Anne Bean

I make delicious words. // I make words delicious.

Tag: film

Story Structure Along the Fury Road

This post will contain significant spoilers for the film Mad Max: Fury Road.

mad max fury road poster

I strongly suggest you go see it before reading the post. However, should you need convincing that it’s a film worth your time, I offer the following things I loved about it:

  1. The world-building is consistent, amazing, deeply satisfying. It’s set in a world poisoned, dead, polluted, with disposable people and a constant resource shortage/control system that means constant conflict and oppression. It’s a dying world evoked wonderfully through chrome, explosions, and cars. There is a guitar that shoots flames. There are muscle cars stacked on top of other muscle cars.
  2. It’s really well-written. Structurally, it’s great. This is what I’m going to talk about during the post below.
  3. The action sequences are intense and frequent; somehow also there is a lot of character building at the same time. Like at least four characters have character arcs. Whoa.
  4. Charlize Theron portraying a great action hero PLUS a disabled character who isn’t pitiable, “inspiration porn,” or defined by her disability. (She has a RAD mechanical arm.)
  5. The film is an action classic and also a feminist action classic, as many have pointed out in tones both admiring and revolted. I mean, this film pissed of Men’s Rights Activists, which means it’s totally worth seeing. 🙂

***

Right, then, spoilers ahoy:

Best Buddy Road Trip Flick 2015

After seeing Mad Max: Fury Road, a friend of mine posted on Facebook: “It was the best buddy road trip flick of 2015.” She’s not wrong. The structural bones of the film are that of a road trip flick: protagonist goes on trip with Very Important Purpose, finds not what they expected to find but something else, something about themselves, and then returns home with new-found confidence, purpose, etc. Some examples of the Road Trip Flick: Blues Brothers, Little Miss Sunshine, O Brother Where Art Thou, Dirty Girl (which is on Netflix right now and also fantastic, go watch it). The Road Trip Flick structure is pretty darn closely aligned to the Hero’s Journey structure, where the hero must venture to the “special world” to gain allies, defeat foes, and bring the elixir of life back to their people.

So in that respect, Mad Max has a very traditional structure, and it cracks me up that a lot of articles are crying “this film breaks the mold!” I mean, it doesn’t and it does. It certainly doesn’t fall back of the tropes of toxic masculinity that many action films use–it addresses toxic masculinity, but from a place of dismantling rather than blind acceptance. So what about the plot structure is nonstandard? Well, there’s a female main character and a lot of women. And they are subjects, not objects, even the ones who were sex slaves. I wish that wasn’t such a big deal, but it Action Movie Land, it totally is.

Belle vs Max

a split face: left half is Max, right half is Disney's BelleOne thing I find helpful when looking at a film is to figure out who’s the viewpoint character and whose story the film is following. Sometimes this is the same person, sometimes it is not. In this case, it’s not. Like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, the viewpoint character is not the one the movie’s overall story is about. In the case of Beauty and the Beast, we’re meant to see the tale through Belle’s eyes, but it’s Beast’s story. In Mad Max: Fury Road, we’re meant to see the film through Max’s eyes, but it’s Imperator Furiosa’s story. This is what’s pissing off the sexists: this is a film about a woman and her heroic journey to gain allies (one of whom is Max), defeat foes, and very literally bring the water *cough* I mean elixir of life back to her people.

Unlike Belle, though, Max has agency throughout the film. Max’s motives are clear: survival (which he’s very clear about), and also redemption (which he doesn’t consciously know at first that he needs, but we sure do). These are the same motivations that Imperator Furiosa has, except that she’s consciously seeking redemption, thus her quest for the Green Place of Many Mothers. Max is along for the ride at first; although he is still acting in the best interest of his primary motive, survival. At some point, though, both Max and Furiosa make a conscious choice to trust each other. When Furiosa needs a driver during their passage through the mountain pass, she has Max do it. Max realizes that despite having gathered all the women’s weapons and technically holding the women at gunpoint for some time, that he and Furiosa both want escape, survival, and yes, redemption. Once he’s been trusted by Furiosa, he slowly morphs from Other to Ally. In some of the relatively sparse dialogue, Furiosa asks him what they should do if he doesn’t return from a mysterious mission to blow some shit up that’s chasing them in the fog. He looks at her funny and replies: “Keep driving.”

Max is often the catalyst for action. He sometimes serves as a fulcrum for the team. This has pulled him in to what several folks at FANgirl blog have identified as a key component of “heroine’s journey” stories: working with a team or otherwise affecting the entire society, not just the self. Notice in this scene (WHICH IS A HUGE SPOILER SO IF YOU HAVE IGNORED ME BEFORE GO WATCH THE FILM ALREADY, SHEESH) who’s making the plan, and how the camera focuses on the group as a whole:

There’s a reason why Max is there, but it’s not his story. He’s part of something bigger, and Furiosa is leading that charge.

