Weekly Read & Watch: Eight Men Out

I’m not a baseball fan. I don’t hate it – life’s too short to get worked up about other peoples’ pastimes – but it doesn’t engage me. It might be odd, then, that one of my favorite movies is Eight Men Out, John Sayles’ exploration of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, when a group of Chicago White Sox players threw the 1919 World Series.

Of course, what makes the movie work so well is that it isn’t really a baseball movie. It’s a movie about labor relations, in which the ballplayers are exploited at first by the club’s owner, Charles Comiskey, and then by unscrupulous gamblers who don’t even pay the players what they’re supposed to. I won’t say the baseball stuff is secondary (there’s a good deal of on-field action), but it’s definitely used in service to something other than your traditional sports movie narrative.

The film is based on a book of the same name by Eliot Asinof that was first published in 1963.

I only just got around to reading the book itself, which is an interesting contrast to the movie. They tell the same story, but there are some interesting differences that arise from Sayles really driving home the political point of view he’s coming from.

What the book does better than the film, since it has more time to cover the story, is provide more context to what happened in 1919. For one thing, while the movie presents the Black Sox scandal as almost sui generis – a huge breach of sporting life – it turns out the gambling-related scandals were pretty common in baseball at the time. Granted, they hadn’t gotten up to the level of the World Series, but in truth this was the straw that broke the camel’s back rather than a singular incident. Indeed, one of the earlier scandals involved the Sox’s opponents in the World Series – the Cincinnati Reds.

The book also provides more context for what is alleged to be the prime driver of the players’ interest in the fix – that Comiskey was a particularly miserly owner. The movie moves a couple of incidents (involving avoiding paying bonuses) from 1917 to 1919 to help drive this home. While the book argues that Comiskey was a tight wad, it also shows that the rest of the owners weren’t much better. In the days of the reserve clause, where free agency didn’t exist and players were forced to play for basically whatever wages the owners offered, it was easy to be a tightwad. There’s also attention given to contract terms that allowed players to be fired with 10-days notice for just about anything (including getting injured), but they had no similar right to walk away. It’s not as if your best player could fuck off to another team when their contract was up. More than that, given that the country was just coming out of World War I there was a rational (if not completely honest) basis for owners to worry more about money. Being a professional baseball player then wasn’t much better than being a professional women’s soccer player is these days, complete with the side hustles. The movie focusing on salaries makes that easier to convey in a dramatic narrative of just about two hours.

For all that context there’s one area where I wish the book would have provided a little bit more. Having read the book I’m still not sure where gambling fit into society at the time of the 1919 World Series. The gamblers involved in this story are all pretty sleazy characters with connections to organized crime, but gambling itself seemed to be much more open and notorious than it would be in later years. There’s a recurring motif of entertainer George M. Cohan being close to the fix (although not involved) due to gambling that makes it seem not quite illegal – but maybe not quite legal, either? I’d be interested to know what society thought of gambling back then as a way to help explain the reaction to the fix.

The book also dives deeper into the aftermath of the series and the eventual exposure of the fix. The movie keeps a tight point of view on the players, while the book follows the journalists and lawyers who probed the series and the gambling that surrounded it (Sayles compresses most of this into a jazz-fueled montage). In particular, I appreciated the details on how journalist Hugh Fullerton (played by Studs Terkel who, along with Sayles himself as Ring Lardner, act as kind of a Greek chorus throughout) was roundly vilified for daring to suggest that something wasn’t on the level. History proved him right, of course, but that might have been cold consolation.

As for the lawyers – well, if baseball came out of the entire scandal with a damaged reputation, my profession didn’t exactly cover itself in glory. Some of the more melodramatic parts of the movie – grand jury testimony being stolen, outbursts in the courtroom – weren’t added for dramatic effect, it seems. At the eventual criminal trial (where everyone, players and gamblers both, were acquitted) the players were represented by lawyers paid by Comiskey who were more interested in letting baseball (with its new, all powerful, commissioner) deal with the matter than the courts. But my favorite bit of lawyerdom in the movie is when Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a federal judge named the first baseball commissioner, takes the job for significantly more pay than being a judge – but keeps his seat on the bench, anyway.

