Sunday, December 01, 2019

Podcast Episode 13: The Moment of Grace

Listen to "Episode 13: The Moment of Grace" on Spreaker.
You knew this was coming, didn’t you?  First I posted about an ironic element of the climax of Get Out, then James was seized with mad inspiration in the comments.  Those comments soon become this post and this post, and the comments on those posts mounted up as well.  Inevitably, we had to have this out on the podcast, so here we are.  James has given this a lot of thought, with tons of examples ...some of which I found more convincing than others.  You decide, America!

And then, guess what: We have another episode of the podcast all ready to distribute!  I’ll just wait two weeks so as to not overwhelm you.

And then, starting tomorrow... This blog actually resumes!  With the beginning of a 50 part series!  (I’ll have to break it up for various posts along the way, including my best movies of the year posts in February, of course).  Everything’s turning up cockeyed!


Harvey Jerkwater said...

While I was resistant to James’s initial formulation of his point, by the end I could see what he means. “Our hero gets to the end of the story through skill, courage, determination, or whatever, but at the final moment must leave it to chance, fortune, or the divine.” That’s not a bad way to end a story, but its pitfalls are serious.

Going through your examples:

Star Wars –A core element of the story is the intrusion of the divine into the mundane. The whole story is about “the magic beneath,” and Luke’s embracing of the Force at the end, even though he’s only just begun to learn about it, is thematically perfect. The whole damn movie is about moving beyond, seeing past, expanding. The heroes only win when Luke takes that last final step into the magic beneath. Gorgeous.

Raiders of the Lost Ark –Despite James’s claims, the end of Raiders is its worst part. The opening sequence establishes the idea that Indy is smart, tough, brave, and still can’t get it done, because the world is bigger than him. That tracks with the climax. However, I don’t think that theme carries through the rest of the movie. Whenever I watched it, the end felt arbitrary. When did Indiana Jones suddenly acquire humility? When did he learn that you were supposed to avoid the sight of God? It’s been a while, so maybe that came up, but I recall it as a big tonal swerve. If they’d made it clear that closing his eyes was difficult for him, because more than anything he is a curious man who wants to know, but he accepts that he should not know these things, that would probably have improved it. The best parts of Raiders were everything else.

Toy Story - While rocketing, Buzz overshoots the truck on purpose (long-simmering thought: was it in part because if he’d flown into the truck, the rocket’s explosion would have killed many toys?) and jets into the sky, then pops his wings and glides into Andy’s car. I wouldn’t say that was “trusting to fortune,” because once the rocket was lit, the only other choice was death by explosion or falling. And the drop itself was handled by Buzz’s skill. He didn’t just fall with style, he aimed and flew into the car gracefully. Yes, it kinda feels like the Moment of Grace because of the imagery, but it also feels like a hero suddenly manifesting a new skill. Muddled.

Silence of the Lambs and Alien - Our heroes have done everything one person can do and have to trust to luck that they can survive. People love that. “Betting it all on one cast of the dice” is a great bit if you create proper anticipation and time it correctly.

The Third Man - Our hero has done what he has to do, proven himself a moral and brave man, and then submits to the judgment of the woman he loves. Another throw of the dice, this one a throw we all recognize from our own lives. The Vienna of The Third Man is not a place where his kind of romance wins. We knew it was a stupid bet when he made it and we probably would have made the same bet. This is the only ending that story could have had.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone - Oh man do I hate this ending. Our hero gets where he gets out of cleverness, courage, etc.; he confronts the villain(s); he’s hopelessly outclassed. Great! And he wins the day because…wait, what? Like in Raiders, the ending is set up by the very start of the story but I don’t recall it being touched on again, making the ending feel like it came out of nowhere. Like when kids play pretend. “You die when you touch me because, um, I have a special spell my Mom on me!” “No fair!” “Is too fair!” “No fair!” “You disintegrated!” “NO FAIR!”

Harvey Jerkwater said...

The Dark Crystal - As a huge Jim Henson fan who hates this movie, I cannot comment on it worth a damn. Henson was a comic genius and a brilliant puppeteer, but not great with drama. (See also: Labyrinth) Beautiful to look at. So boring. So, so boring.

