Friday, June 27, 2014

Violence in "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"

Violence is a storytelling tool. Heroes grapple with problems, and violence is a visceral way to tell that story. It's difficult to get an audience on board with abstract concepts like Good vs. Evil or Man vs. Nature without giving them some physical anchors, and having physical conflict as a main narrative vehicle can work well.


"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is a visceral story. Steven Rogers, who is AKA'd as Captain America, is a hero who embodies abstract values but enacts them in very physical ways. "Winter Soldier" pits Rogers' physical heroism against a vast and secretive conspiracy, which is an intriguing premise but in practice simply devolves into Rogers throwing his shield at things extra hard. You know it's not going to be that interesting a conspiracy when you can spot the head of the snake at the very beginning of the movie. When the big reveal is that the military industrial complex is literally run by Nazis (and yes, I know what literally means), we're not talking about a super nuanced plot. Spoiler alert!

I contend that the argument that "Winter Soldier" makes has nothing to do with its actual plot, but with its overuse of violence -- sometimes as a storytelling tool, but too often past that or apart from it.

The movie's first action scene involves Rogers boarding a ship and taking out an entire deck of enemies within 5 minutes, and I immediately felt a little odd about the action sequence. I felt bad for those dudes. They weren't wearing Evil Minion Helmets or Evil Minion Masks, so it just looked like one guy beating up on a bunch of other guys. The audience hadn't really seen any on-screen cruelty or evilness out of any of the people Rogers was killing (other than, you know, self-defense against a hyperengineered mutant soldier who wants to bludgeon them all to death with an indestructible wedge).

It is that indestructible wedge that actually carries this movie. When the plot is predictable or fails to reach its potential, what's left are the action sequences. Rogers has a shield and all the bad guys have guns, which (despite the tenor of the opening action scene) creatures a natural underdog in every fight, despite the fact that he's Captain Freaking America. Every combat sequence was a puzzle to solve, as he had to get creative with the shield. If he throws the shield at somebody, how will he get it back? Can he get it back in time to reflect another bullet? I found myself watching his shield's trajectory a lot more than Rogers himself. Any time he threw it, I'd be wondering, "How the heck is he going to get that back?" And sometimes he didn't, actually, and had to fight without it.

Captain America's shield represents a lot of painfully obvious things, but in this movie it represents the Old Days of combat versus the New. Guns are pretty good weapons, I hear, and Rogers finds himself in a world that is advancing faster than American values can keep up. And so these combat sequences accentuate and hammer home the sense that Rogers is from another era and has to bring old values and old tactics to bear against new problems.

These violent action scenes that are really the bones of this movie operate best after this fashion, where the fighting represents greater or more abstract struggles. When the Winter Soldier basically takes Rogers' shield away from him during a fight, it's more chilling than almost anything else in the movie. In fact, the Winter Soldier himself carries a malicious, relentless presence in these action scenes with his ability to counter the heroes' strengths with seeming ease and across varied environments and problem sets. As soon as the kiddie-pool plot catches up with the antagonist and we're exposed to his history and present confusion, he loses a lot of cinematic kick, in my opinion. Having the "real villain" be some Nazi corporate guy in a suit feels lackluster after seeing the Winter Soldier's physical villainy do so much more for the story.

There were two main problems with the Winter Soldier character. First of all, he was only evil because he was literally brainwashed to be. How compelling is that? Not very. Here's a guy who was following Captain America's trajectory until being lost in combat, and while Captain America got frozen for years and suddenly released Rip Van Winkle style, this guy has been following American politics through the decades and fighting in Vietnam and Korea and the Cold War and all of the more problematic American conflicts. Why couldn't the Winter Soldier just be a disillusioned version of Captain America? Wouldn't it be far more compelling if Captain America's sidekick, who didn't get the benefit of time-capsuling his politics, became jaded and aggressive of his own accord? I mean, sure, he'd have to be working with some evil people, but let the character make some choices himself for crying out loud. Otherwise, the most impressive villain of this movie is basically just a video game character.

The second problem was that we really don't get any resolution with him. This is a problem for a movie that bears the character's name. It should've been called "Captain America: Throwing Shields at Things" or "Captain America: Nazis Still Bad" or "Call of Duty 6: Captain America."

