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.


James Kennedy said...

> 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.

Ugh. That's so boring. You can't honestly believe that. What a deadening interpretation. I'm non-religious too, but that's such a blinkered way to view the climax of "Star Wars." The beauty of that climax is precisely that something supernatural breaks through unexpectedly -- a weird ancient magic is awakened -- in an ecstatic burst the world becomes re-enchanted, and wonderful things are possible. For a fleeting instant, the ordinary laws are suspended and a miracle overwhelms everyone -- not a mere "deus ex machina," but a thematically rich miracle carefully justified by the story preceding it. A miracle that is not determined in advance, the way a mere skill is. A miracle is always, by its nature, gratuitous; it can't be mechanically produced.

That's inspiring. That's stand-up-and-cheer. That touches a deep longing within us.

Your interpretation, on the other hand, pretty much boils down to "Huh! Well, Luke said he has good aim. I guess he was right." That's not an exhilarating climax! That's just the mechanical application of a skill.

This movie patently isn't about "believing in yourself," it's the precise opposite! The movie is about believing in something OUTSIDE of yourself. It's not about "getting back in touch with what he knew back home." It's leaving home behind and embracing the new person you can become in the big wide world. Certain homespun skills might be useful in the bigger world, but the bigger world isn't merely a larger stage to re-deploy old tricks from home. If "Star Wars" was just a self-esteem lesson with a dash of "there's no place like home," it would not be nearly as successful.

Again, it is fundamentally unsatisfying for the final climactic act to turn on the hero merely deploying a humdrum skill. They must put themselves in the hands of the divine. From then on, it's the god who makes the choice, not the hero.

Needless to say, I disagree with your take on the end of "Harry Potter" too. Just like Ron (playing chess) and Hermione (solving the potion logic problem), Harry indeed uses a gained skill: he flies a broom around all the fluttering keys and uses his Seeker skill to grab the correct key. But once Harry gets beyond that, to Quirrell, the rules must change. We are beyond mere skills now. It's Harry's purity of heart that allows him to get the stone from the Mirror of Erised, and it's the strong magic of his mother's love that makes it painful for Quirrell to touch him. These are not skills! If Harry merely deployed some earned skill he learned at Hogwarts to thwart Quirrell, it would feel as cheap and mechanical as the gymnastics in "Jurassic Park 2." Yes, heroes must work hard, gain skills, and use those skills to reach the climactic point, as Harry indeed does. But in a really deep story, once the final climactic point is reached, even the hard-won skills are useless, and the only thing that can effect true transformation is the sublime bolt of the divine.

Everyone is taught that "deus ex machina" is a dramatic fault. Obviously a clumsy/blatant deus ex machina is a bad way to end a story. But perhaps those climaxes that folks deride as "deus ex machina" are simply a corruption of, or a poor reflection of, or a malformed version of the HIGHEST kind of climax -- the sort the climax that I'm describing here. After all, wine and vinegar are made of the same stuff. The bad version points us to, or is evidence of, the good version of the same thing.

Matt Bird said...

Oh, right, I forgot all about the room with the broom and the flying keys! That's totally Harry's part of the "each of the three kids uses their skills" section. I still wish Harry could be more active in the room with Quirrell.

I suppose you're right about "Star Wars": My version sounds too reductionist and your version captures more of what's going on, and the feeling it engenders.

So you're proposing a 124th question for my checklist: At the end of the climax, after using his or her skills to mostly but not completely triumph, does the hero benefit from a moment of divine grace?

We were originally supposed to be talking about "Get Out". What would that moment be in that movie? I guess Rod showing up? Or the real Walter shooting Rose? (but Chris triggers that transformation)

Matt Bird said...

Oh, right, I guess you're saying that Chris scratching through the chair would be the example, because he's doing it unconsciously, and the unconscious =the divine?

James Kennedy said...

Matt -- I think since I'm kind of thinking out loud here, I've blurred together two distinct ideas: (1) The final moment of the climax relies upon a unique, involuntary, and essential characteristic of the hero, and (2) The final moment of the climax occurs because of a kind of divine deliverance. Sometimes the two overlap enough that they seem to be the same thing. (See my comments to your next post.)

In "Get Out," I guess there are two moments: Chris involuntarily scratching through the chair is an example of (1), and the arrival of Rod is (2) -- the unthinkable "miracle" is that the police show up, and against all odds, it's actually a GOOD thing for the black man in question.

But in both cases, it isn't the hero's conscious skills or planning or endurance that carry us over the final line. It's the universe itself, having watched the hero suffer, deeming him worthy and thus making its own (crucial) contribution to the hero's success.

Matt Bird said...

Ah, that's clearer.

Jonathan Auxier said...

I presume you've both seen it, but I can't help but think of Michael Arndt's amazing video series on endings. His language about philosophical stakes takes a lot of what you're both discussing about that final Star Wars moment and adds a lens that I find incredibly simple and helpful. This video is so good, I've pretty much given up on teaching story structure -- I just make people watch the video: http://www.pandemoniuminc.com/endings-video

Person of Interest said...

Great discussion in general and... James your discussion of the divine at the end of Star Wars is absolutely great and new (to me). I think you nail it. Really provocative idea -- that bad (unearned/arbitrary) deus ex machina is trash... but earned divine intervention can be a prized story value ... it's a kind of "Seal of the Hero" --
You can't be the One just by wanting it or training... sure Neo needs to chose the right pill and train (i know kung fu etc.) but Mopheus had one job and it wasnt to train to be the One, it was to find the One. And Neo was always The One. You can hunt whomp rats all day but you can't make that shot unless the universe deems you worthy... -- the hero is the guy who realizes the universe is working thru him... and is right. Cuz Lots of guy's think they're the hero and train real hard and beleive themselves worthy of the universe -- and end up spattered on the cosmic windsheild like so many bugs.