Wednesday, August 26, 2009

how movies can make you popular

when i teach debate camps, i always begin with a session entitled 'how to think.' in this session, i ask about what makes a good movie. i usually get answers like "good plot" and "lots of action".

almost never do i hear what actually makes movies great: characters.

if you really think about it, though, no one really cares about plot when they watch movies. people like to think that they want action, but really all they want is for something terrible followed by something great to happen to someone they can relate to.

here are some elements of good fictional characters:
1. fatal flaw - all good characters must have them. maybe they smoke compulsively (eternal sunshine of the spotless mind) or are slightly/majorly OCD (Monk) or even have a drug addiction (House). the fatal flaw makes them attractive and human.

here's the funny thing about fatal flaws; even if we don't have them, we create them because we think that they make us different. we pretend {even subconsciously} to be annoyed by disorder, and we emphasize our injuries {because being that guy who hurt himself in the football game is better than just being that guy}.

i'm not sure there is anything wrong with this tendency, but it tells us more about why we like the ugly, fat girl in the movie who turns out to be nice on the inside, instead of the popular cheerleader who lacks witty banter and clever catchphrases. in the end, all of us would rather be the fat girl with the makeover than the cheerleader.

2. the loser/winner dichotomy - much like the fatal flaw, great characters must be very bad at something. it doesn't really matter what, as long as it is noticeable and incurs mockery from their peer group. the important thing is that they have a hidden talent of some sort. drawing, painting, rock climbing; again, it doesn't matter what. in the end, this character will be called upon in a highly unlikely circumstance, and will demonstrate their talent, to the awe of their peers.

there is a common cliche which says that in order to succeed, we must fail. this is what the loser/winner dichotomy comes down to. if you are good at everything, people secretly resent you. if you are terrible at everything {and have no sharp wit to make light of your shortcomings} people will avoid you. this is why the best characters balance their failings with a hidden talent.

3. past hardship - you may be noticing a trend; the things that shape good characters are really not good at all. similarly, past hardships are the keystone to a great character. hardship is the get-out-of-jail-free card for the violently inclined. Bruce Wayne's vigilante justice is understandable, even commendable, because it is birthed from righteous vengeance. the protagonist of any chick flick worth its salt has lost a mother, been teased mercilessly or abandoned at birth. we are even willing to excuse criminal behavior like money laundering (Catch Me If You Can) because of characters we have developed past-based sympathy for.

it is impossible to escape the fact that our past shapes the people that we become. for a character to be successful, their shortcomings and strengths must be grounded in something beyond themselves.


so these are some things that make characters great. but maybe you don't believe that characters are the only element necessary for a good story {movie or otherwise}. let me prove it to you.

1. if a character does not grow, it is impossible for them to be the protagonist. hence the success of 'coming-of-age' stories where a previously unrealized character unleashes their inner potential. without a protagonist, a movie cannot succeed.

2. in a movie, we permit the suspension of reality, in order to observe character growth. almost all movies operate on a series of highly unlikely premises and events completely severed from reality. as an audience, we accept the new reality presented by the movie, not merely for its own sake, but because we realize that people are ultimately the same, regardless of setting and plot in which they find themselves.

3. we instinctively seek ourselves in movies. this is where facebook comes in handy. countless times a day, stories in my newsfeed inform me about which movie or tv show character you think you are. are you Pam from the office? are you fun loving Jim? which chick flick character are you?

these quizzes are not evaluated based on similar settings and plot structures, but target personality {character} similarities between you and characters in your favorite tv show.

4. characters are the reason we accept cliches. how many football movies have you seen, featuring an underdog team that ultimately beats out the bigger, more experienced players? why do we keep seeing them? because we accept that despite the identical and predictable plot structure, everyone loves a good underdog story.

in the end, a good movie is defined by its characters. which makes things interesting in the real world. after all, if we like characters in movies, it follows that we would like people who possess the qualities of a great character in the real world. this is why Bill Clinton was elected {and remained} president, and why people read tabloid magazines. without flaws, celebrities would be really rich people who lived in mansions. without a special talent, losers would stay losers and criminals would stay criminals.

so if you want to be popular, become the ideal character i described above; identify your weaknesses and strengths, and emphasize them. you may be unhappy and fake, but people will like you more, and probably remember you after you die.