When Rogers confronts the Winter Soldier for the last time, he says the laughable line, "People will die, Bucky." Where has he been for the past two hours? Were people not dying, by his own very hand, for the entirety of this movie? Of course, the airships that Rogers is attempting to destroy will kill far more people than Rogers has killed during "Winter Soldier," but the audience has seen all of Rogers' killings while the airship killings are just an idea, a problem to be solved. The film essentially yields all moral high ground in regards to violence because it relies so heavily upon it to propel its scenes, almost as if it knows it doesn't have enough steam otherwise.

When the Winter Soldier is repeatedly hammering his metal fist into Captain America's face -- a fist that can rip a car door off its hinges -- it was actually more disturbing to see Rogers' face not be annihilated. I knew that there was no way his face would physically survive that, and with the repeated ruthlessness of the action, it was a little despicable.

I came away feeling as if this movie sends a strong message about violence, whether it wants to or not. When the violence is turned up but the normal consequences and ramifications of violence are turned down, the film is making an argument, whether its creators wanted to or not. It's arguing that violence for its own sake has value and is entertaining. Countless people were killed on-screen, past the point of what you expect from a superhero movie and reaching the point of farce.

Contrast that with the argument that "Catching Fire" makes, which is that violence always carries ramifications, and asks hard questions about being spectators of both physical violence and systemic violence, and this movie's problems become clear.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Mime in a Box: The True Heroes and the True Story of "Phineas and Ferb"

"Phineas and Ferb" is ostensibly about two young kids who accomplish amazing projects each day in spite of their older sister's attempts to get them in trouble. If that's all you knew about the show, it'd be easy to assume that the titular characters are the protagonists and that Candace, the older sister, is the antagonist.


Protagonists are defined as having goals they want to reach which require overcoming obstacles, or making hard choices, or growing as characters. Antagonists are defined as characters that prevent (or attempt to prevent) the protagonists from reaching those goals. Because (a) Phineas and Ferb doing their big project each day is virtually guaranteed, but more importantly (b) they have no real conflict or obstacles to confront in achieving those goals, you have to look elsewhere for your protagonist. And she's easily found on the other side of the equation.

Candace attempts to bust her brothers, but not necessarily to stop them. Her greatest motivation is a thirst for justice, not to actually stop or prevent what they're doing. (And let's note that the things Phineas and Ferb do are incredibly inappropriate for children in scope, methodology, and even ethics at times. Also dangerous.) As elaborate as Phineas' and Ferb's schemes get, Candace has to concoct an equally elaborate scheme to get them in trouble for it. The difference is that Candace has to actually overcome obstacles, and here is where the story actually starts. Does Candace bust her brothers, or spend time with her sweetheart Jeremy that she loves more than anything else? Does Candace save the tape of incriminating footage of her brother's projects or save her brother from falling into the river? These internal conflicts lead to Candace actually coming to realizations each episode. Note that she's the only character who ever does that -- realize things, I mean.

But Candace's goal of busting her brothers is just as often the victim of external happenstance, and we're talking some extreme God-in-the-machine type stuff. And these conflicts add meaning, too -- these are essentially the classic Man vs. Nature and Man vs. God tickets that have filled seats for millennia. All she wants is for her brothers to get their due, and everyone ends up thinking she's crazy because no matter what, everything gets swept under the rug just in time. Her reliable frustration is fodder for the show's sense of narrative humor, but is also the same stuff that classical heroes such as Ulysses dealt with as part of their heroic journeys. Poseidon deciding to drown everybody at a whim is the equivalent of a laser beam discharging into space, bouncing off a satellite and landing exactly where it needs to to remove Phineas and Ferb's project for the day just in time.

Candace always fails, but we love an underdog, especially those that have failed repeatedly. (Look at Abraham Lincoln.)

The show's B plot involves a stereotypical villain who is always trying to take over the tri-state area and failing, and his story is much the same as Candace. He has a concrete goal and always comes close to achieving it, but fails reliably each episode. While there's ostensibly a secret platypus agent whose entire job is to foil him, more often than not Doofenschmirtz is the one who inadvertently allows Perry the Platypus to escape and beat him. Losing to yourself is another classical storytelling tradition, and one need look no further than the heroic flaws of Oedipus or Hamlet. Doofenschmirtz is also the character who probably has the most lines of each given episode, and also probably the character about whose past we know the most. Many of his schemes are born out of comic/painful childhood memories, which actually fleshes him out as a character quite a bit (at least for a 12-minute kid's TV show character). As such I consider him the protagonist of the show's B plot.

