The Awful Choices

This one’s going to be fast, because I’m running out of time, but it’s one I hope is useful to other writers.

Recently I was reworking a story because of length issues. Amazingly, it was because the story was too SHORT for a market by about 3,000 words, and if you don’t know how rare that is, then oh, my sweet summer child. As I worked on it, I realized that I had made a blithe assumption about how possible it was to do something involving helicopters.

So I consulted an expert and simultaneously realized that a) there were two really obvious workarounds if “something” turned out to be impossible. As it turned out, the expert got back to me and told me that “something” was quite workable so long as you did, in fact, have really GOOD helicopter pilots.

So now I had three possible ways of solving my problem, but the following issues:

Most Dramatic/Awesome Approach (i.e. “something”) is also Least Plausible Approach.

Least Dramatic/Awesome Approach is also Most Plausible.

Most Plausible Approach also is Most Likely To Surprise Protagonists (which needs to happen).

Middling/Plausible Approach makes it difficult for the protagonists to ever find out what happened.

I turned to my research to see if it could nudge me along the right track, here. No such luck. The research basically said you could do whatever and justify it from there. So what should I do?

I still don;t know. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. I’m going with the high action/drama, because that shit is FUN, and why the hell else do people read science-fiction?

 

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The Hopeless Defense Of Susan Pevensie

If there is one thing I have learned in my life about arguments — and would that I had learned it sooner — it’s that there are some where you’re just not going to win. The issue has long since been decided before you ever entered the room. In fact, you’re not even witnessing an argument so much as the self-congratulatory talk after the argument has been decided against you. And you are as welcome in such venues as a drunken Rams player would be trying to get the Patriots’ defense to line up for one more play while Tom Brady is holding the Vince Lombardi trophy.

The only possible reason to keep arguing in such a case is if enough undecided observers are present that they might be swayed: Internet arguing is a spectator sport. But if the vast majority of spectators are Patriots fans, then you might as well not bother.

It’s a cheat, of course, because unlike sports games, there’s no timer. And the people involved in such arguments always want to appear as if they are fair-minded and brilliant, annihilating their opponents with superior knowledge, while in fact they are simply guarding their preferred outcome. To do this, they will characterize their opponents’ arguments in emotional terms and then admit the proper half of the facts into evidence while denying the other half. They will then congratulate themselves on their subtlety and insight, while mocking you. As I’m sure you’ve gathered, I got into the edges of one of these earlier this week and quickly showed myself the door.

The issue in this case was a defense of Susan Pevensie as the true hero/victim of the Narnia chronicles, because she was the only one who grew up and told the tyrant-king Aslan where to stick it. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that one could read Narnia this way: people have been reading their pet philosophies into works of literature since Blake and Shelley declared Satan to be the true hero of Paradise Lost.

I could tell I was on the wrong team when I made an observation that Susan Pevensie had given up on Narnia and was immediately told that this read of Susan’s character had made the respondent furious. This was also the first indication I had that there was even going to be an argument. It was immediately supplemented by others’ contentions that a) Susan had not given up on Narnia, but had rather been kicked out of Narnia for growing up and becoming a contemporary young woman and that b) Aslan was a God who didn’t want anyone in heaven who had grown up, and that c) she had gotten kicked out for discovering lipstick and stockings and courtship and marriage and d) because of that had her entire family taken away from her.

Of course, the only way you can get to this reading is to believe that everyone else in Narnia is a complete and utter liar who hates Susan from the outset. Such a thing may be true, I suppose, but it very much involves reading that into the text rather than reading any part of the text itself.

