Wednesday, May 31, 2017

we are trained professionals

1. The heroes are professionals.

The interesting thing, taking A Bug's Life as taking its plot from Seven Samurai or the Magnificent Seven is that Flik (Dave Foley) is both the Old Man/Emma Cullen summoner role but he is also the Kambei/Chris/Sam leader role of what would be the titular group if this were called, say, Nine Circus Bugs.


3. The villains are very strong.

The grasshoppers come, of course. Like the bandits in Seven Samurai or the original The Magnificent Seven, or Bogue and his hired guns in the remake. A Bug's Life borrows The Ant and the Grasshopper. Hopper (Kevin Spacey) doesn't kill anyone--this is a family-friendly version of the story--but he does threaten it.

4. The society is ineffective, incapable of defending itself.

The best they can do is gather food all over again and send Flik on what they assume is a suicide mission, if he doesn't just give up right away.

7. The heroes form a group for the job.

Taken out of order, here, of course. The heroes here are already a group. They're circus bugs.

6. The heroes all have special abilities and a special status.

As far as special abilities, Slim (David Hyde Pierce) is a prop. Dim (Brad Garrett) can fly. Heimlich (Joe Ranft) is the eater. Francis (Denis Leary) is the hotheaded one. Manny (Jonathan Harris) is the magician. Gypsy (Madeline) is the token female. Tuck and Roll (Michael McShane) fill out their numbers and are acrobats.

Now, taking TV Tropes' "Magnificent Seven Samurai" breakdown, let's see what we've got. Flik is obviously the "hero". Dim is the "big guy".

Manny is the "old guy". Being the hotheaded one, Francis could take the position of the "young guy" but he's almost more the "Lancer." (And, the way the kids take to him, he's pretty close to being Bernardo from the original Magnificent Seven. Slim and Heimlich are both the "funny guy". Tuck and Roll are just extra.

I guess.

Like Christ-Figuring, Seven Samurai-ing is not an exact science.

2. The heroes undertake a job.

Of course, here you also have a big misunderstanding as a plot device. The circus bugs don't realize they've been hired as fighters, and Flik doesn't realize they're circus bugs. But, Francis proclaims that, regarding their "grasshopper friends" "we are going to knock them dead!" And, they are doomed to become the group Flik thinks they are. But, in a way, that is the case with both Magnificent Sevens as well. Otherwise, why take so much of the runtime on getting the band together and traveling, getting to know one another and letting the audience get to know them. A Bug's Life actually gives this part of the story short shrift. While the bugs do have distinct personalities, the film doesn't seem to be so much about "relationships of the heroes among themselves" as much as--at least for Flik, our hero--"the relationship of the hero to society" (Wright, p. 87, reversed of course). Except, it is not that these things are not happening. This is like The Magnificent Seven if we had just spent more screentime with the Old Man or Emma Cullen, and less with Chris or Sam or Vin or Faraday, and there is no place in family friendly fare for Manny to be "shell-shocked" but he is a Major.

5. The job involves the heroes in a fight.

This is, of course, the whole point.

8. The heroes as a group share respect, affection, and loyalty.

Yes, but not as deeply in this film as in the longer, less kid-friendly versions of the story. It helps here that the group (aside from Flik) already know each other. Less runtime need be spent on them getting to know one another.

9. The heroes as a group are independent of society.

Their lies actually reinforce this separation. They must plan in secret and then re-present their plans to the colony. The brief sequence that cuts together Flik explaining the bird plan, then Manny explaining it, then Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is damn good use of the visual medium.

Before the plot gets to #10, there is TV Tropes' #4: "The people realize that they can defend themselves, and the team undertakes Training the Peaceful Villagers." Of course, given the importance here of misunderstanding, the colony is tricked into thinking the circus bugs can save them and the bird plan will work. The "training" is just the building of the bird.

And, we can't forget TV Tropes' #5: "The team is forced to leave, whether due to the skepticism or wariness of the villagers or threats from the villains." This is skipped in the remake of The Magnificent Seven but is a big part here--P.T. Flea (John Ratzenberger) arrives and the jig is up, as it were. Doesn't matter if the plan made sense before. If they're circus bugs and not warriors, it ain't gonna work. But then #6: "The team decides to return." Because the Blueberries (the little girl ants for which Francis has become den mother) do a little spying and Dot (Hayden Panetierre) goes after them.

10. The heroes fight the villains.

The bird ruse works. Until P.T. ruins it.

Only after the bird attack falls apart does Flik realize (a la TV Tropes' #4 above) that the colony is stronger than the grasshoppers. And, Flik's realization inspires the rest of the colony. Of course, rain, stronger than the ants or the grasshoppers, ruins that and Hopper seizes the opportunity to grab Flik.

11. The heroes defeat the villains.

Hopper is actually killed (by a real bird, or rather several baby birds). While he had threatened to squash the queen, the practical threat was just that the ants would be without food--which, yeah, realistically would mean death for all of them, but that is far more abstract than explicit, individual death.

12. The heroes stay (or die) together.

Them dying is lampshaded in the children's presentation when the gang first arrives on the island. Then subverted because, duh, this is a family-friendly film.

(That's Wright's (1975) "professional plot" for the western film.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

you must answer for every good deed

Bernardo (Charles Bronson) makes for an interesting sort of heart to the titular Magnificent Seven. Sure, Chico (Horst Buchholz) is the passionate one, but Bernardo seems to be the one who really feels what's going on.

Interestingly, he almost doesn't take the job because he's used to better pay. The prospect of six men (later seven) versus thirty guns causes him to pause in his wood chopping (which he is doing to earn his breakfast when Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) come for him). "I admire your notion of fair odds, mister," he tells Chris. Against bigger odds before he was paid $600, and $800 for another job. They tell him the offer is $20, then they start to walk away. "Right now, that's a lot," he tells them. And, he goes back to chopping wood. The thing is, he doesn't just need money. He needs something to do.


Three village kids come to Bernardo at one point later and he tells them they could be hurt, they rightly point out that so could he. "It's not the same thing," he snaps. "This is my work."

"It's our work, too," one of them tells him. As brave boys of the village, they choose to be out there too. Plus, they're in charge of avenging Bernardo if he dies, and to "see to it that there's always fresh flowers on [his] grave."

Later, they ask to go with him when he leaves town. Because, as one of them tells him, "We're ashamed to live here. Our fathers are..." and, he can barely spit out, "cowards." Bernardo grabs that boy, pulls him over his lap and spanks him repeatedly. Then, he says,

Don't ever say that again about your fathers. They are not cowards.

You think I'm brave because I carry a gun? Your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility. For you, your brothers, your sisters and your mothers. This responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground.

Nobody says they have to do it. They do it because they love you and they want to.

I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule, with no guarantee what will become of it--this is bravery. That's why I never even started anything like that. That's why I never will.

So much of what this film is about is right there. I mean, this was in theater's in 1960. The politics of America were changing. Fifties' conservatism replaced with more radical things. There's both an interesting nostalgia in Bernardo's veneration of farmers and a certain irony because he's clearly wrong about what responsibility he has taken. The Old Man (Vladimir Sokoloff), after all the combat is done and the few remaining of the titular seven are readying to leave, echoes the veneration of the farmer. Plus a little more. He says:

Yes, the fighting is over. Your work is done. For [the farmers], each season has its tasks. If there were a season for gratitude, they'd show it more. ...

Only the farmers have won. They remain forever. They are like the land itself. You helped rid them of Calvera, the way a strong win helps rid them of locusts. You're like the wind--blowing over the land and... passing on. Vaya con dios.

Again, the farmers venerated. They are like the land itself. They are forever. There will always be farmers as long as there is civilization. But, the Old Man is also wrong. For, if we can take anything from a western, from a film, it is that heroes, men who stand up for whatever reason, are also forever. Chico explains at one point, "Villages like this--they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years." For this village (or the town in the remake), the story of these seven men will be told again and again. Chris agrees in the end that only the farmers won. It feels to me like the wrong note to end the film. Sure, four of the seven have been killed, as have numerous villagers, but that is part and parcel of the western. People die. Life goes on in spite of and because of their deaths. In the sequence that we meet Britt (James Coburn)--echoed in the scene we meet Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) in the remake--he kills a man in such a casual dual you can imagine this happens every day. It's central to the western myth, that homesteading was hard, but living in western towns was also hard because there were bandits and corrupt bankers, Indians and robber barons. And gunfights in the streets... so many gunfights in the streets.

The seven men here are doing a job, sure. But, doing a job for pay versus doing it because it's the right thing to do--that is just a matter of script details and a little space on the moral compass of the film. The titular seven are not mercenaries, in it only for the cash. Even Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who is stuck on the idea that there is some treasure trove to be had at the end of this job--even he seems to be involved for the spirit of that adventure more than the prize at its end.

