Rogue One, Fan-Theories, and the Death of Friendship

 

I will discuss some plot-revealing elements about Rogue One. If you care about that kind of thing, save the article until you’ve seen the movie!

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Spoilers ahead!

When I went to the theater to see Rogue One, I was excited to see Donnie Yen play Chirrut Imwe, a staff-wielding blind monk who devoutly trusts in the Force. I’ve liked Yen’s work in other films, and I was interested to see the martial artist/actor star in a Star Wars movie. He didn’t disappoint. His character was engaging, showed a compelling trust in the providence of the Force, and added some good comic relief to an otherwise heavy film.

I’ve always appreciated the monk-type hero. Showcasing discipline, peace, and wisdom, the archetype is an interesting one, and it often runs afoul of our more contemporary virtues of self-fulfillment and personal satisfaction. This conflict alone makes the character interesting. In the film, Chirrut serves as an anchor to the spiritual world of Star Wars and an embodiment of faith and hope, themes that run all throughout the movie.

I was impressed with the character, so I googled what people were saying about Chirrut. Primarily, the discourse centered around whether or not he sleeps with his friend Baze Malbus.

Fan speculation was created so quickly that even before the film was released to wider audiences, an interviewer asked director Gareth Edwards about whether or not there was a sexual subtext between the characters. He responded with a dodge worthy of the blind monk himself, saying “I don’t mind people reading into [Chirrut and Baze’s relationship]. I think that’s all good. Who knows? You’d have to speak to them.”

If you’ve seen the film, this may confuse you. There is, after all, little to no evidence to support a sexual relationship between the characters. It is perplexing why the conversation around Chirrut is so fixated around his suspected sex life.

Vulture writer Kyle Buchanan makes the argument by citing the death scene of Chirrut, where his friend holds his dying body and “stares down at him, devastated, Chirrut raises his hand as if to caress Baze’s cheek. It’s the simplest gesture, but it packs a potent, more-than-platonic current, and as Chirrut expires, it’s clear that Baze does not want to live in a world without this man.” Buchanan then proceeds to cite this as the example of the first gay relationship depicted in Star Wars.

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He gets pretty close to these stormtroopers in this scene. Polyamorous Chirrut, anyone?

A compassionate look and touch of the face is to Buchanan enough to evidence a sexual relationship. I’ll be honest, I don’t buy this at all. It’s a poor thesis, and it reflects a frustrating trend in our approach to art. We have hyper-sexualized relationships to the point that there is no other conceivable close relationship.

The first issue with this idea is that there is no reference to sexuality or even romantic desire in Chirrut. A homosexual, let alone sexual, Chirrut is simply nowhere to be seen in the film.

Perhaps more glaringly, this fan-theory ignores the fact that both characters are monks. Monks are usually celibate, which makes a sexual relationship impossible. And before we speculate that these force-monks are a little more loose with the rules, remember that the Jedi order also demanded celibacy. Both monks live a lifestyle and participate in a religion that forbids any sexual union. To see two monks acting together and to read romance into their companionship is to actively ignore prominent characteristics of Chirrut and Baze’s identities. It would be tempting to see this fan-theory as a way to give representation to sexual minorities, but redefining all affection or tenderness as sexual is shockingly regressive. It reduces all human interaction to sex.

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As Positive K says in “I Got a Man,” “If we can’t be lovers, then we can’t be friends.” Ph: Jonathan Olley ©Lucasfilm LFL 2016.

This idea subjects any affection to a strict sexual reinterpretation. There is no friendship in the eyes of an internet fan-critic. To be tender, to be compassionate, is to show sexual desire exclusively, and the final conclusion of any friendship is for it to develop to romantic love. Look at Marvel’s Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes: as soon as these characters were established as close friends, communities sprung up around the internet reinterpreting them as passionate lovers. This form of thought has eliminated any relationship other than a sexual one.

So let’s say a writer is going to create two close, tender peers who have a platonic friendship. How can he/she convince the audience that they are not romantically involved? In a climate where two likely celibate monks are called lovers because one is sad when the other dies, it is nearly impossible to keep sex out of friendship.

This doesn’t just impact the two force-monks. When I left the theater, I heard many fans discussing Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor as if they were romantic leads, complaining that they faced their death with a hug rather than a romantic kiss. As before, neither of the characters show or profess romantic love for the other. In fact, it isn’t until the last fourth of the movie that they can even trust each other. Their romance would do nothing for the plot, it makes little sense given the context of the characters, and it would be a meaningless distraction. She shared about the same level of friendship and intimacy with the droid K-2SO. Nevertheless, because two attractive leads are roughly the same age, they are, in many viewers minds, destined for romance.

Fan-theorists go into a movie theater with a specific set of items that they want to see. This leads to plot points being forced into unwieldy shapes to service this list of items. Often, viewers will look at a film strictly in how it can service them and their plot hobby-horse, and the list of demands almost always includes romance for the heroes. This approach reduces art down to a series of strategic pairings and plot points, sapping nuance, human interaction, and depth from the work.

