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This essay will meander a bit and ultimately has no conflict. But that’s kind of the point.
A few weeks ago, Dara posted an article on facebook “The significance of plot without conflict.” Shortly thereafter, I saw “Tiny Furniture,” the debut film by Lena Dunham. Then, I read the extremely formulaic screenwriting book “Save the Cat.”
The article talks about the standard advice in Western writing class that every story must have 1) a beginning, middle & end and 2) conflict. In fact, screenwriting/acting classes will tell you that each individual scene should have conflict. Here’s Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 writing tips, which makes the point in a less hacky way.
According to the article, there is a Chinese/Japanese plot structure called kishōtenketsu that does not rely on conflict. The first and second acts set up the situation, the third act introduces a “new surprising element,” and the fourth act draws some kind of conclusion. Just read the article and come back when you’re done.
Dara tagged both me and Matt, and Matt can make his own response. But my response is: Fine by me.
I do not have a lot of formal training in creative writing. I’m basically self-taught by studying genre pieces, mystery novels, and whatever Great Literature manages to pierce my genre bubble.
So I’m not terribly beholden to the 3 Act/Conflict model. I see it as a tool in the toolbox, and I’m happy to see that there are other tools out there. It’s possible that my first movie, A Voice From The Dead, uses a similar structure.
I will say that the 3 Act/Conflict model is a very effective tool, and one that’s been hashed out over 4,000 years of Western Civilization. And I think a conflict-free story would be a bit boring unless it’s done really well (I’ll refer you back to A Voice From The Dead).
For a conflict-free story that’s done really well, I’ll refer you to “Tiny Furniture.” If that story has conflict, it’s on such a small scale that I can hardly see it. In it, a young woman returns home after graduating from a liberal arts college, falls back into her old patterns, and halfheartedly attempts to get laid.
Describing the plot of “Tiny Furniture” doesn’t really do it justice. There’s not much “arc” to it. Some scenes have conflict, but not much changes. The film succeeds on the quality of its images and its tone-setting.
So this brings me back around to the 3 Act/Conflict model. Any rule can be broken, if you have the talent and skill to pull it off.
You know that old comic book trope (I associate it mostly with Marvel Comics) where two heroes meet, fight, then team up?
It turns out that is literally the oldest trope in the book. That’s how The Epic of Gilgamesh starts.
As part of my Babylonian kick, I sat down and read Gilgamesh. It’s not long (you can’t do too much decompression when you’re forming the words one-by-one out of clay with a reed, and the trade had not been invented yet). When it opens, Gilgamesh is a mighty king, but kind of immature. The gods make a wild, shaggy man to oppose him: Enkidu. They fight, and then become bosom pals.
Actually, Gilgamesh’s opening gambit is to send a harlot out to seduce Enkidu. After that, Enkidu is too civilized and his animal friends refuse to help him. I never saw Spider-Man use that tactic on Ghost Rider, but I’m sure one Craig or Matt will correct me.
After that, Gilgamesh and Enkidu go kill a monster because the sun god Shamash tells them to. I didn’t quite catch the rationale there. The monster guards a pine forest, so I think Shamash wanted a big pine tree for the door to his temple … I didn’t follow that part very well.
There are more adventures. They piss off the goddess Ishtar and kill the Bull of Heaven, so the gods send Enkidu an illness and he dies. Then, Gilgamesh goes to the land of the gods to visit Ut-napishtim (the Babylonian Noah) and find the secret to immortality. Unfortunately, a snake carries it off.
I’m continually surprised at how human Gilgamesh is. At several points, he’s essentially ready to wus out, but Enkidu urges him to keep fighting. And he gets totally emo when he realizes that he, too, will die someday.
My Babylonian gaydar is not finely tuned enough to tell if Gilgamesh and Enkidu are lovers. Both of them have wives, although you never meet them. The only named women are Shamhat (the harlot) and the goddess Ishtar, who is explicitly described as a psycho hosebeast. I wasn’t expecting a 4,000-year-old folk tale to pass the Bechdel Test, but I wasn’t expecting it to be so completely G’s-Up-Hoes-Down.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest stories in Western Civilization, is basically a buddy cop movie.
OK, this time I went way over 350 words, to a shocking 765 words. Sorry about that. We’re also considering putting a portion of these into a Kindle book, so watch the Internets for that, huh?
The Palomino Station Murder
When the computer told me there was more oxygen in the air, I just had a feeling something was wrong. Same thing with the sump flow – there wasn’t as much as usual. Someone was missing.
