Moment of Brilliance – the Bay line

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Once in awhile one finds something said by someone else that so encapsulates a thought you were trying to express, you can’t help but give the author major kudos.

From the always awesome Furious D we have the new term, “The Bay Line”.  What is it?

The Bay Line is named after director and explosives enthusiast Michael Bay. It’s the line where a filmmaker goes from insulting the audience’s intelligence to insulting their existence. Bay’s films only insult the audience’s intelligence, not their existence, in fact, he goes out of his way to praise their existence. The audience forgives him his stupidities, and sits back to enjoy the visceral experience of robots beating the living shit out of each other while good looking people try to emote.

They’ll let you insult their intelligence as long as you give them lowbrow laughs or big explosions, but insult their existence, and the audience will punish you, even if they don’t consciously know that they are doing it.

It was this moment when it finally hit me why I hated the Happening and Avatar (H&A) so very much.  They weren’t just insultingly stupid to our brains, they were insultingly stupid to our very existence.  Glancing at scenes from the movies again, it’s hard not to see them as subtly declaring to the audience that “you should also suffer/die as the characters are”. Avatar sort of survived by being very pretty and offering something of an “experience”, but will that hold up for the sequels?

And yet, do not horror movies contradict this lesson?  I’m not a big horror aficionado, but from scanning the plot synopsis of many of them, we notice several “outs” they give which H&A do not follow.

  1. We are generally not supposed to root for the antagonist/villain.  Well sometimes we might do so unintentionally, there’s even probably some paper to be written about “protagonist creep” in horror settings, but at their core: horror movies are about something inhuman to be fought. (yes often there are movies where the killer/whatever is human, but usually in them there is a subtext that the antagonist has given up any right to call itself human)   In H&A, we have the non-humans portrayed as just innocent victims defending themselves.  Sure once in awhile there will be an inhuman opponent that is mentioned as “misunderstood” but this is usually a small part of the movie (that could nearly be cut out without damaging the story) whereas H&A have this misunderstanding as very central aspects of the story.
  2. The movies usually have some effort to make a distinction clear between all humans vs a subset.  There’s often side characters, or maybe even one or two main characters which are portrayed as decent human beings.  While we might be seeing Jason Vorheeves killing off a lot of unlikable partying assholes NOW, there’s signs that we don’t have much to worry about him going off on a rampage to kill all humans.  In the Happening, the closest we have to likable characters/protagonists only survive by dumb luck, seemingly implying that all humans should be killed.  In Avatar, the only humans which prove themselves worthy of not being killed/expelled/whatever, are the ones that “abandon” their humanity to become something else and live somewhere else.
  3. Somewhat related to the above, horror movies also give the audience some satisfaction in that they can think “well I wouldn’t do that” while watching the victims be selfish/stupid/whatever-gets-them-killed.  Again, in H&A – there’s no sign that the audience – were they in those situations – could do anything differently to save themselves. (well… Avatar really hits the gray area)

So today we’ve all learned that, when writing or creating any kind of art, it’s probably best to make sure you’re not insulting the people you’re asking to give you money for your art. ;)

But then this is “writing talk” so leave examples, counter-examples (how do Zombie movies impact this?), and more in the comments.

Get your politics out of my…

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gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

In case you couldn’t guess, I hate politics.  And one of the biggest reasons is because of the shattering impact it has upon suspensions of disbelief.  Why do I bring this up?  Because of this upcoming Superman issue.

Now let me make something very clear: I am not upset over this for any patriotic pride or anything.  I am upset because this is stupid on so many levels.  How many?  Let’s count!

The first and biggest mistake is that Superman has (until now, anyway) been a legal citizen of the USA in the DCU.