So why is the show called "Phineas and Ferb?" If you've seen early episodes of Phineas and Ferb, you'll note that the stories tend to focus more around those two characters and the celebration of their interesting accomplishments. You'll also note that those episodes are pretty boring. The show's title sequence, which they continue to use and is quite catchy, is also meant to serve as a celebration of the boys and what they do. After a run of initial episodes, though, I wonder if the writers took a look at their formula and realized that the actual meat of "Phineas and Ferb," the actual story, had a lot more to do with characters like Candace and Doofenschmirtz fighting against the show's rigidity. Like Bill Murray's character in "Groundhog Day," Candace and Doofenschmirtz are essentially the only real people in a world of constants.

Phineas and Ferb doing whatever they set out to do is not the story of "Phineas and Ferb," but the backdrop. A given episode could conceivably involve them not accomplishing what they set out to do, but the parameters are so set and so square that it's like a mime's box -- the box isn't actually there, but it might as well be. The writers of "Phineas and Ferb" are those mimes, creating an unnecessarily rigid episode structure and making the show not about what's within the box, but the box itself and how the characters interact with it.

If you think about each given episode as really two different stories, things make more sense. The first layer is the rigid episodic content that is completely reliable, down to some exact lines -- Phineas says "Hey Ferb! I know what we're going to do today!" followed shortly thereafter by "Where's Perry?" and preceded by Isabella arriving and saying, "Whatcha doin'?" Everything is wrapped up and Candace is unable at the last moment to bust her brothers due to extreme contrivance and their mom invites everybody in for snacks. Many shows will be repetitive intentionally so as to provide a level of subconscious comfort to viewers -- they know this story, they know they like it, and they'll enjoy it at least one more time -- but the "Phineas and Ferb" writing team hang a lantern on it, accentuating at any point possible exactly how much this episode is just like every other episode of the show.

This narrative intention makes more sense when you think about there being a second layer to these episodes. When the show is exactly the same every single time, there are consistent victims, too -- our respective heroes Candace and Doofenschmirtz. They're trapped in a comically unfeasible prison where the only things they want they will never, ever get because the show's consistency demands it. The show is really about the prison of episodic content, and THAT'S WHY EVERYONE WATCHES IT.

The music is great, the humor is good, the voice acting is stellar, and the two protagonists are perfectly placed, but the actual charm of the show is the fact that it's constantly winking at the viewer, using tropes as a crutch while simultaneously mocking the tropes. American TV audiences have absorbed a lot of episodic content, particularly those with children who watch children's television shows -- such as "Phineas and Ferb." While the kids will watch it because two boys are building rocket ships and robots in their backyard, parents will let Netflix queue up the next episode because it's also a show about American television in general, about our need for the familiar and our simultaneous disgust of it.

Okay, well, that sentence is probably a sign that I need to go to bed.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review - Faith, by John Love

I bought Faith because it had an awesome cover, a pretentious title, and a sweet premise on the back of the book. A super powerful ship visited a civilization 100 years ago and then left, and ever since then that civilization has gone into decline. Now it's returned, and the human civilization is determined to fight it off via epic space battle with their own super awesome ship stuffed with felonious geniuses (not to be confused with felinious geniuses; that would be altogether a different book).

It's an exciting book, especially as the build-up for the eventual fight between the two ships does such a good job of playing up the mysterious and powerful nature of the enemy ship (called Faith). The actual engagement takes up the majority of the book and goes through several stages, as do the characters on the ship. There's intense back-and-forth between the two ships, each part more interesting and stranger than the first, and as the cleverness and competency of the protagonists meets up against the impossibility of the task, you find yourself rooting quite hard for the good guys.

But Faith is quite ambitious in that it's not just a story of two superships fighting an epic battle. The story heaps themes upon itself at every opportunity, whether it's the Other, irony, faith (duh), solitude, or so on. The ship Faith is strange and ponderous and ideal for hosting symbolism, and Love gets all the mileage he can out of it, and does so well. When the antagonist of an entire novel is a ship, it's difficult to give it the weight of character that Love does so here with such obvious enjoyment. The synopsis calls Faith "the bastard child of Moby Dick and Kafka, invincible and strange." So, yeah, he's kind of swinging for the fences on this one.

The book does quite a bit to support its ambitions, however; the writing is well done and often quite clever. All the metaphors were original, except in the case where he re-used them within the same book (he is quite fond of vomit, sex, and pooping metaphors; but then again, who isn't? Oh, right). But at times I got the sense that the writing outpaced the story in a negative way in that the narration often got too caught up in wordplay and irony and mining every detail for potential significance.

