Saturday, February 27, 2010

What is a story?

I think a lot about storytelling because I perform improv and I like to write stories. I've memorized Vonnegut's advice about writing "make your characters want something" which is such bullsh*t because his characters are shoddy puppets tossed about to express his ideas. So here is my own bullsh*t wisdom from what I see in good stories and try to emulate in my own work. It's shameful but I feel compelled to watch the ending of bad movies if they simply employ these two storytelling tricks.

1. Have a clear ending point.
Heist movies, mysteries, and sports films (I'm sure there are more genres) all have the advantage of a clear finale. The inevitable last job/game/confrontation. This promise to the audience is made early and gives us a sense that we're going somewhere. I just watched Where the Wild Things Are. While I love Spike Jonze and the visual style of this film it was sorely lacking in this area. I found myself quite bored watching the film which was simply a montage of interesting monsters standing around, bitching about their lives. You might say the structure was: boy goes to island, has adventure, boy leaves island. But I really felt he left the island because he checked his watch and the movie was about over. They weren't moving toward any final action and it bored me.

2. Give me a chance to guess.
Reward attentive viewers. We should be able to foresee how the main character will solve their problems by what we have learned about their character and environment. This is such a key skill in improv that I realized with the help of Keith Johnstone's work.

I land my spaceship on the moon. I drive my moon rover around. Then I'm attacked by an alien. If I shoot it with a gun, it's bad storytelling. Where the f*ck did I get a gun? Bad storytellers solve problems by pulling things out of their asses. Good storytelling goes back to what we already know. I could hit the alien with the moon rover or, better yet, I could drive back to the ship, letting it chase me, only to fry it with my spaceship's engine. That incorporates the things that the audience knew. I love this feature of storytelling. It's a very artistic dance that storytellers do. If you call something back in a way that's too obvious or too obscure then you lose them. It's a careful, interesting balance. When it's done right everyone has a sense of how the movie will end, leaves saying "I saw that coming", but wasn't sure enough to speak up.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Was Avatar racist?

 WARNING  I spoil Avatar in this post. 

I watched Avatar in a surprisingly filled IMAX theater on a Monday afternoon over a month after it opened. I didn't find it very memorable but I did like the villain and the final fight. There's been a lot of talk about the offensive storyline in Avatar and I wanted to attack and defend it.


Typical Whitey Saves the Day
Undeniably, the story contains a heavy dose of colonial mentality. Basically: the savages need a white male savior. The message here is that foreigners are waiting for a Westerner to save them. This mentality is also very prevalent in our various "save Africa" charity campaigns. From (Red)'s "spend money until we save Africans from AIDS" to the classic "only your money can buy African children food, water, and to learn to read the Bible". In the film the natives are pretty cool but absolutely useless when it comes to fighting the humans. The protagonist saves the day by throwing grenades in the attacking aircraft engines. All of his training to become a native warrior did fuck all. Good thing he was also a trained soldier.

The Alien Natives
The way the aliens all sit cross-legged and chant to their tree-god made me uncomfortable. Hollywood storytellers always portray natives with the same connection to nature. They are "purer", living with a spiritual (and in Avatar literal) bond with plants and animals. Savages love nature and civilized people hate it. Savages live in balance and civilized people live in greed. This is the classic dichotomy. For once I'd like to see a tribe that hates nature as much as everyone else and focuses on the constant struggle to tame it with technology. Although I was excited to see that the forest creatures came to the aid of the natives -that choice also made me uncomfortable. So did the film's use of the words 'shaman' and 'race'.

I also felt like I could overhear meetings that included comments like "make sure the warpaint looks tribal and cool" and "the aliens should have dreadlocks and if anyone asks tell them that they're organic internet cables" and "I told you not too African but this other one isn't African enough."


Cheering when White People Die
We're meant to enjoy the death of regular white soldiers who are killed in the line of duty. This is an unusual choice for mainstream action. During the climactic air battle sequence the tough alien warrior jumps on the ship and begins tossing humans to their doom. It's clear that we're meant to be on his side emotionally and feel sadness only after he is shot and falls to his own slow motion doom. Usually, when white people die in cinema, especially at the hands of natives, it's important to show them doing something cruel beforehand.

Woman Saves Day
Why aren't more people pointing this out? I was most impressed by the choice to have the female hero save the protagonist's life twice at the end of the movie. This is a big deal. Action movies do not end this way. In Avatar it seemed very natural. First, she has to kill the villain because he can't. Then she has to save his ass again because he fails to put on an oxygen mask. Also, she's not overtly sexualized in the film. I know all of the Aliens have intergalactic runway model body types but I'm talking about bending over, taking her top off, or coming out of the waterfall shower. I feel that they consciously avoided the sex object route. Also, she's a ten foot tall blue-animal-woman. I would argue that Avatar is a good feminist film because it expands our expectations of women in cinema. She trains the protagonist, she saves his life three times in the film, and she isn't overtly sexualized.

If Frantz Fanon wrote Avatar:
One of the interesting aspects of Avatar is language (it's a constant struggle in sci-fi movies to explain why everyone can understand each other). The aliens speak english because a school had been set up but later kicked out. The film stays pretty superficial on this topic. The teacher of the school learned to speak the alien's language. And we're meant to like her because she shows respect for foreign culture and she like children. Even our hero trains for three months and speak their language as often as a mainstream audience can stomach subtitles. For the sake of Fanon, I was really hoping they were going to show more of a disillusioned generation that had been trained to speak English and then discovered that humans didn't give a shit about their opinions. Then they would have been outcasts from both sides. Shunned by the aliens for acting "too-human" and never taken seriously by those who taught them.

The epiphany
The aliens don't need us. They have a thriving, independent culture with a long history. This is an interesting linchpin of the plot. Our protagonist reveals that there is nothing humans can offer the aliens. At which point the corporation decides to kill them. Interesting note, the military villain mentions he had done three tours of duty in Nigeria which I feel is an intentional reference to Shell Oil's dirty business.

Avatar is a film that reinforces the idea that white people are here to save the world while working very hard to show a respect for other cultures. Obviously these contradict and, in the end, white people rule!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Furthest Fall 3 - King Tutankhamen

How's this for cruel:

King "Tut" died and was buried in the Valley of the Kings over 3000 years ago. He was buried in a very expensive and particular way. He was mummified so that he could make a successful transition into the afterlife. His vital organs were placed in canopic jars. His body was wrapped with a few scarabs to ensure everything would work when he woke up. His ba was raring to go. And everything was hidden so that it would not be disturbed.

He was a relatively unimportant Pharaoh -except for one thing. We found his tomb intact. Other tombs had been completely robbed but his was full of ornate, crafted, golden goods.

Now, his body is sitting in a glass case inside his tomb and visited daily by hundreds of tourists. He is covered by a blanket that does not cover his toes so that everyone can comment on how disgusting they look. THERE IS A SECURITY CAMERA PERPETUALLY POINTED AT HIS BODY while his sacred artifacts tour the world for more people to see.

For all of the careful preparations to keep his body safe and hidden he may be one of the most looked at corpses in the history of the world.