Monday, August 10, 2015

Land of Tomorrow, Myth for Today

Originally published on Tomorrowland Times.

When the structures of yesterday fail us, what of today will carry us into tomorrow?

When journalist Bill Moyers sat down to interview comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell in 1985, he asked one of the most vital questions of our time: How do we live without myths, in a world that changes too fast for it to become mythologized?

Campbell’s answer? “The individual has to find the aspect of myth that has to do with the conduct of his life.” As ancient mythologies sought to facilitate communal harmony with their local environment, modern focus on the individual has shaped our own divided culture.

This jury-rigged assembly of mythic experiences we desperately cobble together from various pieces of popular culture leaves us with certain questions that go largely unanswered in traditional mythological structures. Chief among them: How will our ever-progressing technological prowess harmonize with the eternal human mysteries?

That question, along with its various philosophical implications, inform the thematic understructure of the feature film Tomorrowland, from filmmakers Brad Bird, Damon Lindelof, and Jeff Jensen. With its timeless themes born of a bold structure and the dynamic, unspoken actions of its characters, this work has earned a place on my shelf of living myths from which I can assemble some form of personal mythology. 

The deeper I dig, the further the themes reveal themselves to me, reflected in every corner of this jam-packed masterpiece.

When we meet 11-year-old Frank Walker at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, he is a boy who has turned to technology when the people in his life have failed him. Appropriately, the device to which he has turned his attentions is inherently singular. What could better represent individual escape than a Jetpack? 

Boundless creation is his defining attribute. Using his technology as a conduit to seek the approval he clearly isn’t getting at home, Frank enters a competition at the fictional “Hall of Invention,” in which he is surrounded by other isolated thinkers. There, he meets his ideological opposite: David Nix, a man with an unwavering dedication to “purpose.” He rejects Frank’s purposeless invention, and it is in this conflict that one of the film’s central themes is revealed. 

Not only does Nix question the practical application of Frank’s Jetpack -- indicating a disdain for certain values of his secret society, Plus Ultra, Latin for “further beyond” -- he dismisses it whole cloth when he realizes that this frivolous device doesn’t even work. Nix’s outright dismissal and rejection of failure as a necessary process of creation defines the ideological circumstances that ultimately lead to the downfall of Tomorrowland, the city. 

Despite Nix’s rejection, a recruitment robot named Athena (in the form of a young girl) takes notice of Walker. She sees in him that which her parameters are searching for, along with something else she doesn’t yet understand. Her immediate disagreement with Nix regarding Frank’s viability as a recruit further cements his position against those who programmed her. Nix is brilliant, but bureaucratic to a fault. He represents the worst remnants of Plus Ultra through the natural evolution of human weakness, and Athena the best intentions preserved in an unchanging mechanism.

Athena’s new-found boldness leads her to gift the boy a means to gain entry to Tomorrowland, Plus Ultra's city of the future where invention could flourish outside the confines of our world’s physical and institutional boundaries. When young Frank first glimpses the city, it is under construction. A work in progress that he can, and will, help to define. A microcosm of Frank’s entire journey is glimpsed in his first interaction upon entering the would-be utopia: his invention, which failed in isolation, is brought to its full-functioning glory through the aid of another. It is not mere coincidence that the first two kindesses shown to him are from machines. Additionally, despite her insistence that it is not a “biological need” (there’s that signature purposelessness again) young Frank pledges to make Athena laugh. His understandable mistaking of Athena for human will eventually come to shape Frank’s present day predicament, casting in sharp relief that which he must still attain to become a complete character -- and only through the counterbalance of another.

Just over fifty years later, the second half of the film’s “two-hander” structure is introduced “wantonly destroying government property.” (To borrow a phrase from the film’s unifying force.) Casey Newton may be an uncommonly dedicated optimist, but she lacks the ability to form actionable ideas beyond the destruction she so ironically mounts against those destroying the individual ideas of others. This manifests throughout her interaction with Frank, first setting his tractor ablaze, leaving him to preserve it through invention. This dynamic will begin to evolve and invert as their journey progresses. 

