HerdCon 2023 – Come See Me!

I’ll be back at HerdCon, Marshal University’s pop-culture conviction, this coming weekend!

There are events both Friday and Saturday this year and I will be there both days. Stop by and say hi! More details at their Facebook page here.

Advertisement

But What Is a Happy Ending?

As the Tears for Fears song goes, everybody loves a happy ending. That said, what makes an ending a happy one? Does that depend on the person doing the reading or watching? And does it matter whether we’re looking at a more meta or personal level?

I stumbled into these questions recently after finishing Paul Tremblay’s The Cabin at the End of the World, which became the movie Knock at the Cabin, directed by M. Night Shyamalan and released last year. It was the movie promos that made me want to read the book (I’ve not had good luck with Shaymalan’s movies over the years) so I was always interested in how the adaptation went. The endings of the book and movie differ quite a bit and raise some interesting questions about what constitutes a “happy” ending.

Needless to say, the post from here on out is going to be spoiler heavy, so if you don’t want to know about any of this, head away now.

The plot of the book and film are pretty close, until a certain point. They both start with a young girl playing outside a remote country cabin where she and her two fathers are on vacation. She’s approached by a large, friendly guy who winds up having three friends with him. He gives the family a startling ultimatum – the end of the world is upon us and the only way to stop it is for one of the family members to be sacrificed. It’s sort of a horror/mythical take on Sophie’s Choice.

Naturally, the family refuses to kill one of their own and the tension ramps up from there. The interlopers start to kill each other and there’s some evidence from the outside world (via TV) that maybe it really is the end of days. Tragedies are happening and the big dude in charge may or may not know of them in advance. In the book, at least (I haven’t seen the movie yet), it’s left very vague whether the intruders are religious fanatics, simply nuts (but I repeat myself), or are really telling the truth.

Here’s where things part ways, significantly, between book and movie. In the book there is a struggle over a gun that leaves the little girl dead. Eventually the dads escape (all the intruders die) and they confront the question of sacrificing one of themselves just in case the world is really ending (one is now more of a believer than the other). Ultimately they decide not to, essentially concluding that any kind of God that would require such a thing isn’t worth obeying, and they walk off into a brewing storm that may or may not just be a storm. In the movie, by contrast, the girl is not shot and one of the dads decides to sacrifice himself to save the world on her behalf. The girl and her remaining father leave and find evidence that the sacrifice really is stopping the world from ending.

Per this interview with the LA Times (via), Tremblay explains that while he generally likes the movie, he prefers his ending to Shaymalan’s. No big surprise there. Endings are hard and if you get what you think is a good one you’re kind of protective of it. But what really interested me was Tremblay’s explanation as to why:

I think the movie’s ending is way darker than my book. I don’t mean to say this flippantly. But politics aside, on a character level, the idea of, “What are Andrew and Wen going to do now”? Not only did they just kill Eric – how will they go on with that knowledge – but also with the knowledge that this supreme being that controls the universe was so unremittingly cruel to them? I would never write a sequel . . . but I’m actually weirdly interested in a story of what Wen and Andrew do now.

He further explains:

at a certain point in telling the story it didn’t matter to me if the apocalypse was happening because the story to me became, “What were Eric and Andrew going to choose?”

That was the story: their choice. Their ultimate rejection of fear and cruelty, whether or not the apocalypse is happening. What has happened in the cabin and what they’re presented with is wrong; it’s immoral, and they refuse. And I find that hopeful . . ..

This is weird on its face. The movie ending is clearly the happier one, right? The little girl lives. While one of her dads decides to sacrifice himself (which is honestly where I thought the book was going) at least we know it wasn’t in vain and it really did save the world. For a story full of psychological terror that seems like the best possible outcome.

But I think that framing depends on whether you look at the story from a personal or meta level. On a meta level this story is the trolley problem on steroids. Forget five strangers on the tracks versus one, we’re talking about survival of life on Earth – billions of people – against the life of one person who is, to you, particularly beloved. By pure utilitarian calculus this is a fairly easy call (the needs of the many, as Spock would say). Of course, that presumed that the apocalypse is really happening and the requested sacrifice could really stop it.

A similar dilemma animated the season finale of The Last of Us (and the end of the game, so far as I’ve read), in which Joel was faced with Ellie being operated on in a way that would kill her but that might lead to a cure for the pandemic that was ravaging humanity. Rather than give it much thought, he broke very bad (badder than before, at any rate) and killed anyone who got between he and Ellie. He saved her, thus potentially condemning the rest of the people on the planet.

