When the Character Has No Deep Dark Secret

There’s been a lot of press recently about the 20th anniversary of the release of Shrek and its impact on the culture. One of the most memorable parts of the movie is when the main character explains that ogres are like onions, as they have layers. It’s more than a nice message about not judging people for their looks, though. It suggests that fictional characters are supposed to be the same – they should have layers that peel away the more time we spend with them. Some of them, maybe most of them, wind up with deep dark secrets that motivate their actions or hold them back.

So what happens when you find a character that has no layers at all? The surface they project to the world is exactly who they are. How do you handle a character like that?

A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood is, in one way, a movie about Mr. Rogers. With a title like that, how couldn’t it be? But in a more accurate way, it’s not about him at all. The main character is a (fictional) writer sent to do a short puff piece on the children’ TV legend. Cynical, bitter, and having just had a drunken punch up at a wedding, he’s the one with layers.

Mr. Rogers is . . . well, he’s Mr. Rogers. He’s kind and patient and he cares about this guy’s well being. The writer is an investigative journalist, so he (and, by proxy, the audience) thinks that some dark reveal is just around the corner. Surely Mr. Rogers will curse like a sailor in private or abuse his staff in petty ways or something like that. Nope. All we see of him is that he’s a nice, kind guy and that’s all there is to it. Not at all like this:

That made Mr. Rogers great guy. It doesn’t make him a great character to build a movie around. That’s why he’s not the lead in the movie that’s practically named for him.

There’s an interesting comparison here to the Showtime series Kidding, which stars Jim Carey as a children’s TV icon named Mr. Pickles. He is very much the main character of this story and, as expected, he has layers that the series digs into as it goes along – he suffers from a kind of stunted development, his marriage dissolves after the death of a child, etc. It’s funnier than it sounds (in a very dark way), but it has what you’d expect out of a central character.

Which is what makes A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood such a nifty work of leger de main. It is undeniably Mr. Rogers’ movie (as played by Tom Hanks, again, how could it not be?), but it can’t be about him, right? So let another character be our focus, our entry into that world, and let the rest seep in around the edges. Which it does, in spades. Bottom line is, a movie about Mr. Rogers that isn’t really about Mr. Rogers has no business working as well as it does. It’s something to consider when planning out stories.

And I have to say, every time I think of Mr. Rogers this is actually what jumps into my head. I blame my brother, Todd, who does, indeed, play the bass:

Why “The Cold Equations” Is Still Horribly Plausible

Netflix recently released a new sci-fi flick, Stowaway. The trailer gives you a sense of what it’s about:

A spaceship on the way to another planet, finite resources, and an extra person. It’s the classic lifeboat problem IN SPAAACCCEEE!! FYI, expect spoilers from here on out if you’re worried about that kind of thing.

Stowaway also owes a lot to “The Cold Equations,” a 1954 short story that’s one of the most talked about in the history of science fiction. The release of Stowaway has lead to another round of reevaluation of the story, although there are some pretty big distinctions between the two.

Wikipedia has a pretty good summary of “The Cold Equations”:

The story takes place entirely aboard an Emergency Dispatch Ship (EDS) headed for the frontier planet Woden with a load of desperately-needed medical supplies. The pilot, Barton, discovers a stowaway: an eighteen-year-old girl. By law, all EDS stowaways are to be jettisoned because EDS vessels carry no more fuel than is absolutely necessary to land safely at their destination. The girl, Marilyn, merely wants to see her brother Gerry and was not aware of the law. When boarding the EDS, Marilyn saw the ‘UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT!’ sign, but thought she would at most have to pay a fine if she were caught. Barton explains that her presence dooms the mission by exceeding the weight limit, and the subsequent crash would kill both of them and doom the colonists awaiting the medical supplies. After contacting her brother for the last moments of her life, Marilyn willingly walks into the airlock and is ejected into space.

The thrust of the story is that the EDS is designed to do a particular job in a particular way and the additional variable of a stowaway wrecked all that. Physics, the “cold equations” of the title, mean that’s a problem and there’s only one solution.

While those same equations play a role in Stowaway, it’s really quite a different story. For one thing, the “stowaway” of the title really isn’t. He’s an engineer who wound up on the ship by accident. He did not intentionally sneak on like Marilyn in “The Cold Equations.” It puts him on a completely different ethical/moral footing. Another important distinction is that the problem in Stowaway that creates the drama is a mechanical malfunction, not just the presence of an additional person on the ship. Again, it changes the moral calculus. Most importantly, the eventual sacrifice is completely different – a crew member in Stowaway sacrifices herself to save the rest of the crew, whereas poor Marilyn has to take the task on herself.

That said, things are close enough to make mention of “The Close Equations” understandable (it even comes up in this really interesting video from one of the science advisors on Stowaway) and it’s always worth revisiting classic works. However, a lot of the criticisms of “The Cold Equations” always struck me as a bit off.

Lots of people who read “The Cold Equations” want to change it somehow to create a happy ending. There’s lots of criticism (much of it summarized here) of the entire setup, both of the fine margins in the EDS which subjects it to not having any room for error and for the society that would not go to greater lengths to keep someone like Marilyn from sneaking on in the first place. Surely they’d do more than put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT,” right? They’d place armed guards or design the EDS with more room for error? Why wouldn’t they do that?!?

