13 June 2010

A Fiction Revisited (from Gamespot weblog)

Back in the eighth grade (circa 1995), my favorite part of English class was "sensory imagery." Best described as "Tell, don't show" sensory imagery is an exercise in presenting the visceral entirely by way of text, that is embellishing the plot with all the tedious little details that actually tend to get in the way of most otherwise good reads. Being an angst-and-hormone-ridden boy of early teens, I had a rather dark imagination, and took this new section of the course as a chance to "tell all." What followed were about ten little short pieces I ended up calling "nameless beast stories." They were drivel, but they were fun to write and they always got a positive response (except from my teacher, but only after the first two). A typical structure for one of these stories is 1)present main character and describe what they're doing, 2)introduce monster and describe its physical appearance down to the points on its teeth (if it had them, that is), and 3)describe monster eating, or otherwise dispatching, aforementioned human character. This wasn't always the pattern, but it was typical. I did eventually grow tired of it, and left the concept alone for nearly four years. Then, I found myself wondering if I was afraid of "letting the humans triumph" because it would make me seem soft or gushy. It can be rather unnerving to create a character and then try to convince a classroom full of people to care about them, so killing them off always seemed like an easy way out. I decided to confront this frivolous inner demon by writing what would be, in effect, the last nameless beast story. I only ever showed the story to two people, and they both liked it. I liked it at first, but looking back at it now over ten years later just makes me cringe. Quite a few of my writings have that effect on me. Every once in a while, I find the resolve to do something about it, for better or for worse. That story's rewrite is presented here: 
The Sacrifice: The girl saw no logic or reason in the glorification of death that had been made an integral part of her township's daily life. In the years following the war's end, the people began to doubt the very leaders they had themselves elected, leading to the spiritual guides taking the place of the previous authority. Their stories of guilt and indemnity painted the grim future that was to beset every man, woman, and child in the town unless various acts of expiation were performed. These acts took the form of human sacrifices to the priests' newfound god, a dark yet fair entity, who would spare the masses pain and punishment as reward for their noble offerings. It seemed to the girl that nearly everyone except her own family had succumbed to the propaganda concerning what an honor it was to offer a sacrifice to the god and what an even greater honor it was to actually be the sacrifice. All of her friends would not stop talking about how envious they were of those girls carted off to the shrines to be offered to the new god. She, however, did not envy them, saw no honor in these acts, and hoped her parents felt the same as she. 

They did not. 

One fateful morning, the girl awoke to the sound of the priests rapping on her family's door. After hastily dressing and entering the main room of the house, she came upon her parents sitting at the dinner table with the priests, all smiles and laughter while the head priest told them that they would be rewarded and honored with fame and gifts beyond their wildest dreams for their "contribution," as he put it. She learned, to her horror, that they had made arrangements the previous night for her to be taken as the next offering. She begged and pleaded with her parents to reconsider their decision as she was dragged away and hoisted into a cart, urgently reaching out her hands to them. They only waved and smiled. 

As the cart proceeded through the village, the girl endured the envious looks of her friends as they watched from the doorways and windows of their homes. She called out to them, imploring them to help her, only for her pleas to be answered with the same waves and smiles her parents had given her. The cart reached the shrine by midday, and the girl was taken to a small chamber beside of the main hall, where preparations would be made for the night's activities. 

In the hours that passed from midday to night, the girl underwent a transformation. She had been cleansed and anointed by the shrine's priestesses. Peasant rags had been replaced with flowing white robes and brass bangles about her ankles and wrists. Lulled into a tired daze by the perfumes and various nonsensical mantras chanted by the priestesses, the girl was led into the main hall, where the head priest was reciting the final verses of the litany that signaled the start of the ritual. When finished, he turned to her and placed upon her gently bowed head a lavishly decorated tiara which seemed to glow in the light of the torches. He then looked to two priests standing at a stone slab behind the altar. He clapped his hands, his signal to them snapping the girl to attention and out of her daze. She looked up to see the slab being pushed aside with great effort and she found herself being suddenly and forcefully pushed forward into the opening behind it. Once through, the slab was replaced. She did not turn around. She only heard the grinding of stone and saw the light around her fade away, followed by silence and darkness. 