Monday, May 29, 2017

it's not a question of money

I never really wrote about the original The Magnificent Seven in this blog. (One of a few times that exhaustion at the end of a long day kept me from really putting in an effort here.)


Also, it only just occurred to me, as the men from the Mexican town have come to Chris (Yul Brynner) for help, that aside from one detail--Flik being an outcast from his village rather than a stranger--A Bug's Life is basically this film, or rather Seven Samurai. And, I'm wondering how I never got that before. It's so obvious. Now, I'm wondering what else I have missed in the movies I've seen, what references went over my head because of particular timing or a lack of familiarity? I have seen Seven Samurai but maybe only once all the way through.

It's also the plot of many a D&D module. It's such a simple plot hook--a village is in trouble, and a bunch of men (usually men) have the skills to save it from its attackers. Bring your gunslinging, your knife-throwing, your bow and arrow, your magic, your lightsaber, your axe, your audacity. The fellowship of the ring, the seven samurai, those bugs from P.T. Flea's, the heroes of many a tale from a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away... (The original Star Wars, of course, stole it's plot from a different Kurosawa film, The Hidden Fortress.) Episodes of various Star Trek series, at least one of Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, plus a whole series in the 90s based on The Magnificent Seven. In Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Will Wright doesn't use The Magnificent Seven as one of his examples.

And I just noticed, looking at his introduction that he chose the top grossing westerns of their years. The Magnificent Seven may feel like a classic now, but it wasn't necessarily received as a great film. (Also, for some reason, Wright has no films at all from 1960 on his list of westerns involved in his study.) Howard Thompson of the New York Times, called it "a pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original" with none of the "ice-cold suspense, the superb juxtaposition of revealing human vignettes and especially the pile-driver tempo" of Seven Samurai. Personally, I find some of Brynner's interactions with the others as he recruited them to be rather revealing about human nature, about what men will do for money, what they will do even when the money isn't good, what they will do to prove themselves as men... Wright puts western films in stages. The Magnificent Seven comes at the start of the westerns he defines with the "professional plot"--

Among other details, the professional plot means the heroes "are now professional fighters, men willing to defended society only as a job they accept for pay or for love of fighting, not from commitment to ideas of law and justice" (p. 85). One major difference between the "classical" plot and the "professional" is that the "symbolic emphasis is no longer on the relationship of the hero to society but on the relationships of the heroes among themselves" and the structure of the film is "more concerned with characterizing the heroes than describing standard plot developments" (p. 87). The plot here is so simple that the film doesn't have to worry much about it or its structure. Instead, yeah, the film can spend its time on character and character interaction. And, with The Magnificent Seven, specifically, the professional plot is hardly about money. Emma Cullen or the three Mexicans may offer all they have but they have very little. The pay is not the point.

Despite my talk of capitalism yesterday.

Or rather, as encapsulated in my talk of capitalism yesterday.

Wright puts the "professional" plot as being about men doing what they do for pay or for the love of fighting, as opposed to doing it for what is right. The Magnificent Seven, with the bandits (original) and robber baron with his professional army (remake) on the side of taking food and wealth from the poor, is actually a great blend of these two of Wright's plot structures. These seven men do what they do because they like shooting and killing, sure, but also because at a certain point, you either have to stand up for what is right or lie down and die. Many a western, regardless of which "plot" might fit it, involves men who are good at killing. The step from there to killing for good is a very simple one.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

they fought for the ones who couldn't fight for themselves

How The Magnificent Sevenis quintessentially American (even when it shares so much with stories from around the world and deliberately apes Japan's Seven Samurai) is kind of simple. Think politically, socially, and consider these words from Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) in the church at the beginning of the film:

This is what you love, what you'd die for. And what your children and your children's children will work on, suffer for, be consumed by. ... Now, I come here for gold. Gold. This country has long equated democracy with capitalism, capitalism with God. So, you're standing not only in the way of progress and capital. You're standing in the way of God! And for what? ... Land. This is no longer land. The moment I put a pin in the map, the day I descended into this godforsaken valley and cast my gaze upon it, it ceased to be land and became... Dust. ... This is your God?

And, he pours the dirt onto the floor.


First, some history. While Bogue is not entirely wrong--we did, of course, give the right to vote initially to just property-owning males--the specificity of tying "capitalism" to "democracy" is not totally accurate. Hell, the explicit link between God (specifically, Protestantism) and capitalism was argued by Max Weber in his 1930 The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The Magnificent Seven is set in 1879. While economics was a big driving force leading into the Civil War (which put Chisolm here in the Union Army, Robicheaux into the Confederate), the phrasing, "democracy with capitalism" feels anachronistic.

But, more important than that anachronism, it's interesting that this remake--and the timing of its production is relevant here--puts the capitalist so far into the territory of being, well, evil. The side of good is a bunch of outlaws and misfits, including a Mexican, a Comanche, an African and an Asian. Considering the timing, the non-Caucasian members of the titular seven are worth a far lengthier conversation than would fit here. America fought a war against the Mexicans and took their territory (and Vasquez is a wanted man). Fought a war over the enslavement of the African. America was currently warring against natives like the Comanche. And the Chinese Exclusion Act (though Billy is played by a Korean, the film does not specify his national origin) would be just a few years ahead. These are the dregs of society. Even Emma Cullen, who hires them, is now a young widow left to fend for herself. Outcasts, disenfranchised folks. Versus professionals. Over who has the money and the power. And, this film came out in 2016, an election year. I don't know what specific motivation Fuqua may have had for taking on this film, but separate from personal intent, there is the intent of time. The original came out in 1960, and involved bandits raiding a Mexican village, not a robber baron strong arming a town out of its land for his profit. This change matters. Coming out of the 1950s, putting the villain on the side of capitalism wouldn't have made as much sense as it might in 2016. Post Citizens United. With Bernie Sanders running for president (though he was out of the running by the time the film was actually in theaters).

This is an American story because it is about the common man rising up, lifting himself up by his bootstraps as it were. Capitalism be damned, on the smaller level, with these townsfolk and farmers. It's just about hard work. Bogue hires his guns. Technically, Cullen hires hers as well, but not really; there's no real money in it for them, the ones who survive anyway. And, they train the townsfolk, use them to make the fight bigger. This is a movie about the people rising up agains the moneyed elites who hold them down. In 2016, what was more American than that?

 

 

 

 

 

Except for, given the results of our election last year, siding instead with Bogue because the townsfolk of Rose Creek don't know what's good for them.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

what a merry band we are

I wrote a bit about The Magnificent Seven a few days ago. Talking about character classes (a la Dungeons & Dragons) and archetypes, how each character needs to have a different personality trait or skill that makes them distinct from the other characters. What The Encylopedia of Fantasy refers to as the "seven samurai" and TV Tropes calls "the magnificent seven samurai". A reminder:

I'm watching the latest incarnation of The Magnificent Seven tonight, so the seven are:

  • Denzel Washington as Sam Chisolm, the leader, a warrant officer
  • Chris Pratt as Josh Faraday, a gambler
  • Ethan Hawke as Goodnight Robicheaux, the veteran sharpshooter
  • Vincent D'Onofrio as Jack Horne, the mountain man, who is also religious
  • Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks, the knife thrower (and "a mysterious man of the Orient")
  • Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Vasquez, an outlaw
  • Martin Sensmeier as Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior

Plus Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen, the woman who gets them involved in the first place.


Maybe I'll offer up more detail as I watch this movie again today. Or maybe I will just muse on these delineations and distinctions of character, or the tropes of plot...

For example, TV Tropes also breaks down the plot to very simple steps:

"1. The Hero will receive the Call to Adventure." This is Washington's Chisolm, a mysterious stranger who arrives after the opening sequence establishes for us the current status quo in the town of Rose Creek. This is like the opening parts of Wright's (1975) "classical plot" of the western: "1. The hero enters a social group." "2. The hero is unknown to the society." "3. The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability." This is always a thing; I mean, who else do we want to watch a story about but the guy who is a better shooter and better talker than everybody else? It is here that Pratt's Faraday already gets involved, even though the next bit of TV Tropes' plot breakdown hasn't happened yet, nor really has the Call to Adventure. "4. The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status." TV Tropes continues: "He will then assemble a Ragtag Bunch of Misfits."
  • "The Lancer (if not immediately present, The Hero always knows exactly where to find one)" Given Faraday's immediate introduction, and then his own scene, he's our "Lancer." TV Tropes defines the Lancer as a foil for the hero "of the closely allied variety." Think Han Solo to Luke Skywalker.
  • "The Big Guy" which TV Tropes specifically refers to as the "powerhouse of the Five-Man Band". That's D'Onofrio's Horne, of course.
  • "The Smart Guy" and this is where this particular incarnation of this kind of plot gets interesting because...
  • "The Old Guy (sometimes a Shell-Shocked Veteran)" is also the "Smart Guy". Then again, since Billy Rocks is so quiet, Robicheaux doing double duty is both logical for the presentation as is and a little bit of white privilege.
  • "The Young Guy" which here could be either of the locals who have hired this band: Luke Grimes' Teddy Q. or Bennett's Emma Cullen. Since, she's obviously the "woman" of the group (not one of TV Tropes' breakdown, but an obvious character type here, I'd say this is Teddy Q. In fact, as I type this part, Faraday just gave him a lesson so he is definitely the inexperienced one of the group (though he is not one of the titular seven).
  • "The Funny Guy" - because this is 2017 and screenwriters have to spread the humor around to get a wider audience, there is no "Funny Guy" here. Faraday has the most jokes, and could fit here, but then Robicheaux might have to do triple duty and also be the "Lancer".