For a certain idea of science fiction, I can see where these criticisms are coming from. For some folks, sci-fi is a genre of positivity or showing people overcoming odds and crises through knowledge, ingenuity, and hard work. David Brin is famously an exponent of this theory of sci-fi, which excludes things like dystopian fiction as “sci-fi” since it doesn’t have a positive, “go humans!”  message.

Thing is, humans are often awful to each other and that is sometimes reflected in sci-fi, too, as it should be. Anyone with a passing familiarity with history would know that the corner cutting that leads to tragedy in “The Cold Equations” are really plausible. That summary of criticisms I linked to above notes this history, but presumes that it’s just that – history, something we’ve moved passed as a species. Sadly, it isn’t. After all, if laws passed to ensure safe working conditions have been on the books for the past century or so, how could 29 coal miners die in an accident in the 21st century caused largely by ignoring and working around those law? Laws don’t get followed or enforced just because they’re on the books, not when the bottom line is at stake.

This really came into sharp focus for me recently when I was reading Midnight In Chernobyl, Adam Higginbotham’s excellent book on the 1986 meltdown in the Soviet Union. One of the reasons the disaster happened is that the RBMK-type reactor was an inherently flawed design. Experts had said it was flawed for years. Indeed, in 1975 a similar accident happened in another nuclear plant that highlighted this design flaw. Did they redesign the reactor? No. Did they move on to an entire new design? No. Did they rewrite the manuals and assume human beings would react rationally if the same thing happened again? YES! In other words, they decided to put up a sign that said “KEEP OUT” instead of spending extra money to fix the problem.

The same dynamic is evident in Stowaway. Lots of people talking about the movie complain that NASA would never allow this problem to happen. The oxygen problem is similar to what happened to Apollo 13, so wouldn’t NASA know to have backups on board? Problem is, the mission in Stowaway isn’t run by NASA, but by a company called Hyperion. More to the point, there are bits of dialog that suggest that Hyperion is not beyond cutting corners in order to save money. Should space travel work that way? No. Does history suggest it could? Absolutely. We may progress to the point where such thinking doesn’t happen, but we’re a long way from there (if we ever reach it).

As for Stowaway as a movie – if you can swallow the setup it’s pretty good. How the stowaway got on board is never satisfactorily addressed (leading to a lot of people to assume it was intentional, which really doesn’t fit the film), but once you’re beyond that things greatly improve. The performances are all good. The filmmakers made a choice to keep the action entirely focused on the four people on the ship, to the point that we don’t even hear the other side of conversations with ground control, much less see any of them grappling with the problem. I found that this reinforces how cut off the ship was, how on their own they were, and was very effective. The ending just kind of is there, but it would have been hard to go much further without changing the vibe of the thing. Worth a watch, certainly.

What Makes a “Heist” Story, Anyway?

One of my semi-regular podcast listenings is The Rewatchables from the folks over at The Ringer. In each episode they take a deep dive (sometimes too deep – the episodes can tend to sprawl) into a movie that they can watch over and over again. It’s good fun if they’re talking about a movie you’re familiar with.

Recently, they did an episode on the 2006 film Inside Man. Directed by Spike Lee and starring Clive Owen, Denzel Washington, and Jodie Foster (among others), it’s about an elaborate bank robbery that’s about much more than money.

What really got me thinking, though, was the introduction to this episode, where they talked about “heist” movies and how great they were. No argument from me – but is Inside Man really about a heist? What makes a heist, and therefore a heist story, anyway?

Maybe Inside Man fits, if we’re just going by dictionary definitions. The Oxford English Dictionary defines heist as “a hold-up, a robbery.” Far be it from me to disagree with the OED, but at least when it comes to storytelling, “heist” means something quite different than “robbery.”

I should say here that when I think of robbery I’m thinking of it in the legal sense that I deal with everyday – that is, the taking of property from the person of another by use or threatened use of force. Other thieving is something different. Think of it this way – if I go into a bank and point a gun at the teller, I’m committing a robbery; but if, as an employee, I secretly steal money without anybody noticing, I’m committing embezzlement. Both felonies, but quite different from one another.

The distinction, for me at least, comes down to brute force. A robbery can be elaborate and kinetic and exciting – think the beginning of The Dark Knight – but, at the end of the day, it’s “your money or your life.” It’s simple, effective, and brutal. “Heist” conjures up something more clever, more deeply thought out. It’s about getting the object of the robbery without the violence. It’s a better, more elevated, kind of crime, if you will.

I’m thinking of things like The Thomas Crown Affair or Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels. Those movies are about the scheming to pull off the job, not just rolling up with guns and forcing people to do your bidding. To be sure, sometimes the scheme goes sour and the heist goes bad, so I suppose it’s a question of intent. If the thieves are trying to get away with it without using violence, it’s a heist. Otherwise, it’s not.