Firstly, any reading of the text will show you immediately that “growing up” was no bar to a final re-entry to Narnia/Heaven. Professor Kirke and Aunt Polly were both there, and had, by any reasonable standards, “grown up.” So were the Pevensie parents, who as far as we know, never had heard of Narnia. So the simple process of aging is by no means a bar to entry into Narnia. In fact, when Jill says “She was always a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up,” Polly (the old lady) responds, “Grown-up indeed. I wish she would grow up… her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.” Susan’s fault is not in growing up, but in embracing a false notion of what ‘growing up’ means. The only way this equates to becoming a contemporary young woman is if we admit that such women are defined by their acceptance a false notion of adulthood. Hardly a flattering notion

Did Aslan, then, bar Susan from re-entry to Narnia/Heaven simply for being a young woman who liked the idea of looking pretty and getting married? Again, not at all. Susan’s real fault is that she has decided that Narnia was merely a game. According to Eustace, when Narnia is brought up, she says, “Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.” Susan simply no longer believed. And since she no longer believed, she could not be brought into Heaven, any more than could the dwarfs who would not be taken in. By contrast, the rest of the Friends of Narnia believed and took action on behalf of Narnia in the real world, by mounting an expedition to get the traveling rings.

Finally, did Aslan take away everyone from Susan? In a sense, I suppose He did. On the other hand, her absence from the rest was very much her choice, so I suppose that everyone was “taken away from her” in much the same sense that a high-school dropout by choice “loses all his friends” when they graduate and go off to college and the professional world and never contact him again. It’s more the result of his choices and the way life naturally works. Remember that Susan is the only one still “alive” at the end of the books. Everyone else is “dead.” The argument the defenders of Susan are making is that if Aslan really loved her He ought to have killed her along with everyone else, regardless of what she wanted! In a sense, all the characters got what they really wanted, and what they believed in. Just like Ebenezer Scrooge got all the money he wanted.

I really would like to believe that Susan, like Ebenezer Scrooge, got a second chance somewhere down the line. But to attempt a defense of her as she behaves in the seventh book is like defending Scrooge as he behaves in the beginning. It requires one to ignore all of the text explored above. It is replacing what is in the text with what is not in the text. It requires one to believe that Susan alone is honest, and her relatives, friends and God are judgmental liars. That there are people are eager to do this, of course, surprises me not at all. They are on Susan’s side, and not Aslan’s, and there is no changing their minds.

It’s probably a bad habit to tack a coda onto the end of the essay, but I will, lest a misunderstanding arise. Justifying the treatment of Susan Pevensie who made the decisions Lewis tells us she made, is completely different, of course, from saying “I don’t like that Lewis made her make those decisions.” That, of course, is completely a fair statement, and one I might even agree with. From an author/theologian’s point of view, I think Lewis was presenting the question of whether one can turn away from grace. Hos answer is that one can deliberately do so. Then who should have been his example of this? Peter the High King, Edmund the redeemed, and Lucy dearest to Aslan’s heart all would have been more heartbreaking and would have undercut the story more. Eustace and Jill were integral parts of the action in the novel Lewis had just finished. Polly, perhaps, would have been a less heart-breaking option, but also one of much lesser consequence to us. Susan, I sometimes feel, got elected by default.

Movie Review: Ralph Wrecks Himself

The following review contains spoilers for both Wreck-It Ralph movies.

So I thought that the original Wreck-It Ralph was one of the better children’s movies that came out that year. It was smart and funny, with a whole lot of game references that 80s and 90s kids could enjoy. The messages for the kids were on the whole, good (stand up for yourself and for others. Don’t be fooled by those who say they’re excluding and hurting you for your own good) but didn’t overwhelm a good story. And you know, central to that entire good story was that it was an uplifting story told by way of children’s comedy: the good guys do win in the end, and they win by laying it all on the line for one another: Ralph risks his life to save Vanellope, and Vanellope risks hers to save Ralph right back. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated story, too. Here are two people who actually hurt each other to save themselves: Vanellope steals Ralph’s medal, and Ralph wrecks Vanellope’s car to get it back. Their flaws are complementary, but similar. Vanellope steals the coin out of pure desperate selfishness, not caring whether it hurts Ralph or not. Ralph does care that wrecking the car hurts Vanellope, but he does it anyway, choosing to believe King Candy/Turbo in a way that conveniently gets him what he wants. They find out that relying on each other works. Using each other doesn’t.