Friday, August 21, 2009

a polite suggestion

I used to think that I loved jazz for the same reason Donald Miller named his book after it; because it doesn't resolve.

But I think that isn't true at all, or at least not entirely true. Last night I really listened to classical music {because someone I knew was playing, annnnd he was amazing. sidenote.} and I started to understand why different people relate to different styles of music.

Classical music is like an inspirational underdog movie. It's melodramatic, fits a structured pattern and engages the mind. It's the Slumdog Millionaire of music; emotional, but conclusive. The experience is cathartic and demands mental action.

Jazz is not inspirational because it makes us think about something, or even feel something. Jazz does not come from the head or even the heart. It does not demand action or logic, but the gut or the soul. Aristotle describes the constitution of the polis as a positive direction which the members of the community choose to engage in; the soul of the community. Jazz reminds me of a constitution like that. It's a suggested direction, rather than a british accent on a GPS.

Some people like melodrama. Some people like suggestions.

Then again, maybe the altitude is making me lightheaded. I probably just like jazz because it has a saxophone.

Friday, July 31, 2009

this sort of talk makes me sick

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. “That sort of talk makes them sick,” they say. And half of you already want to ask me, “I wonder how’d you feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?”

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, 1 wonder very much what 1 should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you … what I could do–I can do precious little–I am telling you what Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sill against us.” There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do?

-Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis

When I read this the first time, I felt warm and tingly and judgmental. The second time I read it, I felt terrible. The third time I read it, I made a mental list of all of the people in my life that I haven't forgiven.

Now I don't feel judgmental at all. I think maybe some of us struggle to forgive people like the Gestapo and the terrorists and maybe the Jews, but I think maybe lots more of us struggle to forgive the people closest to us who have hurt us the most, and maybe even ourselves.

Just something to think about.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Eugenics...what's the big deal anyways?

Last week, at the NCFCA National Tournament, I learned a lot.

I learned from two consecutive speakers in Persuasive that parents should have the liberty to raise their children as they see fit, providing that they do not harm the child in the process, and that homeschoolers are upset that the government is essentially legislating morality by forcing themselves into the role of the parent. As it turns out, in the realm of parenting the government is not well equipped to solve matters of personal liberty. Huh.

I also learned that eugenics is a big problem. Apparently, there are some wicked people out there who arbitrarily kill babies because they don't meet our arbitrary standards of perfection and beauty. I mean, I don't get it...we can sometimes kill children, or even adults who don't meet those same standards, but killing babies is suddenly this raging epidemic that is going to conquer all that is good and holy in society? What's the big deal with killing innocent people? It's not like their quality of life was going to be that great anyways if we let them live, and we wouldn't want to have to spend our hard earned money {aka, tax dollars, if you're Barack Obama} to support people who are bound to be screw ups anyways. Better to just end their life, because redemption is too expensive, and the right to life doesn't mean a lot if we aren't rich & attractive, anyways. Patrick Henry, ftw!

Speaking of Patrick Henry, it turns out that America has become evil again. This is something else I learned at the mercy of homeschoolers, last week. This may surprise you, but America has walked away from God, and is evidently ignoring the ongoing alter call. I'm so glad that I now know that a nation can actually fall away, and be saved again--there is hope for John Piper after all! I was a little confused as to why we were supposed to be praying for America (like the White House? the Washington Monument? I'm still not entirely sure I understand what "America" is other than a collection of some people, a few of which used to wear funny hats and grow corn with the Indians) until I found out that America was God's favorite place to hang out, excepting Israel. I'm glad I don't have to worry about the rest of the world, because honestly that was a bit of a drag.

It's amazing how much you can learn in a few very long days.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

'A Million Miles in a Thousand Years'

I am sure this book is going to be fantastic. Donald Miller always is. But when I read the pre-released chapter {both the version that is in the new release of BLJ and the copy on his website}, I realized that I will be forced to reconsider everything again. Some particularly thoughful excerpts:

"If you ask me, the people who get the most out of life are the ones who don’t ask questions. I wish I was this kind of person. I was at Crème the other morning and heard a girl tell another girl about her previous night’s date and I kept wondering how she could go on about her date without knowing what love is for and what it means. I kept wondering how she could be excited about something when there was no philosophical map that would tell her where she was going and whether or not arriving there would give her a sense of closure and fulfillment. And there is a man who delivers library books to the library downstairs and the other day when he was carrying cartons of books into the library I wondered if he ever got tempted to drive the truck off the Sellwood bridge because he knew it was filled with a million ideas that contradicted each other. There are times when I think an act like that might be righteous. But I don’t know why."


