Preaching to The Choir

Ben-Hur is having a terrible time at movie theaters.

Anthony D’Alessandro at Deadline.com has an interesting write-up about how and why it might have happened. I was particularly intrigued by a trailer that was cut specifically to appeal to Christian audiences.

See, the only advertising I’d seen made the movie look like a two-hour chariot race. I’ve never seen the 1959 version most people would be familiar with, but I could’ve sworn there was a religious theme in there.[1]

I assumed that the studio, thinking that people didn’t want a sermon with their summer blockbuster violence, had scrubbed the religious elements entirely. They had already had a sibling rivalry, a quest for revenge, Morgan Freeman, and that damned chariot race- what more did they need?

The trailer for Christian audiences definitely plays up the religious side: Jesus is presented as if he’s a major character. This Ben-Hur looks like a completely different movie.

It’s not unusual to tailor different marketing strategies for different potential audiences- but this is extreme. D’Alessandro describes a studio that wants to have its cake and eat it too: religious audiences come for the uplifting themes, the secular heathens get their dose of PG-13 violence.

Ben-Hur_2016_posterI won’t speculate why all of this failed. But it doesn’t bode well for other movies with religious themes. A couple years ago, Noah didn’t do well either, and was criticized for its treatment of the source material.

This is a shame. I’m not religious myself, but I find what and why people believe fascinating. Few movies examine these things closely, though. Biblical epics like the elder Ben-Hur[2] and The Ten Commandments imbue well-known stories with lavish spectacle.

In the 1980s, more interesting films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Last Temptation of Christ were extremely controversial when they were released. Protests and boycotts were widespread, and the moral fabric of society was wrenched apart by irreverent revisionism. The comic book nerds of today have nothing on the throngs of the faithful.

Today, most movies don’t touch on religion explicitly. The only ones that do are smaller, independent releases, like Saved!, which ridicules religious hypocrisy, and corn syrupy offerings like Fireproof. Each has their own small crowd that will see and enjoy them, and never the twain shall meet.

Even when Christians and non-Christians[3] see the same movie, namely the documentary Jesus Camp, they’ll see exactly what they want to. One side sees a fair depiction of their belief system, the other sees small children being brainwashed by a demented ideology.

Religion is a deeply personal part of people’s lives, and I can understand how seeing one’s beliefs depicted on screen can make people uncomfortable. Usually in these films, anyone who doesn’t agree with the filmmakers’ perspective is shown as an idiot, or worse. As if whatever you believe in should be blindingly obvious to everyone else.

These movies won’t change anyone’s minds, they’ll just reinforce beliefs people already have. Personally, I don’t mind seeing things from a perspective I think I’ll disagree with. It’s good to challenge one’s fundamental beliefs once in a while. If they don’t hold up, they aren’t very good fundamental beliefs.

How to get people who will disagree with your message to see your movie? I don’t know for sure, but I have ideas…

  1. [1] The title of the original novel is Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
  2. [2] Still not the first one produced- there two earlier silent versions, from 1907 and 1925.
  3. [3] Even this is over simplified- not every religious person, or every Christian is an evangelical Protestant.
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Insert Title Here

The title of a movie or a book is usually the first thing an audience encounters, but for me at least, it’s one of the last things I come up with. I’ll have a placeholder that I can refer to it as for my own needs, but it won’t always work as the Official Title to give to audiences.

Titles have to do a lot of legwork, so it’s not surprising that they’re hard to do. You want something that describes what the story’s about, but it has to be memorable. And short. The Assassination of Jesse James by The Coward Robert Ford meets all of those requirements… except the last one.

I like unusual titles that don’t sound like they could refer to a bunch of other things. My least favorite, which I always strive to avoid, follows a pattern:

The Noun.

This is followed closely by my second least favorite kind of title:

The Adjective Noun.

Even some of the work I’ve posted on the Media page have what I’d consider to be working titles. Afghanestern is just a weird word to someone who’s never heard it before, but I can’t think of a better one that also describes what the story is.

