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.

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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.

Corruption.

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.

 

Who is Ellen in Synecdoche, New York?

I’ll warn you up front that this is going to make extensive reference to the movie Synecdoche, New York. It’s not so much a spoiler warning, because this isn’t the type of movie that can be spoiled. It’s more to warn you that you will have no idea what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. This is one of the best movies ever made, so go watch it if you haven’t. I’ve tried to watch it at least once a year since it came out.

Background material: The movie follows Caden Cotard, a middle-aged director of plays who wins a MacArthur grant. He decides to put on a gigantic semi-improvisational play about death. This ends up getting super meta, because he hires actors to play people in his life, including himself. Then there has to be actors to play those actors, etc.

Early on, Caden’s wife, Adele, leaves him and takes his daughter along. Ellen is introduced as Adele’s cleaning lady late in the movie.

Caden is also a hypochondriac. He believes he has a million things wrong with him throughout the movie and that he is about ready to die at any moment. This amount of background should suffice. The key is to know the names Caden, Adele, and Ellen.

This is going to be a complicated argument that involves seemingly unrelated concepts. So I’ll start with the conclusion so you know where I’m headed.

Conclusion: Ellen is Caden’s true self.

Concept 1: Caden only experiences his true self while cleaning.

Because of all his anxieties about art, being remembered, dying from a random disease or freak accident, and so on, he can’t ever clear his head enough to find himself. One way the film shows this is through the TV. Caden often appears on the TV screen in cartoons or commercials, and these give voice to the anxieties in his head at the time.

There are several scenes where Caden obsessively cleans things. As soon as this happens, the TV fogs over, and the anxious thoughts disappear. He becomes so consumed in the mindless activity that he can exist as his true self, sort of like meditation.

Concept 2: People see Ellen inside Caden when he is his true self.

There are quite a few moments where Caden gets called Ellen on accident early on in the movie. I interpret this as a Freudian slip. Everyone knows this person is beneath the layers of anxiety, but they don’t consciously know; it merely slips out on occasion.

The more compelling case comes from later in the movie. Caden goes to Adele’s apartment, and the next door neighbor asks if he is Ellen. He says he is, and then goes into the apartment and cleans for the whole night.

The deepest argument for this is that when Adele paints Caden’s portrait, the image is of a woman, Millicent, whose role in this argument is quite important.

Caden’s portrait:

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Millicent playing the role of Ellen:

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Since the whole movie is constantly about how art shows us things about ourselves we couldn’t see, we should interpret this as the painting showing us the person beneath Caden’s surface.

Concept 3: Millicent is the physical stand-in for Ellen.

Millicent gets hired to play Ellen in Caden’s play. This is already telling, because her lines are, of course, the ones that Caden said already. This is because Caden claimed to be Adele’s cleaning lady, Ellen, in order to be in her apartment.

Later, Millicent recalls a story from Ellen’s childhood. She cries at the end of it. I interpret this to mean the story is from her own childhood. She even cries out about failing to fulfill her promise to her mother, which would make no sense if the mother in the story weren’t her own:

 

Concept 4: Caden becomes his true self at the end of the movie, and the false, anxious exterior becomes the hidden self.

This is shown metaphorically in the movie by having Millicent stop playing the role of Ellen and start playing the role of Caden. The voice inside Caden’s head literally becomes the voice of Millicent/Ellen through the use of a earpiece.

But if this doesn’t convince you, the last piece of evidence is the final scene. The woman who played Ellen’s mother in the dream appears. What? This is extremely easy to miss and write off on a first viewing. The movie is over 2 hours long, and she only makes a 30 second appearance in the last 10 minutes in a dream sequence.

There is literally no other character with such a small role. Why would a meticulously crafted movie end with this character other than to stand out as vitally important? This woman holds Caden as if he is her baby. But we only know this character as Ellen’s mother. This makes Caden her child, Ellen.

The voice in Caden’s head even blurts out “You are Ellen” on the walk to this encounter.

