Sunday, November 24, 2013

Essentials of Writing: Tone

Before I begin, I wanted to say that I'm sorry for the long distances between posts, lately. I've taken an active and energy depleting "real life" set up for myself, so I have less time and capability to research and gather together a thoroughly thoughtful post as frequently as I did before. I'm still here, just busy. Having made the apology, let's begin the beguine.

In this series I hope to examine different aspects of writing well. Like I'm doing with genre, I hope to isolate a particular aspect of writing thoroughly examine it and give suggestions for how to best develop and utilize that skill. To do this I'll give an example of how that element works in a good example and how it fails to work in a bad example, contrasting the good from the bad I'll then be able to give advice on how to avoid problems and help you the reader to develop your own writing.

I want to start off with the aspect of writing that is "tone". It is one of the "harder" aspects of writing to tackle as it comes closer to a writer and artist's sense of "intuition" than it does something you can tangibly develop, though you can develop it. A good writer knows how to write a story so that it tonally all agrees with itself. The best way I can describe it is that tone is part of the "aesthetics" of writing well. For the fashionistas reading this, it falls into the same category as "color coordinating" your outfit; for the cooks out there, that all the tastes are "stimulating" where they need to be, and for the homeboy auto mechanics out there, it falls into the same category as "pimping" your ride. Any piece of writing has an agreed upon sense of aesthetics that make sense for it, and what colors makes sense for some people's "skin tones", that specific spices are appropriate for what you're making, or what "pimping additions" fits with your automobiles' design, will vary. The simplest way to explain tone to you thus is by saying tone is how well all the smaller more individual elements that make up your writing agree with one another. Tone is about whether individual characters fit with the kind of plot or setting they're in. Tone is about there being a consistency in how different elements are treated--like if something is made a laughing stock for the entirety of the film that it's kept that way. Tone is about making sure that your plot twists fit with the world of your story by having established before that such a thing is credible. Tone is about making sure your writing style fits with the genre you're writing in. Tone is about everything, which is why I'm starting with it and from everything we can then later explore smaller smaller and more minute parts in later posts.

Generally we can divide tone into two major groups: There's "comic", which in this sense of the word I'm using to be about stories that are about the coming together of a group of characters as a community. There's "tragic", which in this sense of the word I'm using to be about stories that are about the isolation of an individual character from his community.

And from there you can divide those tones into five main minor "flavors" so to speak, though there's obviously more than five possible. There's "mythic" which is presenting the current community values of time in a sincere and straightforward manner but on a cosmic scale that affects us all. There's "romantic", which is about looking at an idealized view of the community's values. There's the "nostalgic" which exists between the "romantic" and "realistic", in examining an idealized past that actually did exist within living memory, but is "cleaned up" a bit and slightly exaggerated for effect. There's the "realistic", which is about representing what communities are actually here and now with exacting detail--presenting them with high definition starkness. And then there's the "ironic", which is about looking at past, present, or future and seeing how worthless, futile, or absurd communities, values, and people can be.

Northrop Frye talked about these ideas in his essay on "Modes" which I'm partially attributing to and partially riffing off and doing my own thing with. In that essay he went further to analyze all of Western Literary history into "five eras" of tone based on the relation we the reader had with the characters in the story and the characters in the story had with their world. I've covered them in a general sense for you above, but I'd like to point out the relationship he makes note of with the ironic mode as it's here he really drives home what separates the ironic from the non-ironic, and in so doing making us aware of how different ages might view a piece of art, which is the second quotation from much later in the essay:

"5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of a greater freedom.


The tonality of Antony and Cleopatra is high mimetic, the story of the fall of a great leader. But it is easy to look at Mark Antony ironically, as a man enslaved by passion; it is easy to recognize his common humanity with ourselves; it is easy to see in him a romantic adventurer of prodigious courage and endurance betrayed by a witch; there are even hints of a superhuman being whose legs bestride the ocean and whose downfall is a conspiracy of fate, explicable only to a soothsayer. To leave out any of these would oversimplify and belittle the play. Through such an analysis we may come to realize two essential facts about a work of art, and that it is contemporary with its own time and that it is contemporary with ours, and they are not opposed but complementary facts." (Northrop Frye)

Frye's larger point being that we can't just analyze how a work of art is viewed with relation to the time it was written, but we should also look for how that work of art relates to people today, as they'll be two very fundamentally different things as society has changed. And they will continue to change for as long as people continue to die, are replaced with new generations, and those change the accepted values within the fabric of society.

In any piece of great art, a work can work on multiple levels of tonality, resonating long after its creation and enduring as an example of great art. That's how developing good tonality in your work can help you in your writing, and is one way of ensuring that your work lives on after you've ceased to be a memory in those living, and often how it can resonate with more people on different levels. In Frye's example of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra he goes through and shows how we can see Antony as a "great man, who's fallen" (what I call nostalgic), or a man, just like us, "who falls for all too human reasons" (what I call realistic), or a man beneath us, "who was enslaved by his passion" (what I call ironic), an idealized "adventurer, betrayed by a witch" (what I call romantic), or as a great god-like, Colossus, who fell only because Fate, said it must be so (what I call mythic). Each of these is a different way of looking at the same story which is unified enough in its tone that people with different viewpoints can approach the work of art and still get the story, though their relationship with the art will be different than their great-grandparents' relationship with that same work of art would have been.

Okay, now that I might've lost you in all that definition, where can we find some examples? Let's stick with the ironic tone, as that's the tone most people living today are probably the most familiar with--Frye does call our modern era the "Ironic Era", so to speak.

Let's compare two "musical films"--though one was adapted from a musical play and the other from a novel, that were released within a year of each other. One of which you're likely to have heard, and the other probably not, but both are relatively comparable in terms of what they're attempting to do and one succeeds and the other fails largely on their use of tone. The two films I'll be comparing are Meredith Wilson's The Music Man (1962), and Walt Disney's Summer Magic (1963).