Robert McKee put his coffee cup down and leaned onto the podium. He put his hand on his forehead and wiped his grey hair back. He said you have to go there, you know. You have to take your character to the place where they just can’t take it anymore. He looked at us with a tenderness we hadn’t seen in him before. You’ve been there, haven’t you? You’ve been out on the ledge. The marriage is over now, the dream is over now, nothing good can come from this. He got louder. Writing a story isn’t about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn’t think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it’s conflict that changes a person. He was shouting now. You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That’s the only way we change.

I am going to think about this now, and come up with something witty and brilliant to say about it tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Off the Road

I fell in love again
all things go, all things go
drove to Chicago
all things know, all things know
we sold our clothes to the state
I don't mind, I don't mind
I made a lot of mistakes
in my mind, in my mind

if I was crying
in the van, with my friend
it was for freedom
from myself and from the land
I made a lot of mistakes

I think every kid sometimes wants to get in the car and drive, not anywhere in particular, just away. I have been thinking a lot recently about how things were back in the 50's and 60's, where people just picked up and hitchhiked across the country. I don't trust people who have never wanted to do that, because I think we are born with a desire to travel and learn and experience.

In a world where media brings London and Hong Kong to our living rooms, it seems like maybe we would be content on the couch with pizza and a remote control. But I think instead, I just want to go more. If fairytales happen in movies {and they always do} then I might be a closet heroine, just waiting for the perfect setting to realize how cool and interesting I actually am.

Sometimes I play out scenes in my head before they happen, like I am actually in a movie. Actually, to be honest, I do this a lot. I imagine the things I will say, and how people will respond, and what will happen. This is why I am rarely surprised or phased by anything. I have played out almost every potential outcome already and planned my response to it.

So maybe this is why I feel the need to do crazy things like drive {or walk?} across the country. Because maybe then things would surprise me. I guess the point I am trying to make is that people are the same everywhere, and no matter how far you run, they will be annoying and shallow or fascinating and individual. Not that you shouldn't maybe try, because maybe you are easily surprised and things like that will be good for you.

But branching out is pointless unless your roots are sound. And if you go without sound roots, you will end up like Sufjan Stevens says; in a van somewhere, crying for freedom from the land and from yourself.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hollow of Darkness

Every time someone mentions TS Eliot I get this burning desire to read this poem. I picked up a complete collection of Eliot plays and poem and read almost all of the poems following our history class today which made reference to Eliot, and I can't help sharing.

The reason I love The Hollow Men is that it recalls the themes from one of my favorite books, Heart of Darkness. Kurtz, mentioned in the second epigraph, is, in my very humble opinion, the best representation of darkness in all symbolic literature. Kurtz is a "Paper mache Mephistopheles" (best description of any character ever. just sayin.), a hollow man. C.S. Lewis describes such men as "Men Without Chests" (sort of. there is nuance between the arguments, but they are fundamentally the same.)

Don't get impatient and stop reading halfway through--the end is the most dramatic line of doom and it will send shivers down your spine and haunt you for at least a few days.

Mistah Kurtz—he dead.

A penny for the Old Guy


We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.


Eyes I dare not meet in dreams
In death’s dream kingdom
These do not appear:
There, the eyes are
Sunlight on a broken column
There, is a tree swinging
And voices are
In the wind’s singing
More distant and more solemn
Than a fading star.

Let me be no nearer
In death’s dream kingdom
Let me also wear
Such deliberate disguises
Rat’s coat, crowskin, crossed staves
In a field
Behaving as the wind behaves
No nearer—

Not that final meeting
In the twilight kingdom


This is the dead land
This is cactus land
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man’s hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star.

Is it like this
In death’s other kingdom
Waking alone
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.


The eyes are not here
There are no eyes here
In this valley of dying stars
In this hollow valley
This broken jaw of our lost kingdoms

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

Sightless, unless
The eyes reappear
As the perpetual star
Multifoliate rose
Of death’s twilight kingdom
The hope only
Of empty men.


Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.