Gilmore Girls and Portraying Motivation

In my last blog post, I talked about character motivation in terms of pirates and economics. Today I want to look at it from a softer angle.

I’ve been watching a lot of Gilmore Girls, the early 2000s TV drama of fast dialogue, family angst, and failed romance. It’s cute and relaxing. It’s also very good at portraying the irrationality of human motives.

Pretty much every episode, a character will have several issues going on in their life. One thing will get them frustrated. They’ll carry this frustration into the next scene. They won’t deal with the issue there as well as they could have done because their emotions are already in knots.

It’s fantastic storytelling, because it makes sense on a human level and because it’s clear to the audience even though it isn’t explained. Anyone can join the dots from one incident to the next. It means that smart characters can act stupid, ensuring that conflict happens, without undermining the audience’s affection for these characters.

It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea, but if you like smartly written characters, or you want to study what drives human drama, I can’t recommend this one enough.

Spiderman Homecoming and Representation in America

Spiderman Homecoming is one of my favourite Marvel movies so far. It’s fun, exciting, and heartfelt in exactly the way I like Spiderman to be. And now I’m going to skip past all the enthusing I could do about its plot, dialogue, and characters, because there are actual reviewers for that. I want to talk about how this fun, breezy film reflects upon serious issues in America, issues that are all too familiar to someone living in Britain.

Who’s Who in Homecoming

There are three important sets of characters in Homecoming – school, villains, and The Man.

Peter Parker’s school is a youthful and diverse place. The students and staff represent the complex and varied society of a modern global city, without the story ever making an issue out of this. It’s a space that celebrates diversity and representation while recognising that everyone has their flaws and weaknesses. This is the America that liberals want to encourage.

The villains are working class men. They’re mostly white, though with a significant black character. A lot of them are getting on in years. They’ve been shit on by the establishment. Their overriding concern is to look after themselves and their families. This is the America that conservatives want to protect.

Then there’s The Man, as represented by Stark Enterprises and Damage Control. These are economically and politically powerful organisations run by people in suits. They cause problems for everyone else. They’re caught up in the big picture and aren’t good at seeing how that affects the people around them. They’re powerful, patronising, and not as smart as they could be.

Symbolism!

You don’t need a degree in semiotics to see how this is symbolic of what’s going on at the moment. The sides of America represented by Spiderman’s school and his villains are in conflict politically. At its extremes, this is supporters of Trump versus supporters of Obama and Hilary. The irony being that they’re both voting for faces of The Man, the big traditional bodies that have let them all down.

I’m not saying that Spiderman Homecoming offers a deep exploration of these themes. I’m in two minds about whether it’s even consciously looking at them, and when I go back to watch it (which I will, many times) that’s one of the things I’ll be trying to judge. But I still think that it’s doing something important. It’s representing both of these groups in a light that is, if not always sympathetic, at least understable. It’s showing that The Man is a third factor in their lives, not the representative of either group. That shouldn’t be an unusual thing for someone to say, but it is. Hopefully by saying it at all, this film will help people to gain a little more insight into the society we live in.

Maybe it will even, as the film suggests, offer hope for reconciliation amid further divisions.

As Cap says, it just might take a little patience to get us there.

 

Guilty Pleasures

The very ideas of guilty pleasures is a weird one. I mean, pleasure is subjective. Different people like different things. In the modern world, shouldn’t we be OK with people just saying “I like this”, as long as no-one else gets hurt?

Yet there are pleasures I feel I have to justify. Listening to Taylor Swift. Watching The Ranch. Roleplaying. Things that don’t do any harm but have a particular image around their cultural value.

The very use of the phrase “guilty pleasure” stigmatises these harmless choices. Yet if I don’t start explaining, I feel like I’m going to be judged.

I suppose the solution is to stop worrying about being judged for liking things. But that’s a hard habit to break.

In the meantime, I’m off to watch Ashton Kutcher be a rancher. I know it sounds bad, but the cast are excellent, the show’s got these lovely moments, and – No! No explaining! I love it. Outside of a critical discussion, isn’t that enough?

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Beautiful and Surprising Characterisation

Sometimes a film comes along that’s so awesome I barely know what to say about it. It feels beautiful and surprising and utterly human. It makes me wish I knew more about films so I could better understand its magic. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is one of those films.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople was written and directed by Taiki Waititi, the New Zealander behind the wonderfully deadpan vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows. It’s about a boy who’s been bounced around the social care system and is on his last chance before he goes to juvenile detention. He’s placed with a foster couple also living on the fringe of society, in a physically isolated cabin at the edge of thousands of miles of wild forest. That might sound like a bleak start, but their lives together and what follows are quirky, touching, and filled with hope.