Total Recall - Maybe “Quaid yanks out the arm of the chair” is the Moment of Grace in reverse for the villain. Cohagen had done everything, been brilliant, completed his epic gambit…but then the universe spits in his face. Or maybe Quaid breaking free could be seen as the Hand of Fortune intervening in recognition of Quaid’s choice to stay as himself. I dunno. Given the genre and the tone of the story, it felt apt. Complicating that choice could feel forced, like the ending of Batman Forever. I made fun of the scene right when it happened (if memory serves, the whole theater burst out laughing), but it hardly ruins the movie. Kuato Lives, baby. Doesn’t the entire story hinge on faith? That the spy adventure is really happening, that the Martian machine will work, both are huge leaps from Our Hero. He’s always acting on that faith. I think I’m going in circles on this one.

So…I argue that “the Hand of Fortune” can add some uncertainty and zazz to a climax if either the conditions of the “surrender to the judgment of fortune/the divine/the beloved” are pre-established (we hear a lot about The Force, we know that Holly is in love with Anna and she may or may not love him back) or the “surrender” is a desperate throw of the dice in a comprehensible situation where Our Hero has already done everything she could possibly do.

It doesn’t work when the intrusion of the divine/fortune is not anticipated and saves the day. Again, from my memories, the “divine” endings of Raiders and HPSS came out of damn near nowhere. This wasn't doing your best and hoping for a good outcome, this was "you can't zap me because I have an anti-zap cloak I've been hiding until now!"

Harvey Jerkwater said...

My apologies in advance for the below “well, actually-ings:”

--“Outre” is pronounced “oo-TRAY.” The accent aigu on the e is often lost in English but it should be there. (Also, “Rowling” is pronounced “rolling.” Yeah, I know.)

--James’s description of Protestantism is not quite right. The key theological idea of Protestantism is that works are useless for achieving salvation. They won’t even get you part of the way. Salvation is entirely in the hands of God and cannot be earned by your efforts. All that can be done is to worship and have faith, and perhaps God will grant you the salvation you do not remotely deserve for that faith.

The “Protestant work ethic” comes from the psychological responses this kind of thinking generates. Calvinism took the idea that grace is a freely given gift in return for faith and pushed it farther, concluding that since people are created by God, He knows perfectly well if you’re going to be saved or not before you’re even born. Those who will be saved are the Elect. And there’s no way to know if you’re a member of the Elect or not, because it’s God’s will, not yours. The pressures this creates on the devout are…substantial. Thus, people came up with the idea that there were “signs” that you were a member of the Elect. Signs of being the Elect were decided to be certain personal qualities that showed to the outside world the faith within: hard work, sobriety, frugality (*cough*and worldly success*cough*). The works you perform do not get you any closer to God’s grace; they’re the side effects of faith well executed, which may or may not result in salvation. So the idea of “surrendering to the will of the divine” is intensely Protestant as well. It’s also very, very Muslim – the very word “Islam” translates as “surrendering to God.”

--Luke Skywalker being the son of Darth Vader was a late addition to the script for “The Empire Strikes Back” and came from Leigh Brackett. When “Star Wars” came out, Luke was simply the son of Obi-Wan’s old war buddy. Sure, he was “strong with the Force,” but that’s because he was the son of a cool dude and had received a micron of training from the very last Jedi.

Moreover, the ending works better if we don’t think of him as a Chosen One. If this kid from nowhere can trust in the Force and it leads to this, what else is possible? “The magic beneath the universe” is more powerfully conveyed when we get the sense it could be anyone.

--This is why James Bond is a gambler. His consistent, impossible success at it shows that he is blessed by Fortuna and establishes that we should take the subsequent terrors as an adventure, because this is a man favored by the gods who will never come to serious harm.

Harvey Jerkwater said...

I'm leaving out James's idea of the "inherent properties saving the day" angle because I don't know what to do with that one. It works in Get Out, it doesn't work in Total Recall (though I don't care), it doesn't work in Sorcerer's Stone (yes, the book and movie are huge successes, but it's not because of That Ending). Maybe James's earlier suggestion about "the rejected stone becomes the cornerstone" helps? Chris's chair-scratching in Get Out is a tic; Harry's mother having sacrificed herself for him was not. Maybe it's the impact of the inherent property. Chris's tic only led to a very small thing, but that was enough, and he took it the rest of the way; Harry's "inherent property" saved the day for him entirely. Even Quaid had to work hard and suffer to rip out that chair's arm, and that was only the beginning of the climax, not the end.

