Podcast

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

8 comments:

Adam said...

I think.... you’re both right! Perhaps the irony principle, in which the best device is the ironic one, applies here. If a character has been relying on hard won skill to get to the climax, their skill has to fail them in that moment, necessitating the intervention of the gods. But if a character has been “the chosen one” up til now, the climax is the moment when they “lose their shine.” They’ll need a more human solution.

Am I right? Someone check.

James Kennedy said...

Hmmm! I think Adam might be on to something here. I'm not sure. That will take some thought and perhaps some re-watchings. But I like using the ironic angle as a guide.

Matt, a few responses to what you've written --

First, I don't think the end of "Raiders" suffers on repeat viewing; in fact it has only improved with age. I feel it's one of the all-time great endings, combining spectacle, wrath of god, exploding Nazis, over-the-top gore, and a cheeky meta-challenge to the audience: Indy says we must not watch whathappens next, but as the audience, OF COURSE we're going to watch, which puts us in a weird position with respect to the hero and the story. That's some postmodern shit there, brah!

Second, I don't remember the exact mechanics of the ending of "Goblet of Fire," so I can't speak to that -- I'm only referrring to the end of "Sorceror's Stone." One story at a time, please! Also, I suspect that these "rules," which were written only with one-off movies as guidance, will start to warp and bend once you get several books into a multi-book series (or several sequels into a franchise). The storytelling physics changes when you're moving episodically. In any case, you wouldn't answer an argument about "Star Wars" by bringing up "The Phantom Menace"! So any reference to "Goblet of Fire" is beside the point here.

When you mention that the end of "Lady Bird" is "downright churchy," and presumably thus fulfills my argument, I think you're missing my point! Just because I'm using language like "the finger of god" or "divine grace" doesn't mean I'm invoking actual religion. I don't remember the exact ins and outs of the end of "Lady Bird," although I remember she does idly enter a church. But the mere presence of a church doesn't speak to the thing I'm trying to express. I don't mean the literal G-O-D, Bird!

(continued in next comment . . . )

James Kennedy said...

(continued from last comment)

I guess my newfangled rule might not satisfy every movie, as you've listed -- although I'd have to watch them again and see the exact mechanics of how the climax works. Maybe this twist doesn't work for every story. However, when you mentioned "Silence of the Lambs," the moment of truth comes for Clarice Starling when she's stuck in the pitch-dark basement, essentially blind, and Buffalo Bill is approaching her with his night-vision goggles, clearly enjoying watching her panic (and since the audience is sharing Buffalo Bill's POV, we are creepily invited to vicariously enjoy his enjoyment of her desperation). In this case, we do see Clarice has worked very hard to get to this point, but now, in the chthonic hell-world of darkness, it's just her vs. her enemy, and she must rely on providence, or luck, or god's grace . . . and indeed it's a mere stroke of luck that she hears the quiet click of Buffalo Bill's gun being cocked -- that causes her to whirl around and accurately shoot Buffalo Bill dead, an action so rapid it is essentially reflex. Although Clarice had that reaction because she was highly trained, it's such a swift and decisive reaction that it almost feels more like a reflection of her fundamental character (deep down, she truly IS the pro FBI agent she always wanted to be!) and not a mere acquired skill. But maybe I'm stretching the point here.

Here's another version of that "unexpected grace of god that benefits the hero" moment -- the end of "That Thing You Do!" Our hero, the drummer Guy who idolizes a jazz pianist named Del Paxton, joins the band The Wonders, and his contributions catalyze the band's rise to the top. But then the band implodes, and in the end Guy is left in the recording studio alone. Except . . . Del Paxton happens to wander into the studio, and Guy gets to jam with his idol! This is a definite "touched by god" moment, almost literally. (You should do the checklist for "That Thing You Do!", which I love.)

Rereading our discussion so far, I was a little messy because I was thinking out loud, but looking back I guess I was making two different claims:

(1) the hero must work hard and use their skills to get to the climax, but at the moment of climactic truth, everything comes down to a unique, involuntary, but essential property of the hero;

OR

(2) the hero must work hard and use their skills to get to the climax, but at the moment of climactic truth, the hero benefits from a moment of "divine" grace.

In many stories, the final crucial action is multivalent enough that it can be described by both (1) and (2) -- that would be "Star Wars," for instance. But sometimes it's just one or the other (and of course, sometimes it's neither).

Anonymous said...

Would there be a difference between "divine grace", "karma" and "extraordinary luck"?

AlexNic said...

Hi guys, I'm an italian screenwriter, my name is Alex, and this is my first post here.

I'm reading you from Italy, so forgive me for my sloppy english. :)

This discussion is interesting, and I think that to be really satisfying the crucial action at the climax has to be an action that comes from a property that the protagonist has and that previously he perceived as a flaw.

Let me explain.