I love a lot about this film and don’t want to go into details for fear of spoiling or over-hyping. But I feel it’s safe to say that what makes it so great is the characters. They’ve been written in a way that displays, challenges, and twists stereotypes and cliches. The writing and performances bring the same approach to emotion as to humour, gently easing a reaction from viewers rather than trying to force a laugh, a gasp, or a tear. Ricky’s way of expressing his emotions is particularly surprising and lovely.

Taiki Waititi is clearly an awesome director. It feels bizarre that the man who created this will also make the next Marvel Thor film, but I can’t wait to see what he does.

In the meantime, go take a wander with the Wilderpeople.

Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency – An American Sort of Weird

I love Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently books. His weird stories of an offbeat detective and his surreal methods are my favourite Adams work, even in a world where The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy exists. So I was intrigued to see what happened when the Americans turned it into a TV show.

Turns out they’ve done a decent job. To me, this feels like it gets the surreal tone and crazy connections of the books. Dirk is just as exasperating as you’d expect, though in a less whimsically British way. The adventures might lean a little heavily toward action at times, but they still feel like Dirk’s sort of adventures.

There’s some Americanising here, or perhaps modern-TV-show-ising. It’s not enough for Dirk to just have strange methods. Instead he’s the escaped product of some government-backed scheme that has unleashed a bunch of psychically powered people into the world. I can’t say that feels like a good fit for an Adams story to me, but all the characters coming out of it do. Sure, I’d rather that Dirk was just a man with an unexpected method that works against the odds, but I’ll accept this change in return for the holistic assassin and the crazy guys in the van.

Honestly, I don’t know how well fans are responding to this – I haven’t dared look. But I liked it. Whether you’ve read the books or not, I think it’s worth a look.

The Man in the High Castle: WW2, Identity and Resistance

The Man in the High Castle is a gripping piece of television. It takes the ideas laid out in Phillip K Dick’s book and expands upon them to create something powerful and fascinating. More than this, it’s an exploration of morality and of why the Second World War is still so powerful in all our imaginations.

Why WW2?

The Man in the High Castle is a rarity. It’s an alternate history story that, both in its original novel and in the TV show, has reached beyond that small cultural niche and found a wider audience. Both versions have received popular and critical acclaim.

A huge part of its success lies in the choice of historical settings. The Second World War lies heavy in historical memory. For the generation before mine, it still had a great immediacy. In Europe, they grew up amid the rubble and rebuilding efforts. Across the world, they grew up with the consequences and with the war stories of their parents’ generation. As a result, the war also felt immediate for the generation that followed – my own. It was a modern event that shaped the modern world.

The scale and impact of the war are also factors. The term “World War” is a little misleading, given the number of countries that weren’t involved. But it was still a war on an unprecedented scale in the number of nations and combatants, as well as the sheer destruction. Millions died both in combat and in atrocities against civilians. The political and cultural landscape of entire continents was transformed in the space of a decade.

Perhaps most powerfully, it is a war where the sense of moral right and wrong has lingered. While all sides committed terrible acts and every nation had figures striving for good, a distinction remains. The Nazis and their allies sought to enforce their will upon others through violence. They tried to wipe out entire groups of people because of who they were. The Allies fought against that.

Trying to assert a sense of right and wrong upon history is usually misguided at best. But in this case, nothing has shaken off the sense of being in the right that the Allied nations retain.

Playing into Our Vision of WW2

The Man in the High Castle plays into this collective vision. It uses our understanding of the war and how significant it is. This is an easy shortcut to show us that the alternate world is very different and far darker.

By sticking inside the 20th century, it retains that sense of immediacy. Sure, its 1960s setting is now decades behind us. But it’s still modern enough to feel achingly familiar, painfully so when things are wrong.

Most powerfully, it plays up the moral aspect. The horrifying nature of Nazi moral values is there from the start. Characters have taken part in and borne witness to atrocities. Political murder and oppression are common. Aberrations against what the Nazis consider normal, even those as innocent as ill health, are dangerous.

On the Pacific coast too, continued Japanese militarism creates a menacing state with clear racial distinctions.

Undermining Our Certainties

But what makes The Man in the High Castle so powerful is that it questions and undermines these certainties.

Partly, this is about the significance of the war. Within the story, films of alternate realities create questions about the world the characters live in and by extension our own. If there are many other possible realities, is any one event really so significant? Don’t other events equally shape our lives? If the Axis powers had won, would the war still be the single most significant event, or would others that followed match it?

Most tellingly, The Man in the High Castle challenges our moral certainties.