Oooh, maybe that's the difference. Maybe the "inherent property" works well if it gives the hero a chance, but not if it solves the problem?

I am in a typing mood today thank you very much

Matt Bird said...

Thanks so much for all the thoughtful comments, Harvey. The game Bond plays most often in the books and movies is Baccarat / Chemin de Fer, a game that has no element of skill whatsoever. He might as well be playing War. When they send him to play Le Chiffre in the book (it was only changed to poker in the movie), it really is just because "You're famous for being really lucky.

Parker Peevyhouse said...

This might be my favorite episode of the podcast yet, possibly because I haven't heard this topic discussed beyond the idea of the clumsy deus ex machina.

I would posit that the "moment of grace" James describes actually touches on a our need to feel that individual effort only gets us so far and that, in the end, we must connect to something larger than ourselves. That "something larger" could be...

-a spiritual force (Luke using the force at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope)

-community/friendship (the friend showing up in the car at the end of Get Out, a certain something happening at the climax of a certain episode of The Mandalorian)

-family (Harry being protected by his mother's love, the critic from Ratatouille remembering the dish his mother cooked in his childhood)

-or even fate (Gollum biting Frodo's finger and falling with the ring into the lava, foreshadowed by Gandalf's telling Frodo that we all have a part to play).

The "moment of grace" is a foil to the idea of individualism. It relieves the burden of individual effort without completely negating it. The hero still has to work hard right up to the climax, and s/he also has to be willing to make the choice to submit to the "something greater." But in the end, with the "moment of grace," saving the day doesn't rest completely on one person's shoulders. I think that's what makes it a "stand up and cheer moment" -- because the audience feels the relief that a greater power (god/fate/friendship/community/family) can step in and help propel us the final foot over the finish line, but also because it makes us feel like we are connected to something larger than ourselves.

Really interesting episode!

Matt Bird said...

I wish I'd brought up "The Shining" in the podcast, because it's a definite counter-example to James' theory: Danny has relied on his inner magical power in various ways, including psychically summoning help from Halloran, but it all fails, and Danny ends up winning due to a clever non-magical trick, backtracking through his footprints, taking a different path, and then covering his tracks. No innate abilities, luck or submission to a higher power involved. And it's pretty darn satisfying.

Adam said...

Matt, repeating an earlier comment I made: I think the important thing is that the climactic moment is ironic. If the character has been relying on "divine grace" until now, this is the moment it fails them... it will take old fashioned human grit. Conversely, if the character has been trying to succeed through grit alone, this is the moment they learn that it's not enough to try really hard. As always, the ironic path is more interesting. It's likely that the "divine grace" paradigm is a bit more common, though, since more stories are about fallible humans than supernaturally empowered ones (at least, for now).

Matt Bird said...

Good point, so in "The Shining", it's ironic that he has to not use his god-given gift and just be clever, but in Raiders it's ironic that he has to rely on god.

jpb333 said...

This discussion has revolved around movies primarily, but the climax for Silence of the Lambs differs substantially in the book and the movie.

In the movie, Clarice hears the gun, but in the book she smells the villain and shoots him. She only makes this connection because Hannibal Lecter (way earlier in the book) tells her that certain types of schizophrenics give off a goat-like odor. The book ending ties in better with the core concept of the story (that Clarice is relying on the help of one serial killer to find and destroy another serial killer). I presume they changed the movie ending because it was unfilmable (after all, how do you film a character smelling something in a tense, do-or-die split second moment?). While the book and movie are both great, this is one aspect in which the book was better.

So, in the book, if Clarice is relying on any sort of divine intervention, it comes from Hannibal Lecter. Which twists the idea beyond all recognition, as far as I can tell.

Great discussion in general though, guys!

Matt Bird said...

Fascinating, I don't remember that from the book at all! Good point.

James Kennedy said...