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Haven’t we all thought at some point that Hollywood needs more romantic subplots?

Edwards was willing to write a story where there was no love interest, a rare absence for an action film. Unlike Rogue One, in the film Guardians of the Galaxy, a romance is awkwardly forced onto the plot. This movie, already lambasted by my co-writer Eric Marcy, features a male and female lead, both attractive. Even though the film offers little to no reason for romance and the characters have known each other for, maybe, a few days, by the end of the film they are a couple. The romance serves nothing for the movie and exists solely to demonstrate a pairing for the fans, pleasing the fan-theorists. This pattern has beaten itself into the minds of viewers, causing them to be senseless to any exploration of other types of relationships.

This plot abuse exists only to tantalize the viewer. It gives the fans a jolt of satisfaction but offers little else. It’s the cotton candy of plot points—it’s flashy, sticky, and ultimately disappointing. We must stop forcing our “theories” or imagined pairings onto our stories when they have little grounding in the plot—it isn’t just distracting, it actively contributes to the destruction of potentially helpful plot points. If I sound like a disgruntled curmudgeon, spitting on wide-eyed fans “ships” and “headcanons,” then so be it. Somebody’s got to.

“Suicide Squad” Review

Suicide_Squad_(film)_PosterSuicide Squad is less a movie and more a warning; a warning of what blockbusters, and comic book movies in particular, could be and are becoming: primarily financial investments even at the creative level, with any and all artistic and narrative ambition snuffed out for the sake of fulfilling perceived fan desires. With a production history fraught with conflict and a theatrical cut that reveals serious creative and tonal clashes between director David Ayer and studio executives, Suicide Squad flounders along in fits and starts, waffling between ambitious attempts at provocative storytelling and jokey, half-baked Marvel-esque sequences.

One can’t really understand Suicide Squad if one doesn’t first note its production history. The Hollywood Reporter provides a timely and insightful look into the series of events that led to the “hybrid cut” of the film presented in theaters. In a brief summation, after the wildly controversial release of Batman v Superman in a cut deliberately truncated by request of Warner Bros. executives, those same executives panicked and determined that the issue with Zack Snyder’s ambitious film was not their own imposition of cuts but rather its serious tone. They eyed Marvel’s artistically stagnant and flippant but financially lucrative production line and grew envious. When director David Ayer (known for oppressive, brutal films such as Fury and End of Watch) presented his reportedly dark and serious cut to executives the money-holders panicked, demanding and financing reshoots and recuts to add humor and levity to the venture. Caught in the crossfire was Ayer’s initial cinematic vision, and a compromise hybrid cut was released to theaters, mashing together Ayer’s serious cut with the studio’s decidedly more light-hearted affair.

Of course, the viewer cannot fully or accurately discern which scenes should be credited to Ayer, and which ones belong to the teaser trailer company Trailer Park that was brought in to craft the studio’s cut, but it remains painfully obvious that this hybrid cut contains two competing cinematic visions. One features sparks of ambition, even if it wouldn’t hold a candle to the likes of the Snyders and Nolans in the realm of comic adaptations. This possible path for the film utilizes the charismatic charm of Will Smith as Deadshot to explore a super-assassin as first and foremost a man with a daughter. One sequence in particular stands out as Deadshot is confronted by Batman. Deadshot prepares to resist the vigilante, and with his renowned marksmanship skills, the audience doesn’t doubt that Deadshot may very well succeed at killing Batman. Deadshot’s daughter, however, steps in front of the gun that her father holds, pleading with him to cease his endless killing. It’s a poignant scene that makes intelligent use of the DC cinematic universe, guiding the audience towards viewing the activity of the super-villains for what it is: shameful.

There are other character bits that hit home not only at an entertainment level, but a human one. Margot Robbie is superbly cast as Harley Quinn, fully embracing her psychological instability and landing some really great one-liners, but (even better) she also draws out empathy for the character. By the end of the film, and a revelation of Harley’s deepest desire, the audience begins to pity her (while Ayer adroitly avoids anti-hero idolization). The gang-lord/pacifist arc for the fire-summoning El Diablo is also a compelling idea, and a conversation within the squad at the end of the movie bluntly confronts and grieves for the evil that they have individually visited upon others. And one would be remiss to not mention Viola Davis’s chilling turn as Amy Waller, the frightening mastermind behind the government program that organized the squad under threat of death.