  • If you are a male over the age of 18, the USA requires you to sign up for “selective services”.  This is so in case there’s ever a military draft, the government can press one into military service.  The law (and Supes is always lawful, remember?) requires Kal-el to be registered in the selective service.  Was he?  Could the military have drafted Superman at any time?
  • And was Clark Kent also registered in this?  What would happen if both were drafted?
  • Did Superman pay taxes?  Where did the IRS send him bills?   How does he declare his annual income?  Actually he shouldn’t – which means Superman must be legally poor.  Does the government send him welfare checks?
  • Clark must also have taxes withheld from his Daily Planet paycheck, does this mean he pays taxes twice?
  • Is his residence considered to be the Fortress of Solitude?  Looking at a political map of the Arctic, is the Fortress in US territory?  There for awhile the fortress was located in South America.  Was it still considered US soil?

So anyway, Kal-el is going to renounce his citizenship.  How stupid will this turn out to be?

  • If the Fortress of Solitude is in the US territory of the Arctic, will he now move it to another one? (perhaps greenland)  Will he then be a citizen of that nation?
  • There are issues with American airspace and all that.  If Superman isn’t a citizen, doesn’t that mean he should go to a customs station and get his visa stamped every time he wants to fly into America?
  • But wait – you’re saying – Clark is already in America.  Which is why this is so stupid!  For Superman to remain within the bounds of the law, every time he changes out of his identity of Clark Kent, he has to exit the US and then enter it legally (assuming he wants to remain lawful good).  And how much sense does it make for him to have two identities with different citizenship status?

The worse part is, like Batman Inc and all of its stupidity (and boy is there a lot), the answer is obvious.  A lot of people have dual citizenship.  Superman should be a citizen of every country on earth.  And you could have gotten a good story out of that with him journeying about the world, completing tasks and stuff to earn citizenship for each country.  You can have conflict where perhaps a country doesn’t want to grant it to him.

Instead we get something that’s only going to bring up more questions and strain our disbelief.  I remember once when I believed a man could fly…

P.S. My comic list?  Anything Green Lantern and Darkwing Duck.  Trust me, they are much more awesome.

Writing Horror

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So, there’s this movie coming out later this year called Devil, you might have heard of it.

Oh M. Night… we know you can do better.  When did you become Hollywood’s punchline?  Still, at least we can learn how to do horror stories by the movie’s violation of many of the fundamentals (I say this without even seeing the movie – the trailer and synopsis are that bad).  Like Uwe Boll, M. Night violates rules so fundamental, we didn’t even think about them until they’re broken.

  1. Easy solutions cannot be present.
    This one should be obvious: whatever problem the victims in the movie are encountering, there can’t be easy solutions to it that the audience can see.  5 people stuck on an elevator?  Why can’t they just climb out?  We’ve see John McClane do it.  Now there are several methods towards solving this – the dead cell phone, stranded in the middle of nowhere, mystical forces, etc – but when you go about solving this, you have to make sure that…

    • Corollary: Preventing easy solutions should not be increasingly contrived.
      If you have a situation with a hundred easy solutions, don’t bother using it.  1 or 2 can be worked around without breaking the audiences’ suspension of disbelief but when you start getting around a baker’s dozen, they’ll start wondering why God Himself just doesn’t smite the victims already.  A dead cell phone in the middle of nowhere while the killer hunts you is a problem.  A dead cell phone in the middle of New York while the killer hunts you is contrivance and silly.  However, there is one way you can get around a group of easy solutions, and that’s by having the victims in the story not realize they are in a horror story.  Then, once it dawns on them that they are screwed, you can have a lot of solutions expire, pass, or whatever (indeed, watching the characters pass up solutions while we know they shouldn’t can add to the terror of the audience).
  2. Hope HAS to be present.
    If the victims in the story have no hope of escape or ANY solution, then it’s not a horror film, it’s just schadenfreude.  The audience is not going to be scared or unnerved at all.  This doesn’t mean that any of the victims in your story have to survive, but until the end, they must have a chance of surviving (or at least, they and the audience must believe they do).  The most common form of this is the ticking clock.  At X point in the future, the storm will pass, rescuers will come, the genie has to go back into the bottle, whatever.  Keep in mind that your treatment of rule 1 will impact rule 2 – thus the corollary above: if you keep having easy solutions blow up/expire in the face of the victims, then the audience won’t trust you when you say that if the victims just do ___ or last until X:00 PM all will be well.  Devil violates this by – well – having the devil!  Sure it might be a devil instead of Lucifer himself, but the point is: what are the victims supposed to do?  Recite latin and throw prayer beads at whoever winces?  Shoot him with the ColtSummon Santa Claus?