Great discussion here!

To Harvey's point about "When did Indiana Jones suddenly acquire humility? When did he learn that you were supposed to avoid the sight of God?" -- although Indy doesn't really believe in religious stuff, he does *know* it (even better than the CIA dorks who hire him, whom he chastises with "Any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?"). Anyway, Indiana would definitely know Exodus 33:20, when God says "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

And also -- and I know this is a stretch -- when Indy and Sallah ask the old holy man about the headpiece of the Staff of Ra, the old man translates the writing on it as "this means six kadam high" -- that's the part that the villain Toht also has access to, since he burned the image into his hand earlier -- but what Toht doesn't have access to is the obverse of the headpiece, which says "and take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is." So in that sense, there is a theme of honoring/humility expressed earlier, if only obliquely. (Like I said, it's a stretch.)

And yeah, Harvey, I got theologically muddled there in my motormouthed enthusiasm. As you point out, I expressed the whole thing backwards! In Catholicism it's works that count theologically, and it's only in Protestantism that you have concepts like "justification by faith alone." I mixed up my words!

Harvey, I think you might be on to something that the "inherent property" works well if it gives the hero a chance, but not necessarily if it totally solves the problem.

Parker, thank you for saying this is your favorite episode yet! I rubbed that in Matt's face when I saw him last night. And I like your idea about the "moment of grace" being a foil to individualism.

I think Adam is on to something important with the climactic moment having some essential irony to it. If you relied on magic up to that point, then it's got to be only something non-magical that works in the climax (like in "The Shining"). The ironic path is more interesting, as Adam says. Astute!

jpb333's point about the difference between the book and movie for "Silence of the Lambs" makes me realize that this point about a "moment of grace" finds its fullest expression movies, not books. Books are a deliberative, personal experience; movies are a lizard-brain, communal experience. Therefore, movies are more appropriately positioned to give us that ersatz religious feeling of connection to a higher power, since they are public rituals that stand in succession to plays, which themselves stand in succession to religious liturgies. So this "moment of grace" is more likely to happen in movies than in books; and when books get adapted into movies, it's likely that the story will be altered to include such a moment.

Matt Bird said...

Excellent points, James! We're all shaping this together.

Person of Interest said...

Matt.... I love your book but James' ideas about grace at the climax of a story are truly brilliant pieces of story insight.

I think the moment of grace shows up in a variety of ways... I dont think the grace is entirely unearned because allowing the grace in is partially earning it... but grace can't be entirely earned (or it isn't grace). The hero (usually) undertakes a moment of radical trust/belief/surrender -- turning off the targetting computer, turning one's back on the Alien... I think this is a moment where what-will-be will be. It's taking a chance on fate.

I think this accepting of fate properly set up (aye, there's the rub) is very powerful... it is its own kind of winning even when the hero is otherwise losing... Surrender to something bigger is a sort of spiritual power move! Think of the end of Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid. They don't cleverly figure a way out of their predicament... they know exactly how things are going to go... they're gonna die fighting, and that's just what they do. What makes it so beautiful and powerul is the _lack_ of desperation, the lack of attempt to find someway any way out... I mean they struggle and fight as best they can for a while but at the very end they have a moment where they recognize where they are... this is it... and they accept it... this is where our path led us, c'mon brother time to go thru the final door together. The end of Thelma and Louise has a very very similar (I think by conscious design) vibe. But Thelma and Louise even more so accept that something about their circumstance is just unwinnable -- and that's ok. This isn't the Grace James was talking about exactly, but I think it's also "in the family" there's some higher value being played to... dignity trumps even death... something like that.

You guys mentioned tragedy as being when the hero seeks grace and fails. I don't think so. I mean that's a kind of down ending but I think real tragedy is something even more dramatically opposite the grace we've been talking about. It's the yin to grace's yang... Tragedy is all wrapped up in NOT seeking grace, NOT accepting fate, in deliberately trying to shape one's own destiny... tragedy is when a hero is active _to a fault_ -- determined to captain his own fate no matter what, to live life on _his_ terms. In the same way that trusting the force lets you make the impossible shot you have no reasonable reason to believe you can make... tragedy is when you have every reason to believe you are a super-deserving of success ... you are the best guy on earth, brave and smart and moral you do everything right... and yet what you'll learn is that when the universe says you're going to kill your father and screw your mother... that's what you'll do. The tragic flaw is hubris, but hubris is nothing worse than thinking your will is enough to determine your outcome. (end part one -- I ran over 4,096 characters)

Person of Interest said...

part 2...