The rest of the plot, as broken down by TV Tropes goes like this:

"2. The team finds that the people they are trying to protect at largely unwilling or unable to fight for themselves." Otherwise, why would they need the team? Duh.

"3. The team successfully stands off the first attack."

"4. The people realize that they can defend themselves, and the team undertakes Training the Peaceful Villagers"

"3. The team is forced to leave, whether due to the skepticism or wariness of the villagers or threats from the villains."

"4. The team decides to return."

"5. There is another attack; the people join in both enthusiastically and competently. Several of the team are injured or killed; the attackers are defeated soundly, but not always completely."

"6. The people indicate that they now can and will defend themselves when and if the attackers return. What remains of the team departs."

Now, Wright doesn't use The Magnificent Seven as one of his examples, which I find strange. The film apparently made double its budget at the box office. I'm not sure how great a performance that would have made it in 1960. That 1960 "original", like this remake, is closer to Wright's "vengeance" plot, except there the hero is singular as well. So, then I bother to flip forward in Wright's book--I don't think I've picked up the book since my month of Westerns two years ago next month, so forgive the slip of my memory--and find the "professional plot".

Here, Wright's function #6 specifies: "The heroes all have special abilities and a special status." That right there--that's what you've got here, what you've got in King Arthur, what you've got in Robin Hood, what you've got in The Avengers.

(For the record, Wright's examples for this plot are Rio Bravo, The Professionals, True Grit, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)

In terms of westerns (and beyond those examples in the parenthetical), you could also look to the Young Guns films. But, one example where the character types might not be so obvious is Silverado, if I remember rightly (and I've seen that one a few times as we had that one on video when I was younger, recorded on the same tape as Return of the Jedi I believe); rather, it is more the personalities of the four gunmen than specific sorts of special abilities that make them stand out. Though, to be fair, Jake was definitely the hotheaded one.

 

 

 

 

 

This practice isn't new. It's not like cynical Hollywood has only just started shorthanding characters for the audience by giving them different weapons and attitudes. Compare, say, the Argonauts, heroes of their own stories come together for a bigger quest, to the MCU version of The Avengers. That's deliberate, of course, but it's also the way it's done. Look at old stories about Arthur and his Knights. Look at the Bible. (I remember using the occupations of the twelve disciples several years back to create my own version of them for a fantasy novel I was working on.)

And, right now, the night before the final battle--actually, not quite, but it works basically the same way and maybe should have been edited that way--there's a trope that also comes up a lot. Les Miserables and Hamilton get some damn fine songs out of this last night revelry. Our heroes know they might all be dead tomorrow so they come together one last time to talk and to drink. A long night (here divided over two nights). The calm before the storm is spent in boisterous carousing. And, it works every time.

WORKS CITED
Wright, W. (1975). Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Friday, May 26, 2017

i may have dozed off

Case in point: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

I will keep this short--unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or any of its action sequences, that just kind of drone on well beyond reasonability. Seriously, each movie is basically the same--Jack, some varied background pirates (I think there are only 2 left from the original bunch), Barbossa, a young man and a young woman, quest for some magical MacGuffin, some supernaturally empowered villains tries to stop them, folks backstab and betray and turn on each other than back to each other, and, oh yeah, gotta throw in some British soldiers chasing after everyone, too. Make. Each action scene about twice as long as it needs to be, throw in some overwrought romance, some one-note characterizations and there's your Pirates of the Caribbean film in a nutshell.

Overstuffed and overdone, and mostly just tedious.

Maybe one genuinely funny moment. Jack offers Will--I mean, Henry--advice on courting a brunette. He tells him don't get together with her sister, and if you can't resist the sister's charms, kill the brother. "Savvy?" Henry pauses for a moment, looks a little shocked when he turns to Jack and says, "No, I don't savvy." And, something in Depp's delivery--less trying for the joke that so much of the rest of his Jack Sparrow performance--on the next line absolutely worked for me. He just looks at Henry and asks, "Who hurt you?" It's silly, but it's silly in so much more of an effortless way than the rest of the film.

Honestly, I don't walk out of movies. I've only ever turned off, well, probably fewer than I can count on one hand, because they were just so awful. I considered leaving because this movie was just such a scene for scene rip off of its predecessors, and boring at that.

That is all.


Thursday, May 25, 2017

to the edge of within

"What a wondrous vision "Excalibur is! And what a mess." So begins Roger Ebert's review of Excalibur, and as usual, Roger says it pretty well. "This wildly ambitious retellings of the legend of King Arthur is a haunting and violent version of the Dark Ages and the heroic figures who (we dream) populated them," he continues. "But it's rough going for anyone determined to be sure what is happening from scene to scene." The problem with Excalibur, though, is not that it's particularly confusing. It is just so damn full of, well, pieces of every story about King Arthur that any of its audience are likely to know. There's a reason that The Sword in the Stone offers up next to nothing (though, admittedly, I might be remembering the better part of the film if not the larger part of it) about Arthur as an adult and spent time with that training. There's a reason that the recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword was born out of a plan to make "a [Guy] Ritchie-led retellings of Arthurian legend spread across six whole films", according to A.V. Club, 27 January 2014. There's a reason why Arthurian legend fills book after book after book (and folks keep trying to make films of it). Arthurian legend is huge.

Camelot had the sense to focus on the romance. I barely remember if any of the Knights other than Lancelot even had names in that version of the story. King Arthur attempted to embed a sort of slice of the story, that might have inspired larger legends, into historical context. Legend of the Sword tries to offer up the origin story, a lead up the the crowning of the king, but with some more modern tropes thrown in (like Jax Teller was reincarnated in the past when he puts his arms out on that motorcycle, and his spirit got sent back in time to... Well, I guess it was the Dark Ages but Legend of the Sword makes less effort to put its film into a historical context, and I'm pretty sure it made no mention at all of Britons.

Excalibur, though--it just tried to put everything in. You've got Merlin, you've got Lancelot and Guenevere, you've got Arthur and Morgana, you've got Mordred. And, that's already everybody of import from Camelot. Throw in Perceval and Kay and Gawain and Uther and Leondegrance and Lot and Ector. And, numerous background Knights. You've got the sword in the stone bit, you've got Lancelot and Guenevere getting together, you've got the quest for the Holy Grail, plus Morgana raising Mordred to take on Arthur. To fit all of this in, you've got Gawain randomly accusing Lancelot and Guenevere of being together well before they have actually done anything but demure glances back and forth, because how else do you introduce a plot but have a third party accuse it of already happening? You've got the "waste land" phase of Camelot, or generally "the land", with Arthur himself in the role of Fisher King. Or, as Roger puts it, "Arthur is courageous in his youth, but then presides over the disintegration of the Round Table, for no apparent reason." Just one example, of what he calls, characters being "doomed to their behavior." This is a problem in any film, of course, but maybe moreso with fantasy films, because characters have their archetypes and must fit them regardless of how events should realistically transpire.

Similarly, modern fantasy like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has some problems simply because so many films must be tied together, different directors with different scripts must produce films that still feel pretty close to one another. I've wanted to spend time with the Marvel movies in this blog, but a) those films are not readily available on any of the platforms I've got access to (at least not without extra rental fees) and b) there is way too much room to get bogged down in serious nerditry beyond just film there and that path could be dangerous. But, consider the alternative in episodic television; The X-Files comes to mind. Take an episode like "X-Cops" and compare it to say "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" or "War of the Coprophages compared to "Duane Barry". You can get very different tones, different styles, but you can still feel that it is the same universe, the same show, and the same characters fit. There is room for far more variety in the MCU, and if Warner Brothers actually produced a 6-film series of King Arthur films, there is room for that much story, and room for different directors offering different takes on the pieces. Ritchie could do his slightly modern crime story, but then another director could come in to really do some of the romance of Lancelot and Guenevere justice, and another could deal with the Holy Grail and another Morgana and Mordred. Make the parts feel more separate while keeping them linked. But, don't be afraid to do really different stuff. And, even if the only thing that ties them all together is a strange green glow somewhere in every scene (like in Excalibur), at least we know they tried.