Furiosa’s Journey

Furiosa’s arc could follow a number of traditional hero’s journeys. My favorite version of the hero’s journey comes from The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler, although Furiosa is also very much following the Heroine’s Journey as outlined by Maureen Murdock in her book of the same name. Essentially, Furiosa’s Hero’s Journey narrative goes like this:

  • Inciting Incident: Setting off on her journey in the War Rig.
  • Mentor: None. While there are figures who fall into the mentor archetype later in the film
  • Tests, Allies, Enemies: Max (shapeshifter), “Wives” (ally), Nux (shapeshifter), Immortan Joe (enemy), all the other desert factions in the first half of the film (enemy)
  • Midpoint/First Big Test: The mountain passage
  • Boon: Full allyship with Max, then later Nux
  • The Road Home: finding the Vuvalini (there’s that mentor archetype, y’all), realizing that the Green Place is no more, deciding to come back home
  • Showdown/Climax: Final road battle that results in the death of Immortan Joe, where she kills him.
  • Return: Furiosa’s return home, flowing water, Action Hero Nod with Max as he leaves, etc.

 

There’s a lot more about this movie that I will probably talk about. We all know how big a fan I am of symbolic props, and gosh, this film used them incredibly well. But for now I say, Huzzah, a film where almost every character had at least some development and most of them had full character arcs! Huzzah, a film well-structured and well-plotted. Oh, what a film! What a glorious film!

Storytelling, Video Games, and the Shape of Narrative

I’m going to espouse a controversial opinion: Video games can be another genre of creative writing and a great vehicle for story.

If you’re a gamer, you’re going, “Yeah. Duh. Why is that controversial?”

Let me explain:

Let’s consider the current “genres” of writing to be fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (including personal essay and memoir), and dramatic writing (including stage plays, screenwriting, and comics). Of those, story arc is applicable to all in some form or another; however, some genres like poetry rely less heavily on story arc, and it is essential to other genres like screenwriting.

Story-Arc-Diagram-w-Subplots

Take a movie, for example, arguably one of the closest genres to video games, at least in appearance. What drives a screenplay forward is a combination of things: a character wanting stuff, trying really hard to get it, and having people/stuff get in their way; a “ticking clock,” or sense of time and urgency, what Susan Kim calls “the tyranny of chronology”; and a reason why all this is happening now, including some catalyst that sets things in motion.

BraidlogoOne argument against video games as a storytelling vessel is that the time factor isn’t the same as in, say, film. And I don’t think it is, not in the same way. But it is still important; it just functions differently. The only place time can be really controlled is in cut scenes or sort of rolling platformer situations where if you die, you can try again. I’d say some games (notably Braid) have some unique takes on time and video game death. Perhaps the argument is that the ability to try again after death lowers the stakes. And I think it does, for the player. That’s why anyone ever invented “hardcore mode.” However, I think the stakes for the character are still there. Videogames are certainly a very different modality of dramatic writing. The “tyranny of chronology” is expressed differently, but it’s still there: you know when you’ve gotten to a cut scene that is a fixed point in “story time,” a point from which you cannot return.

So what role does storytelling have in video games? The PAX panel, “Is Storytelling the Most Important Thing in Video Games?” addressed just that. While I didn’t attend, here’s a summary. One of the points that the panelists seemed to be making was that video games have a ton of subgenres, and storytelling is vital to some and more or less irrelevant to others. However, one point seemed particularly resonant to me: that storytelling is why we care about playing a game in the first place. It’s what gives us a personal stake in the game. From the Penny Arcade panel:

“What players who value story want [is] to be at the intersection of agency and meaning,” noted Cameron Harris [a freelance editor and story consultant]. From her perspective, these gamers want their actions to have meaning. They desire to be important and change the world they’re experiencing. What they really want is for the game to say “you exist” and “you matter”.

Few other genres dare try to put the viewer/consumer/player in the experience of the protagonist. Frankly, few other players have the tools. And therefore I think narrative structure is going to look different than other genres have, in a large part because of the element of player choice. Consider Mass Effect, for example. Player choice determines Shepard’s moral compass and at minimum Shepard’s B-storylines. And if Aristotle, in Poetics, spoke of the necessity of catharsis, I can think of no better catharsis than being a hero for an hour, stepping into the shoes of someone and being able to make vital, important choices.

419073-mass-effect-2-windows-screenshot-the-dialogue-system-once

An interesting thought about the possible shape of story in video games is “Shandification,” as in the wandering narrative of Tristram Shandy, a term coined by the author of this video:

“The setting becomes the story, and vice versa.”