    • Corollary: Contrived hope isn’t OR Hope must be easy to understand/instinctive.
      I know some out there probably brought up some Japanese horror films – like The Ring – but you’ve misunderstood.  While the final solution to the horror might be difficult/contrived/whatever, hope itself cannot be.  If your story works with the horror of the unknown, the hope of the victims/audience is obvious: knowledge – by learning or understanding what we are dealing with, it might be overcome/defeated.  The ten little murder victims trope works well with this in that generally, a group of people can overpower/take out 1-2 killers, if they can just figure out who it is…  However, making the victims’ solution very difficult or completely arbitrary will shove the audience out of the story – they are seeing the storyteller’s hand too much to be invested.  Again, rule 1 will impact this.  If you have to establish a bunch of backstory/rules on why such and such solutions won’t work but this solution will work, you’re trying too hard.
  3. The audience has to care.
    The final rule that so many horror films forget: the audience has to care about the victims.  But then, that’s just kind of true about stories in general.  Get the audience caring about the characters involved and what’s happening to them then you’ll have a scary movie.

Pretty much if you can get those rules down, everything else should fall into place.  Can you think of any I’ve forgotten?

Update: How could I forget… Furious D did something along these lines before.

The best writing advice ever

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By John C Wright here.

Yes I know he’s referring to reading, but it applies just as well to writing.  The only fundamental rule I’d say is that of “good”: Write the best you can, read the best stuff you can get your hands on.

The problem with the video is twofold: first, I know personally police officers and military men who play D&D and read SF and like comic books — so the theory that only unheroic folk like heroic entertainment is a weak generalization; second, the unspoken assumption behind the message seems to be that I the reader should only read, like, and identify with ‘heroes’ who look and act like me the reader–so in other words, I should only admire myself and protagonists like me, overweight yet cantankerous obscure midlist science fiction authors. It is a theory fit only for narcissism and political correctness.

Hmph.

Does this mean I cannot read and enjoy the Iliad, because I am not a bronze-age warrior-aristocrat? I cannot read and enjoy Milton’s Paradise Lost because I am not the naked and prelapsarian father of the human race, nor yet an immortal fallen angel made of imperishable quintessential substance? I cannot read the Gospel because I am not a saint, nor can I read the Analects of Confucius because I am not a sage, nor can I read the Bhagavad Gita, because I am not a bronze-age warrior-aristocrat?

Does this mean I cannot read any science fiction of any kind whatsoever? Because I am not an invading Martian, nor a moon-traveler, nor a time-traveler, nor the inventor of an aerial ironclad heavier-than-air ship, nor a member of the Eighteenth Race of Man from Neptune, nor a positronic robot programmed never to harm a human being, nor an immortal citizen of Diaspar the City at the End of Time, nor a false messiah raised by Martians, nor a grunt in the Mobile Infantry, nor a Psychohistorian, nor a book-burning fireman, nor an employee of Fireball, nor a Journeyman of the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame, nor am I any of the incarnations of the Eternal Champion, nor am I a diplomat for the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, and I am not the sole survivor of the Mount Pleasant Massacre hunting through the stars for the five Demon Princes who slew my family and my world, and I am certainly not an apprentice of the Order of Seekers of Truth and Penance in exile for the crime of mercy when I aided the suicide of the only woman I ever loved.

Political Correctness is the mental disease of not being able to imagine that people have or need imagination.

Writing Talk – Verisimilitude

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I thought I would use my last post complaining about Captain America #602 to launch into a greater talk about verisimilitude and what angers me most about when politics, sports, religion, or whatever invades places where it doesn’t belong.