In light of this, Ralph Wrecks The Internet was bland, message-heavy, and an incredible downer. Rather than a story centered around bringing people together, this story is about how to be a friend when life carries you apart. And while there is truth and value in such a story — even a story for kids — it’s just antithetical to the atmosphere of goofy fun rather than in support of it. We’ve seen Ralph and Vanellope become friends. We want to see them have an adventure together, not get almost ripped apart by it. Essentially, it’s a giant sermon about the dangers of codependence, and the object of that sermon is Ralph himself. Ralph, who doesn’t want to lose his first and oldest friend, is a bad person for this. And the way the story is written, yes, he has it coming for sabotaging Vanellope’s decisions. But we don;t want to see him be this way. It’s like he just backslides and becomes a lesser character rather than a greater one.

Moreover, the film very much makes Ralph the designated asshole of the plot. Its made clear in no uncertain terms that he has no claim on Vanellope’s life. Okay, granted. But despite the incredible work he puts into saving Vanellope’s game for her, it’s only barely hinted that just maybe Vanellope does owe Ralph the common courtesy of telling him that she’s not so sure she wants what he’s doing for her anymore. She lets him go through an enormous amount of pain and work on her behalf, and then, when all the hidden motives are revealed, only Ralph really gets censured for being a jerk. No doubt, he was a jerk. But Vanellope’s deception of omission was hardly less hurtful than Ralph’s.

In the end, the film was a letdown in which it felt like the audience was directed who to cheer for, instead of being given a real reason to cheer for them. And although the ending was happy in that Ralph and Vanellope still had a friendship, that friendship was inevitably diminished, and the characters were weakened, not strengthened by it. They both lost. And I felt like the audience lost, too.

The Fault In Ourselves

I find it amusing to notice how a lot of writers and critics like to talk about the literary fashions of the day as though they are eternal truths rather than today’s fads. In the past week, I’ve seen writers bashing on J.R.R. Tolkien for writing long, info-dump chunks, both in descriptions and dialogue, not to mention for creating scenes (Tom Bombadil, anyone?) that had very nearly nothing to do with the major plot of the books. I’ve also seen another writer taking down Tom Clancy for, again, huge chunks of meandering text explaining the minutiae of the military, and giving huge chunks of backstory for minor characters. In both cases, the writers said something like, “I feel these works succeeded in spite of their flaws.”

Well, all works do, to a certain extent. I mean, Dan Brown can make money by publishing his grocery lists, and he wrote passages in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons that conclusively prove that he doesn’t know how either cell phones or air travel work. But these same writers, who will tell you, “You can’t write the way people did fifty years ago and expect to sell” are saying in practically the same breath, “These thirty-to-seventy year old books sucked.”

Well of course they didn’t suck. The standards just changed. Hell, a lot of people didn’t like them then, but the point is that a whole lot MORE people did, and pretending that the books (any books) both violate fundamental rules of writing AND aren’t in tune with the times is just silly. It’s like saying that Shakespeare succeeded in spite of his obsession with writing in iambic pentameter, or that Sophocles succeeded in spite of insisting on having a chorus parade around the stage narrating it. Obviously, they succeeded either because they did these things and people liked it, or because that’s just how things were done and nobody cared. And they remain classics because they are such good works that even these strange features can’t turn people off to them now.

Now the observation that fashions and styles and expectations exist is a vital one for the young writer to understand. I don’t care how good you are, you are not selling the next fantasy epic in iambic pentameter. But we must not mistake our preferences for the eternal rules of good fiction, or one day it will be us who are wondering why no one will buy our ten-years-ago styled fiction.

Black Panther And Infinity War: Choosing Who Dies On Your Hills.

So, to continue my earlier post on Black Panther, I just really want to know what the MCU was thinking when they allowed Black Panther to die as a result of Thanos’s snap.

And here, I’m not talking about the insensitivity toward a whole lot of Black fans felt by MCU making that move. That’s been discussed, in depth, by Steven Barnes and a whole lot of other people better qualified than me to do it, so I’m not bothering to recap it here. Put simply, it was really bad writing that took a dump on a franchise that MCU had obviously tried to elevate.

I mean, in a sense, Avengers: Infinity War really wrote itself into a corner. Thanos is essentially Sauron, trying to get his hands on a six-part One Ring that makes him invincible. The idea that Frodo has to win by first allowing Sauron to succeed is really fascinating. But they have Wakanda playing the role of Minas Tirith, and losing the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. But killing off all of Wakanda’s men, save M’Baku, was really foolish. Firstly, you never alienate an entire franchise’s fanbase. That’s just bad marketing.