By the end of the book, I was unsatisfied, but only because the buildup was so marvelous. The resolution of this grand apparatus that Love had so carefully constructed did not match my hopes. If Faith were a less ambitious book I would have enjoyed it more, but not as deeply as the times that it made me really think deeply at the themes at play. Faith is guilty of, dare I say it, over-reaching. The engagement with the ship wasn't enough for Love - like Moby Dick, it had to represent something even larger and grander somehow, but in reaching for that level of significance, the concrete story that supported such a Grand Symbol was undermined in some ways. In the end, the carefully crafted build-up and the quality of the writing make this an excellent recommendation for most science fiction readers.

3.5/5 stars

Here is an interview that John Love gave soon after the book was purchased which offers some good insights, and another more recent one here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013


I am not a great conversationalist, but I've decided that I'm a step above an AI, as evidenced by my maiden voyage to

User: Nice to meet you, I'm Carl.

Cleverbot: And I'm getting crazy.

User: That's probably because of talking to so many people at the same time.

Cleverbot: You don't need to work, work is for unintelligent people.

User: And how do you get your pay check?

Cleverbot: Battery fluid I guess.

User: I'll have to look into that.

Cleverbot: Should ilook for a new job... I think my employer is mad at me.

User: Probably for being so unintelligent. You know what they say.

Cleverbot: You're smart.

User: Not smart enough to not have a job, apparently.

Cleverbot: How?

User: You said that only unintelligent people work.

Cleverbot: That makes no sense.

User: Touche, Cleverbot. Touche.

Cleverbot: Yes that is me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

I Was A Poet And Wasn't Even Cognizant Of The Fact

You're reading the blog of a published poet -- and even weirder, I'm writing one. Although I focus on short fiction (mostly speculative fiction of late), I've managed to publish a poem before anything else.

It's called "2008 World Naked Bike Ride, Portland, Oregon." It's available now in the Summer Issue of Notes Magazine. The inciting incident of this poem is pretty self-explanatory, and I encourage you to read it should you crave additional details. Let me just give my thanks to Portland for staying weird.

As someone who does not identify himself as a poet, the process of writing this poem and getting it published has been a little exotic.

I wrote this poem as part of a poetry class I took at BYU. I only took it because they weren't offering the corresponding level of fiction class at the time, but I'm glad I did. Professor Kim Johnson gave me a glimpse into the depth of poetry, and helped me understand how to look at poems with a more objective eye. I got a lot of excellent feedback for this poem from that class.

I didn't do anything else with the poem until this year, when I went to Life, The Universe, and Everything, a symposium for science fiction and fantasy writing. There was a session called "Can Poetry Help Your Prose?" The consensus among the symposium-goers was apparently "no," as it was the worst-attended session I went to all week. But the expertise of the panel and the insights they offered were very enlightening, and I'll have to write a blog post about it sometime in the future.

One of the panelists was Dr. Michael Collings, who also had an open invitation to anyone to show him a poem you wrote, and he'd help you improve it. I decided to take him up on it, and it was very educational. He showed me what worked in the poem, what was weaker, and most importantly, how you should be thinking and what you should be looking for when trying to improve any of your poems. He was invaluable in improving my poem as well as in giving me the confidence to submit it for publication.

(A side note: I was somewhat surprised that it seemed not very many people took him up on his offer. I'd encourage anyone at a writing conference to not forgo free one-on-one instruction from an expert, even if it's a little outside their genre; it was a good experience for me.)

I used Duotrope to find markets that I was comfortable submitting my poem to. It's wonderful for managing your submissions and giving you powerful tools for knowing what markets to submit to. That's how I found Notes Magazine. To my delight, it was accepted, and now you can buy the issue that contains it.

A few words about Notes Magazine: As one who doesn't read very many literary fiction markets, I didn't immediately know the quality of the magazine. But I looked through the credentials of other authors whose work was accepted for the summer issue, and I'm glad to say I'm in good company. The other authors have also been published in the Best Australian Stories, Best New Writing of 2010, Emerson, and a ton of journals whose names end with Review. They've also won such varied contests as the LA Comedy Festival Screenwriting Competition and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

The great thing about publication is that I can vicariously take credit for other's work by having a poem in the same magazine.

Note that you can buy the issue at a Friends/Family discount. Because while I don't consider all of my blog readers as friends, they didn't offer any discounts for enemies.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Inception Is About Storytelling

"True inspiration is impossible to fake." "No, it's not."

This is the moment when I realized that Inception was a storytelling thriller. No matter how many bullets are fired, get this straight: Inception is all about storytelling.

