wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Month: April, 2017

‘So Expressionist!’

One obvious mark of a poseur is that they declare art good or bad based on whether they can identify its style. This is a handy heuristic for dismissing ‘critics’: if their interest in a text scales with how neatly the text fits an existing pattern of judgment — genre markers, current narrative tropes, allegorical Significance — then they’re not really attending to the text.

One trouble with art criticism in general, then, is that once you’ve found the great critics, the ones who engage deeply with individual artworks on their (the artworks’) own terms, in their (the critics’) own voices, you no longer get the comfort of abstraction. Great critics don’t arm you for cocktail-party talk about Art, because that talk never gets past schema, category, dead-end recurrence to personal taste. How could it? People at cocktail parties hate each other and share nothing meaningful, since (and therefore) they only hang out at cocktail parties. Strong critics set their own terms; they change conversations rather than keeping them going for status reasons.

(This nitpick, like most of what’s left of American ‘intellectual culture,’ brought to you by a tweet that annoyed me and inspired our post title.)

A note about STAR WARS and myth.

Episodes IV, V, and VI

Star Wars is a myth: ‘The Labours of Luke Skywalker.’ It accumulates story-stuff as it goes along, but the first trilogy focuses on Luke and his companions undergoing trials, separations, revelations, tests, purifications, and transformations (farmboy-to-knight, princess-to-soldier, thief-to-citizen) before the final confrontation with Evil. In the end, the knight enters the castle to slay the father-dragon and the corrupter-god, the princess and the citizen return to the primal/magic forest to do battle with great tree-sized monsters and faceless demons, and Good is restored. They gather by a fire and tell stories as night falls.

This is not news, nor is it terribly interesting on its own. Crucially, the original Star Wars films aren’t about myth — they’re ‘innocent’ in a sense, if anything is.

Myths, as I think Joseph Campbell said, are psychology misunderstood as history.

Star Wars is about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action.

Episodes I, II, and III

The prequels tell two stories: ‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker,’ in a mythic register, and the somewhat less popular but more contemporary-conventional ‘The Fall of the Old Republic.’ The latter political story is more complicated than what made it to the screen, all but disappearing in the third film; George Lucas reconceived Revenge of the Sith in the editing suite as a tightly focused story about Anakin, further imbalancing an already clumsy prequel trilogy.

The Fall of Anakin Skywalker is an inverted messiah/saviour story. Prophesied miracle-baby is taken from his mother, comes to the castle to become a knight, meets and is turned away by his future queen, and in his arrogance struggles with whether to turn his back on his teacher. His mother is captured and killed by monsters; in his fury he bloodily murders them. In his selfishness he courts a princess and conceives a child. In hubris he duels a master knight, losing a hand. In a second duel he bests the old master, and in his weakness of character murders him. Misled by the corrupter, in his terror and arrogance — in his inability to cast aside the misprision of Self which was always the primary obstacle for him and his fellow knights — he declares himself a servant of Evil and helps wipe out the knighthood.

Finally, he duels his teacher, and in his arrogance and pride and dogmatic certainty he is wounded and left for dead. The corrupter makes him into a dragon, and the dragon flies off to burninate the countryside and burninate the peasants…

The political story is there partly to provide context for the two myths. Because we know the outcome — these are ‘prequels’ — there’s no real suspense to it, only deferral. It takes up a far amount of the prequel trilogy, and is the prequels’ most enjoyable aspect, as far as I’m concerned, though primarily in the abstract, i.e. I enjoy reading the story more than I enjoy watching the movies, which are not entirely incorrectly regarded as shit.

‘The Fall of Anakin Skywalker’ is also about the transition from childhood innocence to adult knowing and action. The political story is, in part, about myth and mythmaking. The prequels lack the laser-clarity of the original films partly because their second story-strand ‘problematizes’ the first; Anakin isn’t simply the author of his destiny, and while the tragic ‘Fall of Anakin’ story is told like an ancient myth, all archetypal locations and abstract gestures and iconic clashes, ‘The Fall of the Old Republic’ is a modern tale which fits uneasily with its parallel mythic story. When they converge — as in the magnificently pedantic wizard-duel in the Senate chamber between Sidious and Yoda, or Anakin’s quietly horrifying murder of the children at the Temple — the story seems somehow greater than itself; it all seems almost worth it.

Lucas doesn’t get enough credit for the complexity (and I’d say importance) of the task he set for himself in the prequels. He failed to bring it off, ‘as everyone knows,’ but throughout that series you can see flashes of something like a work of genius, which is to say, among other things, imaginative excess.

I say all this as prologue to a comment about The Force Awakens and millennials LOL, which I will not now write because it’s time to take my son to school.

The mystery box, again.

Attention conservation notice: 800 words on familiar themes with a familiar cast of characters, hopefully enabling me to put this stuff aside and concentrate on bigger things.