There are also things that don’t fit in either category. There’s a new(ish) Neflix documentary called This Is a Robbery about the 1990 theft of the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston in which over $500 million worth of art was taken. On the one hand, it involved a clever ruse – the thieves posed as Boston cops and got in by saying they were responding the report of a break in. On the other hand, they tied up the two night security guys pretty violently, so there’s that. Is that a heist story or not? Honestly, I’m not sure.

As I’m writing this I’m watching/listening to a 2017 in-studio performance by Monobody, a band whose music is really hard to classify. In one of the interview breaks the guitar player talks about genre labels as a necessary label, since they help people talk about things like art. But, ultimately, they’re meaningless when considering whether any piece of art is enjoyable or not. So whether I think a story is a heist story or not is irrelevant.

And I’m completely will to admit I’m full of shit about this. Such is life.

On Leaving Things Unsaid

Twice in the past couple of weeks, while channel surfing, I’ve come across Fargo, the 1996 Coen Brothers classic right at that point where there’s enough left to make it worth watching the rest, even if it’s not the beginning. For what it’s worth, that point – both times! – was after Jerry’s unsuccessful parking lot pitch to his father in law, after which he has a little freak out in the parking lot.

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I’ve seen it over and over, but I still get new things out of it. These two times around one thing jumped out at my writer brain that hadn’t registered before. It has to do not with what was on screen, but what wasn’t.

What drives the plot of Fargo is that hapless car salesman Jerry Lundegaard needs money and is willing to do just about anything to do it. He tries to scam his wealthy father-in-law to “investing” in a parking lot development deal. He’s running some kind of game with the GMAC finance people, too. And, of course, there’s the eventual plot he hatches to have two goons kidnap his wife (who’s wealthy father will then pay an inflated ransom to get back) that ends with a lot of dead bodies.

We know all this. We see the machinations, see the wheels turning. One of the best scenes in the movie is after the kidnapping when we hear Jerry on the phone calling his father-in-law to tell him his wife has been kidnapped. Only he’s not on the phone (the shot starts with him off screen) – he’s rehearing the call he’s going to make, getting his scheme down pat. We hear him fend off the GMAC guy on the phone. And we see him deal with the two goons.

What occurred to me rewatching recently is what we don’t see, what we don’t learn. For a start, we have no idea how much money Jerry needs. It must be substantial, as he’s only going to pay the goons $40k initially on the kidnapping, while setting the ransom at $1 million and that’s only one of his many ongoing schemes. Still, we don’t know a number. Nor do we know to whom Jerry owes a substantial debt. It could be a bank, the result of a failed legit investment or business, or it could be gambling debts that he owes to the mob. Again, we just don’t know.

I think this is a pretty brilliant bit of storytelling. Typically, story gurus will say, you should give your main character a clear goal that they struggle to achieve through the course of your story. But sometimes the rule needs to be broken and I think Fargo is one of those places. If we know how much Jerry needs, the story shifts from being one about a scheme spiraling out of control to one about whether Jerry is going to succeed. If we know why he needs the money it shifts our perception a bit and we’ll be more invested in Jerry’s success. We probably don’t want the mob to break his legs, right?

What all this does is keep us as viewers from getting too close to Jerry, from caring about him succeeding. I think it’s a conscious choice by the Coens to keep us from empathizing with him, as you normally do with a main character. You could certainly try to produce a story where the readers or viewers try to empathize with a guy who gets his own wife, not to mention half-dozen other people, killed as his scheme goes off the rails, but that would be a different story than Fargo. This also allows the moral center of the film to be Marge, who doesn’t even show up until about a third of the way in (coincidentally right after I found the movie on TV these past times).

This isn’t the way to go for most stories. Certainly if you want your main character to be viewed as a hero, even a flawed one, you need to let readers know why they’re doing what they’re doing. But sometimes that’s not what you want. Sometimes you want the guy who sets in motion the disposal of a dead body in a woodchipper to just be a bastard through and through. Who needs to get on board with that?

The Proper Calibration of Stakes

Every story – well, nearly every story – is about characters trying to accomplish something. Depending on what kind of story it is – comedy, weepy family drama, thriller – the stakes are going to be completely different. Dude, Where’s My Car? is an appropriately low set of stakes to use to move the plot along in a stoner comedy. In a serious character piece, not so much (although now I’m thinking of it as a long form commentary on existential dread and maybe?). Every story needs the right stakes.

In sci-fi and fantasy stories are often told against big, bold backdrops – starships that travel between alien worlds or weird fantasy worlds sprawling with orcs fairies and all the rest. As a result, it can sometimes be too easy to let the stakes get too big. It’s worth remembering that as the stakes spiral out of control, it can impact the story you’re trying to tell and the reactions readers or viewers are going to have. The bigger the stakes, sometimes perversely, the lower the dramatic tension.

What is generally regarded as the best of the Star Trek movies? Wrath of Khan, right?

Think about what the stakes are in that movie. It doesn’t have anything to do with saving Earth or the Federation. It starts out with Kirk not going gently into retirement and slides into a mano-a-mano (or shipo-a-shipo, I guess) fueled by revenge. Yes, there’s the whole Genesis device stuff, but even that isn’t the kind of universe shattering stuff the drives the plot in later movies (why is the Enterprise always the only Federation ship in the neighborhood?!). It works so well because it’s about a few people, doing desperate things.

