The Process of Empathy

The Process of Empathy

Steve Morris from the Cine-Files podcast made a really great observation during their discussion of the movie Psycho: for a while, you’re on Norman Bates’s side. It’s after the scene when he discovers Marion, dead, in the shower (“Mother! Oh God, Mother! Blood! Blood!“) and before the scene of the car sinking into the bog (while Bates chews candies, nervously, before expressing a smug satisfaction when the car’s fully swallowed). Both of those scenes show Bates’s arrested development (the candy, the way he cries “mother” over and again…) but what happens in between (and I couldn’t find a clip for this to my shame. DAMMIT PIERRE!) is the meticulous cleaning Norman Bates performs on the murder scene. Without knowing the ending (as I somehow didn’t on my first watch all those years ago, through some miracle), we assume Bates feels compelled to protect his mother. But it’s being alongside him as he washes away the blood and carries the body to the car that we actually root for the villain, ending reveal notwithstanding. As Morris puts it, “Whenever we watch somebody in a process, we end up on their side.”

I think there’s a lot to that.

Watching somebody work gives you a different, occasionally more insightful, look into their personality than simply talking to them. You ever hire somebody? Or be involved in the hiring process? You can talk to a person and get a performance highlighting all of their best attributes but the day they show up to work, they’re a shitshow. Watching someone wash their hands before handling food is ultimately more important than them saying “I’m a good cook.”

Which throws us back to the old writing adage, “show don’t tell.” With which, I’ll refry this down into two questions: why is it effective to show a process in narrative and why does that gain audience sympathy?

The immediate answer is that work is common. On the grand scale, few people have actually cleaned blood in any real sense (side note: I interviewed some folks who worked in some bath houses and found that cum, piss and vomit were no issue. Blood, however…) but they have had to deal with mess. Few people have actually carried a body and shoved it into a car but, most people have carried an awkward TV, couch, or bed frame and have tried to make it work spatially in a van. Not everyone cleans, but everyone works. That alone makes you empathize, on a dark level, with Norman Bates.

There’s an oft mentioned study about how reading fiction makes people more empathetic. The casual explanation is that by reading with someone else’s brain for 300 pages, one tends to carry that perspective along with them back into the real world– or at least, the learned ability to entertain notions that are not their own. I’d agree with that assessment, but I also think there’s something to be said about any and all media that challenges the audience to ask themselves, “what would I do in this situation?” or perhaps, “what would I ideally to do in this situation?”

See, if I was Lewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, I would probably spend the entire book not hunting and eating chips on the couch as a seedy world of intrigue and carnage obliviously passes me by. Luckily, for art’s sake, I’m not Lewellyn. Cormac McCarthy (and the Coen’s faithful film adaptation) does something simple and brilliant: we’re shown characters of few words and inner reflection simply work through solving problems step by step without us being told what the problem is.

Moss is carrying a bag filled with two million dollars. He rents a motel room and stashes the money in a vent. He suspects (correctly) that the cartel is waiting to murder him and reclaim the money. So he rents another motel room behind his current one. Then he buys tent poles, leaving the audience going “buh-why?” It’s only when he tapes a bunch of coat hangers to the end of it that we realize that he intends to snake the bag of money through the vent and reclaim it in the new, parallel room. Similarly, we see Anton Chigurh use a bag of gas station sundries to blow up a car, only to find that that it’s a ruse to steal anesthetic drugs so he can perform self-surgery.

Scenes like these build tension because you have to wonder “the hell does he need a lid to a box of cotton swabs for?” Once you’ve been shown the reason, or the problem solved, you like it for a different reason: the characters’ intelligence is fully illustrated. Whether it’s Moss blowing water out of the chamber of a gun so it’ll ignite a bullet when he shoots a dog in the face or Chigurh turning off the light in the hallway so his feet won’t shadow under the door, we see something being worked out during the action of the story and we double-down on our admiration/respect for these characters because we’re either thinking, “I wish I had thought of that,” or “Yes. That is what I would ideally have done in the same scenario.”

The reason why heist movies like Oceans 11 (or Hereditary, a heist movie) are so engaging is because it’s 90% process. We like seeing a plan come together even if we don’t know what the plan is. Ocean’s 11 is primarily about a bunch of criminals, doing crimes. Or, rather, a bunch of criminals executing a convoluted strategy to pull off one crime. The actors are charming, which helps, but robbery usually isn’t that sexy of a crime (see: Raising Arizona, Reservoir Dogs). But if you add a sequential series of fancy pranks, some glib banter shared between 13 Hollywood stars, and a grand revealing of a few red-herrings, you get a competent, satisfying story– but only because you watched the characters earn it step by step.

Ocean’s 11 is an oddly apt example because, just as you don’t know what the plan really looks like, you also don’t know what Danny Ocean’s true motivation is as it could be revenge against the man who’s dating his wife, an attempt to get back with his wife, or pure greed. Surprise! It’s all three! But that only comes together in the very end when the audience is led to believe that he would betray one motivation for another. It’s not high-cerebral storytelling here, but it does work, and it is clever in its own right (for a movie I watched with my mom while my brother was at a youth group superbowl party 18 years ago that I wasn’t invited to).

The obfuscation of motivation is important when showing a process. In Psycho, no matter what we’re led to believe, we want Bates to succeed in hiding that body. In No Country, we want Chigurh to heal his leg because we suffered through watching him tweeze buckshot from the meat of his thigh. What a character wants is an integral part of writing but it’s something that drives a character throughout an entire arc and is only understood in retrospect. In fiction and cinema, we’re only exposed to these characters scene by scene and those characters have very immediate needs despite their longterm desires. Hey, kinda like life, ya know?

Showing a process of action is not unlike showing a thought process, brought to you by this new-fangled technology of first person narrative, where the reader is up against the grain of a character’s decision making. It’s a more intimate relationship, to be sure, as the reader might stop thinking “that’s what I would do,” and instead entertain, “this is what I did,” but the story itself shouldn’t be too different. And the reason, with, you know, good fiction, is a certain with-holding of motivation.

It’s noir time.

Phillip Marlowe is a pretty damn good chess player. He strategizes, he thinks, he mulls, he makes decisions. Even still, he bumbles into situations making him a hapless sap that often leaves him bloody and bruised with yet another body laying in the next room. Homeboy once smoked a laced cigarette and spent three hours on a floor. Sometimes he has a theory about how everything shakes out only to find that all of his instincts were wrong. Then he makes some plays against the antagonist and the truth finally outs. There’s a disconnect there, yeah? Even though he’s telegraphing his story to you, he isn’t going to tell you how he brought everything together until the very end, because it’s very likely that Marlowe is flying without a map until all the pieces are aligned and even then you’re still taken aback that the bastard fit it all together. It’s a bit of a motherfucker to know the narrator’s opinion about a secretary’s dress and not know the plan. That’s part of how story works, sure, but it’s also an example of how the narration itself is a strategic process– the narrator decides what to tell you and when, despite the narrator living in your brain.

It’s the whole principle behind Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest, wherein our Continental Op is dropped into a corrupt town, expected to pick sides between the corrupt cops and the criminals. The Op plays off of ALL of those expectations and nets so, so many bodies. Only it turns out, The Op’s motivation was to simply stir chaos on both sides, not necessarily knowing that they would murder each other– he had no plan, he’s just a drunk fucking psychopath. Still, he tells us every decision he makes as he systematically destroys the institutions and crooks, but he never tells us why, likely because he doesn’t know or doesn’t remember. He’s driven, in his own words, “blood simple.”

And we’re in their corner, despite them being monsters or virtuous, if occasionally inept, troublemakers. What people respond to are decisions, whether that’s shown through cleaning blood from a bathroom or scheduling a massacre of the police force with a phone call.

Still.

With the advent of reality television and video games, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that we find routine processes humanizing. We watch entire blocks of entertainment dedicated to showing us the machines that make taffy, step by step. We follow Alaskan fishermen into the waves, cops into the streets, chefs into the kitchens. We come home from work to watch someone else do their job. We’ve attached so much personality to an Italian plumber because of the personal satisfaction of bringing him from the left side of a screen to the right (and we’ve apparently made so much goddamn pornography from a blue hedgehog, simply because he had to go fast).