Palomino Station isn’t big enough to have a sheriff. There’s hardly any crime to speak of. There’s nowhere to run, nothing to steal, and few items are so precious that the owner won’t lend them to you if you ask nicely. We’re all station-born, so everyone here knows you and your fathers from birth.
As the system administrator, I’m the closest thing we have to law around here. I set out to find the Conner twins.
We don’t have cameras or sensors all over the place (‘cept in the high-rad areas), because we like our privacy. But it wasn’t long before I found Cody Conner on the promenade deck, pitching woo with Becky Clevinger. He was pitching pretty hard, too.
“Let’s get out of this little town,” he said. You could tell he was desperate, but he was trying not to show it. Becky just thought it was love. “Just hijack an escape pod, a few years in stasis, and we can get to a real planet.”
“A real planet,” Becky demurred. “With all that gravity.”
“I have a little money -,” Cody caught himself short when he saw me, and turned white as a sheet.
“Cody,” I said. “Where is your brother?”
He didn’t try to run. There was nowhere to go on Palomino. He just hung his head and cried.
The Conner twins had been feuding over Becky Clevinger for about three years, ever since the old animal urges started. She was 18, and they were 16.
Usually, we try to synchronize births, but Becky and the Conner twins were a kind of half-generation all to themselves. There was no other youth within 5 years of them. Even if there had been, I think the Conner twins would have still been head over heels for Becky.
For her part, Becky liked the attention some, and she liked them OK as people, but I don’t know that she relished the choice. But her next option was Harry Thompson, age 12, who liked to shoot rubber bands; or to be a junior wife to an older couple. She took a skeptical eye to her two suitors and she set herself in for a long siege.
The airlocks all kept records, so it wasn’t hard to tell what happened to poor Bill Conner. Mr. Vikas unlimbered the telescope and found him floating out in space some 700,000 kilometers in our wake, body heat moving to the low parts of Kelvin. We thought about going to pick up the body, but we were short on rocket fuel, and floating in space was no less dignified than going into the recycler. So out in space he floats.
We held a service, though. Mr. Vikas said a few words, and we sang a few of the old songs. We let the Conner boy come, and he wept and swore it was an accident and his mother hung on him the whole time. His father stood stone-faced, but he held his arm tight around Mrs. Conner, and she held onto young Cody, so I suppose he held his son in his own way. He was losing two sons that day.
It was I who administered the punishment. I loaded young Cody into the autodoc while his mother held his hand and shhhhed that it’d be alright. Doc Wilson put in the sedative. I fitted the helmet on his head, and the autodoc did its work, cutting out all the spark and leaving what was sweet and compliant. On the frontier, we’re too few to allow murderers to get away, but we’re also short of strong backs.
So now he does what we ask, and works hard, and everyone more-or-less likes him. Those that don’t like him avoid him, but he’s not sharp enough to notice. He dotes after young Becky for reasons he can’t quite remember, and she seems sort of fond of him.
We saved a little of Cody’s material, not that Becky’d want to have a murderer’s child, but the Conners have always been good breeding stock and I reckon it’s the same as Bill’s. Mr. and Mrs. Conner would never ask, but I don’t doubt that Becky considers it. Sometimes she seems a bit wistful as she considers Harry Thompson, or a few of the older couples.
And that’s that. That’s the record of the Palomino Station murder.
Man, it seems like this zombie craze has been going on forever, huh? That may literally be true.
I came across what may be the world’s oldest zombie story in a book of Babylonian mythology. In one version of the story, the goddess Ishtar (Queen of Heaven, also known as Inanna) attempts to enter the Underworld, which is ruled by the goddess Ereshkigal.
The reasons for her trip are unclear, but the threat she makes is quite familiar to our post-Romero world:
O gatekeeper, open thy gate,
Open thy gate that I may enter!
If thou openest not the gate so that I cannot enter,
I will smash the door, I will shatter the bolt,
I will smash the doorpost, I will move the doors,
I will raise up the dead, eating the living
So that the dead will outnumber the living.
That’s right – the zombie trope is literally one of the oldest ones in the book.
I always describe my feelings for Downton Abbey as being similar to my wife’s feelings about Dr. Who: I can get into the show for a little bit, but then I remember how ridiculous the milieu is. My wife says it’s different because Downton Abbey’s milieu really existed, but I’m not sure that makes it better.
