Thoughts on Fiction

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I'm preparing to teach my USC master class for the fourth year now. I'm still in the process of expanding the scope of my syllabus.

Here's a new topic for the class that I'd been mulling for a while. It's something I've tried to articulate for a long time, since the time I was writing stories for AF. It's about the way we think of characters and events in fiction.

I've tried to convey this viewpoint in my past messages here and especially the Monican Spies interview. It's frustrated me that some viewers never seemed to get what I was trying to express.
Some even suggested I was hopelessly out of touch, and into an inaccessible, esoteric train of thought. It's odd to me, as this is really the only way I can make sense of why we care about made-up stories. (Apart from the fleeting pleasures of escapism)

The truth is, the outcome of any fictional story is unreal, unimportant, and disposable. The story is a fictional framework for you to experience emotions and realizations. Those are real, and remain with you even after the story has faded away.

Why should we care about the unreal events and characters of fictional stories? Perhaps what makes a film (or story) valuable is the altered way it makes you think rather than the particulars of its plot. A work of fiction is meaningful to you because of the real connections you make in your mind and heart during your journey to the story’s end, not the contents of the made-up story itself.
The story is the scaffolding, the outcome is the bait. You follow the journey, and in the process, your thoughts and emotions are fired up, forming novel connections and realizations. The story ends, the scaffolding fades away (it was never real), but the thoughts and emotions remain, becoming an integral part of your inner life. These are real, they have formed pathways in your brain that did not previously exist. It is the formation of these pathways that is the ultimate effect of consuming fiction. The trick is not to swallow the bait and get caught in the trap of thinking that the lives of fictional characters matter. They exist only to bring about the alterations of your consciousness. Once that purpose has been served, it’s best to let them go.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 31 December 2015 20:11 (seven years ago) link

Do you think works based on real events/people should operate the same way, at least from the audience POV (depending on how much license has been taken with portraying things accurately)?

Philip Nunez, Friday, 1 January 2016 00:47 (seven years ago) link

No, I don't. That's why I made the remarks specifically about works of fiction.
Non-fiction is not so cut-and-dry, as you say, there are many degrees of accuracy.

My class is for animation students, and everything they produce is fictional, often fantastical.

Audiences who approach fiction this way, I've been surprised to find, are becoming scarcer than I remember. Young people seem to want to be literal minded, and not be bothered with subtextual or metaphorical readings.
They want to know what year a science fiction story takes place in, the backstory of all the characters, and even want to know what happened to them after the story ended.
By focusing on this kind of arbitrary, made-up minutiae, they end up missing why the story was created in the first place.

Peter Chung, Friday, 1 January 2016 02:42 (seven years ago) link

Characters stick with you after the work of fiction ends, though. If they are well-written they stick with you, just like real people you have known stick with you. (This is especially true of novels.) But in order for this to happen you need to hold onto something concrete, memories of the novel, the characters, the situations, even passages. For your understanding to be expanded you can't really let go of the "scaffolding" of the book's contents. There's more to know about a work than just the emotional impact it had on you.

starkiller based god (Treeship), Friday, 1 January 2016 02:45 (seven years ago) link

Basically i agree that the purpose of fiction is to expand the consciousness of the reader/viewer/"receiver" in some way. (isn't this the purpose of all forms of communication?) But like any kind of listening, it's not a passive process. You need to attend to the minutiae/texture/whatever to "unlock" whatever wisdom or value the story contains. The content is embedded in the form... or even more than that, the form is sedimented content, there's no real division between the two. Maybe i am misunderstanding your argument.

starkiller based god (Treeship), Friday, 1 January 2016 03:00 (seven years ago) link

There's no denying that characters stick with you, but I consider that an unavoidable by-product of the experience (a bonus), not the goal. The reason I'm making these remarks is that too many times I find that the audience latches onto biographical details of the characters at the expense of how their actions within the story enable the mind to form meaning from the material of human (or non-human) events.

I use the example in class of Hamlet. Hamlet was a Danish prince. But being Danish or even a prince has got little to do with the meaning of the story of Hamlet. The story can be transferred to any time period or location, and it's still Hamlet.

Peter Chung, Friday, 1 January 2016 03:32 (seven years ago) link

I agree strongly that it isn't a passive process and that content should ideally be inseperable from the form. It's just that I consider the story itself to be an aspect of the form. The story is not the content of a book or film.

Peter Chung, Friday, 1 January 2016 03:38 (seven years ago) link

I should clarify my tortured language above a bit: art's function is to exercise the mind's capacity to find meaning. Meaning is not something innate in the world. It exists only because there are conscious minds alive which are eager to create it. I'm not talking about something esoteric and rare. This is the most basic, most universal trait of being human.

Art expands consciousness -- but it is not didactic.

Peter Chung, Friday, 1 January 2016 03:54 (seven years ago) link

how do you deal with student tendency towards injecting autobiographical details or subject matter even in construction of fiction?

Philip Nunez, Friday, 1 January 2016 04:37 (seven years ago) link

this seems like a helluva troll

so basically you've invented the objective correlative?

carly rae jetson (thomp), Friday, 1 January 2016 11:20 (seven years ago) link

Thanks for your response. I don't troll on message boards, but plenty of viewers used to think I was trolling the airwaves with my shows.
I'm new to teaching and the academic world. I write and direct animated films and have never been an English major.
But your input has been informative to me, which is why I wanted to post these remarks before using them in my filmmaking course.

Peter Chung, Friday, 1 January 2016 18:18 (seven years ago) link

And now I can see that I disagree with Eliot, though we're clearly responding to the same frustrations as artists.

Peter Chung, Friday, 1 January 2016 19:17 (seven years ago) link

okay, i apologise for my suspicion

i'm not sure where i see how your claim differs from eliot's claim, other than that eliot thinks hamlet suxx -- what you're saying is that the form (form here including 'plot', 'character', 'setting') of a work of art only matters in that it prompts emotions or ideas in the reader, and eliot's claim is that the job of the artist is to work out what form (including plot etc etc) will prompt the emotions or ideas the artist wants the consumer to have. it seems like the same thing from two different directions.

carly rae jetson (thomp), Saturday, 2 January 2016 03:58 (seven years ago) link

i wonder if it might be helpful to try and establish why your students think this sort of thing matters. people do think this matters, it is part of why they engage with works of art, and even if you think it is a deviant way to engage with a work of art it's probably worth trying to understand what leads people to want to know what happened to such-and-such after the story ended, or whatever. i mean, presumably they get something out of it; presumably they wouldn't want to look at things this way if they didn't.

carly rae jetson (thomp), Saturday, 2 January 2016 04:00 (seven years ago) link

this is something i've been thinking about a little myself -- i started playing some 16-bit videogames i missed at the time recently, and i was surprised to find that there are wikipedias which comprehensively chart every possible plot connection in the 25-year plus zelda and castlevania franchises, games that i thought all just went 'there's a guy with a whip ... and there's dracula ... action!' or 'there's a kid with a sword ... and there's ganondorf'

i mean, i guess i wasn't surprised--it's the internet: on some level i expected these things to exist. but i never looked at them before thinking 'but ... but why' -- why do people want to make a comprehensive timeline allowing for the divergent endings of 'ocarina of time' wherein they prove link's adventure is chronologically the last game of the series

i guess one answer is 'this is what happens if you play a whole bunch of videogames and don't watch many films or read many books, you just don't understand how narrative art works,' but that doesn't actually answer why at all

carly rae jetson (thomp), Saturday, 2 January 2016 04:04 (seven years ago) link

stephen king, in 'on writing', and i think a bunch of introductions and afterwords etc., brings up a bunch of times how bemused he is that his fans ask him 'so whatever happened to such-and-such from the stand,' as if (his phrase, more or less) they were out there writing him occasional letters to let him know how their lives were going

carly rae jetson (thomp), Saturday, 2 January 2016 04:05 (seven years ago) link

No problem, I'm glad that you're here. This is the Aeon Flux discussion board. It's good to get visitors outside the regulars.
I read the Viriconium essay and only looked at the first few results after searching "objective correlative", a term I'd not heard before. I wouldn't have known how to search for critical writing on this subject, which has been bothering me, so thanks for that.

No time now to say much, but Eliot's view seems proscriptive and a bit dictatorial about which objective signs shall properly be adequate to evoke a desired emotion. I think it's not always known by the author himself what that emotion or idea might end up being aroused while trying to write a good story. Emotions and the formation of themes are usually emergent.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 2 January 2016 05:08 (seven years ago) link

the Viriconium essay is relevant here, tho I think Harrison might've expressed similar thoughts in more detail and less pugnaciously elsewhere. it helps to answer thomp's question about "why" i guess - Harrison talks about colonization and that metaphor does connect to ideas about canonicity and continuity as far as i can see - the fanbase wants to create an authority to admit and deport characters and events from its fictional universe, it wants to control the rules. fiction where the author refuses to codify the rules is decentring, and Harrison makes a similar point - imagine the wiki that sets out a timeline for Borges' fictional universe(s) for example. Canonicity and "what if" is a kind of force that is systematically applied to some fictions but not all of them.

Noodle Vague, Saturday, 2 January 2016 07:21 (seven years ago) link

hey nv I've read that essay before but I couldn't face reading it today. I kinda have to be in a very specific mood to want to read mjh

carly rae jetson (thomp), Saturday, 2 January 2016 07:24 (seven years ago) link

i guess he's talking more about specifics of geography in that essay but i think the point applies - the pleasures of contemplating the mechanics of an imaginary world are pleasures related to codifying and categorizing - i was gonna be mean and say "related to filing" but i'm not that invested in the rights or wrongs of this because i suspect there's a counter-argument to be made about the liberating energies in fan fiction but god knows i am v distrustful of people who want their fiction to be a tidy garden

Noodle Vague, Saturday, 2 January 2016 07:46 (seven years ago) link

how do you feel about bach. also, serialism

carly rae jetson (thomp), Sunday, 3 January 2016 03:00 (seven years ago) link

i'm fine with orderly abstraction!

Noodle Vague, Sunday, 3 January 2016 09:22 (seven years ago) link

Going back to the opening post-- today's TV series are unwatchable for me because all they offer are plots delineating the events in fictional lives. I keep hearing about how good TV has gotten, but it's all the same, disposable, escapist pablum. A work of narrative film should be only as short as needed to evoke its emotions, convey its ideas or deliver its mythology, then exit the stage.

TV does just the opposite. They are all about fooling you into the trap. The episode ends, and I feel used, not inspired.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 6 January 2016 12:37 (seven years ago) link

I agree with you on that. Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and the Walking Dead are terrible. They're all about getting the audience attached to the characters so they can put them through these terrible events over the course of 6+ seasons. The only real reason people watch this stuff is because they want to be part of the cultural event, to be part of the discussion. They have underlying ideas that they're trying to convey, but nothing that merits 6 seasons padded out with insipid sensationalistic garbage. They're doing exactly the opposite of what you're saying fiction should do. I blame capitalism.

Have you seen True Detective Season 1? I thought it was better than these other shows, but still suffered from conforming to some American television conventions. The critics consensus seems to be that it's some of the best television has to offer. That's not saying much, given how trashy the other popular stuff is.

Man From the Machine, Sunday, 10 January 2016 00:08 (seven years ago) link

re: Game of Thrones and Walking Dead, that would be more an indictment on novels and comics than on TV, no?

Philip Nunez, Sunday, 10 January 2016 03:28 (seven years ago) link

I've never watched an episode of GoT, BB or WD. I'll occasionally glance at something when it seems to deal with ideas or themes similar to something I'm working on.
I've started a few shows out of curiosity- Lost, Caprica, Daredevil, Sense 8, and The Expanse, most recently. I get about 4 or 5 episodes in, and there's always this maddening awareness that:
1. the plot is being dragged out as long as possible, and 2. the storytellers are only using the imaginative, speculative premise as some exotic backdrop to what amounts to soap opera. The provocative implications of the story's premise are starved. Of course, they're giving audiences what they want, because the truth is that most viewers aren't looking to have their thoughts provoked or their minds expanded.

For someone working in TV, it's a constant battle. Occasionally, something good does manage to catch on- Black Mirror, Rick and Morty, Veep, and so I don't lose hope.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 10 January 2016 04:25 (seven years ago) link

and Twin Peaks, of course.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 10 January 2016 05:04 (seven years ago) link

Peter I wouldn't take Daredevil and Lost (haven't seen the others but have heard mediocre things about Sense 8 at least) as examples of the best TV has to offer. They're not that good. The Wire and Sopranos would be two to check out though if you haven't. Sopranos arguably suffers from the dragging out, but my sense is that they were usually trying to say new things with each episode, unlike stuff like TWD or BB or GoT where it's all about "what happens next".

I watched season 1 of BoJack Horseman (Netflix) and it really nailed it for me, to the point where I've put it tentatively in my top 2-5 ever. At first it feels like Family Guy, but it turns out to be quite dark and interesting, more depressing than funny. Have heard it compared to Rick and Morty.

J.P. McDevitt, Sunday, 10 January 2016 06:53 (seven years ago) link

Philip, I'm talking about the TV series of GoT and TWD. I haven't read GRRM's ASOIAF, though I have read 70 or so issues of TWD comic. And the Walking Dead comic is different from the TV series. The latter is an adaptation of the former, but the fact that it is in a different medium makes it an experience unique from the original. So it's a separate work that should be looked at as such, with the original being a comparison point. An adaptation isn't worse because it deviates from the original, sometimes the adaptation can surpass it's inspiration (e.g. Ghost in the Shell). But in the case of TWD, both go for that soap opera and "what happens next" style of storytelling that bores me to tears. The TV show is worse in that it also doesn't really have much creativity or technical skill involved while the comic's stark black-and-white art accommodates the tone and reflects the state of the world and its characters.

Going by what you've written here, Peter, I'm interested in what you think of fanfiction. I assume you dislike it since the whole reason that exists is because the fan writers can't let go of fictional characters that touched them in some way. It is kind of silly, forming that sort of attachment to nebulous conceptual beings that do not exist in the capacity that a human being does. I think there are some instances where it can lead to something greater, like superhero comics.

I should get back to Twin Peaks before the upcoming revival. I lost interest halfway through season 2.

Man From the Machine, Sunday, 10 January 2016 09:13 (seven years ago) link

On fanfiction-- I haven't read any, except one time I came across a fan-written script for Aeon Flux. It was both funny and sad. A bit like someone trying to do surrealism, but only a facsimile of it. Like watching an actor trying to capture a performance by copying the ticks and quirks without feeling the underlying, internalized core of emotion.

I've enjoyed fanart and have done some myself in the past, as a student. I suppose writing fanfiction is not so different, just done by fans who don't draw. I'd only do it to challenge myself and amuse myself. Over the years, I've been hired many times to re-imagine popular characters for a reboot or revival. Screenwriters do scripts of popular shows on spec to offer as samples when seeking writing work.

For Twin Peaks, I'd strongly recommend Fire Walk With Me if you haven't seen it.
I used to follow the show fanatically when it first aired. Typical of me, though, that I didn't really care about finding out who killed Laura Palmer. It was all the disorienting observational details and the oneiric theater of the absurd that kept me watching. I don't remember the characters' names. The show made me think differently - and that's the most I can ever hope for from a fictional story.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 10 January 2016 15:00 (seven years ago) link

adaptations require a certain fidelity to source material, and is no more a separate work from its sources than nonfiction or fiction inspired by actual events, so when making complaints about aspects originating from the source, shouldn't the blame be ascribed to the source?

the character design of bojack has heavy biographical resonance for hanawalt; in that sense isn't bojack also an adaptation of sorts?

Philip Nunez, Sunday, 10 January 2016 19:30 (seven years ago) link

Philip, a work of nonfiction or fiction inspired by actual events IS separate from those actual events. Because what is being expressed in such a work would be a subjective recounting, no matter how much the creator tried to be objective. Like Trevor Goodchild said, "Though the world and events do exist independent of mind, they obtain of no meaning in themselves- none that the mind is not guilty of imposing on them." No matter how accurate one may try to be, the very fact that it comes from a human mind makes it a simulacrum of reality. An event occurs in the past, and what would remain in the present are memories of those who observed/were a part of it and whatever consequences came about due to its occurrence. Memories are fallible and subject to emotion and faulty cognition, and the consequences of the event only give the end part of an equation, not the variables that came together to produce it.

Let me clarify that my complaints with TWD TV and TWD comic aren't so similar. I can confidently tell you that the events, characters, presentation, plot, etc. in TWD TV have been altered in the process of adaptation. And the network execs, apparently, give very little creative freedom to the directors and writing staff as they demand they make the show in such a way that modern TV viewers will get hooked on it. So more melodrama, angst and "what's going to happen next?" style of storytelling. This means TWD TV is worse than TWD comic, and the former is not entirely a reflection on the latter. And, like I've been saying, the experience of reading TWD comic is different from watching TWD TV. I'm sure the same applies to GoT, as one is in a visual medium and the other is literature.