It’s not surprising, but it’s something that I consider often when writing. I utilize “showing the process” of a character regularly, for the reasons I’ve explained: it illustrates intelligence, it creates tension, and it can exist outside of the over-arching motivation and focus on the immediate’s scene’s needs. There’s a delicate balance at stake here, as a reader’s attention-span is only so thick, and I sometimes worry that I’m tugging the boat a little too far. Truth be told, sometimes I think tugging the boat is pretty funny. Sometimes you need to “yada-yada” the reader along. But in writing The Fish Fox Boys Part Three: Ballad of the Badger Knights (which is free for Kindle until 3/15), I found that exploring the process in how someone builds or grows things provides several opportunities to further explore setting (In FFBIII, we get a better sense of the geographical landscape when Anne puts her mind to mutating corn. We get inside the old dilapidated schools, twice, when Fred and Adam go scavenging for parts, once in a rural school and again in an inner city one and there should be a difference felt between the two). I found that there’s an opportunity for characterization when the process frustrates the hero and we get to see how they handle that frustration. And while I tried to keep the flow of information economical, hints of motivation are indeed present, although mostly through subtext. Anne’s obsession with winning the Corn Festival had less to do with her justification of philanthropy and more to do with vain ambition just as Adam’s willingness to scavenge has more to say about his need to please a new friend, instead of serving his old friend’s needs.

And then there’s the logic itself: the simple satisfaction one receives from solving a problem, even if the character was responsible for the problem in the first place. It doesn’t matter if the reader themselves never invented a Zamboodlator, they’ll still listen to how you made it. I know this, because every time I pop the hood of my 1984 Volvo, there’s suddenly six dudes from no-where, peering over my shoulder, examining something that they do not understand yet have advice anyway.

Makes me think if I ever discover a body in my shower, the same audience will appear and one would say, “Clean the bathroom.” Another, “Put it in the trunk of a car.”

And another would agree, saying, “That’s what I would do.”

I just officially released The Fish Fox Boys Part Three yesterday. If you catch this blog before 3/15/2019, you can get a free copy of the book here. If paperback’s your game, as is mine, get that shit here. It’s a fairy-tale about the end of the world, what’s not to like?

True Detective Season 3 – A Return to Form amidst the Formless Void

True Detective Season 3 – A Return to Form amidst the Formless Void

Yeah, yeah. You’re all, “Hey, Pierre, are you shilling for HBO? Because this is the fourth consecutive post about HBO and the second about True Detective.”

Which I understand. But then you had to go too far, asking, “Are there spoilers?”

Shouldn’t you be somewhere not vaccinating your kids, you calamity? Of course there are spoilers. Jesus. 

Last Sunday aired the season finale of the third season of True Detective. It defied a lot of expectations– in a rewarding, thoughtful way– and for my money’s worth, was a touching capstone to a season full of loss and tenuous relationships. The finale challenges the viewer to clear away the bullshit distractions in life and, like Wayne Hays eventually does (in triplicate in his dementia-riddled brain), focus on what really matters.

The centerpiece of the series’ third entry is a family torn apart by tragedy. While I’m referring to the Purcells in particular, this could apply to just about every family represented in the season. Isabelle Hoyt’s obsession and then kidnapping of Julie Purcell is borne from the accident that robbed her of her own children, essentially filling a void by causing another. Despite bringing them together, the tragic case is what keeps Amelia and Wayne from trusting each other until they both decide to choose an actual life together, separate from the Purcell case. One could even say that the tragedy Wayne’s dementia is what strains his son to a near-breaking point and is potentially what has kept his daughter away for so long.

But this season spends a significant amount of time with the bereaved family central to the case. We see Tom Purcell destroyed, first seeking oblivion in a bottle, before filling it again with God. Roland West takes him on as an adopted brother of sorts– but we come to learn that he’s filling a void, too, one left from Hays choosing a transfer instead of besmirching his soon-to-be-wife’s journalistic integrity. Lucy Purcell also continues to self-destruct, but now armed with the information that she willingly sold Julie into a “better life,” her cratering lifestyle is a self-flagellation of sorts for silently condoning the accidental murder of her son, Will. The need for her to keep quiet leads to some outbursts and while, in retrospect, Lucy’s “fuck all” attitude might speak to a mother’s guilt alongside grieving agony, she makes a point when she calls out Amelia for being a tourist of her pain. Lucy and Tom are subject to scrutiny, cops and writers looking through their windows during the single-most devastating part of their lives. Lucy can’t cope, eventually dying from a hotshot delivered by Harris when it was apparent that she might come clean. Tom stops punishing himself and seeks to punish others– namely Dan O’brien (no, not one of the funniest persons of internet comedy) — before finally receiving the oblivion that he, in some ways, was seeking the entire time via rigged suicide.

That aspect of voyeurism is played directly back at the viewer, as it is towards Hays. The TV show within the TV show, True Criminal, scrutinizes Wayne Hays hoping to validate their theory of what happened– or otherwise hoping that he’ll contradict himself. The stakes are pretty high once you realize that Hays and West killed a man with the added tension that Hays doesn’t know where he is half the time. But True Criminal also serves up a scathing condemnation of our true-crime infused society. It’s as not heavy-handed as it could’ve been, as True Detective understands that its audience is into grim shit, but it’s also not a wrong assessment, given that Netflix recently released a docuseries about Ted Bundy, seemingly glorifying that misogynistic piece of shit. As much as this story is about the core characters letting go of their obsession with a case that doesn’t need to involve them, this is Pizzolatto telling you to give the family of a murder victim peace by, say, not redditing out theories or saying that a school shooting was staged or poking at the grave decades later.

Amelia characterizes the crime voyeur pretty perfectly. She’s plumbing her husband for details, plumbing other officers for details over promises of dinner, can’t let it go when she and Wayne meet Roland and his then-girlfriend for dinner, and puts it upon herself to interview Lucy, once and again. She’s called out, of course. By Lucy, by the black man with a white eye at her reading, by Lucy’s best friend. The difference between her and True Criminal, however, is that Amelia’s not out to condemn anyone. She humanizes the story of a tragedy the same way she humanizes Wayne– by establishing context and following up on that context, even if she “knows better by now.” It takes a true detective to marry a true detective, I suppose.

True Criminal also serves a pretty ingenious narrative function in that it drives the viewer’s expectations to believe that the Purcell case is tangentially related to Season One’s Yellow King and Season Two’s hippie-occult orgy. Personally, all of my theories centered around the possibility that it’s all connected, man. But it’s pretty satisfying to have Rust and Hart pop up on a computer monitor only to have all of that shit cleared away to discover that the mystery had been so much simpler than bureaucracy and the personal obsession of detectives, crime writers, and viewers thought.

Which all comes down to a reveal with Junious in 2015. Old men Hays and West put their unsteady guns upon him, himself an unsteady old man. While gardening. The moment’s tense but it also doesn’t let you forget that these are septuagenarians, even when they sit down to get the full story from him, Hays’s gun is on the table. And Junious spills.

It’s a classic noir trope set by Raymond Chandler– the end of the mystery culminates in the culprit spilling beans. By the end of the confession, Junious demands justice to kill him but our detectives give him the high hat, choosing instead to leave the man in groaning agony. It’s a complete juxtaposition to Woodard– the Native American Vietnam vet who cracked, not under police scrutiny, but under the system that fucked him with local racists attempting to lynch him  for no other crime than talking to children. He seeks retribution, and he gets it, only after making the decision Hays’s. Makes you think he was atoning for sins he wrought before he started shooting rednecks. He had the munitions. He had a plan. Yet, he made Hays pull the trigger.