Wednesday, May 24, 2017

and all for this lunacy

Still 1981, but no James Bond today. Instead, we return to King Arthur. Excalibur. Now, I saw For Your Eyes Only in the theater, I'm fairly sure, and many times after on video. I do not actually remember the first time I watched Excalibur. I imagine it was on some Sunday afternoon on television, maybe a few years later. By the time I saw, it already knew about Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Sometime in the mid to late eighties (I think I lost my old collection of theater programs in one move or another, so I cannot check the exact date) I also saw the musical Camelot on stage several times. I'd read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and, presumably, other books about Arthur. I'd seen The Sword in the Stone on video (or would soon). So much of my knowledge about Arthuriana comes from vague memories that blend together over a few decades.

Movies are like that, too. I forget what some movies are sometimes, or imagine movies that never existed. (And, no, I don't mean Shazam.) There was this one movie, for example, that I saw the end of one time on television when I was young that I was sure was Friday the 13th. I had not seen any of those films yet. Wouldn't really see them until Jason Takes Manhattan was in theaters. Then, I would make up for lost time by watching the entire series many times. But, I had this vague notion of Jason Voorhees who, like Michael Myers with whom I was familiar, killed people and kept returning from the dead. I remember being both confused and amused by the idea that there was A Final Chapter and A New Beginning, as if someone really thought the series was ending, and then someone else just came along and laughed. Or maybe I invented that memory, just another of many, many visits to the Wherehouse blurred together, twisted up with memories of movies you've never heard of. The 1980s, the heyday of home video, when too many production companies were making too many films and my mother would rent just about anything, and she'd let me watch just about any of it. Saw a good chunk of Summer Lovers long before I had any clue what was going on in that film. Learned the sex didn't have to be missionary from Scream for Help a couple years later. Saw more horror films than I can count or remember. (I still think there are numerous films that haven't made it onto my seen it list on IMDb just because I can't remember the titles, or the memory of one film blends into another, or one moment stands out but the plot is lost to me. Like the "Nerak" bit in The Watcher in the Woods--couldn't tell you anything of the plot of that one, except that for some reason someone named Karen had her name reversed and someone got married; I remember "Going to the Chapel" playing... Or maybe that was some other film.

But, I was talking about films I think I've invented. Or spent years without the internet trying to find. Like A Zed & Two Noughts. I wandered into a screening of that one when I was at USC. I missed the beginning and never got the title. Twin zoologists film time-lapse decay of animals over and over, and have an odd relationship with some woman recovering from a car accident. And, in the end... No, I won't SPOIL it. But, trust me, I remembered especially certain visuals of that film and for years I had no idea what it was. When I got new editions of Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, and later also Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever, I would pore over each page, read description after description, highlight each movie that I had seen-- Yes I was that obsessive that long ago. This kind of cinematically-obsessed madness does not just happen overnight. And, I guess I just missed the description for A Zed & Two Noughts or thought I had conflated it with Dead Ringers or some other twin movie. Then, one day, in the age of the internet, I threw some search terms into Dogpile (Google didn't exist yet), and found the film, and it was both as if a weight had been lifted and entirely anticlimactic. One of the holy grails of my cinematic history had been found. But an older one still remained (and new ones would rear their heads).

The Friday the 13th one--I always imagined what I watched was the end of the first Friday the 13th because, for some reason, though I had not seen the films of that franchise yet, I knew that Jason was only the killer after the first one. And, I saw a guy walk up out of a lake, and maybe he had a mask on, or maybe I've invented a mask by re-remembering the scene time and time again. He was definitely a killer. He was definitely dead but supernaturally arisen. And, he walked up out of a lake and credits rolled and it would be years before I knew that was not the end of Friday the 13th.

 

 

 

 

 

This is when I both neglected to say anything about Excalibur and got distracted enough by it to forget my rant about movies and memory. I guess the green glow of Arthur's sword works on me, too.


(And, I'll have to watch this movie more than once.)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

farewell mr. bond, but not goodbye

Roger Moore died today. Last night, a bunch of people died in Manchester. I'd rather think about the former than the latter. So, I'm watching For Your Eyes Only. I grew up on this movie. Roger Moore was my James Bond. This one, Octopussy, A View to a Kill--I've seen these movies far too many times considering I never made a deliberate effort to watch them repeatedly (as I obviously have with other films). For Your Eyes Only, especially. It was on one of those first VHS tapes my family had. It was one of the movies we watched regularly.

It has been a while since I last watched it, though. This very 80s (or really, 70s) music as Bond goes after Blofeld (who I never really had much context for when I was a kid and we'd watch this; he was just some bald guy who randomly tried to kill Bond and then Bond murdered him, and that alone is also so very 80s. Then the music video opening credits with vaguely naked women dancing in silhouette. (Visuals that meant very different things as I got older, of course.) Of course, Bond has always been of his time, depending on when the particular film was made, when the particular actor was cast. 1980s Bond was over-the-top, deliberately and explicitly. His Bond gadgets were insane; a miniature jet plane hidden behind a fake horse's ass, for Cold War's sake. Rambo might've had his explosive arrowheads (a few year's after this particular film) but Bond has a car that explodes rather than be broken into and... actually, I'm not remembering too many weird devices in this one.

And, he's a womanizer, he drives like a crazy person, and risks his life at every turn. Plus one liners. He's quintessential 1980s. And, the plot is almost immediately complicated.

And, I'm just going to watch for a bit.

 

 

 

 

 

The sound effects stand out, just cliched gunshots and ricochets, and that divebombing plane sound... It's basically what no action movie should ever be. But in 1981, and I first see this thing when I'm five, oh how this movie works.

Plotwise, like any Bond film, it is all over the place. But, that is what Bond films do. And as a kid, sitting down for more than an hour and a half, that's kind of what you need. Star Wars works because it jumps from location to location, setpiece to setpiece, introduces characters, kills them, introduces more. Throw in a session or two of offscreen sex with different partners, some complex Cold War politics and spy machinations, and you've got a Bond film. The only reason, I'm pretty sure, that I can remember which sequences (like the skiing) are in which film is because I've seen these few Bond films so many times. Specific sequences were in the Dalton Bond films or the Brosnan Bond films, and I'm not so knowledgable. Didn't have those on regular repeat. (Same goes for Connery Bond films, because I saw those out of their context.)

 

 

 

 

 

Bond is such the ideal of cinematic masculinity for the time. Better at everything than anyone. One of the greatest biathletes goes after him and misses his shots and falls on a jump. Bond inadvertently gets into the elevator for the ski jump and of course he can make the jump just fine. He speaks all the local languages. And, all he has to do is be near Bibi and she connives her way into his hotel room to sleep with him.

(Odd plotting sidenote: Bond initially went to Greece because Melina's parents were killed for going after the ATAC device in the sunken ship, but he didn't even bother to look for the device before just heading back to England then to Italy. Somewhere along the way, the film forgot to be clear about him assuming that the exchange of money at the pool was for the device and not for murdering the Havelocks. Seriously, I loved this Cortina action as a kid, and it's still pretty good (though entirely unbelievable), but this sequences bears basically no connection to the earlier part of the film. If the Havelocks' murder meant someone already had the device, Bond didn't really need to go to Greece in the first place.


But, hey, random farmer with cow as Bond jumps over a small house, and chickens inside of course as Erich Kriegler crashes through it. So, who cares if the plot makes sense (or if anyone ever bothered to make sure that it made sense)?

Really, though, now Bond wants Melina's father's notes? So, the device has not been found (I remember the underwater sequence later, of course, but I'm trying to be here in this viewing), and the sequence in Cortina served no purpose. Gotta love Bond films. Like someone in the production had an idea for a skiing sequence, so they just throw it into whatever Bond film is in the works.)

He gambles and wins. He knows local cuisine and wines. Sharks ignore him to eat other people.

 

 

 

 

 

And, he kicks a car down a cliff. Rambo never kicked a car down a cliff. John Matrix never kicked a car down a cliff. John McClane never kicked a car down a cliff.

Best moment watching now--upon entering the sunken St. Georges, Bond, who is the best at everything and even knows about oxygen helium mixes for diving, bumps his head. No dialogue to go with it, of course. I don't think it was scripted. Just whoever was actually in the suit for that shot misjudged how high his helmet was. But, it's nice to see Bond do at least one thing badly.

 

 

 

 

 

I never really knew Roger Moore for much else than his Bond films. I'm not sure he was even that great an actor. But, his Bond films were a fixture of my childhood, and my early experience with film.

