Sunday, October 13, 2019

Okay, Be Back in a Week or Two

I think I’ll take things in a bit of a new direction when I’m back, we’ll see...

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Wrapping Up the Internal and External Journeys of “Get Out”

Every hero must complete both an outer journey and an inner journey. These journeys should overlap at certain points, but not the whole time. Sometimes you can create a finale where the hero completes both journeys at the same moment (such as using the force to blow up the Death Star in Star Wars) but not always. Often, the hero must complete them at different times, but it’s good to have the culminations of these journeys both happen near the climax. Sometimes the hero completing the inner journey allows them to compete the outer journey right afterwards. Sometimes completing the outer journey allows them to complete the inner journey in the epilogue.

On first viewing of Get Out, the viewer is not super aware of Chris’s inner journey, though we can tell it’s there: He’s trying to forgive himself for doing nothing when he mother was dying in the street from an accident. We see Missy elicit this information from him while hypnotizing him, and we see him admit his feeling of guilt to Rose later, but then, since the outer journey is so exciting, we don’t really think about the inner journey very much.

But Peele is doing a lot of subtle work to make sure we feel Chris’s inner journey on a subconscious level, even if we don’t think about it. Only when you listen to the DVD commentary is all this work made explicit.

We can’t know this on first viewing, but Chris’s inner journey begins when he hits a deer on the way to see Rose’s parents. He insists on getting out to see if the deer is alright, but finds it dead. He then insists on calling the police, despite the fact that doing so often ends poorly for black men. To Chris, the deer is his mom, and he’s still trying to save her.

Later, when Chris has his bizarre encounter with Georgina, and sees her cry, he suspects that she may be a victim in some way, which also makes him think of his mom.

Later, when Chris is held captive in the basement, there’s a huge buck head on the wall. According to Peele, this represents Chris’s dad. It shouldn’t have been up to Chris to make sure his mom was okay, it should have been up to his dad, who “wasn’t in the picture.” Chris escapes and kills Rose’s dad by stabbing him with the points of the buck’s head. He is not only displacing Rose’s father as the dominant male in the house, he’s replacing his own dad. His mom is the deer and he is the rescuing buck his dad couldn’t be. As Peele says:

  • The buck is of course not only a used not only to describe strong black men in the past, but is a symbol, the male version of the doe that he hits.

But Chris still needs to take one more step to resolve his inner journey. When he’s driving away from the house, Georgina, controlled by the grandmother’s mind, runs out to stop him but he accidentally hits her with his car. He then starts to drive away, leaving her limp body in the road behind him. Then he stops. He can’t leave her, even though he knows that the real Georgina is buried deep inside her and may never be able to be rescued. He just can’t leave a black woman dying in the street like his mom died. So he goes back, gets her unconscious body, and puts it in his driver’s seat.

In the end, it doesn’t work. She wakes up, still controlled by the grandma, tries to take over the car, crashes it, and presumably dies in the crash. But still Chris tried, and trying finally allowed him to forgive himself for not trying to save his own mother. As Peele says:

  • When he went back for Georgina, he made the only decision that would free his soul.

What’s the point of including an inner journey so subtle that you have to watch the commentary to spot it? The hope is that, even if the audience doesn’t see it, they can feel it. We sense that there’s an elemental power in Chris’s use of the buck head. We sense that something deep is going on inside when he tries to rescue Georgina, even if we’re too caught up in it to think of his mom. “Know More Than You Show” doesn’t just apply to plot, it also applies to theme.

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Straying from the Party Line: Chris’s Lack of Metaphor Family, Argument Tactic, Strong Motivation, Goals, Insistence, and Decision-Making Ability in “Get Out”

So according to our checklist, Chris seems like a rather deficient hero in Get Out. Let’s look at at all the character tests he fails:

Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Just very slightly.  He talks a little blacker to Rod than he does to her (“Yo, you at work?”) but for the most part he speaks rather generically.  He’s code-switching, and around white people he’s studiously generic in his metaphor family.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Not really, and he loses every argument he has in the movie.  He’ll try things like, “That was a dollar, you just threw a dollar out the window” when she throws away his cigarette, but it’s a halfhearted attempt and fails.
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
His motivation is that Rose is all he has in the world (other than his dog and Rod) but we don’t understand that until halfway through.  Before he admits that, we wonder why he’s putting up with this.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
He’s not very goal oriented.  In retrospect, we can figure that he might have seen this as an opportunity to have a family again, but he mainly just pastes on a smile in the first half and doesn’t try hard to impress.  He’s very polite but not eager to please.   
And is the hero willing to let others know that they lack his most valuable quality, subtly or directly?
He gently points out to Rose her seeming naivete, but mainly just reacts to everyone with pointedly-quizzical looks.  He laughs off Rod.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Absolutely none, as Dean jokingly points out.  And she drove, so he can’t leave without her approval. 
In the commentary, Peele points out something interesting:

  • “I could talk all day about how amazing Daniel [Kaluuya, who plays Chris,] is. I mean, at some point we realized, y’know, Chris doesn’t have very many lines in this. And it’s true. His role is to just kinda get out of here without the shit hitting the fan. You know even in these scenes here [taking abuse from Jeremy at dinner] he’s just trying to minimize the awkwardness and make it through the weekend and get out, so that’s why he’s not gonna pop off, and of course, he’s in love, so we understand why you’re on your best behavior at your love’s parents’ house.”

Chris is told by Dean early on that his role as boyfriend is to say “She’s right, I’m wrong,” as often as possible, but of course there’s a racial component to that as well. Chris is expected to say that to every white person. When the cop arrives, the black man is in deadly peril, but the white girl has power over the cop, which she happily flexes.

As I say above, Chris shows more personality in his brief conversations with Rod than with anyone else. Long before he gets sent to the sunken place, Chris is hiding inside himself, and we understand that, so we still find him compelling in spite of his lack of some of the surface traits we crave. He’s somewhat self-less (but not selfless) and generic, but we sense more under the surface of Kaluuya’s performance, so we don’t reject him.
And it’s essential that we see his great photography at the beginning: the ultimate way to show the soul of the voiceless.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

Grace in "Toy Story" with James Kennedy

I was going to get back to Get Out today, but I figured I should address James’s other massive comment before we get back to Get Out next week, so here goes:

  • I think for the climax, the "planted solution" must not even be a "problem." That tailors the advice too narrowly. It excludes useful cases. The climactic solution need only turn on a unique characteristic of the hero... and indeed, for a satisfying climax, an "involuntary" characteristic. Something unearned but essential about the hero. 
  • I already mentioned above how this applies for Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter. Here's another example of this you-gotta-work-hard-to-get-to-the-climax-but-from-then-on-you-must-rely-on-grace structure: the climax of Toy Story
  • Buzz and Woody are working hard to catch up with the moving truck, which has all their toy friends in it. If they don't catch up, they'll never find where Andy's family is moving to, and they'll be separated from Andy and their friends forever. Even though Woody and Buzz commandeered a toy car and have strapped a firecracker to Buzz's back, they can't light the fuse. All their plans come to naught and they are stuck on the middle of the road as the truck drives away. All seems lost . . . until Woody is super clever (this is the "work hard" part), realizing that Buzz's helmet can focus sunlight to light the firecracker. It's lit, and our heroes blast off at top speeds, catching up with the truck! 
  • Now, if Woody and Buzz caught up to the truck then, it would have felt clever, but it wouldn't have been FULLY SATISFYING, even though it technically fulfilled some dry formula of storytelling. You even could have argued it was "deep": Woody, who used to loathe Buzz, uses a characteristic of Buzz (his helmet) to solve the problem, thus signaling his acceptance/appreciation of Buzz! But that's not enough, because it's MERELY clever, it's MERELY hard work. For a climax to be fully satisfying, it requires the final intervention of the narrative equivalent of grace, the divine, the finger of god. 
I think I can see why I have remained unaware of this until now.
  • And so after the firecracker is lit, Buzz (carrying Woody) zooms so fast that it actually causes Woody pain (ah! there's the "suffering" part!), and Woody loses grip of the car. Without ballast, Woody and Buzz zoom high into the sky. Oh no! They can't possibly survive! They'll fall and shatter on the ground! 
  • But then a unique, unearned characteristic of Buzz (*not* skill) saves the day: Buzz has wings, and thus they can "fly." Earlier in the movie Buzz believed he could fly, and Woody insisted Buzz couldn't fly, and Buzz sadly realized he indeed couldn't fly. But now, by falling out of the sky ("with style!"), Buzz accomplishes flying at last, fulfilling his deepest, seemingly impossible wish -- and Buzz uses that characteristic to plop right into the open sunroof of Andy's car, reuniting both Buzz and Woody with their beloved Andy. Climax! 
  • It wasn't a *skill* that Buzz had. The first time we saw Buzz "fly," showing off to the rest of the toys, it only worked because of dumb luck: a sequence of crazy coincidences that happened to launch him. The second time Buzz tries to fly, he fails ignominiously, falling down the stairs and breaking off his arm. The third time, at the climax, Buzz flies only as a once-in-a-lifetime favor from the gods, granted after long effort and suffering.
  • The hero must work hard to get to that climax. All of that hard work puts the hero in the presence of the god. But once the hero is in the presence of the god, it's entirely up to the god, not the hero, whether the hero succeeds. It's out of Luke's hands whether the Force works or not. Harry must rely on magic deeper than his own fledgling skills to ward off Quirrell. 
But certainly you would agree that Harry’s passive luck at the end of the fourth book is unsatisfying.  When relying on this element, it’s very easy to make the hero too passive or lucky.  Or sometimes it’s satisfying on first watch, like the ultimate deus ex machina in Raiders, but becomes more unsatisfying on subsequent watches.  
  • Indy and Marian literally place themselves in the hands of god and say, Do what you will. And Woody and Buzz physically travel up into the heavens (a blue sky with white clouds, foreshadowed by Andy's bedroom wallpaper!), where god judges them fit to succeed, and sends them down to victory.
  • Shit, Matt, you should be paying me for this.
I’ll give you half of my profits from today’s post.  Okay, 60/40, but that’s as high as I go.  