We see a lot of “self-flagellation” in this season. After they torture and kill Harris, Roland West goes the Tom Purcell route of drinkin’ and causin’ ruckus. But this time, West wants to get the shit kicked out of him. And he provides a pseudo-comedic reason why. The motherfucker Wolverines out and gives more than he takes until a crowd overwhelms him. We see him weeping later in a gravel parking lot, without Tom, without Hays, without the girlfriend that Hays half-forgot. West seeks judgement, as Tom Purcell did. In that low point, a dog adopts him despite his fucked-up flaws, signifying why he prefers his family in a kennel while “passing time” in the country. Hays’s self-flagellation comes in the form of re-entering the Purcell case, via his late wife’s words. He puts himself on the rack of public opinion, agreeing to do the interview with True Criminal, and justifies it by saying that it’s helping him remember his life. Objectively, he’s only making more trouble.

But. There’s the annoying fact that the tracker Wayne “Purple” Hays is always right.  On the personal level, he’s right that Amelia is fucking with shit beyond her responsibility as a journalist, although the way in which he informs her of his opinion is pretty shitty. He’s right to defy the brass. He’s right to get an aged West on his side to complete the puzzle of the Purcell case, despite that he was wrong to force West to murder Harris. Mahershala Ali embodies Wayne Harris with a strident confidence and a reserved manner of speech– you get the sense that Hays always knows what he’s doing, even if he forgets why he’s doing it, and doesn’t feel the need to explain it.

Which brings us to what I think the core theme of season three to be. It’s summed up by “Amelia’s ghost” when she tells Hays to “know himself.” He might not remember where he is, but by God, he knows he’s there for a reason– hence waking up on Shoepick Lane and hence following up on Amelia’s ghost tip to determine whether or not Julie Purcell still lives. I like the AV Club’s take on that scene where it seems that Hays has a flickering notion of why he’s there and who this woman is before it disappears again– for the better. For all the tragedy wrapped up in the complications of dementia, the ability to forget is also Hays’s strength. Slowly, as the case is left to the past, Hays’s family finally comes together, including West, who has also let go of years of resentment and bitter loneliness to become a brother again to Hays. Since Hays is a tracker, a seeker of truth, forgetting the ending is the only way his story continues– or as Amelia ghost puts it, “the story goes on, healing itself.”

That last shot of Purple Hays in the jungle, his truest self, is going back into the tangle of his own mind. There, he’ll get lost in the Purcell case again, but he’ll also be with his wife, and make the same mistakes and loving commitments to her over and over again. But before he gets lost in the thicket, Hays looks directly at us, confident and wild, as if to say, “I know who I am. Who are you?”

 

If you get down with hardboiled detective noir fiction, maybe you should give Muddy Sunset a read before the followup comes out in a few months.

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Game Theory (of Throne-Building)

Now, you might be saying, “Buddy, two Thrones posts back to back? Wouldn’t it make more SEO sense to wait until the final season starts, instead of blowing your wad all up front?”

To which I reply, “Listen, buttnards, why don’t you keep your beak in your own pot of yogurt, you fuckin’ dumb door-holding fuckin’ oaf.”

…Because last time we talked about why Game of Thrones was so popular. We had a good time (we did. that is non-negotiable), although I didn’t talk about the actual series itself with any real depth. So what makes A Song of Ice and Fire so fuckin’ good when there are a bajillion similar fantasy novels shoveled out on the daily?

Make way for this post, everybody, get your your weird-ass-eerily-accurate-cosplaying persona on and let’s DIG… into our pockets and bring out our dodecal-sided die. That’s right, nerds, we’re gonna go into table-top RPGs and how they’ve shaped your favorite pervert-murder-dragon show on television.

There have been several unsung table-tops prior to Dungeons and Dragons but D&D is the one that stuck after its release in 1974– and much like its philosophical cousin, The Ouija Board, it ran a chill through the hardcore Christian, anti-satanist set. You know what D&D is. You’re hip.

As a goddamn king of nerds, it should come as no surprise that George RR Martin was (and apparently still is) an enthusiast. Apparently, several authors felt that Dungeons and Dragons served as a smelly basement boot camp for writing fiction. In the article previously linked, Ball University Assistant Professor Jennifer Grouling explains:

“D&D is completely in the imagination and the rules are flexible — you don’t have the same limitations” of fiction, or even of a programmed video game, she said. A novel is ultimately a finished thing, written, edited and published, its story set in stone. In D&D, the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.

I want you to pin that notion of story-fluidity behind your ear for a minute or two while we go into the fact that Martin himself ran a long, long campaign of a table-top RPG called Super World in the 80s. Beginning to realize that playing games was not a financially sustainable means of existing, Martin and his gang of hooligan-author friends did what anyone would do– they rewrote the rules of the game in such a way that their campaigns could be transcribed into novels and thereby published. It’s called Wild Cards and the whole story behind its origin is summed up pretty neatly here. Apparently, there’s a TV show in the works, offering hope to all us schlubby punks making art for our friends’ sake.

During this time, Martin went back and forth between trying to jumpstart a serious fiction career and writing for TV.  Suddenly, and forgive me if I’m wrong, he writes a scene he remembered from a dream he had. That’d be the Starks finding the Direwolves, the seed that’d become Ice and Fire. 

I say seed intentionally, because Martin sees himself as a gardener of stories. In his words:

I think there are two types of writers, the architects and the gardeners. The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they’re going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there’s going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up. The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don’t know how many branches it’s going to have, they find out as it grows. And I’m much more a gardener than an architect.

I’ll tell ya, architect and gardner are way better names than what the writing community at large has claimed to distinguish themselves as: plotters (which is self-explanatory) and pantsers (ugh, because one writes at the seat of their pants). It’s essentially the difference between folk who chart out every scene ahead of time and those who explore the words they’re writing while writing. Most authors are a mix of both. And I think it’s important to demystify Martin as some evil curmudgeon whose hiding the blueprints to your favorite dragon-murder-porno and instead see him as a person and an author who’s working on a project that means a lot to him.

It’s not that he doesn’t outline either, but it’s more accurate to say that he strategizes. Apparently an early outline married Tyrion and Arya together and Jaime became king after simply murdering everyone else (kind of like a evil run in a Bethesda game). But that would’ve robbed the story of Tyrion’s integrity of his sudden chastity with Sansa and Jaime’s turn from selfish, impetuous murder machine to self-reflective, all-around good amputee guy (*cough* excludingtheweirdrapeofhissisteronhisson’scorpse *cough*). That’s where the fluidity of viewing an epic fantasy from a bird’s eye view becomes advantageous–  you can see missteps before you make them and then correct course.

It’s why I think Martin views his own work as a table-top RPG that he’s playing with himself (and his audience). It’s documented that he’s a creative type who enjoys transferring table-top antics to words. It’s also documented that he writes an average of 350 words a day. But he has a lot, I’m speculating, a lot of notes and spends a lot, I’m speculating again, a lot of time strategizing.

Several authors I’ve come into contact with, fantasy or otherwise, have a bible of character and world information. It’s full of details. It’ll tell you that x character has brown eyes and z forest is deciduous and Lady HatchetVagina got her moniker ironically. And no doubt Martin has one as well– in fact he writes that shit into his books. Fuckin’ Ned Detective runs through the Baratheon Genealogy to find the golden-haired discrepancy that gets his goddamn clock ticked. There’s a whole chapter (maybe more? Clash of Kings is so big) where Jaime just pages through the White Book, describing all of the feats the White Cloak knights accomplished (some of which is narratively-super important, some not). Martin has definitely put the work in here. But understand, the work built upon itself while it was being written. World building expands. The fog of war dissipates as one moves in a direction. Things change as we look at them. 

The way it still strikes relevant is the fact that the dude spent his fantasy life in the company of other human-beings. If you’ll permit me a stark (heh) deviation to Roberto Bolaño and his (arguably) worst book,  Third Reich. It’s still, ugh, the best fiction out there. At least philosophically. The best I can try to explain what the book is about: a man goes on vacation to a Spanish beach, stays after his vacation (long after his girlfriend leaves), plays a table-top game of WWII, becomes obsessed with a local vagabond, the vagabond beats him at the game, dude fears that the guy is going to kill him and then the vagabond doesn’t kill him. While I’m fairly sure it’s a coded message to express Bolańo’s bisexuality, the novel maintains a descriptive handle on the game’s movements throughout (tediously so), while the main character wraps himself in isolation and paranoia with the exception of his homeless friend. It’s essentially a story about strategizing alone which is ultimately futile. War– like books, games, and art– requires engagement. In isolation the narrator, a German, forgets his own values and plays the Axis. The homeless guy, who is crazy but ultimately virtuous, plays the Allies and, despite being an amateur at the game, wins. This decimates and ultimately liberates the narrator.