Which makes a lot of sense, because lots of old Trek episodes were just like that. Most episodes revolved around getting one of the main trial – Kirk, Spock, & McCoy – out of trouble. Occasionally the entire Enterprise is at risk, but never (that I can remember, anyway) was there a “we have to save the galaxy” episode. Even the later series that had some big bads – the Borg, the Dominion – used their galaxy-spanning threat sparingly.

Lots of the other Trek movies fall into the trap of making the stakes saving the entire fucking galaxy (or Solar System, at least). Superhero movies tend to do this a lot, too. The problem is that once you’ve put the entire world/galaxy/universe at peril, how likely is it that our heroes – be they Avengers or Starfleeters – to fail?

Another example where keeping the stakes low really helps is The Wolverine, the second stand-alone flick featuring the beclawed X-man.

It takes a break from the usual huge stakes of the X-Men movies (the mid-end-credit scene sets up precisely that – the need to save the world – for the next flick) and tells a story that focuses on Wolverine’s history and demons. The action is great, the story flows, and it never really goes beyond Japan. You get the sense that all this happened without any real impact on the outside world – but it story works precisely because it’s so personal and contained.

This all came to mind while I was reading Lindsay Ellis’ Axiom’s End a little while back.

It’s a pretty good read and that’s largely due to the fact that for a long time it’s first contact story doesn’t have the hugest of stakes. What’s interesting is how the human main character and the alien she starts to help have to learn to communicate with each other and how to deal with the baggage each of them bring to the table just as members of their particular species. There’s some danger involved, naturally, but the stakes are fairly limited. That is, until about the last third of the book, where a threat to the Earth materializes. That doesn’t ruin things, but I was a bit disappointed.

I can’t say I’ve done a lot for reigning in stakes in my own work. Both The Water Road and the Unari Empire trilogies have pretty high stakes, if you consider the fate of nations to be high stakes (most would). They seemed natural for those stories, though, and since neither of them take place in our world, there’s no inherent need for any particular endings. Moore Hollow is considerably narrower and more personal, which is what I wanted from the get go, so that worked out well there.

As usual, there’s no hard and fast rule when it comes to figuring out how high the stakes should be in a story. Sometimes saving the universe is just right. Sometimes, all you need to do is have the characters make their way from Point A to Point B, having some fun and adventures along the way. Like anything else, it needs to be carefully considered to figure out what works best for the story you want to tell.

The International Misery Film Festival

Did you ever have the kind of weekend where you fell into an impromptu film festival? Naturally a festival has to have a particular theme, right? This past weekend, the wife and I fell ass over teakettle into a series of largely depressing, but mostly good, movies about various historical horribles. An International Misery Film Festival, if you will.

First up was a recent HBO documentary, The Art of Political Murder.

It’s about a Guatemalan priest and human rights advocate, Juan José Gerardi Conedera, who was murdered in 1998, two days after he announced the release of a report on abuses during that country’s civil war that implicated the government in various atrocities. The film works through the investigation and ultimate conviction of several perpetrators (army officers and a fellow priest), although it stops before diving into why they did it or if someone higher up the authorial chain ordered them to do it. The film tries to play like a whodunit, but it wastes time on alternate theories that don’t pan out, almost like it needs to delay the inevitable conclusion. Recommended for shedding light on an incident I wasn’t familiar with, but could have been better.

From Guatemala we next travelled to Cambodia. When the wife and I honeymooned in Cambodia we stopped for a day or two in Phnom Penh between stints exploring ruins around Ankor Wat and some beach days at Kep. That gave us time to experience the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, as well as the nearby Cheung Ek “killing fields.” It was a thoroughly heart wrenching experience. At Tuol Sleng we met one of the few survivors of the prison/torture facility the Khmer Rouge ran there, which it called S-21.

Turns out, the man and another survivor were central to our next film, S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine.

Low budget (it was shot on video, I’m pretty sure), but harrowing and powerful, this doc brings those two survivors together at Tuol Sleng with a host of men who worked there for the Khmer Rouge – guards, torturers, drivers. A large part of the doc is given over to these men explaining what they did at Tuol Sleng and, in some cases, pantomiming their crimes and daily routines. What’s most amazing, to 21st century ears, is that while one of these men voices the expected “just following orders” defense, they don’t make any attempt to euphemize what they did. The word “torture” is used repeatedly, rather than, say “enhanced interrogation techniques” (the Khmer Rouge waterboarded, too!). They go to Cheung Ek and cold describe mass murder. The limitation of a doc like this is there’s very little understanding of what made people do this to one another, but on its own terms it’s very worth watching.

From the 1970s in Southeast Asia we moved to something influenced by what was happening in that region at the same time, The Baader Meinhoff Complex.

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This German film briskly covers the rise and fall of the first iteration of the Red Army Faction (sometimes known as the Baader Meinhoff Gang, after two of its leaders) from about 1968 to 1978. An outgrowth of the West German student protest movement, the RAF conducted a series of bank robberies, assassinations, and bombings in hopes of sparking a Marxist revolution. What was really interesting was how much motivation came from American activities in Vietnam and having military bases in West Germany. Indeed, some of the group’s bombings targeted American military installations, killing a handful of American soldiers.