Monday, May 22, 2017

these are your people

Permit a sidetrack. Not that there's a clear throughline driving me this month. I wanted to revive this thing and I did, and I've mostly just been winging it. One day at a time. Life is good that way. Make plans, sure. But, it's each day that matters. Do the useful things, the productive things, but also find time for the fun things. Save Buster from choking and light a woman's cigarette...

Not that I want to get into Groundhog Day references right now.

King Arthur is today's film. And, what TV Tropes calls "Cast Calculus" (or more specifically, depending on how this goes, "The Five Man Band" or The Magnificent Seven Samurai"), and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy labels simply as "Seven Samurai." Specifically, because lately I think about way too much in terms of Dungeons and Dragons references (because D&D takes up far too much of my spare time), I noticed as I watched King Arthur last night that Arthur and his Knights play like a D&D party of adventurers... Or the Fellowship of the Ring from the film (and novel) of the same title, for those of you not quite nerdy to know D&D class types. The makeup of a D&D party matters. Same with something like The Magnificent Seven. The original western version of that story--I'm less familiar with Seven Samurai, sorry--had seven types of "Cowboys":

  • Yul Brynner as the leader, a Cajun gunslinger
  • Steve McQueen as a drifter and gambler; the trailer calls him "the dangerous one"
  • Charles Bronson as a professional
  • Robert Vaughn as a veteran gunslinger
  • James Coburn as the knife thrower
  • Brad Dexter as the fortune seeker
  • Hours by Buchholz as a young hothead, the trailer calls him "the violent one"

Updated for the 90s tv show as:

  • Michael Biehn as the leader
  • Eric Close as a bounty hunter
  • Anthony Starke as a gambler and con man
  • Ron Perlman as a preacher, and former gunslinger
  • Rick Worthy as a knife thrower, and former slave
  • Andrew Kavovit as the young hothead
  • Dale Midkiff as... I actually don't quite remember other than him being funny

And, for the recent feature remake (directed by Antoine Fuqua who also directed this version of King Arthur):

  • Denzel Washington as the leader, a warrant officer
  • Chris Pratt as a gambler
  • Ethan Hawke as the veteran sharpshooter
  • Vincent D'Onofrio as the mountain man, who is also religious
  • Byung-hun Lee as the knife thrower
  • Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as an outlaw
  • Martin Sensmeier as a Comanche warrior

Note the repeat characters. You've got to have one who is the gambler; one who throws knives; one who is an older, possibly haunted veteran; one who is younger; one who is or was aligned with the law; one who is on the other side of the law. Archetypes within the Western framework, but they work for Samurai or pre-medieval Knights as well. (And, various films, fantasy, western, medieval, modern superhero, can mix and match types, recombine and have variants.) The audience needs its shorthand to keep the characters separate in their heads.


Here, we've got:

  • Clive Owen as Arthur, the leader and the lawfully aligned one, who is also the religious one, the "Paladin"
  • Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot, who judging by his dual wielding, two weapon fighting, is probably a "Fighter" if this were to be a D&D party
  • Mads Mikkelsen as Tristan, who here presents almost like a samurai when he steps into the opening battle, and later is the guy with the hawk. In terms of D&D classes, with the latest edition, there's no samurai as such, so maybe he's multiclassing in monk and ranger
  • Joel Edgerton as Gawain, who is hard to pin down in terms of "class" (One almost might expect him to be the one to get killed instead of Dagonet or Lancelot or Tristan)
  • Hugh Dancy as Galahad, who seems the "Rogue" of the group with his knife throwing
  • Ray Winstone as Bors, who seems quite the "Barbarian" or what TV Tropes calls the Boisterous Bruiser (like Gimli from the Fellowship)
  • Ray Stevenson as Dagonet, who also seems a "Barbarian," specifically with the Tavern Brawler feat

plus

  • Kiera Knightley as Guinevere, who is definitely something of a "Ranger"
  • Stephen Dillane as Merlin, who despite the absence of magic, seems the equivalent of, well, maybe a "Druid" over a "Wizard"

As far as other "Seven Samurai" details, Galahad seems the young hothead, Dagonet the haunted veteran (though they have all been fighting the same 15 years).

The point is not matching all of these things across stories and sequels exactly. But, when you've got an ensemble cast, and they are all fighting for the same cause, you need them to have their niches, their reason for being. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow--they each have their role in The Avengers. Even if Hawkeye's role isn't that obvious in the MCU, and Black Widow seems more the token female than particularly useful against alien invaders. Others have broken the Avengers down into D&D classes, but my quick take has Captain America as the Paladin, Iron Man as a Wizard (Artificer), Thor as a Cleric, Hulk as a Barbarian, Hawkeye as Ranger, Black Widow as Rogue. Of course, the point is not whether I'm right in my breakdown, but that such a breakdown is relatively easy to do. The cast calculus at work. Han Solo is the roguish gambler. Luke Skywalker the sorcerer in training, Obi Wan Kenobi a sorcerer... Except the more organized Jedi Order suggest Wizards, while their reliance on swords suggests something else entirely. Chewbacca is the Barbarian, of course. Leia Organa is more of a straight Fighter, but with noble background...

And, I could go on. Willow Rosenberg, for example--is she a Wizard like Rupert Giles, or does she fit the Warlock class more? This is filmmaking (or TV making) for a mass audience; make each character fit into a box. You can have them stretch the shape of that box, or reach outside of it, but you want the audience to be able to peg them down as something specific, something unique. Everything to make it easier for the audience. It doesn't even have to be fighters. Look at Dead Poets Society, for example. Neil is not Todd is not Knox is not Charlie is not Pitts is not Cameron is not Meeks. All schoolboys, but with clear, and clearly established differences. And not just from casting. The script lets you know early on what makes each one of them tick. Otherwise, the characters, and the story, and the plot, get blurry.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

there is a legend

Structure matters, of course. Plot matters. Story matters. And, when we're stuck on origin stories--as with Big Hero 6 or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, or 2004's King Arthur, which I've got playing now--you're going to get a lot of the same beats. Historical... Or pseudo-historical stuff like this, and you've got a cold open (with Lancelot as a child) that barely matters, you've got hordes of Roman soldiers and... I forget who they're fighting. Don't have time to get to know any just yet. Just a good battle to get the adrenalin pumping.

After some opening text to place the story into some supposed historical context. The far more fantastical King Arthur: Legend of the Sword goes for that same kind of text. We're in the "dark ages" when the landscape of Britain is covered in smoke and/or fog pretty much always, and nothing is ever particularly well lit.


Where Legend of the Sword has no real connection to the actual history of Roman occupation of Britain (or what would become Britain), here Arthur himself is Roman, his "Knights" Sarmatians drafted by the Romans. Their enemies the savage Woads.

 

 

 

 

 

And, at least initially, once we're past that opening battle, the characters (and an interesting cast) have some interesting interactions. I remember this movie being less... Interesting? Good? I don't know. Maybe it gets more inane as it goes.

Separate from what's coming, I have a problem with resting Arthur strictly in the seat of Christianity (especially when his knights are very much not Christian. Plus, in 2004--and you must put any film in its historical context at some point if you're going to spend any time with it--a pro-Christian, anti-savage foreigner film from American filmmakers (even if it is steeped in British legend and filled with British actors), is problematic politically. For me.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert latches onto the politics; "This new "King Arthur" tells a story with uncanny parallels to current events in Iraq," he writes. "The imperialists from Rome enter England intent on overthrowing the tyrannical Saxons, and find allies in the brave Woads." A quagmire of multiple sides fighting over the same land. Ebert continues:

"You--all of you--were free from your first breath!" Arthur informs his charges and future subjects, anticipating by a millennium or so the notion that all men are born free [Actually, Arthur specifically cites Pelagius, who did talk about free will], and overlooking the detail that his knights have been pressed into involuntary servitude. Later he comes across a Roman torture chamber...

Which just happened as I watch the film. And, separated by more than a decade now from the film's context, it plays less like a topical gesture than as a cheap story beat to force Arthur against the Romans (or Saxons). Not making him Roman in the first place could have made that an easier step, storywise. But, we've got to have an origin story. The film opened with Lancelot as a child, suggesting that this might be his story, and it could have been. King Arthur could have already been in place, and Lancelot introduced into his world. For some reason, many King Arthur films (or Robin Hood films, or Lone Ranger films, or Superman films (barring sequels)) insist on rewriting the beginning of the a story we already know rather than exploring other corners of it.. I mean, when I was in England as a teen, I bought a book about knights, and it included several stories about Knights of the Round Table that had little to no connection back to Arthur. Arthur was more of an idea, an ideal. This story doesn't persist because King Arthur worked his way up from nothing to be great. (That's more of an American style of origin.) Arthur had a destiny. Whether he was trained and protected by Merlin as a child a la The Sword in the Stone or grew up in a brothel a la King Arthur: Legend of the Sword he is fated to become King. This is not supposed to offer up origin stories for Arthur--those are quite simple--rather Arthur's story is supposed to be a sort of origin story for Britain. The more recent Legend of the Sword film neglects this history, offers up no real discussion about Britain or its real-world history. But, this film, despite its American pedigree, tries to deal with that history.