So let’s look at our standard examples: I guess you could make the case for such a moment (luck/grace/relying on inherent qualities) in Frozen, Groundhog Day, How to Train Your Dragon, Raising Arizona, Sideways, Star Wars, The 40 Year Old Virgin, and maybe the Bourne Identity. (And the endings of Lady Bird and Selma get downright churchy)

But what would you say the moment is in Alien? Casablanca? Chinatown? Do the Right Thing? Iron Man? RushmoreThe Shining? (His inner shine fails him and he has to rely entirely on a clever trick)  The Silence of the Lambs

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Skills, Grace, Trust, and Suffering with James Kennedy

Shockingly, James had a lot to say about yesterday’s post, and I figured I’d better devote a post to my responses:

  • Yes! And here we discover a wrinkle to your rule, that it need not be a special “skill” -- since nobody would call Chris’ unconscious repetitive tic a skill, right?

Well, I was saying that it’s ironic that his tic turns out to play the role of a skill.

  • Similarly, in “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone”, one of the things that helps Harry prevail against Quirrell is the fact that Quirrell can't touch him without feeling pain. This isn’t really a skill of Harry’s! It’s just a property he has. Maybe the rule should be amended to “skill or unique characteristic.” 

Well, I don’t want to make changes to accommodate that book, because I think Harry’s failure to use any special skills in the finale is a flaw of the book. It would be more satisfying if he used some special skills (as Ron and Hermione had just done.) And don’t get me started on the finales of books 4, 5 and 6, where Harry is totally incompetent. When he successfully duels Voldemort in book 4, he can’t even control his arm! I wish Harry had shown some competence in those three finales, even if he ultimately failed in each.

  • Similarly in Star Wars, it’s not like Luke Skywalker could blow up the Death Star only because he had trained so hard with the Force. Indeed we only saw Luke practice with the Force once, on the way to Alderaan with the remote, and he didn't even seem that good at it.

Obi Wan praises his talent! It’s hard to know how long it takes them to get from place to place, but I assumed that that one session we saw stood in for others.

  • The Force “is with” Luke -- a property, not a honed skill. I think we can actually uncover an important rule here: maybe it’s the hero’s SKILLS that get them all the way to the climax, but at the climactic moment, it’s an involuntary PROPERTY that carries them over the goal line.

We’ve debated this before, but for me, being a non-religious type, I’ve always thought that Luke really makes that shot because of his ability to shoot womp-rats: The Force is just a metaphor for believing in himself and getting back in touch with what he knew back home.

  • Put in theological terms: Calvinist-style “works” (arduous, reliant on personal virtue) will get you to the climax, but only Catholic-style “grace” (free, undeserved, a gratuitous favor from God) can actually clinch the win at the final moment. You need both, and in that order.

I can see how that could work (Certainly it’s true of Raiders of the Lost Ark) but you run the risk of creating an unsatisfying deus ex machina. In “Sorceror’s Stone”, I would say the “grace” would be that he wants the right thing when he looks in the Mirror of Erised. The mirror essentially rewards him with the stone because his heart is pure. But I wouldn’t necessary say that Chris in Get Out feels any grace.

  • As for Total Recall, […] at the end, in the real climax, the only thing that matters is that Arnold is super strong -- strong enough to hold on during the airbreak long enough so that he can push the button that starts up the ancient Martian terraforming machine so that he doesn't die when he’s sucked out into the Martian atmosphere.
  • And at that climax, it’s not just his physical strength, it’s that he TRUSTS that the ancient Martians (or whoever) had done their job right and that the machine would indeed work.