I was amused to see that the title of the Tom Cruise vehicle Edge of Tomorrow might as well have been changed on the DVD cover. The original title could refer to any number of science fiction scenarios, but was downplayed for home media under the tagline Live. Die. Repeat., which fits the story about soldiers re-living an alien invasion over and over again much better.[1]

While we’re on the subject of nonsensical titles, I’ll mention Blade Runner, which is a cool phrase, a great movie, but makes no sense given the story. There’s an off-hand reference that people who hunt down rebellious Replicants were called “Blade Runners,” but why?

Why, of course, is that the title was changed from the story that inspired the movie, which was called Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? That wouldn’t do, supposedly because the voodoo of market research tells us movie titles can’t end in a question mark. This rule has saved us from such titles as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back?

Beyond titles, I probably spend just as much, if not more, time mulling over character names, which are just titles for people. When looking for ideas, the website behindthename.com is really useful, even giving a blurb about where a name comes from.

I used to try really hard to give all of my characters Meaningful Names, but that runs the risk of using things like Richardine or Ethelbert. Nowadays, I care more about how a name sounds, especially for a movie. You won’t see it written down, so unusual spellings are pointless. Plus, doesn’t it seem natural that a Charles Foster Kane would be a megalomaniacal tycoon, or Selina Kyle would be a slinky cat burglar?

Say the names out loud. Feel how they move your mouth. How they taste. See what I mean?

Except we’re biased because we know these characters, and their names already have meanings for us. In reality, names like Kane’s would be aspirational at best. When a baby receives its name, no one knows what its personality or accomplishments will be. A person blessed with the name Charles Foster Kane is just as likely to be a wealthy businessman as a high school custodian.

  1. [1] It’s apparently based on a Japanese novel called All You Need Is Kill, which I find cryptic and intriguing. Good title.
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Eat Your Heart Out, Dick Van Dyke

Several years ago I was on the train into New York City when I overheard some people talking about tracking down a print of an old Buster Keaton movie.

Naturally, I had to turn around and introduce myself.

It turned out they were from a group called the Garden State Theatre Organ Society– dedicated to restoring and preserving what else, but theater organs.

You’re probably familiar with a pipe organ, housed in large churches and cathedrals, and used by Johann Sebastian Bach and others to scare the devil out of the parishioners. Several keyboards, hundreds of pipes, one harried musician in charge of all the literal bells and whistles.

The basic principle is simple: press a key, open a valve and force air into a long metal tube. The air vibrates a reed, which creates the sound. One note for each tube (that’s one reason why you need so many.) Shorter tubes- pipes- play high notes, longer pipes play low notes.

Theatre organs look a lot like church organs, except they would have been built in early movie theaters. Silent movies weren’t actually silent- there was always music meant to accompany them. Before high quality sound recording was available- and before cameras and projectors could run at a consistent rate to stay in sync- that meant the music needed to be performed live.

Orchestras are expensive- dozens of people, who all want creature comforts like chairs, which will just take up room in your theater that would be better used for paying customers. Why hire fifty people when one person can do the job?

That’s what a theater organist was- a single performer replicating the sound of a full orchestra. An organ doesn’t just have one set of pipes covering its range- it has several, controlled by knobs around the keyboards called stops.

One stop might have reeds that produce a smoother, more lush sound, like a string section. Another stop would have a brighter, metallic sound- the brass. If you pull out all the stops, well, now you’re really cooking.

In effect, one person could replace all the parts of the orchestra, but the set up required for this can get quite elaborate. One of the members of the GSTOS invited me to a meeting and showed me the organ she and her husband had built in their house.

It was all controlled from their living room, where a massive sound came up through the floorboards. The pipes were all in the basement. There was even a stop that controlled percussion instruments- a snare drum, cymbals, a marimba.

To create a vibrato effect, the pipes fed into wooden shoeboxes with a slat inside that briefly interrupted the airflow. The larger pipes had canvas bags, held in place by wooden frames bolted to the floor. They breathed like a steampunk hospital machine, keeping this massive metal beast alive.

