A Flawed Masterpiece - A Critique of Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner 2049’

"Following up a classic is an impossible task, and Denis Villeneuve was brave (and perhaps a little crazy?) to attempt it. As any sequel arriving decades after the original must, this film is bound to disappoint. There are a number of things to admire about it; it is certainly a bold attempt. It is not a ‘failure’ in that sense, but nor is it a total success, and it is already being fiercely picked over by cineastes of various stripes. It falls into that special category of flawed masterpieces (among which I would include Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, Wes Anderson's 'The Life Aquatic' and David Fincher’s ‘Alien 3’) for which I have a certain affection..."

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So began my first stab at a critical piece on the film. I have since seen it again and moderated my views somewhat. I admire parts of the film more, and am still uncomfortable with others. I hope to synthesize all of these thoughts and feelings in a longer critical piece in the coming days. 

And here it is (almost a month later...)

WHY 'BLADE RUNNER 2049' JUST DOESN'T WORK (FOR ME) - *SPOILERS APLENTY*

“Action’s like a sack - it won’t stand up if it’s empty. And to make it stand up, you first need to fill it with all the reasons and feelings that have brought it about.” ―Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author

This is not less than my fourth attempt to summarize as succinctly as possible why I think ‘Blade Runner 2049’, despite having many strong elements and moments, is such a strangely dissatisfying film. A month after its release, and maybe 10,000 words later, I can’t seem to stop thinking or writing about it, mostly for the wrong reasons. It honestly pains me that this film is not better than it is, because a lot of it is very good. But not enough to motivate me to sit through some of its most misconceived and problematic scenes a third time.

The nearest I can come to summing it all up is to say that it is a good—possibly great—film trapped in the narrative architecture of a bad film.

(Incidentally, I would say something similar about ‘The Force Awakens’ – a fun film which lives up to the tone and spirit of the original in many ways, but the plot is an unholy mess.)

But, don’t get me wrong: the bad film smothering the good one in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a bad film of the highest grade. This is not ‘Showgirls’, a film that is laughably bad from the word go; nor is it that nearly 20-year-old disaster of a sci-fi prequel that dare not speak its own name; nor is it ‘Prometheus’ which starts well and continues in pretty good form for maybe 30 or 40 minutes before going so badly off the rails that the audience I saw it with was laughing openly at its absurdities by the end.

No, to his great credit, Denis Villeneuve – who is, of course, a very talented filmmaker and clearly poured his heart and soul into this project – never loses control of the tone. We do not laugh at ‘Blade Runner 2049’, even if some of its plot mechanics do leave us scratching our heads. The tone and mood of the film are its chief virtues, and the things it has recreated most faithfully from the original. Unfortunately, the things that make a film worth watching over and over again – compelling, complex, persuasive characters, and a story that is surprising, moving, yet internally consistent and coherent – are lacking.

So what about that plot? There’s certainly a lot of it, maybe too much. It almost feels like a TV season’s worth of plot awkwardly shoehorned into a nearly 3-hour film. The story is intriguing, but difficult to follow, even for fans of the original – for new audience members, likely impossible. It seems to want to be ‘The Usual Suspects’ or ‘Memento’ or ‘The Sixth Sense’ – one of those puzzle films that sends you racing back to the beginning to see how all the pieces fit into place – and where, if anywhere, the filmmakers may have cheated to make it work.

When that approach works, it’s a thrilling movie-going experience. When it doesn’t, you just feel kind of ripped off, because so much time has been spent misdirecting you and withholding relevant information, and the puzzle pieces - in the end - don't actually fit together. Having to re-watch ‘Blade Runner 2049’ just to figure out what is happening and why is a disappointing experience, because – on a second viewing – you only discover more holes, more flaws, more head-scratchers, more reasons to doubt that there is a story worth telling underneath it all.

(To minimize spoilers here, I will append to this post a list of some of the most egregious plot holes, as well as odd borrowings from the novel, for those who want to know in more detail what I’m talking about.)

DO GENETICALLY ENGINEERED HUMANS DREAM OF GENETICALLY ENGINEERED SHEEP?

What is ‘Blade Runner 2049’ actually about? It’s the story of a Replicant police officer, K. (Ryan Gosling), who, like so many artificial beings in the movies, seems to want to be really human. As a result of an investigation he undertakes, he begins to suspect that he is the natural-born offspring of the Replicant Rachael (Sean Young) and her lover, police officer Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who have been missing for 30 years. (Already, it should be clear that if you haven’t seen the first film, you are in serious trouble.) In the end, however, K. learns that he is not their son, yet he nobly decides to sacrifice his life in order to reunite Deckard with the long-lost child, who has already turned up somewhere else in the plot.