However inaccurately.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

i had a point

One thing about Big Hero 6--the reason the film works well despite whatever flaws it might have--is that its structure is basically textbook feature film.

You've got your small catalyst at 10* minutes in--Hiro meets Tadashi. Dyer (2010) specifies that the small catalyst be something that "happens to the protagonist, and not... an action that the protagonist takes. We've already got the setup of the status quo. Now, we're moving into what will change it. Notably, it was not getting arrested that turns Hiro around. It was seeing that there were better things that he could do with his intelligence (just as his brother suggested). Dyer also suggests that a character should state the theme of the film early on, and there are important lines the clearly set up the plot, all from Tadashi. He asks Hiro, "When are you going to do something with that big brain of yours?" He asks Hiro, "What would mom and dad say?" And, after offering Hiro a ride, he tells him, "I can't stop you going, but I'm not going to let you go on your own."

(Unless specifically described otherwise, assume all times are approximate.)

After meeting Baymax, Hiro meets Callaghan and decides that he wants to go to the "nerd school" with Tadashi and the others. But, structurally, you've got to think about which throughline is the most important: Is the film about Hiro dealing with Tadashi's death? Is it about his conflict with (as it turns out) Callaghan? Is it about his teaming up with Wasabi, Honey Lemon, Go Go, and Fred? Is it about his relationship with Baymax? It's about all four, but in terms of story importance, as opposed to plot importance, I'd say the film is more about Hiro and Baymax. His relationship with Baymax is what allows him to deal with his brother's death. His relationship with Baymax is what allows him to have his conflict with Callaghan. And, his relationship with Baymax is what starts him down the path to being a superhero, that the others join him on later. Arguably, you could put the small catalyst, in a larger sense, into the entire sequence at the school--Hiro meets his future teammates, he meets Baymax, and he meets Callaghan. The only important figure still to meet is Krei (and he's a red herring later so he doesn't need to be introduced here with everyone else).

The inciting incident, which Marshall (2012) describes as "the event that sets everything in motion," has passed. Hiro has met Baymax (and Wasabi and Honey Lemon and Go Go and Fred and Callaghan, but most importantly Baymax).

The large catalyst as Dyer puts it, or just page 17 as Marshall labels it, is next. In Big Hero 6, this is the showcase. Specifically, though, this comes before Hiro goes on stage. Important note: depending on how the script described the initial bot fight, the literal page 17 might have come during or just after Hiro's presentation instead of just before. But, on screen, page 17 means 17 minutes in. And, the way I look at the movie--keep in mind I'm a bleeding heart liberal who is into social justice and cares far more about story and character than plot--the emotional beats matter more than the plot points. What you get in the film is Hiro gets called to the stage, then Honey Lemon gets everyone together to take a photo, then he goes on stage. The 17-minute mark falls pretty close to the photo, and this matters in my reading because the film is more about Hiro learning 1) to do better things with his big brain and 2) to do things with others so he is not the loner kid who gets into trouble bot fighting, than it is about Hiro fighting Callaghan.

So, then comes plot point 1. Dyer puts this at 25% of the way in, so Big Hero 6 is a little early; the explosion that kills Tadashi happens at about the 23-minute mark. And, the second meeting with Baymax happens a little too late at about the 26-minute mark. Somewhere between these two events is the break between acts. Essentially, act one ends with Tadashi's death and funeral, and act two begins with Hiro's mood being picked up, a little, by Baymax.

Dyer's next structural bit is what he calls pinch one or the twist or the complication. Taking the plot, one could assume this coincides with the initial conflict with Yokai (Callaghan in his mask), but Dyer puts this at 37.5% of the way in, and at 37 minutes 30 seconds, we're past the initial conflict with Callaghan and we are smack dab in the middle of the "drunk" Baymax bit. If you don't already love Baymax, this is the moment where you fall in love with that character. With limited expression, he manages to do a lot in a sequence like this just by pausing in the right place or falling or saying what he isn't supposed to say; "We jumped out a window!" indeed. As I read the film as more of a buddy film about Hiro and Baymax than anything else, this sequence is vital because their story takes a turn here. Because of Baymax's injuries, because reporting to the police accomplished nothing, Hiro sets out to make armour for Baymax. It is also at the end of the "drunk" Baymax bit that Hiro decides that whoever has his micro bots is the man responsible for Tadashi's death. Then, we come to the mid-point. Dyer calls the "point of no return." It is almost exactly 50 minutes in that Hiro et al go into the water in Wasabi's car. This culmination of the car chase that ends Hiro's second battle with Callaghan leads directly into the group going to Fred's house, which leads directly into them donning special outfits and weapons and becoming superheroes. Marshall separates out Act 2a from Act 2b, and the division comes when the protagoniss) "stop 'reacting' and take control of the situation." It is their defeat here by Callaghan that drives them together and drives them to become Big Hero 6. Additionally, if you think about the film from Callaghan's perspective, this is definitely his point of no return. He leaves them all to die. He has committed to being a supervillain.

Next, per Dyer, is pinch two, "a major plot event that pushes the protagonist in a new direction, usually because of the revelation of new information." He puts this at 62.5% of the way in. At about that many minutes in, Big Hero 6 land, in their new outfits, on Akuma Island where they will first learn about the Silent Sparrow experiment and then fight Callaghan together and learn that their person they're fighting is Callaghan. This is the perfect example of what Dyer is talking about.

Marshall talks about the beginning of the third act as "[r]eality return[ing]... When your protagonist's false victory is immediately undone by a huge setback." This description fits to a T the defeat of Callaghan on Akuma Island, following by the revelation of his identity, and him getting way. But, structurally, this is too early to divide act two from act three. But, take my reading of the film, the story of Hiro and Baymax, and what you get for plot point 2, 75% of the way in according to Dyer, is another scene between Hiro and Baymax in Hiro's room. This is when Baymax shows Hiro, "Tadashi is here." Video clips of Tadashi testing Baymax. And, the cliched bit where Hiro collapses into Baymax, beating on his chest, "Tadashi is gone!" Dyer specifies that plot point 2 should be "the worst thing that could possibly occur in the protagonist's pursuit of his external goal." Now, plotwise, Hiro's external goal is going after whoever killed Tadashi. Discovering that it was Callaghan is the worst thing. But, emotionally, Hiro's breakdown after turning Baymax to "destroy" mode is the bigger moment. Of course, this sort of breakdown is not precise, so the actual division could fall in between. Personally, I think it is Hiro's moment of acceptance, his "Thank you, Baymax," that makes him able to go on, able to face Callaghan without getting too emotional or reckless. It is what makes him able to go into the portal to save Callaghan's daughter, what makes him able to tell Baymax that he satisfied with his care.

Stuff gets more obvious once you're into act three. Buildup to the climax, then resolution and aftermath. The plot is resolved when Callaghan is defeated, but then you've got Hiro going into the portal, Baymax sacrificing himself. And, you've got Baymax being reborn. So much after the "plot" has ended. Because, this isn't about Hiro getting revenge. This isn't about him beating Callaghan. It is about Hiro accepting loss. It is about Hiro accepting other people in his life rather than going out on his own.

And, potential cultural appropriation aside, textbook plotting aside, cliched moments aside, the film works because the focus is on that story rather than the plot.


WORKS CITED

Dyer, P. (2010, October 19). Screenplay Structure. Doctor My Script [Weblog]. http://www.doctormyscript.com/2010/10/screenplay-structure.html

Marshall, N. (2012). Screenplay Structure: Three Acts & Five Points. Script Frenzy. --apparently, not online anymore--

Friday, May 19, 2017

what do you believe in?