Sadly, I see pathetically few conversations about this stuff. Either I’m talking to fiction and screen writers, who often pooh-pooh video games as a legit vehicle for story, or I’m hanging out with gamers, who are so (understandably) defensive about anyone who might consider games illegitimate story vehicles that they don’t actually talk about the craft. My hope is that the ubiquitous “we,” as in both the literary community and the gaming community, can have some serious, coherent conversations about craft and storytelling in video games.

 

Thoughts? How the heck do stakes, story, and arc work in video games? Tell us, precioussss.

Oblivion: Written by Real Human Writers

This is Part One of a review/craft breakdown of the movie Oblivion. Happily, Part One is pretty much spoiler-free; nothing you wouldn’t see in the previews.

Oblivion movie poster

Directed by Joseph Kosinski, 2013

So, after seeing a whole lot of films that seemed to be written by either a team of trained monkeys with typewriters or the vast and terrible Hollywood Machine, boy was Oblivion a lovely breath of fresh air. (Apparently others disagree, but lo, I will break it down yo why this film is good.)

The film wasn’t really on my radar; I tend to roll my eyes whenever Tom Cruise is in anything. And the irony of Tom Cruise’s  Scientologist ass in a film that involves hostile alien takeover was not lost on me. Thetans eat your heart out. Cruise aside, though (and seriously, I *almost* forgot it was him), I am a huge sucker for dystopian stories. So Oblivion is right up my alley. Also, the whole damn score is by M83, orchestrated by the guy who worked with Daft Punk on the TRON: Legacy soundtrack. Also, the movie would be worth seeing in theaters for the visuals alone.

But a lot of movies have rad soundtracks and pretty visuals. I mean, that was true of TRON: Legacy,  Joseph Kosinski’s first go at film directing. But this movie had so much more going on.

So, what this movie has that so many do not:

  1. Careful and strategic worldbuilding (which actually could have been slightly *more* careful at the end, but hey. It still outclassed many sci-fi releases of the past decade)
  2. Here’s the kicker: Really well-designed, active characters that all had clear motivations upon which they acted.
  3. Kicker No. 2: A clear “ticking clock” in every scene that drove the plot forward.
  4. Nice use of symbolic props.

So many films tend to forget these, particularly number two. Seriously. It is oddly difficult to write active characters, even when you’re trying. It’s so much easier to throw big scary monsters at your characters and see how they’ll REACT.

So, let me break down the beginning, non-spoilery bit so you can see what I’m talking about.

We begin by meeting two characters:

Jack Harper and Victoria, or “Vic” Olsen. They live in a ivory tower of a fancy house on top of a giant pole that lands them well above lightning-filled doom clouds.

Jack and Vic's house

Thus.

Jack Harper is a mechanic. He explains his job in voice-over: He fixes the drones that repair the machines that suck up the ocean that powers the getaway vehicle (a giant tetrahedron craft called The Tet) that has all remaining humanity on it and will shortly be bound for Titan (Saturn’s moon) since Earth is wrecked (radiation, hostile aliens called Scavs) after the big ol’ war where the alien invasion force blew up the moon then invaded. (Worldbuilding, anyone?) But day-to-day, he fixes drones.

Jack fixes a drone.

Jack Harper, played by Tom Cruise.

Vic is Jack’s controller. She stays up in the tower. She’s a line between Mission Control on the Tet and Jack; she literally watches his back for Scavs and other hazards while he does his job. She’s pretty frigging anxious to get out. At the beginning of the movie, she can’t stop thinking about how it’s two more weeks, and then they’ll go up to the Tet and be whisked off to Titan with everyone else. She’s doing her damnedest to hold it together for just two more weeks, and trying to get Jack to do the same. (Ticking clock, anyone?)

Vic at her control desk.

Victoria “Vic” Olsen, played by Andrea Riseborough.

Jack and Vic are in charge of a limited section of territory in between radiation zones. Hint: It’s New York. The only other things we know about Jack and Vic: They’ve had a mandatory “memory wipe” so that they cannot reveal secrets should they be captured by hostile aliens. Jack has memories of Old Earth and a woman he doesn’t know.

Vic is actively trying to get out; she’s ready to go and is doing everything she can to survive these last two weeks to Titan. Jack is trying to preserve the memories of Old Earth as much as he can before they leave. He’s also curious. And, as with any good story, today is the day something different happens.

  • Major Dramatic Question: Will Jack solve the mystery of what happened to his world and who this woman is? (Will Jack be able to preserve his world?)
  • Passover Question: Why is tonight different than any other night….? Well…”An object has come down in Sector 17″ is all I’ll say.

Apparently Kosinski got Tom Cruise to sign on based on the little Oblivion comic/ashcan book, and then spent a year working on the script. And to my mind, it shows! Michael Arndt, of screenwriter for Little Miss Sunshine, was among the writing team.

