oct 302013

Pacific Rim and World War Z are the best blockbusters of last summer. Oddly enough, they were also the least well served by their trailers. I was eager to see neither of them, and yet, both were wonderful in unexpected ways.

So some thoughts:

This movie musters narrative speed yet feels casual and roomy. The monsters arrive in the opening shots under voice-over. The story then jumps to the present, which is five years later. After a quick introductory fight scene, in which real stakes are established in the blink of an eye, the narrative jumps forward to a new present, again five or six years in the future, in which the action of the rest of the film will unspool. Combined, these leaps, establish multiple arcs: monsters arrive, seem defeated, but comeback; robots are created, kick ass, but soon are overwhelmed and crumble; boy earns glory, disappears after the loss of his brother in combat, but now comes back to save world. These micro-narratives are simple, cliche, but they are established quickly and elegantly. Together they lend scope and weight to the movie’s central events. Just as importantly, they leave the bulk of the film’s runtime for the final climactic days and hours to play out on the screen without feeling cramped or rushed.

Video Game as Narrative Logic
The movie operates as a sequence of boss fights. “Level 3 complete. Level 4 initiates in 3 hours!” There is even a mini-game–“Mortal Kombat!”–where the hero must earn his partner. This game logic provides a frame for the fight scenes that is distinct from the narrative. This allows the story to focus on other questions: Who are these people? How can they work together? What are the stakes they have on the table? Now, this film is no character study and it’s answers to all of these questions are generic and cliche. The movie is also not interested in ethical reflection. But there is a plot and this device keeps it from being derailed by moments of spectacle.

Narrative Modules
The emotions this movie plays with are simple, primal, but its range is quite wide. Discrete chunks of story are are used to create a gallery of  tones: the “fuck ya!” of a robot with a boat as a club; the “Haha, funny!” of a pendulum desk ornament set swinging by the battle; the Raiders of the Lost Ark-glee of watching the oriental fight masters (“they use the three armed style”!) wiped out by the monster equivalent of a gun pulled from a holster; the horror of watching people tied up in metal box and drowning; etc.  These discrete “modular” moments show a movie that wants to play around. This play is post-modern but doesn’t feel po-mo. Incidentally, the modular play with tone is matched by a modular variation on narrative genres. The most interesting of these is the deeply compressed but still satisfying story of the two scientists, a classically structured romance comedy. (I’m thinking of Cavell’s definition: two characters struggling to establish a conversation that we see will be profitable.)

Monster Madness as Narrative Speed
I loved that characters, monsters and robots were thrown away and expendable. People died. Roberts were torn apart. Monsters were vanquished. It kept the stakes real, the narrative overhead low. Even better: as the story proceeds, the number of characters that have to be kept track of decreases steadily. This speeds up the pacing without making things feel rushed.

Sensible Scale
Despite the digital effects, this movie is grounded in a mechanical world. These enormous machines operate in a physical space that translates down to and is comprehensible in relation to the human body. Over and over, the digital manifests in non-digital spaces as movements of or changes in people’s bodies. I’m thinking of the scenes of walking drivers, swinging arms, the sense that it is physically difficult to move the parts of these machines, the bloody noses, the bleeding eyes, the scars and slings. All of these establish a convincing connection between the out-sized robot and the ordinary human scales of the two lines of action. This connection was photographed on sets and not animated on a computer. People were crushed and drowned and it was shocking, the high altitude fall felt dangerous, and all of this because the incongruous narrative spaces cohered.

Legitimate Wastelands
It’s a small point, but this narrative establishes itself as occurring a few hours before the extinction of the human race. In this context, the massive destruction of city landscapes reads as sacrifice and makes sense. Everything can be destroyed, and humanity can still be saved. This is very different from the destruction in Man of Steel.

Final Comment
Most of what I’ve said relates to decisions made before filming even began and boils down to great writing. It’s the secret to a strong movie.

Oct 202013

Last year I watched the first season of Damages after a friend recommended it. I loved the first half of the show. Patty Hewes is a strong, complex and ambiguous character, and a fan of Glenn Close, I was happy to see what she did with the role. I also thought the double temporality created by the opening clips was very effective at introducing and developing tension in a show that suffered from regular, necessary lulls. The opening and closing segments offered a tool for offsetting and giving room for these lulls to develop into something more than exposition.

But then midseason, these two features began to appear like a trap, a gimmick to sell the show that the writers were now trying to write their way out off. Yes, its certainly raises the stakes to have your plot rumbling forward to the moment when your second lead, covered in blood and wandering the streets, will be arrested and charged with murder, but eventually, you have to account for what’s going on. And if you want to have her come back, you have to get her out of the situation.

The writers pulled some twists out of their hat, none very convincing but they made it to the last episode alive, well and ready for another season.

Well, now, nearly a year later, I’ve started the second season, and after watching the first episode I just want to make a note before moving on: the writers are still stuck and have made their situation worse with some very bad choices. They have maintained the opening segments but have chosen to put the same character at their centre: the gimmick now feels more gimmicky, we know it’s a trick. The second lead is not going to go wack-o rogue and kill someone assassin style in her apartment. The villain from the first season, shot and “dead” at its end, is also back working through boring “why don’t people like me issues.” Patty and Ellen are both dealing with last season’s “issues” too: but who cares? These could have–and should have–been dropped between seasons.

But the worst set up is the whole Ellen working as a mole for the FBI angle. It’s a poor source of conflict between her and Patty, because again, it’s just not possible that Patty will not last out the season, and the segment makes it clear that Ellen will survive it too. So the stakes are simply not there. The only question is How is this not what it appears?

It’s frustrating to see such bad conceptual work built into the foundations of the narrative. But I’m still watching because of Glenn Close. I’m worried they are going to reduce her character to a simple villain (the writers don’t trust power), but we’ll see.

To be continued…