 

 

On the couch he says, “I wanted to do that picnic with my daughter.” That was what Ellen wanted to do. He has fully become her/his true self at this point. Without this interpretation, that line makes no sense. They converse as if they are mother and daughter here.

In a sense, this means the whole movie is the journey of Caden to find and become his true self.

David Lynch and Partial Fourth Wall Breaking

First, I added two widgets to the side of this page so people can see my progress on the the Goodreads reading challenge (and the books I’ve read for it) and the book(s) I’m currently reading. I know most of you probably use some sort of RSS reader and never see the actual page, but I thought I’d throw that out there.

I rewatched Inland Empire recently and was surprised to find that it wasn’t as confusing as I initially thought. I hadn’t watched it in probably eight years, but I remember my initial reaction: this is nonsense. I loved Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. It seemed that the abstraction jumped up a notch too far to be comprehensible in Inland Empire.

***Spoiler Warning: I give some of my interpretation of the movie. Obviously, no one really knows what it is about, so this shouldn’t be a big deal even if you haven’t seen it.***

This time through I noticed something interesting; the viewer isn’t left to figure it all out on their own. A lot of clues are given in the form of partial fourth wall breaking. If you’ll recall, breaking the fourth wall means talking directly to the audience. Think Annie Hall, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or Fight Club. It lets the audience in on something the main character is up to that the other characters don’t know, sometimes to humorous effect, sometimes not.

A lot of people don’t like this technique, because it is so jarring. It pulls you out of the movie. If the information is vital rather than humorous, it can seem like laziness or cheating for the writer to not work at getting the information to you in a more subtle way.

Here’s where Lynch’s technique comes in. I propose that Lynch uses a partial breaking of the fourth wall. He makes his characters speak to the audience directly, but the words are part of a normal(ish) conversation. If you aren’t paying attention, you’ll think two or more characters are speaking to each other. Instead, they are speaking to the audience to clue them in to what is happening or about to happen.

This technique has been around forever. Robert M. Fowler presents a convincing argument in Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark that the Gospel of Mark uses this technique. We obvious have no idea what Jesus actually said, so the writer of Mark used conversations with Jesus to speak over the heads of the disciples and directly to the reader. For example, when he says, “Take up your cross …” the disciples couldn’t possibly know what that meant, because he hadn’t been crucified yet! These words are meant for the reader who already knows the full story.

Anyway, enough on that digression. The technique has been around forever. Here’s how I think Lynch uses it. One way to tell is when conversations stop making sense and don’t sound like any sort of conversation normal people would have. Ask yourself: if the character is speaking to me about the movie they are in, does that line make sense?

But then I noticed a certain camera technique went hand in hand with these bizarre conversations. Lynch uses an extreme close-up during such moments. The character doesn’t look directly at the camera like in a normal fourth wall breaking moment, but it is darn close. He keeps it so that it looks like they are in conversation, but really the character is probably speaking directly to you.

I’ll explain using an example from the first scene where this happens. One of the first scenes in the movie is of Grace Zabriskie’s character visiting Laura Dern’s character(s). She claims to have moved down the street and is getting to know the neighbors. The conversation starts off with normal camera angles and mundane things (I like to get to know my neighbors, which house are you living in, etc).

At some point things go weird. Arguably, when the new neighbor says, “It’s difficult to see it from the road,” (in reference to her house) she is already speaking to the audience. She is preparing us to interpret these close-ups. We should interpret this sentence as: It is difficult to see what the movie is about from the far shots of the camera, but if you pay attention to the close-ups things will be clearer.

The next part of the conversation pulls in to an extreme close-up of the face of the neighbor (but note that Laura’s stays at a normal head shot). She says things like, “I hear you have a new role to play.” She’s telling the audience that Laura’s character will be playing a role in the movie you are watching (we learn this later by a different means) even though it sounds natural enough that she might be referring to the fact that Laura’s character is an actress.