Look at these words the characters use when trying to describe inception: catharsis, art, inspiration, subtle, depth, emotion, imagination. It sounds a lot like they're trying to describe the next great American novel, not a money-grabbing caper.

But isn't storytelling a caper? It requires countless moving parts, a huge arsenal of tools, adaptation, vision, and at an almost definitive level, deceit. You're sucking the reader into a dreamworld that you don't want them to remember to be fake.

Each member of the team embodies part of the writing process. Cobb has the vision, Eames has the character development, Ariadne has the setting, Arthur has the editing, and Yosef has the drugs--all critical elements of storytelling. (Except the drugs. Probably.)

And what's their big plan? It's not just to go three dreams deep, like some kind of ridiculous Russian doll scenario. It's a three act structure built around a character's development:

"On the top level, we open up his relationship with his father. Say: 'I WILL NOT FOLLOW IN MY FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS.' Next level down we've accessed his ambition and self-esteem. We feed him: 'I WILL CREATE SOMETHING MYSELF.' Then, the bottom level, we bring out the emotional big guns: 'MY FATHER DOESN'T WANT ME TO BE HIM.'"

Inception can't be a logical procedure wherein they persuade their mark to an idea. Emotion must drive it, and so their plot becomes intimate and personal. In fact, the most emotional part of the movie, for me, was when Fischer finds the pinwheel in his father's safe. As I was hit with this powerful emotion, I suddenly realized, "Wait a minute. This is all fake, and I know it is because I saw them plan and execute it. Why is it still emotional?"

Apparently, Cobb is right: you can fake inspiration. It's called storytelling.

But "fake inspiration" is a label I've never attributed to it. When you read a great book, do you think to yourself, "That was really inspiring, but it was all fake, so it doesn't matter?" Are great works of art nothing but fake inspiration, a manipulation of our human nature? I don't think so. I think, more accurately, great art and, particularly, great stories aren't faking inspiration so much as they are forging it. I agree with the conclusion that the movie asserts, which is that when it comes to inspiration, the boundaries between Fake and Real aren't as meaningful anymore.

Now if only bullets would fly and gravity would fluctuate while I write my own stories.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why Three Is A Magic Number

Happy Threesday! Yes, today is March the Third, or 3/3. I can think of no better way to celebrate Threesday than by talking about the three act structure in storytelling. Almost everything I say here comes from Deren Hansen's presentation, "Weaving A Complex Narrative." His overall presentation was probably my favorite from all of LTUE, and this is just a small part of the things he went over. I'll probably recap his ideas more fully later. For now, simply bask in the glory of the Three (and check out his thoughtful writing blog at The Laws of Making).

We've all heard of the three act structure. But consider three as a structure in other compositions. In pop songs, you have a verse and a chorus, then a verse and a chorus, and then a bridge and a chorus. If you look at comics, they normally have three panels. Jokes almost always involve three steps to them: a straight line, a straight line, and a punch line. Three guys walk into a bar, and the third delivers the punchline. Volleyball, according to Mr. Hansen, is an athletic comedy--bump, set, spike.

Why all of these threes? The phrase that he used and has stuck with me the best is this: the Goldilocks Guide to Artillery. To find your cannon's range on a target, it usually takes three tries. The first is too hot, the second too cold, and the third is just right.

The most powerful storytellers of their time

It's similar to home repair. There are three steps: first, go get what you need from Home Depot. Second, go back to Home Depot and get what you didn't know you needed. Third, go back to Home Depot and get what you actually need.

This three step pattern is everywhere. You try, fail, and learn something; so you try again, fail again, and learn something else; and then you try one final time and succeed.

But why are stories like this? Why can't there just be two act stories, or stories just about a single try/fail step?

It's because, in Mr. Hansen's words, three is the minimum narrative container for significance. (I don't know if that's true because it's in bold or if it's in bold because it's true.) But think about it. One action is simply a procedure. You're hungry, you make a sandwich and eat it. COOL STORY BRO! Two actions is a rule, meaning that it looks more like an if/then logic step than it does a story. The sandwich doesn't fill your hunger, so you get pizza, and you're good. Three actions is what we call a story, because that's about how we solve a problem when the obvious answers aren't going to be the ones that solve the problem.

It's how the most powerful, trying, and interesting ideas are explored. So that's why three is a magic number: it's the minimum narrative container for significance (I love how he put that).

And with that, I'm off to continue to celebrate my Threesday! What do you think about this idea--and does it make sense in the fiction you read and write?