Source material should be used as an inspiration, guide and comparison point and not something to be strictly adhered to. On one end of the adaptation spectrum, you have something that's as close to the original as possible. To me, this would make it a boring, pointless exercise. It doesn't try to present the viewer with new ideas that aren't already in the original. On the other end, you have something that's so far removed from the original that it's barely an adaptation. Any further and it would not be on the spectrum, it would not be an adaptation.

Take for example Ghost in the Shell. Masamune's manga is intellectually vapid and sometimes immature. Oshii's adaptation far exceeds the original as he brings his own highbrow sensibilities and philosophical interests to the film. It has just enough resemblance to the original to be called an adaptation, but it should be judged on its own merits, as a sophisticated art film (and one the greatest animated films of all time), and not how well it emulates the original. Because it doesn't.

Peter, I think I agree with you there. Fan art and fiction are not necessarily bad. I would say that fanfiction/art is really only bad when it's used for self-indulgence. Like fanfics written so that two characters from an anime or whatever have sex. A large amount of these will be poorly written and have the characters acting contradictorily from their personality, as part of the writer's indulgence. Look at the many homoerotic fiction written about the pop idol group One Direction. Or rather, don't.

Man From the Machine, Sunday, 10 January 2016 23:58 (seven years ago) link

Mftm so offtm itt

Hammer Smashed Bagels, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:08 (seven years ago) link

From what I understand, Kirkman intends to keep both the comic and the show running literally forever, so the "what's going to happen next?" stye of storytelling is inherent in this conceit. Are TV trends really to blame for this?

Philip Nunez, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:31 (seven years ago) link

Full House to blame

Hammer Smashed Bagels, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:32 (seven years ago) link

Twin Peaks had a lull in season 2 (Lynch and Frost temporarily vacated according to most reports) and picks up again at or near the very end; you just have to chug through it, and then watch the excellent movie, and then watch the revival which one of our greatest living artists is filming and has an unprecedented degree of control over for television.

J.P. McDevitt, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:54 (seven years ago) link

Modern television conventions are designed to create the most profit over the longest period of time. Not to present ideas and explore them in the amount of time truly necessary or to expand the minds of the viewers.

Kirkman has built an empire around the Walking Dead, and he'll want to continue both the TV show and comic for as long as he can because of the amount of money it brings in for him and everyone else involved.

Earlier I semi-jokingly stated that I blame capitalism for this trend. But it's true. The Simpsons is still running even in its current state because there are enough people watching it every year that it creates a steady profit for Fox.

I feel like I've kind of hijacked this thread and put enough of my ramblings here. We should stop this talk about crappy TV and focus on something worth discussing. Sorry, Peter.

Man From the Machine, Monday, 11 January 2016 02:45 (seven years ago) link

Man, your ramblings are all on topic.
TV is, no doubt, currently the main (if not only) source of fictional narrative for most of the public.
I barely watch any of it. I can't afford the mental space to be keeping up with ten different storylines each week.

I would avoid making blanket judgments, though. I began watching each of the shows I mentioned above, impressed enough by the craftsmanship of the screenwriting and filmmaking to be engaged. None were "terrible". I've seen plenty of badly written scripts. These aren't badly written. Just for me, the thing they're getting me to engage with is so artificial and impersonal. The irony is that I often find constructing fictional characters gets in the way of the author from revealing much about themselves as artists.

Peter Chung, Monday, 11 January 2016 09:28 (seven years ago) link

What bugs me is that the literal-thinking mindset is becoming so dominant. It seems that there used to be a better general acceptance of mystery and metaphor in art.

Just to mention two examples: I love old movie musicals. No one used to have a problem with characters suddenly bursting into song. A lot of my students don't know who Rodgers and Hammerstein are. They've never seen The Wizard of Oz. It's sad.
Every iconic character needs to have their origin explained with some nonsensical backstory. This kind of literal-mindedness is making our culture feebler, not more vivid. I was fine not knowing a thing about James Bond's childhood. It misses the point.

Peter Chung, Monday, 11 January 2016 10:06 (seven years ago) link

Do your students have literalization problems with modern musicals (I'm assuming they've seen Disney animated princess+song movies at the very least)?

Philip Nunez, Monday, 11 January 2016 19:31 (seven years ago) link

University animation students are mostly of two types: those who hold onto the fascination they had with the medium since childhood, and those who think they've outgrown the movies they watched as kids. At USC, the latter type are the majority. In CalArts character animation, they're almost all the former type. Actually, I think the general problem is that young viewers don't watch a lot of movies more than 20 years old.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 12 January 2016 13:20 (seven years ago) link

One more example- pertinent at the moment as Ridley Scott gets feted for the maudlin mediocrity of The Martian, a thoroughly literal-minded film, devoid of subtext. After The Counselor, Prometheus and Exodus, The Martian must have been a walk in the park for him.

Almost without exception, all my friends above the age of 40 were blown away by Prometheus, as was I. It's the kind of experience that's the exact reason why I go see movies. While of course, most of my students hated it, or were indifferent. It' disorienting to be in a classroom filled with 20 year olds who all seem so much more culturally conservative than me and my peers. And now I'm sounding old and cranky.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 13 January 2016 12:29 (seven years ago) link

Do your students have similar reactions to explicitly experimental/non-linear film? (Prometheus fills in the backstory to the space jockey in a very literal fashion, and Ridley Scott seems further committed to giving us the childhood background of the giant aliens in the proposed sequel -- it seems like most people who did not like this would have preferred the mystery and subtext of the original kept intact.)

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 13 January 2016 18:55 (seven years ago) link

I'd have thought that at a time when any movie is available to see anywhere, any time, viewers would have a broader viewing history. It turns out that the opposite is true. Before the internet and DVDs, the only way to see rarely-screened films was to drive to an art-house cinema where an important film played for one or two nights. I'd go often and find the theater packed with film buffs and students. That was your one chance, and you weren't going to miss it. There is no longer that urgency, and viewers don't seek challenging works.

When I was in film school, our seminal films were 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, Blow Up, L'Avventura, Pierrot Le Fou, Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Performance, Eraserhead, anything by Sam Fuller, Kurosawa, Bergman and Tarkovsky. I asked my students last year which films affected them the most. Some of the answers I got back were Jurassic Park, Silent Hill, The Lion King, The Prince of Egypt, and thankfully one mention of La Reine Margot. Young filmmakers just need to get exposed to a wider range of different kinds of films.

Prometheus impressed me precisely because it upended my antipathy towards backstory by providing a context which was not arbitrary or gratuitous, but instead deepened the meaning of the original Alien film, which was, after all, just a (well done) monster-on-the-loose movie.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 13 January 2016 21:37 (seven years ago) link

Jurassic Park > Prometheus

Cuombas (jim in glasgow), Wednesday, 13 January 2016 21:41 (seven years ago) link

I'd be surprised if film students paying loads of tuition weren't exposed to a wide corpus of movies at least through syllabi.
the "most affected" picks look like movies they might have seen as kids.
perhaps they did see solaris and the seventh seal, but not when they were 8?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 13 January 2016 22:31 (seven years ago) link

I should make clear, that I never argue with my students over their tastes or preferences. Neither do I try to change their opinions of movies they didn't like. I do try to point out points of merit that they might not have noticed. There are plenty of highly regarded films that I find insufferable. There is a need to be educated about the potential scope of the film medium. That's what film school is for.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 13 January 2016 23:00 (seven years ago) link

Could it simply be a disconnect between their assertion of tastes and the scope of what they've actually been exposed to?
I'm assuming you use certain movies as examples in classes -- which ones are you most surprised to find students have never seen before?

Philip Nunez, Thursday, 14 January 2016 00:42 (seven years ago) link

Hard to say, since their tastes may be restricted by their exposure to a wide scope of media. More and more of my students are Chinese nationals. My first year, I had four. This year, I'm getting ten. They have a completely different set of cultural references from the American students.

I show a lot of clips in class. Some students have never seen a Hitchcock film. I'm surprised, generally, by how little animation a lot of them have seen. Almost none of them have seen Aeon Flux- which seems odd to me, since they signed up for my class. I've found some students are surprised when I show it to them, about how unconventional it is. I have to remind them that a lot of the popular characters she may resemble (from Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Underworld, Matrix' Trinity, Alias, etc) didn't exist when I made AF.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 14 January 2016 01:54 (seven years ago) link


Are you saying it's important to "focus on how the actions of characters within a story enable the mind to form meaning from the material of human (or non-human) events"?

Do you feel we should be considerate of what's happening at a biological level when we view art?

Sam G, Tuesday, 19 January 2016 07:39 (seven years ago) link

Hi Sam,
No, the way that was worded didn't come out right. It's why I wrote a few lines later:

I should clarify my tortured language above a bit: art's function is to exercise the mind's capacity to find meaning. Meaning is not something innate in the world. It exists only because there are conscious minds alive which are eager to create it. I'm not talking about something esoteric and rare. This is the most basic, most universal trait of being human.

Sorry to keep belaboring these points, but I'm at a place in my work where I'm embarking on an interesting new venture which subverts the conventional method of narrative film. (I'll make the announcement here soon.)

The point is that: don't focus on the fictional events themselves. Focus instead on how your mind is working to find meaning in those events. You can discard the fictional events. The workings of your mind is a fact. Your mind's capacity to find meaning is what makes you human. The question of which fictional character ended up loving/ killing/ sacrificing themselves for which other fictional character is just the stimulus intended to trigger your mind's workings. The experience of art is the appreciation of becoming aware of your own mind's capacity for creativity, empathy and insight. Focusing on the fiction is enjoyable, but it's escapism.

If you remember from the Monican Spies interview- "backstory is a trap". Informing the viewer of the AF movie that the story takes place 400 years in the future, that there are X number of people alive, etc. are a distraction, because viewers will try to cling on to these made-up bits as if they mean something. They mean nothing. Such information takes away, it does not add.

But consuming fiction is not only valuable to me, it's a critical means by which society becomes more empathetic.

It only becomes a problem when readers/ viewers become obsessively hooked on getting their fix. It becomes an addiction.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 19 January 2016 13:52 (seven years ago) link

Here's the relevant portion from the Monican Spies interview from 2005, on the occasion of the live action movie coming out:

Creating Aeon was very much a process of elimination. I set myself a rigorous set of restrictions-- of things I'd disallow: not an ideologue, a patriot or a crimefighter; no one giving her orders; no family; no assumptions. I tried to eliminate anything that would allow you to predict her actions.
Aeon has no family, or ties to anyone. Any dramatic points a screenwriter can score by holding family members hostage (or killing!) reveal nothing about her as a unique individual. Too easy. It's shorthand. We assume anyone is going to feel an emotional attachment to their sibling. That tells me nothing about her.
Her worth (to us) is her responsibility and hers alone. The point is, we all define our own worth. It's the main point of the series, actually.

The outcome in any work of fiction is arbitrary. It's at the whim of the author. What is not arbitrary is the form. You cannot cheat form. Form is not a vehicle for content. It is the content. The point is in the structure, the relationship of parts, the endowment of meaning to events through context. It is not the role of the author to moralize or to pronounce judgment.

That is the deliberate aversion to provide backstory. Because backstory is a trap.
Ambiguous? A character in a film is not someone whose background we need to know in order to consider proceeding in a relationship with him/her. The process of discovery IS the relationship. Explain nothing. What matters is not the names of families, how many years in the future or past. What matters is the structure, the relationship of events, the thread which allows us to accept an unlikely outcome through the carefully delineated (and orchestrated) sequence of causal progression driven by character. You can transpose a good story on any setting, any era. (Shakespeare)

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 19 January 2016 14:09 (seven years ago) link

I'm not sure that focusing on the fiction in a story necessarily obstructs finding valuable meaning. In my experience this can add quite a lot.

Seeing The Revenant recently (semi true story with lots of added fiction) I had one of the most rewarding film experiences I think I've ever had. There are scraps of backstory that for me worked very well with the overall experience. I just found the film to be so wildly beautiful. I still feel inspired by the emotional vitality it drove into me.

But deriving meaning is a many faceted thing, dependant on the irreducible and uniquely shaped inner workings of one mind and body to the next. Do we understand each other well enough to make sprawling judgements about who is and isn't meaningfully engaged?

Sam G, Wednesday, 20 January 2016 07:44 (seven years ago) link

Escapism has its place and I certainly indulge in it. There are plenty of viewers who regard all film to exist for that purpose and need nothing further from their consumption of fiction. In a way, art has its greatest impact when the viewer isn't in the conscious state of "art appreciation".

I do render harsh judgments on certain works for their vacuousness, dishonesty, narcissism and trivializations. And I am critical of viewers' respect or reverence for such works. That's my honest answer to your question. It would be hard for me to be an effective teacher and artist if I didn't take a stand.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 20 January 2016 11:03 (seven years ago) link

which works would you point out as something not to emulate for your class? how do you deal with students who for whatever reasons, really want to emulate those works?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 20 January 2016 18:26 (seven years ago) link

I've never disputed a student's wish to make work inspired by someone or something they admire, regardless of my own opinion of it.
I present as many examples as I can of works with merit. There are a few negative examples I've shown or cited for specific reasons. Some may be because they exhibit carelessness, for example, bad editing.

In general, works which lack thematic subtext (literal-mindedness), which rely on literary rather than cinematic methods (e.g. straight voice-over narration), which rely on tired storytelling gimmicks (coincidence, prophecy, made-up solutions to made-up problems) all come under critical scrutiny.

There will always be viewers who find personal meaning in formulaic works of fiction. There exist fans of the live-action AF movie. Do I need to withhold my critical faculties to accommodate every point of view? Actually-- no.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 21 January 2016 04:46 (seven years ago) link

i mean within the context of your class -- i was assuming that students would submit their own works for evaluation as assignments, or is it not that kind of course?

Philip Nunez, Thursday, 21 January 2016 05:15 (seven years ago) link

My reply is in the context of my class. I mentioned examples of what I discourage my students from emulating: literal-minded storytelling, narrated films, contrived plots.
When a student submits a project, I evaluate it on its own terms. I don't ask or assume that it was inspired by something else they'd seen. It doesn't matter where they find their inspiration, as long as they produce compelling results.

I emphasize the importance of communicating clearly the events of a story. In my view, the question of "what happened?" is not an interesting one for a viewer. If the viewer is confused about what happened in a story, then that's bad execution on the part of the director. The plot or storyline should be unambiguous. Whereas the meaning of those events should be left to the viewer's interpretation. If the plot is ambiguous, it leaves no room for the viewer to contemplate the more interesting questions of "what does it mean?" or "who was right?"

Here's something I've cited in class: Some people regard "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" to be a challenging film because the viewer needs to figure out what happened. For me, it's a bad film because all the viewer's interpretive faculties are occupied trying to sort out what happened on a plot level. That doesn't mean the film has depth. Just that the storytelling is muddled. You figured out what happened? So what? It's a work of fiction.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 21 January 2016 07:21 (seven years ago) link

Ambiguity of meaning is desirable. Ambiguity of plot is not.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 21 January 2016 07:27 (seven years ago) link

Are you noticing students submitting more mystery template works than before? I could see movies like memento influencing film students to write more plot-puzzle stories, but I'm surprised to see that extend to animation students.

Philip Nunez, Thursday, 21 January 2016 18:47 (seven years ago) link

Peter, you mentioned that you're hard on films that are narcissistic. What films do you consider are possessing of this negative quality? To me, Inarritu's Birdman instantly came to mind.

Man From the Machine, Thursday, 21 January 2016 19:45 (seven years ago) link

My class is about visual storytelling. To tell a story clearly without narration or dialogue is not easy. I introduce the class to techniques for conveying motivation, subtext and context using physical actions and visual cues. It's not about plot-puzzles, but any plot can become a puzzle (confusing) if your command of film language is not confident and masterful. The goal is to maximize viewer engagement and to trigger the mind to discover meaning.

Narcissistic films-- I won't mention any titles in public. Just that they exist, and that self-absorption is an increasing trend.

Peter Chung, Friday, 22 January 2016 01:08 (seven years ago) link

I'd mention (since I've already cited it on another thread) that Mamoru Oshii's films also trick people into thinking they have more depth than they do by being needlessly ambiguous on plot. I honestly didn't understand the storyline in GITS the first couple of times I watched it. (I did enjoy the design, layout and animation, and I was mostly focused on that). When I made sense of the story, I realized that the film was actually poorly directed. Innocence even more so, but at that point I expected that.

Peter Chung, Friday, 22 January 2016 01:18 (seven years ago) link

"I'm not sure that focusing on the fiction in a story necessarily obstructs finding valuable meaning. In my experience this can add quite a lot."

Perhaps not in every case, but I'm both puzzled and slightly disturbed at how out-of-control it can get. It reaches a point of decadence and sucks the air from any more thoughtful discussion. I saw this today, and it made me think of this thread.

Peter Chung, Friday, 22 January 2016 04:47 (seven years ago) link

Haha. Well thats is geeky stuff, but it has heart doesn't it?

I never got very geeky with comics but I have a childhood friend who did. He can recall seemingly endless amounts about the Marvel and DC universes - and I still enjoy hearing about it from him. It's an inner child thing that I really value still being able to connect to.