The trouble with JJ Abrams’s inexplicably beloved ‘mystery box’ story-cum-theory of storytelling is that asking lots of questions of the form ‘What’s in the box?’ doesn’t actually take imagination. None at all. The act of imagination is what comes next: building a world inside the box. Brainstorming isn’t creativity.

You’ve seen Lost, right? Started well, then started going to shit the instant its creators needed to start actually answering the Neat-O Questions their premise had raised. Abrams was only a minor force in the making of the show after its first season, as I understand it, but his influence is all over Lost, including its embarrassing finale — that arc from ‘Everything we put onscreen means something’ to ‘Something something nondenominational purgatory because the important thing is that we have shared a TV show together‘ is the most JJ Abrams-y narrative collapse I can think of. (That doesn’t let Damon Lindelof off the hook, of course, but he was awfully young after all…)

I’m not convinced that Abrams actually has an imagination. He can write snappy dialogue, he’s a skilled cinematic mimic, and like several TV directors/showrunners he seems to work well with actors. But he seems to possess no capacity for vision, none at all.

Better a clumsy visionary than a skillful nullity, I say.

That said, I’m sure he’s a nice man, professional, and I’m sure his shoots all come in on time and under budget. I bet he’s kind to children, his wife, his dog. Alas, all I get of him is his work.

What, again with The X-Files?

I’ve written a couple of times that George Lucas is the Chris Carter of film — influential, gifted creators, maybe geniuses of a sort, who nonetheless shouldn’t be allowed within typing distance of their own work. Neither can be counted on to write credible dialogue, but each found his way to making some of the definitive American entertainment of his time on the strength of a creative vision. That term comes up over and over in the superb Empire of Dreams documentary about Lucas and Star Wars — interviewees involved in the film will go on about his limitations (none more wittily than Carrie Fisher), but over and over they’ll come back to his ‘vision,’ by which they mean not only ‘intellectual property’ but something like his unique, idiosyncratic conception of their shared project.

Just go with it, is the repeated refrain, trust in George’s vision. Which is to say both that Lucas’s ability to communicate with his cast and crew was limited because he was a young nerd (‘Faster! More intense!’), and that there was something coherent and in its way beautiful that no one else in the project could quite picture, which everyone involved trusted Lucas to possess and to nurture. Once the first one made a mountain of money, it was easier to trust in Lucas — he could buy trust — which is why the original Star Wars has an infectious joy, a sensawunda, that none of the other films in the series ever duplicated. It does more than just ‘work’ because it might not have worked. When you watch Star Wars, you see hundreds of people making art without reassurance that any of it actually go off, engaged in esoteric labours surrounded by strange icons and images, directed by a dreamer rather than a studio professional.

Carter doesn’t have the same reputation, but his work follows the same pattern: the overall conception of The X-Files — not the ‘concept,’ the logline (FBI agents investigate gov’t conspiracy and Fortean weirdness) but what you might call the guiding world-principle (marginal seekers navigate the American mythosphere in the twilight of empire, dogged by apostles of order and power, searching for transcendent truth) — is Carter’s unique irreducible contribution, a way of seeing rather than a specific sight. What’s compelling about the show, after all these years, is its sense of a specific time and place, a specific ‘multi-user shared hallucination,’ filtered through a particular sensibility.

Creative ‘vision’ isn’t content, it’s understanding: a structure of knowledge, . It tends to be interested in style only provisionally, as a solution to a communicative problem. That’s why visionary art tends toward formal incoherence (genre-crossing, lapses of ‘taste,’ stylistic improprieties, ill-proportioned and anticlimactic narrative) but is often experienced as extraordinarily vivid and immersive, as ‘truer than true’ on a level beneath conscious expression. (As usual, think of Southland Tales.)

The X-Files and Star Wars don’t depict ‘worlds’ in the sense of Westeros, or Middle-Earth. They give accounts of dreams, of myth, and like those imaginative experiences they don’t concern themselves with making sense after the fact, in the critical/analytical domain — myths become mythoi, dreams become dreamworlds, and deep transformation is achieved that can’t easily be explained (which is why we go on about ‘alchemy’ and ‘the soul’ and ‘the cosmic’ and other such nonsense).

We’re sliding towards talking about psychedelia, so this is where we pull back on the reins for the time being.

Summary of RED TIDE sandbox-creation method for fantasy RPGs.

Kevin Crawford’s Red Tide (self-published under his personal imprint, Sine Nomine) is the best RPG sandbox-creation guide I know of: inspiring and evocative, yet succinct and laser-focused. The steps are step-sized. For new DMs in particular I think it’s unbeatable. Here’s Crawford’s high-level process for kicking off a sandbox campaign:

  1. Campaign folder: People, Places, Encounter, Chronicle, Maps (81)
  2. Create two home bases: city and borderland (83)
  3. Additional sites: court + ruin for each of two home bases (sufficient for first session)
  4. Generate initial adventure for group
  5. Between sessions: expand outward a few hexes from current location (84)

The golden rule

Don’t prepare it unless it is fun to make it or you expect to need it for the next session. (84)

Court sites

  1. Choose court type (e.g. noble court, extended family, business): in essence, the type of social network encountered (85)
  2. Define 1-3 people of importance (useful to have different levels of authority for varied PC access)
  3. Give each important person a couple of details and a power source
  4. Identify conflicts discoverable by PCs (e.g. adultery, treachery, theft) (86)
  5. Loose ends: what happens if conflict resolved? rewards? leadership changes?