For those too lazy to check: my complaint about Cap 602 was something like if there was an issue of Captain Britain where he decides to punch out the queen.  Seems after that, you should take the ‘Britain’ or ‘America’ out of your name.

This doesn’t mean you can’t let your personal beliefs influence your work.  Indeed, they will whether you intend them to or not, but there is a point where letting said beliefs become so overt that they distort your efforts and ruin your point and original work.

For another example, let’s look at a comic that I’ve grown tired of waiting for Linkara to review that angered me just as much as Captain America #602.  Not because of the politics, but the violating it did of the fictional universe it took place in.

The comic in question is JLA #83.

American Nightmare (title of this issue) was written by Joe Kelly who I will admit can be a good comic writer.  His story “What’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way” is one of the best Superman stories of all time in my opinion.  But sometimes his ambition outstrips his abilities and we get stories with plot holes, loose ends and other errors.  This issue is a showcase of his worst writing habits.

The short review is this: JLA #83 is a long editorial on the Iraq war debate of 2003.

The comic starts out with some narration and pictures of the JLA fighting some monsters.  Standard stuff really.  It all comes unhinged on page 3 where we learn we’re going to jettison the verisimilitude of the DC universe in favor of “topical” writing.

“–Exclusive video of the worst terror attack on England’s soil, narrowly averted by the JLA.”
Really?  Of everything that goes on in the DCU, this is the worst terror attack?  Apparently the Joker, Darkseid, or any other of the dozens of supervillains populating the universe have always avoided jolly good England.  Considering what went on in World War 3 (the JLA story in issues 34-41), one would think these monsters are small beans.  Oh, but it turns out that this attack has evidence linking it to another nation named Qurac.

No I’m not going to complain about the name, Qurac has a deep and rich history in the DCU.  What I will complain about is Wonder Woman’s line: “The device, and the biochemical compound it animated, bear all the traits of Professor Ivo’s work, Mister President.  The League is searching for him as we speak… but he has no connections to Qurac.”  Really?  What does the connection have to do with anything?  It’s like the story assumes Ivo has never sold his goods on the black market.  But the worst is that we have the growing of an interesting idea, that only serves to be squashed for a petty point.  Where do villains get a lot of their funding?  In the extremely excellent ‘tower of babel’ storyline (JLA #42-46), Ra’s al Ghul constructs a tower designed to keep the world from operating.  Where does he get funding for that?  Through the story, he also has a large contingent of henchmen and I’ve often been curious how villains keep finding these guys to work for them.  The idea that some countries might be providing funds or manpower to these maniacs as another level of international politics is a neat idea.  Maybe we’ll see it some day.

Instead we get a page of President Luthor (yes, Lex Luthor) making the ‘case’ for military action against Qurac.  To Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.  Um… why?  Wait, there is one panel showing a room full of people but who they are or what they are doing is not said.  I guess President Luthor wanted them there so Wonder Woman can say, “International Law and the UN Charter forbid unprovoked unilateral action against a sovereign nation.”  And?  The principles of law is fundamentally enforcement. (note: there is also a difference between morality and law,  the former is not at issue right now, just the latter)  If you break a law (say… speeding) there are clear rules and guidelines determining who levy penalties on you for breaking that law (state, county, federal, etc in America).  If any nation (USA, Qurac, England, whoever) breaks international law, who levies penalties on them?  Will it be Superman and/or Wonder Woman? (again: interesting idea, not really addressed here)  It also makes one wonder: Luthor shows a video of “…slaughtering dissidents within [Barat, Qurac's leader] own borders…” (not to be confused with Borat, which would have made this comic a lot better).  Is slaughtering dissidents against international law and the UN charter in the DCU?  If no, why not?  If yes, who’s levying penalties against Qurac?

Instead we finish the page with Luthor wondering about the merits of assassination (another complex and fascinating issue glossed over) and closing out asking the big 3 to “help me save lives”.

