Tag Archives: Jedi

Don’t explain away the magic

elsasnowball

This is going to be one of those posts predicated on an entirely inexperienced and likely uninformed premise, so feel free to take it or leave it as you choose.  But I’m just gonna throw it out there and see what you guys think.  And that premise is:  there is far too much explaining going on in fiction, especially as regards characters with supernatural abilities.  I skim through people on Twitter glorifying “highly developed, intricate magic systems” in fantasy novels, and have seen, distressingly, a great number of others complain that Elsa’s powers were never explained in Frozen.  I guess the seven-year-old in me is wondering where the magic in magic has gone.  Why does every paranormal situation in fiction have to be scienced up with midichlorians?  What happened to taking magic on faith?

Magic and other supernatural abilities should never be the raison d’etre of a story; they should be an angle by which a dramatic human conflict is examined.  When authors and screenwriters get bogged down in the “why” of magic, the human element is lost.  Stan Lee gave an interview around the time the first X-Men movie came out where he explained the genesis of those characters thus:  having exhausted the idea of superpowers acquired through gamma ray bursts, radioactive spider bites and the like, labeling the new characters “mutants” eliminated the need to craft complex origins for each of the hundreds heroes and villains who would populate his fictional world.  He could just get on with the story.  Likewise, though crippled by a low budget forced upon it by a nervous studio unconvinced of the potential of comic book movies at the time, the first X-Men is by and large better than the dozens of other adaptations that followed simply because it doesn’t waste an hour telling you where everybody came from and how they got their powers.  They’re mutants, they can do things humans can’t, let’s go already.

In the first Star Wars, the entirety of the Force is explained in one line:  “It’s an energy field created by all living things; it surrounds us and penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.”  We didn’t need Obi-Wan going into ten pages of dialogue about the different castes of Force-wielders, the innumerable versions of the specific powers and how Jedi Trance Remix can only be used on Hoth in a Wampa cave by an 18th-level adept wearing green trousers on alternate Thursdays.  If you look at the original drafts of Star Wars, George Lucas had included that extraneous crap, but he wisely cut it to improve the story’s pace.  (As we know to our eternal lament, he put it all back in for the prequels.)  In Frozen, Elsa’s magic also gets one line of explanation, and it’s delivered in a moment of urgency at the beginning of the movie.  (If you missed it, the head troll asks her parents, “born with, or cursed?”  They answer, “born with.”)  What more did the story need?  Nothing – because the story was never about Elsa’s powers.  They were only a catalyst for a human conflict.  The story was about the bond between the sisters, and that’s why it resonated so deeply with audiences everywhere.  Emotions are the key, not technical papers about the chemical processes that make fireworks sparkle and go boom.

The obvious, worst case scenario for the inevitable Frozen 2/Frozen Again/Refrozen is that the writers decide to explain Elsa, by revealing that she was actually rescued/adopted from a family of ice sorcerers/arctic spirits/frost giants/magic penguins who return to claim her, and force her to choose between her birth family and “adopted sister” Anna.  (Wanna take bets as to whether this is the direction they go in?  It’s not one I offer with enthusiasm.)  And once you start explaining, you can’t stop.  The narrative becomes less a story and more a Wikipedia, where each hyperlinked word leads to another page of definitions and explanations.  That’s what wrecked the latter incarnations of the Star Trek series, where crises could be solved over and over with plodding explanations of made-up technology – reconfigured electroplasma conduit taps emitting verteon particles through phased quantum inducers and so on.

Apart from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, the latest of which I struggled to get through, I haven’t read any fantasy novels in a long time, mainly because I grew tired of wading through elaborately constructed and meticulously explained worlds in which nothing interesting ever happened.  (I am open to recommendations, author friends, especially if it’s your book.)  I understand that world-building can be a consuming exercise, but constructors should remain mindful that the world will only be as compelling as the characters within it.  It’s a bit like visiting a foreign country – you don’t conduct a thorough review of its civil and criminal code before sprinting out of your hotel room to hit the sights.  Tell us just enough so that we don’t get lost, and not a solitary syllable more.  Let us discover the world on our own, hand in hand with the locals.