By dropping the atomic bomb on Washington, it forces us to face the terrible nature of the things the Allies did to win the war. The Nazi leadership may have been villains, but can the other side still be considered heroes after wiping out entire cities?

By showing us sympathetic characters on the German and Japanese sides, it undercuts the image of these regimes as all bad. It reminds us that ordinary people can do terrible things if society leads them that way. The question for anyone watching then becomes “in what ways is society leading me to harm others while seeing myself as right?”

Darkest of all, the story undermines the image of those resisting the Axis powers as good. Resistance fighters do desperate and terrible things in the name of freedom. At times, they become antagonists to the show’s hero. They go so far that it’s hard not question whether anyone is in the right here. There are different degrees of wrong and the Nazis are clearly far more hideous in their values than anyone else. But still, the certainties fade…

No Certainties

The Man in the High Castle uses a powerful part of our historical memory to raise powerful questions. To do right, we have to be able to act. We cannot be frozen by doubt. But we still need those doubts, to be able to see when we might be wrong and to adjust our path.

This is a show that should help us to approach morality more intelligently and to examine the past more critically.

Fortunately, it’s also damn good entertainment of the most chilling kind.

Moana – An Awesome Disney Not-Princess

I’ve always loved Disney films, but the older I get, the more problematic they become. No-one reinforces gender stereotypes like the House of Mouse. Given the way these films hook the brains of the young people in my life, that’s worrying.

So thank all the Rock-voiced hook-wielding demigods of the Pacific for Moana.

I’m a little behind the curve on this one, I know. Not having kids, it took me weeks to see the latest Disney offering. But when I did I was delighted.

There’s everything good you expect from Disney here. Fun characters, great animation, catchy songs – I can’t stop singing about how shiny I am, and I’ve only heard that song twice.

There’s also a level of fantasy world building that feels deeper and more interesting than in most of their previous offerings. Because this isn’t based in European folklore like most Disney, there’s more space to present something unfamiliar to an audience like me and more need to explain it. This is done as subtly as you can get away with in a kids film, using songs to make the exposition more entertaining. It creates a world and its people I found fascinating, with their isolated island life and gradually revealed ancient sea-faring culture.

On top of this, the central character gets away from the Disney princess cliches, to the point where there’s even a joke about whether or not she’s a princess. She’s self-reliant and strong-willed without being irrationally obstinate. She doesn’t end up needing rescue by men. Her life is in no way defined by romance.

This isn’t a hero defined by being female – it’s a hero who happens to be female. And an awesome, skilled, fun hero at that.

I’m sure this film has flaws. Everything does. But I was so blown away by the good parts that I didn’t even notice them. Maybe one day we’ll look back on this and see its failings, both in film-making and in gender representation. But right now it sets a very high standard.

I won’t say it’s my favourite Disney film. Until all the copies of Robin Hood are expunged from existence, no other Disney will ever displace it in my heart. But this comes a close second.

Go watch Moana. It’s one of the best fantasy films in years.

My Favourite Things of 2016

What’s that you say, it’s the end of the year? Time for an inevitable best-of list?

Alright then. Who am I to resist. Below are some of my favourite new things from 2016. Have a read and let me know your favourites in the comments – they’ll give me more to explore next year.

Comic – The Wicked + The Divine

Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillon continue to mesmerise with their story of music gods and potent magic. Part pop culture pastiche, part epic saga, all wonderful to behold, even in a year that saw the Chew finale, this was my favourite comic. McKelvie’s art is richly intoxicating, bringing both the mundane and the otherworldly to vivid life. Gillen’s plotting is strong and his dialogue sharp. They’re one of those creative teams where the whole is greater than the sum of the already great parts.

Music – Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

Over the past couple of years, I’ve become absolutely addicted to the work of Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit. So when a new album came out this year, I was nervous that the spell might be broken.

There was no need to worry. This is another brooding yet uplifting mix of atmospheric guitars and brooding lyrics. As usual, Frightened Rabbit pick over the pieces of troubled emotional lives against the backdrop of modern Britain. And again, I could listen to this on loop all day and never get bored.

If indie angst isn’t your thing, then there’s always This Unruly Mess I’ve Made, in which Macklemore and Ryan Lewis proved that there’s still plenty more of their quirky hiphop to come. Songs flit between the raunchy, the acerbic, and the deeply heartfelt. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but it gets my blood racing.

Film – Arrival

The idea – trying to translate the language of minds utterly unlike our own.

The emotions – loss, bewilderment, hope.

The style – sedately stunning.

The performances – Amy Adams. Such wonderful, wonderful Amy Adams.

In the era of big spectacle sci-fi movies, this was the year’s slick, Hollywood budget think piece, and it is stunning in every sense.