If you haven’t seen it, Downton Abbey details the drama of a grand estate in Britain from 1912-1920. The lords & ladies of the house deal with their upper-class dramas, while meanwhile the domestic staff have their own set of dramas. The inciting event is that Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter can’t inherit the estate unless she marries a distant cousin. One major storyline in season 1 involves a footman framing Lord Grantham’s valet for the loss of a snuff-box.
Essentially, the whole society needs a kick in the ass. I found myself rooting for World War I.
Season 2 did deal with WWI, with several of the cast going off to war and the estate serving as a military hospital. Last night’s Season 3 debut moves it back to drawing-room intrigue. Lord Grantham has lost most of his money investing in Canadian railroads, the eldest daughter *finally* marries that cousin, and the evil footman conspires to keep his position as a valet.
Downton Abbey faltered in Season 2, and I think it made a mistake trying to deal with such a large world-historical event. Frankly, the series works better when it focuses on bullshit.
I really can’t help but enjoy the show. Last night also featured Shirley Maclaine as the world’s most on-the-nose American, and also attempted to explain the logic behind the old estates. Lord Grantham really believes he has a duty to stay filthy rich, so he can employ the 15-20 people who work in his estate. I’m kind of fascinated by how if you’re born rich, you can come up with reasons why you deserve it.
And as a “small-r” republican, I believe the whole society is better-served by educating everyone and letting them create middle-class jobs. I mean, I’m not judging you if you want to be a valet, but there really should be some more options. You have to weep when you consider the waste of human talent.
But the sociological stuff takes a backseat to the human drama. It’s ridiculous to worry that you only have a tux to wear to a dinner, when you should be wearing white tie and tails, but it’s deadly serious to the characters. And the characters are human enough that you identify with their concerns, even though they’re completely bullshit.
Plus, look at Lady Mary in this dress! Isn’t this worth centuries of oppression?
I casually came across this while trying to dig up a release date on *Nijigahara Holograph (no dice there… yet). It’s mostly comprised of dudes who haven’t seen a razor in six months and their cats. I’m kind of disappointed there’s not one shot of a guy reading a book on the jon. James Kolchalka, I’m looking at you.
Fantagraphic’s output has gotten better as of late. Honestly, outside of Peanuts reprints and the oversize floppies they did with Coconino Press, they were in a real rut. I’m still trying to erase Percy Bloom out of my head.
I have Black Lung checked out of the library but haven’t read it yet. It looks great. I’m looking forward to Ed Piskor’s new hip hop book.
I can’t believe I’m typing this but Picturebox is putting out a book I’d like to own, **So Long, Silver Screen by Blutch.
So … some movie folks I know are no-shit making a movie called Bong of the Living Dead.
The group is collectively known as Backward Slate. There’s a Kickstarter, and some storyboards:
This week there’s a Bong of the Living Dead Q&A in Columbus Alive.
It’s a really strong character piece that people will identify with, not just for the love of zombies — everyone wants zombies to take over deep down — but also the likable characters.
That’s right, you know people who know people who made Sad Kermit.
***This post has minor spoilers for a show you’re probably never going to watch.***
My wife and I were both tired and a bit hungover, and our daughter was off with her grandparents. So it was the perfect time to start watching “Once Upon A Time” on Netflix.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched the whole first season and four episodes of the current season. I’m not going to try to tell you it’s a great show, but it’s entertaining enough. And it’s really interesting how they try to bring genre fiction to a mass audience.
First, the background: The show starts as the Evil Queen busts up the wedding of Snow White and Prince Charming, promising a curse that will destroy fairyland and take away everyone’s happily-ever-afters. Rumpelstiltskin tells Snow White & Prince Charming their only hope is to send their infant daughter through a portal in a wardrobe, and when she’s 28 she’ll return to break the Curse.
So far, so good.
The curse hits, and all the storybook characters are sent to a small town called Storybrooke, Maine. They have no memory of their past lives, and the Evil Queen is now Mayor Regina Mills. The daughter (Emma) is working as a bail bonds-person in Boston, but she’s found by *her* son Henry, who she gave up for adoption 10 years ago. Her son has somehow been adopted by Mayor Regina.
So what happens is you have small-town, low-stakes drama intercut with scenes of high adventure from the fairy land. In the real world, Emma and the Mayor butt heads over their son and municipal politics. Snow White and Prince Charming try to find each other, but the Curse made sure Charming was married to someone else.
The show sets itself some structural problems from the beginning.
