Tuesday, July 20, 2010

He's Dreamy

Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated with the connection between dreams and storytelling. After all, dreams are the first stories we tell ourselves, the first narratives that – like it or not – engulf and overwhelm our senses, that can move us (at least for a moment) with the same power real events do. Dreams raise the fundamental questions of human existence to us in a way that is impossible to ignore. I don't think that children are afraid to go to sleep just because they fear the specific apparitions who haunt their nightmares – Ronald McDonald, a garbage can with teeth, a taxidermied moose head with hard glass eyes. I think they fear it for a deeper, more primal reason: because sleep is the one place they have to go by themselves, without adult protectors, and whatever lurks there is theirs alone to face. If "no one can die my death for me," as Heidegger suggests, the journey into dreamland may be a more temporary death, but it's no less isolating. And it comes as no great comfort that the monsters there come from inside ourselves. Though that might make them less real in one sense, it also makes them far more difficult to permanently escape.

For those reasons, I have never agreed with Henry James's asinine generalization, "Tell a dream, lose a reader," nor with the more commonly held opinion that dreams stall the action of narrative, that they hold characters in artificial stasis. To know a character's dreams is, in my opinion anyway, to know that character's humanity; it provides the same intimacy as witnessing his birth or death or the intricacies of his sexuality. In fiction, details have to be carefully chosen, whether they're the contents of a wallet or the tchotchkes on a shelf, but although those details may work on a metaphorical level toward developing the protagonist or themes, they also have to operate impersonally, causally, in accordance with the laws of the story's world. In depicting a dream, though, that causality itself functions as metaphor. Objects shift, transform, appear, disappear in ways that mirror the character's psychology; there are no accidents, no rote necessities. Everything means something. In this sense, I think that, only in a dreamscape (or a landscape that functions like one, as in Kazuo Ishiguro's masterpiece The Unconsoled or the films of David Lynch) can plot itself aspire to the lyric condition of poetry.

The Christopher Nolan film Inception does not aspire to the lyric condition of poetry. Inception aspires to the condition of the summer blockbuster, specifically of the whiz-bang variety; it aspires to pack in as many twists and turns and explosions and car crashes, gun-toting extras and special effects, as is legally possible to cram into a PG-13 two and a half hour extravaganza. Like Space Mountain, it is a hell of a ride, and if you can get through it once without throwing up, you may find yourself tempted to get back in line and go again, because it leaves you so exhilarated and refreshed.

These are accomplishments, huge ones, and they're even more impressive when you consider all the seemingly obligatory things the picture doesn't do. Inception is a movie where, in the course of the present action, no one dies or gets laid; it's a heist movie where nothing gets stolen. The characters are ciphers, with hardly a defining characteristic among them – there's a single memorable beat of romance/comic relief, when Joseph Gordon-Levitt cons Ellen Page into a kiss, but other than that the characters are little more than attractive mouthpieces for hefty chunks of technical sci-fi exposition. Yet the story moves: there's always a ticking clock or a ticking bomb, a bullet to dodge, or – in the most literal sense of the word "suspense" – a white van hanging off the side of a bridge, falling in slow, slow motion to the chilly waters below.

It feels silly even to bother pointing out that this film is overcomplicated to the point of absurdity: "Whose subconscious are we going into now?" Ellen Page asks at one point, in a line of dialogue that I suspect was taken verbatim from a confused reader's marginalia on the screenplay. It feels silly, too, to point out the overdetermined Freudian arc of the dream narrative. For the five of you in America who still haven't seen this movie, Leo & Co. are tasked with implanting an idea in a young CEO's mind: they need him to dismantle the energy company he recently inherited from his dad. I WILL BREAK UP MY FATHER'S EMPIRE, Leo pens on a whiteboard during a strategy meeting of the mind-invasion team. "The most powerful ideas have emotional meaning," he explains to those assembled. "But how do we turn a business plan into an emotion?" a clueless flunky asks. I guess for this guy, a cigar is just a cigar.

Perhaps the human mind isn't so complicated after all.