Is that a happy ending? It sure is for Joel, who doesn’t have to go through the trauma of losing (in essence) another daughter. Is it for Ellie? Hard to tell, since she didn’t really get much choice in the matter (either way). Is it for humanity? If it was going to lead to a cure, fuck no, but if it wasn’t?

My point isn’t to take sides (although I have my preferences, like anybody), but to point out that any on person’s conception of a “happy” ending might not match someone else’s. In a way, that’s a great thing for writers. Endings are hard and the knowledge that people can interpret a particular ending so differently means it’s folly to try and please people. But in another, it means more to think about when trying to shoot for a happy ending.

As always, the best course is to think hard about what you’re going to do and why you want to do it. That way at least you’ll have a satisfactory conclusion to the story you want to tell.

Is Art the Stuff Nobody Needs?

We’ve all sat through movies, or slogged through books, that are too damned log. Did Uncut Gems really need two hours of shouty Adam Sandler? Wouldn’t 90 minutes have done the trick? Do any of the Song of Ice and Fire books need those long descriptions of food?. Couldn’t most of those Netflix true crime documentary series be cut to a feature length doc rather than four or five TV episodes? Isn’t in the obligation of the creators of these entertainments to be as efficient as possible?

Not so fast, argues author Lincoln Michel. Last month he made a strong argument that it’s the “unnecessary” stuff that makes art worth doing. I’m not sure that he’s completely correct, but he’s certainly not wrong.

Michel references people who complain about scenes of sex or violence, or, most hilariously, “those damn whale chapters” in Moby Dick, because “they don’t move the plot along.” Dubbing these folks “consumers” rather than readers, he suggests that their “ideal story seems to be a Wikipedia plot summary.” This might have many causes, from a modern obsession with efficiency to artists seeking short cuts to satisfy an increasingly fragmented audience.

For Michel, this is not a good thing:

Yet I would like to humbly suggest this thinking is entirely wrong. The unnecessary is most necessary part of art. Art is exactly the place to let your eye linger on what fascinates it. Art isn’t an SEO optimized app or a rubric for overworked teachers to grade five-paragraph essays. Art is exactly the space—perhaps the last space left—where we can indulge, explore, and expand ourselves. If we can’t be weird, extraneous, over-the-top, discursive, and hedonistic in our art, where can we be?

While recognizing that the seemingly extraneous stuff can have meaning in the work (by deepening understanding of a character, for instance), Michel goes so far as to claim that “I don’t believe art has ‘a point.’” In other words, for Michel, art is about the journey itself, not the destination and the tangents and dead ends that are explored along the way are as much a part of that as the jaunt down the proverbial Yellow Brick Road.

I like a lot of what Michel is saying here. I write fiction, but I also write briefs and other legal arguments in my day job and in that role, there is no doubt, brevity counts. Lawyers are famously long winded, I know, but you really want to convince the judge (or law clerk) reading your brief in the most efficient way possible, so you trim down the issues, trim down the facts to the bare minimum.

Fiction can certainly be different than that, but does it have to? I’m reading a book right now (no names – I’m not finished yet and it might turn around on me) that has a great idea at its center and would make for a really good short story or novella, but as a novel there’s just too much padding. What should be tense and horrific is instead kind of dull and plodding.

In a way it reminds me of the bloat albums went through when CDs took over as the main music format back in the 1990s. Whereas single LPs couldn’t handle much more than 45 minutes of music without quality issues, CDs can run all the way up to almost 80 minutes (a time chosen, apocryphally, so as to allow for the inclusion of all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on one disc) and lots of artists took advantage of that. Here recently we’ve seen albums shrink again, back to where they were in the LP days and that seems generally like a good move.

That said, some of my favorite albums of that era are full to bursting and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Marillion’s Brave trimmed down to fit on one LP would be a travesty. I wouldn’t shave a moment off of the early Mike Keneally albums, all of which push the boundaries of CD capacity. And to the extent that other albums have filler, that doesn’t really diminish from the enjoyment I get from the really good stuff.

Heck, progressive rock writ large could be thought of as a celebration of what is “unnecessary” for rock music. Rock and roll, after all, is supposed to be direct, to the point, and emotionally blunt. Prog flouted that ideal, most obviously in songs that sprawled across entire albums sides (or more!), rather than be limited to 3 minutes or so. It’s that embrace of the excess, the unnecessary, that I love about prog.

