Mother! is Awesome

There haven’t been a lot of movies I’ve seen in the past year or so that I thought were great. Last month I saw Mother!, and it was awesome.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the more disturbing things in this movie, so I don’t think I need a “trigger warning” for this post. In fact, I tend to think they aren’t necessary in most cases.

But in this case, there is a seriously disturbing thing that happens near the end of the movie in pretty graphic visuals, so if you are at all queasy watching gruesome things, you might want to skip this movie.

It’s trendy to say things like: this book/movie can’t be described in words. It defies genre and expectation. It’s wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah.

But in this case, it’s really true. I can’t even guess at a genre that would make sense. Some call it a psychological thriller. It might be closer to allegorical magical realism.

Around ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about one of the best things that can happen in a work of art (talking about Joanna Newsom’s album Ys). It’s when the art is based on very concrete, clear events that have high emotional resonance, but then it is all abstracted into something more universal.

Honestly, this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. That’s essentially the argument of Campbell’s “monomyth” theory.

Darren Aronofsky has done exactly this in Mother!

Interpretation Spoilers. I don’t plan to spoil plot things (if this movie even has a “plot” to be spoiled). But I’m going to give my interpretation of the movie as a way to describe it.

Here we go. You’re warned a second time.

Mother! is a history of the world as described in the Bible, but it’s done symbolically in a single house. The character known as Mother is Mother Earth. The house is her domain/Earth. The character known as Him is God.

To give you a feel for how the symbolism plays out, I’ll try to describe some stuff in the beginning. Mother and Him are living in the house. Then a man shows up. This is Adam. Then his wife shows up. This is Eve. Him gives free reign of the house to them except they can’t touch his crystal thing (Tree of Knowledge), which has the power to let him write his profound poetry (the Word/Bible).

Mother doesn’t really understand why Him is letting these humans run amok without consulting her first. Eventually, they touch and break the crystal thing, so he banishes them from his office (the Garden of Eden). The couple’s children come, and they play out the Cain and Abel story symbolically.

This goes on and on. It’s all very obvious–even on a first viewing.

At this point you might be thinking: that sounds terrible. And if that was it, it would be terrible. Here’s where it gets awesome.

The whole thing is filmed in this claustrophobic framing of Mother. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is insanely good. She might be in every second of this movie. As people start to fill up the house/Earth and the people start to break things and overpopulate and pollute, she gets more and more upset and confused and scared.

Mother has no idea why any of this is happening, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. One of the most chilling parts of the movie is when she asks one of the people who is breaking something, “Why are you doing this?” He replies, “Because He gave it to us.” (Or something like that. I don’t have the movie in front of me and it’s been a while to recall exact wording).

How many times have you heard this from certain politicized Christians when asked why they aren’t concerned about climate change and destroying the Earth?

To me, this is the point of the movie. It personifies the Earth and then puts the viewer inside of her mental state. It’s a terrible experience, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you think about your own actions in the world from a different perspective.

I do have some problems with it. For example, this obviously isn’t a great way to make the rational argument, because it basically boils down to: how would you feel if you were the Earth? The symbolism and message are so overt and strong, it leaves a bit of a sour taste at the end.

It’s quite interesting to see what most other people have written as problems with the movie. The first type of hater thinks the more disturbing aspects of the movie serve no purpose other than shock value. They think the movie is a pretentious and pointless “arty” film. Then they go on to point out: it’s not even that shocking or gruesome.

Of course it isn’t! That fact alone should make one consider: this isn’t what the movie is intending to do.

As I’ve pointed out already, this criticism can be dismissed as complete nonsense. The opposite is true. It’s too obvious what the movie is about, and hence it cannot be the case that the movie is about nothing and a pure shockfest.

The more interesting criticism can be summarized by this comment: “Jennifer Lawrence’s character infuriated me. She kept making reasonable requests, and everyone ignored them. It was like she had no agency. She spends the entirety of the film in a state of traumatized bewilderment. It made me deeply uncomfortable and annoyed.”