She sat with her back against the stone slab, letting her eyes grow accustomed to the darkness. When the imprints of the torches finally left her sight, she rose slowly and put out her arms, feeling for a wall along which to guide herself forward, the only direction open to her now. After a few twists and turns, the girl's tiring endeavor was rewarded with a simple sensation, that of a gentle breeze on her face. She stopped for a moment, as if struck; she never thought that something as subtle and mundane as a breeze would cut through the deprivation which had been eating away at her spirit and serve as a new source of strength to keep moving despite uncertainty. Pressing onward, the girl saw a light up ahead, and ran towards it. She came at last to the end of the tunnel, which opened into a large room that appeared to be a colosseum, sunken and dilapidated. The light was coming from a small opening in the roof, from which a long length of chain reached all the way down to the colosseum's floor. The girl slowed her pace, taking in her surroundings, suddenly suspicious of this seemingly good fortune. She saw that the chain dangled over a large, circular pit covered by an iron grating. She stopped at its edge and looked down, the pit revealing nothing but absolute darkness. The bars of the grating were flat and just wide enough for her to walk along. She would have to be careful, lest she fall into that vast abyss below. Holding out her arms for balance and carefully placing one foot in front of the other, the girl began walking toward the chain that would serve as her means of escape. The iron was cold against her feet, but the girl kept the cold as far from her mind as she could, focusing only on the chain directly in front of her. Halfway across, she heard a sound that seemed to originate from the pit below. She dared not look down for fear of losing her balance, but found herself trying to decipher the noise. It sounded like wind, but seemed to have almost a rhythm to it. It reminded her of breathing. 

She at last reached the chain and clasped it in relief with both hands. When she pulled herself up enough to lift her feet off the grating, there was a moment of panic as the chain gave slightly. The girl heard the clanking of metal and noticed out the corner of her eye that the grating was sliding out from over the pit. She resumed her upward climb, ignoring the goings-on beneath her. She was halfway up the chain when the grating had completely uncovered the pit and the clanking stopped. The rhythmic wind from before returned, only this time it seemed to be faster and louder than before. She would have thought it only her imagination playing upon her fear if the noise had not just then risen briefly into a piercing roar. She stopped and dared a glance downward. 

The god was beneath her. 

The thing was enormous enough to nearly fill the pit. Its skin was solid black, making it blend perfectly with the darkness of the pit. The only parts of its form that set it apart from the darkness were its large, purple, reptilian eyes and huge, gaping maw. She felt its hot breath against her body as it lifted its head and began to close its mouth around the chain. She froze as its teeth closed on the chain, missing her feet by inches.The creature pulled down on the chain and the girl feared it giving way completely, sending her falling into the huge mouth. Fortunately, the bite had severed the chain completely and the beast fell awkwardly onto the edge of the pit. Sense returned to the girl in this moment and she frantically made her way to the top. She pulled herself up and was just over the edge when she suddenly felt the ground beneath her rise up and send her tumbling forward. The monster had lunged upward, its snout punching through the narrow opening, again narrowly missing the girl. The snout disappeared from sight, and she could hear the beast once again falling against the edge of the pit below. As she rose to her feet, she realized the beast had taken the rest of the chain down with it, and knew it would leap again. She turned to run and saw, at the edge of the newly widened hole, a statue resembling the creature, in front of which was a heavy, wooden lever with the last few feet of the chain attached to it. She ran over to it and noticed a series of gears and pulleys behind the statue that seemed to lead down into the ground to the colosseum below. The lever was leaning forward, and she realized that, when she put her weight on the chain, it activated the mechanism which pulled away the grating. An angry roar from behind her snapped her out of her thoughts and, summoning up all her strength, the girl threw herself against the lever, pushing it back toward the statue. The gears began to turn and the pulleys paid out and pulled in lengths of chain and rope. She heard the clanking of metal, and imagined the grate should be moving back into place. The gears then stopped briefly and the sound of the grate moving was replaced with a shrill cry from the colosseum below. The gears and pulleys slowed to almost a complete stop until the cry died out and they resumed their turning. When the sound of the grate stopped, the girl cautiously walked back toward the edge of the hole and looked down into the colosseum. The grate had completely severed the beast's head from its body. Its eyes were wide open, as was the maw, suggesting the incredible pain it endured as the grating closed on it. 