There are issues that resonate with the modern world throughout the film. It begins with a demonstration by students against the visiting Shah of Iran. Once he and his wife leave the scene, the protestors are attacked by Iranian supporters, while West German police standby (they later join in, beating protestors and, in one case, shooting and killing one). It’s impossible not to watch that now and think of the police response (or lack thereof ) to various protests (and worse) in the US over the past few years. That the main RAF members wind up in solitary confinement pending their trial echoes in debates of how often that’s used in our modern penal system.

That said, the most interesting facet of the film is Horst Herold, the head of the West German police, played in a clever bit of casting by Bruno Ganz, the Hitler of Downfall fame. On the one hand, Herold does what you’d expect of a police chief chasing a band of murderous criminals and pulls out all the stops to catch them – at one point, he puts every police officer in West Germany on the street on a single say performing checkpoints, patdowns, and searches. Yet, he also recognizes that to combat terrorists you need to understand their motivations, which usually stem from legitimate concerns. That his more enlightened thoughts don’t carry the day point out a fundamental irony of the whole thing – in violently reacting to what it perceived as the West German police state, the RAF gave the state the justification it needed to really crackdown.

The film’s major problem is that it just has too much ground to cover. Intent on cramming as much action in as possible, it doesn’t spend enough time with some of the ancillary characters who drop in for an operation then disappear. It also doesn’t provide any idea of what happened to the RAF after its founding members died in prison. Still, a good watch and highly recommended.

I wish I could say the same about our sojourn in Ethiopia and London, Sweetness In the Belly.

Based on the novel of the same name, this tells the story of a British girl who is abandoned at a Sufi shrine in Morocco by her parents (who were probably killed over some kind of drug debt). She becomes devout, goes to Ethiopia just as the civil war there starts, and winds up a refugee resettling in London. There are issues of representation here – the story of African refugees told through the eyes of a white British woman – but the film’s biggest sin it that it’s just not very compelling. Lily, the main character, is a complete bore whose attractiveness to the two doctors of color she comes across (one in Ethiopia, the other in London) is completely inexplicable. The film fares better when it focuses on Lily’s bonding with another refugee in London, but that only goes so far. Not recommended.

Our final stop was the Soviet Union, via England and Wales, for Mr. Jones.

The title character is Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist who, in the early 1930s, was also an advisor to British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George. After scoring an interview with Hitler (the result of which is alarm that wasn’t fully heeded), Jones wanted to do the same with Stalin. Cut loose from the government due to budget cuts (it was the Great Depression, after all), he makes it to Moscow. He doesn’t get to talk to Stalin, but the murder of another journalist (allegedly during a robbery) and the fact that reporters are being restricted to Moscow, make him curious. He manages to sneak to Ukraine where he bears firsthand witness to the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed millions of people and may (depending on who you ask) been an act of genocide. The Soviets had been covering the whole thing up until Jones’ reportage came out.

The film keeps its point of view close on Jones, which is effective for the most part, but it robs the Holodomor of any real context. We see the horrors of it – even if (according to his family) the real Jones didn’t experience all of them (such as cannibalism), as he does in the film – but don’t get more than a few passing mentions about how and why it happened. There’s also a frame story with Orwell writing Animal Farm and it just doesn’t work. I get it – Orwell’s fable is a takedown of Stalinism – but it seems like it’s just stuck on to Jones’ story, particularly given that there’s a scene where the two meet and talk about what they’re writing! Flawed, but ultimately worth a watch. So, there we are. This weekend, I’m thinking some mindless comedies to balance things out.

Let’s Talk Spoilers

It’s been a long time since I wrote something specifically about spoilers. After coming across this article at Tor by Sarah Kozloff about “spoilerphobia” I got to thinking about them some more. I still maintain that any story that can really be “spoiled” by knowing what happens probably isn’t that great, anyway.

A good point that Kozloff makes is that spoilers are more than just what happens in a particular story. They can be signifiers of social standing:

Knowing about the hot new book or movie can embody a certain cultural “one-upmanship” and indicate class privilege. Those with the money, time, freedom, and motivation to stay on top of current releases or buy new hardcovers may obtain an experience denied to those who have to wait for library copies or cheaper venues. So, the power to “spoil” lies disproportionately in the hands of those with elite access—like the critic—while anxiety about being deprived of an “untainted” experience affects people with less access.

I think my attitude toward spoilers is what it is because I first experienced them in the context of sports.

That said, I tend to agree with Kozloff’s ultimate conclusion:

I understand that revelations and endings do matter. I just don’t think they matter as much as people think they do or for every story. What I object to most about admonitions never to reveal plot is the implicit evaluation that surprise is everything, vastly more important than every other element of the work.

I think it’s important to think of spoilers as being linked to good manners. There’s a comment to the Tor piece about someone reading an Agatha Christie book on a plane:

Imagine reading an Agatha Christie novel on a plane and the guy next to you saying ‘That’s an awesome novel – I never would have guessed that she faked her death and burned her maid in her stead.’ (example made up, of course!). I don’t know how you would feel but I would be livid.

