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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Thursday (1/1/15) 6:54pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Books:  Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales Revisited: Omnibus Edition [audiobook]
Movies:  Die Hard, Summer Wars
TV:  The Tick [animated, 1994]

Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales Revisited: Omnibus Edition [audiobook]
This is an audiobook collection of Grimm's Fairy Tales, which I've been listening to as preparation for the upcoming production of GrimmNoir.

It has been a long time since I've read any fairy tales, and the effect has been kind of jarring.  It's like listening to a minimalist piece of music, something where everything has been stripped away but a looped, rhythmic beeping, and suddenly that's all there is to focus on.  It takes you a while to remember that, yes, looped, rhythmic beeping also qualifies as music.

With the fairy tales, it's like everything I'm used to in fiction is gone.  The prose style is gone, replaced by simple, declarative sentences.  The interiority of characters is gone -- the only time a character has an internal thought is if they're pulling some obvious scam on somebody else.  The characterization is gone -- characters have, at best, one trait, and that trait is usually either "good" or "evil".  There's no moral ambiguity -- it's just "obey your parents", "follow every rule you've been told", and (ironically) "trust no one".

So what's left?  As far as I can tell, after everything else is stripped away, all that's left for these fairy tales is plot.  And not complicated plot -- these are short, simple stories with no superfluous events, no multiple plotlines, none of the modern tricks of nonchronological or unreliable narration.  Only the most basic, basic plot moves are available, and that's what they use to build the whole edifice.

So the fairy tales make their music with repetitions.  It's mostly rules-of-three: something happens, and then it happens again, and then it happens differently.  Or: something happens, then it happens more, then it happens the most of all and the story is over.  And you're basically watching an entire compilation of short stories get constructed out of that one device, sort of like how the whole first movement of Beethoven's fifth grows out of that initial da-da-da-DUM.        You build that on top of the simplest "<x> wants <y> but they're thwarted by <z>," add a few "<x> cleverly tricks <y> by <z>" moves, and that generates all the different tales.

It was an interesting listen, and the narrators and the audiobook production were perfectly fine.  I wouldn't want to live in a world where stories were just these, but it's neat to listen to them.  You get the sense that this is the bare minimum for what qualifies as a story.  And one suspects that, for every decently-written tale, you could strip away all the fancy words and clever psychological realism and find a similar bare collection of rule-of-three moves, like the girders holding the whole thing up.

Die Hard
This is, of course, the classic 1980s action movie starring Bruce Willis as a New York City cop who squares off against a team of elite international thieves that have taken over a new high-rise office tower.

That description is, in a weird way, a little misleading.  If you describe Die Hard as "a classic 1980s action movie", then you're implying that other 1980s action movies share its strengths.  From there, it's a short step to "oh, they don't make them like that any more."  And that's wrong -- they didn't make them like that *then*, either.  They made them like Commando or KickboxerDie Hard isn't a good example of 80s action movies -- it's only a good example of itself.

What I'm getting at here, clumsily, is that this movie does a lot of things well, and those strengths just aren't shared by its contemporaries.

For instance, look at how the movie handles its emotional through-line.  The emotional story going on in Die Hard is that John McClane is estranged from his wife because he was threatened by her career success.  Once he comes to terms with this, they start making amends.  So: to start with, that's a really good story idea.  You could make an emotional drama just about that, and it could work.  And it's the sort of story that would *happen* to this gruff, no-nonsense NYC cop who loves old cowboy stories -- he winds up at odds with the role women have in late 1980s America.  The plot and the character aren't at cross-purposes.

Now, I mention this because every action movie has a nasty little problem to deal with.  If the action movie has no emotional storyline, then everything feels kind of pointless and ungrounded.  The gruff hero mows down row after row of bad guys, and none of it really matters -- it's like watching somebody else play a badly-designed video game, and you're at best idly curious as to whether he's a bad enough dude to rescue the president.  Other 80s actioners went this route, creating fun explosion-fests that you might watch while folding laundry.

Modern action movies often go to the other extreme.  These tentpoles desperately want to be all things to all people, so they'll add a fully-formed emotional arc, complete with scenes that are just about that arc's development and confrontations, patiently taking you from A to B to C to D while the story is going on.  This is part of the reason modern action movies tend to be 2½-hour bloatfests, and tend to include "lame talky scenes" that you would never go to an action movie to see.  It feels like it's pandering to a 45-year-old male movie exec's conception of the female audience member, which is both insulting to women who dig action movies and tedious for everybody.