These glimmers of narrative ambition themselves are not what fails Suicide Squad. What fails the film is the lack of a substantive superstructure, a narrative construct to hold the adventure together. The failure is not the presence of jokes, or the whimsical, simple nature of the plot. Rather, it is the replacement of that plot with an omnipresence of humor. Conversations that should be used to advance characters are instead littered with quips, idle banter, and visual gags where one or two as comedic color would have sufficed. Even more painful, those conversations often do not flow naturally within themselves, moments where dialogue was obviously pasted together from multiple takes and dialogue threads disrupt the cinematic flow.  With the narrative front-loaded with humor, when Suicide Squad attempts to turn introspective in its final act the turn is undercut by an insufficient amount of foreshadowing and build-up. A villain lacking compelling motivation, like General Zod or Lex Luthor from Snyder’s films, deadens the tension and the emotional high-marks don’t hit with the force they should. The aesthetic does the movie no favors as well: ever shrouded in darkness, the movie never capitalizes visually on the natural pop and life of its cast, instead copying the flat visual composition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Even more obnoxious is the derivative and blatantly manipulative incorporation of pop and rock music numbers into the film at a rate probably never before seen in action cinema. I counted no less than six music montages within the first fifteen to twenty minutes alone, and they continued throughout the film to the point of self-parody. Introduction of Deadshot? Pump in those good rock vibes. Approach an ominously dark and abandoned Midway City? Good rock vibes. Frightening prisoner-abuse scene? Good rock vibes. It’s as if the editor watched nothing but Guardians of the Galaxy for a year and decided that literally any scene could and should be improved with some nostalgic radio tunes, even intruding upon moments that should be (and clearly are meant as) more somber and reflective bits of the film. The most egregious of them all is when a rock number fails to fade out before a flashback to Superman’s funeral, so we get a wonderfully inept moment of editing when guitars and drums are licking happily along while Earth mourns the man of steel.

This moment gets at the utter failure of a particular philosophy of film-making that centers itself around both the trivial criticisms and expectations of fandoms. The emphasis on jokes over story and the scattered, nonsensical movies that result, spring from an emphasis on giving fans and audiences what they want at the expense of what the narrative needs at any given moment. The studio misdiagnosed a problem they themselves had started by tampering with Snyder’s vision for Batman v Superman, and instead determined they would give the audience a hyped-up version of Guardians of the Galaxy because, hey, violence without consequences is all the rage these days.

It’s a trend towards storytelling that balks at challenging its audience, instead catering to their every desire, good and bad, moral and immoral. It should be abundantly clear that a series like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy would never make it through production in today’s climate without executives panicking that audiences couldn’t handle or wouldn’t respond well to his unsettling vision of Batman. These mega-franchises are increasingly becoming mirrors that reflect a societal desire for consequence-free entertainment. Marvel set the precedent while the fandoms, with their endless social media rages and bullying, enforce the new orthodoxy, and now DC is feeling the pressure to bow the knee to fandom reception rather than artistic quality.

The postcard-like and inconsequential appearances of the Joker (Jared Leto) in Suicide Squad provide a fitting snapshot for this philosophy of fan-centrism: one that tantalizes rather than engages, tickles the senses rather than challenges assumptions. Snyder may have bested the comic-book movie machine by eventually getting his masterful Ultimate Cut released, but it appears Ayer’s artistic vision was felled by a beast that we, the audience, have created: one drenched in darkness, splattered with moments of kitsch-neon, in which the world is always in danger but our souls are not.

“Last Days in the Desert” Review

Last_Days_in_the_Desert_posterIn the Bible, the story of Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness appears in the Gospels, but Rodrigo García’s Last Days in the Desert may strike audiences as something far more akin to Ecclesiastes. Anchored by a fine performance from Ewan McGregor as Yeshua (Jesus is identified by his Hebrew name in this most recent film to tackle the Christ) and moving at a subdued pace through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stark desert cinematography, García provides a story that prompts reflection on the meaning, frailty, and purpose of human relationships.

García’s film is strikingly minimalist right from the opening passage of Jesus wandering alone through the wilderness, during which only two lines of dialogue are spoken, and makes no pretensions as to faithfulness to any specific Christian or Jewish understanding of Jesus beyond that of Jesus having been a holy man in real time and space who claimed to be the son of God and was crucified. If Jesus is God become man, then García’s Yeshua is man first and foremost: an ascetic wandering through the desert, searching for an intangible something from his Heavenly Father as he struggles against the elements. This is a shivering, dirty, tired Yeshua, one who laughs at his own predicaments, like his long hair tangling in the bushes he cowers in for shelter, before peaking off into a frustrated, agonized scream.

Yeshua is played by McGregor as a quiet, but earnest man who believes firmly in both his mission and the love of his Father for him, and those around him, who is struggling to fulfill and understand that divine purpose. (I’d be remiss not to mention that it is a bit frustrating for yet another film about Jesus to be so obviously ethnically inaccurate. However, García’s avoidance of the Jewish context for the story in favor of a more universal parable might shed some light on the casting decision.) He is taunted and harassed by the Devil, who most often appears in the form of Yeshua himself (played again by McGregor, fittingly outfitted with a few extra trinkets of jewelry). The conversations between the resolute, pure-hearted Yeshua and the devious, often petulant Lucifer are the highlight of the film. García allows Yeshua to actually be tempted (this isn’t a sympathetic Satan who wants to enlighten Yeshua), and while Satan asks vexing questions to a man who claims to be the son of God, he is frequently spiteful and cruel.