Secondly, it really doesn’t matter that T’Challa et al. are coming back. Because now, they can never really be the ultimate heroes. They will always be the ones who had to be rescued by the real heroes. And it doesn’t matter that it was random, or that it was unfair. It’s unfair in sports when, say, a wide receiver misses a catch in the end-zone under double coverage that would have been almost impossible to catch, and then a kicker who makes a 25-yard field goal is hailed as the hero for winning the game. The kicker’s job was MUCH easier. But in sports and war that’s just the kind of unforgiving valorization of results that we have to have. In the end, victory is all that really matters, and anyone who’s ever played a game knows that this is so.

In the end, it’s just bad writing to set up characters to be the kind of heroes that Black Panther’s characters were set up to be and then kill off the main hero. It would have been far better to leave T’Challa alive and the king of nothing. Then he can redeem his failure by resurrecting the nation. And it’s not really fair either to point out that other franchises lost their heroes, too, even though it’s true that they did. Peter Quill died, yes, but in some ways, Thanos’s victory was his fault for spoiling the Removal Of The Gauntlet, so he had it coming. Spiderman died, but compared to the rest of the Avengers, he was a kid, hardly expected to pull his own weight. Only T’Challa was a king.

The only way I can see for MCU to come close to redeeming this is for the defeated characters to somehow be brought back prior to Thanos’s defeat, and being absolutely key to that defeat. In other words, for T’Challa et al. to rescue the survivors of Infinity War right back.

Black Panther, The Oscars, and the Writing of Really Great Superhero Movies

So, Black Panther was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and I’ll be the first (actually, the millionth) to say that it deserves the nomination, at least as much as Star Wars did in 1978. Whether it wins or not, it’s a stunning film.

I’m going to preface this with a note: I’m pretty sure that I will never feel, on a gut level, how important Black Panther was to Black Americans. My Black friends who care about such things are absolutely in love with the movie, and I suspect, were I Black, I would be, too, and for a host of reasons I can only partially fathom. I think it is an awesome movie.

And yet… somehow, for me, it doesn’t quite measure up to the very best of the best movies in the superhero genre, and it took me awhile to figure out why. There was just something about it that kept me from putting it on the same level as Captain America: Civil War and The Incredibles. Because these are the superhero movies I watch again and again.

I finally figured it out a couple of days ago, and when I did it hit me like a freight train, because I’ve seen the exact same flaw in my own work, and in other unpublished novels. The problem is that it’s hard to explain. The best way I can say it is this: when you are working with complex characters, it is often very tempting to put them on the stage alone, or with only one other character. Doing so allows you to make the audience focus on them. In addition, it is VERY tempting to make especially your villains into ultimate badasses. After all, the more powerful they are, the more glorious your hero’s victory over them.

Black Panther does this with Erik Killmonger. Killmonger arrives, having killed his former partner, Ulysses Klaue — which T’Challa could not do* — and leverages this into a bid for the Wakandan throne, revealing his identity as an abandoned Wakandan prince of the blood.

But unfortunately, this screws with the film in two other ways. Firstly, it forces the film into a scene that is almost purely repetitive. We have to go through the entire “duel for the throne” that T’Challa just won against the Jabari challenger. It forces us to tread over ground already covered. Secondly, it throws the whole Wakandan throne — or T’Challa’s judgment — into question. If the throne is permanently open to challenge, then how stable can it be? It can’t and the film implies that T’Challa, already having gone through the challenge, would have been well within his rights to refuse the challenge. But he accepts, in what I consider to be the weakest part of the film. It actually makes T’Challa less of a hero, because he places Wakanda at risk of being taken over by a monarch who will have absolute power, who has shown the willingness and potential to brutally destabilize the world, and who has no reason, really, to keep Wakanda safe: Killmonger pretty much blames Wakandan inaction not only for his own terrible life, but for the unopposed colonialism and conquest of the developing world. Why does T’Challa do this? Because of guilt at his father’s action? Because he believes he can’t be defeated? Neither is a good reason.