Die Hard handles the "emotional arc" problem deftly.  Again, they start with a credible emotional problem.  They give it real stakes -- you sense that John really does want to be reunited with his wife and kids.  You can relate to it.  And here's the key bit: they do the whole thing with only three scenes.  There's the conversation with Argyle as they're driving in.  There's the confrontation with Holly in Ellis's office.  And there's John's confession to Al over the radio, while he's picking glass out of his feet in the bathroom.  That's it: three scenes.  One to tell us about the problem, one to show it in action, one to resolve it.  Beginning, middle, and end: just enough to tell us a complete story.

And never makes things stop feeling like an action movie.  The first scene is full of comic banter, as Argyle unwittingly says all the wrong things.  Sure, nothing happens action-movie-wise in that scene, but we're at the start of the movie: we *want* to know more information about John McClane.  In the second scene, it's a confrontation, not exposition, so it holds our interest a little more.  There's nothing going-on action-wise, but we've just seen the ominous freight truck drive into the complex, so there's basically a bomb under the table the whole time.  And the final scene, we've got a man picking glass out of his feet -- you may be watching the scene through your fingers, but you're *watching*, and it feels perfectly in place in an action film.


Meanwhile, it does perhaps the best job I've ever seen of setting up important plot elements.  There are plot holes in Die Hard -- not a lot, but they're there.  But it is damned hard to find any element in the film that doesn't pay off later.  Conversely, I can't think of any important plot element that doesn't get set up earlier.  Hell, even the *watch* that Gruber grips onto at the very end is pointed out by Ellis when he first meets John.

And this is especially helpful with some of the fiddlier bits of plotting in the movie.  When I talked about The Lion King I talked about how the wildebeest stampede felt really "plotty" -- like they were doing a lot of heavy lifting to get the story from point A to a predetermined point B.  In Die Hard, they have something nearly as fiddly: Gruber has to *not* know that Holly is John's wife until the middle of act three.

And so you watch the movie patiently parcel out each bit of information that they need.  Holly is no longer using her married name.  There's a picture of John and Holly together, and it's carefully set face-down.  Thornburg is introduced as a reporter so smarmy he can only be played by William Atherton.  Ellis, awful though he is, is established as a competent negotiator, so it makes sense that he wouldn't give up the marriage info 'for free'.  Once all of that is in place, the plot can proceed.  Holly can be right in the midst of the hostage crisis with nobody knowing she has anything to do with John McClane, but the framed photo adds the tension the whole time.  And the trap only springs when Thornburg reveals the critical info, and then the framed photo serves as a neat bit of visual proof.  And none of it seems labored, because it's all been set up ahead of time.

It's times like this that screenplays feel like crazy sudoku puzzles, and I marvel that *anyone* manages to write them successfully.

We have to talk about Alan Rickman.  There are very, very few action-movie villains that compete with Hans Gruber.[1]  In the 80s in particular, I can think of a lot of horror and thriller villains, but as far as action movies go, I can't even *name* a lot of the villains.  80s action movies tended to have villains who were one-note: one or two personality traits, one sustained mood throughout the film, not much in the way of backstory.  The apotheosis of this was The Terminator, where the unnerving lack of characterization -- and Schwarzenegger's limited acting range -- was turned to terrifying effect.[2]

It's true, Gruber is every bit as much a moustache-twirling villain as any other 80s action villain.  But just look at how many notes Alan Rickman gets to play in that key.  He gets to be triumphant as the final lock falls away.  He gets to be terrified when McClane catches him unarmed.  He gets to be bemused when Ellis comes in to negotiate with him, and exasperated as his carefully-constructed plan starts to fray.  And Alan Rickman is absolutely up to the task -- and on top of that, he plays a villain that *enjoys* being a villain, a delicious quality that modern grimdark nonsense refuses to indulge in (because apparently action movies are such serious, serious business).

Finally, the whole flick tends to flip the script on its contemporaries.  Most action movies are about badasses who win.  Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris kick the bad guys' asses, over and over again.  Die Hard, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, takes almost perverse delight in how much it can make its hero *lose* without quite killing him.  John barely wins each confrontation, and comes out of each one with more cuts and bruises.  He flat-out lucks out over and over again, with a lucky catch in the elevator shaft, or with a bullet just missing him in the heating duct.  And, of course, there's the "Aim for the glass!" scene.  I can't imagine any other 80s action hero reduced to hobbling around on his own sliced-up feet.[3]  John McClane just gets his ass kicked from one end of the movie to the other.