Well, yeah! That’s literally what the movie set out to do. The fact that it succeeded in its goal shouldn’t be seen as some sort of negative criticism and a reason to hate the movie.

The real question is: were you annoyed enough to look at your own actions and make some changes, or are you going to continue to be the people you despised in the movie, wrecking the house of someone with no agency to stop you?

That’s what makes Mother! awesome. Not only does it evoke visceral reactions in those that watch it, but it asks the viewer to bring those reactions back to the real world and do something about it.


Why It Works: You’ve Got Mail

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

When I came up with the idea to do a romance for this series, I was tempted to pick a modern romance novel, but thousands come out each year. Even looking at some “best of” lists, I couldn’t find anything I thought most people would have read. I was then tempted to do the classic Pride and Prejudice. But there’s already a lot of writing on that book. So unfortunately, I’m back to a movie.

There’s obviously a lot of pieces that make a romance work. Chemistry between the love interests keeps the story moving. There’s usual a conflict to keep them apart. And so on.

But really, there’s only one thing that has to be done properly in a romance: the proof of love. One character, traditionally the man (though this has obviously changed in the last few decades with m/m or f/f or role reversal setups, etc), must demonstrate convincingly how much they love the other character through a true sacrifice.

The more the character sacrifices to show this, the more emotional charge the scene will have. It’s why people cry when watching or reading romances. The main way romances fail is that all the other pieces are disconnected from the proof of love. The chemistry and characterization and conflict should all develop toward this ending payoff.

This is why writing a good romance is harder than most people think. If you just plug into the formula, it will feel formulaic, and the characters will feel like one-dimensional tropes fixated on the one defining feature that makes the end work.

If you somehow haven’t seen it, here’s a brief summary of You’ve Got Mail (obviously including the ending). Kathleen owns a small bookshop focused on customers and reading to children and things like that. Joe owns a mega bookstore, portrayed as a profit-focused heartless entity. The mega bookstore is going to put the small one out of business.

The movie is a sequence of bad interactions between these characters in real life. This puts the movie in the romance subgenre of “enemies to lovers.” The chemistry comes from the friction and conflict. The two characters accidentally hit it off online under anonymous screen names.

From the premise alone, we already know how the movie must end. Kathleen will have to demonstrate a proof of love by overcoming the real life prejudice she has against Joe for the person he is inside that she’s come to love through the online correspondence. I know, it’s very Pride and Prejudice, and the movie even makes this Kathleen’s favorite book to spell out the connection.

So why does the movie work? Every scene contributes something to the proof of love payoff. The real life conflict ratchets up each time they meet. Writers who don’t keep their eye on the ending can accidentally let the characters start to fall in love outside of the email exchanges. This would totally spoil the ending.

Some might say this is the difference between a “love story” and a “romance.” A great romance doesn’t let up on whatever has to be sacrificed until the proof of love. Many lesser romances would just have the characters run into each others arms as if nothing was going on under the surface for the ending.

Meg Ryan understands the character, and she actually cries in the final scene. There’s a ton going on internally that she has to show for the proof of love. This is the man she hates, but she also loves him. She has to overcome that, and just running into each other’s arms would trivialize the built up tension of the movie. For the briefest moment, we, as the audience, should believe there’s a chance she’ll just slap him for lying and walk away.

Once you come to understand this technique, it can be quite fun to read well-done romances. They are almost like little puzzles. You can look for all the ways the writer drops hints about the proof of love scene. It’s also an effective technique to use, even if the romance subplot of your fantasy novel is minimal.

Year of Mysteries, Part 5: Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

I’ve put off writing about this book, because I was left pretty conflicted on how to feel about it. As a mystery, it was deeply unsatisfying. But as a novel, it scratched some itches I didn’t know I had.

The book drew me in quickly. It starts with the death of a boy. It looks like an accident of falling off a roof. But Smilla’s Inuit heritage allows her to read other signs in the snow. Plus, it comes to light that the boy was deathly afraid of heights and would never play on the roof.