With the admitted benefits of hindsight, I think that there were ways to avoid this. For example: Suppose the coronation itself is interrupted by the need to apprehend Klaue and the stolen vibranium. T’Challa points out that a true king must prioritize the defense of the nation over his official coronation. Then, while having the wounded Ross airlifted out by Okoye and Nakia, he chases down Klaue and Killmonger. Killmonger shoots Klaue in the back, and then proceeds to fight T’Challa and lose. Upon surrendering, he is taken into custody.

Back in Wakanda, Killmonger asks only one favor for his plea of guilt: he asks, as a descendant of the African Diaspora, to witness the Wakandan coronation ceremony. T’Challa accedes to this harmless request. At the coronation, the Jabari challenge. T’Challa wins as we saw in the film (which already hints that the Black Panther must face any and all legitimate challengers). As T’Challa rises in victory, Killmonger reveals his identity as N’Jadaka, before everyone, and claims his right to challenge as a prince of the blood. He is fresh, and T’Challa is tired, but he is within his rights. He has orchestrated the entire situation to be where he is at the right time. It makes him a little less physically imposing, but it makes him frighteningly smart. It makes T’Challa less of a dupe, because how could he have suspected such a plan? His own father unwittingly set him up. And halfway through the duel, of course, Killmonger can start telling him — and showing him — that their “fight” before had been Killmonger deliberately losing. And since it’s all one scene, we don’t have any feeling that this is covering old ground.

Even better, when T’Challa’s mother recovers him and the heart-shaped herb and takes him to the Jabari, it is discovered that Killmonger, in secret, provoked the Jabari to the challenge (we never do get a very good explanation for why they broke their isolation in the film) and used their chieftain as a stalking horse to weaken T’Challa to ensure his own victory. This can be the reason that the Jabari decide to back T’Challa, to avenge their having been played by the usurper.

I think this approach would have resulted in a more streamlined film, which would have made T’Challa more consistent with his awesome portrayal in Civil War, and does not require diminishing any other aspect of this very fine movie. Of course, it’s not going to happen. That’s not the point. The point is that I hope I — and you, if you’re a writer — can incorporate the techniques discussed to improve our own fiction.

*Actually, and this is a wonderful bit of subtlety in the film, he chooses not to to keep his people — and Agent Ross, his ally — safe. Because that’s the awesome kind of king T’Challa is.

The Challenge Of The Grind

Grinding. Can’t count the number of times I’ve heard gamers complain about grinding, that moment when the game becomes more of a chore than a form of fun, trying to rack up more and more currency of whatever form the game requires so that you can trade it in for the shiny spaceship, armor, spell, plot-point, etc. that’s necessary to be awesome and go have FUN AGAIN!

But I’d actually like to challenge the notion that grinding is, of itself, a bad thing.

No, before you get out your machetes to sacrifice me to the gods of terrible game writing, hear me out. Grind is an inevitable part of gameplay. In fact, it’s pretty much the core meta-mechanic: Do these things according to the rules and you win. You just have to keep doing them. The problem isn’t grind: the problem is BAD grind. I submit that bad grind occurs when the players get the sense that they are having to repeat the same onerous task (whether too easy or too hard doesn’t matter) in order to get the same inadequate reward.

But good grind gives you the sense that the game is worth playing. That the universe is a challenge in itself. I will use two examples of this to prove my point: The 1990s Star Control II and the present incarnation of Elite: Dangerous.

Star Control II was a resource-gathering and exploration game. But in order to explore, you have to strengthen the capabilities of your flagship and its attendant fleet. And for this you need to mine planets. The genius of Star Control was its sheer magnitude and variety: literally thousands of brightly-colored planets, filled with millions of brightly-colored minerals. The more valuable minerals were mostly on the most dangerous planets to explore, presenting you with a cruel dilemma: do you take the chance of mining a dangerous planet for the rich rewards and losing your valuable shuttle altogether? Or do you content yourself poking about the safer, poorer planets, losing valuable time? I never heard anyone complain about the “grind” in SCII. And yet, all the elements of the grind were there. What saved it was the inherent tension, and the ability of the player to set his own pace.