It's a sacred principle in life and in storytelling: you should change for the best, but you don't need to change all aspects of yourself. Indeed, you should appreciate also the negative part of yourself, the part that seems to alienate you, in order to beat the Shadow of the villain.

This is so clear in Get Out. The protagonist hates that gesture of scratching the armrest of the chair, beacause it reminds him of the day that he didn't do anything in the face of his mother death.
But paradoxically this is the action that saves him. And the lesson I think is this: he should not torture himself with autocriticism and regrets for what happened when he was only a child. He should forgive himself and appreciate his weakness, beacause we are human.

That's the most important message in storytelling, don't you think?
WE ARE JUST HUMANS. Capable of doing great things, but only if we accept our weaknesses as parts of us. Weaknesses that become strengths when we accept them.

I think that's the same with the wings in Toy Story. If you think that your wings will make you fly, and then they disappoint you, it is likely that you hate that wings.
But in the end, they saves you.

I'm thinking out loud, and I can't write about a bunch of examples here and now, but do you remember the "shoulder trick" in Lethal Weapon 2? Not a climax action, but that physical flaw saved his life when he was drowning.

And what about The Lookout? The protagonist saved the day thanks to the quirkiness of his damaged lifestyle.

So, the hero should improve himself till the final action of the climax, where maybe, to complete his transformation, he needs to say "HI, I accept you too" to the part of himself that he hates the most.

The hero is unique in his strengths? Well, I'm sure he should be unique also in one of his weakness.

That's the opposite of God's help. This is the human manifesto: we are flawed.
And like Matt was saying, this is the kind of thing that a villain underestimate about a hero: the villain doesn't expect a weakness to become a strenght.

James Kennedy said...

Hi, anonymous! Yeah, "divine grace", "karma," "extraordinary luck" -- any of these phrases is fine. To be sure, I'm not talking about a literal god who is literally handing out favors. I'm just using a metaphor. (Perhaps in this case the "god" is the writer, or the judgement of the audience?)

Hi, AlexNic! Those are great points, especially about "Get Out." I like the idea that the weakness becomes a strength, although that doesn't cover cases like Luke Skywalker's sudden access to the Force (that was never a weakness!) or Harry's pure heart and mother's magical protection (not weaknesses, and nothing he ever struggled against).

But of course you and I and Matt are not trying to nail down mathematical hard-and-fast definitions. We're just describing how seemingly various climaxes do seem to share certain characteristics, family resemblances. On reflection, sometimes it will be the hero's weakness that carries the day, sometimes it's what I clumsily call "divine grace," etc.

And indeed, I want to make clear that when I say "divine grace" I don't mean that the literal God is literally meddling with the events of the plot. When you say "That's the opposite of God's help," I hope you don't think I mean God steps in as a character in the story!

My main point is that the supreme culminating action of the climax should rely on more than a mere earned skill of the hero's. This supreme culminating action of the climax is a special thing that stands apart from the mere problem-solving and skills-deployment that leads up to that point.

Matt Bird said...

That Silence of the Lambs example is the stretchiest stretch-stretch that has ever been stretched. Okay, so maybe we should continue this debate on the podcast?

Eric C said...

So, full disclosure, my childhood involved a lot of movies where divine intervention passing judgment on the characters according to the writer's mores was explicitly included, and I have a strong negative reaction to anything that smells of that. It took me a bit to get my hackles down and chew over the rest of what James was saying.

I think that the thing that James is really on to here is closer to his "the stone that the builder refused becomes the cornerstone" comment.

The core idea (that I like, and so it may be over-separating it from the above) is that the character ultimately can't overcome their problems with the stuff that they're "supposed to" overcome it with. The skills they normally use to solve problems aren't enough. The preparations they made specifically for this problem isn't enough.

And then, something that they've had all along, but that was not valued, and may have been actively discounted or deprecated, ends up being necessary to their success.

Indiana Jones, after condemning belief in mystical stuff himself, listens to the part of himself that says to show submission before God. (My skin crawls just typing that up.)

The protagonist in Get Out fails to get out based on his virtues or good sense, and a nervous habit he's ashamed of - and then a sudden run in with what he thinks are the cops who would be out to get him - results in his survival.

Woody hates Buzz's delusions of being a space ranger and being able to fly. Buzz becomes ashamed of them himself once he wises up, but then, it turns out his fake memories of how to steer himself while flying (and Woody accepting relying on Buzz) ends up letting Buzz tie everything up in a neat package.

Harry Potter & company get up to Quirrel using their cleverness and the skills they've prepared at school - and it's not enough, but love (spurned as worthless by Harry's enemy) and the death of Harry's mother (something that Harry himself hates) end up being the villain's kryptonite.

Frodo's willingness to spare the corrupted Gollum - and in fact Gollum's corruption, treachery, and greed themselves! - end up destroying the ring when his own moral strength - the thing that set him apart from the more actiony heroes of the rest of the fellowship - fails him. (Interestingly, this doesn't really bother me at all, unlike the Indy example.)