I think the Deus Ex Machina ending of Raiders of the lost Ark is interesting in this regard. For 99% of the movie -- Everything about the tone and style of the movie tells you this is not a tragedy and you never really fear that it is... but by my logic Indiana Jones is a character set up for tragedy. He's super competent super resourceful and he makes his own success... if anyone deserves a win, it's Indy... and yet in the end he FAILS... in Raiders, all his heroics fail... he knows it. And that's when grace takes over. The universe has seen his struggles, and according to its inscrutable logic will now take over... The Nazis, have "earned" success on their own terms... they've outwitted and outfought Indy and gotten what they wanted. Surely they earned a win. No. They're nazis...
Die Nazis Die. They are _essentially_ unworthy... Indy _essentially_ worthy.. he had hubris, but has learned humility.

Honestly that Raiders stuffs to me sounds awful... it sounds, at least as I characterized it, like something that should be hooted off the screen. But it works. I don't feel like I understand the logic of that... what Raiders did that allows that ending and why other similar endings can feel unsatsifying (see Aristole, Poetics).

I think in that story logic, exactly as James said, at heart, at core, some kind of religious thing is going on... story or some kinds of story are perhaps almost a kind religious ceremony. But I'm not pretending to understand.

Person of Interest said...

part the third...

Jeez my part 2 is full of typos and badly in need of an edit (for clarity) ... is there no way to edit a post once published?

James Kennedy said...

Person of Interest! These are all astute points! I think you've given us the key that unlocks why the endings of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Thelma and Louise" are satisfying . . . we get to see our heroes commit to that moment of grace, but we know it won't end well, so the movie ends at precisely the emotionally high moment of submitting oneself to fate, without making us endure seeing our outlaws get perforated by bullets or slowly bleed out and the bottom of a canyon.

And I think you are totally right about about how tragedy fits into this scheme -- that the hero must be active to a fault. Brilliantly put! We see that not only with Oedipus, as you said, but also with Macbeth (active and scheming to the end) and even Hamlet -- the rap on Hamlet is that he's indecisive and vacillating, but in fact he's hatching schemes like putting on a play to "catch the conscience of the king," and double-crossing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and impetuously stabbing Polonius hidden behind the curtain, and the whole duel scene at the end with Laertes is, if I remember correctly, willfully reckless and overconfident in his own abilities (or maybe Hamlet doesn't care anymore at that point, and his sprightly recklessness in that scene comes from despair?). And come to think of it, Anakin Skywalker never has that moment of grace -- in the prequels, he's trusting only in his own abilities, following only his own blinkered counsel, all the way to the tragic end. Hubris all around!

And I think you're on to something with your characterization of "Raiders." Contra Matt, the reason we watch it again and again -- almost like a religious ritual! -- isn't necessarily because of the action scenes. There are tons of movies with great action scenes. The reason is because it enacts the ceremony of a re-enchantment of the world. We are all disenchanted Indiana Joneses. The movie meets us there, at that minimum place of maximum skepticism. And then it takes us, step by step, through an experience of the re-enchantment of the world. The climactic scene is literally set up like a ritual or ceremony, like everyone's at church, with Belloq as the minister, etc.! And Indy and Marion are tied up as though they are going to be the sacrifice to this power that will come out of the Ark! And it's not just that climactic scene. When Indy puts the headpiece onto the Staff of Ra, and uses it to focus the sun to pinpoint the area to dig in the model city, the music and the look of devotion in Indy's eyes make it feel like a RELIGIOUS moment. "Raiders" is a religious movie through and through, that's where it gets its power, and when Matt says "the reason we like Raiders is because we like the car chases," he's really fundamentally misunderstanding the entire movie.

Person of Interest said...