Looking at The Music Man, the story is automatically a "comic" story about how a community "comes together". A smart "city slicker" salesman named Harold Hill, comes to "small town America" to bamboozle them into buying an "all-boy's marching band". While doing so, being the ever consummate salesman he has to avoid difficulties and complications that appear as he makes his pitch. And in order to sell his wares he has to inadvertently get all the people of the discordant society to come together to "sing the same tune". He gets the parents in line by stirring up fear of unruly youth. He gets the unruly youth in line by giving them something to do, if not play in the band then as a leader of the band. He distracts the quarreling school board by teaching them to be a barbershop quartet--and they're so in awe of their ability to not be discordant, they are distracted long enough for himself to "slip away" each time. And after the fear evaporates from the mothers of the town, he tries to keep them distracted with a dance committee, as well as find a way to get enough information out of the women to know how to do battle with the only person in the small town capable of exposing him, Marian. Because his plan is most visible to the outsiders of the community (as they're the ones isolated or withdrawn enough in order to view him and how his spell affects the rest of the community correctly) Marian is able to see right through Harold. Largely the story is set up with two modes at work in our over all comic tone. There's the ironic which is plaintively obvious as we, like Harold, are supposed to on some level look down and relish as he bamboozles these "hicks from River City, Ioway", in that way we're looking down on these people, viewing them as "inferior" to Harold and us. There comes a borderline level of sadistic enjoyment in seeing the town "fooled" by this slick promoter. This is also helped by the fact that in 1962 we're looking to a past that's fifty years distant after which much change has occurred. What the town WAS is laughed at and made much fun of. However, this is a comic tone overall, and the ultimate irony is being pulled on Harold by the author of the story--his bamboozling is ultimately "just what the town needed" and is over all more "helpful" and "bringing people together". Marian recognizes this and ultimately is why she doesn't stop Harold but begins to help him. So in that way, the irony of the ironic tone used is that it isn't really too ironic (it can't be too ironic, or else the comic tone would collapse). But at the same time this starts employing another tone that comes in: the nostalgic tone. This is best represented by the ending more than the beginning. While we can laugh at what those people were, what we the 1962 viewer slowly come to realize over the course of the film is that Harold's bamboozling is actually working towards creating the foundations of the values of what we base our community on today. And in that way we can be ironic towards what they were, but nostalgic towards what they'll later become: inspirations for today. And what holds these two rather conflicting tones together is the fact that Harold's actions "help" and not "harm", as well as the ending of the film when the parents start taking pride in the badly tuned band--which is a way of maintaining the ironic tone even in a nostalgic sense. Thus the final ending of the film of the credits with the picture perfect marching band marching down the street that the badly-tuned band transforms into, thus allows us to have the realization that: yes, what we were was laughable, but what we became is worth valuing and helped create something worth valuing and preserving. This transformation doesn't seem "out of place" either, because we're witnessed to the same transformation throughout the film, but most especially as embodied by the character of Marian--who goes from the laughable bookish Librarian spinster archetype, to a blooming angenou of beauty slowly over the course of the film. She is aware of the transformation and welcomes it as it brings a life to her that she had only dreamed of, and it is because of her that she is able to convert the town to HER way of thinking. Ultimately the story can be seen as being about Marion's reconciliation with her own town and inclusion within her own community where before she had been isolated as an outsider, and how Harold helped inspire her and the rest of the town to "come together" without realizing how beneficial he was in the first place. It also keeps with the comic tone in that we have a person manipulating all these people so that they can come together, which is a big part of most comedies. Think of Harold as the equivalent of a Rosalinde figure from Shakespeare's As You Like It; he's the person who's pulling all the strings to bring everyone together. However in the ultimate irony he's doing so without realizing he's going to be pulled in himself. So in that way the transformation of the band in the final credits becomes not just acceptable but inevitable as it fits with the tone of the rest of the film. And ultimately it's what the town would become, not what it was that is given the nostalgic treatment, with the "what it was" being portrayed as ironically laughable. And in that way both the irony and the nostalgia are given equal weight and help propel the story to continue resonating with us to this day, and subtract any part of that mixture and you "mess up" the story. I'm thinking of a 2003 TV adaptation which starred Mathew Broderick as produced by Disney which was far too sincere and nostalgic, with very little irony, and thus fell flat.

Having mentioned Disney now it's time to come to the Disney film, Summer Magic. Like The Music Man it's set in a period of time roughly analogous with it, give or take a few years. The Disney film is a lesser known and less popular Hayley Mills film. It is about a city family which due to the father's death loses most of their money and has to move to the country where it's cheaper to live. And because of that they have to adapt to country life and become part of their new community. This is to be expected as most comedy is about entering a "green world" and leaving the "corrupt" world of the city. As You Like It being the classic example. The film is also very reminiscent of Edith Nesbit's children's book The Railway Children from the same time period which has much the same premise of a family of three children and their mother moving to the country to live more cheaply than in the city, which was a common plot device of many children's stories of the time (which makes me wonder why all these fatherless families kept appearing circa the turn of the last century). And the rest of Summer Magic is largely consumed with "slice of life" issues of the city folk learning to adapt to the country with a bunch of contrived minor plot points that barely drive small scenes forward, but not the overall story, so a detailed summary of all those sub-plots would be far too much of a waste of time.

The problem comes when the city folk adapt too quickly and so an even more extreme city cousin comes to stay with them, and that's where the film really begins to have problems tonally. Up until the extreme city cousin comes to visit, one sees the family slowly adapting to country life. The little boy who's dressed how his mother would've liked him to look in a "Buster Brown" suit, gets called a "sissy" by the rougher country boys, and so gets his hair cut, finds a dog, trades his suit in for overalls, barefeet, and a plaid shirt. In other words he completely converts to country living. Likewise the eldest sibling, as played by Hayley Mills, proves to be something of a tomboy to begin with and starts going around the home fixing it up, wearing trousers, and generally being "active". She completely converts to the values of the country as well. Well, I should say she is more "set free" by the values of the country rather than adopts them, as it's clear from the beginning of the film that she's been a secret admirer of the country and it is her idea to move there, arranging the entire family to move there. So from the beginning of the film, we're set up to expect that she'll be our "Rosalinde" figure helping everyone to change. Instead we're switched out with the old postman played by Burl Ives playing a Prospero-like version of the figure pulling all the strings--being threatened to be exposed by his nagging wife stereotype. The middle child, the musically talented son, gripes about not being able to be a "composer" in the new house, but quickly adapts to country living by taking a job driving a truck (he's supposed to be about 13 or 14 too, keep in mind) for the local postman whose son decides to go to the city to try living there for a change. Generally throughout the entirety of the film city values are derided and made fun of and abandoned, with the only person not changing so much as "adapting" being the mother, who maintains a level of city refinement and lady-like behavior in her own person, though at a reduced manner. The kids throw themselves entirely into the country is the problem, so that they become so much a part of the country that any and all sense of the story sputter out about halfway into the film. Enter in the extreme city cousin at this point to keep the film going for the rest of it. And it's here that we get the plot we should've expected from the beginning of city mouse and country mouse playing off of one another, only we're seeing it done by characters who began this film as "city mice" not too long ago. Some drama pops up with the two cousins competing for the attentions of the young newly college graduated schoolmaster (they're about 16 or 17 keep in mind--yeah that's a little creepy), and ultimately we come to the most tonally out of place scene in the film, the song: Femininity.

When I first saw the song, I took it in an ironic manner, because I just couldn't believe that we were meant to take it seriously. First off it's sung by both cousins to the country gal in order to attempt a last minute makeover on the poor girl. This comes after the two cousins have worked out their differences, but it is performed in a way as to cause you to question its sincerity (Hayley Mills rolls her eyes while singing about the joys of femininity--there's a closeup of this--and sings while wearing trousers). In that way it reminded me of the ironic strip tease song from Bye Bye Birdie also released that year, "How Lovely to be a Woman". Then add to it that I have no one in my life left who has a memory of that time period which is being portrayed on the film, and it's portraying a time most people would view as "constraining", especially if one were a woman. So if you look at this song with a more modern "genders are equal" view, it's like looking down upon an absurdity from a position of more freedom--as Frye mentioned earlier in his ironic view. Regardless of the original intentions of the song, any hint that a woman needs to "hide the real you" in order to "catch a beaux" is going to be taken by a person with my value set as being a time before "freedom came" and if the scene isn't isolating the person from the society, I'm going to take it as ironic as the characters are constrained under values "less free" than my own.

It also doesn't help either that femininity is a refined city value. And as we all know the majority of the film has been spent making fun of city values. So now to take it seriously in this moment is completely out of place and incorrect tonally to the rest of the film. Femininity is part of that "refinement" that the film has been making fun of the entire time. I'm supposed to laugh myself silly at the little boy being dressed like a "sissy", at the cousin's valuing "hand-sewn Paris clothes" over machine sewn clothes, etc. However I'm supposed to take that nice ironic poking fun of refinement and then turn around and value uber-femininity out of almost nowhere? Heck even the scene that would theoretically set this up (the cousin's wooing of the school teacher) is more of a tug of war and it isn't until the cousin stops trying too hard and starts sharing a bit more "honest" googly-eyes with the school teacher, that she wins him over. And as we all know "honesty" is good country values, while "pretension" is false city values, that's something this film makes clear, but then has to abandon in order to hold up the ideal of female pretension.