Other cast members include Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, That One Guy From Game of Thrones, and Xena’s Friggin’ Stunt Double.

Okay, now go see it already! Next post will be filled with Spoilery, spoilery spoilers. I plan on tracking the character motivations and symbolic props throughout the whole thing in a delightfully anal-retentive way.

 

 

 

Subjective, Objective

Since I am neck deep in revisions right now, I figured I would write about a specific chunk of craft:

Subjectivity.

What is it?

It’s a way of getting into a character’s head in so that the audience can see, not objective reality (whatever that is), but the reality that the character lives in.

This exists in all genres. As a only occasional poet, I’d argue that poetry can easily be the most subjective of the genres, but then poetry is only sometimes concerned with story, and more often concerned with what my brilliant poet friend Shae calls recreating a specific vibratory, emotional experience for the reader. Getting on a wavelength together, if you will. Being in each other’s heads.

Fiction can also be quite subjective, especially when it has close psychic distance or an intimiate voice. To me, though, the most interesting experiences in subjectivity come in film. Film is supposedly an objective genre: the unfeeling camera’s eye. Of course, as early as Georges Melies folks were messing with the objectivity of the camera’s eye. Still, subjectivity requires a finesse of effects in film.

movie poster from Rashomon

In an obvious way, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon is a classic of subjective film. The audience gets the same story three ways from three different characters; what seems like a simple story is not so simple. It’s a mystery and a whodunnit, and the audience’s concept of who is innocent or guilty changes several times during the film.

Men in Black: Trebeck and Ventura

Alex Trebeck and Jesse Ventura guest star as Men in Black in “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space”

In a silly way, the X-Files Episodes “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” and “Bad Blood” both involve characters recounting the same events in different ways. I think “Jose Chung’s From Outer Space” is an episode that any writer should watch because it is about a writer trying to gather some kind of objective truth out of a mess of subjective accounts from people. It also dances an interesting dance between the supposedly objective intro before the credits and the subjective accounts from everyone involved.

 

Scully's version of the Sheriff

In “Bad Blood,” even the characters change depending on who’s telling the story. Luke Wilson’s small-town cop character in handsome and intelligent in Scully’s version; in Mulder’s version he’s Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel, complete with buck teeth (“He had a slight overbite!” Mulder declared when Scully calls him on it.) and lines like, “Y’all must be the gov’ment people!”

At the end of that episode, though, they go back to the town and we get an “objective” view of the situation.

Mulder's version of the Sheriff

 

X-Files is interesting to me in general in terms of subjectivity and objectivity because we the viewers get to see the aliens, lake monsters, fluke men (guhhh), and even vampires in ways that Scully and Mulder don’t. We have seen like five or ten times the aliens that Mulder has. That being said, so much of the filming is done in from someone’s perspective as part of a recounting that objective truth is difficult to determine. I’ve watched the whole show, and frankly I’m still not sure the single truth of what actually happened to Mulder’s sister. (I know, they supposedly explained it. But that was hard to swallow for me considering the large amount of subjective data we get throughout the show. I mean, is Alex Trebeck also a Man in Black?)

On a less immediately obvious level, Black Swan is an incredibly subjective film. Black Swan is a movie that relies on the audience believing in Nina’s subjective world. We have to believe that what she sees is true. Otherwise, it’s a movie about a crazed ballerina slowly acting more and more paranoid until she breaks a mirror, stabs herself, and then dances Swan Lake.

Even little scenes in Black Swan are subjective. When Nina is learning how to do the Black Swan’s 32 pirouettes or whatnot, we see both her in the camera and we have a moment of the camera becoming her, and swooping around in circle after circle so that the audience can feel the disorientation that she does.

With each physical transformation or moment that she sees the double, we see reality as she does, a flash of the Double and then a flash of her own reflection helping us to see her scattered mind.

Nina and her reflection do not match.

Subjectivity is also necessary in films like Fear and Loathing is Las Vegas…otherwise it’s about some questionable men in Hawaiian shirts trashing the living hell out of a hotel room. If they’re tripping balls, we the audience had best be tripping balls with them so that we understand the stakes they’re feeling in the story.

Johnny Depp in a distorted camera lens

The lens subtly distorts the image here; the narrator and camera are both unreliable. And this isn’t even the part with the living wallpaper.

So, my little April Fools, I have  an exercise for you, just for funsies:

Take a story of yours, or a folktale, or a story you know really well, and rewrite it two ways: As objectively as possible, and then as subjectively as possible. What information might only make sense in one of your character’s heads, and how can you let us in? (Bonus points if you storyboard this out, for those of you who’ll touch film or comics with a ten foot pole.)

The True Story of the Three Little Pigs! by John Scieszka & Lane Smith is a good example of the “fairy tale” version of this prompt.

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