Elite: Dangerous has a different sort of grind: the grind of the journey. You can fly to the center of the galaxy. It’s likely to take about a month of game time, but you can do it. And on the way you’re going to discover nebulae, planets, wrecked ships and more. It’s a grind: a never-ending series of jumps. But you can play the game without doing it. And there’s always something new to see. And you don’t get the reward of taking the long journey without, well, the work of taking the long journey. Which is, of course, the entirely appropriate price to pay.

How Not To Pace Your Fiction

So, as I mentioned earlier, last year I got to spend most of the fall semester teaching a group of high school students the basics of fiction writing. I want to talk about the story of a particular young lady I’m going to call BR. BR is a very talented young writer, far ahead of the curve for being a senior in high school, certainly one of the two best in the class. She decided to try her hand at high fantasy. She wrote a D&D-esque story about a young girl, the tribal chief’s daughter, who goes out to slay a bear for her rite of passage.

Firstly, I was very impressed by the consistency of character and the beautiful, clear prose she used. I truly wish I had been that good in high school.

But at the very beginning, I was convinced that I was about to read the story of a Mary Sue who easily annihilated every foe before her. It took me almost to the climax to realize that I was wrong about this, and it took me even longer to realize why I had been so misled. Because it wasn’t a flaw in the character. It was a flaw in the pacing.

Like many young writers, BR had decided to establish her character early on in the reader’s mind. But the way she did this was to have the protagonist’s father organize this huge send-off for her while everyone on the tribe cheered her on. This had two unfortunate effects that BR did not intend:
1) It exaggerated her protagonist’s virtues. And we couldn’t know this, because we had no way of knowing that her father was blinded by his own pride in her.
2) For about the first two pages, nothing happened except the cheering, so the story seemed very static.

BR had fallen into the trap of trying to describe her character and the setting all at once. She knew that she needed to show this rather than tell it, but she used so much dialogue that she ended up more or less “telling” anyway. Note that nothing in her technique was necessarily unrealistic. But the technique set us up with false (and bad)  expectations anyway. She killed the story in the mind of the reader. Just being realistic is never enough to establish your story. You have to do it so that it grabs the reader’s interests. On top of this, BR was so focused on her dialogue that she ignored other parts of the story. For example, before she leaves, the protagonist is blessed by an orc shaman. And as a result, I wondered throughout the story whether she was an orc (which she was not).

Now the way to fix this would have been to cut down the dialogue and have a respectful silence while, say, the orc shaman was blessing the protagonist. Then, BR could have used some quick description and the protag’s thoughts to contrast with the exaggerated praise being heaped upon her and to establish the makeup of the tribe. Then, the protagonist leaves,and we’re right into the action. Probably even better would have been to do the intro in flashback and to start the story “hot:” with her tracking or fighting, or running from the bear. This would have the effect of bringing the readers right into the story until they were interested enough to read through the intro.

It’s a very typical error to make, and one I made often myself. I hope BR keeps writing, as I have.

Less Is Not More, And Deconstruction Does Not Build.

Last week, my retro review on the film No Country For Old Men got a fair amount of commentary from people (for my blog, anyway), from people who liked the film. One friend of mine said that he found its deconstruction and defiance of tropes refreshing.

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary (but I admit that it is) to say that anyone can like anything, for any reason. We all have films we “just like” no matter what, either because we think they’re objectively better than most people do, and can defend that on some level, or they just tickle our “cool” centers in all the right ways. And if No Country For Old Men is to your taste, then far be it from me to say you can’t or shouldn’t like it.

But I do challenge the defense of the film on the grounds that it defies conventions. Nothing is good or interesting JUST because it “defies” anything. A raw onion sundae would “defy” the tropes and conventions of dessert. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

For too long, critics and authors who would claim the avant-garde position have used the term “deconstruction” as a defense for works that ignore or leave out major elements of storytelling, and use it to praise them as somehow being wonderfully creative or bold. And I’m sorry, but it’s past time for someone to say that The Emperor Has No Clothes. And I find that analogy strictly accurate. The Emperor’s problem wasn’t that he said, “Hey, everyone, I’ve decided that nudity is the way to go!” No, the problem was that he insisted that everyone admire his “new clothes” and threatened to call them fools if they refused and spoke the truth.