 

The modern equivalent of this instrument can be seen in this video: a young girl performing every part of an orchestral piece of music, but instead of pipes we have synthesizers and digital samples. Note the keyboard for her feet, playing pedal tones, and another pedal controlling volume.

A computerized click track switches the stops for her- she has to play every note exactly as written.

This obviously takes a huge amount of practice and skill. I’ve played piano off and on for many years, and there’s no way I could do this. And yet-

I confess I’m not the biggest fan of the pipe organ. It can add some color to an ensemble, but to me the sound is flat and mechanical. Can an organ or a synthesizer sound like a full symphony orchestra? Yes, but it’s only a facsimile of the real thing.

I’m sure this speaks volumes to my own ignorance. To really appreciate an instrument like this, I want to know what it can do on its own, not as a replacement for something else.

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The Frontier Strikes Back

(Minor spoilers? Probably not.)

I made my peace with the newest Star Trek movies long ago. They’re decent action movies, but not the Star Trek that I got hooked on.

This is fine.

I enjoyed the newest installment, Star Trek Beyond more than the last one- which means that if you count Galaxy Quest as an honorary Star Trek movie (and I do), then the even-odd rule still applies.[1] More than the others, there seemed to be an idea behind the story, which informed everything about the characters and the plot.

Specifically, this was the crew losing their sense of purpose several years into their mission, and the building tension driving them apart. In order to overcome adversity, Kirk and co. needed to learn to work as a team again (although apparently no one besides the main bridge crew is needed to defeat the bad guys.)

There’s a distinction drawn between Kirk and Krall, too. Kirk’s crew is made of distinct individuals, while Krall’s crew are a swarm of drones.[2] The villain is a cautionary tale of what happens when someone stays out on the frontier too long.

Star_Trek_Beyond_posterIdeas are important because to me, they’re what make Star Trek Star Trek. This isn’t a shoot ’em up heroic fantasy like Star Wars. This is an entire episode with the Captain and an alien trying to say hello. Or a debate on android sentience.

The movies are generally more focused on the characters than a sci-fi idea, but they were never mindless violence, either.

One of Krall’s lines proposed an idea that sounded really interesting to me: “This is where the frontier pushes back!”

Star Trek‘s thesis is all about exploration and meeting new alien races, but there’s a conformity implied in making first contact with them: “This is Captain Picard of the Federation Starship Enterprise.” “Federation? How wonderful! Can we join?” Another Krall line, “Federation is an act of war,” seems to allude to this.

The TV version’s best villains have played with this idea- the Borg and the Dominion are more or less evil versions of the Federation. The Borg assimilate and wipe out individuality, while the Dominion are a diverse collection of aliens who conquer anyone who get in their way.

With all the numerous examples of imperialistic explorers forcing themselves on indigenous populations and then wiping them out, having a villain like Krall push back against the Federation’s main purpose could have been really interesting.

Krall’s motivations aren’t really explored in that much depth, though, and another explanation entirely is offered in the last few minutes. Spoiler here:[3]

I love it when a villain actually has a good point, even if their methods are flawed. It’s easy to make a stand against power hungry sadistic dictators. Legend of Korra, the sequel to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, was really good with this.[4]

Star Trek Beyond isn’t really interested in doing this, though. Which is fine. Really.

I can dream, though.

  1. [1] Even numbered movies are good, odd-numbered ones are bad. By my count, Beyond is 14.
  2. [2] Apparently the human-looking dudes carrying guns that board the Enterprise are all robots.
  3. [3] By having Krall/Edison turn out to really be human all along, it undercuts any perspective he’d have on being an alien overrun by Federation exploration.
  4. [4] Even if the problems the villains complain about don’t really get solved. Cough!Cough!Bender supremacy!Cough!Cough!
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Bad Blogger

I don’t have anything to post this morning. I’m sorry. Plenty of ideas, sure- but nothing ready to go. Maybe later tonight. We’ll see how things go.