Next page we start to see the threads unravel.  The big 3 are on a hill, surveying Qurac and wondering what should be done.  Wonder Woman says, “Yes, Barat is the most horrific of dictators, but we cannot simply disregard international ethics to depose him.”  This gets even funnier when you realize that in JLA #61-64 (written by… JOE KELLY) Wonder Woman was all prepared to violate “international ethics” over a mother and child.  Or earlier in this very issue where the narration goes “We exist… because those with the power to stop injustice simply must.”  Um… isn’t the slaughtering of dissidents injustice?  So you must simply stop it but you can’t violate international ethics?  Are those ethics more important than saving lives?  Especially considering JLA #64 where Wonder Woman vows in the middle of a disaster, “Don’t make me a liar, boys.  No one dies today.”  Apparently lots of people get to die if it falls under the purview of “international ethics”.  Still, there’s Batman’s line “If Qurac’s not involved with Ivo, we throw it in Luthor’s face and stop this.”  Um… stop what?  The dissidents getting slaughtered?  Oh wait…

Next page Subtlety whimpers and begs Kelly to stop hurting it as Professor Ivo screams, “This is private land!  You have no authority here!  I am not your dog!”  Sorry, that’s just too funny when you’ve read JLA #5 (written by Morrison) where Ivo and Professor Morrow are having drinks as the JLA busts into their hideout.  Why didn’t Ivo scream “This is private land!” then?  I wonder if we went through most comics, how many times superheroes have invaded “private land”.  After all, in Alan Moore’s ‘the killing joke’ we are shown the Joker purchasing an abandoned amusement park which makes it his private land that Batman invades at the end.  Again, isn’t this a point that the JLA (and its members) violate regularly?

Oh but on the next page is the best line from Ivo himself: “under international law, if you are accusing me of crimes against humanity, I must be extradited and tried… until I am represented, I say nothing.”  First, where are you going to be extradited to?  Second, it seems like “crimes against humanity” would have a very different meaning in the DCU.  After all, the JLA series alone has had several instances of martians, ancient god weapons, demi-gods and more actually trying to destroy all of humanity.  Those martians punished at the end of JLA #4 (Morrison) didn’t get extradited and tried and they invaded the whole world and put it under mind control.  Somehow, that makes Ivo’s crime (even the part in England) seem more like a speeding ticket.  Heck, the martians returned in JLA #55-59 and almost suffocated all of humanity.  They got sent to the phantom zone without extradition or trial.

The next page is of a rush of people to buy supplies that the department of defense is advising people to pick up one of which is Lois Lane.

The wife of Superman is picking up olive oil to protect against napalm.

The WIFE of SUPERMAN.  At which point I scream that with your husband, you don’t need it and, with your husband, napalm is the LEAST of your worries.  I mean, remember how Lois stood twenty feet from Doomsday during the death of Superman event? (and really, Joe Kelly should)  That woman is scared about napalm?  That’s just stupid!

The next two pages are Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman going over the ‘evidence’ of Qurac in the Oval Office with President Luthor.  “UN Inspectors have no evidence of WMD’s in Qurac,” says WW.  “I still need hard evidence,” says Batman.

Batman.

The world’s greatest detective.  Who, in issue #5 (again) found out that a weapon they were fighting was “pentagon black ops at the highest security level… It took a little effort to acquire the data.”  Yet he doesn’t know whether some po dunk country has WMDs?  Or Superman, a guy that flies, has xray & telescopic visions can’t figure it out?  Or how about the Flash who checked out the location of some kids in a compound (that was probably on private property) in a few seconds?  When did he do this?  Oh it was JLA #80 WRITTEN BY JOE KELLY.  Apparently he can’t investigate Qurac in under a second. (it was at this point I nearly threw the comic across the room)

The next pages has Batman beating up some cops.

Yes, we’ve gone to assassinating Batman’s character now.

The rest of the comic devolves into nonsense with Luthor and Supes arguing over stupid stupid points that might be legitimate in our political debates but as I’ve pointed out above, fall apart the second you try fitting them into the DC universe.

And the kicker?  It was all a dream…

Too bad the comic isn’t.