In the same way, works like No Country For Old Men provides less than a traditional story and their writers and admirers insist that they are more. That they are somehow “more real” or “more authentic” than a “traditional narrative” because it lacks what that narrative provides: structure, conflict and resolution. It’s like Raw Food fanatics who don’t cook and insist that they are superior for refusing to. And those are all the marks of a fad, not of penetrating insight.

Now, does that mean that deconstruction is always bad? Of course not. Especially as a writing exercise, it can be very good, because it can point readers and writers to fresh understandings of how and why stories work. Just like tasting raw foods can help people become better cooks and appreciate a wider variety of tastes. But acknowledging and using that fact is very different from plopping some artistically-arranged crudité on someone’s plate and telling them it’s better or more “authentic” because it defies the tropes of cooking.

And yes, of course “traditional narratives” can get old, tired and overdone. But that doesn’t mean that they are automatically old, tired and overdone simply by adhering to conventions of structure, any more than cooking or clothing can become passe by applying heat to food or cloth to bodies. In fact, what is more likely is that the “challenges” to these structures will become passe even more quickly, because they are by definition less complex and more reliant on a single factor to please their audience: the “defiance” of convention. They have little or nothing else to recommend them.

And when these avant-garde, deconstructionist, “challenging” scripts are themselves, in the normal course of things, challenged, too many of their admirers defend them by essentially saying, “If you don’t like it, you’re just too stupid and unsophisticated.” That this is not even an argument, let alone a good one, should hardly need to be stated. And if it is to be contended that the man who can appreciate more tastes is more sophisticated than the man who can appreciate fewer, the limits should be obvious. Certainly, a man who can only eat chicken nuggets and macaroni and cheese is no better than a five year-old child. A man who can appreciate lobster, caviar, and balut is likely a passable gourmand. But a man who can appreciate eating wood-shavings and moldy tomatoes is at least flirting with insanity.

Finally, I reject the contention that deconstruction or defiance is necessary to engage with the full range of human experience. Certainly, there is value in pessimistic themes, such as memento mori, or the idea that fate will work against the righteous and support the evildoer. But as I pointed out previously, that was being done as long ago as Oedipus Rex and arguably, Gilgamesh. In fact, Llewellyn Moss’s character in No Country For Old Men bears some resemblance to Gilgamesh: a “hero” who essentially wants to steal happiness and yet finds out that he can’t because fate will not allow it. Therefore it is disingenuous — and in fact objectively false — to argue that the expressions of such themes are somehow objectively “new and refreshing.” In fact, it is just another well-known trope with “the gods” and “fate” filed off and replaced by labels saying “chaos” and “real life.” It is, as I said, Satanas ex machina, with the writers taking the side of the villains rather than the heroes.

Furthermore, were we to hold the sequence of events laid out in No Country For Old Men up to a mirror, with the heroes in the place of the villains, with Chigurh running stupidly after Moss but being thwarted at every turn by the power of the hero’s… well, purity and righteousness (since the only explanation we ever get as to how Chigurh can vanish in the middle of gunfights, and appear noiselessly behind ex-special-forces officers is that he’s a relentless psychopath), the story you’d get would be somewhere between the fantasies concocted by my 9-year old (in which the Rebel Alliance has 5 Death Stars and destroys the Empire with contemptuous ease) and bad anime, where the heroes laugh/sneer at the bad guys while kicking their ass. And people would justly say, that it is puerile and simplistic. But somehow, when nihilism and brutality are held up as the bestowers of supremacy, rather than faith and chivalry, we are to believe it is thoughtful and sophisticated.