Casey, in her isolation, represents a desire to change, a raw optimism, but with no capacity to rebuild what she attempts to destroy. She finds herself in a juvenile loop of destructing that which seeks to destruct her ideals. But to destroy that which inhibits you, that which causes your failure, is not fully embracing the lesson of the circumstances that lead to that failure. For that reason, her rebellion is stunted, and she lacks the ability to create from the necessary destruction. 

Frank, on the other hand, has turned to raw creation, even after the loss of anything resembling optimism. When people failed him, he turned to technology. He created. And just when he believed a person might connect with him, he learns she is not what she appeared to be. In that moment, even technology fails him. He is a broken man, cutting himself off from the world, isolating himself in a menagerie of his own invention. (Not unlike Plus Ultra.) Again and again, this isolating motif is shown to fail. It is only through inclusive connection and shared creation that progress can be made. This is further illustrated in the distinction between Athena’s initial proclamation “I’m the future,” which Young Frank later amends, “We are the future.”

Just as modern day Frank has literally isolated himself in a sanctuary of his own invention, (“Do not mess with my STUFF.”) Casey defiantly acts alone to solely destructive ends. They represent separate, necessary but insufficient components of the solution that will allow for the eventual salvation of the lost Tomorrowland. 

They are reluctantly brought together, kicking and screaming, by the dedicated efforts of Athena’s rogue recruitment. Further agitating Frank's disillusionment after being banished from Tomorrowland for creating “something he shouldn’t have” (more failure stigma), Athena insists the two are “Special.” Frank recognizes in her programming the values that lead to the downfall of the city he helped shape. He tries to make it very clear to Casey that these optimistic feelings of hope for the future are an illusion supported by such designations of individual exceptionalism. 

“You’ve been manipulated to feel like you’re part of something incredible. Like you were special. But you weren’t. You’re not.”

As the dejected Frank is want to do, he’s speaking of himself as much as he is about Casey. Through the tragedy of his relationship with Athena and his ensuing banishment, he has come to reflect the Earth-bound equivalent of Tomorrowland’s Nix. Despite his childhood dedication to “not giving up” (which directly mirrors Casey’s) he has become his own shadow. 

Simultaneously, Nix has risen to power and turned Tomorrowland into a dystopian extension of his core values: the inability to accept failure as a necessary part of the creative process, iterating a functional concept into perversion for lack of another solution born out of boundless imagination. Through the unfolding of this conflict, the film’s technological themes begin to come into focus. The potential for any technology to become destructive, rather than constructive, lies in the degree to which it is imbued with more than its mechanical, deterministic fate as a singular functional idea. To what degree does it service open, connective creativity? 

Any choice has the potential to evolve into an apocalyptic state. Strictly developing Frank’s probability algorithm, Nix has, literally, surrounded himself with images of the apocalypse. In this way his fatal hypocrisy is revealed. He decries the world’s resignation to a “terrible fate,” but allows them as his excuse to do the same. He is unable to accept and transcend the failings of the past in service of our present creation of the future. 

This relationship with the past runs deeply through the themes of the film, as both a celebration and condemnation of nostalgia itself. A warning against the dangers of escaping into the past. Adult Frank is stunted in his development by a bright past that was robbed of him, and Casey’s destructive inability to let go of the past’s failings (Cape Canaveral) are embodied in her inordinate insistence on keeping hold of her father’s hat. Just as her hat is climatically taken from her, so too must Frank confront his relationship with the past.

As their shared journey progresses, Frank begins to let go of the past for the sake of the future in a triumphant usage of Plus Ultra’s emergency escape rocket, “The Spectacle,” which uses the Eiffel Tower as a launch gantry. Whereas Nix’s preservative inclination decries the modern use of “an antique rocket,” Frank watches as the sculpted likenesses of the society's founders shrink into obscurity behind the rubble of the launch process. As they pull out of view, so too do their failings. Frank successfully takes their inspirational success, and leaves behind that which lead to their failure. He accepts, and transcends as the rocket ascends to transport our holy trinity into the promised land. 