It turns into a classic small girl against big machine of the police/government. The book beautifully weaves in a bunch of language for different types of snow, and we start to see how someone could be attuned to signs in the snow.

One particularly enlightening scene was a description of how jumping would leave certain snow impressions depending on the direction of the jump. I started to believe she had “real” signs of foul play from the snow instead of just some abstract “feeling.”

The book uses a lot of politics of opposing forces like Greenland/Denmark, Inuit/European, and Tradition/Science. It worked as a literary device to make the reader empathize with Smilla feeling like an “other” in the world. My guess is these were real-world politics and not just invented as a device.

The translator did a great job. The prose had an almost Proustian quality to it. He would do deep dives on mundane things, and it somehow felt interesting and relevant. Other isolated sentences were strange and wonderful and humorous at the same time.

Here’s one of my favorites:

Bertrand Russel wrote that pure mathematics is the field in which we don’t know what we’re talking about or to what extent what we say is true or false.

That’s the way I feel about cooking.

At some point near the middle, this book totally loses its focus. It goes off in strange directions, and we lose sight of the original mystery. One might say the mysterious death at the beginning is the “inciting incident” of the novel, but it is not the focus of the novel.

I won’t reveal the ending except to say that although we get a definitive answer to who/why the boy was killed, the ending leaves it ambiguous as to whether the killer is caught and/or killed himself. This worked in the context of the novel as a general book about ambiguities and life, but it didn’t work as a conclusive ending to a murder mystery.

We veer so far off course of any intentional investigation by the end that learning the truth feels almost accidental. I think this is the source of dissatisfaction. It’s like the information happened to the main character rather than the main character bringing about the information through her deliberate actions.

Once I resigned myself to the fact that I was reading something different from what I thought it would be, I was able to settle in and enjoy it on its own terms. The book is well worth reading as an intriguing work of literature dealing with interesting linguistics. It is probably not for a fan of traditional mystery novels.

If you want to follow along, the next book in The Year of Mysteries series will be A Crime in the Neighborhood by Suzanne Berne.

Why It Works: Primer

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.

Time travel sucks as a genre. It’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Yes, the whole genre.

Everyone knows about the grandfather paradox: if you travel back in time and kill your grandfather before he conceives with your grandmother, there would be no you to go back in time and kill him.

But many people misinterpret the paradox as being about specific inconsistencies you can trace, when in fact it’s more of a chaos theory issue: the tiniest change of the past could radically change the “present” in unforeseeable ways.

This could happen if the person goes to the past and doesn’t even physically interact with anyone. Merely being seen by a person could alter their day, which leads to change after change after change…

Pretty much every book or movie I’ve seen with time travel has been terrible. It either ignores this problem, has the problem but tries to explain it in an unsatisfactory way, or it succeeds in explaining it but destroys the story in the process.

I honestly believe no one should ever write a time travel story, because it’s going to be a disaster no matter how hard you try. It’s not worth the effort. If I ran an SF magazine, my first rule of submissions would be: no time travel stories (rule 2 would be: no first-contact stories).

But then we wouldn’t have Primer, which actually kind of works. Let’s look at why.

The first thing is that when the main characters go back in time, it’s accidental. This is very important in not creating a causal loop. If your character has to go back in time to change something to save the world, then when they succeed, there will be no reason for them to go back. Hence, the paradoxical loop. Making the initial travel accidental is an interesting way to solve that problem.

The second thing is the physicality. There’s something strange about old-school time travel (think The Time Machine), where a person and/or machine materializes out of nowhere in the past. This doesn’t seem like a problem until you think about it a lot. If the machine wasn’t there in the past, what does it mean that it suddenly is? This is a much deeper philosophical issue than people give it credit for.

Primer brilliantly fixes this problem by making the machine a box that you have to turn on at the time you want to travel back to. So if you turn on the box right now, you can’t use it to travel back before that time. You get in the box at the future time and travel back without running into the physicality problem. You are physically in the box the whole time you’re traveling back.

Primer also solves the problem of interacting with the world by isolating themselves so that they only interact with the world once. This means they aren’t changing the past. They’re living it out for the first time the time they travel back.