I have a really great excuse, though!

I just can’t tell you what it is.

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Frustrated by First Drafts

Stephen King has a chapter in his book On Writing that I think I should go back and re-read. It’s called “Shitty First Drafts.”

And boy, do I have one.

First drafts are supposed to be terrible. That’s why you go back and revise them. It’s also why I try not to read what I wrote until I’m done with the whole thing, or else I’ll spend my time revising the same ten pages and never get anywhere.

But when you know something isn’t working, is it worth stopping and not wasting time on pages you know you’re going to completely throw out later?

I did stop, about forty pages into the script I’m working on, and rewrote almost everything that came before it. And reworked my outline for what comes afterward. The story didn’t change too drastically, but I felt like I wasn’t connecting with the characters at all. Their

From redditor u/yourpostasamovie.

From redditor u/yourpostasamovie.

dialogue was very expositional and on the nose. And there was too much of it. There wasn’t a plot, so much as a series of conversations.

As I worked through the beginning again, a couple of weeks later, it was interesting how much faster each scene seemed to go. Even when I threw out 90% of what I had, just having something there made it easier to fit the new material in.

I’d like to tell you that I plowed through the rest of the story and came out with something I can work with in the end. But the same feeling came up around the end of Act III (of V). I had a long, talky scene, that I thought had gone pretty well, until I got to the end and realized it made absolutely no sense in the context of what happens next.

I considered stopping again, but I was so close to the end. (And I love endings.) So I kept going. The last thirty pages feel like an ending, but it isn’t earned.[1]

I know what the problem is- too many ideas, poorly defined characters. I need to bring them back to fundamentals: What does she want? How does she try to get it? I’ll make it better, I’m sure, and hopefully it’ll be easier now that I have something.

Of course, this was a project that I assumed would be easy to write. The concept is straightforward, the characters all have built in conflicts that play off each other nicely. It just needs some massaging.

I’ve been diving through the archive of redditor u/yourpostasamovie, who takes photos that people upload and turns them into movie posters. I’m always impressed by how much of a story can be suggested by a picture, a title and a tagline. The one you see is a favorite of mine. This script was the same way- I could probably make a poster for it myself.

But that’s not the whole story. You look at a movie poster for a few seconds. A movie is a much longer experience in time.

 

  1. [1] I also have two endings that I think will work- which is very rare for me.
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Twisting History at The Movies

So many of the stories we tell are about building heroes up- see Campbell, Joseph– but after reading Dune, I wanted to tear them down. I discovered a book, Heroes, Saviors, Traitors, and Supermen, by historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett, which has stuck with me almost as much as Dune has. Heroes is a collection of biographies, all of them fascinating characters, but one stood out:

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar is not well-known in the U.S., but he is a mythic figure in his native Spain. He’s better known as El Cid[1], and is something like the lovechild of King Arthur and Robin Hood: He’s El_Cild_film_postera brave, chivalrous knight, but also has the reputation as a man of the people, who brought treasure and glory to those who fought beside him.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to El Cid. Even the most contemporary sources are wildly exaggerated. He comes with the usual fantasy accessories: he wields a sword, Excalibur Tizona, made from Damascus steel, and rides a noble steed, Donkey Babieca.

When he lost favor with his lord, King Alfonso VI of Castile, Rodrigo was exiled and went to work for several Muslim kings nearby. The country we call “Spain” didn’t exist in the late 11th Century- it was more a collection of lords and castles with various amounts of regional control. Some were Christian, like Alfonso, and some were Muslim- the remnants of Islamic armies that invaded the Iberian Peninsula centuries before. But El Cid was not some paragon of religious tolerance- all he cared about was who would pay him the best price (how else would his followers get their treasure and glory?)

Time and again in Hughes-Hallett’s biographies, some scheming politician tries to use the daring deeds of the likes of Francis Drake, Giuseppe Garibaldi, or El Cid for their own political gain. Especially after they’re dead, a Hero has no say in who tells their story.