Where the book and movie differ most importantly is when it comes to the genesis of the fix itself. In the book it’s clear that the fix began with the players, who reached out to gamblers about the possibility of fixing the series. The film is a bit more vague. The conversation where it’s first broached by Chick Gandil and gambler Sport Sullivan starts kind of in medias res, with no real indication of who made the first pitch (so to speak). I think it lets Sayles maintain his exploitation narrative without sullying the players too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s important to consider that the Sayles movie is a narrative work of fiction, not history, and the Asinof book is now nearly six decades old. As compiled by the Society for Baseball Research, more recent evidence has emerged that cast some doubts over the story told in Eight Men Out. In particular, maybe Comiskey wasn’t the miser he’s been portrayed as being, although that doesn’t much matter in the end. The book, to a lesser extent than the film, is telling this story from the players’ perspectives and whether their complaints with Comiskey were valid in a wider context doesn’t mean they still weren’t motivated by them.

None of this makes the any less engrossing or means it can’t get at broader truths about America and its economic life. There’s truthiness to it, if not absolute truth. Just means it’s history, which is ever changing upon further evaluation.

Timing Isn’t Everything, But It’s Something

The Godfather came out in 1972, its sequel in 1974. I was born right in between, in 1973, which is to say I had no chance to experience these Coppola epics when they were fresh. In fact, it wasn’t until sometime 15 years ago or so that I actually managed to watch them. By that time I’d already consumed a good amount of mob stories, from Goodfellas to (most of) The Sopranos and many others.

It sort of makes sense, then, that I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed by the first two Godfather movies (I’ve never seen the third). They’re really good, don’t get me wrong, but by the time I saw them a lot of what made them exceptional had bled through into popular culture. The idea of morally conflicted mobsters was certainly a trope by 2005 or so. Likewise, the stress of familial obligations in the mob operation had been done and done by then. This is no fault of the original films – it’s just that by the time I experienced them they weren’t as timely as they once were.

I thought about The Godfather while I was reading Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman.

As you might guess from the cover, it’s a superhero story. Why did it make me think of The Godfather? Because it came out in 2007 and I was reading it fourteen years later.

To give some context, the first MCU installment, Iron Man, came out in 2008. That same year is when The Dark Knight, the second of Nolan’s Batman movies came out (to be fair, we’d also had a few X-men movies). In other words, this book came out just as a huge chunk of the movie and TV landscape shifted to super hero stories. By the time I got around to reading it I’d consumed most (although not all) of them. And as a result, the book very much had a “been there, seen that” feeling to it.

Invincible plays out across two related points of view. One is Fatale, a fairly new cybernetic superhero who joins The Champions, a group of superheroes who have their own dysfunctional baggage (including a failed marriage between two members). That side of the story leans into that dysfunction and highlights the personal toll that being superheroes takes on each of them (from OCD to drug use and the like). It’s more personal and intimate than, say, The Avengers in the MCU, but it’s in the same league. There’s even a corporate element that reminds me of The Boys, although it’s not so cynical.

The other point of view is that of Doctor Impossible, who, conveniently enough, breaks out of prison for the dozenth or so time just as the book starts. He embarks on another scheme to take over the world, along the way diving into his own history as well as those of the heroes who have crossed his path over the years. What we get is a narrative in which the villain is fairly sympathetic, in that he’s a put-upon smart guy who channels his frustrations into evil. Again, this is pretty common these days in super hero properties. The era of the mustache-twiddling bad guys is a thing of the past, thankfully.

None of this has anything to say about Invincible as a book. It’s pretty good and darkly funny in parts (naturally, Doctor Impossible has all the best lines), but I can’t help but thinking that it might have felt really fresh in 2007 or a few years later. Today, sadly, it comes off as a bit tired. Is there anything Grossman could have done to prevent my reaction to his book? Not at all.

Is being timely something writers should worry about? Probably not. Certainly, if you were thinking of writing a book like Invincible today, you’d have to take into account how prevalent super hero stories are these days. One more similar story probably won’t attract a lot of attention. That’s a different discussion than trying to figure out how well something might age in the future. Unless you can predict what’s going to happen in years to come – in which case, why are you writing books? – it’s just not something worth worrying about.

Sometimes I see authors wondering about whether particular references – to pop culture things or news events – will “date” their work down the road. That always seemed very presumptuous to me, since it assumes anybody will be reading your work in years (or decades) to come. This issue is more of the flip side – how do you keep you work from being swallowed by general trends? You can’t – write what moves you and let the broader market sort itself out.