Court types are listed on pp87-89.

Borderland sites

  1. Choose site type (e.g. estate, delve, village, etc.) (90)
  2. Select tags (92). Consider blending two
  3. Select sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)
  4. Determine services/available funds: most border sites have a smith. 2x prices for adventuring goods for outsiders. 20% of priests have minimal clerical powers, 10% of villages have 1st-lvl magic user. Most villages can buy 5gp of plunder per inhabitant; larger requires city.
  5. Where is nearest Cure Disease/Remove Curse/Raise Dead cleric?
  6. Stat up NPCs (Enemies especially)
  7. Rough map, more specific if fighting likely
  8. Couple of adventure hooks. Local colour important. Hint at tags to draw PCs in

Borderland tags are listed on pp93-102.

Tags

Crawford’s ‘tags’ might just as easily have been called ‘tropes’ or ‘setting elements.’ For an idea of the level of detail he finds useful, here’s a sample borderland site tag:

Corvee Demand

The settlement’s ruling authority demands that the locals perform some sort of labor for their rulers, providing their own food and shelter while at work. Most credit old customary laws requiring such service, but the laws may have fallen into disuse or be fabrications. Peasants hate corvee labor, as it takes them from their fields, and other settlements often resent the demand for their unpaid work.

Enemies: Grasping local official, Cruel corvee taskmaster, Greedy merchant who misdirects the labor to his own profit. Friends: Angry peasant elder, Historian who remembers the old laws, Magistrate who feels the labor is being misused. Places: Sullen labor site, Empty fields, Tavern with knots of angry men. Complications: The corvee is actually a legitimate demand, The corvee is being used to build some vital infrastructure, The corvee was supposed to be paid work. Things: The pay that was supposed to be given to the workers, Proof of the demand’s falsification, Evidence of corrupt redirection of the corvee labor

City sites

  1. Physical: 12K people reasonable, scale as you like. Walled. Water. Districts, internal walls. Local colour (104)
  2. Social: legal authority. Profession/class/ethnic/religious faultlines. Status of adventurers (105)
  3. Select tags — can be used per neighbourhood/district (105)
  4. Rumours/events per tag to act as hooks
  5. Sub-tags: Enemies, Friends, Complications, Things, Places (1+ of each)

City tags are listed on pp106-110.

Ruin sites

  1. Ruin type (e.g. delve, mine, wizard tower) (114)
  2. How was it ruined? (115)
  3. Choose 1+ inhabitants (116)
  4. Treasure available, twists (117-134)
  5. Stock the site (keyed map)
  6. Typical day? Expected reaction to PCs?

Antagonist groups are listed on pp117-134.

Echo, Resounding sandbox instructions

In An Echo, Resounding, Crawford presents more detailed instructions for building domains suitable for high-level play:

The following system of region generation is intended to allow you to create a large chunk of adventuring terrain in an afternoon, along with its corresponding political structure. You will lay down the major population centers, important ruins, significant monster or bandit lairs, and areas of vital resources. You’ll establish the major political domains in the area and pick out a half-dozen significant villains or antagonists that could serve to occupy more powerful PCs. By the time you’re finished, you’ll have a good bare-bones framework that you can then elaborate in the ways that you find entertaining or useful for your next session. (9)

The process generates a square-ish region 300mi on a side. Each location (village, temple, mountain pass) has Military, Wealth, Social values, traits (like mini-tags: origins, activities, etc.), obstacles to PC control (penalty to location values), and assets.

Here’s Crawford’s domain-savvy process:

  1. Pick a spot and start a map, 200-300mi to a side
  2. Place 1-4 cities (fewer for borderland) spaced out, 10-15K pop in each, near water (17-19)
  3. Place 4 towns per city, 1-2K pop (mercantile centers: villages, fisheries), can be further from major waterways. Blank spaces fine: there be dragons (orcs, plague, etc.) (17-19)
  4. Place 5 ruins per city (1-3 were major human habitations) (20-23)
  5. Place resources equal to number of towns, equidistant (23-24)
  6. Along each land/water route, place a lair near middle (‘the wicked and the bestial, dens for the bandits, monsters, renegades and savages that scourge the wilderness’) (25-28)
  7. Place 3-4 lairs w/access to remote or poorly defended resources
  8. Place lairs in barren areas
  9. Start naming locations and assigning each one traits
  10. Place obstacles: 1+ for each city, town, and resource (29-37)
  11. Optionally assign site tags from Red Tide to cities and towns (might inspire obstacles). This is almost certainly worth doing (RT93-102, RT106-110)
  12. Start outlining domains: unified polities. City-states, fiefdoms, priestly domains, etc. Choose settlements to be their capitals. Neighbouring pairs/triads to generate conflict
  13. Hall of infamy: pick a major regional danger (lich, tyrant, etc., expected capstone lvl of campaign)
  14. Place two name-level (lvl9ish) threats: criminal organizations, cults, major monsters. Attach to cities/lairs/ruins
  15. Place four mid-level perils: warbands, warlords, wizards, etc. Can attach to lairs — any lower-level threats don’t need to be placed in advance, since they’re local enough to be reasonable as surprises
  16. In play, remember to add repeat/significant locations to map

Detailed instructions for more realistic demographics (e.g. city/town pop are 5% of total in region) are found on pg16.