But, although I did find moments in the film unintentionally funny, that wasn't why I was so disappointed in Inception. For me, the biggest let-down here was the simple fact that the dreams did not remotely resemble dreams. As I said before, dream worlds in fiction are fascinating to me, not simply because they can be fantastical, imaginative, wondrous, and strange (though those things can come as additional perks). What makes dream worlds fascinating is the fact that everything within them is the construction of a particular idiosyncratic human mind. If I recall correctly, Freud believed that the raw material of dreams came entirely from objects and images the dreamer had encountered in life; dreams were in this sense vast collages filled with items that never entirely relinquished their initial significance, a whole world hued with nostalgia. Inception takes this idea one step further: since the agents access the dream state consciously, they can build within it consciously too, creating impossible architectures and landscapes that defy the laws of physics at the speed of thought. But given this freedom, what do they create? The sets from the Bourne Identity movies, apparently, and, in the case of Leo and his wife Mal, an empty city of repetitive fascist architecture, with one or two replicas of their former homes at the outskirts.

This looks boring, sure, and it tells us zilch about the characters, but the problem is bigger than that. By showing us dreams but refusing to let them convey any information through suggestion or metaphor, Nolan is devaluing the whole visual aspect of his very visual medium. He's saying, "You don't need to watch; you just need to listen, and everything will be completely explained." And by encouraging this kind of passivity, this inattention, in the viewer, he's drawing attention away from the very qualities that could meaningfully distinguish his work from that of his contemporaries. Like the dream-architects here, Nolan could've made this look like anything in his imagination – he could have made this personal, haunting, zany, or gorgeous. But except for one or two amazing moments (as when a vast gray city folds in over itself like a piece of curling linoleum, or a very old Ken Watanabe eats porridge in a room with a thousand hanging lanterns), he chose to make this world look like any random thriller at the multiplex. Perhaps making us believe the third-act twist, about fantasy and reality being indistinguishable, was more important to him than creating a visually arresting film. But even with that twist in mind, I'd encourage Nolan to take a look around the world outside the shooting set sometime. The Earth can be a pretty weird place. That's why it gives us such bad dreams.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

It's a Dog's Life (and Death)

Awhile ago, in an ill-fated quest to find out what George Burns looked like when he was young (answer: he never was), I discovered the above clip from the classic TV game show What's My Line? For those of you who, like me, were not glued to the tube between 1950 and 1967, the conceit of the show was that each week, blindfolded celebrity panelists would question visitors to see if they could guess their occupations. In addition to ordinary folks (a bricklayer, a schoolteacher, a telephone operator), each episode would also feature a "mystery guest," someone who was famous enough that the panelists were expected not to guess just his occupation, but his actual identity as well. All of this seems straightforward enough – "will they figure it out or won't they?" and "who will guess first?" are classic sources of suspense, enough to keep viewers tuned in.

But here's what I found fascinating. What makes the clip above so entertaining is not the contrived game show scenario and the tension that it automatically manufactures. What makes it entertaining is the way that scenario allows Burns to create and develop a memorable character, his own persona as a game show contestant. The makers of the show even bend their own rules, with Burns answering questions inaccurately ("I'm Nat King Cole") and one of the panelists nearly removing his blindfold mid-interrogation, in order to get the most mileage out of this characterization. These game show makers understood something that's largely been forgotten by their contemporary counterparts: the outcome hardly matters. Viewers watch a show because of what the situation – as gimmicky as it might be – allows individuals to reveal about themselves.

On the surface, it might seem like an episode of a game show from 1961 and a novel published in 2003 have little in common. But when I recently read Carolyn Parkhurst's The Dogs of Babel, it got me thinking about how a similar phenomenon plays itself out in a fictive context.

The Dogs of Babel squarely fits into the category of "high concept," a label which all too often seems to mean "a concept that film or publishing executives thought up while high." Here's Babel's elevator pitch: A man's wife falls out of a tree in the backyard to her death. The only witness to this event is the couple's dog. In order to find out if his wife's death was an accident or a suicide, the man decides (get ready) to teach the dog to talk. Duh-duh-duuuum!

This sounds like the script for a Twilight Zone episode that Rod Serling rejected for its implausibility, and to be honest, I didn't expect to care much for this book. (It didn't help that I had heard the publisher referred to it as The Lovely Dog Bones – a backhanded compliment, in my opinion.) But much to my surprise, I found that it did something I wasn't anticipating: like the George Burns episode of What's My Line, this novel has the good sense to keep the emphasis off the contrived central mysteries of its "hook" (will he teach the dog to talk or won't he? which was it, accident or suicide?) and on the meaningful specificity of a recognizable human being.