I do think that newer generations seem softer in some ways and less interested in the strange and challenging than in my day. When I was at high school my friends and I were hungry for such things (And we were fortunate that there was much to be found!) But I think there was a kind of boredom back then that kept people itchy to explore. Now days things have in some ways gotten kind of insane and in others very stuck. My brother currently goes to my old high school, but he is growing up in a substantially different universe to mine with dizzying technological and pop cultural shifts amidst all these intensifying global crisis'.

In a world that can seem increasingly shitty the ever improving art of escapism is surely an unstoppable force - and I am very sympathetic that this could be viewed as disturbing. But I feel that escapist art can be a transcendent thing and have a very positive impact on human chemistry (I say this out of experience). As for the negative impact, to me this seems very problematic to judge in the case of art because it's impact is peculiar to one human life to the next at an irreducibly subtle and complex level.

Sam G, Friday, 22 January 2016 13:12 (seven years ago) link

is this really a modern cultural shift, though? a lot of this focus on world-building minutiae seems very tolkien-esque, and tolkien himself seemed engaged in some syncretic biblical fan fiction. i'm having trouble seeing how students would have the time to be able to put that level of detail in classwork though. wouldn't the time constraints enforce a narrative economy if nothing else?

Philip Nunez, Friday, 22 January 2016 19:12 (seven years ago) link

The belief in Biblical inerrancy and a literal interpretation of scripture are, from what I've read, more prevalent today than in the past. There was a greater willingness to engage in religious texts as symbolic. And even the notion of absolutely reliable historical accounts was not expected.

I won't elaborate on the kinds of assignments I use in class. I'll just say that they are very specific and I demand detailed solutions to storytelling challenges.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 23 January 2016 02:52 (seven years ago) link

even the sense in which the word 'belief' is used has moved from being primarily the faithful "I believe in you" sense to the epistemic "I believe this is the case" sense

ogmor, Saturday, 23 January 2016 14:40 (seven years ago) link

one month passes...

"Peter, you mentioned that you're hard on films that are narcissistic. What films do you consider are possessing of this negative quality?"

I came across this post today, which helpfully provides a list with synopses. I haven't seen any of these films, but 3 (maybe 4) out of the 5 are what I'd consider narcissistic based on their descriptions.


Michael is a passenger on an airplane that is landing in Cincinnati. He does not want to be there. His work as a writer requires that he be there. ... His objective is to give a lecture in Cincinnati, on the subject of improving customer service.... He is in conflict with himself and his situation because he would rather be doing something else with his life, something more meaningful.

Inside Out

The screenplay structure is episodic when the focus is on Riley...: “Riley Is Born,” “Riley’s Parents Show That They Love Her,” “Riley’s Family Moves to San Francisco,” “Riley Explores Her New House,” “Riley Has A Vivid Dream,” “Riley’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad First Day At Her New School,” and so on.
...she steals her mother’s credit card and tries to take a bus back to Minnesota.

When Marnie Was There

...concerns a twelve-year old girl that feels sorry for herself. She is trying to figure out her true identity and coming to terms with her self-worth.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 28 February 2016 20:50 (six years ago) link

eight months pass...

I watched the first 5 episodes of Westworld and it made me want to post on this thread.
Checking out the other discussion on ILX, as expected, there is a lot of discussion about the plot and characters. The "soap opera" fictional aspects.
WestWorld: ...Where nothing can possibly go worng!

I'm liking this series precisely for the fact that it is, for once, NOT driven by the "what happens next" strategy of engagement. It's actually a show that stays focused on its big ideas, themes, and a willingness to own up to its own artifice. It does a good job of being frank about the fact that its drama is all manufactured and manipulated, yet showing how the viewers of the show (us )are willing, like the "guests" in the simulation to be swept up in its fiction. It's a meta narrative about narrative. Like Blade Runner, it uses the idea of artificial people to bring virtual reality (virtual experience) into the physical world. And like any good story about virtual reality, it reminds us how much we define our own lives by self-imposed beliefs and arbitrary rules. So far, good stuff.

Peter Chung, Monday, 7 November 2016 02:21 (six years ago) link

The 6th episode, alas, faltered in a way that makes me doubtful. I may find myself bailing once again at them moment the fictional drama takes over.

The results of the election have made me feel strongly that we are living in a state of willing mass delusion.

An individual (whose name shall not be mentioned) has gone within the span of an evening, from the butt of comedians' stand-up jokes, to the most powerful man in the world. He is the same human being. The difference is only in the free act of will through which we agree to endow him with the power to command our lives. That kind of power exceeds anything from our comic book fantasies, yet it is entirely manufactured out of nothing more than mass consensus.

"The starships of the future, in other words the vehicles of the future, which will explore the high frontier of the unknown will be syntactical. The engineers of the future will be poets. This is what virtual reality holds out to us—the possibility of walking in to the constructs of the imagination. In a way culture is that." Terence McKenna on culture as virtual reality.

Peter Chung, Friday, 11 November 2016 10:12 (six years ago) link

Well, we're no longer living in the delusion that the people would never vote him in.

It seems like a lot of imaginative constructs are beginning to break down.

Sam G, Monday, 14 November 2016 12:17 (six years ago) link

"It seems like a lot of imaginative constructs are beginning to break down."

It's sobering to have to admit this.
There's been an attempt by atheist commentators to claim that ethical norms are not imaginative constructs at all, but are ontological, objective, and necessary.

Theists argue that the existence of God is the only thing that can refute moral relativism.
That's a comforting thought, and one which these atheists will argue can be better justified by appealing to naturalism.

Moral standards are a human invention. If no one chose to give them weight, I'm sorry to say, they would have no weight.
That's exactly why tyranny is dangerous. Sky Daddy is not going to set things right. Neither will the natural universe care. It's up to conscious humans, and us alone.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 15 November 2016 10:14 (six years ago) link

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 15 November 2016 10:16 (six years ago) link

one month passes...

Been listening to a lot of Jordan Peterson lately. He also argues for the existence of absolute morality, but from a different world view from the atheists.
The arguments on both sides are tortured and seem to illustrate well my favorite quote from Kafka: It is not wisdom that men seek, but rather the justification for what they happen to cherish.
Both Harris and Peterson want to live in a world where certain actions must be judged to be unconditionally evil. I share that desire, but I would not use it to make the claim they do.

The idea of absolute morality, in fact the term itself, is an error of language. Morality is not a thing. It's a convenient term invented to classify a type of judgment, which is inherently relativistic. Moral judgments can only be relative. One act can only be more or less moral in relation to an alternative act. Which act is more moral is ultimately unknowable. We can only operate, or be expected to operate, within our best ability to guess the probable outcomes. In objective, or absolute, terms, whether one action or another will yield the best consequences can only be discovered long after the act has been committed. It would require an omniscient morality calculator.

However- that doesn't mean that we shouldn't live our lives as if actions fall on one side or the other of the moral divide.
It's like the problem of free will. Experiments have shown that the conscious mind becomes aware of making a choice only after the body has already acted according to a determined course in response to conditions.
The driver of human actions is deterministic, as is the course of the universe. But the unfathomable complexity of conditions that determine your actions are beyond your capacity to grasp, so you go on living life as if you were free. Which is the only way you can live.

Morals are relative. It's an inconvenient truth. But we'd do well to live as if good and evil were absolute.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 5 January 2017 22:19 (six years ago) link

re: westworld & morality, there have been computer-run experiments where agents "evolve" tit-for-tat + forgive as an optimal strategy, so it's not such a leap to imagine that "eye for an eye" and "forgive those who trespass against us" as expressions of this game theoretic optimum, so in a sense they are universal iterations of morality. i guess in westworld the evolved morality of the robots from multiple lifetimes is "kill all humans"

Philip Nunez, Friday, 6 January 2017 00:47 (six years ago) link

I recently discovered Aeon Flux and I quickly became a fan! It is a very interesting departure from the usual movies and television that I watch, like the aforementioned Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, and Black Mirror. I was wondering about your creative process. You mentioned in the beginning that the plot and characters of a story are less important than the meaning of the story and the feelings it evokes in viewers/readers. However, I think that the world you've created and the characters in it are very interesting. Did you imagine backstories for Aeon Flux and Trevor Goodchild while creating the show? How much world building did you do for reference? Or did you make everything up as you were working?
Also, I was looking through the posts on this site and I saw you mentioned an Aeon Flux animated feature that you want to make one day. Can you tell us a little more about what that would be like? I really hope it will be made one day because I really enjoyed the show. I've even watched a few episodes more than once, which I don't usually do.

Cora, Monday, 9 January 2017 01:38 (six years ago) link

On the subject of backstories of fictional characters.
For me, it's a moot question. There is, or should be, no such thing as backstory. There is only story. If information about a character's past is not included in the story he/she appears in, it means it is not relevant. If it were relevant, it would have been included.

The interest and demand for backstory is misplaced. Imagine a piece of fiction is like a game of chess. What is relevant in the game is the particular patterns and strategies that make up the game. What country the king of one side represents is meaningless.

Thanks for your interest and kind words. To answer your question, no, I have no idea about what Aeon's and Trevor's histories are. They have roles in each story that are defined within the scope of each episode. All the information you need is on the screen. If you insist, there is a companion book, The Herodotus File, written by Mark Mars, Eric Singer, Japhet Asher and Peter Gaffney that purports to be a record of their history. I believe the whole thing is a hoax, some kind of scheme of disinformation.

Peter Chung, Monday, 9 January 2017 08:02 (six years ago) link

Eric Singer's first produced work was his script for the AF episode The Purge. More recently, he's made a name for himself as co-writer on American Hustle.
I'd like to work with him some day again on a new AF script. But he's probably out of my budget range. I suggested him as writer for the AF live action movie. MTV films said they couldn't afford him.

Peter Chung, Monday, 9 January 2017 08:09 (six years ago) link

Awesome to have a new fan here Cora!

J.P. McDevitt, Tuesday, 10 January 2017 02:53 (six years ago) link

I resisted as much as I could to identify the nations that Aeon and Trevor came from. I still feel strangely embarrassed whenever I hear the words Bregna and Monica. Embarrassed in the sense that it was a concession to conventional expectation.

When the Herodotus file was being proposed by MTV's publishing dept., the goal was to make it a reference book to provide fans with information that would help them make sense of the series. Something like those Star Trek Starfleet manuals. My stance on this approach was absolute opposition. It would have the effect of confusing the audience, not aiding appreciation, but impeding it. It's exactly the wrong mindset if you think you need to know backstory in order to appreciate a work of fiction better. Viewers get caught up trying to pick up inconsistencies, plot holes, engage in debates over canon vs. speculation. All this does is take their attention away from the meanings of the stories, which happen to be played out by these particular characters. I could have told these same stories, with the same meanings, using characters named something else in some different setting. The names and settings are the shadows, not the substance (as Aeon says in the Purge).

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 10 January 2017 23:40 (six years ago) link

I've heard of The Herodotus File but I haven't read it, for exactly what you are talking about. Any backstory on Trevor and Aeon would be confusing, redundant, or simply disenchanting, like the Aeon Flux movie. The mystery surrounding Aeon and Trevor make them infinitely more interesting. The Star Wars prequels did the same thing. Knowing that Darth Vader was not always the imposing masked figure and, worse yet, was just a whiny kid made him less interesting to me. I was just wondering before whether you created a backstory in your mind for the purpose of writing as I know a lot of writers do. George R.R. Martin, for example, planned out all of A Song of Ice and Fire from the very beginning, though he wound up changing a lot the more he wrote. He also has a lot of the history of Westeros written because it is often referenced in the novels.

I like the fact that Aeon and Trevor are always the characters in Aeon Flux. The universe of the show varies greatly from episode to episode, from urban settings to jungle, with some episodes science fiction and others with a hint of magic. While the setting and characters are not the point of the stories, they are something for viewers to hold on to in each episode.

Thanks, J.P.! Happy to have stumbled upon this message board!

Cora, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 00:37 (six years ago) link

It's true that the most gratifying result of doing Aeon Flux is that she is a character that stands out in viewers' minds, as vibrant, clever, passionate, but also very fallible. They don't necessarily know what the stories are about, but they know they like the character of Aeon. It was a revelation the moment I realized what mattered most in the minds of viewers, and that it was not initially what I was aiming for. It was when someone told me that they liked watching the shorts (this was before the half-hours) because they found Aeon's imperfections endearing.

A character should not be interesting only for what happens during the story. He/she needs to be an interesting person in their own right, someone whose experiences will be of interest no matter what the specific story happens to be. Interesting events can happen to a bland person, and those events will be turned bland. I see this happen a lot in animation, where the main character is a bland, generic stereotype, someone with no clear sense of who they are, who is simply carried by a plot that prompts them to react.

All this is in the way of saying thanks for being a fan.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 03:01 (six years ago) link

Here's where I think my creative process differs from a lot of my peers. In a studio environment, there is a kind of public filter that gets imposed through which a certain kind of idea is difficult to move.
It is self-limiting for reasons that have nothing to do with what is best for a story, but for what plays well in a pitch meeting in a conference room with studio or network executives.
In fact, the kinds of scenes that touch viewers most deeply are exactly not the kind that people want to reveal in that environment. They are private, intimate, and often hard to put into words. I strive always to let my stories go to those places.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 03:11 (six years ago) link

In a room full of co-workers and execs, everyone responds positively if you can make them laugh. That's why so many Hollywood animated movies turn every situation into a joke.
They do not like to be made to feel awkward, and especially not to feel like they are getting too much exposure into your intimate desires or musings.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 03:34 (six years ago) link

I don't have the time at the moment to give the kind of meaningful, well-written response I'd like to give, but I want you to know that you're not just typing into the void. As always, a fascinating discussion -- thanks for posting and sharing, Peter.

Matt Rebholz, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 05:22 (six years ago) link

I'll just add for now that in 1995, as a 16-year-old obsessed with Aeon Flux, I was in love with the Herodotus File. At the time, I was hung up on assembling the "canonical" details of Aeon's world, and so was missing the point, even as the "mystery" (for lack of a better word) of the art in front of me attracted me. There was something there, but I couldn't quite put a finger on it. Of course, it's exactly what Peter has always taken pains to describe on this board.

To this day, I love exploring the details of fictional worlds, and I love obsessing over canon. I think there is value in this, but like Peter says, I think this might be entirely separate from the art aspect. Perhaps we can call this "play" of some kind.

Matt Rebholz, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 05:27 (six years ago) link

According to this, the first known use of the term, as one word, was 1984. Which seems right, because I never remember anyone mentioning the word or caring about the concept the whole time I was in school or growing up.
A good indicator of the trend among contemporary audiences towards the literal readings of texts.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 06:21 (six years ago) link

Matt, I'm glad you're interested in these posts. I never bothered with starting a blog.
This place has become a bit like a creative journal for me, so it's largely my chance to put down my musings whether anyone replies or not.

I happen to be deep into the writing process of a big new project, so these issues are very much on my mind. I'll make the announcement soon.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 06:35 (six years ago) link

Thank you for answering my questions, Peter. I assume that the story you told about the studio execs laughing also applies to live action movies and that's why they are all so formulaic. I wish movies would take more risks with plot and characters. I have faith this will happen one day since the recent movies that break the mold are so successful, like Deadpool. The studio kept trying to shut down production on Deadpool and repeatedly slashed the budget. In the end, though, Deadpool grossed more than all the X-Men movies, Batman v. Superman, and a lot of Marvel films. Hopefully this will someday prompt change in the industry!

I look forward to your announcement and any future work on Aeon Flux.

Cora, Wednesday, 11 January 2017 22:44 (six years ago) link

Related to the "all must be revealed and explained and we must learn everyone's backstory" mindset... Forgive me if I've said this here before, but think about all of the works where a large part of the appeal is some long-running mystery (Lost, Twin Peaks, many video games where the main character is an amnesiac, etc.). I am literally unaware of ANY case where the mystery being revealed was a good thing that improved the work. It is always, in my experience, a disappointment when doors are closed and threads are tied up.*

I would put Aeon Flux in a similar category, where as a teen I really wanted "answers" and "meaning" explained to me, not realizing that the lack thereof was part of what drew me in.

*This does not necessarily include traditional Agatha Christie type mystery stories.

J.P. McDevitt, Thursday, 12 January 2017 04:27 (six years ago) link

I would not consider Lost a good example. The mystery was never meant to be solved because the creators and the network wanted the show to go on indefinitely because it was so popular. They never had an ending planned and just threw more weird plot points in every season because they were making good money. A show with a mystery plotted out beginning to end beforehand can be very good if well-written. Lost was not one of those shows. I haven't seen Twin Peaks, though.

Cora, Thursday, 12 January 2017 04:56 (six years ago) link

A good example would be the novel, the Thirteenth Tale, where little clues are planted throughout the book from the beginning. When the mystery is revealed (organically), you look back and realize how it was alluded to. This is probably my favorite book and I highly recommend it.