Yeah, Quaid has to reshape his hand to Martian-shaped to turn it on. He wanted to be a secret agent on Mars, but instead became an actual Martian, saving the planet from the secret agents.

  • Total Recall is free on Hulu, so I just went back and re-watched the scene. It's not as simple as “he lifted his arm.” After a lot of agony, he just barely rips out the restraints, which he then uses as weapons against the technicians, goring them with the bolts that he’d torn free while he’s still shackled to them. It’s a legit thrilling moment. I think the reason it works is because Arnold is clearly going through intense pain. That might actually be a sneaky trick, a tip for folks to use: we will process a plot development as “earned,” even if it’s not the cleverest thing in the world, as long as the hero SUFFERS a lot when doing it.

It didn’t feel earned to me, even as a fifteen year old who wound up putting a Total Recall poster over his bed. Certainly, I agree that Arnold sells us on the idea that he’s suffering and mightily accomplishing a difficult task, but I’d rather he did something clever or at least unexpected. Or another way it could have gone: I think Ronny Cox’s real mistake should be that he assumes that this the “real” Quaid will re-assert itself more easily, but Quaid has fallen in love, and grown as a person, and he doesn’t want to go back to being an asshole. It might be interesting if Ronny does complete the process of restoring the “real” Quaid, only to discover that heroic-Quaid is the real Quaid now.

The key is to ask, “How has the villain underestimated the hero?”, either physically (not great), mentally (better), or spiritually (best).

  • Indeed I think there is a lot of stuff to be mulled over about the relationship of the audience to onscreen suffering. The vicarious enjoyment of other people’s pain is not necessarily an intuitive or expected thing about human nature, why does it work so well? Thoughts?

Because we like to see those veins in Arnold’s neck! Actually: I’ve always said that the reason we tell stories is to teach each other to solve problems. We like to see people solving problems, but we don’t buy it unless they have to work hard for it, and the more the characters suffer, they more they earn that growth, and the more gratifying it is to see that growth, and the more we feel that we can grow by watching/reading this.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: Ironic Special Skills in “Get Out”

James and I just sang the praises of Total Recall on our recent podcast, but we didn’t mention one of my pet peeves about that movie. Arnold eventually ends up strapped to a chair: He seems to have accomplished so much, but now he discovers that everything he has done was really just bringing him into Ronny Cox’s elaborate trap. Ronny has been playing ten moves ahead this entire time, guessing everything Arnold might possibly do and effortless manipulating him into bringing in the mutant leader. Now Ronny just needs to wipe Arnold’s mind again and restore his original personality.

But then Arnold does the one thing that Ronny couldn’t possibly have predicted: he raises his arm! He then breaks the chair, and runs away.

This drives me crazy: You could predict every possible movie Arnold could make, but you couldn’t predict he would raise his arm? Arnold doesn’t use some clever trick or special weapon he’s found as a result of his journey. He just does what anyone could predict he would do, and gets away fairly easily.

Chris in Get Out faces a similar predicament. He, too, ends up 2/3 of the way into the movie strapped to a chair, outdone by a villain who has been way ahead of him and manipulating his behavior the entire movie. He is even more helpless than Arnold, because the villains only have to ding a spoon on a teacup (live or on tape) to turn him to jelly.
So how does Chris get away? Unlike Arnold, he does something clever: He plucks cotton from his chair armrests and plugs his ears. (As Peele points out in his commentary, this black man ironically picks some cotton to avoid slavery.)  Assuming that he’ll be unconscious, Jeremy then frees him to take him to surgery, but Chris springs to life and knocks out Jeremy with a bocce ball.

But couldn’t the villains have predicted that, too? Why would they put him in a place where he would have access to cotton stuffing with which to plug up his ears? And wouldn’t a previous captive have figured out the same thing?

But this brings us to another very ironic special skill: When Chris is being hypnotized, he flashes back to when he was a child, watching TV, correctly fearing his mom had been in an accident, but doing nothing. We see that he was betraying his anxiety in only one way: He was obsessively scratching at the armrest of the chair he was sitting on. As he’s being hypnotized by Missy, he starts to do the same thing, but Missy doesn’t notice. When he’s in the basement, hypnotized off and on for days, he naturally does it again, until he’s ripped open the leather and exposed the cotton.

In a thriller, it’s essential to establish early on the special skills that will allow your hero to get out of trouble later, preferably something the villain could not guess that the hero would know how to do. Total Recall failed to do this, but Get Out does it in a very ironic and odd way. Missy does not suspect Chris’s real superpower: The obsessive ability to scratch open armrests, given enough time.