The process for fleshing out cities, towns, ruins, obstacles, and lairs expands on the Red Tide material: city/town origins and activities increase location values, and obstacles play on specific values. The domain management and mass combat rules take up about a quarter of Echo‘s 100+ pages, and a system for integrating PCs into the domain and combat systems takes another five pages. The balance of the book presents introductory material, helpful sandbox advice, and an evocative miniature setting (The Westmark) about 50×50 hexes.

Recommendation

Crawford’s sandbox systems emphasize simple gameable abstractions and story-building over, say, the well intentioned economic simulationism of Adventurer Conqueror King or the well intentioned accountancy of the Rules Cyclopedia, and his thumbnail geo/demographics bypass altogether the well intentioned ‘realism’ of Rob Conley’s method. And he can write!

Even better, every one of his medium/large products offers a comparable collection of tools for procedurally generating your own SF/F gaming materials. I recommend Stars Without Number, Other Dust, and his many supplements without reservation to ‘trad’ gamers of every experience and ability level.

Kudos to him.

ARRIVAL (Denis Villeneuve et al., 2016).

In 2002ish(?) I went to MIT’s all night Sci-Fi Marathon. Had a few drinks. They showed Ghostbusters, and when Bill Murray said ‘Back off man, I’m a scientist’ the entire crowd lost its mind. It was one of the peak moments of any human life.

The trouble with science fiction film is that, while there are smart serious people in Hollywood, very few people on the ‘creative’ side of the industry appear to value analytical intelligence or have any first- or even secondhand experience of serious abstract intellection. Hollywood’s terrible at capturing what it’s like to solve complex problems by methods other than force or subterfuge. (This is why most ‘spy films’ are just fight films with acronyms.) And screen actors, afforded no rehearsal or research time, reduce ‘intelligence’ to mannerism for an American audience that can’t sit still for movies that are more talk (or think) than, um, explode.

It isn’t just a matter of engineering projects or scientific research, say, being impossible to dramatize — Primer came out 13(!) years ago for Christ’s sake, written on spec and shot/chopped for $7K. It’s that dramatizing hard work is hard work, calling for direct rather than analogical sense of the shape of the work being depicted, and the vanishingly few screenwriters and directors who can handle that work are busy making films for stupid horny distracted adolescents, i.e. ‘making Hollywood movies.’

Which is why Arrival feels not just like a classic science fiction film, which it is, but like a minor miracle.

Fear not, NO SPOILERS FOLLOW. Arrival deserves to be seen fresh.

Complaints first, though: Arrival nominally features two main characters, but Jeremy Renner as Ian the theoretical physicist (alas, not believable) is very much background to Amy Adams’s extraordinary performance as Louise the linguist/translator. Ian is essential to the story, but he hardly acts throughout; he’s the sidekick. That I don’t mind, though — the problem is that one of the interesting intellectual elements of Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life,’ source material for the film, has been chucked out along with any sense of Ian’s character. (Fermat, if you’re wondering.) Ian’s job in the film is to perform a bit of basic mathematical analysis at a crucial moment in the plot and otherwise be a kind of Manic Pixie Dream Scientist, which makes sense given Louise’s story but makes for a somewhat imbalanced setup: the compelling drama is all internal to her.

The political material is sketched in, and we don’t actually see collaboration between scientists — when Ian says he needs his team and Louise’s working together on a project, that doesn’t mean anything at all in story terms, because we’ve never actually met either team.

It’s a chamber piece with featured soloist.

Fortunately the soloist is Amy Adams, who accomplishes a difficult task: sympathetically evoking the interior life of an analytically intelligent introvert struggling with unbearable personal trauma (the death of a child), the most difficult and consequential professional task of her life, and — almost incidentally — the awesome presence on earth of twelve Big Dumb Objects.

(Chiang’s first published story, ‘The Tower of Babylon,’ effortlessly balances these three elements as well, in a tale which considers the Tower of Babel as both massive civil-engineering project and mind-shattering supernatural encounter. Chiang is infuriatingly good.)