And that was a surprise, at the time.  In the 80s, we were used to watching massive professional bodybuilders almost passively mow down rows of machine-gun-toting minions.  We weren't used to a comedy-detective-show star struggling to even live through 'til the next scene, and the next, and the next.

I almost hate Die Hard a little, these days.  The thing is, nobody watched that movie and said, "Hey!  This action movie has an economically-deployed but still-heartfelt emotional arc!  Let's all do that!"  Nobody looked at it and said, "Wow, they've done a masterful job of introducing every important plot element earlier in the film!  Let's imitate that slavishly."  Nor did they say "Let's make sure our hero loses as much as possible, and allow our villain to show a variety of moods and facets!"  Nope.  Instead, we got a decade of "Die Hard in an <x>".  They just took the most superficial thing about the movie -- that it was a confrontation between one guy and a team of criminals in an enclosed location -- and recycled that, over and over again.

And I get it.  It sells.  It's an easy pitch, and it's easy to market.  But it's still based on a false premise: that Die Hard was good because it happened to use that particular storyline.  Its imitators just held on to that, and missed the point on everything that made Die Hard good.

In the end, Die Hard isn't even a good example of Die Hard-style movies.

Again: it's only an example of itself.

Summer Wars
This is the 2009 animé cyberpunk film from acclaimed Japanese director Mamoru Hosoda.

A few weeks back, everyone was raving about "Too Many Cooks"[4], an Adult Swim short which starts out as a parody of 80s sitcom intros, and then veers sideways into an unexpected (but foreshadowed) detour into the slasher-horror genre.

That sort of elegant bait-and-switch came to mind when I was watching Summer Wars.

It's a cyberpunk story about a teenage boy who's a mathematical genius (okay) in near-future Tokyo (yup) who gets a mysterious email with a math problem (uh-uh), which he solves, only to get framed for a rogue AI's destruction of the Internet! (right!) and then talks to the girl he totally has a crush on (love interest, check), who invites him out to her family's country estate (um...), where he meets her extended family (uh...), a rural aristocratic family fallen in recent decades on hard times (wait), and learns about the old, simmering tensions that still lie unresolved there (okay, hold on), and sees how many of these people, even after all this years, still feel trapped in old, unsatisfying patterns of behavior (wait, what about the computers?).

Basically, we're watching a cyberpunk story get taken over by an Anton Chekhov play.

Let me be clear: I think this is awesome.  The movie occupies both genres very nicely.  Sure, the cyberpunk story is kind of by-the-numbers, but it's ably executed, and its depiction of virtual reality is breathtaking and distinct.  On the 'family drama' side of things, the film sets up a dizzying array of characters, and then does a patient, efficient job of telling us how character <x> feels about character <y> for any two people in that large, extended family.  Hosoda paces that material well, alternating confrontations, and light humor, and moments of quiet contemplation.

In the last act, the two stories start bouncing off of each other in hilarious ways.  The hero does his damnedest to keep the entire family from knowing he's been falsely accused of breaking the Internet; the big confrontation with the AI in cyberspace gets waylaid by preparations for a sacred family ceremony; and so on.  In the end, it gets a bit blandly triumphant, as the family bands together in spite of their differences to all take on the ultimate evil, *yawn*, blah blah blah, but even then, it's interesting to see such a *Japanese* take on a happy ending.  It's not that the hero wins and punches out the bad guy -- it's that everyone in this community puts aside their ego and works together towards the greater good.[5]

You could argue that genre collisions like this are gimmicky -- yet another example of those vacuous "It's like <x> meets <y>!" elevator pitches that put all new works within the safe, traditional boundaries of previous hits.  But you can't deny that it creates novel variations on those genres.  And in this case, the film uses each genre to shore up the other.  The family drama can seem like a set of plot-less vignettes, but the film has that cyberpunk storyline to provide an exciting, high-stakes plot througout.  The cyberpunk story can seem shallow and ungrounded, like watching somebody else play a poorly-designed video game, but the family drama is rife with deep characterizations and emotional connections.

This was one of the best animated films I've seen in a long time.

The Tick [animated, 1994]
This is the 1994 animated comedy about The Tick, a "nigh invulnerable" superhero who squares off against villains in a skewed parody of traditional superhero stories.

This was a lot of fun to re-watch (especially season three, which never made it to DVD).  The Tick was one of teenage-me's favorite shows, and it's been great to see its creative staff move on to well-known projects like The Venture Brothers and Firefly.

