Thoughts on Fiction

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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 (five 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 (five 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 (five years ago) link

Peter,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.salon.com/2011/06/28/stopped_reading_fiction/

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

http://stevenpinker.com/files/pinker/files/literary_animal_review.pdf?m=1360039350

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

http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/tv_club/features/2015/best_tv_of_2015_slate_s_tv_club_discusses/best_tv_of_2015_forget_peak_tv_because_the_world_needs_even_more_shows.html

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

http://io9.gizmodo.com/this-weeks-star-wars-comic-reveals-why-uncle-owen-hated-1754357401

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one month passes...

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

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

http://www.cartoonbrew.com/award-season-focus/2016-oscar-nominations-feature-animation-acting-analysis-137323.html

Anomalisa

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

Inside Out

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

When Marnie Was There

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

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

eight months pass...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It's sobering to have to admit this.
There's been an attempt by atheist commentators to claim that ethical norms are not imaginative constructs at all, but are ontological, objective, and necessary.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQr6fKlsf_c&t=7s

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

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

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

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xQr6fKlsf_c

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

one month passes...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awesome to have a new fan here Cora!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/backstory
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/magazine/back-story.html?_r=0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

two months pass...

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

Relevant to this (and to your original post, re: why we care about made-up stories): https://thebaffler.com/salvos/whats-the-point-if-we-cant-have-fun

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

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

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

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

Peter Chung, Saturday, 18 March 2017 18:35 (three 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 (four months 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 (four months 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 (four months ago) link


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