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In conclusion: if you want to make a political/whatever point, feel free to create something making that point.  If, however, you are working with an established universe or self-contained project, sacrificing verisimilitude on the alter of “making a point” will only undermine your point and the universe itself.  You’ll end up doing neither well.

And seeing good stories and ideas sacrificed to serve petty aims saddens me more than almost anything else.

Writing Talk: Half Life – the movie

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Sometime next year a movie should release based upon a little game called Prince of Persia: Sands of Time (if you don’t know what that is, THEN GTFO MY BLOG AND COME BACK ONCE YOU’VE PLAYED IT).  Now I loved the PoP:SoT trilogy and admit that it has a rich story that could be well suited for a movie.  However it seems that Disney loves to toy with me as each time I get a glimmer of hope, something else is revealed that tarnishes it with dread.  Why do video game movies have such a horrible track record?

One of my Christmas gifts this year was finally the Orange Box for PC and I’ve finally gotten the chance to play Half-life 2. (I am ashamed to have taken this long)  Having just finished it, I got to thinking: What would it take to turn this into a movie?  Perhaps we can get some ideas on transitioning games to movies in the first place…

(spoilers ahead)

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The first decision should always be: what’s going to be the plot?  Do we recreate the game wholesale or invent something new?  Perhaps instead of following Gordon Freeman around, we look at the lives of some new characters as they deal with the combine take over of earth and Freeman’s later arrival.  This would allow us a lot of freedom in crafting the story and would not detract or ruin the plot of the game.

However, let’s say we’re just going with the game’s plot…

Step 1: What are the must-have characters?
The final showdown at the citadel should be clue enough: Freeman, Alex, her Dad, Dr Mossman and Dr Breen.  Beyond that, all other characters are secondary or cameos.  Even then we should always be on the lookout for trimming and possible combinations.  For instance, could we replace Barney with one of the mains undercover? (perhaps Alex?)  Can we use Mossman instead of  Dr Kleiner?  Of course there must be a G-man.

Step 2: What are the must-have plot points?
The intro and exit for Half-life 2 are perfect and should be recreated for the big screen wholesale, but what goes in between?  And do we want to start with HL2 or should we start a movie series with HL1?  We should keep in mind that a lot of game segments only exist to extend the game’s running time.  A prime example is the first transporter malfunction.  Remove Lamarr and have the transport go smoothly – we open up a lot of time we can use in the movie.  But along with this we also need to examine the chapters skipped over and see if there’s any important details to be shuffled elsewhere.  Without the hover-boat levels, we might not learn about the vortigaunt and their aid so let’s add a scene in where Freeman learns the details.

Step 3: Only use necessary action.
Remembered that action, without plot, is boring if you’re not playing it.  Thus, vehicle sections, gun fights, etc should not be in the movie unless they serve a purpose for the plot or characters.  Sneaking around the citadel for an hour with a modified gravity gun was awesome as a player… but run that scene for 30 minutes and the audience will grow bored.

Step 4: Create a budget hierarchy.
We don’t have unlimited money.  So we should prioritize where money for production and special effects go.  The setting and climatic explosion are a must have.  And although it might be fun to see antlions on screen, we should be ready to sacrifice them first (make Nova Prospekt more subterfuge than assault).

The rest are all movie making basics that (hopefully) everyone making a movie knows about (casting, sets, etc).  If a Half-life movie were to be made… I think it would be best to start with HL2.  Gordon would be a perfect protagonist as his learning about this world would aid the audience in experiencing it.  And let’s face it, if we got Hugh Laurie to play Gordon Freeman than we have to have him talk.  So let the story of HL1 be filled in for the viewers.

“Gordon, after being awoken, is shocked to find the world is conquered by aliens.  Was this not what he fought to prevent at Black Mesa?  Sobered by his failure, Dr Freeman resolves to defeat the Combine and rectify his mistake.”

After a first half of atmosphere, character and world-building, we put on an action-pack ending of Dr Freeman leading humanity to victory and *poof* easy blockbuster.

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So why does Hollywood keep screwing these things up?