This time around, I was struck by how good this show was as a story generator.  I bet that you and I -- that is, the three of you who regularly read these updates and myself -- could get together over a weekend and bang out loglines for a hundred episodes of The Tick.  Y'know, maybe "The Tick and Arthur have to pose as 007-style superspies in London" or "The Tick fights an evil, sentient vacuuming robot while contending with his new, obnoxious fan club" or "After a mishap in low-earth orbit, Arthur has to talk the Tick through safely landing the Space Shuttle".

These are not great ideas by any stretch, but the point is, I can just spitball those off the top of my head.  And let's be clear: I'm *not good* at coming up with episode ideas.  But The Tick is an amazing story generator.  You can parody anything in existence with that show, and it'll work.  You can use any of their existing rogue's gallery to kick off new stories, and it'll work.  You can do character stories, where suddenly it's themed around (say) Dot and Neil getting married, and it'll work.  You can do stylistic exercises, like "shooting" the entire episode with handheld cameras or setting most of an episode inside the Tick's mind, and even then, it'll work.

Often, it takes a show many, many seasons before the showrunners throw up their hands and say, "Screw it, let's try <x>."  Before then, the episodes have a very clear structure and style and format, and everything hews painstakingly to that.  So if you want to make more episodes, you have to find new variations on that carefully-defined setup.  It's hard, and it gets harder as the writers exhaust all the possibilities.  But basically, The Tick *started* at the "screw it" stage, and demonstrated from the outset that *any* kind of story was possible on this show.  In season three, it was practically playing a game, seeing how it could top itself.  "Now we're sending the Tick to Europe!"  "Now he's teaching in a community college!"  Those weren't its best episodes, but even then, you could sense the manic glee behind them.

The show holds up.  Yes, its animation is very dated -- seeing a cartoon that's 20 years old makes you really see how much CGI has benefited cheap "traditional" animation in the last decade.  And not every joke hits, but rare is the comedy where all the jokes do.  Even The Tick's worst episodes[6] have their moments.

The show is just masterful with its serialization.  As I've often said, every show finds its own way to split the difference between "fully episodic" and "fully serialized".  With The Tick, the hit a sweet spot where they have just enough serialization to be useful and inspiring, but not so much that it restricts them.  Take, for instance, the episode where they introduce Carmelita Vatos, Arthur's love interest in the latter two seasons.  Once they do that episode, Carmelita is now part of the show's universe.  Any future episode can use her as a character, and use her relationship with Arthur to spin off stories (see "Sidekicks Don't Kiss").  On the other hand, Carmelita doesn't show up in *every* episode after that.  The show doesn't slavishly follow every step of the chronology of that relationship.  We just trust that Carmelita still exists, even if she's not onscreen this week.

And so it is with many other elements.  The show throws in Carmelita's father, and a whole slew of villains, and a capybara that the Tick is convinced can speak, and a giant "CHA" on the moon, and on and on and on.  And once an element is introduced on the show, it's there to stay.  Once the moon gets "CHA" written on it in season one, episode one, it is (apart from flashbacks) right there on the moon for *all subsequent stories*.  That means when they came up with an episode, they have all these backstory elements to draw on, but they're not beholden to them.  And, unlike, say, The Simpsons or any number of traditional sitcoms, they don't really have to reset everything to the way it started out by the end of an episode.  It was a brilliant setup for manufacturing a ton of stories.  This could have gone for a zillion seasons.  As it is, I'm so happy we got three.

For next week: I'm watching that meteorology course again (and taking notes this time) to see if I can follow it properly the second time through.  I'm now watching season one of Cougar Town while exercising.  I've switched over reading the mystery classic Gaudy Night as well as a piano book, and Lindsey and I are still listening to Welcome to Night Vale.  We've started watching season two of Community (which is amazing) and season two of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is trying really, really hard).

[1] We're talking Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker territory here.
[2] Modern action movies often go that route, *or* fall in love with their villains and reduce them to lovable scamps, à la Jack Sparrow.
[3] For that matter, I can't imagine John McClane doing that in any of the later, lesser Die Hards.
[4] For the record: I liked it okay.  I'll try watching it again in a few months, when I don't have the frenzied, insistent hype clouding my judgment.
[5] On the minus side, it does wind up relying quite a lot on coincidence, as all the various family members just so happen to have the unique skills it will require to take down the rampant AI.  In an amusing coincidence, most commenters refer to these as variants on "Chekhov's Gun", while ignoring the broad, flashing-neon-sign-obvious similarities to the playwright's major works.
[6] For the record, I nominate
"Leonardo DaVinci and his Fightin' Genius Time Commandos!" for Worst Tick Episode.

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Mood: [mood icon] contemplative · Music: none
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