Moreover, the structure of the story — particularly the relationship between Adams’s ruminative introductory/framing narration and the matter-of-fact present-time action — offsets the geopolitical story (race against the military clock) and the central mystery (what do the aliens want?) with an additional note of uncertainty. Adams bears primary responsibility for grounding the audience while the narrative dream deepens and grows stranger. To the credit of everyone involved, especially Adams and heroic screenwriter Eric Heisserer, the climactic revelations make sense not only plotwise but in emotional terms; the finale is unusual in Hollywood terms in that its full implications play out only in retrospect, without any ‘gotcha!’ thriller-plot nonsense. Adams’s emotional line is crystal clear on first viewing, and the understated finale deepens the significance of her choices without making the first viewing ‘obsolete.’ This isn’t a Sixth Sense-style twisty film, it’s something much deeper, about which I won’t say any more…

Two final notes, then.

First: Arrival‘s most immediately significant (i.e. current) achievement is its depiction of an intelligent, introverted, driven, professionally respected American woman who displays a full palette of complex emotions under stress without ever being The Damsel or The Bitch or The Nerd. She’s a fully realized human being, which is to say her femaleness matters to the story but is never simply part of the scenery. Chiang, Heisserer, and director Denis Villeneuve(!!) deserve so much credit for conceiving the character of Louise and shepherding her through the creative process, enabling Adams to deliver this note-perfect performance. Arrival is a film about identity irreducible to identity politics, you might say.

And last: I remember seeing the restored THX-1138 in theaters in 2004; so much of that dreamlike experience has stayed with me, most especially Walter Murch’s immersive ambient soundtrack. Arrival felt at times like Terrence Malick’s THX, the aggressive/trippy mix of mournful strings and hrrrmmm-hoom!! synths combining with the rich ambient sound to create a world truly apart. I don’t listen to a lot of film scores anymore, but I’m seeking this one out, if only to be able to return to Arrival from time to time.

I was — it feels strange to say this but if you know me you’ll understand why I do — I was, I am, grateful for this film.

‘The Force Awakens’ in light of ‘Rogue One’ and vice versa.

(Spoilers ahead, rubes.)

I find myself thinking that The Force Awakens is an extraordinarily well executed piece of fanservice — and in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms, an embarrassment. Its dialogue is snappy, the performances range from good to great, the clumsy ‘power creep’ of Rey’s story is nearly erased by Daisy Ridley’s charisma (which outstrips her perfectly reasonable acting skills), and the creators’ commitment to expanding the Star Wars universe is admirable. Walter Chaw is right: The Force Awakens fulfills one promise of the original trilogy by offering a vision of the galaxy that seems, at moments, almost galaxy-sized.

Well, almost.

By the end, The Force Awakens has collapsed into a series of by-the-numbers repetitions and blood feuds and familial agony, and I’m left attending to the good bits: the lead performances (especially Adam Driver’s) and the maybe-brilliant subtext. To wit: A new generation of kids have inherited a Star Wars legacy that’s too big for them, they shrink from their duty, they fool around with the old toys, and in the end the people they love — the stars of the old movies — start dying. This is JJ Abrams’s schtick, I think; I don’t think he has any real value as an artist but he does seem productively and even admirably aware of his lateness, so to speak. To my eye he’s made derivativeness itself the center of his aesthetic, such as it is. The subtext of The Force Awakens (which I’m happy to credit to its creators and not my own overcompensatory urge) elevates the material.

It’d better! Because near as I can tell, nothing is at stake in Abrams’s film. Finn isn’t going to die, Rey isn’t going to kill Li’l Ben, and the Starkiller Base is gonna blow up good. The Plot Points are ticked off.

The Force Awakens is like a midseason episode of a long-running TV series. It can’t take risks. Kathleen Kennedy did the right thing, then, by hiring a writer/director who won’t take them either.

Which brings us to Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’s equally well executed bit of fanservice, which in boring conventional ‘is this good art’ terms is the best Star Wars film since Reagan was elected. It takes a question that millions of misprising adolescents have pointlessly asked — ‘Why does the Death Star have such a stupid fatal flaw?’ — and wraps a wonderful Dirty Dozen-ish war story around the appropriately ridiculous answer (‘Because the heroine’s terminally noble father put it there’).

Rogue One is the first movie in the saga since Return of the Jedi to offer meaningful stakes — its position as ‘infix prequel’ lets Edwards introduce an entirely new cast of characters whose fates the audience can’t easily guess, and he and his writers have the audacity to do the one thing no Star Wars fan would expect in that situation: they kill every single new character they introduce, heroes and villains and droids and aliens. In doing so they subtly alter the original film, recasting the Rebellion in more visceral and active terms than the first movie managed to suggest. (The sparseness of most pre-CGI science fiction film and early video games was an enormously consequential economic phenomenon about which, as they say, we will say more.) And unlike Abrams’s film (but much like the prequels), Rogue One makes the Star Wars galaxy feel bigger, more crowded. To my mind that’s the best thing about it.

OK, the nervewracking third act suicide mission/epic battle is the best thing about it. And Alan Tudyk’s droid is also the best thing about it.