When a mystery is explained, it loses its ability to compel our interest.  Remember how an X-Wing flying through the Death Star trench looked so much cooler before you knew it was a small model filmed and optically composited against a background plate of another small model, and another layer of black velvet curtain with sequins representing the stars?  So too is the wonder of magic diminished when we’re told it’s caused by a specific ancient Petrifying Spell developed by the archwizard Grumblethorn during the seventh Marcovian Age, requiring equal portions of Skirbian tree lizard earwax and Boltan’s Smoogrifying Powder, gathered beneath a two-thirds waning crescent moon.  I know some readers glom on to that level of detail; I find it tedious.  When I’m describing the use of magic in my book, I try to picture it cinematically, as if I was sitting in a theater watching it unfold before me, and imagining the awe I would experience in that moment.  What difference does it make how it happens?  It’s enough that it does, and that it can be both beautiful and terrifying.  And as always, the emotional impact of the spell on both the user and the witness (and/or victim, as befits the scene) is what’s more dramatically interesting – both to write, and to read.

That’s my take, anyway.  Could be completely off base in terms of what’s grabbing people’s interest these days.  Your thoughts?

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In fairness, I did like The Lord of the Rings too (Part 1)

Frodo eyeing Sting for the first time, duplicating my skeptical look at the prospect of a Lord of the Rings movie.

The Huffington Post quoted me praising Star Wars in their “battle of the franchises,” in which, following preliminary rounds that have seen spirited contenders such as Harry Potter and James Bond fall by the wayside, Jedi now fight hobbits in the quest for the ultimate prize – the top rank in a meaningless, statistically-flawed survey of genre popularity.  Judging such things is a bit like trying to assign criteria to beauty – everyone has his own preference, and for infinite different reasons.  The same can be said for how I and many like me weigh Star Wars against The Lord of the Rings.  How we view them depends on who we are, what our circumstances are when we experience them for the first time, and how those experiences evolve as we grow and accrue the cynicism of wisdom to find endless fault with what once sparked only wonder.

I grew up with Star Wars, but can’t say the same for The Lord of the Rings.  I saw the Ralph Bakshi animated version at a friend’s birthday party when I was six or seven and what I recall most was the entire group of youngsters finding it tiresome and cheap and quickly shutting it off to listen to the newest Duran Duran record instead.  As I got older, it was one of those elements of popular culture that I was always aware of, but never terribly interested in exploring further (kindly recall that this would have been when the idea of sitting down with three enormous volumes of Tolkien prose would be quickly supplanted by the sight of a shapely pair of tanned legs strolling by).  And I was jaded by cinematic fantasy throughout the 80’s and 90’s:  endless chintzy, low-budget productions with lousy special effects, cruddy-looking monsters, embarrassing writing, hammy acting by D-list performers and the infuriating cliché of the “magical portal to Los Angeles.”  After all, why pit your dashing heroes against dastardly villains in a wondrous setting of visceral imagination (you know, something you’d actually have to pay somebody talented and expensive to dream up) when you can have them duke it out on Sunset Boulevard while hip-hop plays over each swing of their enchanted swords?  On television, mainstays like Hercules and Xena were amusing diversions, but drowned in smirking, anachronistic pop culture references, and characters’ ability to die and resurrect ad infinitum, what a friend once called “a day pass to the underworld,” undermined any sense of stakes when the scripts could be bothered trying to aim for it.  You got the sense that the creative sorts behind these ventures considered their target audience strictly ADD-afflicted kids.  Given little consideration was any semblance of “the big ideas” that fantasy can tackle, or any sense that these characters were remotely human.

Around the turn of the millennium I’d heard rumblings here and there that a new movie adaptation of The Lord of the Rings was underway.  Oh yeah, that crummy cartoon, I thought to myself.  The CV of director Peter Jackson was not encouraging either; the few minutes of The Frighteners I’d seen were silly.  When the appalling Dungeons & Dragons limped its way onto the screen in 2000, I thought it was a pretty accurate barometer of how the new LOTR would turn out.  Nobody could do this right, not with the kind of verisimilitude that fantasy cried out for, and this unknown New Zealander with a few weird-ass movies on his IMDb page certainly wasn’t going to be the first.

Then, in early 2001, someone sent me a Fellowship of the Ring promotional calendar.  And I was floored by what I saw – portraits of esteemed actors like Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Cate Blanchett and Ian Holm in richly detailed costumes as wizards, elves and hobbits.  Steven Tyler’s daughter looking simply radiant as Arwen.  North and Rudy as Frodo and Sam respectively.  The grizzly-looking guy who played Satan in The Prophecy as Aragorn, and what’s this… the MAN himself, Sean Bean as Boromir.  Okay, I thought, there might be something to this after all.  Especially since the quality of this calendar proved that some serious coin had been poured into this endeavour, it wasn’t a one-off “let’s-cut-our-losses-and-sell-the-rights-to-Taco-Bell” promotion.  Maybe, I dared to hope.  Maybe this time, they’ll get it right.  Thus, unbelieving me decided it was finally time to set about reading the books, so I could see how, despite all this incredible design work, the filmmakers would screw everything up.