I’d be livid, too! Now, from a technical standpoint, whatever book that person’s reading has been out for decades and, really, they can’t expect it to be unspoiled. On the other, more relevant, hand, however, this person is obviously reading it, probably for the first time (people reread books, of course, but one has to think that of all the “book reading” going on in the world right now an overwhelmingly high percentage is people reading something for the first time) and there’s no reason to spoil it for them right now! That’s just assholery.

But the opposite situation is a different kind of assholery. Over the Xmas break my wife and I watched a couple of older movies – not ancient, but old enough to drive. As I often do, I went over to MovieChat to see what people were saying about it. On one of the forums, someone was complaining about the discussion spoiling the movie – a movie that had been out for 15 or so years. This person had come to a place where people talk about movies they’ve seen and bitched about spoilers. That’s assholery, too.

Thus, I think worrying about spoilers should be more about policing your own behavior rather than demanding what others do. I recently wrote a post inspired by watching Wonder Woman 1984 that, uncharacteristically, I put a spoiler warning on. Not because I think spoilers should be off limits, but because I knew the movie had just come out and people were still flocking to see it in the first rush. Six months later I might not have done the same thing, but who knows?

“Don’t be a jerk” is solid life advice. It applies to spoilers just as well.

When “It’s Fantasy” Isn’t Good Enough

A few weeks ago I was extolling the freedom that fantasy as a genre provides – the answer to almost any “can I do this?” question is “it depends,” so long as you can make it work. That said, you do still have to make it work and some things are beyond the ability of fantasy to change. This was driven home over the holidays watching Wonder Woman 1984.

I don’t normally do this, but the rest of this post contains big spoilers for WW84. If you want to go into it fresh and not knowing what’s going on, bookmark this and come back later. Otherwise, let’s press on . . .

The main plot-driving MacGuffin in WW84 is an ancient stone that grants the bearer any wish. It’s a classic fantasy/horror trope (think the monkey’s paw) and fits well within your basic superhero universe. Two things happen with this trope that are great examples of what “hey, it’s fantasy” can’t whitewash bad writing.

The first is how the MacGuffin is used to bring back Diana’s love interest from the first movie (that happened decades before, remember), Steve Trevor. That she wishes him back is fine – you’d have thought maybe she’d moved on in the ensuing years, but it’s believable – but they way they do it is so odd that it causes problems. Rather than have Trevor just materialize in 1984 D.C., he winds up taking over the body of a person who’s already there, to the point that only Diana actually sees him as Trevor.

This way of doing it raises all sorts of issues, both practical and moral. The guy Trevor takes over presumably has a life – a job, family, maybe a significant other – how do they play into this? Is he missed at all? Are there things he normally has to do in a day that aren’t getting done, causing problems? Beyond those complications are serious questions about consent and what not, given that Diana and Trevor sleep together and Trevor puts this guy’s body at risk while chasing bad guys. What would have happened if he died or was seriously injured? All and all, it’s pretty fucked up.

All this is rich fodder for the movie to explore, but it doesn’t even nod at it. This is fantasy done poorly. There’s nothing that says you can’t have someone come back from the dead like this, but what are the consequences? If you don’t want to explore the consequences, then why bring him back in a way that creates so many questions? It’s sloppy and not very thoughtfully done.

An aside on the topic of Trevor – it annoyed me greatly that he’s overwhelmed by seeing an escalator and a subway, both of which existed during his lifetime, but he has no trouble whatsoever jumping into a (conveniently unlocked, unguarded, and fully fueled) jet and flying it to the other side of the planet. Hey, he was a World War I pilot, right? Planes hadn’t changed in six decades! He can be either a wide-eyed dope or a man ahead of his time, but not both.

WW84 goes big when the bad guy basically allows people all over the world to tap into the wish-making power. This causes lots of problems and leads to the film’s biggest issue, in my book. To save the day, either the MacGuffin has to be destroyed (which it sort of already has) or everyone who was granted a wish needs to recant it. This works well for Diana’s arc – she has to let go of Trevor – but simply doesn’t work as the big finale. Why?

20-Fucking-20, that’s why. Actually, it’s not even that. I’ll show my cards, here, and admit that I generally loathe the “manufacture a happy ending by believing hard enough” trope, so I would not be on board with the way WW84 ends, anyway. But after a year full of selfish political idiots who buck at the idea of wearing a mask to help contain a global pandemic, the idea that everyone who made a wish would take it back for the greater good is just laughable. It doesn’t help that lots of the wish examples we see in the movie are fairly petty and nasty. These people would suddenly do the right thing?

What does this have to do with writing fantasy? With some fantasy the world you’re dealing with isn’t our own, even hugely modified. The world of The Dark Crystal does not include human beings, for instance. Neither does The Water Road, for that matter. But if your fantasy is set in our world – with regular people, for the most part – then you can’t just hand-waive issues with them with the notice that “it’s fantasy.” Human beings have to behave like human beings, at least to the extent they haven’t been magically made something else. See also, this scene from Dogma. That the world can be saved just by everybody being nice for a change just doesn’t work.