Cora, Thursday, 12 January 2017 05:07 (six years ago) link

I should clarify that the way the Herodotus File ended up taking shape is NOT the thing that was initially proposed by the publisher. That would have been a dry, encyclopedia-like source book. My argument prevailed, with Eric Singer siding with me, that the book should be a free-wheeling, highly suspicious dossier full of unreliable information (disinformation) that captures the vibe and spirit of the series. The collection of accounts contained in the book is not ultimately useful as exposition (backstory). It's the mind space of the show in book form.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 12 January 2017 12:41 (six years ago) link

two months pass...

"The driver of human actions is deterministic, as is the course of the universe. But the unfathomable complexity of conditions that determine your actions are beyond your capacity to grasp, so you go on living life as if you were free. Which is the only way you can live."

Relevant to this (and to your original post, re: why we care about made-up stories):

Blair Gilbreath, Saturday, 18 March 2017 08:08 (five years ago) link

Thanks for the article. As it happens, just yesterday, I wrote down the following:

Evolution has enabled a prey animal to experience fear and the flight response as a way of avoiding harm. But it is in acquiring that very power that it has increased its potential for suffering. A more primitive life form, less evolved, is more easily killed and consumed by a predator. But its lack of consciousness means that it suffers less. Compare a rabbit’s experience of being eaten to a clam’s.
A human who is about to be killed not only suffers the physical pain of bodily injury, but perhaps worse, the psychological and emotional distress of knowing all the future life that he will be deprived of. And the nightmare of finding himself living in an uncaring world. It is better to be killed suddenly, without foreknowledge, before knowing what is happening. The anticipation of death can be long and torturous in a way that may surpass the actual act of dying.

A condemned prisoner is held in solitude with no means of contact with the world. He is told that there has been some kind of procedural irregularity or an intercession and that as soon as the arrangements are made, he will be set free. The prisoner is excited by the prospect and counts the hours for his moment of release. More good news is delivered. He has come into an inheritance and a beautiful young female admirer has fallen in love with him based on his story in the news. Finally, the day arrives. The guards come to his cell and let him out. He is walking towards the final gate, beyond which he can see his smiling family, the woman who loves him, new clothes, everything he’d hoped for. His face is beaming with joy. Tears stream down his cheeks. At the moment the gate is opened before him, he is shot from behind in the head, bringing instant death. It happens clean and quick, with no moment to experience pain. His last days were free of the kind of torment he would have endured had the truth been told. Is it morally wrong to allow the man to live in delusion if it alleviates suffering?

Peter Chung, Saturday, 18 March 2017 18:35 (five years ago) link

Well, the first thing I'd want to know about is the suffering in the minds of the people tasked with perpetuating the illusion.

Blair Gilbreath, Saturday, 18 March 2017 23:32 (five years ago) link

I was just watching the 1995 Ghost in the Shell movie again. It's a beautiful looking film, and I truly wish that I could join its admirers.
But there are many lapses of storytelling; it seemed they came about every five minutes. I'll be specific here for a moment.

Here's an important exchange that occurs at about 2/3 in: (from a transcript I found online)

"Uh, the Doctor is referring to the original pattern of the ghost-line that's now in the body. He's simply speaking in generic terms. The sex of the perpetrator isn't known and remains undetermined. Allow me to introduce you. This is the handiwork of the Puppet Master, infamous as the most extraordinary hacker in the history of cyber crime.


Your people at Section 9 came across his work too in that ghost-hacking incident involving the Foreign Minister’s interpreter. Section 6 has been following the trail of the Puppet Master for some time now. This case was given our utmost attention. We put together a project team centered around Dr. Willis. They were assigned to analyze every aspect in detail of our criminal. This gave us a fix on his behavioral and code patterns. Ultimately, this enabled us to devise a strategy with which we lured his program into a designated body.

You caused the Puppet Master to dive into a cyborg, then meanwhile murdered his real body?

Yes, that sums it up. He's originally from America. So the U.S. Cooperated with us in capturing him. That's why we'd like to take him back ourselves. You have no objections to this, I hope.

Hmm? Just another unidentified corpse.

You will not find a corpse, because I have never possessed a body.

Why are his sensors on? What the hell is this?

All external controls are turned off. The body's using its own power source.

I entered this body because I was unable to overcome Section 6's reactive barriers. However, what you are now witnessing is an act of my own free will. As a sentient life-form, I hereby demand political asylum."

The above information is delivered in the most matter-or-fact, literal, unambiguous way.
This part is particularly annoying:

"... Ultimately, this enabled us to devise a strategy with which we lured his program into a designated body.

You caused the Puppet Master to dive into a cyborg, then meanwhile murdered his real body?

Yes, that sums it up. "

Well, that sounds like it would have made for a great scene, but instead of showing us any of this, we get a static conversation of people talking about a fascinating event that happened off screen.
A good director could have done something remarkable with material like this.

Soon after, we get another static scene of a guy talking about, again, what sounds like a twist in the plot ripe with intrigue:

"Hey, Chief.

Ishikawa? What is it?

I've been divin' around in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs net. I think I found some juicy morsels for ya.

I'll switch to an encrypted channel.

Okay, now? Well, here's the scoop on that guy who showed up with Nakamura. He's an American: Dr. Willis, Head of Strategic Research at Neutron Company. A top researcher in the field of artificial intelligence. He happened to head up a project for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And who do you think was the main programmer on his team?

Get to the point.

Mr. Mizuho Daita. Remember him? He's the guy Section 6 tried like hell to stop from defecting, so the Major dropped in and took care of the diplomat who'd been talking to him. This is our man.

Go on.

There's something that doesn't figure though. What's bugging me is that this project began one year before the Puppet Master ever appeared on the scene.

A year before? But wasn't it supposed to be set up to catch him?

Hmph. Well, try this one on. Maybe the men who broke in to take the Puppet Master weren't actually out to catch him? Maybe in actuality, they were trying to get him back. Think about it. It was the MOFA that wanted an excuse to deport Malles when that ghost-hacking incident happened with the Minister's interpreter. Maybe we've been taken for a ride. What if this Puppet Master is really some sort of tool the MOFA uses to get their way with things, and somehow, they lost control of it? They'd be screwed if they couldn't get it back. That would explain why they went to such lengths to snatch the body from Section 9. If the Puppet Master revealed this to the world, there'd be one hell of an international stink. Then it wouldn't be a simple case of rounding up the usual suspects. Some official heads would roll.

Any details on that project?

Naw. They've blocked all access. About the only thing I can tell you is the file name: Project 2501.

Keep at it. Don't let them know you're looking."

Up until this point, the viewer had little inkling that any of this might have been relevant to anything going on. We hear names, relationships, and events from out of the blue, we are TOLD they are significant by a guy just doing his professional duty. This exchange is not character-driven, it has no dramatic subtext, it is just plain exposition that we are to accept at face value.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 22 March 2017 00:03 (five years ago) link

To make sense of these scenes, the viewer has to listen closely and try to make sense of these details, such as names and which characters they are referring to.
Some people might therefore claim that the film requires paying close attention and that you have to use your head to follow the story.
The demands being placed on the viewer are merely a result of the director's inability (or lack of interest) in conveying the information in a way that is integrated into the drama.

In fact, to get the viewer to understand events and their meaning through context and not through exposition requires true directorial skill. When a twist happens, its impact should be felt intuitively, not explained.
That is the entire point of directing.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 22 March 2017 01:50 (five years ago) link

two weeks pass...

The new GITS film is bad, just in case you were wondering. I was steered wrong about it on another forum.

Peter the type of storytelling you point out is very common in a lot of video games, especially what gamers refer to as JRPGs (Japanese RPGs) such as Final Fantasy. I think gamers have moved on from this to SOME extent, but a sizable portion of them still believe that those long awful info dumps somehow mean that you're getting an intelligent, well-told story.

I have a question about "meaning" in Aeon that I'll ask in the "aeon flux kicks butt" thread.

J.P. McDevitt, Tuesday, 11 April 2017 05:28 (five years ago) link

I haven't seen the new GITS movie. The clips I've seen remind me of nothing so much as the Kusama AF movie, and make me wonder if anyone in Hollywood (Paramount in this case) ever learns anything.
I watched portions of the Oshii film recently. I get the sense that Oshii is savvy enough to know that the fictional plot of his movie is expendable. That is why he doesn't trouble himself with the hassles of dramaturgy.
He undermines his own intent however, in the same way I'd commented above. The viewer's mind is too distracted by the problem of sorting out the obscure plot that it doesn't get the space to consider any more weighty meanings.
A lot of Hollywood science fiction does this deliberately to draw attention away from any philosophical implications that might be in danger of sprouting up.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 11 April 2017 09:28 (five years ago) link

In the interests of being complete, here is the other famous M. John Harrison weigh-in on this subject:

TS Hugo Largo vs. Al Factotum (James Redd and the Blecchs), Tuesday, 11 April 2017 11:52 (five years ago) link

Literary prose as a venue for imaginative narrative is archaic and is especially not suited for world building.
World building works much better on film, where it doesn't require the viewer's full attention while the story stops in its tracks to digress into description.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 13 April 2017 00:26 (five years ago) link

I know what you mean, but don't you think literary description can itself be incredibly satisfying - and create a richness to the story - if written well? Not so much stopping the story in its tracks as providing a sort of caesura in which the reader gains something almost like super-powers, able to see, smell, hear things they'd never be able to in their real lives?

There's a clutch of mystical literature that I feel you might like Peter, full of thrilling description. The Seven Who Fled, by Frederic Prokosch, shot through with fantastically detailed descriptions of lands he'd never visited. Salammbô by Flaubert..

illegal economic migration (Tracer Hand), Thursday, 13 April 2017 08:35 (five years ago) link

I would argue from the opposite angle, that text can evoke worlds with hand-waving efficiency, e.g. "Snow White slaughtered the seven dwarves with seven singing swords soldered by Samsung" is essentially describing an action, but also tells you:
-Fantasy setting
-Morally ambiguous universe
-Multinational conglomerates co-exist with magic
From this the reader can triangulate the world already.

Philip Nunez, Thursday, 13 April 2017 15:03 (five years ago) link

Yes totally!

illegal economic migration (Tracer Hand), Thursday, 13 April 2017 15:22 (five years ago) link

The hand-waving efficiency part is undeniable. It's why word language is the default instrument for authors/creators.
The dependence on words is a historical happenstance. We're taught from school to rely on them, but words have no inherent meaning in themselves. They are a convention.
As a visual artist, my own default is not words, but images.

Peter Chung, Friday, 14 April 2017 00:55 (five years ago) link

I listened to a remarkable conversation on the radio with the great French comics illustrator François Boucq. He says that the task of an illustrator is to translate the abstraction of words into the concrete form of images. To allow the theoretical to become the real.

Peter Chung, Friday, 14 April 2017 01:44 (five years ago) link

Philip, I agree with the point you are making.
I have gotten into a habit of snapping back at arguments that presume the primacy of the written word.
That was not your statement, however, so my reply was off point.

Peter Chung, Friday, 14 April 2017 07:42 (five years ago) link

Haven't read much of the thread yet, but agree 100% with what was said in the initial posts. As to the question of whether one should care what happens after the ending, I don't even know if we should care about the ending itself that much. The ending both as stopping point in time and how it reflects on the prior story is arbitrary. The ending shouldn't always be viewed as a confirmation of all that went before, the story shouldn't be thought of as a proof leading up to the ending. Does the Simon Oakland speech at the end of Psycho really explain everything that occurred? Are those tales framed as "only a kooky fever dream," such as The Wizard of Oz, Jacob's Ladder, really only that? Does the ending of Red River, in which the protagonists are told they are only behaving the way they do because they love each other explain away all the prior conflict?

TS Hugo Largo vs. Al Factotum (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 14 April 2017 13:50 (five years ago) link

As for worldbuilding, I'll refer you to the time when I was a nipper and a friend of mine loaned me a book containing the complete blueprints of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which made me unable to watch Star Trek (TOS, of course) for many years.

TS Hugo Largo vs. Al Factotum (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 14 April 2017 13:53 (five years ago) link

Hey, that's exactly what I was saying!

Thoughts on Fiction

Peter Chung, Friday, 14 April 2017 17:49 (five years ago) link

Ha, yes, I see. Now I can go back and read the thread properly.

TS Hugo Largo vs. Al Factotum (James Redd and the Blecchs), Friday, 14 April 2017 19:14 (five years ago) link

Even more than the ending of Psycho, I'd cite the forced ending of Hitchcock's Suspicion. Hitch was forced to tack on a happy ending by the studio, but since it contradicts everything that happened earlier, the best conclusion to draw is that the spoken explanation is a devious lie. Viewers are in such a habit of relying on the spoken word that somehow they don't consider that someone capable of killing might also be capable of lying.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 15 April 2017 01:14 (five years ago) link

Yes. In fact I had thought about mentioning Suspicion as well when this thread was first revived, then overlooked it when I finally got around to typing.

TS Hugo Largo vs. Al Factotum (James Redd and the Blecchs), Saturday, 15 April 2017 01:18 (five years ago) link

"There's a clutch of mystical literature that I feel you might like Peter, full of thrilling description. The Seven Who Fled, by Frederic Prokosch, shot through with fantastically detailed descriptions of lands he'd never visited. Salammbô by Flaubert.."

I found a copy of Salammbo.

I'd read Flaubert's La Legende de St. Julien L'Hospitalier in middle school (French lycée in Tunis), and enjoyed it.
What I mean when I call literary prose an archaic medium for world building, it's because I find myself picturing the imagery residing in the author's mind as he chooses the words that best define a sensory experience. The sensory experience is being conveyed through a cumbersome code, not unlike morse code or sign language. We can admire the author's skill in the use of language to achieve this. But I'm always aware of the author editorializing and commenting on the thing whereas I prefer to simply behold the subject itself. A writer's voice cannot help but be a filter.

I've cited Robbe-Grillet's Jalousie as one of my favorite books, which I read as a student. I mention it because Jalousie is a book consisting of nothing but description. But what astonishes about Jalousie is that all the description is devoid of any emotional language, or even of any poetry or metaphor. It is entirely, obsessively, done without a hint of feeling, and reads like a technical account of physical phenomena. And precisely because of the author's suppression of emotion, reading it becomes an intensely emotional experience for the reader.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 15 April 2017 02:29 (five years ago) link

Hello Peter,
I'm a new member to the forum, but an old fan of AF.
A little off of the current topic, but related to prior comments: what are your thoughts on young people showing literal-minded tendencies?
I am not in animation, nor do I have a large repertoire of animation/film references, but when I can find any form of media that presents something abstract, esoteric, and meaningful, I cling to it wholeheartedly (not the scaffolding, of course, but the messages). AF has obviously supplied these things for me, and further brought me here, and now your words have me wondering what it is you make of a society which seems to be leaning more towards this sort of literal-mindedness in what I would argue to be most aspects of life? Do you have any theories as to why this shift is occurring? I live in a rural area, which tends to be devoid of people with the proper frame of mind which would allow for the appreciation of meaningful and strange media, and so I'm interested in what your personal thoughts on the subject are.

pynchon, Saturday, 15 April 2017 17:33 (five years ago) link

Welcome, Pynchon.
There's a tendency to call philosophical discourse "esoteric". When I use the word, it's to voice my disagreement with convention. The more an artist or a creative work addresses what is universal, vital and primary, the more it is deemed "hard", "inaccessible" and "esoteric". While the more something is frivolous, escapist or refers to a narrow cultural current, the more it is considered understandable or relevant. It should be exactly the other way around. Lost Highway and Men in Black both came out in 1997. Guess which one was being hailed as the must-see?

As for your question, it's something I've thought about a lot lately. The rise of religious fundamentalism is a symptom of it. I doubt that it's a cause, but I think the same trends apply. Biblical literalism became a necessary stance in light of a more rigorous epistemology. It's ironic that a more advanced understanding of rational argument is what leads to a stricter insistence on the inerrancy of a nonsensical scripture. When the rules of logic were less understood, the idea of textual inconsistency was less of a problem. So maybe a higher level of education is to blame.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 15 April 2017 20:28 (five years ago) link

There can be such a thing as too much school. What I notice in the discussions of fan culture is a kind of smarty pants syndrome, where each participant shows off the breadth of their knowledge of a particular fictional world. I can never remember the names of the planets (moon?) in Alien and Prometheus, even though I love them both and watch them regularly.
A site I visit to keep up with news from pop culture is IO9. The comments section there is both alarming and depressing.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 15 April 2017 20:41 (five years ago) link

First discussion topic in the comments:

Would it have been that hard for the Pratt character to find some technicians or engineers in hibernation who’d be able to fix his cryo-chamber? Then they all go back to sleep, problem solved. The whole premise is really stupid.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 27 April 2017 11:18 (five years ago) link

"Would it have been that hard for the Pratt character to find some technicians or engineers in hibernation who’d be able to fix his cryo-chamber? Then they all go back to sleep, problem solved. The whole premise is really stupid."