But here’s the most important reason Primer succeeds. It is way too confusing to ever know if they’ve run into a paradox. It succeeds because there’s always more to figure out on subsequent viewings.

This sounds like cheating: make your story so confusing that no one knows if there’s a problem. It sounds like bad writing.

But let’s put it in comparison to every other time travel story where it’s immediately obvious that it all falls apart for philosophical and paradoxical reasons. I’d rather be left with the fun journey of trying to piece it together than a pile of unsatisfying nonsense.

If you’ve read a book that handles time travel well, I’d like to hear about it. Despite being a pet peeve of mine, I still masochistically seek them out in hopes of being proved wrong someday.

On Doubts and Taste in Books

Doubt is a good thing when you’re a writer. It’s an important part of everyone’s journey. I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but if you’ve never doubted the greatness of your work, then it’s probably not very good. You probably haven’t grown much as a writer.

Doubt comes in waves. It happens a lot early on, but as you write and publish more and more, you come to have a bit more confidence in your own style and taste. You begin to see the common pitfalls in other new writers without even trying. This internalization means you mostly aren’t making those mistakes anymore.

Doubt starts to come from other places. Maybe you aren’t getting the sales you would like. Maybe a negative review resonates with you. Maybe you read a book on writing, and you realize there’s a big mistake you’re making that you never noticed before. You start to wonder what other mistakes you’re making.

I have a new source of doubt, and it is coming from the strangest place: reading. I used to love reading. I would devour books. I’d be completely transported to another place, no matter the book or genre. I couldn’t get enough.

It makes sense that as my understanding of story grew, I’d start to not like some poorly constructed novels. It makes sense that novels with sloppy prose would fall away. It makes sense that I’d get more discerning in my taste along several dimensions.

What worries me is that I basically don’t like anything I read anymore. I just can’t get into any book. I currently read 60-80 books a year (it sounds like a lot, but that’s one book a week plus some audiobooks while running or traveling).

The scary part is that it’s not like I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel. I’ve chosen all 23 books I’ve read this year from “best of” lists or from direct recommendations.

I got into Mystic River in late January, but since then, I haven’t really gotten into any book I’ve read. Oathbringer has a 4.65/5 rating on Goodreads after 42,500 reviews. The book is basically unreadable to me. It’s too slow. It has too many unnecessary details. It’s the type of self-indulgent thing popular writers can only get away with after they hit a certain level of fame (think Stephen King). It only got published in that form because people are afraid to tell Sanderson to cut it down.

I won’t call out every problem with every book I’ve read this year. The point is that I’m really worried that I’ve developed my taste and style in a way that doesn’t match the vast majority of people. These are my doubts. Maybe it’s not that all these popular people are writing bad books; maybe it’s my own writing that’s bad.

I can think of a few other explanations.

First, maybe it’s burnout. There’s not much more to this theory. Maybe 80 books a year is too much. If I just take a break and reset, I’ll find myself getting lost in some good books again.

Second, maybe writing changes the way you read. I still love writing. I really get into my own books as I’m writing them. There might just be something about the active nature of producing a story that makes passively consuming one inherently less interesting.

Third, maybe I actually am on a bad streak. As they say, 90% of everything is crap. If we take that to be a fact, then there’s a high probability of long streaks of crap. Of course, what does this even mean? There are “objectively good” books that people hate and “objectively bad” books that people love.

Fourth, my taste is not marketable, which makes it hard to naturally run across the types of books that will truly engage me. I don’t have the patience for the experimental literary stuff that I did in my youth. So the literary scene tends to disappoint me. But the commercial fiction scene tends to be too sloppy for my taste.

My latest book, Specter of the Spheres, tries to straddle this line. It’s high-concept, metaphorical, and has a complicated construction like a literary novel. But it’s wrapped in a fantasy quest and even some sci-fi elements. I’ve learned that this is usually called “slipstream,” and I haven’t read anything in that genre for a long time.

