Peter Watts on Logan

I like this review of Logan by Peter Watts

Marvel’s mutants are something like that. We’re dealing, after all, with people who can summon storm systems with their minds and melt steel with their eyes. Xavier can not only read any mind on the planet, he can freeze time, for fucksake. These have got to be the worst case-studies in oppression you could imagine. Sure, baselines fear and revile mutants; that’s a far cry from “disenfranchising” them. How long would gay-bashing be a thing, if gays could strike down their attackers with lightning bolts?

To my mind, X-Men are the Oprahs of the Marvel Universe. Immensely powerful. Inexplicably patient with the small-minded. And the fact that they’ve been consistently portrayed as victims has significantly compromised my suspension of disbelief— and hence, my enjoyment— of pretty much every X-Men movie I’ve taken in.

Right up to the best of the lot so far, the intimate, humane, sometimes brilliant Logan.

Then he fixes the ending! Read it, it’s quite interesting.

Mass Effect wrapup

Last week I posted about the ending of Mass Effect; here are a few more thoughts (mainly from Film Crit Hulk Smash, whose columns I discovered recently).

Film Crit Hulk Smash: A Few Words On The Ending Of MASS EFFECT 3

IF YOU WANT MASS EFFECT TO BE AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE CANON OF ART, THEN YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND THAT ULTIMATELY THE STORYTELLING ELEMENT IS GOING TO HAVE TO GO AGAINST THE INDULGENT NATURE OF VIDEO GAMES. YOU HAVE TO EMBRACE THE NON-INDULGENT PURPOSE OF ART. AND YOU HAVE TO BE OKAY WITH IT. YOU HAVE TO STRIVE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT IS PRESENTED WHEN WHAT IS PRESENTED IS THIS THEMATICALLY COHERENT AND BEAUTIFUL. YOU HAVE TO STRIVE FOR IT. IT’S THE ONLY WAY THE MEDIUM CAN MOVE FORWARD.

SAY WHAT YOU WILL, BUT THE MOVIE INDUSTRY DOESN’T MAKE NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN RE-SHOOT THE ENDING BECAUSE IT DOESN’T INDULGE US… INSTEAD, IT IS DEEPLY MOVED BY WHAT IT HAS TO SAY AND GIVES THAT FILM “BEST PICTURE.”

Film Crit Hulk Smash: A Few More Words On the Column About The Ending Of MASS EFFECT 3

ART AND STORIES ARE SUPPOSED TO ENGAGE THESE SCARY IDEAS AND CONFLICTS WE FACE IN LIFE SO WE MAY BETTER UNDERSTAND HOW TO DO THEM OURSELVES. SO ANYTIME A BIG EPIC STORY GETS INTO THE QUESTION OF ENDINGS, MOST OFTEN THEY WANT TO THEMATICALLY ENGAGE THE GREATEST OF ALL POSSIBLE ENDINGS WHICH IS OBVIOUSLY DEATH. SO WHY SHOULD THE MASS EFFECT SERIES BE ANY DIFFERENT FROM MOST FORMS OF ART AND TRADITIONAL HERO CYCLES? HULK HONESTLY THOUGHT THEY EXPLORED THE IDEA BEAUTIFULLY TOO. SHEPARD MEETS HIS END IN THREE DIFFERENT, SYMBOLIC WAYS: A WAR-LIKE ACTION THAT KILLS OTHERS AND RESULTS IN HIS OWN DEMISE, AN ACCEPTING ACTION THAT LEADS TO SACRIFICE AND THEN PEACE, AND A SYNTHETIC BLENDING AS A KIND OF PEACE AND TRANSFORMATIVE STASIS. ALL THREE DEATHS ARE ACHINGLY SIMILAR WITH EACH GOING OUT INTO THE NEW EDEN, BUT THE POINT IS THAT THE STATEMENT MADE EACH FORM OF THE THREE DEATHS TELL YOU EVERYTHING ABOUT THE KIND OF SHEPARD YOU WANTED TO BE. THE ACTION ITSELF IS THE STATEMENT, NOT THE RESULTS. THUS, THE CONSEQUENCES ARE IN AND OF YOURSELF.

And then a rebuttal from Shamus Young:

Talk about meaning and cycles all you like, but people asking perfectly reasonable questions are not trying to kill storytelling. They’re just trying to wring some meaning out of a patchwork mess of incongruous events.

 

That Mass Effect Ending Controversy

I was interested in the controversy a little while ago about the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy, but I didn’t have anything of my own to say about it (I gave up on the second game after playing it briefly – it really wasn’t for me).