From that deviation, I’ll take away two things. The first, as suggested above, is that Martin strategizes in response to other people. He understands the expectations and he knows how to subvert them almost perfectly (read: the definition of irony) which is what makes him such a bastard sometimes. The game he’s playing is against us and to quote Grouling again, “anything can happen,” in a game where “the rules are flexible.”

The second thing I’ll take away is the notion of values. One of my first posts on this site was about how you could use D&D to determine a character for your novel and it would be 10 times more believable than jotting down notes on a profile. Values override details every single time. Because details should serve to express value.

The character of the Hound (the best character! Fuck you! HooooyooooUUUUND!) maintains a certain value set throughout the books and show even though our first introduction to him is his ironic and cynical slaughtering of a young boy (the Han shot first of GoT). But his values become clear, slowly, as Martin is keen to show and not tell us. Lil Clegane’s main value is that he, in nearly every other happenstance, protects children (which makes his boy-slaughtering that much more of a sin). Later we find out why. Still, he protects the Child King Joffrey, then saves Sansa, before becoming Arya’s drunk and chicken-filled father-replacement. He’s a murderer who hates knights, doesn’t go out of his way to hurt women (equivalent to Westeros feminism, I guess?), and keeps the kiddies safe (save the one).

That’s why for three quarters of A Feast For Crows you’re heartbroken to learn that The Hound is raping and killing women and looting towns in the salt pans. Your expectations combat your understanding of the man you’ve begrudgingly come to respect and admire. The “oh-shit” moment happens in a turn of dialogue between Brienne and some old religious fucker who explains that it was Rorge, the noseless douche that kept harassing Arya “with a stick”, that had donned the Hound helm and used that brand recognition to pillage with his brigands. The godly man explains that the Hound died while a man who 100% resembles Sandor Clegane digs graves in the background. In the show, Sandor assists the building of a temple. In both cases it’s assumed that the death of The Hound is a symbolic path to reach forgiveness and atone for his sins through labor (the dorkier among you will nod and solemnly agree that this is the work of the Smith). Through the humiliation of physical work, The Hound transforms into Sandor Clegane, culminating in the scene in the televised series where Sandor attempts to properly bury the farmers that he himself had doomed to death by robbing them a few seasons earlier. He doesn’t seem unquieted by his past, but he continues to make a good effort to support those around him who are trying to make things better.

Just. Like. A dog.

That might be one of the most satisfying character arcs ever written and it works because the characters values remained the same but it required a few hundred pages and six seasons to finally realize them.

I don’t think I’m blowing any minds by saying that Ice and Fire is one big table-top experience. The intro to GoT literally resembles a game-map, complete with ticky-tacky toy-like renderings of the regions involved (wiiiiiith a game-chip circling the construction of Old Town). But it works effectively once transcribed to a literary experience because games have rules and players have values. 

That sentence alone explains the bulk of conflict in the series. Each house has a motto which serves as a rule. They also have repeated sayings which express values.

The Lannister motto is “Hear Me Roar,” while their repeated saying is “A Lannister always pay their debts.” Martin throws us another saying said about the Lannisters: “Lannisters lie.” Tyrion and Tywin play the game by the value of paying off debts to obtain loyalty and assure their own safety/regard. Cersei and Jaime (initially) play the game by the second value of deceit. But they all show their ferocity when push comes to shove and we see what happens when one value clashes against another. [insert “twang” foley]

The Boltons’ motto/rule is “Our Knives Are Sharp,” while their saying/value is “A naked man has few secrets; a flayed man none.” Roose plays by the rule, which is more in line with shady treaties and backstabbing, while Ramsey plays by the value of demonstrating cruelty. Playing by the rule changes the political landscape, while the value ultimately sinks the Bolton house into the grave.

And yes, you have the ever-memed Stark motto of “Winter is Coming,” and the saying “A Stark must always be in Winterfell.” Eddard died because he violated both. By heading south to deal with the politics of King’s Landing, he (albeit reluctantly) forsook his charge as steward of the northern defense against the wights/wildlings and brought Arya and Sansa along with him, leaving Robb alone to the Bolton’s manipulations and Bran, still comatose and crippled, to be strong-armed out of control of the municipality by Theon. The saying and value “There must always be a Stark in Winterfell” is a regional one, essentially saying that without a sense of nobility present, the north will fall to the cruelty of the likes of those fuckface Boltons or taken advantage of by the likes of those goddamn pirate Greyjoys. Currently, HBO-wise, it’s Jon Snow and Sansa upholding the motto and verse of the Starks, hence their survival.

I could go on, but I’m getting interrupted by this sound in the air… Do you hear that? That’s the sound of my virginity re-crystalizing. I learned what fuckin’ GURPS was for a free article on the internet. And I even held myself back from applying stats to characters (Tyrion: INT-8, STR-3; Jaime: INT-3, STR-9 then 2; Robb: INT-5, Str-8; Arya: INT-6, STLTH-9; Sam: INT-7, STR-1, STLTH-0, MGC-0, VIT-0; Melisdandre: MGC-9, TT-10; The Mountain: 10 everything except PSN RSTNC) because there’s a goddamn table top for Game of Thrones now. Cracked.com (before they sold to Scripps and Facebook leveraged the value of video content, essentially fucking up earning projections for every website you used to enjoy) made a video satirizing the likelihood of GoT making the tabletop circuit, leading to madness, betrayal and insanity.

I’m not mad about the RGP (I’LL GET DOWN OFF THIS LEDGE WHEN I GODDAMN FEEL LIKE IT), if it means ushering in another generation of innovative storytellers, but it strikes me as redundant. Martin’s JOB right now is to tell you how the game goes. You can pull a Third Reich and test your own values to try to make it go differently, but what’s the point when you could change the rules and write your own  damn thing?

Again, I’ll quote Grouling: “the plot is always fluid; anything can happen.”

The closest thing Manchot has to a fantasy epic at this time is a genre-bending comedy between Science Fiction and Fantasy featuring a trio of siblings bumbling through a happy-go-lucky nuclear wasteland. It’s called The Fish Fox Boys and you can start reading it here

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

A Game of Thrones: Genre Smashing

How the fuck did George R.R. Martin fool the general public into a near crack-addictive obsession with his Song of Ice and Fire?

Fantasy had always been this niche enterprise, an interest in which could get your ass kicked around a schoolyard. Even with the popularity of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, your dedication to the series determined how big of an ugly nerd you’d be judged as: “Oh, you read the books? Us cool kids only saw the movies! And, yeah, and, and we were necking! Ask Gracie if I wasn’t ploughing that neck like some sex god!”

Fantasy was so niche that the other end of the spectrum held similar defense mechanisms if you weren’t into it enough: “Oh, you haven’t even read the Similarion? Nice try, n00b. Me and Gracie were necking while discussing Idril’s lineage, like, twenty minutes ago before you showed up with your Aragorn-loving ass.”

Yet everyone gets into Game of Thrones. My dad’s read the entire series and I’m pretty sure he has a religious allergy to chocolate milk. My friends are fiends for the latest episodes and they all have theories. The nicest, old, old, ladies that ride the bus with me are holding Fire & Blood.

I wanna know why this polarized genre has found such a universal audience. So let’s start with the aforementioned properties that brought fantasy into the mainstream, shall we?

Twenty two years ago, a down-on-her-luck gal named Joanne Murray (JK Rowling to most) published a little book known as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (translated to the Sorcerer’s Stone for dumb American children). I myself read it in fifth grade and had a grand old talking-to with my teacher about the temptation of dark magic and its road to Satanism. Lutheran school. The book, and its subsequent six sequels, became a hit and a filmic phenomenon.

So why did Harry Potter break?