The weird stuff then starts appearing. “Your husband. He’s involved.” Laura interprets this as a question and says, “No.” Her confusion comes from the fact that those words were not directed at her but to the audience. Her husband is involved in the true plot to the movie. Grace’s character is so close to looking at the camera in these moments that it is hard not to see it as breaking the fourth wall. Both character’s faces turn directly towards the camera, but their eyes stay ever so slightly away.

The neighbor goes on, “Is there a murder in your film?” Laura gets confused again, “No.” The neighbor changes it to a statement. “No? I think you are wrong about that.” We, as the audience, are being told that Inland Empire is about a murder. In fact, we were told the husband is involved and were told a story about infidelity. Putting the pieces together we have been directly told that the key to unlocking the movie: Laura’s character cheats on her husband and is then murdered by him.

If you watch the film with this in mind, everything starts to make more sense. Pay attention to when there are extreme close-ups, so you know that you are being told vital information through a partial fourth wall breaking technique. Good luck.

In Defense of Gaming

It’s been over a month, so I decided to do a post that I’ve had in the bag for awhile, but don’t think adds anything to the discussion. This is what happens when you are taking classes, teaching classes, writing things up, and applying for jobs I guess.

Are video games art? What a bizarre question. It has been debated through the years, but I’m not sure there is anyone out there that has seriously thought about the question and is willing to defend that they are not. The debate seems over and the conclusion is that video games are art.

The one notable opposition is Roger Ebert, but his position boils down to a “no true Scotsman fallacy.” It is such a classic example that it should probably just start being used to illustrate what the fallacy is. He says games cannot be art. Then when shown a game that he admits is art he says, “But that isn’t a real game.” That would be like arguing novels cannot be art by just declaring that any novel that could be considered art is not a real novel. It is a silly argument that doesn’t need to be taken seriously.

First, we should notice that there is a “type error” (as a programmer would say) in the original question. No one would think “Are books art?” is a properly phrased question. What does that mean? If you find one book that is not art, then is the answer no? Do you merely need to give one book that is art to answer yes? The answer isn’t well-defined because “book” encompasses a whole class of objects: some of which are art and some of which are not.

For our purposes we’ll say a medium (like video games) “is art” if an artist can consistently use the medium to produce something that can be broadly recognized as art. This brings us to the difficult question of how to determine if something can be broadly recognized as art. Some things that come to mind are aesthetics/beauty, the ability to make a human being feel something, the ability to make someone think deeply about important questions, originality, and on and on we could go. Any given work of art could be missing any or all of these qualities, but if something exhibits enough these qualities, then we would probably have no problem calling it art.

In order to argue that games can be works of art, I’ll take two examples that are relatively recent from the “indie game” community. These are both games in a sense that even Ebert could not deny. I’ll stay away from controversial examples like Dear Esther or Proteus (which are undeniably works of art but more questionable about being games).

The first is Bastion. The art direction and world that has been constructed is a staggering work of beauty on its own. Remove everything about this game except just exploring this universe and I think you would find many people totally engrossed in the experience:

bastion

We already have check mark one down. But there’s more! The music is fantastic as well. But let’s get to what really sets this game apart as a work of art. The story is fantastic and is mostly told with great voice acting through a narrator. I won’t spoil the ending in its totality, but I’m about to give away a major plot point near the end.

Your good friend betrays you and comes close to destroying everything (literally the whole world) in the middle of the game. It hurts. Then near the end he is going to die and you have the choice to save him. The game branches and you can either keep your weapons and safely fight your way to the end of the game, or you can carry this traitor through a dangerous area possibly sacrificing your own life for him.

Books and movies can’t do this. You have to make this choice and it affects how the story progresses. It reveals to you what type of human you are. You have to live with the consequences of this choice. If you save him, then you slowly walk through an area where your enemies shoot you from afar and there is nothing you can do. When they realize what you’re doing they stop in awe and just solemnly let you pass. The visuals plus the music plus the dramatic climax of this moment brings many people to tears.

