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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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.

http://anim.usc.edu/faculty/peter-chung/

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

how do you feel about bach. also, serialism

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

i'm fine with orderly abstraction!

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

and Twin Peaks, of course.

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

Mftm so offtm itt

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

Full House to blame

Hammer Smashed Bagels, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:32 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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.
http://www.vulture.com/2015/01/why-you-feel-like-theres-too-much-tv-to-watch.html
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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six years ago) link

Jurassic Park > Prometheus

Cuombas (jim in glasgow), Wednesday, 13 January 2016 21:41 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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 (six 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.
http://ameliagray.com/

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.

https://i.redd.it/jqotysk8fqh71.jpg

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.

https://www.brightwalldarkroom.com/2021/11/30/a-self-fulfilling-prophecy/

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 (eight 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 (eight 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 (five months ago) link


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