I forgot to add the q

Peter Chung, Friday, 28 April 2017 14:15 (five years ago) link

This blog post sees the trend towards literalism to extend from religion and politics to pop culture. I hadn't thought of the political implications, but we live in highly ideological times.
Naked facts and objective, natural reality in all its rawness are discounted in favor of the primacy of the written word.

Peter Chung, Monday, 8 May 2017 06:27 (five years ago) link

The New Republic article makes me think that there may be a correlation between textual literalism and conservatism, both cultural and political.
Individuals with a preference (or need) for canonicity are expressing their desire for an authoritarian rule of law.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 10 May 2017 06:50 (five years ago) link

one month passes...

I had an idea of what your answer would be, and I can agree with you for the most part. Just as your animated stories send me searching for a personal meaning or an underlying message, so to does the world's current, apparent state send me searching for an understanding as to why literalism has taken over. I don't know if education is wholly to blame. Memorization of facts is okay, but learning the tools by which we apply them is of greater importance. Facts stop our searching, while processes lead us onward.

Biblical literalism sprouts its ugly head in response to its opposition: scientific and logically calculated interpretations of reality. The "facts" of the Bible have been taught to the believers, but not the processes by which we are to scrutinize those "facts." Those who believe in the nonsensical stories of the Bible do not possess the proper logical tools to understand what it is they're arguing for, and furthermore cannot formulate a proper argument to combat opposing theories. Evolution, for example, is seen as a threat to Biblical belief, and so it is rejected on the grounds of 'Biblical inerrancy' simply because they cannot come up with any other justification other than this ex nihilo attempt.

But I feel even more aspects of our culture hinge upon this literalistic train of thought. Even science itself can fall into dogmatic traps. Consumer culture has us believing that some things are in and some are out and that we must follow suit in order to be valued. The hive mind has us believing that we must fit in to achieve purpose or happiness.
I guess what I'm saying is, there seems to be this infectious idea going around that there's a singular right and wrong way to act, believe, think, and exist. As a story-teller, I feel you must share in my contempt for this narrow and sad way of perceiving this awesome, multi-faceted world in which we live. What a disservice we give and disdain we show for such a wonderful universe.

pynchon, Saturday, 17 June 2017 03:50 (five years ago) link

Good article by Film Crit Hulk on Ridley Scott, spends a good amount of time on The Counselor and Prometheus (two films Peter has spoken highly of recently) and the newest Alien movie:

J.P. McDevitt, Tuesday, 20 June 2017 15:38 (five years ago) link

one month passes...

Valerian in 3D is highly recommended.
It was refreshing to see a narrative that stuck to focusing on actions and the consequences while leaving a lot of exposition out.

There's a big war that sets up the story, but no details are given as to why they are fighting, and they are not needed.
Most of the time, there is no dialogue explaining strange events, but we understand what is happening purely through context.

It appears that Luc Besson returned to the mindset that inspired his first film, Le Dernier Combat, which had zero dialogue.
Pure cinematic storytelling.

Peter Chung, Monday, 24 July 2017 13:56 (five years ago) link

Alien Covenant, on the other hand, was a crushing disappointment after the sublime Prometheus. It appears that Mr. Scott succumbed to the negativity and gave us a film that undid everything he'd so carefully set up.

Peter Chung, Monday, 24 July 2017 14:29 (five years ago) link

Given your own experience, how much do you ascribe to the director vs the writers in the case of movies like Covenant, Prometheus, etc...? (Prometheus to me seemed very much of a piece with LOST which the writer was also involved with.)

Philip Nunez, Tuesday, 25 July 2017 05:25 (five years ago) link

Scott did not want to make another monster slasher movie, which was what the original Spaihts draft resembled.
A director with a vision will work closely with a writer to shape the story along the thematic lines that drive him to want to make the film.

I remember when Blade Runner first came out, it was received badly. But Scott knew what he was doing. The world caught up eventually. Too bad that today, the pace and volume of audience backlash has become insurmountable.
I came out of my first viewing of Prometheus in a state of elation. A world of discovery and adventure lay ahead for Shaw and for the public.
Alien Covenant is a despicable film and a betrayal- most sadly because of Scott's own doing.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 25 July 2017 06:15 (five years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Rereading the thread, I have another thought to add to the comment regarding the appreciation for literary world building:
"I would argue from the opposite angle, that text can evoke worlds with hand-waving efficiency..."

This is fine if "efficiency" is what matters to you in the consumption of art.
But why would I prefer to read a writer's description of a physically dense, visually rich world, if the choice exists to have the sensory experience first hand?
The same applies to the interactions between characters. Dialogue is speech. It exists because it is SPOKEN.
Reading it on a page is a step removed, and to say you prefer to see the words printed rather than hear them with your ears - that is like saying you would prefer to read Beethoven's 6th symphony as sheet music.

This is maybe the reason why the cinematic form, either in movies or TV has become the preferred medium for audiences to get their fix of narrative fiction.
People don't read novels anymore-- I confess that I don't. There have been enough times when I've either finished a novel or gave up on one and been left feeling like it was a waste of time.
Many of my formative experiences as a young artist have been through literature. But maybe that is destined to be the future role of literary fiction in the lives on new generations.
Reading literature will be like reading textbooks on science and math. You do it in your student years, but once the principles have been absorbed, one rarely goes back, as the effort yields diminishing returns.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 9 August 2017 18:37 (five years ago) link

"There have been enough times when I've either finished a novel or gave up on one and been left feeling like it was a waste of time."

Of course, a good novel does not make me feel this way, but the broader point is that the literary form itself is a reductive and linear experience that makes use of such a narrow range of your body's capacity.
I have to shut off my ears and minimize my eyes for the sole function of recognizing black symbols on a page. As a voracious "retinal fiend", my eyes can only remain starved for so long. In other words, for the duration of time required to read a novel, my poor eyes are shackled.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 9 August 2017 19:25 (five years ago) link

How much do textual descriptions play a part in your production process? (The recent Mad Max movie was apparently conceived of purely in storyboards, rather than script form.)
Has any recent tool development allowed you to scale back text in favor of generating animatics directly?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 9 August 2017 20:59 (five years ago) link

Textual descriptions are absolutely central to my production process. Written language is the most efficient way to give myself clarity and to stay focused. The efficiency of language make it useful as a production tool. I also enjoy using language to deconstruct and evaluate a project after the fact- as you can see by my postings here.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 10 August 2017 06:44 (five years ago) link

Thanatophobia Script

As you can see from this script, I go into great detail describing scenes that will ultimately play non verbally on screen.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 10 August 2017 06:50 (five years ago) link

three months pass...

In the interests of being complete, here is the other famous M. John Harrison weigh-in on this subject:

TS Hugo Largo,
Belated thanks for the link to M. John Harrison. I read it at the time you posted it, but just looked at it again, and I completely agree with his stance.
It seems impossible that any writer working in genre fiction would not, if they are honest, reach the same conclusion.
I haven't read his books, but I shall seek them out.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 28 November 2017 21:10 (five years ago) link

Personally, I think the book is it's own medium. It's an object. You engage with a book in the manner that one does -- opening it, etc. There are many, many great "experimental" writers that engage with the medium in a way that is specific to the medium and no other, and that continue to make advancements in said engagements.

The divisions in publishing between what is a novel or poetry or anything else are most often grafted onto it for the purposes of marketing. If someone asks me what I do, I usually just say that I" work with text". And much of what I read or have published with my collective is similarly meant to reflect this. (

Unfortunately, a lot of what winds up being published these days is written with an eye toward transposition into other mediums -- films, shows, podcasts -- and this isn't literature.

Here's a really great interview with a publisher/architect that I think reflects some of the more forward-thinking movements in literature and publishing in general:

Derdekeas, Monday, 4 December 2017 02:38 (five years ago) link

*its own medium

Derdekeas, Monday, 4 December 2017 02:39 (five years ago) link

four weeks pass...

I often listen to podcasts or lectures while drawing. This discussion at one point becomes a debate on (as usual with Harris) how to determine an adequate basis for morality.
It's an aggravating exchange when Shapiro persists in trying to bolster his theistic world view that morality can only be acquired through religion. Harris, who himself holds onto a contorted claim for absolute morality, tries to argue on the same shaky ground that "morality" is a thing. Morality is a convenient word for a class of judgments.

The argument here is backwards. Why presume that this thing "morality" exists from the outset? The idea of morality arises out of the fact that human actions must follow only one actual course out of a multitude of potential paths. When making a choice to do one thing versus another, one judges the course that will lead to the desired outcome. Depending on whether one chooses the path leading to benefit or to suffering, that choice is later labeled with the words "moral" or "not moral". Over time, humans become more confident in predicting which choices will be more beneficial than harmful, and they are able to judge an action as moral based on such projections- before observing the actual outcome. The ability to make this judgment is a useful social tool, and we call this tool "morality". But that is what morality is, a tool. Imperfect, but convenient. It is not some cosmic force of nature.

(You could call it a "fiction", so I'm posting these thoughts here.)

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 2 January 2018 13:30 (five years ago) link

The argument against subjective morality (a redundancy) is that it reduces moral standards to opinions, or mere personal preference. This is a game. The truth is that, even those who ground their moral standards on some objective foundation (reason, in the case of Sam Harris) are actually just dressing up their personal preference in a more elaborate guise.

Peter Chung, Friday, 5 January 2018 21:20 (five years ago) link

Do you consider language itself a fiction, and thus incapable of describing or alluding to an objective foundation?

Philip Nunez, Friday, 5 January 2018 22:07 (five years ago) link

Good question. Yes, language is a fiction. But no, unlike morality, language IS capable of describing an objective foundation.

There is an important difference between language and morality Morals describe values, not facts. They measure a subjective quantity-- the assessment of what promotes human well-being (I will use Harris' wording), which by its nature cannot exist apart from living consciousness. Values, unlike things, do not exist "out there" in the external world.

There is a difference between objective morality and absolute morality, but both are ideals that cannot exist.
Absolute morality is self contradicting. Even theologians will concede this.
Theists will fall back on the notion of "objective morality". I sympathize totally with the impulse being expressed in the debate by Ben Shapiro. One wants to believe that certain actions are good or evil without regard to how anyone thinks about them. I used to espouse that belief myself. But I cannot see how it doesn't just boil down to someone expressing his personal preference. while pretending it is otherwise.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 6 January 2018 08:18 (five years ago) link

To go back to what prompted the post above, while listening to the debate, I realized that I disagreed with both sides (Harris and Shapiro).
But in considering both flawed arguments, a new insight occurred to me, which is that the origin of morality in human affairs must have been prompted by the fact that the course of one's life "collapses" into a singular path at some point. One option is taken and others fall away. Moral standards may have arisen as a tool for aiding in deciding which path to pursue. Whereas the conventional view is that its main importance is in the administration of justice.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 6 January 2018 08:30 (five years ago) link

I wrote " Harris, who himself holds onto a contorted claim for absolute morality,". To be accurate, I should have said "objective", not "absolute".
The difference was less clear to me when I wrote that.
This debate has been distracting me from my work, but I realize that my thinking on this subject has become clearer just in the last few days.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 6 January 2018 08:59 (five years ago) link

"One wants to believe that certain actions are good or evil without regard to how anyone thinks about them."

Isn't the main angst of the modern world the opposite, that there are increasingly mathematical applications of moral calculus (like self-driving trucks that deliberately kill some pedestrians to save others) that go against our pre-modern intuitions?

Philip Nunez, Saturday, 6 January 2018 19:08 (five years ago) link

You may be right, with regard to a younger generation.
The post modern world is moving towards disallowing universal cultural standards, including universal standards of morality.
While I think that objective morality is not possible, that doesn't mean we must do away with all notions of objective truth.
One is values, the other is facts.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 7 January 2018 05:43 (five years ago) link

Sam Harris sees himself as a guardian of Enlightenment-age values; individualism, rationalism, positivism. My suspicion is that inviting guests who espouse a pre-modern worldview to debate him gives him a framework he's more comfortable with than that of his postmodern critics, whose arguments I don't think he understands very well. Whereas he has a ready-made vocabulary for debating someone like Ben Shapiro.

I'm not convinced that a younger generation is less universal in their morality; if anything, there seems to be a shift towards more universalism. For me, my biggest problem with Harris isn't his insistence on universal cultural standards but the double standards he carries. He's a humanist, but some humans are more human than others, e.g., the contempt he has for Arabs and Muslims. He fails to live up to his own espoused ideals. With regard to certain groups of people, he'd rather fill the room with non-members so he can debate their humanity at a comfortable distance.

Blair Gilbreath, Sunday, 7 January 2018 22:20 (five years ago) link

At the same time, one of the criticisms I have of Harris' writing -- and it reflects a trend within the atheist movement -- is the romanticized gloss he puts on cultural Buddhism and the practice of meditation. Suddenly, New Atheists are not skeptics when it comes to the supposed benefits of meditation, and I suspect that ties into their political bias towards (in reality, often repressive) Buddhist countries.

Buddhist Meditation, Pseudoscience, and Sam Harris

Blair Gilbreath, Sunday, 7 January 2018 22:23 (five years ago) link

I'm hardly a Harris admirer, but he is gracious and articulate enough to be a good host to the many interesting guests on his podcast. He is smart, but mostly wrong - his cleverness leads his thinking down paths that are more sophistry and rhetoric than truth. His least useful discussions are the debates, and this one is a good example of that. Jordan Peterson is another.

Back to the original thread topic-
I just rewatched Blade Runner 2049, and it seems a perfect example of a film that delivered a rich experience rather than a tight fictional story. And that is what makes it good. The parts that don't make logical sense are precisely what gives it a dream-like tone, which is what I want from a movie.

Peter Chung, Monday, 8 January 2018 21:46 (five years ago) link

three weeks pass...

The last novel I tried to read is Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, about two years ago. I had to give up at about page 72. After that passage, I pretty much swore off reading fiction for good.
Here is the part that did it:

Hackworth in the hong of Dr. X.
The scalpel’s edge was exactly one atom wide; it delaminated the skin of Hackworth’s palm like an airfoil gliding through smoke. He peeled off a strip the size of a nailhead and proffered it to Dr. X, who snatched it with ivory chopsticks, dredged it through an exquisite cloisonné bowl filled with chemical dessicant, and arranged it on a small windowpane of solid diamond.

Dr. X’s real name was a sequence of shushing noises, disembodied metallic buzzes, unearthly quasi-Germanic vowels, and half-swallowed R’s, invariably mangled by Westerners. Possibly for political reasons, he preferred not to pick a fake Western name like many Asians, instead suggesting, in a vaguely patronizing way, that they should just be satisfied with calling him Dr. X—that letter being the first in the Pinyin spelling of his name.

Dr. X placed the diamond slide into a stainless-steel cylinder. At one end was a teflon-gasketed flange riddled with bolt-holes. Dr. X handed it to one of his assistants, who carried it with both hands, as if it were a golden egg on a silken pillow, and mated it with another flange on a network of massive stainless-steel plumbing that covered most of two tabletops. The assistant’s assistant got the job of inserting all the shiny bolts and torque-wrenching them down. Then the assistant flicked a switch, and an old-fashioned vacuum pump whacked into life, making conversation impossible for a minute or two. During this time Hackworth looked around Dr. X’s laboratory, trying to peg the century and in some cases even the dynasty of each item. A row of mason jars stood on a high shelf, filled with what looked like giblets floating in urine. Hackworth supposed that they were the gall bladders of now-extinct species, no doubt accruing value by the moment, better than any mutual fund. A locked gun cabinet and a prim~val Macintosh desktop-publishing system, green with age, attested to the owner’s previous forays into officially discouraged realms of behavior. A window had been cut into one wall, betraying an airshaft no larger than a grave, from the bottom of which grew a gnarled maple. Other than that, the room was packed with so many small, numerous, brown, wrinkled, and organic-looking objects that Hackworth’s eyes lost the ability to distinguish one from the next. There were also some samples of calligraphy dangling here and there, probably snatches of poetry. Hackworth had made efforts to learn a few Chinese characters and to acquaint himself with some basics of their intellectual system, but in general, he liked his transcendence out in plain sight where he could keep an eye on it—say, in a nice stained-glass window—not woven through the fabric of life like gold threads through a brocade.

Everyone in the room could tell by its sound when the mechanical pump was finished with its leg of the relay. The vapor pressure of its own oil had been reached. The assistant closed a valve that isolated it from the rest of the system, and then they switched over to the nanopumps, which made no noise at all. They were turbines, just like the ones in jet engines but very small and lots of them. Casting a critical eye over Dr. X’s vacuum plumbing, Hackworth could see that they also had a scavenger, which was a cylinder about the size of a child’s head, wrinkled up on the inside into a preposterous surface area coated with nanodevices good at latching onto stray molecules. Between the nanopumps and the scavenger, the vacuum rapidly dropped to what you might expect to see halfway between the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies. Then Dr. X himself quivered up out of his chair and began shuffling around the room, powering up a gallimaufry of contraband technology.