The cast is pretty swell, Giacchino’s score is largely on point (though the (studio orchestra’s?) performance of the end credits is a little embarrassing), the funny bits are funny, and it’s the first film in the series that concedes nothing to its young viewers. In that respect it differs not only from the prequels, which foreshortened and dumbed down Lucas’s genuinely interesting political story, but from The Force Awakens, with its two cringeworthy uses of the word ‘boyfriend.’ (They’re both funny! And slightly discordant, in a Thoroughly Modern way.) Rogue One isn’t a tale of deeply complicated crosshatching moral codes and weary cynicisms, not quite, but it’s the first Star Wars film to successfully combine the operatic omnisignificance of the core generational narrative with something like ‘realistic’ grownup characterization — not to mention ‘worldbuilding’ of any seriousness.

The Force Awakens is, as usual for Abrams, absolutely risible in this area. The final act of the film kicks off with a bit of offhand planetary genocide — billions of people wiped out in the blink of an eye solely to advance the paper-thin plot. The only lives that matter in that film are the protagonists’, which is part of what I mean when I say ‘no stakes.’ (Did Han’s death actually surprise you? Have you seen a film before?) Nothing but Plot is ever in play for Abrams, except of course Nostalgia — but Rogue One gobbles up every character who appears onscreen and you feel every death; by the end you feel as if the heroes of the original trilogy were lucky to’ve made it that far.

Rewatching part of it today, I was surprised by my own feeling of…resentment? at the fact that the story didn’t end with that stunning image of the two heroes dying on the beach. ‘Oh, we need some Darth Vader of course,’ was my thought. But when the credits rolled I had to admit that handing the baton to Leia and Vader/Anakin was the perfect ending. The work never ends, is the point, or one point, or part of the point. Jyn and Cassian die in service of something that the writers and director and actors and — I suspect — the audience understand to be greater than the narrative: an idea too complex to fit neatly into the ‘Character Motivation’ slot in the script. Which is only to say that I believed in Rogue One in a way I’ve never, after four or five viewings, managed to believe in The Force Awakens.

Anyhow, this isn’t supposed to matter, because these aren’t movies, they’re Star Wars popstuff thingies. But pretending for a second that we’re allowed to judge nostalgia-objects as if they were actual existing artworks has been, I hope, a useful exercise, even as our culture-sized canoe heads for the waterfall.

Stories are made of time and change, not information.

The justification for spoilers (beyond ‘I am anxious, impatient, and have no self-control’) is that you don’t need to receive the story’s info-payload at the moment prescribed by the writers — having the facts, we are told, only clarifies the story, it doesn’t diminish it. Knowing how it ends frees you up to enjoy the unfolding of the story without anxiety.

This disgusts and worries me.

We might think about stories this way:

Narrative structures aren’t vessels containing information, they’re machines for creating information in the mind of the audience. ‘Little Nell dies.’ ‘Oh, is that so? Who’s Little Nell?’ Little Nell is part of a structure which, when activated, effects psychotropism — mental transformation — in the reader. She’s not ‘contained’ in the machine The Old Curiosity Shop, she’s a gear in that machine. To put it another way: the production of fictional knowledge (e.g. ‘informing’/’teaching’ the reader about hobbit feet or the one-eyed bigot at a Dublin bar) is an epiphenomenon of the process of generating the experience of reading itself.

Fictions don’t contain facts, they contain meaningful time: algorithmically generated encounters between audience and story. The text exists to generate the experience of living through it. Characters, plot, setting, are just ‘local variables,’ generated at runtime, which cease to exist when the work is done. But more than that: the work of a fictional scene can’t simply be summarized after the fact (writing tip: if it can, the scene is bad and probably unnecessary). The story effects a set of transformations through sustained audience contact: it’s a smooth curve, flow, the path on which the fictional outcome is dependent. Alter the path, break the curve, obstruct the flow, and you lose the story. What remains are chains and gears, sprockets and lenses — pieces of the machine, meaningless outside of its working.

This isn’t a niggling narratological concern, it’s a serious cultural problem. What’s good about a story is the telling, the reading, the watching, encounter, immersion, sharing — the act of communication, the provisional formation of a network which includes reader, text, artists, imagined-artists (notions which complicate the reading experience), setting, moment… Surprise, as Joss Whedon puts it, is a ‘holy emotion,’ and even in the small doses afforded by the ‘literary novel,’ surprise is an essential element of the fictional contract. But it seems that more and more Americans are terrified of surprise. Parents, bosses, workers, people on dates, schoolteachers, students(!), and of course Discerning Media Audiences — we imbue surprise and uncertainty with anxiety (wishing not to be tested, to risk our precious selves, in a world where the Self is our only permanent or meaningful possession) and seek dumbly to control our microworlds instead of seeking out or cocreating new ones.