We interrupt your regularly scheduled social justice warrior vs Big Hero 6 blog post for an interlude. See, today I saw Alien: Covenant in the theater and I feel the need to defend it. I also felt the need to defend King Arthur: Legend of the Sword last week but never quite got to it because my intention to watch 2004's King Arthur to stay on topic got a little sidetracked by obituaries and slinkies and The Fifth Element and Big Hero 6. And the latter got a little... heavy? A little full of itself--my discussion of it, I mean. Not that such an approach is something new for me. As I told my students today (specifically regarding fairy tales and our breakdown of the meaning of "Little Red Riding Hood" but it can be cross applied quite readily to breaking down film), finding the flaws in something doesn't make it bad. Sometimes it can even make it more enjoyable. I mean, look where you're reading this--The Groundhog Day Project. Watched that one over 400 times now. Got into its weaknesses, both real and imagined (trust me, I've imagined a lot). Got into its strengths. Got into its interpretations. And, it is still worth watching for me. It is still enjoyable. (In fact, though I am not able to make it to New York to see the stage version live, its soundtrack has offered up new imaginings, new interpretations, and is probably one of the reasons I went ahead with reviving this blog as I did a few weeks ago.) I am looking forward to watching it again in a couple weeks. See, for me, it's like a relationship. Not that I'm an expert on doing those at all well. Spend time with a film and you get to know it better. You see its weaknesses and its strengths. You see it, warts and all, and if you can still love it... Well, then you are blessed, I suppose. Or, I am. Because I do that all the damn time. Like today, watching Alien: Covenant, I latched onto some flaws, then looked past them because the film worked. I got home (several hours later, after some work), and saw some ridiculous reviews on IMDb--if the message boards still existed there, I might've had some fun--the worst being the people who complain that characters make stupid decisions. I have no problem with that. Seriously, I have no fucking issue with characters making dumb decisions. As long as a) it feels like the character(s) might make such decisions, and b) it doesn't feel like the scriptwriter was 1) cheating to manipulate the film into a corner or 2) making stupid decisions himself. Characters do not have to make the right decisions. As long as their decisions fit their characterization... For example, in Alien: Covenant, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) makes a series of stupid decisions in the middle of the film, but at that point, the film has already showed us that he is not the best at being in charge, and he is a religious man in a universe where, quite literally, belief in Christ as divine is misplaced (though that detail from Prometheus was left on the cutting room floor). One of the few explicitly competent characters is Tennessee (Danny McBride) and aside from flirting with bad choices when his wife is in danger he remains quite competent. The more explicit scripting problem with dumb decisions that was evident in Prometheus--the biologist being the one to immediately get to close to the potentially dangerous creature, the map maker getting lost after he has specifically been mapping the ship--is not as evident here. The bigger issue is actually a bit like one of the problems with Big Hero 6--the film doesn't take much time to give most of its characters depth. I mean, Demian Bichir was nominated for a frickin' Oscar just a handful of years ago--for a movie that most people didn't even see, mind you--and he's relegated to being one of the slasher-film-segment-of-the-Alien-film victims. The aforementioned Crudup plays a too-easily-trusting doofus pretty well. Michael Fassbender gets to play two different androids and, while a certain twist regarding them in the third act is rather obvious, he makes them unique and interesting. Like with Big Hero 6, there are some plotting issues, mostly in that the beats are a bit played, obvious, Hollywood cliches. But, as I said yesterday, I try to measure a film based on its own intentions. Not some idealized version of what I had hoped it would be. (That sort of measurement happens in my head, of course, but I try my best to move past it. I do not always succeed, of course.) Watch a film. Enjoy it for what it is. Then pick it apart best I can (whether in my head or in a rant on the Internet). But, picking it apart, tearing it down, doesn't mean I don't like it.

Except for Pretty Woman. That film can fuck right off.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

where where was i going with this?

Today, I came to appreciate the sound design of Big Hero 6 while thinking of the next step in reifying my social justice warrior interactions with film. See, I had the movie on in the kitchen while making dinner, had my wireless earphones in, and while I could see the screen if I turned my head, mostly I was just hearing it. The sound in the opening bot fight, for example, was amazing.

And, for the record, I like this movie. A lot. I gave it a 9 on IMDb.

(You should know how my IMDb scoring works, I suppose, to be sure what that means. For example, while The Shawshank Redemption and Pulp Fiction get 10s from me, so does La La Land, which I think is a fundamentally flawed film, and Toy Story and The Big Lebowski and Zootopia and Sling Blade, Jaws and Deadpool. Now, as much as there was talk last year about Deadpool being nominated for Best Picture, I don't think it should have even been considered for that. Best Picture is a different sort of ideal. While Get Out earns a 10 from me on IMDb, it is also not Best Picture material. I rate things on IMDb, sort of, on their own terms. Does Get Out achieve what it sets out (or seems to set out) to achieve? Does The Game achieve what it sets out to achieve? It's hardly worth comparing Toni Erdmann and The Godfather Part II, Sideways and Pi. In terms of cinematic greatness, I mean. A low budget horror film might earn a 10 simply because it manages to not have an entirely inane script and bad acting and it manages some genuine scares. A film that is basically a filmed stage play--The Sunset Limited--manages a 10 from me because it made me feel something. But, so does Cube despite some atrocious dialogue because it is one of those films that draws me in. When I didn't have things like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, I used to have these films that I might find late at night on cable and would immediately forego sleep to watch until the end; Cube was on that list. It's acting is often wooden or shallow, and its dialogue, as I said, is sometimes quite awful. But, that concept is captivating. Top Secret! gets a 10 because that film is just flawless. But, in no way would I say that, talking great films, it would even make the same list as Rumble Fish or Lost in Translation. I made a choice a while back to rate movies on IMDb according to what they are trying to be versus what they manage to be. Both of these things are relatively subjective, of course. In making a list of the great films of cinematic history, I would, of course, try to establish something more objective than that.

An 8, by the way, means a solid film that does a pretty good job of what it's trying to do. A 9 does it better, a 10 generally makes me feel something, even if only to inspire me to wish I could make films myself to produce something like it.)

I don't need a film to be flawless to be a a 10. I certainly don't need it to absolutely avoid controversy or "triggering" details like whitewashed casting. Prince of Persia's problems went far beyond casting Jake Gyllenhaal as the the Persian Dastan. Shymalan's butchery of The Last Airbender was much more in the script and the direction than the racially inappropriate casting. Jeff Ma, who is Chinese, told USA Today that rather than having a problem with British white guy Jim Sturgess play him in 21, "I would have been more a lot more insulted if they had chosen someone who was Japanese or Korean, just to have an Asian playing me." He was officially okay with Sturgess playing him. The previously cited Sharon H Chang makes the distinction between "color-conscious" and "color-blind" casting; she suggests that the voice talent of Big Hero 6 was an example of the former, "color-conscious" casting, "actors for the most part racially matched to their parts including two mixed race Asian male actors to voice Hiro and his brother Tadashi."

What takes Big Hero 6 down a notch from a possible 10, for me, is not its arbitrary Japanization of San Francisco or anything potentially problematic about the half-white child genius fixing his older, more experience betters' (?) projects, but in the simplicity (and imbalanced at that) of its plot. Big Hero 6's biggest flaw is also one of the reasons it happens to be quite entertaining. It had very little fat to it, very little fluff. The plot moves and moves and does not waste a scene. However, this means that it adheres to plotting cliches right and left and deals in the luck of coincidence and deus ex machina moments that make it seem, on repeat viewing, almost trite. The other members of Big Hero 6 form attachments to Hiro only offscreen, and we just accept it because, well, we want the superhero teamup we were promised. Callaghan's motivation is revealed close to 2/3 of the way into the film, which would be fine if there was better lead up to it. He mentions his daughter, and he has a problem with Krei, but the foreshadowing is not really there. The genius kid who is better at everything than everyone around him is a bit of a cliche. But, the emotional beats work really well...



Wednesday, May 17, 2017

i have some concerns

Speaking of different cultures and different viewpoints, according to Brian Ashcraft at Kotaku, before Big Hero 6 even came out, some South Koreans were upset over "alleged Rising Sun imagery" in the film. One movie, one story, many interpretations and interpolations.

For example, Sharon H Chang, whose blog I cited yesterday, goes beyond just the racial makeup of Hiro and Tadashi (and the Japanese imagery throughout San Fransokyo). She writes:

The film also plays sardonically with racial stereotypes in a manner much appreciated. Of course Hiro is Asian and super smart, but he's also hip, trendy and the hero. Fred, the not so sharp science groupie who just hangs around turns out to be extraordinarily and inexplicably rich; hilarious fun-poking at unearned white privilege/wealth. Meanwhile, Wasabi, cautious, smart and orderly, is thankfully far from typical depictions of large Black men as 'dangerous' and 'threatening.' (Admittedly the female characters could use a little help but that's another blog post).

In the comics, Fred, aka Fredzilla, can actually transform into a Kaiju; he doesn't just dress as one. Of course, he's also descended from the indigenous Ainu of Japan. So, he has been turned white and had his power set drastically reduced. Which could actually be a good commentary on white privilege... Whether or not it was done for that reason, I suppose. (The comic's Hiro is closer to the film's Fred in that he grew up with wealth.)