That’s a potentially compelling story, and in many parts of the film it is – setting aside the swarm of questions it raises as to why a Replicant would be employed as a Blade Runner in the first place, much less trusted with investigating the bombshell of the world’s first Replicant baby. If you take the movie in very superficially, just sort of floating on the surface of the grungy, gorgeous world it depicts, it looks, feels and sounds like a great film.

All of the artists involved in the look and sound of the film – from cinematographer Roger Deakins, to production designer Dennis Gassner, to composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch – do an admirable job, and are sure to get Oscar nominations. Unfortunately, the more time you spend with this film, the less sense it all makes, and finally, it irritates us for being so close to great, and yet so fundamentally flawed.

So what wen't wrong?

A good place to start is with the question of what a Replicant actually is. In the first film Replicants were something between an android and an organic being. Deckard calls them ‘machines’: “A Replicant is like any other machine; either they’re a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my concern,” he says on first meeting Rachael. In this new film, however, the notion of what a Replicant is has shifted toward something more like a genetically engineered human – after all, one of them (Rachael), has apparently been able to give birth.

(Part of what handicaps this film is that androids were still a relatively new idea in 1982, and we had never seen something like the Voight-Kampff test - obviously modelled on the Turing test - in a film before. It all felt very new. Now, we've seen these ideas explored better and more thoroughly in other films - Spielberg's 'A.I.', Alex Garland's 'Ex Machina', Spike Jonze's 'Her'. So although there are a lot of different sci-fi concepts in 'Blade Runner 2049', none of them feels fresh. The original inspired many imitators, whereas this one feels like it is referencing any number of other latter-coming sci-fi films.)

Adding to the confusion, the opening preamble tells us that there are several different generations of Replicants running around, and that some of them are more human than others. But we have no idea who is who, nor how many of them are out there. In the original film, there were only five Replicants (all of the same generation), and we were introduced to all of them clearly within about the first 20 minutes of the film. In this film, we have no idea if they are a majority of the population, or a tiny minority. We have characters like Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), a prostitute who chastises K. for not liking “real girls”. But is she ‘real’? Her fellow prostitutes’ dialogue seems to suggest they are all Replicants. We have no idea. And each new character we meet only provokes further doubts.

Someone will object, ‘But that’s the whole point. Where is the line between humans and Replicants? It’s all about that ambiguity.’

Ambiguity – to a purpose – is fine. But simply confusing the audience or withholding relevant information does not make for a fun – or meaningful – movie going experience. To gather the meaning of a story, to have its insights ignite in our brain in real time as if we are discovering them for ourselves, we need a fighting chance at understanding the world and the characters we are being presented with.

Science fiction has a particular burden to bear in this regard: it has to create a world complex enough to be persuasive, but simple enough to make intuitive sense to the audience. To see this done well, watch the first 20 minutes of Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper’ or James Cameron’s ‘Terminator 2’. To see it done badly, well, you need look no further.

This is why the original ‘Blade Runner’ was given voice-over narration in its initial release, and it remains a useful introduction for people coming to the Blade Runner world for the first time. But the original film actually contains all the information we need to understand what is going on in the dialogue. The story of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is several times more complicated than the original, we have no voice-over to guide us, and one of the characters who might help shed light on things - Jared Leto’s Wallace, the brilliant if also insane creator of the current generation(s?) of Replicants - speaks only in philosophical mumbo-jumbo.

Incidentally, as a film prof of mine pointed out, he is little more than a cartoon Bond villain. He has no redeeming or humanizing qualities, and thus, is a cliché psychopath. This is a basic storytelling flaw: you need to do something to make your villain relatable, charming, halfway likeable. Wallace is just repulsive and sadistic, an unpleasant wasted opportunity. (Compare him with the warm humanity of Tyrell in the original, who clearly loved his creations, and was grieved that he could not make them more perfect.)

But I digress. The point is, complicated stories are fine, if – ultimately – they make sense and they move us, but this one makes precious little sense, and its emotional pay-offs are undermined by major problems with the plot and characters.

At times, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ does achieve greatness. And these moments come throughout the film, not just near the beginning. The opening with Sapper Morton is excellent. The baseline test - genius. The visit to Ana Stelline's studio, and the play of emotions on her face as she watches her own memory play out in K.'s mind - incredible. The chemistry between Ford and Gosling - great. The ending, when Deckard and Stelline are reunited - wonderful. That’s what’s so frustrating about it. It starts well, then jumps the shark in places, gets good again, dissolves into incoherence in places, recovers again… It’s exhausting. Each great moment is surrounded by such rickety narrative architecture that you can’t bear to think of how we got there, or how we get from this moment to the next, because the more you think about it, the more the story falls apart.