Well, Rowling was able to make the fantastical element of sorcery almost livable, enriching all of the daily elements of being a student, teacher, government employee, etcetera, with the pizazz of mysticism. Her tactic was to bring down magic to the ordinary, the familiar–  all of which would seem magical to the focal character who hadn’t experienced anything of the sort, just like the book’s readership. For young readers, going to school then became more exciting with a magical analogue, knowing that chemistry was potion making, soccer was Quidditch, and email was a bajillion electronic owls throwing messages back and forth.

She broke fantasy into a common tongue. While she didn’t invent Urban Fantasy as a genre, she made it accessible for young readers to grab onto in an empathetic way.

Aight.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, Tolkien managed the same feat. He followed up a fun, happy-go-lucky-go-wrong-go-lucky-again little romp called The Hobbit (ever heard of it?) and then followed it up with the masterwork earned from a life spent in academic research through mythology, Olde English, history, and the horrors he’d witnessed in World War One. And he needed to make it accessible.

Perhaps it’s his skill as an orator– much like the Velvet Underground leading to punk music, his reading of Beowulf apparently sparked a surge of interest into re-investigating the works in the olde tongue. Tolkien put his performative skills to the page knowing that his writing style needed to establish a mythos and lore similar to that of England’s storied history and mythology, while also remaining serviceable to the everyday reader. While he wrote in an archaic format, Tolkien would generally keep his prose fairly modern, allowing the uneducated masses (especially in America, which enabled his success) to finally access that sweet, sweet burgeoning Fantasy genre.

Which brings us back to George Rawr Rawr Martin. How’d he make Fantasy a universal genre? Martin, like Tolkien, was also guided by the possibilities of mythology, European history, and Catholicism (“lapsed” in Martin’s case) and brought the genre once again into the mainstream. Why so popular? Could it have been the more lenient censors? The blood? The violence? The big ole Red Witch titties? Igh…the incest? Sex and violence is nothing new, and while it certainly sells, it’s no guarantee of success. I think the motherfucker had the same instincts Rowling and Tolkien relied upon, updated with a life devoted to pop-cultural nerd shit.

He knew he needed to show us something familiar, whether we realized it or not. Instead of having us draw comparisons between the fantastical and the ordinary, Martin instead draws us into the fantasy by showing us a story we already find exciting:

Game of Thrones doesn’t start off in the Fantasy genre. It begins as Horror. A snowy glen, a doll-like corpse pinned to a tree comes back to life with blue fire in its eyes. It’s after the grisly aftermath of the White Walkers, when the deserter/survivor’s message gets cut short, doth the fantasy begin with a dark promise. The king visits, giving us a personae dramatis for the non-Stark players, and provides a launching pad for several story arcs, each with their own blurred genres. A political thriller foments when the alarming message that John Arryn has been murdered arrives. The forbidden romance between the Lannister twins is discovered. Jon Snow’s hero journey from Bastard to Badass begins by getting hammered. Sansa’s maturation story from a naïve believer in fairy-tales towards a well-versed decoder of deception is well set, as is Arya’s road from misfit to assassin. Tyrion gets his end wet.

All of these threads we are willing to follow. The bulk of the first book, however, is devoted to Ned Stark, who serves as the primary protagonist. And although his character is embroiled in political chaos and familial complexity, his narrative drive is identical to a hardboiled detective’s.

That’s right, bitches. I’m making this about noir. NED DETECTIVE.

Once he reaches King’s Landing, Ned’s arc falls into the classic structure of a steel-jawed man interviewing a sequence of people looking for the truth. His self-appointed charge is to prove that Cersei’s children ain’t his buddy Bobby Baratheon’s. Ned’s story is based in inquisition in search of the truth, for truth’s sake. Hence, he pokes around the government, he pokes around the common folk, pokes Gendry in the shoulder, he pokes around the ledgers. And he uncovers the scandal and confronts the Femme Fatale. Unlike your average noir thriller, the protagonist is beheaded in front of his daughters.

Which serves as the inciting incident for all of the other plot lines, each one a mishmash of genre regardless of the fantasy setting. A broken-man with a soft-spot for protecting naïve children? With a vendetta against his brother who injured him in their youth? Who finds the value of life through working with common, defenseless people? But still likes killing people? Without context, I’d say with 70% certainty, that I was describing a Kurosawa film. You know who I’m referring to.

Genre-smashing isn’t new.

The aforementioned Akira Kurosawa defined a generation of Japanese cinema by imbuing traditional samurai legends with the genre-specific elements of the western. You can follow this thread for awhile:  Blade Runner is pure noir slammed into a complete science-fiction setting. True Detective: Season One is noir, sure, but injected with the DNA of a buddy cop film, TV police procedural, and cosmic horror. Robert Brockway’s The Vicious Circuit series mixes punk-rock and some of the vilest horror I’ve ever put in my brain (and you should too). Evil Dead II mixes horror with slapstick comedy, while Slaughterhouse V mixes a horrifying account of World War II with quirky science fiction.

It comes down to the same science of making a good mixtape. The advice that my brother gave me on mixtape compilation: “You want to balance novelty with nostalgia.”

The reason is digestibility. You’re more willing to eat your first oyster if you spritz some lemon on it. The familiar makes the unknown easier to handle. The dark complexity of Blade Runner makes more sense if you’re slumming through the streets along with Rickard. True Detective: The turn from existential pessimism towards existential optimism would be way too heady and pedantic unless you had both Cohle and Hart find their Yellow King. The the reality of war in Slaughterhouse V would burden the reader with too much emotional weight unless it was delivered in a way that let the reader escape and put things in perspective just as the narrator describes the horrific events.

Taking one thing and smashing it into another thing is the basis of innovation. It’s the proverbial “you got my peanut butter in your chocolate.” It’s the reason pizzas are sold on bagels, the reason your fridge has a freezer attached to it. It needs to happen at a certain point and it happens on a near instinctual level– ask anyone who’s ever had to write music reviews of local artists: “They’re like Modest Mouse meets The Ramones– if Joey had range.” Science Fiction, at a certain point, was essentially a bunch of pulp drivel until pioneers such as Phillip K Dick and Stanislaw Lem came along and embedded a deep sense of meaning into it, reflecting our own lives, views, and the philosophies they were enchanted by. Hardboiled pulp detective fiction was wrangled by Hammet and Chandler until Ellroy elevated it to literary standards. Hell, you look at the progression of comic books, a medium nearly entirely written off because of its fringe appeal– and now those characters are currently dominating the box offices. The success and/or legacy of which comes down to the fact that the creators held the format of one thing in one hand and enmeshed it into the social topics of gender roles, race, sexuality, or insecurity– it stays relevant.

Game of Thrones is rooted in the fantasy world specific to Martin’s brain. What Martin has that other fantasy writers lack, is a cool understanding of the genres around him. He’s the über nerd who understands everything under the banner of geekdom, inside and out. It’s so complete that I’d wager you could remove the fantasy element entirely and you’d still be left with a competent and enjoyable series. Which gets close to answering my initial question:

Because there’s something that anyone could recognize as their favorite genre, everybody can get into it.

 

Pierre Manchot blends Fantasy with Science Fiction and Dystopia in his humorous series The Fish Fox Boys, the third book of which is soon to be published. Get caught up starting with the first novel here 

 

Biographical details lifted from Wizard and the Bruiser episodes of JRR Tolkien and G.RR. Martin:

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/jrr-tolkiens-the-lord-of-the-rings-pt-i)

(https://soundcloud.com/wizbru/game-of-thrones)

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Case For (and Against) True Detective Season 2

Season 3 of True Detective is rolling out some premium episodes, oozing with mysterious juices while drawing up another intricate web of deceit and dark psychology. The third take in the miniseries is more grounded than it’s predecessors–  the set designs, shooting locations and wardrobe are more understated than ever before and feel worn and degraded or otherwise perfectly tacky in that chintzy 80s kind of way. They absolutely nail what it feels like to be inside a civic building in the south with the 1990 police interview shots– claustrophobic, ancient, with bare, tan brick walls. The season’s coming into its own, keeping the story as simple as possible but unraveling it in a convoluted way. Like the old mystery-writing adage goes, “Write the ending first, then work backwards,” or in Season 3’s case, “Write the ending first, then jump all over the place.”