As relief washed over her in a warm wave, the girl slumped to the floor, breathing heavily. She looked down at her hands, which lay limp with exhaustion in her lap, still adorned with the brass bangles. She lifted her hands to get a better look at their curious designs and realized that, in spite of all that happened, the tiara the priest had given her was still on her head. She removed the tiara and looked at it. She had not been able to examine it before, and only now noticed that, like the statue, it had been made in the image of the god, complete with two purple gems for its eyes. She stood up, holding the tiara in both hands. She looked down into the colosseum at the head of the fallen god and threw the tiara down into the hole.She watched it fall through the grating and into the abyss below. 
:The End (c)1998, 2010

02 June 2010

No such thing as invisible thread (Legion)

Just a little thought on sophistication.

My roommate and I just finished watching Legion. I didn't have much desire to see it, but she did because she likes Christian imagery and films that pertain to the Biblical apocalypse. I like Dogma, which she's never seen, and she likes Gabriel, which I haven't seen, so those are our viewpoints going into this thing.

She likes it. I hate it.

I hate it to such a degree that it now has a place in the number three slot of worst movies ever made (second is Wanted and third is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li). It has the exact same problem that Wanted has, it's a moronic, dumb-as-a-brick action roller-coaster that tries desperately to convince you otherwise but has absolutely nothing with which to back its claims.
I don't have any problem with action movies, and I certainly don't hold something like Shanghai Noon or Indiana Jones to the same standards as I do something like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Rashomon. However, the makers of action movies have to learn to either be content with being what they are, or rise to the challenge that comes from trying to be more sophisticated. Imagine a scale of action movies and their level of relative sophistication. On one end of the spectrum is something like Rumble in the Bronx, by no means a bad movie (it's one of my favorites, really), it's just slightly silly and doesn't hold up to much scrutiny in the way of physics, logic, depth, or anything along those lines. It never takes itself seriously, but doesn't try to get you to, either, because it knows it has nothing to offer apart from a spectacle. On the other end of the spectrum is True Lies, also by no means a bad movie (a favorite, as well), but it's a very clever and deep movie with multi-layered characters and a tonally-consistent approach to its own plot. It takes itself seriously when it needs to, and laughs at itself when it wants to, and makes it very clear when the audience is supposed to laugh along and when they're supposed to care.

More movies on the Rumble in the Bronx side:
Shanghai Noon
Enter the Dragon
Street Fighter

More movies on the True Lies side:
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

These two relative extremes work, they're not outside of the gray area, but they're not dead center, which is where movies like Wanted and Legion are. They'd be outclassed at the sports bar with Watchmen, Kingdom of Heaven, and Curse of the Golden Flower, but they think too highly of themselves to kick back on the couch with 300, Temple of Doom, and Enter the Dragon.
The chief reason why Legion is in the dead zone, its key failing, is its plot and story. At the end of the day, Legion is half a movie, and not just because of its "cliffhanger" ending (this movie makes the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie look self-contained); half of the plot points and concepts it introduces are never followed through with or resolved. Furthermore, many of these concepts and plot points are introduced very late in the film's progression. This is also quite possibly the first film I've ever seen to employ both Chekov's Gun and a Deus Ex Machina (a very literal Deus Ex Machina).

My roommate says my problem is that I was putting more thought into the film than the average viewer. Granted, that's probably true, but like I said, I would never apply the same level of cerebration to this film as I do to American Psycho or 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould. Apparently, even my most average of criteria is too much for this film to handle. It's entirely possible for an action film to have a deep narrative and well-rounded characters. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of examples to go by, so even if you just want to sell a lot of theater seats, you don't have to insult your audience's collective intelligence to do so. Legion bombards you with Christian imagery and lore in the vain hope that people's general ignorance of some of the deeper meanings presented in the Bible will earn the film some kind of revere.

The emperor isn't wearing new clothes, though, he's just naked.