I could completely believe it to be some ham-fisting on Disney's part to reflect the kind of values he wanted presented. But because of those tonal problems, the film falls rather flat. If it had stayed with those "ironic tones" throughout the rest of the film--like for instance The Music Man depends upon, then I think the film would stand up better and probably have done better in the box office too. Had Lolly the country gal been more like Zenita, constantly coming out with "inappropriate outbursts and being overly blunt", and our heroine less of a tomboy and more "citified" to begin with (but discovering that the country has set her free rather quickly due to the relationship with the country gal friend she makes), then this might've worked, as well as be more tonally appropriate.

The biggest problem of Summer Magic is its lack of a substantial plot to drive the action of the film, with it relying on slice of life storytelling to carry it through. Slice of life storytelling is a realistic tone and the film can get by and be decent enough to watch without a plot by remaining in this tone if the story has a cohesive theme to tie all the "slice of life" moments together into a meaningful action by juxtaposing contrasting but similar situations as a kind of "variations on a theme" to use a music terminology. It's in these types of stories that the importance of tone is heightened to the extreme as there's less to "distract the viewer" so to speak, from noticing an "out of tune note" to keep up the music analogy.

So the theme of the film Summer Magic that it needs to use, if it's to get by without a plot is the entire "city versus country" idea if it's to succeed. But not only that, it needs to show in contrasting ways how this plays out with one or two country people adapting to city ideals, but mostly the city people adapting to country ideals and how they're converted you could say. You have three siblings the best way to have utilized this would've been one being completely open to the idea (Hayley Mills' character fits this well), and ultimately helps to convert the others and pull all the strings. Because she can't pull all the strings she's hampered and kept from developing in this film becoming a static character as it stands.

A second sibling converting but with a little trouble and needing guidance. You could better develop this by having the youngest be slightly reluctant to give up his nice clothes. Instead of having him in the absurd Buster Brown suit, have him in an adorable but active sailor suit which was also popular in the period and conveys a similar idea of being a "Momma's boy", but is more understandable to want to keep than say the laughably extreme Buster Brown suit. Also use this conversion as a bigger conflict between mother and son, which would naturally bring up Mom's conflict of questioning whether moving out to the country was such a great idea at all, and perhaps trying to find a way to move back, even on their limited means, to a smaller place in the city. This is how slice of life storytelling should work when there isn't a plot as one action should flow into the next as the latter being the consequences of the former, thus with the film being a string of "causes and effects".

Lastly have the third sibling, the middle one, be the stubborn one and refuse to give up city values for country values--but have him come around when he sees a country girl who his sister has "smoothed the rough edges" over to entice him into giving the country a try. Now I did little to change the story, merely shifted the focus of all the elements. All of them are already in the film, they're just employed in a different manner that just don't work together as well as they could. Get rid of the extreme city cousin and simply better develop the characters you already have.

As you can see Disney had a problem with Summer Magic more than tone, but tone was supposed to hold the story together if a sensible plot couldn't, and he fell flat on that. The Music Man by comparison is able to marry tones that might not always work too well together because it knows what rules to break and what rules not to break, thus allowing for it to be more complex than first meets the eye. Summer Magic just comes across as a mess that doesn't know what it wants to do and how to hold itself together.

Tone has importance, audiences and readers respond to it without knowing it. If something strikes them as being "wrong" or "off" they're likely to stop the story or be taken out of it. Sometimes this is the intension (especially in irony), but usually when it is, we know it is as the story and author are "winking at us" through the artwork. So tonal shifts work well for irony, but not so much for a straight up story one is trying to tell honestly and convince is really before your eyes.

Again, I say one can have an uninteresting or fairly bland plot, but in order to get a decent "grade" from an audience, one has to maintain a consistent tone. If you start out making fun of something, don't change for little to no reason at the end of the story to valuing what you've been throwing tomatoes at. Or if you are going to change like that don't throw tomatoes so much as "call the values into question" and simply test them.

The best way to know what's "acceptable" or palatable to readers and audiences? Try looking up classic stories that are similar to yours and breaking them down and seeing what makes them work. Do you have parts that a re similar or dissimilar. Do the dissimilar parts merely "diversify" your story or do they call into question themes that you generally don't find in a tone you're trying to create? Likewise, has your plot twist in your murder mystery cozy been subtly shown to be capable more than once by similar twists but not the same revealing smaller but similar variations on it?

Then after looking at good examples, then go and search out those stories that people generally discard as bad or "weird" and look through and examine them and try and figure out what made them bad. Was it a flimsy plot with no sense of unity? Was it a character misplaced? For example, one does not find Hamlet strolling through the fairy world of A Midsummer Night's Dream--Hamlet is completely out of place in that world.

Learn what's commonly held to be good and bad, and then go back and see if you approach your piece with a bit more insight than you did before. That's what everyone means when they say the best writers are good readers.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Allegory in Fiction, Part One: Fantasy & Romance

I'm starting a new short series on the techniques of writing and how they're employed across genre. I'm going to start with allegory, and today I'll focus on common claims of allegory in Fantasy and Romance.

But the original edition as carved on slate!
Allegory, we all know the term, essentially we can break it down to mean the "hidden story behind the story". Meaning that the characters and plot of the story as it is, are designed to symbolize greater truths and philosophies into an easily digestible format for people to understand. Often times these are the focus of conspiracy theories about how something is secretly an allegory for some secret society like the Illuminati. Most of the time Allegories tend to be religious or philosophical in nature with the most famous being The Allegory of the Cave, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Faerie Queene, Animal Farm, and The Pilgrim's Regress.

Often times when a piece of fiction has a profound resonance with the population, some people try to find a "hidden allegory" within the story to explain why this might be so. Nowhere else but Fantasy does this seem to happen more frequently. And that's what I'm here to talk about today. In most cases of fantasy that I've studied allegories are something that the readers read into the stories, but the authors are usually vehement were not intended.

For example, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy is often in many circles brought up as an example for World War II with the "one ring" designed to parallel the atomic bomb. Hearing such speculation Tolkien had a rather harsh reply:

"It is neither allegorical nor topical.... I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence."

What Tolkien did in three, Wagner did in four... the show off.
Digging a bit deeper into the source material one can find the foundations of the Lord of the Rings trilogy with strong roots in Tolkien's love of Dark Age and Medieval culture (especially of Anglo-Saxon culture--the Rohan are Anglo-Saxons with horses, so as to be Norman-proof), with added touches of Germanic, Norse, and Celtic mythologies. You find the same "one ring" idea in the Wagnerian "Ring Cycle" operas based on the same Germanic mythology. A magical ring is passed from story to story bringing nothing but misfortune in its wake.

Another oft quoted example of an allegory in the Fantasy genre (though technically it is considered Children's Fantasy) is that of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. For those unfamiliar with the allegory, a brief overview is as follows: In the original story Dorothy's shoes were silver (and not ruby like in the film), and Dorothy's journey (the American people's journey) was allegorical for traveling down the Yellow Brick Road (the Gold Standard) and solving the problems of just having the Gold Standard by including an additional "Silver Standard" alongside it. The scarecrow represented the uneducated farmers who could benefit from such a scheme, the tin woodsman the industrial factory laborers who could benefit from such a scheme, and the cowardly lion represented William Jennings Bryan who was the 1896 Democratic party favorite who championed the idea in that election. There's more to the theory but that's the bare bones basics.