But when they arrive, what are they greeted with? The crushing images of failure. A desolate Tomorrowland, left to ruin by Nix’s rule. His singularly focused development of The Monitor based on Frank’s probability algorithm has monopolized the developmental bandwidth of a once-thriving metropolis (“They’re running so much power through it now, a ham radio could pick it up.”) just steps away from opening it to the world. When an idea is locked into a singular purpose, its fate is deterministically locked into that singular future. A true pessimist, by walling off Tomorrowland to any new thinkers, new ideas, Nix has resigned its fate to those mechanisms of isolation. Even the logos adorning Nix’s militaristic guards visually convey a walled-off Tomorrowland. 

Nix’s failure stigma is best personified in his unwillingness to age and confront his mortality.  His resignation to the inevitability of deterministic iteration, in defiance of the possibility and embrace of failure or death. If there is no death, there can be no rebirth. Tomorrowland itself is on the verge of a rebirth at the end of the film, redefined by inclusive values earned by the representative leads who completed their journey from isolated individuals to an inextricably joined force, defined in their relation to one another.

This comes to a crushing blow once Frank completes his shared journey with Casey, prompted by the sacrifice of Athena. The first and only future we actually see changed from the Monitor’s projection is diverted by Athena. In that moment, she proves she is more than the deterministic set of “ones and zeros” Frank initially labelled her. In this transformative moment, the film’s central technological theme comes to maturity. 

Technology can be imbued with the raw, destructive inevitability of pure deterministic fatalism, or it can service boundless creativity in a way that defies its base potentiality. 

Athena’s sacrifice is a culminating thematic statement, a literal demonstration of the motifs that precede it: accepting failure to transcend it. She grows beyond her programming through her acceptance of death. In this moment, a classic, foundational mythological event occurs: the reconciliation of pairs of opposites. Through defining character actions, designations of man and machine melt away, leaving Athena far more human than the mechanically minded Nix.

Here, Casey moves beyond her status as a solely destructive force, and matures to a role of preventing destruction. She actively disarms a flailing Nix, and disposes of an armed explosive -- itself a thematic representation, like the Monitor, of a well-intended use of technology that corrupts past the point of repair. The destruction of the Monitor represents the only remaining way to demonstrate that recurring acceptance and transcendence of past failure. Even if Casey had found a way to invert the apocalyptic message being broadcast into the world’s minds, it would be a binary solution of equal manipulation, going totally against their ideological development toward a boundless, unrestricted imagination. Instead, her character transition has facilitated the inverse in another. 

When Frank flies above the Monitor, cradling the dying Athena, he is accepting that which has eluded him. His childhood dedication to make her laugh is jointly fulfilled. Thanks to his dovetailing arc with Casey, he is successfully able to complete a long-overdue act of necessary destruction in the face of his own destructive idea. When he lets go of Athena, he’s not only letting go of his past, he’s being reborn with Tomorrowland. This wisened return to form takes its visual conclusion in a direct framing quote: a side-scrolling jetpack crash as boy, and an exactly framed counterpart as Frank touches down in Tomorrowland after completing his defining action.

Apart, Tomorrowland crumbles, but together, they can progress. Now that the requisite cleansing has taken place, they must rebuild. But how to do so in a way that honors what they’ve learned, by taking inspiration from the past without succumbing to that which caused their endeavor to fail?

The failure and redefining of this futurist society acts as a refutation of the “Great Man” theory of history. The very concept of Plus Ultra takes those “great men” and literally removes them from the rest of us in their escape to another dimension, as history has metaphorically elevated them in their tower of exceptionalism.

In stark visual and conceptual contrast to the elite membership of Plus Ultra’s founders presented in the film, the recruits depicted at the film’s end are diverse and, more importantly, represent a broader sample of working-class dreamers in fields that would scarcely be volunteered as “genius.” The final image of the film is the pure metaphorical imagery of myth. From Casey’s isolation, alone in the field of wheat, through her shared journey we’ve arrived at an ideological evolution that places us all in the field together.

As Campbell so famously said, “dreams are private myths,” and “myths are public dreams.”