A movie was made about El Cid in 1961. If you are so inclined, it stars Charleton Heston as Rodrigo, and Sophia Loren as his wife Jimena. The sets and costumes all look very expensive, and the music has a Phrygian, brassy bombast that’s a lot of fun. Beyond that…pdvd_042 lets just say one of the first scenes finds Heston bearing a cross out of a burned out church. It’s like that. For three hours.

And the plot thickens. The film was made in cooperation with Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who’d ruled Spain since the 1930s.[2] Thousands of extras from the Spanish army were provided for the battle scenes.[3]

Franco, you won’t be surprised to learn, fashioned himself during his rise to power as a latter day Cid,[4]returning to save Spain from republicans, socialists, communists, and any religion that wasn’t Catholicism. He twisted historical events[5], and cloaked himself in a messianic fervor.

Movie!Cid is everything Franco wanted to present himself as. The movie makes him seem almost divine. Consider the final scene: El Cid, defending the city of Valencia from Muslim Almoravids[6] from North Africa, is wounded by an arrow. The doctors can save him, but he’ll have to recover in bed for several days.

“No!” says El Cid. I paraphrase: “Let me die. But don’t tell anyone. Let the army think I’m still alive. Then, tomorrow, put me on my horse, open the gates, and let’s see what happens.”

What happens is El Cuerpo, dressed all in white like a medieval Klansman, charges into the swarm of mooks, sunlight glinting off his armor, accompanied by a pipe organ.pdvd_062[7]

Don’t believe me? Go ahead and see for yourself.[8] I’ll wait.

To say this didn’t happen is an understatement. Even the myths and legends about El Cid don’t say he died like this. [9] Campbell’s Hero’s Journey calls the climax of the story “Apotheosis,” when the Hero becomes god-like. I can think of no better example than this.

Franco was not the first dictator to patronize a propaganda film about himself: Joseph Stalin commissioned Sergei Eisenstein to make a movie about another folk hero, Alexander Nevsky, defending his village (the Soviet Union) from invading Germans in the 1930s. Did Franco end up saving Spain from anything? I’d argue no, and he killed an awful lot of people doing it.

At least he has his myth to make him feel better about it all.

When I watch the final shot of the film, with El Cid astride Babieca, galloping up the beach, I really hope he runs into a low hanging tree branch some time soon.

That poor horse.

  1. [1] Probably a corruption of the Arabic al Sayyid, or “the lord.”
  2. [2] To the best of our knowledge, he’s still dead.
  3. [3] Hughes-Hallett, 11.
  4. [4] Domke, Joan, “Education, Fascism, and the Catholic Church in Franco’s Spain” (2011). Dissertations. Paper 104. http://ecommons.luc.edu/luc_diss/104, pg 16
  5. [5] ”In 1939, Franco made his triumphal entry into Madrid, after first issuing a press release declaring the occasion would ‘follow the ritual observed when Alfonso VI, accompanied by the Cid, captured Toledo in the Middle Ages.’ (When Alfonso took Toledo, Rodrigo was actually still in exile, serving the kings of Zaragoza.)” Hughes-Hallett, 418-419.
  6. [6] A literal faceless horde, cloaked in black, and carrying the cowhide shields of the Zulu, several thousand miles south. Nice job, props department.
  7. [7] Props to Heston’s equestrian skills- that is not easy to do.
  8. [8] Please forgive the botched aspect ratio.
  9. [9] Hughes-Hallett, 12. There is a story about Rodrigo’s embalmed body riding Babieca back to Castile, but there was no battle involved. (Ibid, 170.)
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Abbas Kiarostami

Over the weekend, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami passed away at age 76. You’ve probably never heard of him.

Kiarostami won the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1997 for his film A Taste of Cherry. He raised the stature of Iranian cinema on the world stage and shepherded other filmmakers starting their careers. I knew of his work from a class I took in Iranian films in college.