The film is at its most effective when it capitalizes on the Ecclesiastical tone, wondering at what (if any) meaning is to be found in the bitter wastes of the desert. For example, Yeshua catches Lucifer wondering at the beauty of a shooting star, to which Lucifer hotly denies admiring God’s creation before launching into a tirade on the boring repetitiveness of the earth, with its unceasing cycle of animal and human life. It is ultimate death, an ultimate end, that Lucifer longs to see. A motif of the cyclical pattern of life is echoed in the tension-fraught conflict in the family that Yeshua stays with for the bulk of the film’s middle act, where a dreaming son, a frustrated father, and an ill wife talk past each other and cling to alternating love and hatred just as their ancestors have and descendants will. Satan challenges Yeshua to solve the family’s struggles to the satisfaction of all, and Yeshua (who does not use his divine powers in this pre-ministry context) struggles to heal three frail human beings through both word and deed.

It’s a moving struggle, but it is here that the minimalistic nature of the film occasionally works against it. Somber in its tone, though undeniably beautiful, the film lacks a certain something in its resolution of the family plot (though the Crucifixion finale and epilogue are made all the more potent because of their artistic restraint). My instinct is that an element of joy, of the life that Yeshua celebrates in his parting blessing to the young son, is lacking. This is not to say that Last Days in the Desert is one-dimensional: there is occasional welcome and refreshing humor. But it is difficult for sparse humor alone to resonate on a spiritual level, and giving but a glimpse or two more of true human gladness might have made a delicate but significant difference.

Lubezki’s cinematography deserves greater mention here, as he captures the essence of García’s vision, placing characters within curiously subtle vistas. There’s a mystifying unobtrusiveness to Lubezki’s composition: at one point Yeshua and the father walk and talk, and it is only about halfway through the scene that one notices they stand on the edge of a cliff overlooking a beautiful, rugged, valley. An elusive but sublime truth lies hidden here in the desert, the shot suggests, if one would only take the time to notice it. It is an indictment of our modern quickness, our rushing over of things that do not strike us as important or interesting. Last Days in the Desert isn’t perfect by any means, but it prompts us to slow down, to pause, and to reflect, and in this case that’s more than enough to make it well-worth seeing.

“The Finest Hours” Review

The_Finest_Hours_posterSometimes a simple story earnestly told can prove just as effective as the most complex of narratives, and such is the case with Craig Gillespie’s The Finest Hours, a historical drama based on the astonishing true account of the Coast Guard rescue of the crew of the SS Pendleton, an oil tanker that split in two during a fierce storm off the coast of New England in 1952. Gillespie fully embraces well-worn narrative conventions that trumpet common man heroism and romance against the elements, but imbues those conventions, and even occasionally subverts them, with a passionate sense of human nobility and a deft command of cinematography and tone.

From the unfortunate title, a misguided attempt to play on the old cliche, one might expect The Finest Hours to be a paint by the numbers adventure on the open sea. Capable and entertaining, perhaps, but nothing that would linger in the consciousness for long after the credits roll. Such an expectation, however, speaks to a subtle, perhaps unspoken aversion to straightforward, earnest storytelling. Our entertainment desires seem to have become split between the spectacle driven blockbuster franchises that thrive on their own self-evident lunacy on the one hand, and brooding, cynical and darkly humorous works on the other. One group wears the thin veneer of virtue to justify its own absurdity and incoherence, while the other exists only to mock and tear down whatever moral instincts we might cling to as a society. A simple tale of human courage, then, of the human spirit triumphing over incredible odds, appears to have no market (as its paltry $10.3 million opening weekend and tepid critical reviews attest to) in an environment where audiences seem to only be interested in that which distracts from or deconstructs reality.

All this to make the point, primarily, that The Finest Hours is astonishingly refreshing in its simplicity of mind and focus in the same sense that The Revenant is. While Gillespie doesn’t communicate with the rich and brutal symbolism of Alejandro Iñárritu, his focus is essentially the same, though filtered through a distinct artistic lens: the practical and tangible concerns of men and women struggling against both nature and each other.

The Finest Hours concerns itself primarily with two men: Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and the tanker’s engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), both men of quiet purpose whose character is judged best by their actions rather than words. They’re a refreshing change of pace from the boisterous and dominating action heroes that tend to helm this sort of adventure. Bernie (mumbling all the while in a convincing New England accent) finds himself asked to do the impossible by a novice commanding officer, but his only (and oft-repeated) question is “what do the regulations say?” Ray, facing almost certain death on a tanker split asunder, seems reluctant to contradict his frightened shipmates when they insist on delusional plans to save themselves, but his understated but rational grasp of the physical realities saves the lives of many. The heroism praised in this film is not one of assertive, domineering men, but rather of those who quietly try to do right by their fellow human beings and tend to the problems immediately in front of them.