I guess talking dogs are more literary than I realized.

Because, SPOILER ALERT, there isn't any mystery here, not for Paul. He knows before the novel begins that his wife Lexy's death was a suicide: the signs were laid out for him clearly. An unreliable narrator, Paul lies to the police (he claims that his wife never talked about killing herself, when in fact she'd even attempted it in her girlhood) and withholds information from us (he knows, but doesn't mention, that Lexy was pregnant and didn't want to be). His entire quest with the dog is meant to obfuscate, not reveal, this truth – both for the reader and himself.

If this book were written "straight," depicting a grieving husband who does actually teach his dog human language to solve a crime, it would most likely devolve into one of those awful "cozies" so popular in large-print editions, the ones where cats unravel mysteries instead of curtains and romantic relationships are considered consummated when the duo become bridge partners. Which is to say its author would seem desperate and sad. But here, it's Paul who seems desperate and sad. His ultimate salvation comes not when he succeeds on his own terms (he doesn't), but only when he's able to wriggle out from under the edifice of this plot to truthfully observe the thing's absurdity. Parkhurst breaks the rules she sets up in the first few pages, when Paul, narrating, writes, "Simply put, [our dog] knows things I don't. I must do whatever I can to unlock that knowledge... It is my proposal to teach Lorelei to talk." By the end, this turns out to be wrong on both counts: the dog doesn't know anything Paul doesn't, and Paul never goes to any particularly great lengths to endow her with speech. This statement looks like Chekov's "gun on the mantle," an authorial promise to deliver on a certain kind of action by the novel's close. But instead, it's Paul's delusion – a delusion that serves as an excuse for the novel we have in front of us.

And Paul's not the only one who's deluded here: far from it. At its heart, this whole book is about self-delusions and the dubious comforts they provide. On a trip to New Orleans, Lexy is inspired and moved by a visit from a woman she thinks is a fabled ghost. A few pages later she discovers, much to her chagrin, that this spectre was actually a drunk fellow vacationer dressed in old-timey clothes. A society of men Paul encounters have dedicated their lives toward surgically enabling dogs to speak words; their one supposed success story, Dog J, is able to form human consonant sounds, but the noise he makes is nonsense – they only hear language coming from him only because they so desperately want to. Even TV psychics, with their leading questions and their scammy predictions, are taken to task: here, as in life, they can only tell a person what he already knows.

Unlike The Lovely Bones, with its magic fairytale promises of a custom-built afterlife, complete with peppermint stick ice cream and hot posthumous sex, when a person (even a beloved person) dies in Parkhurst's novel, she stays dead, and in her absence she becomes even more unfathomably distant than she was in life. Contemplating ghosts, Paul muses, "It's wishful thinking... If the dead wandered among us, their spirits still present on this earth, what need would we have for grief? Scary as it is, it's what we hope for. How else would we go on living?" Yet at the end of this book, Parkhurst forces him to answer that last question honestly – to find a reason to go on, not in self-deception and fantasy, but in reality.

This book isn't a masterpiece – the dialogue is often clumsily expository, and as a narrator Paul really needs to lay off the rhetorical questions, especially the faux-poetic ones (of his dog, he says, "Who am I to know what heart beats beneath that fur?") and the ones that make the reader want to scream YES, just listen to yourself! ("Am I getting myself into something I might not want to be involved in?" he wonders just before attending a meeting of amateur "canine linguists," led by an incarcerated man nicknamed "the Dog Butcher of Brooklyn.") But the charm here is Parkhurst's interest in investigating a real human experience, rather than pandering to her audience with uncut escapism. There's nothing wrong with a light read as long as it doesn't insult the reader's intelligence. For this one, Parkhurst deserves more than my throwing her a bone – she deserves a pat on the head.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Will It Bend? (pt. 2)