His movies are not easy to watch- especially if you’re used to the whizz-bang! of Hollywood and its imitators. They’re slow and meditative, with exceptionally long takes. If you give them a chance, they are very rewarding.

One recurring point for every film we saw in class was the way Kiarostami and his colleagues had to work within the censorship rules of the Iranian government. This isn’t the ratings board- if the censors say so, your movie won’t be released, and you might be banned from filmmaking.

Kiarostami’s work often blurs the line between fiction and reality: he uses non-professional actors, using their real names, often reenacting things they’ve already done. Through_the_Olive_Trees_posterThis appealed to me especially when I was deep in my metafictional phase in college, where anything and everything had to be self-referential.

The censorship rules add another layer: An Iranian woman must always have her hair covered when she’s in public. Because a movie is “public,” your leading lady will wear a headscarf even when she’s at home with her family, when wearing one makes little sense.

The rules governing relationships between men and women are especially strict. In one of my favorite films from this class, Leila, directed by Dariush Mehrjui, the two main characters play a married couple, and are married to each other in real life, yet couldn’t even hold hands or kiss on screen.

Yet these restrictions inspired creative work-arounds in Kiarostami and his contemporaries. You can see this in my favorite film of his, Through The Olive Trees, which has one heck of an ending: We have a potential romance between Hossein and Tahereh. They try to figure out their feelings for each other, but are pulled apart by both her family and the film shoot their participating (another Kiarostami film, Life, and Nothing More…, filmed two years earlier.)

Only in a distant wide shot, as Hossein chases after Tahereh through a grove of olive trees, out of earshot of the voyeurs, both us and the censors, are they finally able to have an intimate conversation.

What do they say? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie.

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Wheels Within Wheels

It seems around high school, people become particularly susceptible to books (it’s almost always a book) that can completely change your life. For some people it’s The Lord of the Rings. For others it might be Atlas Shrugged.

For me, it was Dune.

Written in the 1960s by Frank Herbert, Dune was described by Arthur C. Clarke as “The Lord of the Rings of science fiction.” It’s not just a 500-page novel (plus appendices), it is dense. There are wheels-within-wheels of political intrigue, plots within plots, themes within themes.

Dune-Book-Cover-06082015 Back then, SF typically meant that a story was dry and technical (“hard” science fiction), or an escapist adventure that played fast and loose with the laws of physics (“soft”). Dune is somewhere in the middle, and aiming for a larger scope than what you’d find in a pulpy magazine.

The story, loosely summarized, is Hamlet by way of Macbeth in outer space. On acid. Paul Atreides, son of Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, moves with his family to Arrakis (Dune), an arid desert planet that is incredibly valuable because it’s the one place to mine spice, a psychotropic substance that makes space travel possible. Arrakis is the kind of place where they write on the map “Here there be sandworms.

A rival House, the Harkonnens, plots assassination, and Paul and Jessica flee into the arms of the Arrakeen locals, the Fremen. And on top of all of this, a conspiracy of witches has conducted a breeding program among the rich and powerful to produce the next step in human evolution the kwisatz haderach. But if Paul is the kwisatz haderach, he’s has arrived one generation early…

I tried to read the book in middle school and only got a short way in. What convinced me to give it another shot was this web site written by Kristen Brennan, that described Herbert’s inspirations and Dune’s influence on Star Wars (it was considerable.) That was one of the things I loved about the book- there are so many ideas flowing through it that there’s always something to think about. Having a primer on what to expect definitely made the initial plunge more enjoyable.

Another great thing about Dune is that it’s eminantly quotable. The most famous passage is the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear, which begins, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. …” Other choice aphorisms include: “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.[1] and “The most persistent principles of the universe [are] accident and error.[2]

Art by Feng Zhu of Feng Zhu Design

Art by Feng Zhu of Feng Zhu Design

But the biggest idea I took away from Dune was Herbert’s criticism of people turning over authority to superheroes- anyone who promised to solve their problems with extraordinary power. With so much invested in them, their mistakes become magnified, with horrendous consequences. Even if your messiah really is The One, the bureaucracy around them is only Human, prone to mistakes and petty power grabs of their own.