It’s not enough for us to be dreamers. We’ve got to dream together.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Closing Your Loop: "Looper" as Cultural Mythology

In the wake of digressions on time travel logic -- few founded, most misguided, all irrelevant --  herein the mythic level of metaphor and theme can be given breathing room to assume its rightful reign. There is a message both timely and eternal at the heart of Looper, as haunting is it is beautiful:

A man who hoards silver grows to step past his gold.

Its science-fiction narrative conceit is merely a springboard for a unique character dynamic.  Just as young Joe must face his older self, so too must we face our future selves in every decision we make. (Hopefully never so dire for us as depicted for him.)

Old Joe is an extrapolated version of his character’s primary flaw: the isolated greed of personal attachment. Young Joe to his silver, and Old Joe to his murdered wife. A damning loneliness and spiritual emptiness lies in our refusal to let go. Furthering the immediacy and dramatic potency of his ultimate decision, their entire conflict acts as an externalization of his internal dilemma.

There is the beauty of Looper’s seemingly effortless structure. The concept itself fuels the interpretive connectivity of its own themes and ideas. By pitting a character, literally, against himself, the dramatic playground is opened up for thematic discussions and conflict-based metaphorical imagery to be brought naturally, inevitably to the fore.  It is in this way that the pertinent mythological elements are delivered. Decisive character action demonstrably implies theme through an escalating conflict of ideas.

What is it that so changes him? What, exactly, does he save? The child he gives his life for, Cid, and his mother, Sara, are broken. Their damaged relationship, as dramatically extended to the world of the story, will grow into an ugly, mass-murdering threat. The thematic danger is not the terror of a future killer, but the imbalance of an unreconciled future.  They are as isolated from each other as Joe is with his silver. His intervention in their lives allows for a mutually vital catharsis.

Cid parallels Joe’s own past, a yet untouched innocence for which he is still hopeful. Old Joe is the looming, unchanged future, frozen in his erred ways. Young Joe is the active present, still able to make a change and divert these circled paths. In his final moments of revelation, he does.

We must all close our loops by cutting off the cycles of behavior that birth our undesirable future selves. Blunderbuss to our hearts, we face them metaphorically every day as Joe literally faced his. Walk past the gold. Save the kid. Close the loop.

Monday, October 15, 2012


Literary adaptation has been a prominent bedfellow of cinema since the earliest days of the medium. From silent shorts and the rousing success both commercially and creatively of Gone With The Wind (1939) to the forthcoming Cloud Atlas (2012), the viability of novels as a springboard for cinematic adaptation is given frequent opportunity to be questioned, criticized, and derided.

While contentious opinions could fill infinite tomes on the specific viabilities of individual stories, a broader question worth asking, but seldom asked, is: what, specifically,  is it about a story or work that makes it “unfilmable?” (The phrase so popularly chosen.)

A survey of published criticism shows a trend toward the vastness of a work as a primary indication of its status of filmability, be it in sheer scope or number of characters and their associated plotlines. While this is an entirely understandable assertion of the difficulty of the adaptive process, no measure of difficulty alone – especially considering the pace of technological advancement – can feasibly condemn a work to the dregs of impossible depiction. (Historically, difficulties of scale certainly presented a much larger degree of impossibility, admittedly.)

This ultimate fallacy of logic can produce a torturous bevy of criticism of adapted works reduced to a mathematical tally; a run-on list of what percentage of the original content was preserved in the conversion process. This attitude treats adaptation as if it were translation. While certain interstitial mediums have appeared allowing for a more translation-like approach to adaptation (inherently visual mediums such as comic books, interactive games, etc.), the process of adapting a piece of textual prose into an effective cinematic narrative would scarcely benefit from a literal translation.

Rather, the true measure of a work’s cinematic incompatibility should rest on its voice. It’s point of view. It’s narrative style. It’s thematic treatment. Cinema is a medium of visual depiction. Of ideas not spoken, but implied through action, not unlike its theatrical predecessor, but all the less talky. (Despite the chronology of its development, in which its purist iteration may indeed have been its first: silent.)

Whether or not a text is fundamentally adaptable rests on the degree to which its drama is played out on the actions of its characters. Setting can be enhanced for the visual pallet. The actions themselves rearranged for optimal effectiveness. However, if the core themes and movements of the text’s drama lie in an internalized rumination rather than the physical setting of the story, adaption will have to take on an active role in externalizing the conflict for the sake of cinematic depiction.