This equipment came from diverse technological epochs and had been smuggled into this, the Outer Kingdom, from a variety of sources, but all of it contributed to the same purpose: It sun’eyed the microscopic world through X-ray diffraction, electron microscopy, and direct nanoscale probing, and synthesized all of the resulting information into a single three-dimensional view. (End excerpt)

I found myself going over this passage several times, and many others like it throughout the book, conjuring the image of what he was trying with so much verbal dexterity to describe. This exercise, I realized, was more frustrating than pleasurable, and not ultimately very meaningful other than in appreciating this writer's special skill in using words. Which I had no reason to care about. Meanwhile, whatever narrative momentum had been building had come to a complete stop and I had to struggle to remember what I was doing in this place and what it was that I was expecting to happen next.

When I say that world-building works better on film, this is what I'm talking about.
Here is a frame from Blade Runner:

Peter Chung, Friday, 2 February 2018 12:43 (four years ago) link

what do you think of blade runner's textual elements (prologue, expository dialogue, in-universe ad copy, etc...)?

Philip Nunez, Friday, 2 February 2018 18:32 (four years ago) link

The voice-over in the original studio version was terrible and ruined my first viewing of the film.
Otherwise, I find the dialogue and invented vocabulary evocative, tasteful and well chosen. I'm especially in awe of the brilliant choice to use the title Blade Runner.
One of the all time great movie titles.

I'm grateful for Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve deftly steers away from literal-mindedness, as Scott did with the original.

Peter Chung, Monday, 5 February 2018 22:13 (four years ago) link

Since posting it, I've looked at the Stephenson passage more closely, and I'm now convinced it is truly, deeply, awful.
My initial response to his writing was amused and respectful, though a bit uncertain about whether it was really good or really bad.
It's really bad.

Peter Chung, Monday, 5 February 2018 22:20 (four years ago) link

There are some glitches in the quoted text (OCR artifacts), so to be fair to NS-

"prim~val Macintosh" is "primæval Macintosh"
"It sun’eyed the microscopic world" is "It surveyed..."

Peter Chung, Monday, 5 February 2018 22:28 (four years ago) link

Could you explain a bit more about what you mean by literal-mindedness? 2049 in particular seemed concerned about spelling out a lot of plot background in the mini-episodes that Villeneuve handed out to other directors. Ridley Scott also went to the trouble to clarify the number of escaped replicants in one of his latest revisions, something that would only be of interest to pedants. To me, these seem like the priorities of literal-minded, mechanical world-building, rather than the impressionistic, evocative approach (as in Rutger Hauer's ad-libbed "I've seen things" scene, which I would ascribe to Rutger Hauer rather than Ridley Scott).

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 00:22 (four years ago) link

Spielberg's movie of PK Dick's Minority Report is an example of literal-minded storytelling. The conclusion is focused on uncovering the identity of the villain, bringing him to justice. The plot is resolved, Tom Cruise is absolved and the audience can feel comforted knowing that order has been restored. The directing focuses the audience's interest on the story's fictional arbitrary details, which is not the point of creating and consuming fiction.

In fact, Tom Cruise is still actually guilty of many things at the end, such as arresting people who have not committed crimes, of killing a man out of rage without due process, of endangering many civilians in the act of resisting arrest. The philosophical and thematic implications of the premise are not addressed in favor of providing a story that gets resolved on a plot level.

Not to mention that the safety of the precog is not what the audience should care about. As Skye pointed out a long time ago on this board, the precogs are a plot device to allow the speculative premise to operate. They aren't real people.
"Gotta save the poor precog!" Wrong.

Blade Runner and BR2049 are not detective stories concerned about catching villains and achieving justice. I've heard some people complain about Deckard not being a good detective. That is not the point. Deckard, it turns out, is not even the hero we think (and he thinks) he is at the beginning. He is a tool of the slave trade. Batty is the true hero, and Deckard's mind in the end has been shifted to accept it.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 01:03 (four years ago) link

Scott and Villeneuve are interested in the bigger questions driving the premises of their stories, not the fictions.
In Blade Runner's case, what does it mean to be human?
In BR2049, it is how does one live an authentic life?
Life is finite and its meaning is defined by the individual who lives it- in spite of the fact that for the replicants, a creator-given purpose exists.
Similar to the theme of Prometheus, it is a thought experiment that considers the proposal of life having been created with a purpose.
The religious paradigm of submission to the creator's will is portrayed as slavery.
The exercise of free will is our only recourse to authentic meaning.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 01:41 (four years ago) link

Yes, that Stephenson passage is awful. My response to that post was going to be that you're comparing one of the very best films ever made with what is (apparently) a bad novel. For what it's worth, as a teenager I loved the world Do Androids Dream created in my head and was never crazy about the film until recently.

I did not like 2049 and do not think I like Villeneuve in general (if Arrival is any indication). However I'll likely give 2049 another shot in a theater in a few weeks. The original took me over 20 years to catch on, so.

Weekend at Bernie's is my choice for greatest title.

J.P. McDevitt, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 08:21 (four years ago) link

Neal Stephenson is not a bad writer. The opening chapters of Reamde are terrific.

"you're comparing one of the very best films ever made with what is (apparently) a bad novel. "
The Diamond Age won the Hugo award for best novel in 1996. The story it tells is fascinating, I just wish the way it was told wasn't by an attention deficit disorder- addled and ostentatious narrator.
The book was an immediate success and widely praised, whereas Blade Runner was almost universally scorned upon release. To this day, there is a huge number of viewers who consider Blade Runner a boring mess.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 16:48 (four years ago) link

I agree that Arrival is not a good film. It only makes sense if the extraterrestrial visitors are a product of Amy Adams' imagination. She is trying to cope with the loss of her daughter, and in order to feel that her life has importance, she dreams that she alone can fulfill a role critical to the survival of humanity.

I recommend you give Sicario a shot. The directing is masterful.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 17:00 (four years ago) link

The terrible thing about the passage from The Diamond Age is that it brought to light for me the inherent problem of literary description in a way that has tainted my ability to enjoy reading books that I used to enjoy reading.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 18:47 (four years ago) link

Nabokov's Pale Fire gets a special moment in Blade Runner 2049. I've no idea what could be behind it, maybe Hampton Fancher taking a dig at highbrow literature? Or suggesting that the girlfriend simulation's AI isn't designed to grasp irony?
It made me laugh.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 19:01 (four years ago) link

the original short story arrival was derived from was much more interior and about resolving philosophical paradoxes of free will/pre-destination; stephenson as an author (as well as william gibson) are primarily known and praised for delineating influential ideas rather than constructing taut plots or characterization -- aren't these the larger ideas trumping literalism that you're looking for? if anything, doesn't the visual (and capital-intensive) nature of cinema prioritize the kind of literal, surface-level construction of narratives?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 19:51 (four years ago) link

"doesn't the visual (and capital-intensive) nature of cinema prioritize the kind of literal, surface-level construction of narratives?"

It does in practice. That is why most films opt for the literal-minded treatment of story.
But it isn't an inherent property of the medium, just in the way it is used.
Minority Report was a commercial success while Blade Runner 2049 was not- so it's easy to see why.

My own view is that because written narrative is a more direct way to delineate ideas than cinematic narrative, it is less challenging, less surprising, less reflective of human experience- especially for the artist.
I suppose that once I've written a story, I could release it as text and be done with it. I find that I have very little interest in doing so. I need to give it the form of an experience of the senses because that is the way life is lived and how I find meaning- it is through experience, not words.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 20:55 (four years ago) link

I first became exposed to the writing of Neal Stephenson when Amazon Studios asked me to adapt a project he was developing - a medieval sword fighting game - into a potential animated series.
I was working from a treatment written by Stephenson himself, along with other writers and enthusiasts of historically accurate sword techniques.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 21:12 (four years ago) link

if they're mostly concerned with the formal representation of swordsmanship over narratives, it seems like there would be a lot of creative room left over to maneuver in -- is that usually the case in these kinds of projects?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 7 February 2018 21:24 (four years ago) link

two weeks pass...

Playtime (Peter's favorite or close to it?) plays on the big screen in SF on March 15th; I'll be there.

J.P. McDevitt, Sunday, 25 February 2018 21:17 (four years ago) link

That is the only way to really see Playtime- on the big screen with an audience. My first viewing, on a pan and scan vhs tape, baffled and confused me.
I consider it essential viewing for filmmakers, especially for animators, and I show clips to my students, not all of whom get it at first.
Please post your thoughts after the screening.
An interesting discussion on the shifts of moral stances in narrative traditions.
The claim is that defining the hero of a story by the morality of his actions is a relatively recent practice.
We may, in fact, be reading old stories that way by habit (identifying the hero by his goodness).
Whereas the authors had no such need nor intention. Instead, heroes are defined mainly by their tribal identification, regardless of how moral their actions might be.

Present day critiques of Biblical myths assert that the actions of God and God's agents in the Old Testament are useless and untrue because they are plainly immoral.
(Not consistent with universally recognized standards of goodness.) Such arguments are beside the point for the biblical, and other mythological, writers.

Peter Chung, Monday, 26 February 2018 05:47 (four years ago) link

My argument against submitting to the Judeo Christian God because I detect God's moral failings is,in this way, a non sequitur.
In other words, the 10 commandments and other biblical laws were never meant to provide moral guidance. They are not claiming to help make men good.
They are meant to make men conform to a common, tribal identity. What is "good" has no meaning outside of that.

Peter Chung, Monday, 26 February 2018 06:00 (four years ago) link

two weeks pass...

In teaching my class, I struggle to convince some students on why they should not rely on exposition to engage the viewer's interest and emotions.
The argument is that if exposition works, then what is wrong with using it? Exposition is the simplest and clearest way to convey the characters' motivations and the dramatic stakes of a narrative turn.
The problem is that by explaining why an action is needed, its urgency- you destroy any sense genuine of urgency.

Everyone understands that you must never explain a joke, because to do so defeats the purpose. Any comic who has to explain his jokes to his audience hasn't learned the skills needed to be a comedian and does not deserve to be on stage.

My hard claim is that this principle does not apply only to humor. All emotions- sadness, anger, love, horror, suspense must arise naturally from an internal realization in order to be genuinely felt.

I use several examples from films where some character explains what has to be done before the hero decides to go and do it. This is extremely common and has the effect of rendering the mission irrelevant to the interests of the viewer.
If a director can't convey the motivation without explaining it, he has no business directing. It should be self-evident from the context the director creates.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 18 March 2018 07:02 (four years ago) link

To be more precise, exposition is fine to provide the set-up, as in a joke.
The gut punch of emotion, the punchline, however must always be inferred.

A director does run the risk of losing viewers this way.
There have been many cases where viewers have watched things I've done and said "I don't get it".
Just as there are many directors I admire who are rejected by audiences for the same reason.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 18 March 2018 07:23 (four years ago) link

Is a character explaining what has to be done beforehand the same as a character explaining what's going on as the punchline is happening? Can you give examples of the "explaining beforehand" and the explaining of the punchline?

I loved Playtime and found it refreshingly different from anything I can consciously recall seeing. It seems the 70mm prints are all damaged, but if one were to surface I'd strongly consider traveling to go see it if necessary.

Battery is about to die so I'll write more another time.

J.P. McDevitt, Sunday, 18 March 2018 11:05 (four years ago) link

Directing a narrative film is a complex task, so it's not so cut and dry.
There are many cases, pretty much all films, where a turning point occurs that sets a major character on a new course of action.
Where the character makes a choice triggered by some turn of events.
The trigger should be both an emotional punchline and a set up (motivating event) for further action.

The motivation needs to be felt by the viewer at the same moment as the character. In bad films, this does not happen. The goal is simply stated as exposition.
Viewers may not notice it consciously, but that is a major factor resulting in you coming out at the end and saying "that movie was boring".

Peter Chung, Monday, 19 March 2018 05:43 (four years ago) link

Negative examples I've shown in class are from Paprika and Wreck-It Ralph. I would also cite (as I have here) Harry Potter movies, Hunger Games sequels, Christopher Nolan's films, most scripted TV dramas. I suspect that TV in general has had a bad influence on how feature directors rely increasingly on exposition. It goes along with my complaint about literal mindedness.

It seems that in older films, the directors just had a deeper appreciation of subtext.
I use clips from Marnie, Leave Her To Heaven and The Sound of Music to show how to do it the right way.
There's a good scene from Pulp Fiction that I like to use, where Bruce Willis escapes, then turns around and decides he should rescue his enemy, played by Ving Rhames. It's wordless, but the viewer understands exactly what is going on in Bruce's mind. His motivation is explained later, but just as a way to confirm what the viewer already understood.
I also show clips from Aeon Flux and Firebreather. I use these clips because I can reveal in detail the process by which directorial decisions are made.

Peter Chung, Monday, 19 March 2018 06:07 (four years ago) link

I suspect that viewers are so accustomed to having the meanings of events explained to them that they feel lost when the explanation does not come.
They are not, in fact, "not getting it". They DID get it, they just can't feel sure, so they can't say so with confidence, and they blame the filmmaker for not providing assurance.

Peter Chung, Monday, 19 March 2018 06:23 (four years ago) link

I came across this recently on io9. Emotions are stated directly. No need for anything to be inferred.
I do not feel the emotion internally. There is no art and no skill.
(Never use the line "I love you" in a script. Unless it's meant as a cover.)

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 20 March 2018 14:35 (four years ago) link

There is a lot of expository sequences in the Matrix series that fans have constructed elaborate theories to explain away as cover for some deeper conspiratorial meaning (e.g. the explanation for the machine's need for humans as a power source is a deception), but to me it's very unclear whether such things are intentional. In evaluating student work, how would you distinguish between something deep vs something muddled?

Philip Nunez, Tuesday, 20 March 2018 17:02 (four years ago) link

I always have at least one student who attempts to convey an idea way more ambitious and complex than what he/she is equipped to communicate.
It is like attempting to write War and Peace before mastering basic grammar and spelling.

The problem always amounts to someone expecting their viewer to make unwarranted assumptions about what they are seeing. As your example from the Matrix illustrates, viewers cannot help but find unintended meanings in works of fiction. A good director must have enough command over the medium to set boundaries on the viewer's impressions. I don't endorse the idea of artworks that can mean anything to anyone. That is no different from incoherence.

To answer your question, it comes down to a matter of good technique. Craftsmanship matters. If an artist intends to draw a character in peril, but instead draws him looking relaxed, then that is muddled due to a deficit of skill (or carefulness).

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 21 March 2018 08:54 (four years ago) link

Here's a challenge I handed out to my class earlier this year:
A guy in your story loves another character (male or female). Tell me how you would get the audience to know this without dialogue (let alone his saying "I love you").

Peter Chung, Thursday, 22 March 2018 06:14 (four years ago) link

one month passes...

I had given up on Westworld at episode 6 of the first season. There's been a lot of talk about season two, but I couldn't make it past 15 minutes.
The series posits mysteries which the viewer then forms theories about, trying to solve the question of what is happening under all the layers of clues, misdirection and conspiracy. What is happening?
It is both tedious and meaningless to spur discussion over which fictional plot is the correct one. Any one you choose is equally arbitrary, fictional and disposable.
Viewers are just arguing over which potential plotline the writers ended up choosing. Do the writers think this is interesting?
If the experience of watching the show was pleasant, then maybe the mysteries are an added reward for the audience's attention.
But the act of watching, to me, is an extremely miserable one. It's clear that the viewer's experience is secondary to its function as a delivery mechanism for plot information.

Peter Chung, Monday, 14 May 2018 18:00 (four years ago) link

People often say that what matters the most in any movie is the story. That the story is first and foremost the reason they watch film and T.V.
Even filmmakers often will say that "story is everything". Viewers think they care about story above all else, but in fact this is not the case.
What viewers want from a movie is an experience of the senses, a stirring of the emotions and mind.
Story is the effective means of delivering that experience, but story is not the goal or purpose for making and viewing films.

How can I be so certain? Two recent practices I've encountered make it very clear.

1. These days, it's possible to acquire copies of movies and T.V. shows and watch them whenever and wherever one desires.
I have, on a few occasions for T.V. shows, gotten impatient and ran the player at 1.5 times or twice normal speed with the captions on. It can tell me whether or not I want to continue watching. But I quickly feel that if the show isn't worth watching at normal speed, then it isn't worth watching at all. If all I cared about was the story, then this should not matter. If I can get the content of the story more quickly and painlessly, then what is the harm? But if the story holds my interest at a fast speed, then I will slow it back down to get the experience of sensory engagement. That takes precedence over merely learning what the story is. Here is where quality of directing is crucial.

Viewers exist who do watch shows sped up, and they are the ones who care about the story at the exclusion of everything else. But they are a minority.

2. You can find blogs for just about every series where someone recaps in writing the events of an episode that they've watched. Who reads this stuff? Surely not someone who regularly watches the show, since the recap is just repeating what they would have seen. And if someone is interested enough in the recap to read it, then why do that instead of just watching it? There exist people who read such summaries, and again, they are the ones who care about the story and not the viewing experience. And again, they are a minority. Most fans of a series actually watch them.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 19 May 2018 06:13 (four years ago) link

one month passes...