1. It’s never sure how evil the villains are. Mayor Regina switches from scheming small-town politician to Evil Queen to decent (if overbearing) mother several times during the season, depending on what the writers need that week. Mayor Mills is more of a soap-opera villain, who lives in the community and has shifting alliances, rather than a sci-fi-style Big Bad who must be defeated.
2. The “real world” drama doesn’t quite stand on its own. Prince Charming is basically deciding whether to cheat on his wife with Snow White. Mayor Regina has a point about being Henry’s mother. The drama gets its deeper meaning in the fairytale flashbacks, but on its own it seems unearned.
3. The whole first season is basically “the heroes figure out the problem.” In a standalone piece of fiction, that’s the boring part in Act IV.
The show has a couple of things going for it.
1. Like I say, it’s interesting to see a mass-audience take on the fantasy genre. The fairy tale characters use normal vernacular, except on special occasions. If you’re used to the full Tolkein, it probably feels watered down.
2. But they do play it more-or-less straight. The Evil Queen sure is evil, and True Love’s Kiss really is the greatest magic of all. The show attempts to update fairy tales (Snow White becomes a bandit queen), but it isn’t interested in deconstructing them. You know how I hate that.
3. At the same time, the villains aren’t totally evil. Both the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin get origin stories that show how they turned bad, and they both have paths to redemption they can choose to take. They’re trying to update the fairy tale, rather than subvert it.
4. I’m not going to say you have to be a better actor to pull off genre work, but it’s definitely a specialized skill set.
The performances are pretty good. Lana Parilla is great as the Evil Queen (I’ve been a fan of hers since Swingtown) although she struggles as the writers whip her character around. Jennifer Morrison is probably the weak link as Emma, although her character has to tread water for a long time. Josh Dallas plays Prince Charming as a noble, romantic hero that you could still have a beer with. And Ginnifer Goodwin? What else can I say about Ginnifer Goodwin?
The standout here is Robert Carlyle as Rumpelstiltskin. He plays Rumpelstiltskin with three parts Big Bad, two parts trickster god, one part Jim Carrey and one part leprechaun. His dark imp is grounded by his intense performance as Mr. Gold, his “real world” alter ego. If you see only one episode, make it a Rumpelstiltskin showcase like “The Price of Gold” or “Skin Deep.”
We’re four episodes into Season 2, and so far it’s been on an upswing. The curse is broken, the fairytale characters remember who they are, and the plot is moving. Prince Charming is now a hero, rather than a guy who’s cheating on his wife, and Emma and Snow White are swashbuckling across the fairy land. They’ve brought in Captain Hook and the Evil Queen’s mother as bigger Big Bads.
I think they’re moving more into fantasy territory, rather than a genre piece lashed to a small-town drama. As a genre fan, I think it’s a good move.
I’m not going to tell you it’s a great show, but if you have a hole in your Netflix queue (and you’re tired and hungover), you could do worse.
Ohmigosh … what if Disney just rebooted Star Wars, the way Paramount did with Star Trek or Warners does with Batman?
For some reason, the thought of rebooting Star Wars offends me more than rebooting those other franchises, which is weird because I’m a bigger fan of Star Trek & Batman than Star Wars. I guess I’m used to new versions of Batman and Star Trek coming out periodically.
In the meantime, enjoy this clip from the 2003 Star Wars: Clone Wars series. That’s basically the last time I enjoyed new Star Wars content (I’m making no statements on the quality of new Star Wars stuff; I just stopped following it after Episode 3.)
Pajiba.com has an essay out complaining about “darkness,” “grittiness” and “realism” being used as shortcuts for “moral complexity.”
They give a shout out to the comix industry, but they spend more time tracing the phenomenon in other media. So maybe we can let Alan Moore off the hook a little bit — perhaps it was just in the air?
I was two weeks late picking up my copy of Batman No. 13, and I don’t keep up on the comix news that much. Thus I was a little dismayed to see the die-cut cover.
“I hear that’s selling for $20 bucks on eBay,” said the lady behind the counter.
I smiled and nodded, but inside I thought, “Cripes, are we doing this again?”
I read the comic on the bus ride home. It’s well-constructed, and I’m on record as a fan of Scott Snyder’s. But the whole Joker-with-face-cut off is just a little too “Se7en” for me, and I am a little short on cash.
So I put it on eBay.
It was on eBay for a week, with a reserve price of $10. No takers. Part of me is sad it didn’t sell, but part of me is a little relieved.
The Shadow No. 6, the finale of Garth Ennis’ run, starts in the second-most metal way possible:
Then the Shadow humiliates a CIA man, blows up half an army, and routs the enemy. Then it ends in the No. 1 most metal way possible.
