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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

this seems like a helluva troll

so basically you've invented the objective correlative?

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

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

how do you feel about bach. also, serialism

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

i'm fine with orderly abstraction!

Noodle Vague, Sunday, 3 January 2016 09:22 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

and Twin Peaks, of course.

Peter Chung, Sunday, 10 January 2016 05:04 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

Mftm so offtm itt

Hammer Smashed Bagels, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:08 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

Full House to blame

Hammer Smashed Bagels, Monday, 11 January 2016 01:32 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

Jurassic Park > Prometheus

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

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (three years ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

"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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (one year ago) Permalink

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 (ten months ago) Permalink

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 (ten months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink


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 (eight months ago) Permalink

*heard, rather

Derdekeas, Tuesday, 10 July 2018 22:28 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (eight months ago) Permalink

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 (seven months ago) Permalink

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 (seven months ago) Permalink

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 (seven months ago) Permalink

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 (seven months ago) Permalink

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

Philip Nunez, Wednesday, 8 August 2018 17:30 (seven months ago) Permalink

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 (seven months ago) Permalink

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 (seven months ago) Permalink

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