Shamus Young has just finished up his series about Mass Effect, and in the process of writing 50 posts (!), each of several thousand words, he seems to have conclusively proved his thesis that the problems in the ending actually stem from mistakes/changes much earlier in the story. In his final post, he does have some things to say about the ending though.

Mass Effect Retrospective 50: The Final Affrontier

I like this part about the expectations that get built up over a longer story:

The ending isn’t where the Mass Effect 3 writer faltered. The ending is where all of their ongoing, widespread, long-running failures finally came to a head. Failure to establish a theme. Failure to build up a proper villain. Failure to give the various factions ideas. Failure to characterize. Failure to construct a natural sequence of cause and effect. Failure to establish and adhere to the rules of the world.

The writer constantly wrote IOUs to the audience: This will all be explained later. It’ll make sense in retrospect. This is building up to a larger payoff. This is a setup for a later reveal. The writer never explicitly promised those things, mind you. We just sort of assumed those promises were being made. When the writer kills and resurrects the main character, re-writes major details of the world, radically changes the focus of the story, and imposes decisions of the player character that seem unreasonable or poorly justified, it’s natural to assume that it’s all in pursuit of some larger goal. Surely all these compromises now are in service of some satisfying payoff later, right? The writer wouldn’t bring us all this way for nothing, would they?

Young points out that the changes in the series also affected what would be emotionally satisfying as an ending:

The irony is that the original Mass Effect – the nerdy, talky, details-first game that began with the premise of space Cthulhu coming to devour all civilization – was a pretty good setup for a sad ending. Cthulhu stories don’t tend to end in sunshine and rainbows. They’re dark and grim and usually the protagonist simply forestalls evil at great cost to themselves.

But the later games embraced an action-movie vibe of visceral audience empowerment and cheap gratification. If you’re not going to offer anything more nourishing than sensory stimulation, then you’d better not mess with audience expectations. The later games promised us cheap thrills and then tried to be dark and profound and mysterious at the last minute, and the result comes off as insufferably pretentious.

And he does offer some advice. Nothing particularly radical:

We can’t see inside of BioWare or EA, and we don’t know what sort of decisions shaped the development of this franchise. But we can see the high writer turnover as people left the company or jumped to other projects within BioWare. Every single installment of Mass Effect had different lead writers. That might be acceptable if this was a series of games like Uncharted or Fallout, where each installment is supposedly a stand-alone story. But the Mass Effect Trilogy supposedly exists to tell a single overarching story, and that story is completely incoherent because the parts don’t fit together.

So if there’s one thing I wish I could impress on the suits at EA / BioWare it’s this:

Writers are not interchangeable.

Everyone realizes that voice actors aren’t interchangeable. In the same way, writers also have distinctive voices and treating them like generic script-writing machines can only lead to disaster. Pick a lead writer and stick with them. Even if your writers are are all literal geniuses, don’t shuffle them around in the middle of telling what is supposedly a single story. Pratchett and Tolkien were both masterful and inventive storytellers, but that doesn’t mean either one would have been a good fit for taking over a Vernor Vinge novel in progress.

Adaptations: birding and dark fantasy

I’m not familiar with this book or movie (or birding in general!) but Carrie Vaughn makes some interesting points in The Big Year (book and movie):

But what the movie really wants to do is shoe-horn these characters and this situation into a really disgustingly bog-standard Hollywood story about “what’s really important in life.”  The Wilson character’s wife is going through fertility treatments so they can have a kid but the marriage ends when he picks birding over her.  Note:  this isn’t in the book at all.  Not even a little.  The Martin character decides he’d rather spend more time with his new grandbaby than with birding.  Also a plotline not in the book at all.  The Black character finds romance on his Big Year and decides he likes her better than birds.  ALSO NOT IN THE BOOK.  Are we sensing a pattern here?  The end of the movie:  Wilson’s character “wins” the year, but is left feeling unfulfilled as he stares at a young family with a baby across a pond.  Meanwhile, our other characters are the real “winners” because they’ve learned what’s really “important” in life.  i.e. Not birding.

Basically, the message of the book is:  Birding can get really obsessive but it’s also really awesome and attracts all kinds of interesting, driven people.

The message of the movie:  Everything else is more important than birding.

So they’ve changed it, but not upgraded it. They’ve made it worse.