This means a “favorite scene” might not make the “cut.” The term “cut” itself is almost objectionable considering the artistry with which a story must be repainted in adaptation. Having a laundry list of desired elements is no way to walk into any experience. Assess what is there, not what is absent.

Be open to a radical new form of the story you love, and you may find that what you see on screen is truer to the heart of the author’s intent than the words themselves were able to convey. For in the author’s death post-publication, the work is the world’s and will be reshaped in their image. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Passive Character Arcs

I have unavoidably realized, through the viewing of several recent blockbusters, that simply having a character arc is not enough. Ending somewhere other than where you started is usually necessary, but on its own is insufficient.

A character must drive the story with their choices as an active participant in the unfolding narrative. Necessity for climactic change should not be thrust onto the character, but the result of their decisive action.

An inactive lead gives the work a feeling of disparateness where the plot exists on one plane, and the character on another. Character and plot should be inexorably bound together in their conception. They should feel absolutely mated and build causally toward a unified conclusion. Each should inform and feed the other.

Obviously, there are plots that will require a measure of passive motivation on the part of their protagonist, but this should always build to the eventual necessary action of the character, lest the plot or base concept become the true undefined protagonist in the eyes of the audience.

This is a dictum to be considered in large strokes, as depictions of wonder and surprise often live on the character's initial inability to react or lack of understanding. This is always most effectively used, however, as a means to an end. Working toward greater action that comes through understanding or awakening.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Structure Smucksure

People talk about structure a lot. This is a good thing. However, the way they talk about it seems to be very Act-centric. Three Acts. Beginning, Middle, End. Intro, Conflict, Resolution.

That's all well and good, but it seems to be all they talk about. Structure deals with more than the number of acts you have and at what point prior to an act break you have a "plot point." This becomes even more problematic in light of the fact that this Three Act Structure is a prominent but still arguable one. Shakespeare? Greek Drama? Five acts. Most musicals have only two.

The truth? It's all the same. These X-act structures are far from exact. (Forgive me.) They are merely templates to place over a work and aid in analysis. Delineating something into observable acts allows you more convenient points of reference. Once these structures became prominently acknowledged, you can certainly bet that writers began thinking in terms of X-acts in their own writing.

These are, however, masks and frames surrounding the common dramatic situations that can be combined in infinitely creative ways to allow for a dramatically succinct and balanced experience that varies depending on the relative advantages of the medium it's being presented in.

Art is always trying to reach for dramatic content that is more stimulating to our innate humanity than that which is found in nature. This can be found in three and five act structures, but it isn't the acts that are bringing the drama. It's the way the characters interface with the plot to present a discernible theme. Screenplays can follow the guidelines of these structures to a tee, and still fail.

There comes a time when act breaks and plot points must be set aside, and the focus of the writer must be turned to the specific interactions of his characters and how their conflict is telling of the creator's intent. This is where the craft comes in.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Brief "Ghost Busters" Analysis.

I'd like to talk about Ghost Busters chronologically, addressing events roughly in the order they are presented in the film. I endeavor to touch mainly upon narrative structure, character arc, and thematic content. 

Ghost Busters opens on a conceptually instigating event, presenting a world in which the presence of ghosts, while perhaps not widely accepted, is plausible and established.

The first post-title sequence establishes Peter's nonchalance about the subject matter. He treats it with little respect, using the business to get women. His skeptical jester-like approach to the business of paranormal occurrences is in contrast to Ray, who is an overzealous believer.

While it may initially seem that Peter's character is an attempt to infuse comedy into an otherwise straightforward paranormal adventure film, I'd argue that the balanced relationship between these three is constructed to perfectly exploit comedic archetypes. Every Jokester needs a straight man, and it is the contrast out of which the comedy is based.

This is also utilized to uniquely portray three distinct comedy types. Peter is sarcastic wit, Ray is slapstick (overzealous, exuberant expression), while Egon is obviously deadpan.