The comic's Wasabi-No-Ginger is a chef and swordsman (who can also manifest his Qi-Energy as blades). He seems to be modeled physically after a samurai. He is not black. The film's Wasabi

(Which isn't even his name, but rather a nickname given by Fred after he "spilled wasabi one time". Similarly, Go Go and Honey Lemon seem to be nicknames given by Fred in the film as well. There is no suggestion that Tadashi ever had such a nickname.)

is an interesting character for the reasons Chang offers: he is a big black man, but his personality is far from the usual personality that Hollywood might put upon such a man. In live action, think Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, except I wonder if this gentle giant archetype has been done enough that it is also now as much a cliche as the big, dangerous, black man. Inevitably, so many film characterizations will be cliched, based on (or deliberately upending) stereotypes because Hollywood rarely knows how to give every character in a particular film much depth. (To be fair, Baymax is also a bit of a gentle giant archetype.)

As for the female characters, Chang suggests they could use a little help. Relative to the comics, Go Go may actually be an improvement. While Hiro is the one who finalizes her wheels and costume (as she does for Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred, as well) when they set out to stop Callaghan. Instead of a convict who makes a deal with Japan's Ministry of Defense to test an experimental exosuit, the film's Go Go is intelligent and has her own thing going on with her magnetically mounted wheels on bikes. Her initial introduction culminates, of course, in her doffing her helmet and blowing a bubble with her gum, shorthand for a sort of retro tough girl image. In the comics, she was involved with a motorcycle gang, but here her attitude is less... criminal.


Where Go Go is the tough one, Honey Lemon is the more stereotypically girly one. In both the comic and the film, her "powers" involve a purse out of which she can pull useful objects. The comic version is more outlandish; it involves pocket dimensions, wormholes, and Pym Particles. The film version, at least initially, is almost realistic. But, aside from being girly and having an immediate attachment to Hiro (apparently, in the comic, she was attracted to him and vice versa).

There is also room to discuss Aunt Cass. On the one hand, her very existence echoes the tendency in kids' films (especially those from Disney) to use absent parents as a shorthand excuse for young characters to have to take on great responsibility in their lives, to effectively grow up. (Her presence as lone 'parent' also makes the film feel like an echo of The Iron Giant.) Hiro has parents in the comic, his father a wealthy industrialist. Aunt Cass is a stand in for the deceased father and mother. She is a single parent, taking care of her two nephews while also running a diner. She is capable and independent, but also caring and nurturing. With very little screentime, she manages to be a character with some depth, and it is easy to imagine that she is still living her life when she's not on screen. I'm not sure I can say the same for Fred, Wasabi, Go Go, or Honey Lemon.

But, the absent parents concern me. They make the film feel a little more American to me than Japanese. Their absence sets Callaghan, even as brief as his introductory scenes are, as a pseudo father figure for Hiro. And, the hero having to defeat his 'father' is quite the Hollywood-as-usual Oedipal cliche. That isn't, strictly speaking, an American ideal, but is definitely a Western one, and Hollywood has definitely embraced it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

a place for everything and everything in its place

I was reading recently about folklorists having a problem with Joseph Campbell and his whole monomyth The Hero with a Thousand Faces thing. The hero's journey and all that generic crap that gets recycled again and again in modern stories, especially film, especially action or fantasy.

Sara Cleto argues, in the above linked article:

Campbell's approach tends to direct the read [sic] back to themselves and their own culture. By saying, "hey, it's really just the same story over and over, we are all basically the same, and it [sic] great!" He ends up erasing the differences, and it has a flattening effect on the stories.

Nevermind my own contention that all movies are all other movies, and every story is the same story, let's side with the folklorists for the moment. Besides, my arguments regarding identity and the self suggest that the differences are what matter anyway. Sure, there may be a backbone, or several different backbones, on which all stories stand, but yes, absolutely, it's the details that matter, the little differences, the various characters, the details that allow us to connect, the moments that draw us out and make us feel something. It's like splitting your mind into separated parts a la Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles or believing impossible things a la Alice in Wonderland--both things are true. The stories are all the same, but they are also all different. And, maybe it's the sameness that draws us in, but it's the differences that hold onto us. Cleto continues:

This means that readers see what they already can see, and they understand stories from different times and places as reflections of their own experience. Since it is often a white/Western audience doing this, the net result is that the stories written from other perspectives are decontextualized from their culture and repackaged as something familiar, losing a lot of information along the way.

Think the recent announcement that white actor Zachary McGowan has been cast as Hawaiian historical figure Benehakaka "Ben" Kanahele. Think Scarlett Johansson in the live action Ghost in the Shell, Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, Emma Stone in Aloha, Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger, all the leads in the live action The Last Airbender, and pretty much everybody in films like Gods of Egypt and The Passion of the Christ... Doesn't matter if it's a fictional story with a previous, culturally important origin, or a true story, Hollywood whitewashes it. Because a) Hollywood is cynical and believes the audience (which it cynically imagines as just as white as Hollywood itself has been historically) can only relate to characters that look like it and b) because unfortunately, that's still mostly true. Systemic racism and historically-fixed class divisions (often along racial lines) mean that the moviegoing audience is still mostly white, and--especially in America--this means the white audience will relate better to a white cast. Which is why it matters when a movie like Moonlight gets attention from the Academy, or when a movie like Get Out does well a the box office. The audience needs to embrace difference so that Hollywood can get over its biases. And Hollywood needs to produce more fare that isn't whitewashed so that the audience can get over its biases. Hollywood must treat each story as entirely unique so that it can access a larger audience. Not just cynically film extra scenes (a la Iron Man 3 or X-Men: Days of Future Past or the remake of Red Dawn to name a few) for China that are so extraneous that the American audience doesn't need to see them. Instead of, you know, a cohesive whole that plays however it plays to whatever audience is watching.

Cleto continues:

By saying "all these stories are the same," we lose what stories mean in different contexts and, especially, what they can mean to people that come from cultures that are not our own.


The members of the Big Hero 6 team in the movie don't resemble the members of the team as it was in the comics much at all. For the record, the comic doesn't seem to have been created by anyone Japanese, nor does it come from previously existing (i.e. culturally-specific) Japanese stories.

(Quick sidenote: my daughter just called me a "social justice warrior" (and, of course, not in any positive way) when I said it may be problematic that Hiro Hamada is half white in the film. (Since he singlehandedly improves all of his fellow team members scientific designs, though they've been working on them for years.) If you've read this blog before, you know how right she is.)

But, the comic embraces Japanese characters and Japan-centric ideas; for example, Hiro's mother is abducted by the Everwraith, "the astral emodiment of all those killed in the 1945 nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki." Maybe turning San Francisco arbitrarily into San Fransokyo and filling it with Japanese architecture is reverse cultural appropriation to make up for the comic... Except, the film wasn't written or directed by anyone Japanese either.

(It actually bothers me that I assumed the cuteness of Baymax--the film version--must have come from somewhere outside the West. But, Baymax is just Disney's doing. Overcommodifying something that was already a commodity. Gotta sell those action figures, and get that Saturday morning cartoon.

Now, who's cynical?

I wonder, at what point does it stop being fun because it's just a bunch of reconfigured cultural appropriation, twisted into kid-friendly, multicoloured fun? Is it the overanalysis that ruins it? Or is it the movie's fault (and the comic's fault) for being so exemplary of the problems we have in creating modern stories? On the surface, it's fun, it's clever, it has heart. Is that enough to forgive the negative implications within the creative process that birthed it?)

Is every story the same, so the whitewashing doesn't matter? If every story (at least the good ones, and arguably even the bad ones) reflects some aspect of the human condition and all that that phrase stereotypically entails, what's wrong with sharing the details across cultural and racial lines? What's wrong with stealing bits from one another to make good stories?

Of course, if the story is good, why paste your own biases on top of it? Why not just make it, as it is, and let us all get over ourselves?

 

 

 

 

 

Then again, Sharon H Chang writes in her Multiracial Asian Familes blog:

From my perspective the movie encapsulates and affirms a certain multiracial Asian identity beautifully (however as a mixed-with-white narrative I strongly acknowledge it might not speak much to mixes of color). Hiro lives in the futuristic city of San Fransokyo which is stylish and portrayed without tokenizing. Nothing is objectified, exoticized, or othered. Hiro eats spicy chicken wings and white rice for dinner. He's a native American English speaker but holds his Japanese name with pride respectfully mirrored in the way those around him also pronounce it correctly and effortlessly. His visual world is seamlessly woven with American and Japanese iconography. It's simply his everyday lived life. As my husband said it was refreshing to see movie-makers, "Just get it."

Maybe my own privilege pisses me off so much sometimes that it's hard to see exactly where to draw the line.

Or maybe, if Hollywood could manage things a little better, that line wouldn't need to be drawn in the first place.