But maybe my doubts have some truth to them. Maybe I need to spend some time re-calibrating what I think is good. I don’t even know where to start with this, though, because I can’t find books out there that I like to read anymore.

Why It Works: The Lord of the Rings

A series in which I oversimplify one concept from a work of literature to make you a better writer.


The ring corrupts everyone.

Quite early on, we learn that Frodo, our hero, is not immune to the corrupting effects. This becomes one of the greatest sources of tension. Will Frodo be able to destroy the ring when the time comes?

A common misconception about the hero’s journey fantasy writers make early in their career is that they set up an impossible task, and then through the course of the novel, the hero grows and can suddenly overcome the task. This will leave the reader feeling cheated.

The impossible task can’t do the work of creating tension and then turn out not to be impossible at the end of the novel. Imagine if after all the buildup of The Lord of the RingsFrodo stands at the Cracks of Doom and tosses the ring in like Rose at the end of Titanic.

We might not be talking about the books today.

What makes the climax of The Lord of the Rings so good is that Frodo is corrupted. He doesn’t magically succeed over the impossible. He doesn’t throw the ring in. He puts it on his finger with the intention of not destroying it. Frodo succumbs to the corruption, because it’s impossible for him not to.

The first time you read or see that, your reaction should be, “No. What? That’s not how this is supposed to go.”

But it’s the only way it could go. We know that at some deep level. The only way the ring gets destroyed is through its absolute corrupting effects. The ring gets destroyed by accident. If any living being managed to do it through sheer willpower, we’d have to rethink the entire plot. We’d be forced to think: well, I guess the ring wasn’t that powerful after all.

Keep this in mind the next time you’re plotting a book. If something has an absolute attached to it, then it must be an absolute. The hero can’t magically rise above it. Use the absolute to your advantage. What happens if your hero actually succumbs to it? This could be an opportunity for a dramatic and harrowing plot twist right at the climax.

Thoughts on Arrival

Warning 1: Whatever my opinion of this movie, I warn you to not read this post before seeing it. I’m warning you. There are major spoilers, and these are the types of spoilers that don’t merely reveal some plot twist. These reveals will irrevocably altar the way you experience the movie to an extent where you will be robbed of being able to form an your own opinion.

WARNING 2: I’ve warned you. Do not let your eyes drift down this page if you haven’t seen this movie.

For those of you who are still reading for some reason, despite not having seen the movie, I’ll start with a few non-spoiler things I didn’t like to give you a chance to click that x in the upper right corner of the screen while you have the chance. Do it!

First off, the movie was terribly derivative. It’s hard to think of single thing in the whole film that isn’t just a copy of something already done in some other “first contact” story. I know that “everything’s been done” (supposedly). But if you’re going to pick a story that’s really been done a hundred times, please, please, have something truly new and interesting. More on this later when I’m allowed to start spoiling.

The characters and their motivations seemed really weak. After some thought, I identified the problem. Theme must emerge from story and characterization. Arrival put theme before characters. So when humans freaked out that the aliens arrived and started trying to wage war and division everywhere, it didn’t seem all that motivated.

People planted bombs and cut off communication in order to show that humans are these terrible war-driven species. In other words, the writer(s) knew they wanted to get this across and so showed it. Instead, they should have had a story with a strong flow and sense of character in which that theme emerged. Also, they hired this linguist to do her job and then opposed her ideas every step of the way. This was unmotivated, artificial resistance to create conflict: a terrible narrative device.

Okay. Now on to some of the things that really bothered me. How the hell did they crack the written language? The entire premise of the movie hinges on them being able to read the words with high accuracy and specificity (remember that scene where they translated “weapon” and everyone freaked out?).

Seriously. I wrote a novel with an unknown written language, so I spent a huge amount of time thinking about this. Despite spending a thousand years and having a whole library of this language with books with pictures, I came to the conclusion that the researchers would get essentially nowhere.

So how the hell did these few people, in a matter of weeks, figure out pretty much everything (including highly abstract words like “time”)? The language doesn’t even have an order or grammar to it. They never left the spaceship. That means they were never pointing to a tree and writing “tree.”