By focusing on two understated characters thrust into circumstances beyond their own control, Gillespie exercises remarkable restraint that pays dividends in terms of authenticity. We aren’t subjected to laborious exposition about families and girlfriends at home. Rather, Gillespie trusts the early introduction and continuing subplot of Bernie’s engagement to Miriam Webber (Holliday Grainger) to have sufficiently tuned the audience in to the personal stakes (in an endearing romantic twist, Bernie is such a gentle and timid man that Miriam’s proposal of marriage frightens him into initially saying no). This frees the action sequences to focus their propulsive emotional intensity on the immediate concern, staying alive and beating back the forces of nature, while adding far more poignancy to the moments where Gillespie allows the melodrama to naturally flow (aided by a classically romantic score by Carter Burwell).

This focus is magnified in its visceral effect by phenomenal composition work by cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Aguirresarobe utilizes steady long shots to frame the scale of the nor’easter our characters find themselves trapped within. This is used to particular effect during the initial splitting of the Pendleton, as the rolling seas break apart a powerful technological feat like it was a mere plaything. Shrouded in darkness but partially illuminated by the flickering of both man-made lights and natural lightning, the divided ship becomes a testament to the power of nature and the smallness of man, and in these moments the film deals unabashedly in the sublime. On land as well, the oppressive whiteness of a merciless winter storm is beautifully rendered, and it is here that comparisons to The Revenant become most fitting. While The Finest Hours may impart a level of pure heroism and innocence to its central figures that The Revenant rarely does, both films concern themselves with the physical struggles of men against the harsh realities of the world we inhabit. It’s a simple film, yes, but it’s about as real and earnest a story as you’re apt to see from Hollywood.

A Treatise on Storytelling, III: Tearing Down the Anti-Hero

“I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad – as I am now. Laws and principles are not for the times when there is no temptation: they are for such moments as this, when the body and soul rise in mutiny against their rigour; stringent are they; inviolate they shall be. If at my individual convenience I might break them, what would be their worth? They have a worth – so I have always believed; and if I cannot believe it now, it is because I am insane, quite insane, with my veins running fire, and my heart beating faster than I can count its throbs. Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have left at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” So speaks Jane Eyre in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Doing what’s right is not a matter of waiting until the moral question is severe. Morality comes from resolving beforehand to do what is right. Without discipline, right action is not forthcoming. Doing what’s right takes practice.

IronMan_Still_H5_LTony Stark seems to live in defiance of this reality. Marvel’s armored hero is licentious, a drunkard, disrespectful to all around him, and seems only to be outraged when people tell him to temper his tongue. Despite his complete lack of moral practice, he still manages to sacrifice himself time after time for the world. It seems that for Tony Stark, when it comes to small problems in life, morality can be disregarded, but when large problems (like alien invasion) present themselves he will be able to pick up his morality where he left it, saving the world with selfless honor. The same goes for Peter Quill of Guardians of the Galaxy. Undisciplined, unprincipled, and promiscuous, he runs around the galaxy committing small crimes until a real threat surfaces. When Ronan the Accuser rears his wicked head, Quill suddenly doffs his morally dubious coat and acts with enormous courage and self-discipline. This act continues until he selflessly sacrifices himself for the lives of others. After this he reassumes his criminal self and flies around the galaxy having learned something about friendship but little else. While both of their actions end up commendable, I cannot help but scratch my head at how they got there. After displaying a rampant lack of discipline in life I would expect and restar-lord-actor-chris-pratt-settles-super-bowl-bet_fsf5.1920ality would demand that Stark or Quill would be nowhere near capable of the discipline required to put their own necks on the chopping block. Stalwart and righteous people have faced great difficulty conquering themselves enough to make the sacrifice that these protagonists somehow stumble into. Stark and Quill’s sacrifices are the most unbelievable parts of the Marvel universe, a universe sporting a talking raccoon.

The anti-hero has been a part of literature for a long time. Characters displaying characteristics not heroic or admirable can create good stories, but these stories will fail to portray truth if vices do not act as vices. In what seems to be an attempt to make characters seem more “real,” writers have created strange combinations of cowardice and heroism, lust and honor, discipline and addiction. They have created righteous heroes without the moral strength of a righteous hero. Marvel doesn’t have a monopoly on these inconsistent anti-heroes. Films, particularly ones sporting strong male leads, tell the stories of protagonists living lives of immorality and vice in all matters except for matters of great sacrifice.