And this is simply wrongheaded. It is false sophistication, similar to the college student who sneers at his middle-school brother for slurping down strawberry soda while extolling black coffee and chugging Budweiser. It’s saying, “Look how grown-up I am!” It says more about the critic than it does about the film when what is NOT there, (character motivation, backstory, plot structure) is held up as a virtue. It’s not a virtue. It’s actually less. And it can be a very well-acted/directed “less,” (which I will stipulate that No Country For Old Men is) just as bad anime or science-fiction can LOOK awesome. And of course, it’s possible for that to be more enjoyable. There’s LOTS of “traditional narrative” films worse than No Country For Old Men, just as I’ve had lots of “apple pies” that have tasted worse than a really good raw apple. But a true judgment will be found in comparing the best of both.

 

 

 

Retro Review: No Country For Old Men… Or Anyone Else.

Spoilers Be Here, for anyone who still wants to see it.

So, having nothing better to do while I wrapped presents, I decided to fill in the gaps in my filmography and watch NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN on Netflix, having heard that it was good from… well, lots of places.

Tell me, when did Tommy Lee Jones let people convince him that it was intellectual to appear in movies where nihilism got substituted for plot? For that matter, when did Americans get convinced of that? And can we all finally agree that it’s basically the professorially approved version of the neckbeards who go around thinking that reading Ayn Rand makes them edgy?

This movie is basically The Hunted with two more characters, and a less-satisfying ending, which up until this point I would not have believed possible. But no, we’re not supposed to be disappointed with the ending, in which the supposed protagonist gets killed off-screen by random Mexican drug-lords, the villain walks away from a random car crash, and Tommy Lee Jones literally never sees either of them. No, we’re supposed to admire, as one critic tells us, how “The Neo-Western which builds on recognizable Western imagery to reach a very different conclusion and worldview. ” One in which “We’re left with a frightening interplay of the arbitrary and the inevitable, in which we must fear both moral punishment and the total lack of moral order , yet can’t trust in either,” because Moss the thief protagonist is killed, the sadistic villain Chigurh gets away, and the sheriff never comes close to saving or catching anyone.

We’re supposed to believe that this symbolizes the triumph of chaos and nihilism, and that Chigurh’s ending — that Chigurh himself, symbolized by his coin toss — is a sort of avatar of merciless fate. Which is absolute and total bullshit for any constructed story as a claim. Because there is no structure here. There is no overwhelming weakness of the protagonists that leads to their downfall, nor any strength to the villain that ensures his triumph. The only chaos that is generated is that which the Coen brothers generate themselves. Which is, of course, as all bad writers know, MUCH easier than writing characters. Characters have to have consistent motivations, skillsets, ethics, etc. But Fate can do anything, at any time. Can’t question it; it’s Fate! This is not innovative writing nor is it new. It is a mere funhouse reflection of the old, a Satanas ex machina in which the forces of evil obey the writers’ command to turn everything to shit.

In so doing, the film recapitulates the old saw that gets trotted out in every shitty graduate English Studies department in the world when you dare oppose the orthodoxy of nihilism and the Miserific Vision of the senseless, the brutal, the chaotic world: “It is questioning the idea of meaning.” I remember asking, when I was still in one of those programs myself, “Well, do I get to question the utility of that question?” My professor just looked at me and said, “No.”

And that is why films like NO COUNTRY are symbolic, not of some transcendent truth about the triumph of chaos, but of the infantilization of studies of Literature. You’re just not allowed to question the question. Essentially, the writers of such films get to put their fingers in their ears and scream “I asked first!” and pout at you for not playing their game. But it isn’t a game. It’s not that interesting, because the outcome has been predetermined from the start. It’s Oedipus Rex with the basic goodness and nobility of Oedipus subtracted from it. Instead of a man who wanted to be a hero brought low by the machinations of the gods, we have a low opportunist smacked down by fate and a sadistic hit man elevated because reasons. This isn’t a reexamination, much less an insight, into old themes, it is their parody and degradation. It is, as Chesterton said, “the thought that kills thought.” And as Roger Ebert said of another film, “It is like the story of a man falling off a cliff. There is no possible action but that he continue to fall, and no possible outcome but that he hit the ground and die.” The only difference in this film is that we are made to think that there might be a different outcome for most of it. In other words, NO COUNTRY was a bait-and-switch that robs not only old men of their country, but the rest of us of two hours of our lives.

And the sons-of-bitches who committed it ought to be made to give it back.