You can’t fight time – you can only hope to survive it.

Weekly Watch: The Suicide Squad

Fair warning – I’ve never been much of a superhero comic book reader. I read other kinds of stories in that graphic novel format, but something about the endless nature of most superhero titles – they go on forever, double back upon themselves, have alternate versions – makes them impenetrable. Aside from a few Batman titles I read in college, thanks to my roommate, I’ve not really dug into them. Comic book movies, on the other hand, I’ve consumed quite a bit and enjoy. That’s largely due to my wife, who, shortly after we started dating, informed me I had to be up to date on the X-Men movies so we could see the new one the weekend it came out.

Which is to say that all I know of the Suicide Squad (as opposed to The Suicide Squad – the article is important, just like that university in Columbus) is what I’ve seen on screen. What I’ve seen so far isn’t that great.

The first movie (from all the way back in 2016), simply called Suicide Squad, was a mess, going down in flames financially and getting destroyed by critics. I didn’t think it was horrible, but it wasn’t that good. It did get the basic point across, though – the Suicide Squad are a collection of super villains who do special, super dangerous missions for the US government on the promise of getting their sentences cut. Makes sense as the basis for a story about a group of bad guys, right?

The Suicide Squad kind of picks up where Suicide Squad left off, but only enough to get by. There are a handful of carryover characters, but lots of new ones and a new creative team to bring it all to life. Or death, really, since there is an awful lot of blood and gore in this movie. It’s of the “so awful it’s funny” type – kind of like Sam Peckinpah as filtered through Monty Python – but it wears thin pretty fast.

Aside from the gore, there’s lots of crass humor. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – some of it works really well. There’s a discussion between Idris Elba’s Bloodsport and John Cena’s Peacemaker about a particular juvenile insult that spirals into the absurdity of it so far it’s funny. Likewise, when another character says he can only kill if he pictures the target as his mother, that becomes a callback that goes from funny, to not funny, to funny again through sheer repetition.

But there’s not enough of that to go around, particularly for a movie that’s over two hours long. There are other quibbles, too. There’s a kind of bait and switch that happens at the beginning that is apparently hilarious if you’re familiar with the Suicide Squad comics, but if you’re not doesn’t make a lot of sense. Harley Quinn, who’s the most interesting character here (the only one with her own movie to build on), seems like an afterthought, off on her own for most of the time. And while there are some stabs at character development here and there, they’re pretty weak (the motivation for Bloodsport to do all this is laughably badly done).

But where things really go wrong is when the Big Bad shows up. The Squad’s mission is to take out a Nazi-spawned research facility in a fictional South American country. Run by Peter Capaldi’s The Thinker (picture his The Thick of It character sprouting vacuum tubes from his head – at least he gets to keep the cursing!) it actually holds a deep dark secret that the US doesn’t want the world to know about. Fine – it’s not like there isn’t some basis for that in the real world.

But the Big Bad secret is . . . a giant alien starfish? That kills people and controls their bodies by slapping tiny versions of itself over its face? Maybe that works in the pages of a comic, but on the big(ish) screen, it looks ludicrous. It would be a low-level Dr. Who baddie, at best. As the existential threat in a movie it just doesn’t work.

I’d be willing to look past that (I think) if the way the movie ended made any sense for the characters involved. Remember, these are super villains – largely killers – who are so dangerous they’re expendable. Yet, when the oversized aquarium dweller toddles off to destroy this imaginary country and the boss (Viola Davis, who is probably the scariest of them all) calls them home – they all turn into big damned heroes! That’s right, a movie about super VILLAINS ends just the same way as one about super HEROES! What’s so frustrating is they could have reached the same end (a big CGI-fueled battle with lots of collateral damage) and dealt with the “aren’t we the baddies?” issue quite easily, but instead it’s just lazy writing to get to the big finale. The great promise of something like the Suicide Squad in general or The Suicide Squad specifically is that it’s a great chance to take the superhero story conventions and turn them on their heads. These characters aren’t self-sacrificing do-gooders, after all. They’re not out to uphold truth, justice, and the American way (well, the first two, at least). They’re killers, they’re criminals, they’re immoral (or at least amoral) psychopaths. So why fit them into the heroic straight jacket? Have the confidence of you convictions and make them the sleazeballs they’re supposed to be. That’d be more interesting, at least.

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.