The problem is that this allegory for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz didn't crop up until over sixty some years AFTER the publication, and was more of an economics teacher's attempt to make the economics of the period "interesting" to his students (instead of say having them read William J. Bryan's Cross of Gold speech, I presume, which if read correctly can be quite riveting). If it had been allegorical one would think that the people of the period would've made commentary on all the "supposed allegorical connections" in the children's story, even in passing.  But no one did--which is odd considering most other allegories are usually recognized near to their publication for what they are. One has to assume that the allegory went unrecognized and was supposedly "secret". That just seems unlikely that it would've gone completely unnoticed for sixty years by the people of the day who were surrounded by such arguments for Free Silver at the time. Then there's the fact that in a lot of respects the allegory theory simply falls flat.  especially when you take into consideration the rest of Baum's work. When he does reference politics, such as in the 1902 stage play version (which was more for adults) of the same story he has a tendency to be rather blunt, referencing President Roosevelt and other political celebrities of the day:

 The Tin Woodman wonders what he would do if he ran out of oil. "You wouldn't be as badly off as John D. Rockefeller," the Scarecrow responds, "He'd lose six thousand dollars a minute if that happened."

And some of the symbols for the allegory don't really make sense if you think about it--like Toto representing those 'tea totaling" Prohibitionists. I mean beyond the name borrowing the first syllable of "toh" from totaler--it doesn't really make sense. And then there's the winged monkeys which are supposed to represent the Native Americans according to some--which clearly ignores that Baum favored total genocide of all natives--not "freedom" for them.

Another thing, Oz is a colored land world--where everything
in that land is one color, what do all the colors of the lands
mean in this allegory?
And if you take Baum and his wife's accounts of how the story came to be written, it was done in piecemeal over many many years, being inspired randomly by people and places Baum visited while trying to hold down many jobs in many different prairie towns. Baum comes across as a writer who barely can keep a story together. What he does best is in describing the strange and marvelous land and coming up with creative and imaginative characters--where he falls flat usually is in his plot--as the first Wizard of Oz story shows as it doesn't end after Dorothy's defeat of the Wicked Witch and the Wizard's reveal--instead Dorothy has to journey South to get to Glinda's palace (in the Book, Glinda is the Good Witch of the South--not the North--the witch of the North appears in the beginning as a separate witch entirely). And the plot is drug out a bit longer as Dorothy and her friends have minor encounters before they get to Glinda's palace. His best written story in terms of plot, characters, and description--which he also considered his best story--in fact I wouldn't even say is one of the Oz books, but in fact would be the story: "Sky Island", which didn't do well in book sales. Where Baum does his best work is in describing the land and in creating imaginative characters, beyond that his skills as a writer begin to sour (the plot of the first two Oz books aren't written that great, and in fact it isn't until you get to the third book that you can actually tell Baum is trying--book two suffered tremendously from simply writing a sequel to satisfy the children who wrote to him begging for another story, and you can tell Baum didn't really have his heart in the story as much as both the first and the third). Another thing which kills the allegory theory for me is it doesn't take into account all the rest of the material from sequel books either. What does the Nome King mean? How about the Deadly Desert which surrounds Oz? How about the Kingdom of IX and its head collecting princess? So to cut all that short, I doubt that Baum could've consciously written any allegory into the Oz story--and if he had it would've been painfully obvious to the point of it being rather bad, and when you consider what happens over the course of the rest of the Oz books the allegory falls silent on any explanation of what they're all supposed to mean. And the fact that the people of the day didn't recognize any kind of hints of allegory in them, further sinks the theory for me.

The War of the Roses began as a gardening dispute
on where to put the white and red roses. One side decided to
kill the other for having planted the red bush where the white
bush was supposed to have gone, and that's how you start a
Civil War fighting for the throne, according to Shakespeare. ;-)
Some other theories about George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire book series--better known as "Game of Thrones" is suggested by some to be a political allegory. And while I won't completely disagree that the petty bickering and jealousies of that fantasy world don't hold some lessons for us, Martin's been rather clear on where this is coming from: a historical period where petty bickering and jealousies led to a massive civil war in an all out fight for the English crown. Essentially Martin is giving you a novelized and fantasied version of Shakespearean history plays (specifically the War of the Roses & the Hundred Years War periods) from English & Scottish history, which he admits as much. In fact I could go down the majority of the major characters and point to their inspirations (House of Lannister = House of Lancaster, House of Stark = House of York, The original Tygareon conquerors = William the Conqueror, etc.) Only he takes the inspiration from history and does his own thing with it and isn't a slave to what actually happened, which I appreciate. If anything the lessons of petty bickering and jealousies are universal lessons one can as easily learn from history as well as from a novel.

All this interest by readers to impose an "allegory" onto the world of Fantasy and Romance proves that the past still has lessons that we in the present can learn. We try to justify such lessons by supposing the author intended them, but that often turns out to not be the case. When I run into these arguments time and again, no one seems to take the lesson that perhaps what they're responding to isn't so much an individual author's lesson but instead is the lessons of history or of archetypes.

The fantasy writer frequently points to the past as inspiration and where their heart truly lies. Having studied all the genres in length--read essays upon essays and analyzed them to death, I really think a lot of readers read too much into these stories at times. Romance/Fantasy concerns itself with a lot of things, about how to reconcile us to the idea of death, being stories of escapist wish-fulfillment (or else why most Fantasy/Romance protagonists are like white bread--so the reader/author can enter into the character), being the pinnacle example of heroism, and much more to be sure.

When you go back, just keep in mind that most 1950s families
waxed nostalgically about going back to the 1910s or 1920s--
at least if their TV and movie stories are to be trusted.
Are there important lessons that could be important for today contained within them? Most definitely yes, but the past has a lot to teach us, if we'd only pay attention. Fantasy is often just a way of dressing up the past or escaping into it because the present is "unbearable" from its perspective. Fantasy is in search of that long lost golden age which has since passed away and how we can either return to it or escape into it. It is a conservative genre, looking to return to a better time, or perhaps into a world that never existed that is set in a "simpler" time or lifestyle. It seeks refuge and escape away from the problems of today because the present sucks and the future looks worse still, but the past... oh the past... it was a beautiful Golden Age! Nostalgia is persistent in Fantasy and Romance, in fact it is its main diet. It wants to return to a proverbial sense of "home". In fact the best modern political mindset comparison would be to those people who feel the 1950s was the modern "golden age" of America.

I'd say that of all the genres out there, the one most of all that's least concerned with expressing the "problems of today" allegorically would have to be Romance/Fantasy. Such a story is usually concerned with how this is a fake life and how the afterlife is going to be so much better when we die--so that we completely withdraw from being concerned about "real life" and loose ourselves in another "reality" that we ultimately consider to be better than the one we currently live in and ultimately worth more than actual reality. "Today" is more of an annoyance, an irritation, something sick, or something horrible or boring to escape from to the Romantic/Fantastic mindset. When Romance/Fantasy does try to consider earthly reality it's far too busy living in the past or getting back to the past to be concerned about the present--let alone the future. Romance/Fantasy is far too busy thinking about how life should be, to consider what life is like, or will be.