Pizzolatto must have learned from the Sophomore season’s mistakes, which utilized the narrative strategy of “make a story as impossibly convoluted as possible, make all of the convolutions essentially worthless to the story, but make it look cool as hell.” Despite all that, I’m not a hater on Season 2. It looks cool as hell and delivered several wonderful TV moments and surprisingly subtle touches in a season otherwise over-rife with crying, moody staring, and balls-to-the-wall violence.

There many reasons people thought Season 2 didn’t work. In my estimate, about half of it fell on the production. Part of what made Season 1 so powerful was its directorial tone with Cary Fukunaga eking out harrowing shots from the Louisiana landscape. Whether or not that could’ve been replicated is besides the point, the first season felt complete. Season 2 had 5 directors for 8 episodes. They do a good job in making the LA landscape seem like a futile wasteland as well as transforming the woodland areas into something unspeakably sinister. Still, with that many directors, there’s gonna be some jank between episodes, and the stylistic flourishes of each director combat that of the others. And you can feel it.

A lot of people flared their anger towards the casting director and Vince Vaughn caught the brunt of the hate. I enjoyed Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. While some couldn’t get over his filmography of being a wedding crasher or the hippie dipshit that causes all the grief in Jurassic Park: Lost World, I’ll never disparage an actor for trying something different in their career– hell, travel back in time to the 1980’s and tell audiences Bill fucken’ Murray will have a resurgence as a dramatic actor in the early 2000’s and you’d be beaten to death with a Ghost-Busters lunchbox. I enjoyed the little flourishes that made Frank Semyon a subtle character: he was a low-class hood and now that he’s the boss of a casino, he only drinks Johnny Walker Blue which is a scotch that your annoying-as-hell whiskey nerd friend (Hi!) will tell you is basically Johnny Walker Green in a nicer bottle and a 250 dollar price disparity. It’s a perfect emblem of Semyon– a cheap thug in an expensive suit. That shit? Works. 

A finely-dressed thug who uses 20-dollar words like “apoplectic?” It… uh. Sounds awkward and comes off as shitty but it… works? Or at least, I get what Pizzolatto is trying to get across. That Semyon’s word-choice, just like his brand of whiskey, are examples of his overcompensation for his meager circumstances when he was younger.

But the awkward way that that the “apoplectic” line hits the screen gets to the heart of why Season 2 is the Schröedinger’s cat of True Detective– in that it works and yet doesn’t work at the same time. To figure out the paradox, let’s look at Pizzolatto’s writing method, his inspirations, temperament, and the politics of Hollywood.

First, let’s start with the writing method. Pizzolatto is a one man band (previous to Season 3) and whether or not that’s born from an impulse to protect your intellectual property (an impulse I wholeheartedly understand) or a self-serving genius-complex that “I’m the only one who understands this story,” (an impulse, I also, kinda, understand) the man demanded to write the season alone.

Here’s what an HBO exec has to say:

I’ll tell you something. Our biggest failures — and I don’t know if I would consider True Detective 2 — but when we tell somebody to hit an air date as opposed to allowing the writing to find its own natural resting place, when it’s ready, when it’s baked — we’ve failed. And I think in this particular case, the first season of True Detective was something that Nic Pizzolatto had been thinking about, gestating, for a long period of time. He’s a soulful writer. I think what we did was go, ‘Great.’ And I take the blame. I became too much of a network executive at that point. We had huge success. ‘Gee, I’d love to repeat that next year.’

More established writers have already pointed out that a yearly production schedule is generally necessary when writing a series. Hell, Game of Thrones has been flying without the captain hand of Martin’s novels for two seasons now and it still manages to be coherent, entertaining, and generally great (a few caveats, maybe) year after year. The difference is Thrones has a writing team instead of a one man show– just like every other show on television. The exec quoted above is certainly not wrong when he said that Pizzolatto had been cooking up Rust Cohle’s and Marty Hart’s existential trip into horror for a while. 

Anyone who’s read Pizzolatto’s virgin novel, Galveston, knows that he cannibalized several traits from the protagonist to bolster Cohle’s eccentric vibe. I don’t fault him for that, as it made Cohle a more magnetic character. Reading Galveston in its entirety, however, is a disappointment. Its written as if Cormac McCarthy wrote a Texan Modern Noir and then it just kind of falls apart after the first half. (I’ve tried my own hand at this exact genre with my free novelette, Crimson Stain. Reviews are mixed, to say the least, so I can’t fault the man.)

While taking full custody of the writing rights sounds like a good thing in a contract to protect your baby, know that a year ain’t quite a year in Hollywood’s calendar. Scripts have deadlines and 480+ minutes of entertainment must be written and shown to producers. With a room of writers, you have a spectrum of people telling you what does and doesn’t work with a story. Without that feedback, you might dig yourself into a hole. Hemingway said, “Develop a built-in bullshit detector.” If the writing sucks, someone will tell you. Hard to do when you’re penning a show yourself. It’s represented nearly perfectly in the “apoplectic” scene: Velcoro doesn’t foil Semyon in the way that would make that scene–that word– work, by telling him to shove his fancy language up his zoot-suit, the same way no one was there to edit Pizzolatto’s more fanciful dialogue. But hey, sometimes, you’re George Lucas. Sometimes you’re an English professor who impressed his way into Hollywood with a perfect show and was then forced under a gun to write another season.

Now, I’m going to take some time to discuss The Big Nowhere, a novel by James Ellroy and the second entry in his La Quartet. Nearly everyone can, on some level, remember LA Confidential (a pretty good film featuring Guy Pierce, Russell Crowe, and, igh, Kevin Spacey) and yet it is forgotten that it’s part of a four-part series. The reason being, other than the disaster of the 2006 film Black Dahlia, his other books have been in film production purgatory– especially The Big Nowhere, a project that George Clooney had tried to push through the pipes for 15 years. The problem is film copy-write law. And it’s as convoluted as a murder mystery, so keep with me, folks.

So. Names of characters in a movie where one film company holds the rights cannot be used by another film company who holds rights of a different entry in the series. Sounds like a small deal? Imagine if the film rights to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was purchased by Paramount while The Chamber of Secrets was purchased by TriStar. Tristar would be legally obligated to rename the seriesall of the main characters and potentially the main fucking conflict itself, since it corresponded to the first novel! And that’s what happened to the  LA Quartet (and thousands of stories, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry one of them.) Thus the script of The Big Nowhere had so many names replaced and its plot-points altered, that it no longer resembled the initial story, whatsoever. Hence, it died in Hollywood utero.

While we’re on this tear, let’s talk about how the film LA Confidential fucked up two major things. One, the gregarious and Irish Homicide Captain, Dudley Smith,  gets clipped at the end of the movie. Given that he’s the through-line villain of the entire fuckin’ series, making the sequel, White Jazz, an impossibility. Two, they re-write the character of Buzz Meeks to serve as a pathetic, fat, corrupt cop who gets shot in the first fucking act.

If you’ve read LA Confidential, you’ll recognize Buzz Meeks as the poor fucker whom Dudley shoots in the prologue. If you’ve read The Big Nowhere, you’ll recognize that he’s the baddest motherfucker in the entire Quartet. He’s ex-police, a romantic, white trash, serves the mob, and holds a heart of gold, as pure as it can be in the 50’s, who tries to pull a heist on the biggest corrupt cop of all time.

Pizzolatto wanted his Buzz and Meeks it too. Thus he split him into two characters: Ray Velcoro and Frank Semyon. Velcoro: the corrupt cop, boosting drugs and working with known criminals, doing extra-curricular brutality to provide for his son. Semyon: the low-class thug whose violence gave him a ticket to a higher societal standing, whose bid for a better standing signs his death warrant.

