Saturday, January 5, 2013

Welcome, 2013 [chat]

2013?  What could possibly go wrong?

Also, this:

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Hobbit Review: An Unexpected Thrush

I saw The Hobbit at 24 fps.  So, unlike most other reviews, I won't spend my time complaining that I saw Sir Ian's contact lenses, or that the film sets looked like film sets.  Instead, I'm going to piggyback off MA17's review of Paperman, and argue that there are two different categories of birds in Middle Earth:  Improbable birds, and impossible-except-for-now Deus ex machina birds that need to either fuck off, or get off their lazy asses and help more.

Within any fantasy story we're hard-pressed to discern a clear distinction between the improbable and the impossible-except-for-now.  No author explains absolutely everything about everything at the beginning of a story, in order to allow surprises along the way.  Yet as MA17 noted, some of these surprises seem sensible and fine while others rub us in an unpleasant fashion.  Let's start with the sensible and fine bird in Middle Earth:  The Thrush.

The Thrush:  "I am the thrush!"

When Dildo et al. visit Rivendale, they present Ren Faire Agent Smith with a semi-unreadable map.  He informs them that it contains super-special moon runes that happen to only be visible by the light of the moon that just happens to be in the sky this evening, and it also just happens to be evening when they give him the map.  Agent Smith informs them that, according to the map, the super-secret entrance into the Emo Mountain shall be evidenced by a Thrush beating the shit out of a snail.

While all of that is incredibly improbable, it is consistent with the story we've been told so far.  The invisible moon runes cohere with the mark Magneto made upon Dildo's door at the beginning of the story:  Middle Earth contains sometimes-visible markings.  The happenstance "oh these runes are invisible every day but today" coheres with previous remarks about fate and fortuitous "signs" previously in the story, having to do with dates and opportunistic seeming-coincidence.

The Thrush, itself, is a newly introduced rule:  Birds can evidence doors.  While this is a new rule, we accept the rule because it is articulated prior to its being utilized.  When Thrushy Mc Thrusherson appears later in the movie, and beats the fuck out of a snail, the audience accepts this improbable act because Agent Smith told us about it two hours ago.

All of the coherence and foreshadowing of the Thrush is to be contrasted with the god damned Eagles.

Eagles:  Take it, our suspension of disbelief, to the more time.*

In contrast with the Thrush, whose appearance is explained and predicted hours / pages before its appearance, Tolkien Eagles appear whenever the fuck it's convenient, except for all the other times when it would be incredibly fucking convenient for them to be there, and then leave abruptly for no god damned reason.

The difference is that one can explain the Thrush prior to its appearance without raising any additional questions:  At some point a Thrush will appear to show the door, and now we have to get there, so let's continue with the journey.  Suppose the Eagles were explained in the same way:  "At some point in the future some gigantic Eagles may show up, defeat our enemies for us, and then carry us to safety."  Were Magneto to say that, everyone in the audience, and every character within the story, would exclaim as one:  "WHY THE BLOODY FUCK DON'T WE JUST FUCKING RIDE THE FUCKING EAGLES ALL THE FUCKING WAY THERE YOU FUCKING FUCK?!"

As seen here:

Where the Thrush coheres with the plot and provides an improbable means of door discernment, the Eagles undermine the entire narrative:  Why are these assholes walking when they could just ride Eagles?  Why do they have to fight when the Eagles could fight?  Why is there any evil in Middle Earth at all if the Eagles can simply kick the shit out of it whenever they choose?  And why the fuck aren't the fucking Eagles helping?  And how the shit does that moth get to Eaglesville so quickly?

I take this to be the means by which one can discern improbable coherence from impossible-except-for-now Deux ex machinas.  Improbable coherence can be explained prior to its utilization in a manner that does not detract from the overall rule-structure of the fantasy world.  Impossible-except-for-now bullshit is shoehorned into the plot without adequate prior explanation for the sake of resolving some problem, and ultimately raises additional questions about the rule-structure of the fantasy world.

Also, the Riddles in the Dark scene was very good.

* This one joke justifies the entire review.

Deus Ex Machina (also, Paperman)

In case it is possible to spoil the Disney animated short Paperman , I respectfully offer you this warning: Paperman spoilers ahead.  While we're here, let's spoil Toy Story a bit as well.

I don't like the ending of Paperman, and I think it's because the way it wields its deus ex machina.  The rest of Paperman is fine.  It's a charming story of a man's futile attempts to use paper airplanes to get a second chance with a missed connection.  Futile in that he's trying to get the woman's attention by throwing the airplanes from the open window of his office building into the open window of her building adjacent.  True to life, the airplanes are virtually impossible to aim, leaving one after the other to bop uselessly against the side of the building, sail into the wrong windows, helplessly flutter away and so on.

Eventually he has to admit that he has failed, accept that he may never see the woman again, and give up.  At that point, something special would have to happen to bring these two people together.  Instead of thinking of something special, the writers suddenly bring the airplanes to life so they can drag the two back together and go on a date.  Ultimately, that's what we wanted, but...not like this.