When fantasy/romance does lend itself to allegory (it doesn't always happen, but on some occasions it will--and it'll tend hit you over the head when it does) it will typically reveal itself to be elitist propaganda, the story of how the present elite in the past vanquished those who stood in their way to their becoming the present rulers & presented challenges to their values. Even when Romance/Fantasy does go the allegory route, it's an allegory about past events and is usually presented as a story about "why the status quo is good, and why it shouldn't be questioned". It's a rather black and white genre taking the opinion that there's little to no middle ground--unless you're an earth elemental like a fairy or a dryad, those are the only beings in a fantasy/romance typically allowed not to "choose sides"--so you're either for or against the allegorical elite values in ascendancy. Even the smallest questioning will be painted with a tar brush into the most wicked of villainies. For example, look to something like The Pilgrim's Progress, a slightly fantastical allegory which tells the 17th Century man's struggle with the Christian religion and why one should stick with faith and not question it.

Satire is Fantasy's natural enemy, it points out its faults and flaws using its own fantastical terms. That's why something like Gulliver's Travels, Alice in Wonderland, Midnight in Paris, or Don Quixote eviscerate those who have the "Romance/Fantasy" mindset--most especially Don Quixote, which shows the folly in what escaping into the past can lead to: denying the reality of the situation around you. Alice in Wonderland is a story about a satirist who gets trapped in a fantasy world and starts to dissect and analyze this strange world and wants nothing more in both cases to escape the fantasy worlds she's fallen into and go home back to the "normal world" which is where things make sense--an actual Romance would depict the reverse of the "fantasy world" being the "sane world" and the "real world" being the "insane" one. Gulliver's Travels shows the folly in how people who value the supposed wisdom of the ancients over the modern--as well as many other follies in addition. Midnight in Paris shows that nostalgia is an unending trip--that when you finally do get back to that past, that you find they were nostalgic for an even greater distant past and so on and so forth, tearing apart this notion that "Golden Ages" ever really existed. Satire thus is the "common man's" rebuttal to the "elitist propaganda" of Fantasy/Romance--poking holes in it and showing where its assumptions take horrible turns. And looking forward into the future to comment on the problems of today is much more the realm of Dystopian literature, Satire, and Ironic art forms. Other forms have smaller amounts of interest on commenting on "today" or the future, but it truly belongs to the arc of Irony.

The Sorcerer scene from Gulliver's Travels (1996),
which critiques deifying the "ancients".

Star Wars was probably the first successful attempt I've seen to combine Science Fiction with Romance/Fantasy. Because while it is set in a "future tech" galaxy "far far away", we must also remember that the story also happened "long ago", such a distant past that has long since ended, and is ultimately about how we need to return to the Republic that was before it turned into an Empire--turning back the clock so to speak.

If anything, the persistence in readers to find these "allegories" in romance/fantasy stories speaks of how human nature hasn't changed much over history and how we consistently and easily forget the lessons of the past, and need to find ways of reminding ourselves of those lessons that we've forgot as a society. We can find a lot to learn from the past, but keep in mind the lesson from the section of Gulliver's Travels where the sorcerer obsesses with bringing back the ancient world's "great men of history", while they may have lessons more often they're lessons in what "not to do" more often than they're solutions to our modern woes.


Thursday, September 19, 2013

LCC Review: The Hunger Games Trilogy

WARNING: Since I'm reviewing the entire trilogy, I will only cover the basic outlines of the series as a whole looking at the books as one story split up into three parts rather than as three separate books. Also there will be some spoilers, so if you don't want to read any of those, then I suggest clicking on one of my other posts or to the link on Sher A Hart's book blog, where I'm sure you'll find many an interesting and spoiler free blog post.


Three books to entertain, one series to rule them all!
When hurricane Sandy decided to cut off my power for three days, while shivering in the freezing cold I decided to finally sit down and read the Hunger Games trilogy--and I was glad I did. The YA dystopian novels were more than I had expected and when the power came back on partly through my read of the third book--I decided to finish out the book instead of getting back on the computer. Personally I found the third book to be my favorite--even though I heard the worst things about it from other people--because it encapsulated the movement of the series so well for reasons I'll explain later.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
The series' plot is about an adolescent girl named Katniss Everdeen, who is also our perspective character, meaning that we as readers live inside her head. She lives in a totalitarian state called Panem which rose out of the ruins of what used to be North America. Panem was originally divided into fourteen parts--the capital region, and thirteen outlying regions. Each district is responsible for producing certain goods that is then shared amongst the rest of the districts. However the capital eventually started taking more than it needed and the rest of the districts rebelled. It eventually ended in the thirteenth district being destroyed (or was it? ;) ) and the complete subjugation of the other twelve districts. As punishment for rebelling against the capital, the rest of the districts are forced to send two children per year (one male and one female) as tribute to fight to the death in an arena amongst other tributes for the entertainment of the capital citizens and the horror of the districts themselves in what is called "the Hunger Games". Whichever district tribute wins, their district gets extra food and supplies for a year. Only one tribute can be left standing at the end of a Hunger Game. Katniss becomes a tribute and goes on to fight and win her Hunger Game but manages to force the game makers to allow her and her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta to both win due to playacting being in love with each other (well, Katniss is playacting). That's the first book in a nutshell.

Pick up your programs here!
See children fight to the death!
In the second book, it's the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Hunger Games and as such special rules come into effect which states that the tributes of that year can only be drawn from past victors. Since District 12 isn't well known for having very many winners, Katniss is again in the Hunger Games, but this time against other veteran champions. Unbeknown to her, Katniss' act of rebellion in the previous book, which takes place in the preceding year to the events in this second book, has gone on to inspire other districts to stand up and begin to rebel. Also unbeknown to her, the other veterans have a plan to escape the arena and flee to District 13, which they commence much to a muddy conclusion in the second book.  My least favorite ending has to be the ending to the second book which if this were made for television would have a high action penultimate moment freeze frame and have the dreaded words “To Be Continued…” appear at the bottom of the screen.

Graphite was just a cover
story, I hear.
Book three picks up almost exactly where Book two leaves off. When Katniss is "dragged" to District 13 she then starts being utilized as part of a propaganda campaign by District 13 to get the rest of the districts to continue the rebellion. One of the biggest game changers in this book is the change in relationship that Katniss has with Peeta that occurs early on in the book which really shows the horrors and tortures of this dystopia for what it is, as the capital had tortured him into believing Katniss is an inhuman mutant. Katniss after some hesitation manages to go along with the plan and eventually works her way into the army that will invade the capital. For the first time she acts as part of the propaganda to inspire revolution amongst the nation of Panem. Doing this allows Katniss to see and use for the first time in her life, her ability to inspire people in how to act and do things as being "right". The entire third act then becomes one of tremendous horrors where any pretense at heroics is put to the wayside as an all-out battle for survival and domination occurs in the streets of the capital itself. And when I say it's a long drawn out series of horrors, I mean a long series of horrors. The third act manages to keep you on the edge of your seat as the consequences of all the actions come to full fruition. Eventually the capital falls, but the tolls and consequences of war leave deep scars on both Katniss and the rest of the survivors which are dealt with in a slightly prolonged but well worth denouement.