Book – The Tiger and the Wolf

A lot of the books I read this year weren’t new releases. Of those that were, the standout was The Tiger and the Wolf by Adrian Tchaikovsky.

This is a great fantasy adventure in which a young woman comes of age and must decide where her loyalties lie. The world, initially reminiscent of the European Dark Ages, has a variety and fascination that goes far beyond mud huts and tribal politics. The shape-shifting magic reveals interesting layers and implications as it’s laid out before us. The characters are varied and likable. With two more to come in this series, I’ll definitely be back for more.

TV – The Ranch

This choice has been made on very different grounds from the rest. With so much amazing TV out there, it’s hard to pick one show on grounds of true greatness. The Expanse, with its space adventures and socially grounded noir? The Man in the High Castle, with its reminders of the danger and attraction of fascism and the spell-binding yet subtle performance of Rufus Sewell? Marvel and Netflix’s ongoing stream of top superhero action?

These are all great. I recommend them. But with so much great TV out there, each piece isn’t as distinct and surprising as it once was.

Then there’s The Ranch. In so many ways, this is a perfectly ordinary American sitcom. The performers are good but not being used to the best of their abilities. The jokes are predictable. The emotions are overblown. The direction and camerawork are standard, uninspiring sitcom stuff.

Yet there’s also something surprising about The Ranch. Set in a small community in the heart of rural Republican America, it shows that side of the USA in a way the rest of the world seldom sees. Things we think of as progressive and as conservative get jumbled together by characters who see Hilary Clinton as a figure from nightmare yet keep weed in their vegetable box. The attitudes and actions of the characters, as well as the events of the setting, showed me a side of America that TV producers usually ignore. It took me to a world that was genuinely new to me.

And then there are the characters. Sure, they’re often cliched. Dad’s grumpy, Ashton Kutcher’s stupid, hahaha *sigh*. But they have nuanced emotional lives. They grapple with their thoughts, feelings, and self-perceptions. Because this is a Netlflix show, designed in the expectation that new viewers will start at the beginning, they change over time more than in many sitcoms. For all their dysfunction, these characters provide a healthy model for dealing openly with friends, family, lovers, and ourselves.

Even I’m shocked to find myself typing this, but in among so many far better shows, the one that defined my year in TV was The Ranch. It’s not amazing, but I love it.

Games – Fallout 4

OK, this was from 2015. But I don’t play a lot of computer games, and this was the one for me. The world building of the Fallout series is fantastic and the game environment gives you space to explore that. Its retro-futurist post-apocalyptic wasteland would be a nightmare to live in, but it’s great fun to explore. Combat, puzzle solving, and conversation flow smoothly together. It’s an example of what great story telling computer games do. It has its flaws, the plot and mechanics not quite meshing, but for the most part this is amazing work. I’ve spent days in this game, and I consider that time well spent.

 

So there you go – my top picks of 2016. What have I missed? What am I wrong about? What would you recommend? Leave your suggestions in the comments.

It’s the Most Muppety Time of the Year!

December is here. Advent is upon us. The shops are already selling out of  wrapping paper and pointless tat. So it’s time for your annual reminder of what’s really important at Christmas.

Muppet Christmas Carol.

Need I remind you that it’s the best Muppet film ever? Of course not. You’ve seen Gonzo’s Charles Dickens impression. You know.

Have you forgotten that it’s the best version of Dickens’s classic Christmas story? Of course not. You remember the heartbreak of losing a green felt Tiny Tim.

Must I point out again that it’s one of the greatest fantasy films of all time? Just in case, let me remind you that there are ghosts, visions, time travel, and talking animals. We’re not in our London any more with this movie. It’s a whole other world.

If you don’t own it already, do yourself a favour and get a copy. Then settle down with friends, family, pets, or just a nice hot cup of cocoa and enjoy a true Christmas classic.

Muppets bless us, one and all.

A Golden Age of Television

It’s often said that we live in a golden age of television because of how good the shows are. And sure, that’s true.

All achieved despite this man.
All achieved despite this man.

But I think the most golden thing is the way we view.

Instead of a TV licence, I now have subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime. I can watch Legend of Korra in bed at two in the morning if I want. Instead of waiting for six o’clock on a Thursday to get my weekly episode of Star Trek, I can put it on at a time that suits me. If I have a sick day, I’m not stuck with daytime television or a small collection of DVDs. I can choose from a vast range of viewing.

Streaming instead of schedules gives viewers the choice of what to watch when, instead of putting that choice in the hands of schedulers. At this rate, I’ll be surprised if TV channels as we know them last another generation. And if current trends are anything to go by, that change is going to be a good thing.