Love your take on Raiders and the "reenchantment" of the world. I think that is as objectively true as any take on a story can be... the whole movie is built around Indy being a no bs guy who doesn't believe in mystic hooey... the movie begins with Indy evading mechanical non-spiritual traps (and a treacherous human) in a supposedly guarded-by-evil-spirits place... so the evil spirts are BS, Indy is right... yet in the end... there are evil spirits magic etc. It's classic sort of character reversal sturcture.

But I can't follow you to your last sentence, not 100%... we definitely like the car chases and they really matter. I mean If you told me go see Raiders it's a fundamentally religious movie about reenchanting the world I don't go see it (I think you still do go see it, James, but you're an outlier!) But tell me it's about a super cool dude who has this awesome whip and a hat and wisecracks and epic-tastically figthts his way thru action scene upon action scene battlin' nazis and snakes and stuff as he goes for this mystic prize the Ark of the Covenant -- I go see it. All that stuff operates on us in some attention holding way that lets the other story we aren't even hardly (consciously) paying attention to come thru in a satisfying way-- a good outer story somehow makes a space for a a good inner story and vice versa. The inner and outer story have to bounce off each other in some good way, and I think they need to resolve basically simultaneously. Also whoever mentioned irony playing a big part was right too. So,I think you risk being reductionist when you call Raiders religious through and through if that implies the car chases are negligible. As reductionist as Matt if he thinks the reigio-spiritual journey is BS... and I think all discussion of story _risks_ being reductionist because breaking things down to elements always risks missing/breaking the magic of the whole, but that's a risk you have to take if you want to discuss story.

James Kennedy said...

Oh no, don't get me wrong, the car chases are necessary!

Matt Bird said...

Another interesting example that I would say is an unsatisfying deus ex machina, despite being a great classic movie: The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy does all the work, earns a trip back in the balloon, but then saves her dog and loses her chance to go back home. Then the same good witch from the beginning comes back and waves her magic wand and says Dorothy could have gone home at any time by clicking her heels together. This is very similar to what James is recommending all stories should do, but I find it unsatisfying. Being a reductionist, I would rather she made it back in the balloon, but the writers very much went the James way, and it always sort of makes me roll my eyes. Like the Scarecrow, I'm asking "Why didn't you just tell her that before?" and I find Glinda's answer of "She wouldn't have believed me. She had to learn it for herself," to be unsatisfying.

James Kennedy said...

Oh brother, Matt. First of all, I went out of my way on the podcast to make it clear that I'm NOT saying that all stories should do the "Moment of Grace" moment.

I was speaking to a specific type of climactic moment, and then exploring its variations. I was careful to say it was a limited, not universal, case.

But if we're going to talk about THE WIZARD OF OZ, I think that if Dorothy simply went back in the balloon, it would have been unsatisfying. There is definitely a need for "one more thing." Dorothy jumping out of the balloon to get Toto seems to fulfill the requirements of the "Moment of Grace," since she's taking an irreversible action, and then saved by a divine magic. I agree it doesn't feel quite optimal to our adult sensibilities . . . but that part, especially with the ruby slippers, is fucking iconic, which is more than you or I or anyone else we know will probably achieve in our little careers.

I think it's iconic maybe because even though such a move almost certainly wouldn't work in any other movie/story, it fits into the dreamlike, arbitrary logic of the rest of the story. (Why should it be water that destroys the witch, etc.) THE WIZARD OF OZ is quite explicitly presented as a dream -- which is another no-no in storytelling, of course -- but since it's taken the plunge of being "all a dream," it should at least have among its resources the peculiar properties that dreams have. Our old friend Lynchy-poo deploys the same kind of arbitrary-but-it-makes-emotional-sense dream logic in MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

Josh Slater said...

I think you're really misinterpreting why Ratatouille resonates so well with audiences. It has nothing to do with Remy submitting himself to a higher authority. Yes, he is being judged, but that judgment is only a vehicle to express his growth and to reinforce the themes of the movie. In that moment, when everything is on the line, Remy doesn't look outward for a solution. He looks inward. He synthesizes who he wants to be with who he really is by elevating peasant food into art. The climax of Ratatouille is so perfect because it delivers resolution for the critic story, Remy's growth story, and buttons the theme simultaneously.