Serial novels (‘franchises’) sell like hotcakes, ‘literary’ fiction all but disappears. We read a dozen reviews before settling on a TV show. We ‘swipe right’ based on the literal covers of figurative books. Theaters (both cinemas and the other sort) run only remakes and sequels. We seek out films by particular studios. We welcome a new era of nakedly partisan pseudojournalism. A man who plays a businessman on television becomes president on the strength of his ‘business acumen.’ We are horrified by the news but can hardly pretend to be surprised…

In the grand scheme of things, ‘spoilers’ are a small thing. But as we reconceive what stories and storytelling are, what they’re for, we incur hidden costs. One honourable task for ‘critics’ in this fallen era would be to tally up those costs.

P.S. Scott Alexander writes authoritatively (vs anecdotally) about the value of ‘trigger warnings’, which I pass on as countermelody to my naïve carrying-on about ‘surprise’ as a pillar of fictional experience.

Graves’s Greek myths.

Updated 21 May (see below)

Three ways into poet/novelist/crank Robert Graves’s retelling (synopsis) of the the great body of Greek myth:

  1. Naively treating the book as a neutral compendium of Greek myths (this is a recipe for madness, and will likely lead in short order to the next reading-posture)
  2. Knowingly treating the book as two — expert retellings of the myths marred by oddly deflating synoptic intrusions, plus a parallel, less compelling work of fantasy in the endnotes — and savouring the main text while dipping into the notes from time to time
  3. Knowingly treating the book as a single work of fantasy based on the Greek myths, marking the endnotes as a kind of optional countermelody

The advantage of the third approach, which I’ve tried to adopt in my own reading, is that it accommodates Graves’s deflating alternate versions and parenthetical insertions — instead of damaging a conventional narrative flow, they can be understood as a necessary feature of an alternative form.

If you haven’t read Graves, this is the sort of thing you can expect:

The Eleventh Labour: The Apples Of The Hesperides

a. HERACLES had performed these Ten Labours in the space of eight years and one month; but Eurystheus, discounting the Second and the Fifth, set him two more. The Eleventh Labour was to fetch fruit from the golden apple-tree, Mother Earth’s wedding gift to Hera, with which she had been so delighted that she planted it in her own divine garden. This garden lay on the slopes of Mount Atlas, where the panting chariot-horses of the Sun complete their journey, and where Atlas’s sheep and cattle, one thousand herds of each, wander over their undisputed pastures. When Hera found, one day, that Atlas’s daughters, the Hesperides, to whom she had entrusted the tree, were pilfering the apples, she set the ever-watchful dragon Ladon to coil around the tree as its guardian.

b. Some say that Ladon was the offspring of Typhon and Echidne; others, that he was the youngest-born of Ceto and Phorcys; others again, that he was a parthogenous son of Mother Earth. He had one hundred heads, and spoke with diverse tongues.

c. It is equally disputed whether the Hesperides lived on Mount Atlas in the Land of the Hyperboreans; or on Mount Atlas in Mauretania; or somewhere beyond the Ocean stream; or on two islands near the promontory called the Western Horn, which lies close to the Ethiopian Hesperiae, on the borders of Africa. Though the apples were Hera’s, Atlas took a gardener’s pride in them and, when Themis warned him: ‘One day long hence, Titan, your tree shall be stripped of its gold by a son of Zeus,’ Atlas, who had not then been punished with his terrible task of supporting the celestial globe upon his shoulders, built solid walls around the orchard, and expelled all strangers from his land; it may well have been he who set Ladon to guard the apples…

Graves goes on this way for several pages; his retelling of the Labours of Heracles expands zenoparadoxically into a series of digressions and clarifications and alternate visions that seems as if it may never end. But it does, and I was sorry that it did — Graves tries my patience but I love this stuff all the same. Paragraph b is typical: I can’t imagine a nonexpert caring one way or the other who exactly gave birth to a 100-headed polyglot dragon, and it matters not even a tiny bit to the flow of the story, but this is neither ‘proper’ scholarship nor pure narrative, and conventional satisfactions aren’t the point.

The function of paragraph b — assuming you think Graves has a point and isn’t simply mad — isn’t to slow the story but to broaden it: Typhon and Ceto don’t figure in this particular story, but by invoking them in this quasi-scholarly way like a Biblical scholar noting concordance between the synoptic gospels, Graves sets them to echoing in the background, as it were. Heracles’s labours matter to Graves and to the book’s metanarrative as part of a system of knowledge; on their own, as a series of well supplied violent rampages by a psychotic demigod, they’re Neat but not hardly Significant. But the mention of Typhon, with his arms 300 miles long and an ass’s head that touched the stars, deepens the colour of the story somewhat. Graves’s endnotes ground the stories in a (ridiculous) myth-history, and his cross-cutting invocations of a heavenly genealogy ultimately function as worldbuilding rather than, er, monomania and indiscipline.

If you think of stories as payloads for information, this strategy won’t make sense; there are better ways, for Christ’s sake, to establish the complexity of the Greek mythos than by dropping a steaming info-pile in the middle of the narrative pathway. But if you think of a story, like any work of art, as a machine for inducing psychotropism at a distance rather than a kind of inductive proof, then Graves’s approach has a certain imaginative logic. The mythos is a map whose territory is an entire long-dead culture’s collective imagination, and you don’t need instructions (‘plot’) to browse a map.