I know this because you can just search discussion boards on the game. Gaming discussion boards are notorious for being misogynistic and full of masculine one-up-manship. No one makes fun of the people who say it brought them to tears and usually there will be a bunch of other people admitting the same. If this sort of emotional connection isn’t art, then I don’t know what is. Not only that, but this type of connection can only really happen through games where you are wholly invested because you’ve made these decisions.

Maybe Bastion isn’t your thing, because it is a “gamer’s game” with a bit of a barrier to entry since it involves experience points, weapons, items, leveling up, and real-time fighting of monsters and bosses. That could be a bit much for the uninitiated. We’ll move on to a game that every person, regardless of gaming experience, can play and really see how elegantly simple an “art game” can be.

Thomas Was Alone is extremely simple. Thomas is a rectangle. You move him to a rectangular door. End of level. The game is in a genre called a “puzzle platformer.” As the levels progress you get different sized rectangles to move and moving and jumping in various orders will help you get to the end. This is the “puzzle” aspect, because you have to figure out the correct order to do things otherwise you’ll get stuck.

Why is this art? Well, why is writing a book about some animals on a farm art? Because it isn’t really about animals on a farm. The same is true here. The game is a huge metaphor. A deeply moving one at that. I consistently had to stop playing at parts because of how overwhelmed with the concept I became when I allowed myself to think about it.

Just like Bastion, this game is truly magnificent visually. The style is opposite. It has minimalism and simplicity as the guiding aesthetic virtue:

thomas

The music is perfect for the mood, and the narration which tells the story is beyond superb. You grow attached to these rectangles which have such nuanced personalities. What is the metaphor? Well, there are all these obstacles in your way, and you can’t get past them without working together. The whole idea is that there are seemingly impossible obstacles in life, but when humans cooperate and work together they can get past them.

The thing that makes the game so moving at parts is that your rectangle friends are so humanly flawed. They get upset at each other for such petty reasons. They have crushes on each other. They hate each other. But in the end they overcome those differences to work together and accomplish great things. If you haven’t experienced it, then this probably sounds totally absurd.

Again from discussion forums, I quote, “I just finished the game and a group of coloured quadrilaterals made me cry.” Or “Everything about this game makes me feel incredible. I feel as if I can achieve things I could never think of being. This is the best thing I could have experienced, and it’s worth everything…This game makes you love and cry over shapes.” When people have these reactions, that is without question the definition of art.

I think we’ve firmly established that games can be art. I thought I’d just bring up a few cultural tidbits right at the end here. Some famous art galleries across the world have started to recognize the importance of including works of art in their collection that happen to be games. MoMA (the Museum of Modern Art in NY) has a collection of 14 games in its collection currently. Paris had an exhibit that included Fez. The Smithsonian American Art Museum had one last year. There have been many others too.

I’ll try to wrap up now. If you’re the type of person that reads literary novels and goes to the symphony because you think experiencing art is an important and enriching experience, then you probably also write off video games as a mindless waste of time. This is partially warranted because so many of the most popular games today are mindless wastes of time (just like most popular music and movies are too).

I hope that after this maybe your mind has changed a little. If you are willing to make time in your schedule to read a book or go to an art gallery, then I’d argue that you should also be willing to make time in your schedule to experience great games. The medium has all the same artistic qualities as a great film, but has added value given by the interactivity you have with the medium.

Movie Hidden Gems 1

I’ve decided I’m going to periodically do a “hidden gems” post. I realized this is one of my favorite uses of the internet as a reader. When I’m looking for a new good book, movie, music, or anything, I tend to hunt out people’s lists of hidden gems. The random lists I’ve found out there have been extremely helpful in learning about things I’d never have found otherwise.

I’ll start with a few movies. These may not be what I consider to be the greatest movies I’ve ever seen, but I think they are absolutely excellent and the main goal is to pick ones I think the least number of people will have been exposed to.

Quiet City (2007). Back when mumblecore was a thing (why did this genre die out again?), I was obsessed with it. I’ve seen pretty much everything that came out of those few years under that heading. Now that that phase is over I would never recommend most of what I saw, though there are certainly a few standouts.