As the kwistaz haderach, Paul is able to see glimpses of the future. He is struck with the awful realization that if he assumes the Fremen persona Muad’Dib and drives away the Harkonnens, he will unleash his fanatical followers upon the rest of the galaxy, starting a holy war that will kill billions.

We flock to superheroes whenever they show up in our movie theaters, but rarely does anyone question their necessity. It takes Superman and General Zod killing hundreds of innocent people in their interpersonal brawl to make people say, Gee, this is messed up!

This idea sent me down a rabbit hole for a long time afterward. I was fascinated by examples of people presenting themselves as saviors or superheroes- and exploiting the stories of people who were already seen that way.

More on that next week.

  1. [1] Consider this in the face of the ever-increasing automation of the workforce.
  2. [2] Consider this when mulling over your tangled conspiracy theory.
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Reductio Ad Villainy

It surprised me to learn that many actors enjoy playing bad guys more than the characters who save the day. But after I thought about it, I realized I enjoy writing villains more than paragons of virtue too.

This is easy to explain, though. It’s fun to write for and pretend to be someone who has a completely different perspective on things. You have to really get into their head and understand why they do often really terrible things. If you do it well, they can steal the show from the hero.

Villains trouble me, especially the ones that are always chaotic evil. I don’t like thinking of my characters as “good” or “evil” in the first place. No one thinks of themselves as the bad guy. In fact, they’re doing the right thing- it’s those meddling kids and their little dog who keep getting in the way. Often, a villain will simply be sadistic or power hungry- terrible traits, but a little simplistic.

We might give a villain these characteristics to “raise the stakes.”[1][2] In order to save the world, someone has to put it in jeopardy. But when we make the villains a force of pure evil, what we’re saying is, “If it weren’t for these bad people, everything would be perfect!”

That line of thinking has never gotten anybody killed before. Nope.

jessica_jones2In a case of villainy done right, consider David Tennant’s character, Kilgrave, from Jessica Jones. He’s dispicable, but also loves Jessica- everything he does is to make her understand his affection for him. But Jessica’s problems go beyond his immediate physical presence. Even after he’s defeated, she has other demons to conquer.

One of my favorite scripts I read as an intern in Los Angeles was a gritty noirish mystery that took place in a big city. The story showed us the ugly prejudices not just among the main characters, but society at large. It was beautifully written, but I hated the ending. After the mystery was solved and the villain was defeated, all the underlying problems went away as well. It was all too neat.

The script wanted to tie everything up in a bow, but what it needed was something more like Chinatown: “Forget it Jake, you can’t lock up one bad guy and stop bad things from happening.”

All of this has bugged me because I think the script I’m working on now lacks a strong, villainous presence. There is no one threat that must be overcome. Conflict is the most important part of a story, and the characters all have their disagreements, sure. But, if anything, I sympathize with them all equally. Even in the Political Thriller, the villains are supposed to be distant and nebulous. The main conflict concerns characters who are mostly likable.

When you get into someone’s head long enough, and you put aside judgements like “good” and “evil,” they kind of stop being a villain altogether.

toystory_posterCan you have a story without a villain?

Probably- we can certainly do away with cackling moustache twirlers. The best example that comes to mind is actually the first Toy Story.

Consider: aside from a minor physical threat from Andy’s neighbor Sid (who I wouldn’t call evil), the conflict is between Woody and Buzz Lightyear, two sympathetic characters. The point of the story is them learning to put aside their differences to be with Andy.

This is something Pixar does again and again- you might even call most of their movies buddy comedies. They’re all about likable characters who have to learn to work together.

Because reducing everyone to camps of “good” and “evil” so you can eliminate everyone you disagree with is real villainy.

  1. [1] Not to be confused with lifting cuts of meat.
  2. [2] I’m sorry, I’ll show myself out.
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