Which isn’t to say Graves’s individual retellings aren’t fun to read — I’ve been reading the Myths for months, a little at a time, and I’m enjoying them more now than ever — only that ‘fun’ isn’t exactly the point.

Non-Newtonian narrative

Sticking only to stories here for a second:

‘Visionary’ narrative maps an imagination — it attempts to render the encounter between a complex mind and a complex world without reducing either to the status of narrative components. Visionary art tends to be unconcerned or at least under-concerned with its own parseability. It doesn’t concede to convention, which at any rate is always a post hoc rationalization of an originating vision.

Conventionally satisfying linear (‘sane’) narrative does not directly map an imagination. It maps a kind of second-order reality: the narrative sequence you cocreate in your mind, Reader(s), is and must be orderly in a way reality never ever is, and the same goes for the author’s private story that the text bundles, encodes, and transmits. A story must be tellable to be told, duh, but the world isn’t. The world is the opposite of a story: it doesn’t presuppose sense and then work within it (unless of course you think the world is a story made by gods, in which case good luck with that), because the world doesn’t assume or presuppose anything. Before everything, being is. Telling comes after, because everything that dreams is needy.

My point here is that when I talk about ‘visionary’ art (which I do a hell of a lot, I know, and not only in the context of ahem psychedelic improvised rock), I mean art that doesn’t presuppose an orderly knowable ‘tellable’ world — nor a tellable mind. I’d say Graves’s own mad autodidactic myth-history falls into this category, though his close contemporary Tolkien’s mostly doesn’t: Tolkien’s legendarium is supremely orderly, which geeks like, and his brilliant long novel, though a work of actual genius, is satisfying in (among others) the totally conventional sense of putting its heroes through escalating heck and restoring them to something like sense on the other side, wrapped up in a bow. As GRR Martin points out, Aragorn is a good ruler because he’s the titular returned king, and for no other reason, really; he represents a neat’n’tidy idea, and he never attains the particularly complexities of a human being because he never actually has to rule. Frodo and Sam, meanwhile, are more richly imagined figures, their humanity tested rather than their fitness for the role of ‘plucky heroes.’ They’re the ones who grow in the telling.

I’d say that Tolkien attains a dreamlike ‘visionary’ power at points in Lord of the Rings — Shelob’s lair, Moria, Minas Morgul, the doom of the Rohirrim — but his storyworld always snaps back into place afterward. Middle-Earth isn’t elastic like Graves’s ‘encoded patriarchal overthrow of authentic Triple-Goddess worship’ frame; part of the ‘adventurous expectancy’ (HPL’s term) in Graves’s Myths comes from the feeling that he might, on page 600, just start gibbering about Celtic paganism and never stop. The basic imaginative content is the opposite of definitive, not least since you (I) have no idea which of his goddamn endnotes (which take up at least half the book) he’s just made up whole cloth. Whereas Middle-Earth is or at any rate can be written down somewhere, safe and sound. (This is no deprecation of Tolkien or his creation.)

All of which is why I don’t fault Graves’s dryly synoptic presentation. He’s not trying to tell a series of little stories, he’s trying to accurately render his felt sense of the deeply weird complexity of the whole sort of general mythos-mishmash. It is boring at times because worlds are. It contradicts itself at times because worlds do. It makes no sense because the world doesn’t, can’t, because the world isn’t made to make sense. It isn’t made. This is the great virtue of what we might call a ‘mythic outlook’: it pushes us toward an acceptance of the world of the mind (and the world itself) as it is. It is a posture of eager receptivity.

Visions come to prepared spirits. (Kekulé)

Update (21 May 2017)

Coda: The final piece of Graves’s project is a retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Despite his odd dismissal of the latter (‘the first Greek novel,’ a lower form than myth of course), throughout the Myths Graves has given himself freer rein when nothing was at stake, mythographically speaking. And his dry presentation of the myths, which for a long stretch prior to the labours of Hercules had gotten a little boring, crackles to life whenever the focus of the stories shifts from the divine to the (comparatively) human. The Odyssey is suffused with melancholy anyhow, but Graves treats it as the coda to a vast cosmology, the birth of the modern in a sense — ‘Well, I’m back’ and ‘Goodbye to all that’ — and that framing only intensifies the source texts’ deflationary effects. By linking Homer’s poems to various Mediterranean myths of city-founding, and devoting so many pages to partings and dissipations, Graves undercuts Homer’s narrative arc but finds a deeper, sadder story: the end of the Trojan War seems to take as long as the war itself, and Odysseus’s reclaiming of his throne barely registers as climax before he’s banishing his son to avoid prophesied death (which comes from the sea anyway, ironically in the form of one of his illegitimate half-divine children).

The Homeric material concretizes the Myths, makes them finally into a book rather than a grab-bag of Frazerian fixations.

Plus Graves has one more goofy surprise waiting in his penultimate notes section: Homer was Nausicaa, whatever the hell that could possibly mean.