Pictured: Man and woman wishing they had the courage to speak to one another / Not Pictured: Motherfucking magic

Part of what frustrates me about this ending is that general sense of dissatisfaction that deus ex machina typically produces, i.e. it's hard to feel good when a convenient betrayal of the fictional reality's rules solves a problem that flowed logically from adherence to those same rules previously.  In the general sense, when we understand how the hero got into his predicament because we've been shown each relevant step that brought him there, we would like to see the relevant steps that will bring him back out again.

I'll admit that I don't fully understand why that is.  I suppose we're natural rule-followers who get invested in the stories we're told, and have certain expectations as to how they're going to play out.  Upending those expectations can be a lot of fun, as in a great plot twist, but that's not what deus ex machina is.  A plot twist doesn't necessarily undo the logic of the story, it follows it to a different conclusion than what the audience would have reached on their own.

Deus ex machina is the lazier version of that.  Like a kid rewriting the rules mid-game so he can win, it just crosses out the previous logic and writes in whatever it wants to reach its conclusion.  When that tactic fails, it's because it hasn't given the audience anything to replace the nice logical progression it destroyed by showing up.  But if it does give the audience something, then I don't see any reason why deus ex machina couldn't be successful.

It doesn't even have give all that much, so long as it has some sort of meaning.  People like us play this ridiculous game in which artists place meaning into their work and we take the time to pull it back out again so we can feel smart.  There is likely no single mechanical aspect of storytelling that can't be completely destroyed so long as a little nugget of meaning pops out of it.  In that sense, I'm tempted to look at Paperman's disappointing ending as a demonstration that there is a bittersweet joy in honest failure and that unearned success feels cheap and unsatisfying.  If the magic living planes at the end seem stupid, it's because easy solutions are, in actuality, stupid.

However, I'm much more tempted to look at the magic living planes as just regular, face value stupid.  I feel a bit justified in that because, matters of deus ex machina aside, I'm not sure the writers thought about the implications of magical living paper airplanes in an otherwise familiar reality.  Are the airplanes sentient?  Can they die?  Are they being controlled by someone?  Is the universe using some crazy wind patterns to make it look like the planes are alive?  Were they missing the window on purpose this whole time?  Are contracts alive?

While fun to do, I'm not entirely sure it's fair to criticize the story on this level, because understanding the lives of paper airplanes wouldn't add anything to the story the writers want to tell.  It wouldn't be relevant.  Really, it should be enough for us to know that they can come to life and affect things, because that's what serves the intended story of bringing two people together.  Nevertheless, living paper airplanes is kind of a big revelation, and it can distract from the ending if the audience is trying to process both at the same time.  Imagine Toy Story in which the toys are just regular, inanimate toys until they come to life to teach Sid a lesson towards the end of the movie.  Sid ran off screaming, frightened and confused when that happened, and the audience might well have felt the same way if not already introduced to that reality.

Paperman basically treats us like Sid, but expects us to melt and coo instead.  Between that little miscalculation and the meaningless use of deus ex machina, I just don't like the ending of Paperman.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Richard Eisenbeis is the Best Reviewer I've Ever Seen on Kotaku

In the world of entertainment reviews, Richard Eisenbeis is truly a special person.  You don't often encounter someone who has written about entertainment for years, yet is still able to approach each and every work as though it were his first.  The joy and thrill he feels while discovering new excellence in everything he watches and plays is so apparent in his writing that it takes on an almost lighter-than-air quality.  It is completely unencumbered by the critical sensibilities most reviewers gradually pile on over the years. 

This weightlessness allows him to view the world of entertainment from an elevated perspective, and to see a world filled with only the best.  And so while others might look at the idiots populating Tokitowa and see a bunch of anime cliches, Eisenbeis sees best characters in JRPGs this year.  Although many of us scratched our heads at the disappointingly trivial efforts of Sword Art Online, he has revealed it as the smartest anime he's seen in years.  This consistent pushing back against the restrictive system that withholds praise from all but the remarkable and noteworthy is a refreshing alternative to the typical review.

That being said, I sometimes worry that critical perspective is gradually weighing on Eisenbeis.  I would hate to see him brought down to our level, which is why I was concerned to see him call Ixion Saga DT merely one of the funniest anime he has ever seen, rather than the absolute funniest.  My fear is that whatever pressure he's under to censor his opinions like this will prove to be the first step towards forming a critical opinion.  Thankfully he is still a long way from that, judging by the way he points out how good Ixion is at upending expectations, and offers as supporting evidence a girl who looks to be 10 but is actually 8.  This sort of unexpected observation reassures me that he's still operating on his unique level.

And that's why Richard Eisenbeis is the best reviewer I've ever seen on Kotaku.  I nominate him for the Dave Halverson Non-Exclusive Superlative Award for Excellence in Making the Best of Everything.