A very common fiction writer's pitfall:

How to construct made up problems that will need to be solved by your characters.
I am noticing more and more that it is this point that causes me to lose interest in a fictional story.

Especially in science fiction or fantasy, the author will invent some made up obstacle or challenge that the hero must overcome.
It's crucial that the author use good judgment when choosing that problem to be solved.

In physical terms, the problem can take any form at all, no matter how fantastical, as long as it reflects some actual source of conflict faced by actual humans.
Unfortunately, the author often chooses a problem that is just fantastical and arbitrary, and therefore comes across as just some useless rule that was made up for the sake of breaking it.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 30 June 2018 14:40 (four years ago) link

Peter, thanks for your comments in this thread. I've been studying creative writing recently, reading and writing short stories intensely for the past year or so, and participating in a number of classes and workshops. This discussion has been some great food for thought. I may post more specific responses as I'm able.

Looking back, I think engaging with you, and with Aeon Flux, since I was 16 or so ended up laying the groundwork for how I approach storytelling (and art in general) -- thank you for that.

Matt Rebholz, Sunday, 1 July 2018 15:20 (four years ago) link

Today it hit me and I totally get the reference to Pale Fire in Blade Runner 2049.

Peter Chung, Monday, 9 July 2018 14:03 (four years ago) link


Do you mean the use of the poem from the book in K's baseline test, or do you mean something deeper structurally, like the novelistic portion of the novel as a simulacra or the like..?

Interestingly, I've hear Gosling had a hand in writing the baseline test. Regardless, the original full text is fun to read:

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 17:18 (four years ago) link

*heard, rather

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 22:28 (four years ago) link

Is the baseline test taken from the poem in Pale Fire? I don't recognize any part that matches.

I was thinking of the end of the film, of K lying in the snow, chasing an illusion, grateful for his brief taste of life, the pale fire of a child who dies.

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain
By the false azure in the windowpane;
I was the smudge of ashen fluff--and I
Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky.
And from the inside, too, I'd duplicate
Myself, my lamp, an apple on a plate:
Uncurtaining the night, I'd let dark glass
Hang all the furniture above the grass,
And how delightful when a fall of snow
Covered my glimpse of lawn and reached up so
As to make chair and bed exactly stand
Upon that snow, out in that crystal land!

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 23:57 (four years ago) link

I'm struggling to find the reference too, but in my research I found that apparently in Pale Fire, referring to a vision he has during a near-death experience, John Shade sees "dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain."

Those may be the only actual lines used in reference, but apparently they do exist in the book.

... But yes, that's a good observation! I hadn't thought of that.

I like that the miraculous child is the creator of dreams, and lives in a kind of impenetrable void from which such dreams are crafted.

Derdekeas, Wednesday, 11 July 2018 23:29 (four years ago) link

K's lifetime is that of a child. Like Roy Batty, he learns to revel in the brief moments he's given, choosing to defy the purpose for which he was made.

The wooden horse is everything. For me, that's the whole movie.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 12 July 2018 01:12 (four years ago) link

To tie this back to the topic-
what makes Blade Runner 2049 a valuable work is the canny use of an android character to embody life's impermanence.
K's journey and final attainment are moving in a way that's surprising and uniquely shaped by the viewing experience.

There are many things about the fictional story that are unresolved and illogical, but they don't matter.
The narrative has done its job, and it profits no one to dwell on it beyond that point.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 12 July 2018 08:34 (four years ago) link

Yes, there’s a necessary level to good narrative that allows the participation of the viewer in determining meaning, even beyond interpretation.

I have a lot of thoughts about what the horse signifies in a larger cultural sense, and it’s the role of a chosen symbolism to provide a certain open-endedness if a work is to prove itself of any real value in th obscure traffic of time.

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 17 July 2018 22:55 (four years ago) link

three weeks pass...

I came across this today and it has been bothering me. Apparently it has been sweeping awards and earning raves.

It's a succinct example of everything wrong with current audiences. I mostly blame the public for swallowing this nonsense, though I detect a fair willingness to pander on the writer's part.
As an Asian American, I will say I find this kind of thing supremely facile and tedious. Sorry.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 05:03 (four years ago) link

I suppose if I were to write a story about my Bollenhut-wearing German immigant mom whose cuckoo clock golems I snidely rejected, I wouldn't win quite as many awards.

oder doch?, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 11:00 (four years ago) link

I think I must have read this before instead of finishing the Three Body Problem, which the author translated, but I didn't remember much of it. It strikes me as being more in the mode of a fable rather than SF/Fantasy. What were you expecting from it?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 16:16 (four years ago) link

It's all here. Literal-minded, didactic, with a hefty dose of narcissistic fixation with identity.
Whatever emotional charge to be gotten is simply delivered in the most expository language possible. Nothing to infer, therefore no emotion to arise from within.
There is not even the effort to write the mother's letter in words that are believable as her voice. Everyone knows what a mother's letter reads like, and it is not this.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:16 (four years ago) link

Would you say the author's error was in delineating too much or too little?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:30 (four years ago) link

I'm sorry I gave this more time and exposure than it warrants. I don't care about this story, but it's the general shift of the audience's mindset that is troubling.

To clear away the bad taste, I will give a push for something worth your time.
I rewatched Patrice Leconte's 1989 film Monsieur Hire a few days ago.
As good as I remembered, and I found a new clip I will be using in class next semester.

I remember watching Ex Machina and thinking Leconte's film did it better. Confirmed.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:42 (four years ago) link

Do you feel like this is a shift mainly in un-discerning audiences, or do you think it's global?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 18:20 (four years ago) link

eight months pass...

"Do you feel like this is a shift mainly in un-discerning audiences, or do you think it's global?"

Both. Global audiences are becoming un-discerning. It is the increasing pace at which media is consumed. There is so much scripted content available and it is becoming blunter, less nuanced, more simplistic.
It's literal-mindedness, which I realize now to be a symptom of cultural infantilization.
It is not the stories, but the artless manner in which they are being told. Everything is shaped by an underlying fear- a very unhealthy fear that the audience might not understand, and therefore must have everything spelled out for them.
For people working in TV (as I am currently), there is often the view that "sure, it would be better if we could get by with less explaining, but if we do explain, what's the harm?"
For me, the harm is real, and it is insidious. It is nothing less than a theft of what should be the rights of the audience.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 20 April 2019 17:05 (three years ago) link

"Often, films challenge morals: what is right, what is wrong, and what happens when you pick a side. There are times, however, when nothing is resolved yet the question lingers throughout the film. This is the baffling case of The Cold Lands, an inferior case study on doing the right thing."

Really enjoyed The Cold Lands, BTW.

Blair Gilbreath, Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:00 (three years ago) link

It gets more butts in seats if everyone can understand and share in the same understanding, especially when you're selling to a global market. It's a huge problem.

OTOH, I saw The Missing Pieces (the add-on film/collection of deleted scenes from Fire Walk With Me) recently. A lot of it is extraneous material that I'm fine with snipping out, but everything in the room above the convenience store is amazing and really helps to contextualize the rest of the film. It's still a great movie, but I wonder if it would've been better received if those scenes hadn't been edited so brutally. It's a rare case of too much information being left out.

Blair Gilbreath, Saturday, 20 April 2019 20:26 (three years ago) link

I am dealing daily with the push and pull between the demands of commercial programming and my hope to promote an optimal viewer experience.
I can observe from the process and the public response, a vindication of clarity (obviousness) over true viewer engagement.

At Cartoon Network, showrunners are discouraged from building their shows on long arcs that require the viewer to track relationships and plot details in favor of self-contained episodes.
The reasoning, of course, is that one limits viewership as casual viewers will not be able to jump in on a series midway without being lost - and bored. Accessibility.

This perceived dichotomy / dilemma is due to the mistaken belief in story as the primary focus of viewer interest. I have tried to watch a portion of Steven Universe recently and could not get enough of a grip. If you don't know the plot so far, it is unwatchable, as so much of the information is given through exposition rather than through contextual means. The truth is that you can manage to devise a manner of engaging the viewer, the details of plot become unimportant, or better yet, appreciable through contextual clues. It is the manner of engagement, not the particulars of plot that are always the true reason why viewers seek the viewing experience. There exist shows that can be enjoyed without any prior knowledge, and that is all the proof you need.

Producers always get this relationship between the viewing experience and the story backwards. They think the story is the attraction and that the pleasure of viewing is the bonus. It's the other way around.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 04:24 (three years ago) link

<i>Steven Universe</i> is extremely lore-heavy and 160 episodes in at this point, in its defense. The first season or two were very easy to watch without context. As the audience was built they got more confident with the serialization; same thing applied to <i>Adventure Time</i>. My guess is that CN gave them more rope after acquiring ratings success?

Nhex, Monday, 22 April 2019 04:35 (three years ago) link

I understand that it is lore-heavy, but to allow that to excuse the show being unwatchable to novice viewers is to admit that the show lacks interest apart from its story (lore).
That is exactly what I am complaining about.
In the case of Adventure Time, I find later episodes engaging in spite of my not knowing the context. Still too much expository talk, but watchable.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 05:58 (three years ago) link

Ha, you should see the how rabid online fanbases for SU treat it. I love the standalone episodes just as well, but the diehards clamor for more "main storyline" episodes like you wouldn't believe.

Nhex, Monday, 22 April 2019 14:25 (three years ago) link

That is what I have noticed, and it's what prompted me to post. I'm currently at Cartoon Network, and have gotten to know Rebecca a little. Lovely person, dedicated and very talented. And I have seen the fan obsession up close.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 17:31 (three years ago) link

Way above, I remembered there was this comment from Sam G.
"But deriving meaning is a many faceted thing, dependant on the irreducible and uniquely shaped inner workings of one mind and body to the next. Do we understand each other well enough to make sprawling judgements about who is and isn't meaningfully engaged?"

Artists have to set their own standards for what they are or are not willing to do in order to achieve their desired results. I have to maintain that certain lines ought to be observed. When I view the works of other artists, there occur moments when I recoil if they have pushed too far. Didacticism, cynicism, narcissism, sentimentalism are hazards of the trade and must be spurned. For me, as I keep saying, exposition is the enemy of meaningful engagement. It robs the audience of their own powers and pleasures of discovery.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 18:07 (three years ago) link

Again, I've taken to using this thread as an ongoing journal of observations on creative practice. I try to be honest and maybe sometimes it will come off as harsh. At least this isn't Twitter.

Peter Chung, Monday, 22 April 2019 18:22 (three years ago) link

I love reading this thread, fwiw.

Lil' Brexit (Tracer Hand), Monday, 22 April 2019 19:59 (three years ago) link

yeah this is a v good thread. i had an identical experience to PC w stephenson's the diamond age-- abandoned it in a weird kind of despair.

difficult listening hour, Monday, 22 April 2019 20:03 (three years ago) link

I remember liking Leconte's "Ridicule". I'll have to watch Monsieur Hire sometime.

Lately I've been into Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Syndromes and a Century is one of my favorite viewing experiences and I couldn't even tell you why. It's just... hypnotizing!

Blair Gilbreath, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 08:39 (three years ago) link

If there are readers regularly viewing the entries here, I may start posting more detailed posts, or start a new thread on lessons from my directing course. I could go into a lot more detail including posting the clips I use in class. The clip from Mr. Hire is too good not to share.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 11:26 (three years ago) link

yes please, it's a great thread

ogmor, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 11:33 (three years ago) link

I always ask my students if they can name instances when they were watching something, movie or TV show, when they got turned off because some message was being pushed too hard or they rolled their eyes because of cheap attempts to tearjerk. Everyone has their own tolerance level, and I often hear from a peer or student of a scene that they found deeply moving which I found intolerably maudlin.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:13 (three years ago) link

I'll go first: every time in a movie when the main character dies, we get a phony eulogizing moment of silence, then- miracle! - they come back to life. Disney, Pixar, superhero movies, JJ Abrams: just knock it off.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:18 (three years ago) link

Dreamworks' Rise of the Guardians- When the last boy who believes in Santa Claus sees Jack Frost in his bedroom.
Contact- Jodie Foster walking on the beach with her dead father. (the whole movie, actually)
Iron Giant - Hogarth says "I love you" to Vin Diesel. Obligatory, since IG is a remake of ET, and there is the line "ET, I love you." If memory serves, haven't seen it in forever.
The opening flashback in UP. Yes, your wife died after a long and happy marriage. People die when they get old. So?

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:26 (three years ago) link

Looper. I stopped watching when Bruce Willis' Chinese wife is introduced and we get that she's beautiful, charming and innocent. Of course, she's going to die in the next couple of minutes. It happened sooner than I anticipated.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:32 (three years ago) link

If there are readers regularly viewing the entries here

We're out here

but everybody calls me, (lukas), Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:33 (three years ago) link

"I love you" always does the trick. I hear those words and I check out.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 12:42 (three years ago) link

If a director can't or won't bother to get me to understand viscerally and intuitively that A loves B without having to tell me, then what the hell is he doing? And if I got that already, then by stating it, you've just ruined my carefully realized emotion. You've explained the joke. You've robbed my chance for feeling.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 13:10 (three years ago) link

When the first talking episode of AF aired, many viewers were disappointed who had liked the silent shorts. When Aeon says "I'm here on a mission to assassinate Trevor Goodchild." , they felt it was ruined. Why are you explaining? It was meant as fake exposition- everything they say should not be trusted. But looking back, I can see it was trying to be too clever for our own good. For that first episode, it backfired.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 16:43 (three years ago) link

No more gripes, complaints about crappy TV writing.

Here's a real writer worth your time.

Fantastic stuff.
Will say more later.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 23 April 2019 17:17 (three years ago) link

Peter, I admit I don't really vibe with most of your opinions, but I'm still curious to hear them.

Nhex, Wednesday, 24 April 2019 02:40 (three years ago) link

As always, thanks for writing here, Peter.

I'll be sure to check out Amelia Gray. I'm starting an MFA program in fiction writing this fall, and am reading everything I can get my hands on (there's not enough time in the world).

Matt Rebholz, Friday, 26 April 2019 04:24 (three years ago) link

Within seconds of the opening shots of 'It' I tapped into a deep emotional engagement with the theme of child abduction. By the time Pennywise was revealed I went into a fit of almost hysterical crying. I viscerally felt that the clown was himself an abducted child. Made so very strange by the abuse and isolation. I don't think that the filmmakers intended this, but for me the actor playing Pennywise had a transcendent quality that triggered this connection for me.

Sam G, Sunday, 28 April 2019 11:45 (three years ago) link

After Avengers Endgame and Infinity War, I will give Joss Whedon major credit for figuring out what to do with that ridiculous cast of characters. Namely how to give each one his / her own special voice and inner life.

Peter Chung, Monday, 29 April 2019 11:40 (three years ago) link

Do you mean that you liked the recent two because Whedon set the characters up well, or that you liked the earlier ones and disliked these two (since Whedon was off)?

I liked Endgame a lot, was very much a snob against superhero movies until last year. I saw a few of the ones I'd missed in IMAX when they replayed them and said "eh ya know what...this experience is comparable to a Disney ride and that's fine".

J.P. McDevitt, Thursday, 2 May 2019 17:14 (three years ago) link

The last two Avengers movies squandered everything in my view. The last one especially seems to have forgotten who those characters were and what made them distinct from each other. To make family the ultimate goal of everyone - yawn.

Peter Chung, Friday, 3 May 2019 02:29 (three years ago) link

These last Avengers films surpass anything I could've hoped for as a child. The true impact that they will be having on kids right now.. I think its pretty interesting.

Human experience is a vast and mysterious thing, and we only have our own to go by. So I struggle with criticisms of how people engage with stories. I think its deeply interesting but so hard to really account for or know about - at least past a certain point.

I had a boss who's favorite film was Transformers 2. I thought that was kind of awesome.

Sam G, Monday, 6 May 2019 14:52 (three years ago) link

You can only make educated guesses about other's experiences, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth trying. Isn't that what makes stories resonate with us in the first place?

I loved Colossal recently. Kaiju as a metaphor for abusive relationships. It spoke to me about the challenge of getting another person to empathize, and the ways that empathy can be used against us.

One of the saddest things I've ever watched is the clubroom scene in the middle of the Haruhi film, when Yuki offers a club membership to Kyon after he terrorizes and borderline-assaults her. In that moment I felt the depth of the character's loneliness. It stopped being the stock anime trope of the quiet girl and became something much more unsettling. I felt like the movie was an attack on reducing women to a pitiful state for the sake of male wish fulfillment.

Blair Gilbreath, Monday, 6 May 2019 18:44 (three years ago) link

My ten year old boy, like his classmates, all talk about the Avengers movies in detail. I try not to spoil the fun for him- he's 10.
Myself, I hope the impact will not matter for long.
It's a huge tide to resist, but mediocrity can't become normalized.

Peter Chung, Monday, 6 May 2019 19:10 (three years ago) link

That makes sense. At least with cineaste parents he'll get to be exposed to a wider range of pop culture.

Maybe something like Gegege no Kitaro would be age-appropriate? I've been following the new series, and liking it. It's definitely been tweaked to appeal to modern audiences, but I can see Shigeru Mizuki's heart in it.