Couldn't have said it better myself...
Dystopian stories like The Hunger Games trilogy are never really about the future they pretend to be. They are always the products of linear thinking or the "horrific ends" of "today's worst trends" (I promise, I did not intentionally mean that to rhyme). Where the horrible aspects of today's society are taken and put under a microscope and exaggerated to their logical conclusions. Setting the story in the future simply allows for the critique of the modern day to be more accepted by the rest of society. You see similar tactics in the works of the mid-Nineteenth Century Romantics who instead set their works in the extreme past in order to evade censors and inspire nationalistic revolutionary fervor to fight for a better future against the oppressive post-Napoleonic regimes (Verdi, I’m looking at you and your operas). So it’s very easy to see how setting a story either in the past or the future can allow for an author to say something about the present day that they feel might either get them in trouble or make people feel uncomfortable and thus less likely to follow their story. Doing so also leaves room for a savage attack and satiric examination of such trends, and as the deepest pit of irony, dystopias never fail to live up to that mantle. As much as The Hunger Games is a cautionary tale of a harsh governmental-business dominated future where the rich are empowered and the laborers left to starve, its themes speak loudly today as perhaps the first steps towards such a society are taken seemingly innocently.

The story is quite typical of a dystopian novel--extremely pessimistic which while delivering a somewhat "happy ending" it does so at not only a gigantic cost, but with a deep abiding cynicism that things haven't really changed that much. Human nature is still the same and the temptation to force the conquered capital citizens to participate in a “final hunger game” is too much to pass over for the victors of the rebellion. This of course leads us to see Katniss kill the leader of District 13, and we’re left to wonder whether or not that last hunger game ever happened or not with her death. And it's that cynical but realistic perspective I believe is why the third book isn't as popular with the people I talked to it about. For the people I talked with, they liked the first book for the reason that the ending--though it had its consequences, had a somewhat hopeful tint to it, that change was possibly and that you could beat the system. But the third book and thus the conclusion of the series as a whole ends on the note that the system may change, but human nature doesn't, what you fight against, you eventually become, and that actions have tremendous consequences, sometimes more than is deserved because life seems random. Those hard truths to me speak volumes and are quite daring for Ms. Collins to undertake.

The end is near for our protagonist, always. They're persecuted
and they usually are beaten completely into submission.
Dystopian novels are well known for beating down their protagonists to a pulp. As a genre, Northrop Frye categorizes the dystopian story as the story of least hope, as there is no Heaven or Hell after this life, and thus all we have is a life on earth of endless torment and degradation where the protagonist cannot escape the constant beating they undergo. Many dystopian novels feature their protagonists cracking under such pressure, in fact most of them do (Brave New World’s most interesting protagonist hangs himself, 1984’s protagonist is beaten back into submission, A Clockwork Orange's protagonist suffers everything he made others suffer, and Brazil’s protagonist has an emotional breakdown minutes before the end of the film). There is a part of her final book where Katniss does what no protagonist would do in most other genre beyond dystopian: she ceases to function properly and completely shuts down after all the tremendous amount of shit she’s had to deal with. And from one perspective you could say that it’s rather boring to read about how Katniss isn’t superwoman and can’t cope with everything—but at the same time I feel it’s extremely refreshing to see that even she, the girl who has a million back-up plans or ways to deal with issues, can have issues that are too great for her to deal with. In the end Katniss is only human and manages to do the best she can with the scenario she’s given and that’s it. She’s has to deal with the shitty consequences of the shitty life she has to live with and it’s unfair, but at the same time it’s extremely realistic and relieving to see a writer actually tackle having to deal with the consequences of war in a manner that felt true. My kudos to Ms. Collins for her portrayal and my deepest of regrets to anyone who as even the slightest inkling of what true war is like or has gotten to the point of depression that Katniss gets to in the penultimate scenes in the book.

The characters are memorable and distinctive and though there are a lot to keep track of (especially by the end of the third book), you never feel like you can confuse one for another. My personal favorites had to be Finnick and Johanna from the second and third books, whose distinct personalities and “messed up” natures perfectly befitted the kind of “victors” that would survive a horrific event like a ritualistic slaughter of children.

The main problems of the series I’d say would have to be the slight cop out of the slight hint of a “happy ending” that comes at the end of the third book, as well as the part one and part two feel of books two and three—almost as if Ms. Collins had to divide a longer novel in half to try and make a trilogy. I had smaller issues with some of the humor at times feeling rather forced at moments instead of simply letting the irony speak for itself—almost like Ms. Collins was told in certain sections by her editor to “lighten up”, it doesn’t serve the story well and acts as big distractions at certain moments.

Ultimately the series is a great read, fully entertaining and kept me on my seat, I highly recommend reading it if you have the chance.

Monday, August 5, 2013

What Makes Us Cry: Horror, Shockingly Simple

Sometimes all you need is a shadow.

I'd say that there is no other genre that arguably mixes more pieces of other genres together than horror. It's essentially a melting pot of tropes, actions, structures, and twists--all designed to produce a sensation that gets you to jolt or jump around in your seat. Horror is emotional manipulation taken to an extreme beyond what melodrama can produce. And it has had time enough over the past few centuries of its existence to have primed itself into a quite repeatable formula. However despite that the mechanism behind horror remains shockingly simple, no matter whatever ornamentation may be piled on top of it. There are several different types of Horror films but all are based on one central principal: catharsis. That is ultimately why I am including it here in the "What Makes Us Cry" series. As a genre it is obsessed with purging our emotions--but doing so through fear. As such the structure of a Horror film is that it has a tremendous build up to something and then there is a release that comes from a pay-off.

How this is employed in a Horror film can be seen in this simple scenario I've typed up:

Horror, the more dilapidated the better.
A lone female character going down into a creepy clutter-filled basement with a flashlight whose batteries are dying. As she descends the steps from the safe and comfortable suburban home we've already been introduced to and enters the cobwebbed, dusty, and dark unfinished basement, we watch with anticipation as she cautiously goes down the steps--a step squeaks unexpectedly. We know without her saying that she doesn't like to come down to the basement, and her frustration with the ineffective flashlight becomes palpable. Suddenly our heroine hears a rustling from the back of the basement. Curiosity getting the better of her she makes her way through a narrow pathway, her flashlight occassionaly illuminating a spider scuttling out of the scene, a dressmaker's dummy with a sheer fabric dress which our heroine took for another person for just a moment, and the shadows begin to grow taller. Suddenly the noise sounds again, closer. She thinks it comes from a locked chest, but she can't be sure. She kneels down and just as she's about to open the chest it bursts open and she screams.

Triangles... it's got to be triangles...
As you can see, the structure is extremely Aristotelian. You have an inciting moment that comes from our heroine entering the creepy basement, followed by a string of intensifying thrills and false alarms which eventually come together in a climatic suddenly jolt that releases the building tension that had been forming since she'd entered the basement in the first place. And that's the basic premise of how a horror film works--it's just a collection of several of these moments strung together building up to the largest of them all that comes close to the end. Horror films are extremely simple in terms of structure, focusing primarily on the first half of the structure of a plot, and tends to cop out on the latter half of a plot structure.

But if horror is such a catharsis oriented genre, why did I say it was a melting pot? Well, the melting pot aspects of this genre come from other elements not involved in its structure. It's like saying a soup may be based on the same broth as another, but that's discounting all the different spices, vegetables, meat, and herbs that have been added to give that broth flavor and substance. Ultimately then what you can say defines horror and separates it from tragedy proper is all the extra little frills and details it takes from other genres. In order to understand where all the thrills and chills came from, we need to look at horror's history.