Bond_-_Sean_Connery_-_ProfileThe unrepentant anti-hero is often billed as “real”; a hero with vices and virtues like a normal human. But when these vices in no way affect the character, (Peter Quill’s womanizing is shockingly irrelevant to the plot of Guardians of the Galaxy) they become an embarrassing example of wish fulfillment played out in a massively budgeted way. James Bond is cynical, disrespectful, has all of the sex he desires, and butchers the people he comes in contact with all while being heroic, brave, and disciplined. He isn’t a character; he is the daydream of an adolescent boy longing for sex, power, and heroism while maintaining his reputation. We need to ask more of our characters. Wicked actions have wicked results. While crude quips and anti-social behavior can be pleasurable momentarily, they will have consequences on how you act and are treated. Righteousness takes work. Characters who instantly become righteous after a life of iniquity are portraying a faulty understanding of morality.

The unrepentant anti-hero has clear exceptions in film. One contemporary example is Interstellar’s Cooper. This character demonstrates a consistent and hard-won care for humanity, particularly his daughter. His care is a firm theme in the film and figures significantly in the development and exposition of Cooper’s character. His righteousness is upheld as hard-won and proven. It is this very love that ends up saving humanity. I do not want to see virtue that comes from the general innate goodness of undisciplined humanity. Show me virtue weathered from experience, rising out of countless trials and hardships.

LawrenceHeroes like Cooper do not sport the flaws of the anti-hero, but there are well developed and created heroes who exhibit deep flaws. What separates these characters from the unrepentant anti-hero is that the flaws act as flaws. They either deeply harm and torture the hero or give the hero an internal villain. Overcoming flaws requires the flaws to be recognized as vices. In perhaps one of the greatest films ever made, Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence relentlessly battles his sadism, a difficult prospect when in the middle of a warzone. His internal struggle creates conflict that is impactful and meaningful. His sadism is by no means brushed aside or regarded simply as a part of his character, but is a demon he must fight. Dorian Gray’s carnal lusts lead him to horrid ends in The Picture of Dorian Gray, presenting a real and raw picture of the danger of uncontrolled vice. Han Solo must learn to overcome his desire for money and freedom in order to properly protect and support his friends. There are many heroes who overcome or are overcome by vices in good literature, but in these examples vices are realistically portrayed as inhibiting, tempting, and painful.

People overcome by their carnal lusts, the fleshly Quills, Bonds, and Starks of the world, do not rise up and sacrifice themselves for humanity. Untested morality, corroded by vice and lack of discipline, creates not a stalwart hero but a flaky wretch. The true anti-hero is vividly seen in Tuco (or, “the Ugly”) from The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Tuco holds the same licentious, drunkardly, cowardly traits that plague our contemporary macho-men, but these vices manifest themselves more realistically. When the time comes to act honorably, the unweathered morality of Tuco gives way to his looming desire to satisfy his own appetites. Tuco is a mess. Tuco is what every unrepentant anti-hero is.Tuco

But why do we suffer this kind of character? Where does our unrepentant anti-hero spring from? Perhaps we create this hero because we have recognized our own vice and lack of discipline, and want to reassure ourselves that when push comes to shove, we will be good. Maybe we have looked down into our soul and been terrified by the prospect that the coward we see peering back at us will assume control when great things are on the line. Perhaps we do not make these characters because we find them attractive, but because we are afraid. But these characters will not change the reality that vice begets vice. Our addictions and lack of discipline will torment and tear at our moral fabric. Art is formative, and art that caters to moral cowardice allows us to rationalize our flaws as we sink away from the righteous and into the animal. When the hour of decision comes and we are faced with a great sacrifice, will we be able to look at our art and see moral strength or weakness? Will our heroes stand with us in moral discipline and courage? Or will they run away, dragging us after the carnal?

A Treatise on Storytelling, II: Cowardly Stories

“You’ve got to go into the scrap heap” Theodor Kittelsen 1880

By the end of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, the titular character is a pitiful figure. Whenever he is given the chance to be someone, whether good or evil, he runs away, leaving sorrowful lovers, unruled kingdoms, and abandoned fortunes behind him. While Peer lives a wild life following every desire that comes to his mind, his life is worthless. As an old man, he is finally faced with the messenger of death who has come to take his soul. Peer is horrified to find that rather than a messenger of God to take him to heaven or the devil to take him to hell, he is met with a simple looking man who refers to himself as the “button moulder.” He informs Peer that Peer will be melted back down into a pool of souls, and reused as someone who will hopefully amount to something on the second time around. “You were meant to be a gleaming button on the world’s waistcoat, but your loop was missing; so you’ve got to go into the scrap-heap, to be merged into the mass”¹ For the rest of the play Peer relentlessly tries to prove that he is good enough for heaven or bad enough for hell. He will do anything to escape the oblivion that he would meet in the casting ladle of the button moulder. Peer’s cowardice in life caused his life to mean nothing at death. Like Peer, the stories that we tell often run from hefty moral decisions and end up without definition, fit only to be melted down and reused.