For a developing situation that might be the opposite type of adaptation (i.e. an adaptation that potentially makes interesting/satisfying changes)… but be warned, this is deep in the weeds of the Stephen King universe, and lots of spoilers… The movie adaptation of the Dark Tower series might be a sequel of sorts at the same time as it tells the best bits of the story (this makes sense in-universe, but the reasons themselves are spoilers).

Stephen King spoiled the heck out of ‘The Dark Tower,’ so let’s talk about it

In many ways, this is uncharted territory. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone try something like this, and it’s a really interesting way of not only making something new, but using it to expand and comment on the thing that inspired it. I’ve been a Stephen King fan since I was about eleven years old, and I’ve read the vast majority of his work in order as it was being published. I think he was one of the first people to ever pull off something where you only gradually realized that everything was set in the same fictional world, and those things all added up to a bigger picture, and then once he introduced the larger framework of the Dark Tower, it felt like something really special was happening. Now we’re seeing a potential expansion in a new direction, and if we’re going to see the last time around, the journey where Roland is finally going to get it right, that is thrilling for fans.

I’m confess to being very curious about this. I wouldn’t say I’m thrilled, since I don’t think there’s a better way to end the series than what King provided. But I’m definitely curious about any and all valiant efforts to do so, if only for the cautionary example.

Two Apologies

I ran across both of these apologies this week.

I have no context for this first one, but it’s interesting all the same: The Writer of Dragonball Evolution Offers a Sincere Apology to Fans. My sum knowledge of Dragonball is approximately zero. From the Io9 analysis:

Not only is it rare for people in Hollywood to apologize, it’s even rarer for them to flat-out admit that they did something for the paycheck. True, the fact that he wasn’t a fan really, really showed—but it’s not always a requirement that someone involved in an adaptation be a huge fan. Sometimes that can lead to an inability to recognize what changes need to be made for the new project to succeed. On the other hand, it’s better if they have some familiarity, as well as respect for the material, which was certainly missing from Dragonball Evolution.

The second one cuts a bit closer to home for me. Gavin Scott on Wrestling with Ursula Le Guin:

The second problem stemmed from the fact that there were two books. On the face of it The Tombs of Atuan is a sequel to A Wizard of Earthsea but in fact they are two fairly self-contained novels. The first is principally about the young wizard Ged and his unleashing of a terrible shadow creature through overweening pride, and the second tells the story of a young priestess named Tenar who is the servant of a religious order which ultimately proves corrupt. Ged and Tenar are at first enemies and then allies in The Tombs of Atuan, but the first book is entirely about Ged and the second mainly about Tenar.

It’s not practical in a miniseries for the heroine not to appear till night two, so it was necessary to create at least a psychic link between Tenar and Ged from the beginning, and to start telling Tenar’s story much earlier. That was challenge number one.

Challenge number two was the fact that Ged defeats his main enemy, the shadow, at the end of A Wizard, leaving him little to do in the second book except be imprisoned by Tenar and search for the other half of a broken amulet. As Ged was our hero this obliged me to keep the threat of the shadow going until its defeat could be part of Ged and Tenar’s triumph on Atuan.

And, as you can imagine, this needed some re-rigging of the plot and reimagining of the action sequences as well.

I’m completely baffled why this line “in fact they are two fairly self-contained novels” didn’t lead to a pause. Why smush it together at all? If there’s such a thing as the opposite of a “fix-up”, this would be it. It’s like destruction instead of construction. And it just doesn’t make any sense.

My own theory is that Le Guin is a great writer, but it’s not a surprise that, despite a handful of adaptations, there hasn’t been some definitive/mind-blowing film or TV version of her stories. I like her works because they somehow have a timeless, classic feel to them – I mean, you could write a whitewashed miniseries full of action sequences, but that’s taking the work down at least two levels below where it started.

I’m trying to imagine what my ideal Le Guin adaptation would be, and I’m coming up blank. If I think of an ideal reading experience, it’s easy to think of myself sitting down and re-reading Lavinia or Earthsea (or Catwings to my kids). But her books don’t cross over to media (movies, TV, videogames, etc) in my mind, and I’m perfectly ok with that.

Some reinterpretations

I like reinterpretations of pop culture. Here are a bunch of recent finds.

1. I liked this video: I Hate the Lord of the Rings. Spoiler: the story is “too much like every enterprise IT project.” Somehow it all fits…

2. A clickbaity title, but I confess that I did go back and rewatch that scene – in the pilot! – and it does add a nice bit of subtext: The X-Files Theory That Makes Mulder and Scully’s Relationship Make Sense

3. Pretty much anything by Kate Beaton could go here. I liked her recent take on Joan of Arc.

4. This one made me laugh: This Video Will Forever Change The Way You Watch THE MATRIX

You might not know this, but the film-makers did not ask the building owner for permission before destroying this lobby.