I wonder what the horse is scared of...
The first horror stories can be found in the folk tales, legends, and ghost stories told by the lower caste of "folks". Thus horror begins as a "low brow" genre. Here is bare bones horror, without any frills. The basis obviously comes from tragedy as most of these legends or stories tell of angry spirits looking for revenge to those who killed them--essentially borrowing from the genre of the revenge tragedy. Often dealing with themes such as being unable to escape one's past, warnings against bad behavior, and explanations for why children perhaps shouldn't play too close to a raging waterfall, these early stories were designed to be gruesome, horrifying, and memorable--even in their simplicity. The best modern example of such legends would have to be The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (a story written in the style of a legend), which tells of the vengeful spirit of a Headless Hessian who at night rides through the forest looking for a head to replace his own. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow though is an example of early nineteenth century interest in preserving or emulating folk culture. Folk culture was seen as vanishing as the rise of the middle class and the disappearance of the peasants occurring throughout the nineteenth century. It's in this same vein that the Brothers Grimm collect their fairy tales many of which I would gladly throw in as part of the early examples of horror.

Beautiful, but deadly...
The renewed interest in Folk culture simultaneously sparked a renewed interest in romanticism and everything else medieval. However it wasn't the knight-errant romanticism of the medieval age, it instead transformed into the gothic romance that is so obsessed with death, decay, and dead bodies. It is from this genre horror gains its next influential part: the fleeing virgin. Gothic romances are all about how the fleeing virgin must be rescued by a prince of some sort from some sort of monstrous danger--later this would mutate into the fleeing virgin becoming obsessed and adoring of the monster pursuing her and thus you have the basic formula for how Twilight came into existence, but horror would borrow the earlier example of the fleeing virgin who is still terrified of the monster. For the most influential works of gothic romance read The Castle of Ortranto by Walpole or The Mysteries of Udolpho by Radcliffe. Both capture the spirit of the age of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century obsession with the gothic atmosphere. Dark ruined castles, desolate but beautiful landscapes, and danger possibly lurking around every corner. They're stories set in a sort of "fake historical period" meant to emulate a past that seems distant and yet tangible at the same time.

You never know what could be behind you...
The gothic eventually found its way to Hollywood (where horror now primarily resides) which comes into our next form of Horror, with the emergence of Classic Hollywood Horror films of the 1920s - 1940s. Universal Studios dominates this era with great monster films such as Frankenstein, The Mummy, Wolfman, etc. This era of horror doesn't add much to the genre until RKO began competing with Universal and introduced a technique which resonates with the genre to this day. Due to tight budgets RKO horror films were made quite cheaply and often sparingly. Such films required that there be inventive ways of producing horror with the mantra "less is more". In such films the idea that monsters didn't necessarially have to be seen, only suggested, gave birth to a more psychological horror. The man behind these films Val Lewton, also managed to find another way for catharsis to be achieved after a build up by sometimes having the shock be delivered not by something explicit, but by something more innocent but sudden. He became so good at this effect it was named the Lewton Bus in honor of him. Lewton's psychologically influenced horror films were added to by Hitchcock over the course of the 1950 and 1960s--most especially with the film Psycho, which acts as a bridge between the RKO period and the post-Romero period to come.

They come back, they don't know why, but they do...
Horror returned to England for the 1950s and 1960s, where it gained color, camp, and a splash of blood by returning to its Gothic roots with Hammer films. However once that had run dry the Horror genre returned to America with an increased focus on violence and pushing the limits. Psycho challenged the genre by making it "okay" to kill off your lead halfway through the film, as well as to bring even more psychological explanations in as examples of true realistic horrors. There was a sense of trying to demystify the Horror genre by taking the magic out of it and making it more scientific in its focus. By the late 1960s and the 1970s we arrive at a time period where Horror takes on a bit of satire in adding in social commentary of the times (such as with Romero's Dawn of the Dead), and continues until this day to be a strong part of the genre. After achieving psychological perfection, Hollywood eventually jumped back into the film business, bringing back to life the supernatural into Horror, but it was a tempered supernatural blended with modern psychological terror as a film such as Rosemary's Baby gives example. After that you could say that today's horror genre hasn't changed much since 1978, but instead is simply repeating the formula established during that last period, only attempting to get more violent, more bloody, more satiric, more gory, more sexual, and more psychological.

Now that we have the history out of the way, let's talk about some common themes:

He's not quite dead, yet...
The Past will Rise Again!
Horror has always had a strong tie with the past in some form or another. Often times Horror is about a vengeful spirit of someone who was wronged in the past. In other instances it can be about those ignorant of or running away from their own past running smack into it. Only in Horror does the past come back and demand some kind of respect or fear.  There is always a price which the past asks us to pay, usually our lives, for daring to think we can "move forward" without taking account of our "roots".

As such Horror usually divides itself into two opinion camps--either it thinks the creations of the "modern world" are ignorant of the ancient evils they let loose like Pandora's Box, or what I'll term "Moral Horror". Horror in which the modern world is seen as something not necessarially so great to handle the horrors of the past which come a knocking every now and then. In these types of Horror films, there is usually some sort of breach of values for which characters are systematically punished for for the rest of the film. From this belief you get the old Horror rules that "anyone who has sex or does drugs and alcohol, will die". "Moral  Horror" is meant to scare you back into being good moral boys and girls through terror and fear. It's an emboldened past that demands respect and finds the modern world "atrocious" to behold, and thus responds atrociously to it.

Then there's "Modernist Horror" in which the past is seen as something demented or terrifying that we must run away from and escape, because it no longer reflects the world we live in. From this perspective of Horror, we get the idea that it's better to let "sleeping dogs lie", don't go digging it back up or it'll come back to haunt you. In this sense the modern world is seen as the sane world and the past the insane.

I wonder which left hand he'd
use more often...
It's the Future that petrifies me!
In this theme, Horror usually brings in scientific, alien, or technology fears of the future. It's usually more at home in the Science-Fiction umbrella, but there's enough similarities with Horror to bring it back into the fold. The future we seem headed for must be assumed to be a wasteland in the mind of this Horror genre. Factories pollute, leading to the creation of inhuman monsters ready to come and destroy us all. Man attempts to be God and thus creates life but having done so doesn't know what to do with what he's created. This theme is really an extension of "Moral Horror" in which fears about the path mankind is on are brought up, questioning what we're losing as we "modernize."

Not a living soul in sight...

Terrified on the Frontier

Horror, especially American horror stories, like to bring us to a country setting where we find ourselves face to face with an America that "modernism" has "passed by". There's just something quite fearful of the lonely abandon of a prairie or a corn field that just makes you look over your shoulder in fear. These kinds of horror settings bespeaks of a people who've not completely lost that sense of the "frontier nation" that it once was. Frontiers were desolate, lonely, and arguably scary places to live. You didn't know whether you would be killed by a mountain lion or a bear, or some other creature yet unknown to man. Although the surroundings have changed, the expectation that the "lonely frontier" is a "scary place to live" hasn't yet left the American national psyche. As such, Americans will always find lonely places in the country somewhat terrifying.

Do you know what lurks in the shadows?
Scared in the City
What can beat the loneliness of the frontier? How about the loneliness of being and insignificant person in a vast sea of a million other people. Here we return to the gothic urban environment first created by Victor Hugo and other Romantics of the 19th Century. The truly gruesome horror though coming from London, England as the ultimate gothic city. There's just something about walking amongst a somewhat busy street in the middle of a London fog at night which is at once lonely and terrifying. You never know if one of the hazy shadows in front of you could be the mass murderer who's killed several other people, or perhaps a beggar with a knife. There are of course more modern ways to approach terror in a city, with the gaps in light between street lights, the utter abandon of streets at night, and the wailing sound of police sirens not too far off.