So, there, is perhaps a pair of caveats to my prior advice on how you can use fantasy to do pretty much anything. First, you have to think about the consequences of your fantastic world. Second, humans still have to behave like actual human beings. Still leaves a lot of room to have fun, right?

On Fictional History and Fictional Places

Fiction is fake, by definition. Otherwise it would be nonfiction, right? Any character you create doesn’t exist in the real world if you’re writing fiction, even if you’re writing about a historical figure. Still, a lot of fiction takes place in what we think of as the “real” world. What happens when the real world isn’t enough and you decide to create enclaves of pure fiction within it? Well, then things get interesting.

I had a chance to ponder this recently thanks to a couple of things I consumed that leaned heavily into fictional history and fictional places. Neither quite worked and I’m not sure if all that non-existent history or fake places weren’t part of the problem.

As for fake history, I finally had a chance to see Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, the latest Quentin Tarantino epic. I’m a fan of most of his stuff, and while I found a lot to admire about Once Upon a Time . . . (Brad Pitt, in particular, is as good as everybody said he was), there’s some interesting alternate history in it that didn’t really work for me.

Hollywood

Sitting alongside the story of a TV star on the downside of his career (Leo DiCaprio) and his buddy/stunt man (Pitt) in 1969 Los Angeles is the story of Sharon Tate. Tate, as you’ll recall, was married to Roman Polanski at the time (hilariously portrayed as looking almost exactly like Austin Powers and not yet a rapist) and would be brutally murdered by members of the Manson Family that August. Spoiler alert, I guess – in the world Tarantino builds, that doesn’t happen. Instead, the would-be murderers go to the house next door, where Dicaprio’s character lives and Pitt’s is on acid, and are violently dispatched with a combination of the world’s best pit bull and a flame thrower (which somehow makes sense). The movie ends with everybody else getting on with their lives, the spirit of the 1960s not yet brutally ended.

The odd thing about all this is that it seems backwards. Usually when we’re talking alternate history the pivot point – where it diverges from our reality – is at or near the beginning of the story. The rest of it is exploring the “what if this happened?” question. For a timely example, the HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins as Charles Lindberg runs for, and wins, the presidency in 1940 on an isolationist platform bolstered by anti-Semitism. What happens next is what we’re going to find out in the next few weeks.

The closer comparison with Once Upon a Time . . . is Tarantino’s prior bit of historical revisionism, Inglorious Basterds. In that one a group of Jewish American Army soldiers during World War II put Hitler down in a bloody, fiery way. It’s clearer wish fulfillment, in my opinion, since everybody knows Hitler was a monster. It also leans heavily on the speculative fiction trope of time travelling to kill Hitler, so it makes more intuitive sense. There’s certainly some wish fulfillment in Once Upon a Time . . . – of course it’s a better world where murder victims aren’t actually murdered and the would-be killers get instant justice – but the way it comes about makes less sense. There’s nothing explaining why the Manson kids go to the wrong house and neither the DiCaprio nor Pitt characters do anything other than react to a home invasion – they aren’t heroes who intentionally foil a plot. I just don’t get the point of the exercise.

It’s easier to see the point of using completely made up geography in fiction, but even that can be tricky. Full disclosure – I’ve done it myself (Moore Hollow is set in a fictional West Virginia county), so I’m not against the idea. It does honk me off a little bit when it comes out of nowhere, though.

One of my great finds of last year was Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, a darkly funny book about a guy trying to conquer death by bringing people back from it. In that book the titular hero (I use the term loosely) has to obtain 100 souls for Satan in order to win his own back, with the devil providing a nightmarish carnival train to aid in the process. As I said, it’s funny in a dark, sarcastic kind of way (in some ways it puts me in mind of a horror version of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and, so far as I can remember, takes place entirely in our world. Not our real world, obviously (see, bringing people back from the dead, Satan, souls, etc.), but at least it looks like ours. It all happens in the UK, with Cabal’s family coming from Germany.

Imagine my surprise when I dove into the sequel, Johannes Cabal the Detective, and found out that it takes place entirely in a pair of made up countries somewhere in Europe (with a third thrown in for good political measure).

CabalDetective

I understand why the author did this – the story requires particular political and military maneuvers that don’t fit established history and it’s hard to manipulate real places to do your fictional building. Nonetheless, it’s kind of a shock to have these made up places thrown at you without warning. Had the first book mentioned them or been set in them it would have been different. That neither Cabal nor his sidekick have any connection to these places doesn’t help the story, but that’s a separate issue.

Of course, there are entire genres of fantasy that take place in worlds that have no relation to this one. The Water Road trilogy takes place on another world entirely (with no human beings!), as does Gods of the Empire and its sequels. But with those you know going in what you’re getting into. Changing the game midstream seems like a miscalculation to me. The question with everything, whether it’s fake history or made up locations, is what works best for the story? What best serves the character? Sometimes the answer to both is something completely new and unexpected. But sometimes it’s not.