This may speak to the enduring nature of the film. As comedy is the most subjective of genres, it is most ingenious to appeal to such a wide variety of viewer mindsets. I believe this to be an unintentional benefit of a decision made for reasons other than audience appeal, but still note worthy.

The unabashed excitement of Ray and the scientific deadpan of Egon may feel unrelatable for the audience, allowing Peter's skepticism to be their way in. He is the everyman, who can be considered a representative of a shared character arc of the Ghostbusters.

At the beginning of the Ghostbusters' journey to self to self sufficiency, dramatically we switch point of view to introduce Dana. As this is directly tied to the main story arc (as seen in the commercial on TV and the forthcoming paranormal occurrence) the tangent avoids becoming a distraction or detraction.

It is traditional if not preferable to displace singular point of view for the sake of establishing the antagonist. This is exactly as done in the first Dana scene with the refrigerator appearance of Zuul. No time is wasted in reconciling the two points of view. After Janine's casual introduction, Dana comes in to converge with the Ghostbusters' storyline.

The origin develops full force in the team's first bust. Their social or relationship must be put to a practical test. This sort of displacement is always rife with comedic potential. (Potential I'd argue is fully and satisfactorily met.)

The montage following the Hotel bust moves us beyond origin and back into the realm of the immediate conflict, but not before introducing an often overlooked side-character.

Winston is a hired hand, a practical man. He can be seen to represent a sliver of the Ghostbuster's relationship with normal folk now that they are an established business. "I've got hundreds of people trying to abuse me!" Winston is the counter point to the general ambivalence and rejection shown by the public.

Winston is also religious. He brings a wider, ontological perspective beyond the specific intricacies of their business, as the trio tend to focus on. He offers this most appropriately in the latter half of the movie, post origin shift to main conflict.

There is another antagonist cut away with Dana and the Terror Dogs, then a point of view change to Louis which is comedic, clearly, but can be justified as establishing sympathy for this side character this is swept into the main conflict. It eases him into prominence.

There are sexual connotations to the "Key Master" / "Gate Keeper" names. It is interesting to note that the mythology depicted in the movie treats human fornication as the only physically transcendental act that can breach the ethereal to allow the antagonist entity into our physical realm. This mythology is sound and widely precedented.

Let's not forget Walter Peck from the Environmental protection agency. His function in the movie is as a single representative of a shared entity, centralized against Venkman. I find this to be a wise move for audience clarity and ease of reception.

Peck vs. Venkman represents the greater issue. They personify the subtle underlying theme: Bureaucracy is rendered helpless in the face of the unknown, and must defer to ingenuity of the individual.

The individual in this case is of course the Ghostbusters. The Bureaucracy, beyond its personification in Peck, is displayed in many forms: the ineptitude of the government AND religion in the face of Gozer's threat. ("I think it's a sign from God, but don't quote me on that.)

When you elevate a character to the fore, as Peter is here, they must also be assigned their own arc to justify this narrative shift of priority. He is, with his personal journey from sarcastic skeptic to sarcastic acceptance, which in turn unifies the Ghostbusters at film's end, linking his character functions in an inextricable way. (Personal/individual and representative/communal.) "See you on the other side Ray." His disposition toward the prospect of Dana's death is especially telling of this attitude change.

You see, Peter's horndoggedness is his way into sincerity. His care for Dana and what happens to her forces him into a change of priority. This aspect of his character plus her place in the story naturally instigate his ascent. His initial unwillingness is overcome. "See you on the other side, Ray."

So Peter functions as both single character with central journey and as a representative of the greater Ghostbusters conflict. This justifies later team-based point of view changes as members disperse. (Egon and possessed Louis, Ray and Winston, Peter and possessed Dana.)

In these sequences it is most evident that comedy is never sacrificed in the face of the paranormal mythology presented. They are constantly intertwined and play off each other, thriving unified. Symbiotic. (ex: Louis's Vince Babble.)

Some may argue that this interpretation is invalid based on the fact that it was not likely the intent of its creators, who were by all accounts focused on making a paranormal adventure comedy. Regardless of intent, a subtle theme and definite character arc are supported by the film in its implications of priority in the conflict depicted. And it is glorious, indeed.