Horror has had many phases and covers a wide range of fears, but one thing is always gives us, no matter what the subject may be is a sense of having purged our fears through shock and awe. And one thing we've learned is that it doesn't necessarially take much--the same effect can be achieved with relatively little frills, and done well. Ultimately Horror is about the catharsis we get from the set ups and pay offs and everything else is just icing on the cake.

Monday, July 22, 2013

What Makes Us Laugh: Crime, it Binds us Together

Public vs Private Eye.
Now we arrive at possibly my favorite genre to read or watch. I always love a good mystery, thriller, or detective story. And arguably they're the collective genre that is about as ironic as a comedy can get without completely crossing over into the territory of irony or becoming so consumed in its own pathos to become tragedy. Writers who understand these borders do well in this genre and go on to become well known in the genre--Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, etc. When the boundaries are pushed to the breaking point that's typically when people begin rolling their eyes at the story. However while I thoroughly enjoy this genre it should be noted that it wouldn't be capable of existing if the society we lived in weren't as all sad as it is. The fact that it's popular marks an inherent distrust amongst the population for one another and a growing lack of community and common purpose. When you stop to think about it, it's extremely depressing the world of this genre, and rather bleak.

What else do you call "diversity"?
What do you need to know to understand this genre? Quite simply that this genre exists in a highly individualized society that has a low level of social cohesion. There's very little that ties people together left in this genre. That's why so many people "could have committed the crime" because "everyone has a motive" and "no one can be trusted"--even the gentlest of souls could become murderers or thieves if "pushed to the edge of reason" in this genre. This inherent distrust of others stems from the fact that our world is made up of a lot of quirky individuals who don't share the same values. The only shared communal value that people have anymore is that murder is wrong, stealing is bad, and vast corruption conspiracies are extremely evil and that's about it. Those are the only communal value shared by the people, and everything else is tolerated or made allowances for. A detest for crime is the only thing that holds this genre's society together. Beyond that our cast of characters come from many varied walks of life, come from many different types of "clans", and have many varied individual beliefs. Often they'd never actually come together to help one another, until someone gets murdered, something gets stolen, or a vast conspiracy is exposed.

Just a beat cop? Yeah right...
There is one figure who is able to get this otherwise highly individualized society to "get along" and "work together", and that is the "detective". The detective can be a professional police officer or simply an amateur who's brilliant at knowing simple human nature. The detective is a highly detailed character who's good at noticing the small things most people simply overlook. And as a character type they often don disguises and engage in tricks which usually work to make the "villain" underestimate the detective or to unconsciously expose themselves. This is how you know what character type they evolved from, they're the modern version of the "clever slave" or "tricky servant" who's become in this incarnation a "servant to the state" or to the "community at large". They know the vast complexity of their society like the back of their hand and know all the little tricks to getting people to "work together". These are the last figures standing between you and total anarchy.

You know who they are just by looking at them...
Other characters are all marvelous individuals and should be unique while at the same time playing up to a lot of stereotypes commonly known to the public: bored young Socialists mooching off their parents and waiting for the day we wake up from our "bourgeoisie existence" so the "real revolution" can begin, wealthy snobs with nothing better to do than spend money without any concern, a couple of mafia guys who do petty stuff but don't condone murder, an astrology obsessed mystic and author who's overly obsessed with sex in her writings, an overly perfect nun who quietly obeys the laws of god, a wealthy American business man who's a little too slick, a good ol' country boy with a taste for the finer things in life, or a coke dealer with a MA in Chemistry who likes to listen to classical music while snorting, etc. There is nothing typical about this wide cast of characters except that they should be very individualized and extremely unlikely to work together. And they're all hilarious when they interact with one another.

What is up with this guy's hair?

The villain is simply the worst person of the bunch of individuals--the one who went so far as to think that they were such a special person that they could get away with the crime. Typically they're a sociopath who can't be reconciled to society and thought for no other concern than their own. And as such the community comes together in a kind of scape goat ritual more common to tragedy to get rid of the "worst of the lot". The most ironic stories of this genre of course go out of their way to point out the society casting them out is just about as bad as the person they're casting out. The only thing that keeps it from falling into the category of tragedy is that a tragedy is about the person who falls and how brilliantly right they were and is told from the perspective of the individual. In this ironic comedy perspective on the scape goat ritual that person is being banished from the society just because of how "wrong" they are and the story is told from the perspective of the society banishing the wayward individual.

It begs the question, which comes first, the body or the outline?
Your typical plot a child could explain, but usually it follows the crime is committed, the detective begins examining all the possible ways the crime could've been performed and interviewing all the possible suspects. While doing so gets too "close" to solving the crime, prompting the criminal to have to act in a hasty manner a second time to try and cover up their tracks--by doing so the criminal exposes themselves to the detective who then goes about playing dummy until the criminal thinks they've gotten away with it, at which point the criminal is exposed by the detective and supported by society to "lock them away for good". All the while the reader is kept in the dark about the true nature of things until the end, so that they--like the villain--can be surprised at getting caught. Simple, easy, and very formulaic, but also highly satisfying.

The only cover that
doesn't give away
the ending.
The history of this genre is much more recent than most of the others I've covered on this blog, and as such it is a very young genre--still in its infancy or childhood. The detective story couldn't possibly exist until the police were founded as an organization--which didn't happen until the Industrial age really it us and required such an organization to be formed. And such an organization's devotion to logic, evidence, and science denotes that it could only have formed after the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. And it should be noted that even after industrialization starts it isn't until nearly a century after it's begun that the first detective story pops up. It begins arguably with Edgar Allen Poe. He arguably wrote the first detective story with his story: The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841). From there it became popularized with the Sherlock Holmes stories, then came the British Gentlemanly Detectives, followed by the Private Eyes of the Film Noir world, and the police detectives you see on television today.  For the large part all that's changed about the stories is the time period it's set in. The rules of the genre adapt to whatever time period it's set in.

In Poe's book the story is about how a retired police detective wants to prove that he's "still got it" and while about him solving a crime, the larger focus of the story is about how age isn't a limiting factor. That's another part of the irony of the genre, in it the elderly and the people with the most experience are usually the best detectives. There's something about age that provides experience, which a lot of these elderly or older detectives provide. On the top of my head I can think of very few popular "young" detectives--they're usually the exception in this genre--and more often they're found in the juvenile version of this genre aimed at kids (Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Boxcar Children, etc.) or are attempts at being ironic. More often
Dowdy exterior,
Mind like a steel trap.
it's an older gruff male character who has a young protege they're training to be just like them. And eventually the young protege after they have enough experience under their belt either takes over or breaks off and begins solving crimes on their own. Somehow, someway the detective is associated with age and experience, even if they don't have any themselves. Often times these old detectives will use their age as a kind of "mask". The elderly Miss Marple plays up that she's a dotty old woman just so to fool the people she investigates. It's extremely ironic thus that age and experience play such a pivotal role in this type of comedy as Comedy traditionally is about youth, vigor, and vitality replacing age, ineptitude, and the decrepit. Essentially a story about how "life conquers death". That the "old folks" can still prove they've "got it" and aren't ready for the grave just yet, is a complete ironic turn in comedy, and yet it works somehow for some strange reason.

That's Ironic Comedy, aka Mysteries, Detective Stories, Crime Novels, Murder Mystery plays, Forensics-based TV Shows, and Thrillers in a nutshell. It's a modern genre for a modern world, reflecting and valuing experience, age, over the naivety of youth. A world full of a lot of various clashing cultures and individuals, that all share exactly one common value: crime is bad, but who otherwise don't get along very well. And if that doesn't describe "today" then I don't know what does.