Quiet City took the idea to a new level and created a devastatingly beautiful work of art. This is not for fans of fast pacing and strong story. The whole movie takes place in the course of a single 24 hour period, and follows the slow forming of a new relationship from a chance, accidental meeting in the subway.

It often feels like an urban reshooting of a Terrence Malick film. Instead of interspersing long nature shots, there are long beautiful shots of industrial NYC. The film brilliantly draws out the awkwardness of trying to think of things to do while bored with someone you’ve never met. From an impromptu running race in the park to randomly visiting a friend, there are always things going on even if they are unconventional events for a movie.

If you think of it as action oriented, then you’ve totally missed the point. This is a film whose purpose is to show a natural and realistic development of a relationship, and it succeeds like no film I’ve ever seen because mainstream movies tends to force contrived situations to keep the watcher interested. The film also tries to capture a demographic native to the mumblecore genre: the poor, jobless, artsy, bored city dweller. The attention to detail is amazing and readily manifests itself in such situations as serving wine from an oversized coffee cup.

This movie is definitely not for everyone, but it is a hidden gem if you give it a chance.

Ink (2009). Maybe this isn’t so hidden anymore, because you might have clicked on it when it became available on Netflix (this is how I stumbled upon it). This is a low budget epic fantasy. The concept is fascinating and done extremely well. I can’t say too much without giving away what’s going on, but essentially there is a sort of dream world and the real world and they aren’t completely separate.

I was far more captivated by this film than most high budget movies of the same genre, mostly because they did a great job of revealing what’s going on in just enough increments to keep you guessing. Then once you get the hang of it, you are far enough along that it is high suspense to a carefully orchestrated ending that ties everything together.

The character design is fantastic. You have everything from standard epic fantasy tropes to totally original concepts. The “bad guys” have these static screen faces which are really creepy. The fight scenes are brilliantly done, because they aren’t happening in the physical world even though the physical world is the setting, so as they break things in the fight the things snap back together since they haven’t really broken. The cinematography, artistic rendering of characters, and special effects are actually really impressive for such a low budget.

I can’t remember for sure, but there might be some sort of loop paradox that happens (i.e. an accidental plot hole). If this type of thing bothers you, then you might want to skip this movie. If you are just looking for something thoroughly entertaining and original in the fantasy genre, then this is the hidden gem for you.

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999). This is not hidden if you’re into foreign films, because Pedro Almodovar is one of the biggest name directors out there. It’s just that most Americans I’ve talked to haven’t watched any foreign language films at all. I’ve seen everything Almodovar has done many times. I love all them for vastly different reasons, but I’ve picked Todo Sobre Mi Madre, because I think it is less well-known than Volver, but still possible to find.

As with most Almodovar films, it is hard to say there is a “story.” Instead, it covers a huge number of issues with a vast number of characters weaving in and out of each other’s lives. The kernel story-line is essentially a retelling of the classic film All About Eve (hence the title of the movie: All About My Mother). I highly recommend being familiar with that first if you watch this.

The cinematography is stunning, and there is an air of unrealness to the hyper-real plot/subject matter just by the magic quality of the vibrant shots and the consistent overt symbolism strewn throughout. The movie tackles everything from sexuality, identity, and AIDS, to mother-son relationships, acting, and drug use.

One consistent thing with Almodovar is that all of the relationships between the characters are very fluid. People run into trouble when they try to peg labels on the characters, and it is fascinating because we don’t tend to think of how we relate to others in terms of some label. Almodovar really wants people to think about this issue and move past the cliche relationships you’d find in more mainstream movies.

This movie is extremely broad in scope, yet doesn’t spread itself too thin. It has its topics and examines them thoroughly. Despite being such demanding topics, the film always stays thoroughly entertaining. This is one of those movies that I could probably see 100 times and not get bored with it. Everything is done with such attention to detail. This is a must-see intro to Almodovar and a hidden gem for most people within the US.