I'm not sure about Harry Potter. I think the first book is all about family and what it means to be connected to the people around you. Harry succeeds because his trauma shaped the way he treats people and the way people treat him. Harry's friends help him because they love him and he loves them. Voldemort's followers only help him out of fear. And Harry's "love magic" isn't innate. It exists because he experienced this horrific trauma and his family sacrificed themselves to protect him. It changed him magically, physically, and emotionally. Everything about Harry, right down to being "The Chosen One", is a function of the way Voldemort uses people. The climax doesn't work because it's a moment of grace. It works because it completes the themes of family, responsibility, and how relationships affect our lives even when they're dead.

James Kennedy said...

@Josh Slater -- Yeah, I made my point in a muddled way, so I wasn't clear -- but what I was trying to say was that sometimes the climax comes down to (1) a "deus ex machina" moment of grace, and in other cases it comes down to a (2) involuntary but essential property of the hero. With the first Harry Potter, I agree with you, it's not so much a case of (1) "moment of grace," but rather more like a case of (2) -- the climax turns on an involuntary but essential property of the hero.

But in both cases, at the moment of truth the hero's individualistic, voluntary efforts cease to matter, and the rest of the work of the climax is carried out in another way. In Harry's case, it's his involuntary but essential property that he has this special magic on him because his mother died for him. I agree, it's not innate in the sense he was born with it, but it is an involuntary and essential property. That is, Harry is not scheming, working hard, etc. the way Matt wants heroes to do all the way through. My broader point is that the moments of climax that are most satisfying often turn on something outside the main character's heroic efforts.

I might've been stretching the point with Ratatouille, but I just re-watched the ending, and one might argue there is actually a triple submission to judgement: when Remy and Linguini dare to serve Ego something as basic as ratatouille; when Linguini reveals to Ego that all the food is cooked by rats; and when Ego writes the glowing review in which he puts his reputation on the line to champion a restaurant of rats. These are all irreversible actions that put oneself at risk, in which the outcome is uncertain, and depends on the judgement of others.

Matt Bird said...

I wish on the podcast, once you pointed out that you were really talking about two different kind of moments that sometimes happen at the same time (Star Wars) but sometimes they happen at different times (or only one or the other happens) that I'd brought things back around to Get Out, because I think that's the clearest example of having them each at different times: Scratching open the arms fo the chair is an involuntary but essential property of the hero, and raising his arms to be arrested only to have it turn out to be Rod is a clear moment of submission/grace.

James Kennedy said...

@Matt That's true!

Josh Slater said...

I think my point may have been too opaque. Let me clarify. I agree these climaxes fit your "submission to judgment" format. I also agree these stories work. Where we disagree is how integral these submissions are to the success of the story. I think any decision that fulfilled the thematic, character, and plot promises of the story would work.

If you knew nothing of construction and watched someone build a house, you might think that hammers imbued some special property to the wood and nails to hold the house together. In reality, you could use any tool to drive the nails into the frame and get the same result.

Eric C said...

Hey, sorry to comment so late here but I've been busy this month.

I agree that this is one of the best podcasts that you guys have done.

I think that James is hitting on something, but muddling together a few different factors and overselling the importance of it. I absolutely don't agree with his assertion that all storytelling is derived from a religious impulse, or that a moment of grace is necessary for a fulfilling story. (On that last one, if I may be rather cynical, I'd say that the stories that really resonate with people are ones that are, on some level, about them. That James finds those themes so obviously rewarding while Matt finds they leave him cold has less to do with the storytelling device themselves and more to do with how that form of storytelling resonates with the stories each of you tell yourselves about your lives and the world.)

I think that the "moment of grace" as discussed here can be broken down - there are at least three elements that are being rolled together in the various examples used. First is the theme of "the stone that the builder refused shall become the cornerstone" that I felt was the core the last time you were discussing this - I think the examples here of the magical saving people who relied on cleverness and mundane cleverness saving people who relied on the supernatural are examples of this. The second is the touch-and-go excitement and stakes of the climax seeming like it could go either way being highlighted. The third is actually the protagonist demonstrating a virtue, humility, in being willing to submit rather than trying to force their will. The greeks classically had their tragic heroes brought down by hubris because they thought themselves strong enough to not be held by mortal limits. Christianity and Islam have submission to God as a pretty direct value. Even completely atheistically, a hero who is full of themselves is very easy to make unlikable and probably sets off anyone's good sense that this person actually should fail and is dangerous to rely on.