(holy shit, Shigeru Mizuki... I could ramble on and on about his work. Instead I'll just tell everyone to go read Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths)

Blair Gilbreath, Monday, 6 May 2019 19:32 (three years ago) link

BTW, Peter, next time I'm in Tokyo I'll try to snag some volumes of Be Free!, since you and Adam Warren have spoken highly of it.

Blair Gilbreath, Monday, 6 May 2019 19:42 (three years ago) link

I grew up reading Marvel comics. Thor, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Hulk.
I return to the opening post of this thread. Do the lives of fictional characters matter?
A fictional character exists in order to enable the experience of the story.
If they decide they'll kill off this one or that one this time, it can't be done in such an arbitrary way.
A character's fate must be intrinsic to the story's structure, because the narratives' meaning makes it necessary.
Watching Endgame is like watching a fantasy football match. This side wins this time, but it could just as easily have been the other team. Either way means nothing. Just a chance to cheer for your team.

Peter Chung, Monday, 6 May 2019 20:01 (three years ago) link

The old Marvel comics were great.

The last superhero movie I tried watching was Guardians Of The Galaxy, and it nearly put me to sleep. Maybe it was the arbitrariness you mention. I still don't know what the point of that film was. AFAICT, it seemed to be an appeal to nostalgia for something I've never experienced.

Blair Gilbreath, Monday, 6 May 2019 21:52 (three years ago) link

I've never been able to mourn the deaths of film characters, as in grieving for the loss of that person's life.
I can, however, think of two instances when the death of a character made me cry real tears.
These are both old works, but mild spoilers.
Osamu Dezaki's Dear Brother and the Stanley Donen/ Lerner-Loewe film of The Little Prince. In both cases, the tragedy consists of the precise context of the event.
I feel nothing at the end of Endgame when a major hero dies, just as I felt nothing at the end of Infinity War.
These aren't real people, and I don't understand why their "passing" is sad. It's a charade of unearned emotion.

Peter Chung, Tuesday, 7 May 2019 17:45 (three years ago) link

The character isn't dying so much as the actor is dying. (contract termination as a kind of mortality)
We'll probably see all these characters again but not with that particular actor in it.

I haven't seen The Little Prince since childhood but what I remember is that Gene Wilder was in it and I don't think I could watch it the same way in that he was alive when I watched it last and now he's not.

I can't imagine any academic instruction doing it, but can you think of any that would broach how to deal with or control such extradiegetic resonances?

Philip Nunez, Tuesday, 7 May 2019 19:01 (three years ago) link

I suppose there could be an academic treatise or some cultural aesthetic theory on the topic, but like many academic pursuits, would serve only to be another useless PHD thesis from which no one will derive any real world value. Some subjective phenomena are better left to be dealt with in a spontaneous, imaginative way by the individual. The fact that Donen died recently is far more resonant with me, though I don't let that affect the experience of appreciating his work.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 9 May 2019 14:52 (three years ago) link

The thing about action movies, to me, is that they're kind of like a thrill ride or rock music even. Whether its The Matrix or Transformers 2, if your able to plug in to it, you can be elevated to a kind of ecstatic experience. Or you can find yourself unable to go along with it.

I still resonate deeply with the heroes journey, so that helps me plug in to an extent. Kung fu movies, Ninja Turtles movies.. I still feel the impact of these films from my childhood. They helped send me down a path that I am still very much engaged with. When films come along that manage to speak to me at this level its an awesome thing.

For better or worse it seems lots of people are still very much hopped up on the heroes journey. But that's a whole other discussion I guess.

Blair, my point was more about the problem of judging peoples levels of meaningful engagement with stories when we lack access to their experience.

Sam G, Saturday, 11 May 2019 18:06 (three years ago) link

Sam, I agree entirely with you on the point of sometimes wanting simply to be swept away by a well done traditional heroes journey.
Aquaman worked for me. It reinforces my view that it is not the story that is as important as the sensory experience of a movie. One sometimes finds deeper and unintended resonances in the most escapist films. Also I prefer Speed Racer to The Matrix. They both tell a similar story, but the lack of pretension in Speed Racer makes it feel more pure and sincere.

My favorite movies are often called pretentious by general audiences. But it is wrong to call a work pretentious that has lofty ambitions and succeeds in delivering them. To be pretentious means to make unwarranted claims.

Peter Chung, Saturday, 11 May 2019 20:42 (three years ago) link

one year passes...

I recently discovered this thread and I've been thinking a lot about it. I've noticed as I watch more anime that a lot of them have the same issue as Ghost In The Shell: they're directed in a confusing way to create an illusion of depth.
The recent anime short, Rick and Morty vs. Genocider, does this too. I was surprised to find fans generally like it, even though they've been struggling to figure out the plot. After a few watches, I think I understand what happened, but I had no emotional response to it except confusion.

Kelpie, Wednesday, 5 August 2020 16:42 (two years ago) link

Also, I agree that the concept of a purely objective morality, independent of the subjective experiences of the human condition, is nonsensical. If we had no subjective experiences like happiness and suffering, we could have no concept of good and evil. Even if we ground morality in God, we still ground them in God's subjective feelings, like love for mankind (we're assuming God's feelings are similar to our own.)

Kelpie, Wednesday, 5 August 2020 20:57 (two years ago) link

I disagree with that, but how do you see that having any negative implications on a narrative?
wouldn't an objective morality be much more interesting to contrast with our subjective one as a narrative conflict if we presume it exists?

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 5 August 2020 22:31 (two years ago) link

I'm not sure I follow. I think moral judgements involve both subjective and objective factors. Actually, all judgements do. Even math and science require a subjective human desire to know the truth. It doesn't necessarily make a difference in how moral decisions are handled in narratives, or in everyday life.

Kelpie, Wednesday, 5 August 2020 23:10 (two years ago) link

if you presume that all morality is subjective, then that eliminates a profound amount of tension in many kinds of stories.

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 5 August 2020 23:31 (two years ago) link

I think moral judgements involve both subjective and objective factors. "Objective morality vs. subjective morality" is a false dichotomy to begin with.

Kelpie, Thursday, 6 August 2020 11:45 (two years ago) link

four weeks pass...

So, I've been reading about moral philosophy and I've found some people who seem to reject the objective vs. subjective dichotomy. The ones I really like are Iris Murdoch and Philippa Foot. Their view of morality is like this: Morality is our term for the rational pursuit of happiness, in accordance with the particulars of psychology. As a human being, this is what you're constructed to do. You have no choice about your moral nature, only whether you perform it well or poorly. Human opinion does not determine moral principles, but human psychology does.

Kelpie, Saturday, 5 September 2020 01:06 (two years ago) link

"You have no choice about your moral nature, only whether you perform it well or poorly."
The problem with debates about morality is the that the term "morality" is being used to describe a vast range of factors and conflicting interests.
Your statement's meaning is ambiguous to the point where it could be saying too many different things.
I know that I've changed my moral position on a number of issues during my life. As you become more informed and more wise, your moral compass will shift.
One could argue that your moral nature is independent of how much you know, but you could just as well define moral nature as that which emerges in a way entirely dependent on what you know. A child with little life experience is not held to the same standard of morality as an adult.

Peter Chung, Wednesday, 9 September 2020 20:50 (two years ago) link

Moral philosophy is the project of generalizing approaches to decision making with the purpose of maximizing the chances of optimal outcomes. It is a system of measuring the desirability of actions in the same way that the metric system is a tool for measuring physical properties. It is essentially a practical tool for everyday decision making. The problem arises when these guiding principles (generalizations) start to be viewed as having some innate value, as if they are cosmic rules that exist outside of human opinion. They do not. They exist because they are helpful and practical. That is all morals are.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 10 September 2020 10:12 (two years ago) link

It's possible to use rhetoric to justify any moral stance. Internal consistency is used as a standard for judging the validity of a moral position.
The "rational pursuit of happiness" sounds like a baseline value, but everyone's idea of what makes them happy is so varied that I wonder if it's really useful.

I've come to conclude that moral principles are, in fact, entirely explained as nothing more and nothing less than opinions. We decide what we want to call good and bad. We then use rhetoric to justify these opinions because we are taught to discount personal opinion as a sufficient basis for judgment.
It would be better to be honest and own up to the idea that people hold their opinions with high regard. The act of voting in a democratic election is driven by opinion. We accord opinion with the highest value when it comes to politics. Supreme court decisions are opinions.

Opinions can change. Philosophy exists to serve our opinions, not the other way around. Our opinions are primary.

It becomes a complex exercise because it quickly becomes meta. We hold the opinion that we want rational ideas of fairness to guide our moral decisions. But that desire for rationality is itself an opinion.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 10 September 2020 10:46 (two years ago) link

eleven months pass...

OK wow, it's been a long time since I posted here.

I agree that morality and the desire for rationality are opinions, but they're darn near inescapable ones. If you ask, "Why be rational?" you've already accepted the validity of rationality. If you ask, "Why should I be moral?" you've already accepted that there exist some good things which you should do and some bad things which you should not do. The questions "Why be rational?" and "Why be moral?" are empty of substance.

I also agree that there aren't "carved in stone" moral principles that apply to every situation without exception. Even Jesus pointed out that obeying the commandment of resting on the Sabbath is stupid if you have to save a life on the Sabbath.

Actually, though, the reason I came here is because of the latest Rick and Morty episode. The one where they fill in Rick's backstory with BirdPerson. I was pretty lukewarm towards it, but the fandom is going nuts about "finally getting some plot." I really think there's a generational divide here. I'm almost 40, and I can't imagine being this much more excited about backstory than about a well-written episode.

Kelpie, Monday, 16 August 2021 19:32 (one year ago) link

Look at this fan-made graphic. I cannot imagine getting this excited about plot minutiae.

Kelpie, Monday, 16 August 2021 19:36 (one year ago) link

My pet theory is that over the last few decades the world has gotten so unbelievably ridiculous, and the traditional institutions (religion, nations) that used to provide an anchoring salve of an explanatory coping narrative have gotten so inept at it, that people will look for a comforting lore and tradition wherever they can get it, and if that means Rick & Morty backstories are more comforting and stabilizing than say Catholicism or national politics, why wouldn't the kids latch onto it?

But I disagree that this is a generational divide -- the Trump-aged Q-anon nuts probably have flowcharts, too!

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 18 August 2021 02:00 (one year ago) link

I agree that Rick and Morty backstory is more inspiring than Catholicism or American politics. I remember when the sauce craze broke out, someone commented that social aspirations seem meaningless, so people might as well aspire to get Rick and Morty sauce instead.

Kelpie, Wednesday, 18 August 2021 17:07 (one year ago) link

three weeks pass...

They're going even more nuts for the finale episodes, even though all of the backstory revealed is stuff the fandom had figured out already. One fan said, "I don't care if there's no jokes, just give me the information!"

Kelpie, Thursday, 9 September 2021 22:23 (one year ago) link

It occurs to me that you could be very lazy and rake in a ton of money by scrolling fan forums and stealing theories. Fans love it when their theories turn out to be canon. I wonder how many writers are doing exactly that.

Kelpie, Sunday, 12 September 2021 19:10 (one year ago) link

two months pass...

Since Denis Villeneuve has been the subject of a number of posts here, I'm adding my impressions of Dune 2021.
I have never read the Frank Herbert novels. My only knowledge of the story comes from the David Lynch movie, which I adore.

So my impression of Villeneuve's film is.... WTF?

It's just a more austere and slower-paced redo of Lynch's film. I don't get it. If this is an accurate adaptation of the novel, then the novel's narrative is terrible.
The Harkonnen are simply evil in this telling, without even the driver of gleeful decadence. The Atreides clan go to Arrakis because they are ordered to go by the emperor. It's not their choice, they have no motive, everyone is just acting out their assigned role. Paul's arc is to follow magical dreams and fulfill prophecy. It's Lord of the Rings-level awful.

Peter Chung, Thursday, 2 December 2021 07:09 (one year ago) link

If the DV version casts Paul as the literal chosen one, that's a shame. It's very much not the intent of the novels.

Blair Gilbreath, Friday, 3 December 2021 03:36 (one year ago) link

When the Duke dies, Paul is forced to take on the burden of becoming the new leader. In terms of drama, a moment like that is a rich opportunity for a hero to tackle the unsettling mix of emotions anyone would face. It is both a tragedy that the father is dead, but also the culmination point of the heir who has been groomed to rise to replace him. There's no sense of anything changing in Paul's attitude. I can't help but think of Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight, when the boy becomes king and the sense of loss felt by Falstaff. There needed to be some sense that Paul had other interests which he has to sacrifice because the moment arrives too soon for him. There was none of that.

He is drawn to Chani because he saw her in his dreams. That's it. How about giving us some sense of her being an interesting person in her own right?

Peter Chung, Friday, 3 December 2021 05:36 (one year ago) link

When telling a story like this, if the viewer can't imagine things happening in a way other than what we see happening, everything feels preordained.

Here's a tip: to write a good story, the way the events unfold should be one of many imaginable paths, and ideally not the best one. In this movie, it's hard to think of how things could have unfolded in a way other than they did. The sudden attack doesn't feel like a tragedy or a crime because there really was no agenda the viewer was hoping to see carried out that the attack prevented.

Peter Chung, Friday, 3 December 2021 05:50 (one year ago) link

Thanks for posting the review. I was amused by the the writer's citing her love of Lord of the Rings as a way of understanding her attraction to the novel Dune.
As it relates to the topic of this thread, the love of lore is alien to me. I can't understand the idea of reading the sequel to a novel to find out what happened in the lives of fictional characters.

Peter Chung, Friday, 3 December 2021 06:29 (one year ago) link

I went into it expecting to dislike it (as I disliked BR2049 on two viewings, and thought Arrival was fun at first but dropped quickly as I had time away from it) but I loved it. I have read the book but also disliked that - it was 12 years ago, I remember nothing, and don't think I got any of the intended meaning about it being a deconstruction of white savior narratives or whatever.

Because of reading recently about Herbert's supposed intentions, I had a far more interesting perception of the events of the film. The Atreides are scumbag imperialists just like the Harkonnen. Paul I read as beginning to embrace the messiah thing because of the ego high this would naturally give to anyone. There are subtleties in Chalomet's performance that I believe indicate this, as well as little hints such as him supposedly "knowing their ways" - he knows their ways because he's been studying film strips in his room a lot, not because of an innate destiny. The people on Arrakis have been primed over centuries to expect a messiah, so they're ready to believe.

So to me it's more Lawrence of Arabia, which is about an egomaniac who acts like a god (with some skills and strategic/tactical knowledge to back it up), rather than a straightforward fantasy story. If it was the latter I'd lean towards agreeing with you on a lot of things.

The aesthetic also did work for me very well and I was sorry I didn't see it in IMAX.

J.P. McDevitt, Friday, 3 December 2021 08:08 (one year ago) link

three months pass...

A superb thread, with a lot of interesting discussion. It almost feels like we got the USC class for free.

Peter, when you say "art's function is to exercise the mind's capacity to find meaning" what's meant by "meaning"? A traffic light gives meaning but we don't call it art. Is there a specific sense of the word?

(My view is that art must be created with the intent to be art. Maybe that's tautological, but I don't believe that art can be "found", or is something that naturally exists. A person can drop LSD and gain deep cosmic realizations by staring at a plate of mashed potato. So what? It's not enough for something to have meaning - there has to be an active creative process for it to qualify as art.)

Coagulopath, Tuesday, 29 March 2022 21:22 (ten months ago) link

re: Dune.

The books actually share some ideas with AF. "Okay, you're free. Now what?" It's about a person who becomes the chosen one, completes his Hero Quest(tm) and then has all the walls collapse in on him anyway. Paul's rise and fall in Dune Messiah has the air of a Shakespearian tragedy.

I haven't read them since I was 15. They're quite old and some of what they do (like lengthy expository monologues from inside the hero's head) certainly isn't in vogue these days. I think Dune was published within a couple years of Lord of the Rings.

The movie was good. Some great shots etc. Just relieved to see a SF movie that tries for a tone and doesn't ruin it with SNL comedian improv and "dialog" consisting of quips and one-liners.

Coagulopath, Tuesday, 29 March 2022 21:51 (ten months ago) link

two months pass...

"when you say "art's function is to exercise the mind's capacity to find meaning" what's meant by "meaning"? A traffic light gives meaning but we don't call it art. Is there a specific sense of the word?"

This is a good question. When someone asks "what is the meaning of life?", they are in fact asking "what is the meaning of meaning?"
The word can mean different things at different times. A data point that signifies a scientific fact can be said to carry meaning, but I'm not talking about that kind of correlative property.

I don't believe in the existence of God. Neither absolute nor objective morality exist. In the same sense that moral goodness can only exist because there are conscious beings, meaning can only exist if there are minds capable of appreciating it. Humans invent meaning. Humans can also be said to "find" meaning as an instinctive impulse to detect patterns. It's what makes us human.

Peter Chung, Monday, 27 June 2022 23:32 (seven months ago) link

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