The Mobster and the Mediocrity

The movie begins with a long tracking shot, weaving in and out of the locale in which the story is set. The soundtrack plays out tunes appropriate to the historical setting of the story. The opening sequence comes to an end with an old man in an institution in a wheelchair. He wants to talk to you. He has a confession to make.

If you’ve seen Martin Scorsese’s latest then you know this describes the opening of The Irishman, his latest epic mob opus. The old man in this case is Frank Sheeran, a real person, playing by Robert DeNiro.

Sheeran

But if you think back several years, it might sound like the beginning of another movie. In that case, the old main the wheelchair is Antonio Salieri, played by F. Murray Abraham. Rather than being in a nursing home in New Jersey, he’s in an insane asylum in Vienna.

Amadeus

The move, of course, is Amadeus, directed by the late great Milos Forman.

What could these two films have in common, made decades apart with settings separated by centuries and an ocean? More than you might thing (or maybe less than I might think).

Much has been written as to the historical accuracy of The Irishman. It’s based on a tell all book, where Sheeran admitted to his lawyer all the horrible things he’d done for the mob. As particularly relevant to the film, those include the murder of New York mobster “Crazy Joe” Gallo in 1972 and, most spectacularly, Jimmy Hoffa.

As this lengthy Slate article explains, all of that is pretty much bunk (one FBI agent quoted about the book upon which The Irishman is based called it “baloney, beyond belief”). Nobody involved in the investigations into the Gallo slaying and Hoffa disappearance think Sheeran did it, although he might have been tangentially involved with Hoffa. (The publisher of the original book responds here).

Amadeus isn’t the most rigorous piece of history either. There’s no evidence to support the takeaway most people have from the film (and the play upon which it was based), that Salieri killed Mozart. Mozart, of course, died penniless and kind of disdained, but it was due to some kind of infection (a “severe military fever,” according to records), not murder.

What’s interesting in the Slate piece of Sheeran, and what made me think of Salieri, is his ability to escape saying specifically “I did it”:

another quick digression about something you may have noticed earlier—the weird way that Sheeran phrased his confessions to both murders. Specifically, his use of the passive voice. ‘Jimmy Hoffa got shot twice at a decent range.’ ‘Crazy Joey got shot about three times outside of the restaurant.’

I wondered about that, too.

Near the end of the book, Brandt tries to get Sheeran to confirm, one final time, all that he confessed before.

‘Now,’ Brandt said to Sheeran, ‘you read the book. The things that are in there about Jimmy and what happened to him are things that you told me, isn’t that right?’

Frank Sheeran said, ‘That’s right.’

‘And you stand behind them?’

And he said, ‘I stand behind what’s written.’

Which means that even in his deathbed confession, Frank Sheeran never actually says the words, ‘I killed Jimmy Hoffa,’ or that he killed Joey Gallo, or anybody at all.

Let’s assume that Sheeran’s unwillingness to come right out and say “I did it” is less trying to shirk responsibility for crimes he personally committed. What if his confession is less about what he did personally, than what he was a part of? Likewise, what if Salieri’s is not about his personal guilt for murdering Mozart, but for the unprincipled role he played in the world that led to his death?

Sheeran, by all accounts, was in the mob. Even if you’re not a contract killer for the mob, if you’re in the mob, you’re in a world where violence and murder is part of the lifestyle. It’s sort of like being a football trainer – you’re not actually out there causing brain damage, but you’re part of a world where that kind of things happens all the time. Just being around that kind of milieu must take its toll psychologically. Is it so odd that someone adjacent to so much horrible shit feels guilty about it, even if he didn’t pull any triggers?

Salieri’s world, of course, was quite a bit different, but there’s no doubt the way the musical tornado that was Mozart changed it. Keeping in mind that Salieri was already the court composer and thus entrenched in a position of power makes his eventual “confession” all the more powerful. He had plenty of opportunities (so the film argues) to aid, or at least not actively hinder, his young counterpart as he spirals into debt and drink. Not only does he keep pushing him in ways that aren’t likely to help Mozart’s health, Salieri actively fucks with his career. None of this is the same as sticking a knife in his back or poisoning him (a once-popular theory), but neither is it precisely good behavior. Much like Sheeran, Salieri was an asshole in a milieu where assholes could get away with stuff.

There was more personal animosity to the Salieri/Mozart relationship than there was anything in The Irishman, of course. To the point that, at the end of the film, Salieri declares himself the patron saint of mediocrities. Sheeran at the end of The Irishman is more inward looking, guilty about a life not well spent. He’s not making bold proclamations (and, obviously, he’s not nuts).

In my legal work I deal all the time with people who confess to doing bad things, but mostly they’re doing that on their own. If they’re coming out of some particular environment it’s not usually because they’ve chosen that life. Sheeran, by contrast, chose to be a gangster. That he didn’t personally embody the worst of what that means didn’t mean he couldn’t struggle with guilt about the worst aspects of that life. Likewise, Salieri chose to be the shit he was, even if he didn’t go so far as to murder his rival.

But I also know that people confess to things they don’t do. Sometimes it’s because cops force them into it. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty personally, even if they aren’t guilty legally. The human psyche, and memory, can be an odd thing.