But I can’t help but be a little disappointed in this. The Shadow uses his ability to “see fate” (which Ennis just gave him) to predict that Kondo will be in the wrong place at the wrong time, five years in the future. The Shadow I know would never let a villain run that long. There are basically three fitting ends to a Shadow villain:
- Killed in collapse of headquarters/explosion of machinery.
- Driven to madness, falls of a cliff/building.
- Under the Master’s guns.
This is a nerd curse: The need to define things not just as “good” or “bad,” but “right” or “wrong.” Overall, I’m going to give the Garth Ennis run a solid B.
Shadow No. 6 is followed up by Shadow Annual No. 1, which is possibly the most disappointing Shadow comic book story done in the last 40 years. The Master faces down three children, possessed by an ancient evil, who have mind-control and pyrokinetic powers.
The writer again uses the “see fate” power, with the Shadow referring to himself as an “agent of fate.” The “see fate” power is a pretty radical departure for the Shadow, and takes him way out of his wheelhouse. The Shadow has always had an element of the supernatural, but it’s always more of a “one step beyond” variety. The concept doesn’t hold up under this level of practical magic.
The next issue blurb says the Shadow’s power fails him while stopping a mugging, and he travels to the Far East to reconnect with his old masters. “As always, the Shadow faces danger … but he must also look within himself.”
I haven’t read it, so it might be phenomenal. But it’s certainly the worst-sounding idea for a Shadow story since the Archie Comics Shadow series. Sigh.
This is more of a comment than a post, but I needed a post, so here we are. On the last thread, we’re debating what allows a genre film to succeed, even despite major plot holes. Dara brought up the Fifth Element:
The Fifth Element is a good example of what I’m talking about. It’s by no means a “great” movie, and certainly not a deep science fiction story, but what sets it apart is its bombastic Moebius-designed look and feel, its soundtrack, its tongue-in-cheek presentation style, and other small touches (I particularly liked the casting of, let’s just say “not Hollywood attractive” character actors in all the roles save for Milla Jovovich). If that same movie was made in a more “standard” Hollywood model, you’d get an utterly forgettable by-the-numbers flick like Independence day.
I think this gets close to explaining that X-factor. The Fifth Element definitely has “quality,” in the sense that someone thought it through, clearly gave a shit about the small details, and made some interesting choices.
One of the knocks against genre films is that their fans that don’t particularly care if they’re “good.” This stereotype is not limited to sci-fi/comix fans. Rom-com fans just like rom-coms, and they’ll sit through any ol’ piece of Kate Hudson-Jennifer Aniston-Katherine Heigl dreck just to get the fix.
But one of the things sci-fi/comix movies have is “ideas.” A sci-fi movie should “make you think.” Not in the sense that Color Purple makes you think about racism and sexuality, but in the sense of “wouldn’t it be cool if – ?”
OK, that didn’t get me very close to the X-factor. But, hopefully it gives us “something to think about.”
I saw Looper the other day, and I liked it. Good action, nice (but unobtrusive) world-building, solid performances, and enough of the weird to keep it interesting. There’s one casting choice in there that makes so much sense I can’t believe no one thought of it before now.
It’s got some major-league plot holes, and the premise has some big flaws, and I’m pretty sure it contradicts itself big-time at the end. Maybe someone smarter than me can explain the mechanics of that ending, considering the rules they set up at the beginning.
Almost every geek movie I’ve seen this year has had the same issues — especially the good ones. The internet has spent more time trying to decipher Prometheus that it has talking about it, and Dark Knight has some serious issues, too. I think Avengers succeeds primarily because it manages not to fall down and vomit on itself.
And yet … I report enjoying Dark Knight, Prometheus and Looper. I don’t think I’m alone in that.
So here’s my question: How many flaws can a movie have before they reduce your enjoyment? How much nonsense are you willing to tolerate to see your favorite characters? Has a lifetime of reading comics made you come to expect a certain amount of slapdash storytelling?
In each of those three cases, the movie had an X-factor that carried me past the flaws. Prometheus has a sense of grandeur, a sense of probing the big issues, and some amazing production values. Ditto for Dark Knight. Looper succeeds through the strength of its lead performances, its world-building, and the ability to show me something I haven’t quite seen before.
So I’m happy, but not satisfied. I want my geek movies (particularly my sci-fi) to show me something new, and do it with a baseline level of internal consistency.
Can’t anybody here play this game? Or do I just have to watch John Carter again?