That said, there’s an awful lot of lengthy prog that does nothing for me at all, same as books or anything else. Michel recognizes this, following his discussion of a favorite novel of his that is “plotless and essentially character-less” with the recognition that “[o]f course, it might not be interesting to you. If you don’t enjoy an artist’s vision, that is of course well and fine.” The problem, he argues, is transferring that personal dislike to objective truths about the quality of a work.

With that I agree 100%. As I’ve said here before, the reaction to art is inherently personal and what is one person’s work of genius is another’s pretentious twaddle. Where I part company, I guess, with Michel is that when I hear people say something is boring or slow or has unnecessary parts what I’m hearing is that the art, whatever it is, isn’t working for them and isn’t interesting to them. Because I don’t think there are objective truths about art I don’t take any one person’s reaction to any particular piece of it as being an attempt to deliver any truth other than their own. So I wouldn’t be as hard on people who think parts of books or movies or whatever are “unnecessary” because, to them, they are.

What’s most important, in the end, is that, as Michel concludes, there are spaces where artists and those who experience art can be free to be as excessive and unnecessary as they want to be. Not every work of art is for every taste and that’s not only okay it’s fucking fantastic. Find what you love and dive into it, then hope whoever is making it is willing to explore the unnecessary or the “boring” because when they do it you might think it’s the best thing ever. And creators – keep in mind that not everybody is willing to follow you down your creative cul de sacs – but I bet some folks will.

Weekly Watch: “Night of the Living Dead”

At the recent DualCon in Charleston, through sheer serendipity, my table wound up being next to that of John Russo, co-writer (along with director George Romero) of Night of the Living Dead, the horror film from which essentially the entire modern zombie genre sprang. After hearing him talk about the movie on a panel we did it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the flick. Naturally, the wife and I remedied that situation that very evening.

The story of Night of the Living Dead is even more amazing than the movie itself, although it holds up pretty well after all these years. Made for about $100,000 by first-time film makers (Romero, Russo and others had a production company that made commercials and other short pieces in and around Pittsburgh – Romero even directed some segments of Mr. Rogers!) it grossed about $30 million worldwide, making it one of the most profitable movies ever made.

The movie itself takes a fairly common setup and ramps the dread up to 11. As Russo explained during our panel, he thought of Night of the Living Dead as the 1939 movie Stagecoach, “but with zombies instead of Indians” and that seems right. You take a group of disparate people with few prior ties to each other, put them in a stressful situation, and see whether they pull together and triumph or splinter and fail.

If the movie is not just that story, but a metaphor for society at large as it faces existential threats then we, in the words of Thinking Plague, “are so fucked.” Once the group is gathered in an isolated house while the zombie horde (sorry, “ghouls” – the movie never uses the Z word) approaches, the battle lines are draw over whether to remain on the main floor or barricade themselves in the basement. The arguments both ways are the kind that can never be right or wrong – the main level has multiple points of entry for the ghouls, but also multiple ways out; the basement is more secure, but if they break through that door you’re dead.

My first thought upon viewing was that Ben, the main character and the prime supporter of the main level argument, was proven wrong, because he winds up in the basement when the horde overwhelms the house, anyway. The more I think about it, though, I don’t think that’s the case. Less important than where they make their stand is that they make it together, is what I’m thinking now. That even he is killed, in the end, and not by the ghouls, makes for a very bleak viewing experience and comment on human nature.

Aside from the side effects of its low budget (beyond its role in launching the modern zombie genre, Night of the Living Dead is one of the foundational films of the modern independent film scene) it doesn’t feel “cheap” (this is not a Zappa-esque “Cheepnis” situation). The script uses radio and TV news reports, often playing in the background, to broaden the story without losing the focus on our characters and their locale. That also helps setup the very end, too. I also enjoyed the soundtrack, which is typical orchestral bombast, save for when the zombies are the focus, when is switches to a very cutting edge soundscape of synthesized throbs and scratches.

But my final takeaway from Night of the Living Dead is irony. My first novel, Moore Hollow, is a kind of zombie story. The backdrop is that a crooked West Virginia politician around the turn of the 20th century actually tried to raise the dead so they would vote for him. In the novel, a disgraced English journalist with family ties to the West Virginia coal fields comes to track down the mystery. The zombies aren’t monsters, but more a problem to be dealt with and, perhaps, damned souls who need protection. I gave him the last name “Potter” completely oblivious to the Harry Potter connection.

His first name? “Ben.” Just like the main character in pop culture’s foundational zombie text. Sometimes the creative mind really does some wild things.