I saw The Last Airbender movie on Friday, and already I've forgotten most of it. The reviews are right: it is leaden and pretentious, afflicted with some of the worst child acting I've seen in a long time. In fact, Dev Patel, playing moody Prince Zuko, is the only one who even attempts to create a character, rather than squintily reading his lines from some giant cue card with improper punctuation positioned just offscreen. Yet, unfortunately for Patel, the script betrays him at every turn, offering him little more than ponderous exposition and a fight scene against the Avatar that looks more like two kid brothers wrestling in a cluttered garage. The other actors here do not even deserve our pity, although their characters are written just as badly, or worse. In possibly the most amusing moment of the film, Aang sits down to meditate in a holy place in the Northern Water Temple. "Some monks can meditate for four days!" he exclaims. He positions himself and closes his eyes. Four seconds pass. "Aang, can you hear me?" his friend Katara asks.

I could talk about some of the other bizarre decisions Shyamalan made regarding the story -- probably the weirdest was his decision to have benders execute an entire series of complicated dance moves before their various elements respond, which makes the "action" sequences move about as quickly as a poorly prepared middle school pom pom routine. But the greatest disappointment of this film is that it's not even fun to tear apart. Unlike the truly amazing crap films of the 1980's (including the gloriously depraved Howard the Duck, the epic failure Dune, and Trancers, a gem I discovered over the weekend, which stars Helen Hunt and a boom mike), The Last Airbender isn't mistakenly in love with a faulty, unworkable premise. Where Howard the Duck, for example, answered questions no one in their right mind would want to ask (like, "What would a sentient, midget-sized duck do in bed with Lea Thompson?"), The Last Airbender doesn't answer the basic questions its own characters raise -- like, "How could the earthbenders be defeated and contained when their weapon is the ground beneath their feet?" It's this incuriosity, more than anything else, that makes it suck.

For the love of God, I do NOT WANT TO KNOW.

It's also this incuriosity that makes it particularly lousy as a children's film. Anyone who's gotten on a bus with a second grader knows well the proclivity of man-larvae for the question, "Why?" One of the reasons behind the aforementioned trend of adults reading children's books is, I think, the fact that children's book authors are not afraid to answer this question, sketching out whole fantastical worlds with the resulting explanations. These worlds don't have to be realistic, but they do have to hold up under investigation -- to reveal causal connections, social relationships, customs, and habits that resonate and fit into the whole. In this sense, coming to understand the world of a story is an education in miniature for children who are at the beginning of learning about the order of our world. As I said in my previous post, the greatest strength of the original airbender show was the way that it rewarded the viewer for wondering about details -- about everything from the various nation's cultures to the flora and fauna of the wilderness. By comparison, the film isn't awful. It's just empty.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Will It Bend? (pt. 1)

In a couple of earlier posts (here and here), I wrote about a phenomenon that I would generously call "not a good sign": the increasing tendency of adults to prefer novels intended for children over novels intended for people their own age. Interestingly enough, this doesn't seem to be as prevalent a trend with other narrative arts. Though a large segment of the population, young and old, can be counted on to trek out to the latest Pixar offering, and Twilight and Harry Potter's grown-up fans never missed the chance to see them in theaters, most blockbuster protagonists are grown-up enough to wield firearms or disrobe onscreen, and the same goes for TV. Even shows like South Park, The Simpsons, and Family Guy, all of which prominently feature child characters, make that part of the joke: look, they're little kids, but they're advocating genocide, becoming members of Mensa, or talking like Rex Harrison (respectively). Our full enjoyment of these kidlets depends on us, the viewers, being able to see and identify their apparent contradictions from an adult perspective.

Nickelodeon's show Avatar: The Last Airbender is not like these other cartoons. The children in Avatar do things that real children couldn't, but we're not supposed to laugh at the impossibility; we're meant to suspend our disbelief. And the series as a whole definitely meets my criteria for a young adult story: the characters develop and age, but they never change in ways that permanently mar their innocence. It's certainly not intended for adults. Yet to me, the thing that makes it really terrific children's television, and entertaining for the rest of us, is the unique way the series as a whole is structured.