I know this seems like some trivial thing: suspend your disbelief, etc. But I can’t. If this was 90% of the movie, it would have been the coolest first contact movie ever. That’s how interesting and difficult and original the idea would have been. Instead, they skip over the only interesting thing and pretend like it was so trivial that it wasn’t worth mentioning. It’s impossible they figured this out and renders the whole rest of the movie worthless.

Let’s return for a moment to the lack of characterization. Are we really supposed to believe that the two main characters fell in love? They never once flirt. They never even crack a smile at each other for all I remember. They never hold hands. Chemistry never develops between them.

Now, this would have been fine if one of the last lines wasn’t: “Do you want to have my baby?” Um. What? The most obvious reply should have been, “You creep. Who asks that? Get away from me.”

Since we see lots of events after the alien part of the movie, they could have flashed forward to a place where he says this, and then we would fill in all the lovey-dovey stuff in our minds. It would have been way less creepy. Or, they could have done a better job at developing the romance.

I get that she can see the future, and he has just learned that, so he knows that she already knows if they have a baby. That makes it ever so slightly less creepy. But not really. Why would that be the first thing you ask? Why not just ask her on a date or something?

Now that we’ve broached the topic of the twist of the movie, let’s dig into that. It doesn’t so much bother me that the premise of the movie rests on a sketchy theory, namely that language affects how you perceive the world. Plenty of great SF take cool theories to their extremes (including ones I’ve written).

What does trouble me is that every interpretation of the form of time travel the main character gains leads to major problems. The least plausible interpretation is that she can actually travel to and live in future and past places of her life.

This is problematic because it basically implies immortality. Are you about to die? Then just go live an earlier part of your life out. Plus, there’s all the time travel paradoxes that would arise. If you actually relive it, then presumably you can change things. That’s a problem for obvious reasons.

A more charitable understanding is that she can merely access “memories” of future events. The movie makes it seem like they must be her own memories, but that seems to cause problems for the aliens who seem to know events 3000 years in the future. But whatever, let’s say the aliens are more advanced, so they have memories of future events regardless of point of view.

This still leaves some problems, like in the future, when meeting the Chinese general, she doesn’t remember calling him, despite it necessarily having happened already. This makes it seem like it isn’t a mere memory of the future but an actual living out of that moment (and we’ve already said this is a problem). So let’s assume it’s a mere memory of the future and not a living out, despite the problems that causes with the movie.

What does it mean to access a memory of a future event that doesn’t happen? It’s a paradox. If she has the choice to not have her baby, then she could choose not to have it based on knowing her daughter will die early. But then not having the baby would erase the memory of her daughter dying young, and so she wouldn’t have a reason not to have it. This means she would choose to have it. Woops. It’s an endless cycle that creates a paradox.

Okay. So let’s say she can’t choose. The future is set. That undermines the entire message of the movie, which is that she chooses life in the face of struggle. Plus, this choice aspect of the movie is voiced by several characters (it’s the reason Ian leaves). There is no way the writers want you to interpret the movie as some argument against free will.

As you see, the movie does the opposite of good SF. Good SF, like Primer, makes you super confused, but as you think deeply about it, you gain clarity. You realize it really does make sense. Arrival does the opposite. It seems deep and interesting at first, but the deeper you think about it, the more it unravels as nonsense.

I know a lot, and I mean a lot, of people really, really loved this movie. So my question is: why? It’s paradoxical. It’s derivative. The characterization is shallow. The plot has major holes. It’s hard for me to think of a single thing someone would have liked about it.

Is it just that people haven’t seen really interesting SF, like Primer, for example, so they don’t see this for what it is? They’re blown away by the twist ending, so they don’t think any deeper and just believe it to be as deep as their initial intuition leads them to believe?

This actually troubled me enough that I had a hard time sleeping after watching it. It’s sort of my job to understand what people like in stories, so to not be able to think of anything that makes this movie worth watching (other than the brilliant cinematography, seriously, that DP deserves a bonus) while millions loved it is very troubling to me.