You might notice that having the same character talk to each other doesn’t exactly equal a dialectic foil like Marty Hart vs Rust Cohle. Velcoro talking to Semyon is interesting, but there’s less of a didactical back and forth in terms of personality and more of an ironic power exchange in that the mob boss is directing (and sometimes fathering) the cop. There’s some cool shit there, but it’s barely explored.

Taylor Kitsch’s character, Paul Woodrough, is almost damn near unnecessary. He’s interesting, despite the revelation that he’s gay was a decade late on social-progressivism. It’s my belief that he was inserted to mime the story of Danny Upshaw in The Big Nowhere, a detective who nearly solved a brutal psycho-sexual string of murders but was ultimately manipulated into committing suicide because the threat of revealing his homosexuality. Woodrough’s character has some redeeming qualities and serves to give the team tactical leverage when they get caught in a colossal fire-fight in Episode 4, but his personal hangups don’t lead to much thematically.

Rick Springfield plays a ghoul of a plastic surgeon and I’m sure that everyone watching was pretty satisfied when Colin Farrel knocked his teeth out. It’s the mirror image of yet another Ellroy character, one who performs plastic surgery on sex-workers to make them appear like celebrities (in Season 2, it’s “8 to 10s!”).

There’s more to corroborate my theory, but my take on True Detective Season 2, is that Nic Pizzolatto was attempting to finally bring to screen The Big Nowhere in a ham-fisted way that was set in his own world. And in that way, he kind of succeeded. Given that we’re never going to see The Big Nowhere hit the screen anytime soon, there is a part of me that champions Pizzolatto’s attempts as somewhat heroic. It’s agreeable to the namesake of the series in a philosophical sense– True Detective was once a magazine that offered a wide variety of pulp hard-boiled noir that served as inspiration for the noir film movement. Noir-God Raymond Chandler has gone on record saying that Phillip Marlowe was a product of “the pulps,” combining elements from other writers and characters to forge his own. It then makes sense to me that you’d want the television series to draw upon all sorts of influences and have direct nods to the works that defined the genre, old and new alike. The fact that Star Wars is Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress mashed up with Flash Gordon doesn’t diminish my love for A New Hope. 

So does True Detective Season 2 work?

Again, yes and no.

Narratively, I think it comes down to the fact that Pizzolatto was trying to tell one story while also trying to transcribe another in the same story. It destabilizes the bones. Not that you can’t tell two stories at once with the noir format– Chandler’s The Long Goodbye pulls this off and that’s generally accepted as the best Marlowe novel.

Perhaps then, it is a matter of focus. I can see that Pizzolatto and his co-writers are determined to deliver something we haven’t seen before. They aren’t going for razzle and dazzle spectacle, which I appreciate– they’re not simply trying to up the ante after last season’s bloodbath– but instead work on torquing personal relationships and complicated regional politics. So far, Season 3 makes the promise that this story is nothing but focused… even if the main protagonist isn’t.

 

Engineering Suspense

Engineering Suspense

I’m coming to terms with the fact that much of my fiction work has one foot planted in the thriller genre. The defining ingredient of a thriller is its suspense which has me thinking whether we could isolate and examine that which makes a scene, and the overarching plot itself, suspenseful. I’m hopeful.

Here’s what Hitchcock has to say on the subject:

“There is a distinct difference between “suspense” and “surprise,” and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let’s suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!”

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”

The most functional example of Suspense I can think of is the “Bad Dates” scene in Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. A bad man who hangs out with bad monkeys poisons a bowl of dates before a little Belushi-child brings the dates to the table where Jones and Sallah are discussing boring-ass archaeologist bullshit. The audience knows that the dates are poisoned and feels a sense of dread as Jones carries the fruit around, pausing to reflect on the information dump Sallah is delivering. Jones pops the date in the air, the audience shits, Sallah sees the dead monkey (a traumatizing experience for every 90’s child) and catches the fruit before it hits Jones’s mouth. Bad Dates. It ends on a grim joke. This scene works to hide the exposition necessary for the plot– a kind of misdirection that engages the viewer while also cramming heavy plot points down their throats. Indiana Jones should be a boring movie (it’s about an archaeologist goofing off with Bible antiques for chrissakes) but it cleverly engages the audience with high-stakes suspense at every twist.

It’s all about information control. That scene wouldn’t have worked without showing the bad man adding the poison. Without it, there’s just a dead monkey and an asshole Sallah obstructing a tasty snack. But it also doesn’t work without a scene roughly ten minutes earlier when Indiana Jones offers Marion the fruit and tells her, “Hey babe, it’s dates, you eat ’em, what is you stupid?” By controlling that information and doling it out at the right time, the audience has been forced to ask the question, “What’s going to happen with those dates, bruh?”

Timing the information is key and where you position this information is going to force the audience to ask different questions. Let’s talk about Tarantino, as he has a flair for torquing suspense during long passages of dialogue.

The opening scene of Inglorious Basterds is a perfect example. You know it’s unsettling because of the historical subtext (uh, Nazis) and because of the direct subject matter of the conversation (Casual anti-semitism and the bureaucratic banality of  the Holocaust). You understand that there’s a power dynamic at play here, and certain elements are played comedically (the size of the pipes, par examplé), but essentially it’s just a friendly conversation between a German officer and a French farmer, the former asking the latter about his neighbors. And then the camera pans below the floorboards and the audience now understands what’s at stake and the tension skyrockets. Were you nervous when the Nazi’s arrived? Of course. But you weren’t afraid about the outcome of the conversation until the camera informed you that you had a reason to feel that way– and then the conversation continues and dangles the outcome on a taut wire.

Here’s a failure in suspense: The stadium scene of The Dark Knight Rises. The audience is told, via exposition, that Bane is laying explosive-laden concrete around Gotham and after some kid sings the national anthem, Bane detonates the lot and we cut around to the mayor dying, the stadium exploding, the tunnel exploding, and bridges collapsing. For so much destruction, the scene plays out fucking languid. We just learned that shit was about about to blow up and there was no countdown. It’s functional, I guess, to move the plot forward, but the destruction showed onscreen wasn’t necessarily in the viewer’s mind as a stake in the villain’s scheme. The audience was relatively uninformed and the result is a diminished legacy to what could have been a perfect Batman trilogy. It’s strange to think that this movie came from Christopher Nolan, given that his bread and butter is creating thrilling, unexpected filmic narratives, perhaps quintessentially achieved in Memento, which keeps asking the audience “How did we get here?” through a disciplined control of information sequencing through a believable, if not convenient, perspective.

So let’s talk about how perspective impacts the release of information to create suspense.

The revelation in Silence of the Lambs is Buffalo Bill is making lady suits. The audience probably understands this before Clarice does, but only after a slow drip of clues allows the viewer to stitch it together for themselves. The way information is controlled in that narrative makes the viewer hink on the question “What the fuck?” while Clarice asks “Why the fuck?” and fills in the plot for us. Onward, the viewer is always ahead of Clarice. We know that Jame Gumb is the killer. She gets wise (because of moths and shit) and then the movie puts the audience further ahead by assuming the night-envisioned perspective of Gumb watching her stumble through the dark. Suspense is achieved by making us understand that the hero is vulnerable. However, in Lector’s escape plotline, the viewer is given only the information that Lector is alone with two unconscious guards and the film suddenly follows the perspectives of the police officers attempting to find and subdue him. We know nearly as little as they do and, although our hairs are up, we’re still trying to piece together the how? The reveal is a faceless corpse springing into an elevator car and we go, “Ohhhh fuuuuuu–” while our brains catch up to speed with everything we’ve been shown, even before Lector sits up to pull the skin from his face.

And I think it’s in perspective that we find how to measure the release of information to keep our audience enraptured, and to figure out what kinds of dilemmas are suitable for the story you’re trying to keep, well, suspended. The Raiders example couldn’t work without an omniscient camera. Silence of the Lambs wouldn’t work without limited perspective. Proper tool for the proper job.

It’s generally understood that this level of tension is harder to accomplish in writing than it is in film. What an insert shot on an object or an actor’s expression can accomplish can easily set up a certain expectation to prime the viewer’s attention. That being said, written narrative has more access to the reader’s direct psychology than film and that can be exploited to create similar, if not greater, experiences of suspension.