Certainly a lot of Tolkien’s original work is decidedly uncinematic (not that it’s a bad thing, just some stuff fundamentally works better on the page).  Goofy Tom Bombadil seemed like a train wreck waiting to happen, and I cringed every time Sam burst into tears or characters broke into song at the drop of a wizard’s hat like they were starring in a Middle-earth revival of Guys & Dolls.  Realistically, I thought, for this to be adapted faithfully you’d have to turn it into a ten-hour musical.  But coming to it late, in the shadow of the upcoming films, I didn’t find any story beat I was particularly attached to, or dying to see realized in 35 millimeter.  I thought it could have made a great movie; I was just saddled with memories of 20 years of bad movies and could visualize the visible matte lines, crude animation and histrionic over-emoting under a synthesizer score that could have resulted.  Even as the months ticked away, trailers leaked out into the world, a traveling exhibit of the movie’s props and artwork made a stop in Toronto around my birthday, part of me tempered my excitement with a pestering reminder that after all of this promise, the inevitable letdown was soon to come.  It still could have gone so wrong.

Then, just after midnight on December 17th, 2001, the lights went down and the screen came to life…

(To Be Continued)

This isn’t an argument, it’s just contradiction

"This is not here," by Yoko Ono.

Sam Shepard writes that the middle of the contradiction is the place to be.  What exactly does that mean?  The most interesting people I know are all walking contradictions – fearless and bold in some areas, shy and retiring in others; lighting up a room in one moment and crying in the corner in the next.  You probably know a few yourself, anytime you’ve bemoaned of an acquaintance in an exasperated voice, “how can someone who is so X be such a Y?”  There’s a scene in Full Metal Jacket when Private Joker is dressed down for writing “Born to Kill” on his helmet and wearing a peace symbol on his lapel, which he claims to be a statement about the duality of man – “the Jungian thing, sir.”  That relentless duality is one of the most fascinating elements of humanity – that we are all, each one of us, the singular best and worst of what we are capable of being.  If one will entertain a further pop culture metaphor, we are all Jedi and all Sith, even if we’re trying hard only to be one or the other.  Where the Shepard quote applies, at least to my way of thinking, is in pinpointing that line between the two selves, and embracing it.

Contradiction and hypocrisy can be mistaken for one another.  Yet where hypocrisy – the judgemental application of standards to others that one exempts from oneself – is a despicable trait, contradiction is so very human.  We are individuals, but live in societies.  We want independence, yet desire love.  We hunger for fame, yet cherish privacy.  We need responsibility, yet value liberty.  We want to show strength, yet need to be vulnerable.  So much of us is rife with contradictions, and defined by a struggle between polar extremes – joy and sadness, darkness and light.  In the crafting of story, a temptation is to forge characters as archetypes – to give them a single defining characteristic and then play only that note as the narrative unfolds, particularly if that narrative is tilted heavily towards plot.  Luke is the farmboy craving adventure, Han is the seen-it-all space jockey, Ben is the wise old mentor.  What makes for more compelling characters – and a richer story – is finding those contradictions and walking them as Shepard suggests, as if along the edge of a razor blade, danger be damned.  That edge is where the best of drama is found:  the evolving relationships with others as defined by the relationship within oneself.  The journey of deepest meaning is the one taken inside the soul, and the contradictions are the bends in the road.  A character flawed and full of contradictions is easier to empathize with and care about – for he is the embodiment of the duality of both the one and the many.  The representative.  The everyman.  He is you.

In this place, I have come to terms with one of my major and enduring contradictions and one that I suspect is common to many writers:  the drive to share my words despite fear of their reception – the terror of being judged whether for good or for ill.  In film school I remember learning about early Soviet cinema and the development of the theory of montage, the concept that thesis plus antithesis equals synthesis, or, more basically, an idea contrasted against its opposite brings forth a third, new idea.  In film editing, the image of a man’s face followed by a cut to a shot of a bowl of soup creates the impression of hunger – a related idea perhaps, but still a new thesis standing apart from its component elements.  Sam Shepard has it bang on when he says to look to the contradictions – that’s where we are, it’s the stuff of who we are.  Each characteristic.  For there are always two truths to each facet of a man, and the clarity of self is found somewhere in between them.