I find it surprising that, miniseries aside, so few television programs are constructed with the end in mind from the beginning. Like emperors demented with hubris, show creators must think that they are immortal, that they'll never have to relinquish their reign, and that their empire will only become more powerful the longer it exists. Of course, the opposite is true. The expression "jumped the shark" was coined just to capture that moment when a TV series goes from being relevant and entertaining to embarrassing, and I won't bother listing the shows where this has happened: it's nearly all of them. The ones that have escaped this grim fate ended too – they just knew when to stop.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is striking not for what it does so much as what it doesn't do, which is to careen wildly off course. In the first episode, the central path of the narrative is laid out. We learn that in the world of the story, certain gifted warriors are capable of "bending" or controlling each of the four elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Only one person can learn to control all four. This person is the Avatar, reincarnated in each generation, and in this one he's a little boy named Aang, the airbender of the title. But his duty to humanity is even greater than the Avatars of the past, because now the Fire Nation is intent on conquering the rest of the world. Only Aang can restore balance by freeing the other nations. And then, over the course of three seasons (each named for an additional element he masters: water, then earth, then fire), that's exactly what he goes on to do. This sounds predictable, and it is. But that macro-predictability gives the makers of the series incredible freedom to bring the world of the story, and its characters, to life in the individual episodes. Since they know where they're going, they can take their sweet time getting there.

Watching the series was useful to me as a writer, since I seem to find this simple truth very easy to forget. For a long time, in fact, I used to think that plots needed to be convoluted, or at least not "obvious," in order for the finished story itself to be wildly imaginative. When I made my first serious attempt at writing a novel in college, I so eschewed the notion of straightforward plot that I didn't even bother writing the action in sequence: instead, under the heavy influence of freshman year philosophy courses and Mountain Dew (which I consumed by the case), I scribbled random scenes into notebooks so filled with doodles they resembled illuminated manuscripts penned by gonzo monks. Every day I felt inspired. Some year and a half later, when I began to look back over the gory Frankenbook I had created, filled with characters hurling cats at one another and shouting about Descartes, I knew something had gone horribly wrong, but I didn't know what.

Perhaps Avatar: The Last Airbender might have saved me some time and the world some paper. I think the thing I find the most striking about it is how much fun the creators seem to be having, just making things up. Most of the animals in the show, for instance, are hybrids – badger moles, koala sheep, lizard rhinos, a lion turtle – and there's a weird moment of humor when a regular bear is introduced, much to the confusion of the main characters. Nearly every permutation of the four "bending" styles is eventually explored: although characters just start out controlling the basic elements, they eventually learn that other substances containing or contained by their elements are subject to bending as well. An earthbender learns that she can shape metal, forming a suit around her body; firebenders can shoot electricity from their fingers – or catch it and shoot it back; and in a genuinely creepy episode that might be the high point of the series as a whole, a waterbender learns that she can "bend" blood inside of people's veins, turning them into living marionettes. By the end of the series, I had the feeling that the makers of the show had completely exhausted their material, which I mean as a high compliment: there's nothing more frustrating than feeling like an artist didn't do his own idea justice.
The one sort of fire bender the show never includes.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the simple overarching structure of Avatar: The Last Airbender allows the show's creators to dig deep into their thematic material. Its peace-loving message may rival Fraggle Rock for naked idealism, but it beats the Fraggles hands down for subtlety. (Sorry, Wembly.) While most kids' shows with a moral message set up simple parables, solved over a single episode and generally with maximum preachiness, Avatar: The Last Airbender is able to build up to ideas slowly. The Fire Nation, which starts out as pure enemy in season 1, is gradually revealed to be a sophisticated, beautiful culture, as much worth preserving as the civilizations it decimates. And the people in it are complicated, products of their country's nationalism and xenophobia but not incapable of change. Similarly, though they learn to work together, the peoples of the other nations aren't a unified front: the Air Nomads are vegetarians while the Water Tribe eats practically nothing but meat; each nation worships its own gods. That's not the kind of idea that gets a lot of play on Captain Planet.

All of this is the reason that I was horrified when I saw that the show had been remade as a live-action movie by M. Night Shymalan; I was even more horrified when I read Roger Ebert's review. Nevertheless, because I apparently don't know what's good for me, I'm planning to see it later this week. I'd say I'm interested in finding out what happens when a sprawling narrative like this collapses in on itself to fill less than two hours, but that would be a lie. I'd really go to see any movie that promises a flying bison in glorious 3D.