Ha! Clickhole strikes again.

5. How about this? Lady Love Actually

All I want for Christmas this year is the movie Love Actually to be re-made so that all the romance plot lines are lesbian/bisexual in nature.

Is that too much to ask?

 

 

Would’ve been a better plot

I know no one would ever do this in a Star Wars movie, and I know that Westfahl is being snarky here… but I couldn’t agree more! Bring on the pacifism-focused rewrite of Star Wars!

From Gary Westfahl’s review at Locus: Actually, the Force Is Sleepwalking: A Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (emphasis added)

It is true that Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams, and Michael Arndt’s screenplay did introduce precisely one complication into Lucas’s equation, but they refuse to develop it in any manner. Finn is a former Stormtrooper, who explains that he had been kidnapped as a child and indoctrinated to serve as a loyal soldier to the Empire …. excuse me, it’s now being called the First Order. However, after resolving that “I wasn’t going to kill for them,” he decides to rescue a rebel pilot because “it’s the right thing to do” and soon joins the resistance. Well. Stormtroopers have traditionally functioned in Star Wars films as the anonymous, implacably evil agents of the Empire who are routinely slaughtered without compunction; if we are suddenly advised to regard them instead as victims of abduction and brainwashing, that would apparently change everything. For in that case, instead of always killing them on sight, the rebels should be making more of an effort to capture the Stormtroopers, rip off their masks, talk to them kindly, and strive to undo the repressive conditioning that made them into merciless enemies. Yet the film does absolutely nothing to inspire any further sympathy for the Stormtroopers, who carry on with their traditional role as cannon fodder, the Them who must be eliminated in order to protect Us.

Darth Jar Jar

For some reason, this whole theory about Jar Jar Binks being the ultimate bad guy of the Star Wars universe really cracks me up.

For one thing, fans are still desperate to fix up the prequels, to somehow make them worthy of the name. I know I used to be a completist along these lines, but in this era of beating a franchise into the ground until it’s a bloody pulp (You Won’t Live to See the Final Star Wars Movie), I’m more than happy to skip something. I feel like such an old fogey about this, but I still remember when it was awesome idea, and something that I actually looked forward to, when there was another Terminator movie coming out. Now I just wish they would stop.

Secondly, the idea that the most-hated character in Star Wars history is actually someone interesting… well, that’s like catnip for the internet. Heck, it got me to write about it and think about it, and I’m only in it for the irony (he says ironically). So kudos for that.

And lastly, something that I’m still puzzling over: how do we know if a work of art can sustain this kind of interpretation? I know, I know, the author is dead, intent doesn’t matter, etc etc. But did Lucas intend all this? I think that still does make a difference, particularly in the era of continuing stories. My guess is that no one in charge is going to touch this, based on how they jettisoned the Extended Universe. No, we won’t see Darth Jar Jar anywhere.

But it would be a magnificent bag of poo on the doorstep of this franchise, wouldn’t it?

[Theory] Jar Jar Binks was a trained Force user, knowing Sith collaborator, and will play a central role in The Force Awakens

Now if you lend even the slightest credence to my above points, and acknowledge the possibility that Jar Jar might not be an idiot, you’re almost forced to conclude that Jar Jar Binks and Palpatine were co-conspirators. If Jar Jar is putting forth an elaborate act to deceive people, it means he’s not a fool… and if he’s not a fool, it means his actions in Episode II that facilitate Palpatine’s plans are not those of an unwitting tool- they are those of a partner.

The inevitable fan website.

The villain was right

Two lists this week that reinterpret classic stories.

The Iceman List:

Maverick is kind of a jerk. Iceman is totally right about him.

In fact, Iceman is right about almost everything.

5 Movie Villains (Who Are Actually The Good Guys)

For as cool as they are, and for as much as we love them, the Ghostbusters are a group of potentially dangerous maniacs. They run around New York City with weaponized particle accelerators on their backs and lock ghosts away in a ghost dumpster in their basement. If you lived in that world, wouldn’t you want someone at least occasionally keeping tabs on them to make sure all their wildly dangerous homemade tech doesn’t accidentally kill everyone in the city? Walter Peck is a dick, sure, but he has every right to be a dick when you consider how much of a colossal asshole Peter Venkman is to him during their first meeting.

To me, these lists show how powerful point-of-view is as a writing technique.