The question of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest moves from “Can the Continental Op persuade an entire town’s kingpins to murder each other?” to “Did the Continental Op become so tainted from his involvement with murderers that he murdered Dinah Brand with an ice-pick when he blacked out from gin and laudanum?” That question drives the third act of the novel, after the initial goal was seemingly achieved. The reader, who has no doubt come to like the main character’s wiles, has to wrestle with this unknown, internal quantity. What’s more, the reader knows as little as the Continental Op, narrating his experience. Information control within perspective.

Starting your third act with the main character’s hand around an icepick stuck into a gamblin’ woman’s tit is one way of injecting suspense into a story (editorial: it’s a pretty cool one). There are others.

First person is particularly a hard nut to crack with this– you only have the character’s point of view to play with, making the “bomb beneath the floorboards” harder to establish. But you also have a tool that objective POV’s do not– a breadth of interiority. Take it for granted that the character’s reactions to certain stimuli will generally bleed into the reader’s mind. Now make the character obliviously acknowledge something obviously dangerous. Or began stacking idiosyncrasies from the character’s perspective to make a person or object dubious. Have the character run gut-checks. Make the reader ask the question, “Why is this the focus?” before revealing the payoff.

A favorite device of mine is to employ several first person narratives. Where one experience is incomplete, another fills in the gaps and gives the other narrative a more pronounced sense of danger and vice versa. It is not unlike a game of tennis.

With Third Person Omniscient, you can establish anything you want in any sequential order which, unfortunately, does not make this job easier. The trick, again, is to control the amount of information. If you place a scene which follows a man planting a bomb in a post-office box and in the next scene it explodes, then just like The Dark Knight Rises, you’ve squandered your moment. However, if you wrote the same sequence of events from a removed perspective, where all you saw was a man who deposited a package into the box and looked over his shoulders before he walked away, well, then we’re watching the mailbox now, aren’t we? Remove it further. Let’s say a hotdog vendor with a hearing-aid can’t get a certain beeping out of head. He complains all day. Our hero buys a hotdog, says something dismissive to the man’s complaint and walks away– only to witness an explosion a dozen yards away, and he’s covered in letters and postcards.

To instill suspense, one must make the audience understand danger. To make that understood, one must inform the audience of that danger one way, or another. When and how you do that is up to you but you do need to realize the questions you are proposing to your audience. If they’re asking “What is happening?” then you’re either a surrealist, a lazy surrealist, or a lazy writer. If they’re asking “Why is this happening?” you can rest more assuredly that you’ve provided enough information to have them ask, “What’s going to happen next?”

 

A Comedy of TERRORS Part II: Dracula

A Comedy of TERRORS Part II: Dracula

I recently finished Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a novel that, along with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, defined a goddamn genre. Modern readers might be put off by the dry, elevated prose throughout the epistolary epic, especially since recent imaginings of vampires are either laughably melodramatic or so far up its own conceited, dreary ass that a return to the source material seems like an exhausting task.

Let me tell you, Bram Stoker’s Dracula indulges heavily in melodrama and dreariness. That being said it also reads like a dream, in part, because it is secretly hilarious.

The primary protagonist of Dracula, while an ensemble piece, is ultimately Van Helsing. He isn’t even mentioned until nearly 150 pages into the novel, but once he’s established, he is the primary agent of action and knowledge against the Un-Dead Count. Once he’s introduced, the entire plot revolves around his decisions. And he’s funny. He’s Dutch, so, naturally, his English is broken and jumbled together in long, raving rants. And he’s awkward. He’s blunt when he should he should be tactful, and overly explicative when he should be precise. Nearly immediately after Lucy Westrenra dies, Helsing verbally diarrheas a litany of his research, confusing his poor former student, Dr. Seward, before obtusely saying, “I want to cut off her head and take out her heart,” which only distresses Seward further. It takes another litany and several demonstrations to get Seward on board.

Van Helsing fucks up socially, constantly. He makes Mina Harker, once the vampiric curse is falls upon her, cry by callously saying, in so many words, “don’t forget that a Vampire breast-fed you a couple of hours ago,” before realizing his social mistake.

What’s more is that he addresses his comedy directly. He straight up fucking laughs in hysterics after Lucy has died. Seward attributes it as  “it was only his sense of humour asserting itself under very terrible conditions.” Van Helsing goes on one of his rants, discerning “laughter who knock at your door and say, ‘ can I come in’,” from laughter that says, “‘I am here.'” I’ve gone on before about how Horror and Comedy are nearly one and the same, given their basic elemental makeup. But here Dracula pokes at a baser inclination with its comedy. Which is that laughter, dramatically induced via comedic relief, is a fear response. I’ve written about this before, thinking my modern perspective of irony of tragedy and comedy was somehow a revelation.

Buddy, we’ve been funny for a long while and for the same reasons.

Take this: Lucy Westenra slowly becomes a Vampire. She’s entombed and the fuckers who loved her mourn her passing. Van Helsing says some crazy shit about wanting to cut her head off and stuff her mouth with garlic (again, hilarious in the way he proposes it). Seward pledges to never take a diary entry down again. CUT TO several newspaper clippings of children, desanguined, found in a feverish daze after being lured away by a ‘bloofer lady’:

A correspondent writes us that to see some of the tiny tots pretending to be ‘the bloofer lady’ is supremely funny. Some of our caricaturists might, he says, take a lesson in the irony of grotesque by comparing the reality and the picture.  (229)

It’s not only that this passage implies that Stoker was, on some level, self-aware of how ridiculous his story is, it’s the baffling use of the term ‘bloofer lady.’ There’s no contextual explanation as to what that means in the clippings, nor is it ever repeated after the chapter closes. Furthermore, there’s no footnote (in my copy, at least) explaining the term, suggesting that it went over the heads of scholars for years and years. Thank Christ for Urban Dictionary, which explains that “bloofer” is, in fact, the reported cockney dialect of “beautiful.” Say it out loud in a cockney accent and you’ll get it. Bloofer lady. Hilarious.

Stoker reports dialects of many UK islanders– Irish, Scottish, cockney, Welsh, I think, in addition to Helsing’s strange Dutch accent. Now, the first reaction might be that Stoker’s making fun of the lower classes (Dracula, after all, is the tale of haunted aristocrats) but I’m one to think that Stoker, being Irish himself, was poking at the intellectual class reading his book. I like to think that he knew well that his literary audience would have been confounded by a lot of the more colloquial verbiage in the book, whereas an educated albeit lower-class reader would be able to decipher the language perfectly. Some of the dialogue is so entrenched in dialect that the only reason I was able to understand half of it is due to my fascination with Scottish People Twitter. It ultimately adds a sense of playful levity to the Gothic narrative, because of the playful nature inherent to “vulgar” UK slang and expressions.

At a certain point when I was discussing Dracula with my companions, I was frustrated that the only common understanding of the book was the “I VANT TO SUCK YOUR BLOOD” parody of a misquote from Bela Legosi’s incarnation of the Count. But the more I thought about it, that comedic take on Dracula is almost closer to Stoker’s intention than initially realized. Nearly everyone can agree that the vampires depicted in Twilight are garbage creatures, over-saturated in the poetry of eternal life and shiny, blah, blah, blah. Meanwhile, What We Do In the Shadows nails it, utilizing a comedic tone to play with the wide-spanning vampiric lore without diminishing its potency. Likewise, The Castlevania video game series employs a subtle humor (often in the form of items and certain enemies) that pokes fun at the concepts without taking you out of the experience. There’s a level where you essentially murder everyone in Hogwarts.

And finally there’s the gleeful Sir Anthony Hopkin’s portrayal of Van Helsing in Coppala’s adaptation of Stoker’s classic, who seems to be the only actor cognizant of what movie he’s in.

There are yet unmined opportunities to explore with Vampires. Dracula itself is a culmination of many years studying the folkloric traditions and superstitions surrounding the monster and Stoker only scratched the surface. So take heart, horror authors.

But for Christ’s sake, use some humor to blunt the subject’s poetic edges. Vampires are ridiculous and you know this.