Every story is a matter of right and wrong. It is impossible to create conflict without establishing a way things ought to be. When the evil king locks up the plucky hero’s family because he wants to secure his throne, the story is telling us that there is something wrong with desiring to hold on to power at all costs, and that locking up an innocent family is problematic. When the chaos of a rioting crowd is portrayed as terrifying and wild, the story is telling the audience that this kind of passion is dangerous. Because we are dealing with reality, there is no way to tell a successful story and avoid telling something about right and wrong.

Speaking about right and wrong is dangerous. Making bold moral statements alienates and frightens audiences. But stories are the moral heart of a society. The stories we tell and the heroes we love shape and change us dramatically. There is no getting around the fact that the art we consume changes us in ways that are fundamental. If storytellers avoid tackling important issues, not only will their conflicts be sapped of life, boring and inconsequential, but the stories will be unable to sufficiently shape the audience in positive ways, creating a cowardly audience that flees from moral decisions. There are many examples of cowardly storytellers that pervade our culture’s stories, resulting in several symptoms of cowardly storytellers. Here are a few that have been bothering me.

I don't know Marvel, is he evil enough?
I don’t know Marvel, is he evil enough?

Just as Peer flees definition, seeking after adventure as opposed to making a stand for anything, so do many stories flee from taking a stance on any moral issue, choosing the most broad and general categories for evil and good as they can. In the recent Marvel superhero film “Thor: The Dark World,” the central threat of the story is that the villain, sporting the uncompromisingly evil name of Malekith, wants to stop the universe from existing. There is almost no cause less controversial than the cause of “let’s stop the universe from not existing.” While there could perhaps be compelling arguments for ending the universe, our menacing dark elf villain never explains his rationale. Because I trust in the cowardice of filmmakers, I knew that by the end of this movie there would still be a universe. People would band together to save the day, and all other days. By making the plot’s risk all encompassing, the writers of this film completely remove any exploration of the film’s ideas. Remarkably, the writers have made the possible end of the universe boring and trite. While the complex and heartful interaction between Thor and his brother Loki redeem this film in part, the central plot demonstrates cowardice. This theme is not unique to our hammer wielding hero. Themes of  “death is bad” and “life is good” often encompass most of the moral heart of our films. While these are true statements, they are hopelessly boring without further discussion. Ultimately they are not just boring, but a demonstration of the reluctance of the filmmaker to tread on any unstable or risky ground..

Cowardly refusal to discuss matters of importance seeps its way into a great many films. How many movies have you seen where the heroes must fight hard to keep the current system existing. Generally a wicked villain will rise up, threaten the peace, and the heroes will save the day, bringing us right back to where we started. Our films have become a vigorous defense of the status quo. Often I find myself wondering why the status quo is so worth saving. It often seems that the only people who really want to change the world are the villains. While Ultron may want to cleanse the world of evil by wiping out mankind, at least he does not take the Avenger’s approach of just letting evil happen. We need films that are brave enough to try and create something, as opposed to just stopping misguided reformers. If anything, this reckless defense of the way things are gives us a fear of the firebrand. If we continue to fight for the system, when will we ever join the moral revolutionary? The poet’s pen should fearlessly strike the paper, causing deep gashes that form something beautiful. The artist should be a revolter, burning down the established concepts in the mind of the audience and building up stronger cities.

There actually was a big red genocide button
There actually was a big red genocide button

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the Whovians (a formidable crowd indeed) I would argue that one of the clearest examples of storytelling cowardice comes in the Doctor Who season 7 finale. One of the only interesting plot points of the show up to this point was that the protagonist, the earth saving, long lived, enigmatic “Doctor” is haunted by a genocide he once committed on his own people to save the universe. Lingering in the back of the show’s mind is the question of whether or not, if given the chance, he would do this act again. The Doctor is faced with this choice in this finale as he, through a convenient and technobabbled time coincidence, is again faced with the same decision. He can choose to save the universe or choose to not commit a genocide of his own people. At this point I got excited. The show makers were finally going to answer their question: is it justified to commit a horribly immoral act in order to save the universe? I would have been happy either way. Had he pushed the big red genocide button, the show would be making a big statement on morality and pragmatic decision making. Had he decided to not push the button, the show would be making an even more exciting statement: the universe and everything in it is not worth a single immoral act of this magnitude. I desperately wanted him to stay away and the show to end on this powerful note. But instead the show’s music kicked in and the writers figured out a way, using an impossibly large amount of time travel, to run away like Peer. They ran away from making a decision. We are left with the idea that when difficult choices have to be made in life, you will always be able to run away.