A couple of examples - Gilgamesh was mentioned in the podcast, and by the end of his epic, Gilgamesh has failed in his quest to become immortal. He got close enough that he met people who had achieved it and learned their methods of achieving it, and he still failed. In the end he had to come to terms with the fact that he would grow old and die, that even though he was part god he was still mortal.

An utterly non-divine example of the same sort of plot point is the Arthurian story of Gawain and Ragnell, where Gawain is tasked to find out what women want most. He gets the answer from an old witch in order to save Arthur's life, only to find that after the situation is resolved that the price she will claim from him for her assistance is that the two of them must marry. Ragnell offers him the choice of remaining old ugly but being faithful to him as a wife or using her powers to be beautiful but being unfaithful, and he simply surrenders and lets her make the choice as she sees fit. (This being the correct answer as his willingness to surrender control of their lives to her is exactly what she stated women desire most, and he has the humility to give her that despite the apparent costs to him as a man.)

Also the case in The Incredibles - both Mr. Incredible and Syndrome think that capes look completely awesome and want them in their costumes, but when Bob brings the subject up to Edna, she absolutely shoots it down and he willingly submits to her judgment. Syndrome on the other hand acknowledges nobody but himself as an authority, or even worth listening to for advice, gets the cape that suits his preferences and dies for it.

Matt Bird said...

Better late than never Eric! I took some Gilgamesh stuff out of this podcast because I realized later I didn't really agree with what I was saying. As with the Iliad, each individual God or Goddess Gilgamesh interacts with in his Pantheon is petty and short-sighted and doesn't seem like he or she is worth submitting to (which is what I said at the time), but ultimately both Gilgamesh and Achilles do eventually that they should submit to the will of "the gods": Gilgamesh must peaceably accept that he himself is not a god and will die, Achilles must admit to himself on some level that maybe he should have never have kidnapped that priestess in the first place. By handing Hector over to Priam, he's admitting that there are higher values than his own. So ultimately, those two stories sort of fit James's model (or one of his three somewhat-overlapping models)

Great example with Gawain.

And I thinking you've rescued The Incredibles for James, when even he thought it would never fit.

Robert K S said...

"Back to the Future" has two or three "moments of grace," one in each of its multiple dramatic climaxes. The first comes when Marty's hand disappears and he crumples on the floor of the dance stage, totally incapacitated and moments from ineluctable historical annihilation. Nothing he does, or can do, will save him. He closes his eyes, in prayer for a miracle or in resignation of his life. But everything he has done up to that moment sets up George's second triumph of vanquishing the nameless antagonist who has cut in on the dance with Lorraine. In that instant, Grace smiles favorably on Marty.

The second comes when the alarm clock goes off in the DeLorean at the appointed time of departure and the DeLorean will not start. Nothing Marty does or can do will start the DeLorean. Resigned to failure and being trapped in 1955 forever, he collapses forward on the steering wheel. The moment his head hits the wheel, the car's engine roars to life and he's off. Grace intervenes again.

There is a third potential moment of grace, that comes when Marty discovers that, despite his efforts to save Doc from murder by terrorists (first by trying to verbally tell Doc about his unhappy fate, twice, then by trying to write Doc a letter with the information, then by trying to tell him a third time, and finally by trying to send himself back to the future ten minutes prior to the time of his initial departure, all attempts being thwarted by circumstance or Doc himself), Doc falls to the ground before his eyes, his body riddled with bullets. He turns Doc over and Doc appears to be dead. Marty a third time closes his eyes in resignation of failure. But surprise, Doc revives, produces the torn-up-but-taped-together letter, and says that he "figured, what the hell?"--a reversal of decision by Doc that is out of character with everything we have been shown about him to this point and can only be chalked up to grace. This third instance is arguable, I grant, because of the setup of the letter, something that the protagonist had control over and planned for. But that letter was destroyed and it was only by the grace of Doc's change of mind that the day was saved.