We need to ask more of our stories. They should not parrot simplistic ideas of morality that make us comfortable. Let the bard’s prophesies and screams make us profoundly, healthily uncomfortable, lest we settle for weak willed art, devoid of any meat. Our stories will form us. Is it too much to ask that they form us powerfully? When a storyteller sits down to write they should write with courage, creating stories that either deserve heaven or hell; stories that create devils or angels. The most insidious kind of evil is the kind that seeps in gradually, eroding at our moral strength. It is this erosion that weak willed stories create. By telling stories like cowards we are molding cowards. Our stories become buttons without loops, fit only to be remolded into the casting ladle. Stories should inspire the hearer to sing like an angel or curse like a devil, not passively nod in agreement as he slips into oblivion

¹ Ibsen, Henrik. “Peer Gynt.” Eleven Plays of Henrik Ibsen, ed. Bennet A. Cerf, Donald S. Klopfer. New York: The Modern Library. 466. Print

A Treatise On Storytelling, I: All Art Is Formative

“The Boyhood of Raleigh,” by John Everett Millais

An oft-ignored fact, brushed over in the seductively insidious claim that film, television, video games, books and the like are “simply entertainment,” is that all art (and thus storytelling) is formative to one degree or another. Art cannot exist within a vacuum, detached from one’s life experience, and it will always form the viewer or hearer to some degree. This is an inescapable truth that must be grasped before any proper evaluation of good or bad storytelling can begin.

Human beings are endowed with the ability to reflect. This ability is what sets us apart from all other forms of life. Of course, certain animals are, to limited degrees, able to emerge from the naturalistic cycle, but human beings are able to transcend the fight for survival to a level impossible for any other creature. This is the significance of leisure in the human life: the ability to cease the thoughtless, purely instinctual aspects of our existence and reflect. (For a detailed exploration of this idea, see Leisure, the Basis of Culture by Josef Pieper) This reflection enables us to, in a way, transcend the constraints of time, to recall memories, to allow ourselves to be formed by our past experiences in a manner far greater than the mere associative memories of animals.

We must also recognize that human beings cannot choose to not be reflective. Put another way, barring some physical injury or mental illness, a human being cannot choose not to remember or think on what they have experienced. Human beings reflect on the whole of their experiences, and these experiences shape their future thoughts, decision-making, and actions. In this way, no part of a person’s existence can be divorced from any other part of it. The human soul is a vast, interconnected web of relationships of both innate characteristics and exterior influences. It is not the comparatively scattered and incoherent experience of, say, a squirrel governed primarily by the laws of survival. By the very fact that a human being can transcend the Darwinian laws and choose to participate in a hunger strike for a moral cause, we can also derive that no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum.

If no aspect of human existence exists in a vacuum, every experience being internalized, reflected upon, and responded to, we must conclude that any experience of art is formative. And this returns us to storytelling, one of the most prominent art forms, and also a refutation of the lie that any form of entertainment can be mere escapism and should not be judged based on reflective and moral criteria. This excuse is often used to swipe the carpet right out from under legitimate criticisms of popular books, films, and video games, arguing that the simple knowledge that such a narrative is fiction can negate any negative influence. This easy and reassuring response, however, neglects the inherently formative nature of the experience. This is not to say that the purpose of art is formative, for then art would exist merely as didactic instruction. Art, rather, is an overflowing expression of genuine human experience. Even the most fantastic of stories, as it was conceived of by a human mind, must be anchored in some sort of authentic human experience.

The very act of submitting to a storyteller’s narrative means seeing a world through the lens of an Other, temporarily interpreting events through the perspective of the narrator. It is the exploring of experiences and perspectives not our own. This is a good thing that ought to be prized, for it often challenges our presuppositions and broadens our narrow visions of reality. However, while for the storyteller the artistic expression may in fact be just an expression, for the hearer, the reader, the viewer, the act of listening, reading, or viewing is formative. As we have seen before, every part of a human’s experience, however infinitesimal, shapes that person’s reflections in some way. Because of this, adopting a storyteller’s lens for viewing is unavoidable practice for making sense of our own personal narratives. How we perceive our own personal narratives is shaped by how we practice viewing the narratives of others. All art is formative. This is why we must think about and consider deeply the narratives which we regularly consume. This is why we must consider what types of people these narratives shape us to be. This is why we must refute the lie that entertainment merely entertains and is therefore free from moral and critical judgment.

These considerations are vital, for narrative media is present to a degree that is probably unprecedented in the entirety of human history. Luke and I have, in recent months, noted alarming trends in the most popular and beloved of stories, and in this piece we hope to have laid a foundation for fruitful and thoughtful consideration of these stories. In the coming weeks we shall critique examples of storytelling that we see as problematic, as well as explore commendable stories which form us not only to be better readers and viewers, but better people. Considering the prevalence of film and television in modern society, much of our analysis will center around these contemporary forms. We hope that you will join us in thinking on the narratives we consume on a regular basis, and contribute your voice to these necessary discussions. To paraphrase Wordsworth, I hope that we will all bring with us a heart that watches and receives.