A BAFFLING, BUT BEAUTIFUL TRIP TO THE ORPHANAGE

Take the orphanage sequence just as an example. It all builds to one genuinely great, moving moment: the discovery of a wooden horse, doubtless meant to resonate with the unicorn imagery in the original. But what it takes to get there is so nonsensical it substantially undermines this shining cinematic moment.

K. finds various clues that lead him to investigate an orphanage in a garbage dump where he may or may not have spent time himself as a child. He flies out there in his LAPD squad car and is shot out of the sky by seemingly lawless scavengers. (Whether he has any lawful authority in this area outside the city, the film gives us no clear indication.) Drawn into a fight with the scavengers on the ground, K. is literally rescued from the sky by something like a drone controlled by Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), the right-hand woman to Wallace.

(Are you following this? Have I lost you yet?)

This is a classic screenwriting mistake, the so-called deus ex machina: K. is rescued from a bad situation by sheer luck, and not any action or effort of his own. Therefore, it is meaningless in story terms.

But even taken at face value, does the scene make any sense? He should know whether it is the LAPD or Wallace’s people coming to his rescue. And if it is not the LAPD, shouldn’t he be concerned that he is being followed so closely, and ‘helped’ with such violent force? And for what reason, he must be wondering. Isn’t this a giant red-flag raiser? Shouldn’t he think twice about what he’s doing or search himself for bugs, tracers or other monitoring devices?

But he does nothing of the sort. He just proceeds on his way, doing nothing to hide his whereabouts or his conceal actions. Why? Because the plot requires him to, not because any actual human being – much less a trained detective – would do so in reality.

‘But he’s not a human being!’ someone will object. Okay, then here are a couple of problems with telling stories about non-human characters:

1)   Our basic way-finding tool, in any story, is our common-sense understanding of human behaviour and psychology. This is what we all use to navigate our way through stories and to judge their credibility, particularly in science fiction, where everything else is so alien to us. Human behaviour is our only reliable map, and here it is totally scrambled, because so few of the characters are actually humans! So how am I supposed to follow a story, be moved by it or draw any meaning from it, when the screenwriters have disabled my primary way-finding tool in advance by casting the story with mostly non-human characters?

2)   Audiences need a human surrogate in the story who behaves like a normal person and reacts to the situations around him/her the way we would. Without this surrogate – and we have none in ‘Blade Runner 2049’ – we are permanently disoriented, to say nothing of emotionally disinvested.

In any case, once Luv has wiped out his attackers, K. blithely walks into the orphanage – meeting no resistance or security checks of any kind – and is received like a Messiah by a bunch of bald orphans. (So not only does K. fail to behave like a normal human, no one else does either.)

He proceeds into the main part of the orphanage, where legions of (white) children are recycling computers and electronics. No one objects to his presence there, or wants to know what the hell just happened outside. No one seems alarmed, angry, anxious or to have any other reaction to the fact that – we can only assume – their comrades have all just been blown away.

K. proceeds to beat up the manager(?) of the orphanage – a black man, incidentally. (As messy as the film’s gender politics are, its racial politics are nearly as bad; later he shoots a black man in the face at point blank range.) The brutalized manager obligingly shows K. the records of the orphanage, but the relevant record has apparently been destroyed (by whom we have no idea – maybe Sapper Morton?).

But it doesn’t matter because the real purpose of the whole sequence is for K. to realize he’s been there before, in childhood, and to find physical proof of it: a wooden horse he left hidden in a disused furnace. This confirms that his memory was real – further evidence that he might be ‘real’ – but the question remains whether it was his memory or just an implant.

This moment, the discovery of the horse, is brilliantly and beautifully handled. It is what Denis Villeneuve does best. And I am a fan of his slow-burn style of filmmaking, where relatively small moments like this are super-charged with meaning. I like this a lot better than these weightless action sequences where nothing is of any consequence because it is all just so much colourful computer animation knocking itself about onscreen. This is one of the film’s great moments.

But it is surrounded by inexplicable plot points left and right. The events leading up to it and away from it (K. somehow returns safely to Los Angeles, even though his squad car was shot down and is presumably still inoperable) just don’t make any sense. And this is true of most of the sequences in the film, including the spectacular Las Vegas sequence and the final fight in the water.

It feels as if the plot is simply built around these set-pieces (he has to find the horse; he has to get to Vegas; we have to have a fight in the water), but the screenwriters couldn’t find sufficiently persuasive reasons to string them together, so they gloss over the missing connective tissue hoping we won’t notice (but, of course, we will), and you end up with a film that looks and sounds great but which fails to tell a very satisfying story.

The final fight, as great as it is in some ways, suffers from similar problems. I do like that it is small-scale and intimate, if high stakes, as in the original film. I also like that Deckard is prevented from saving himself, and looks rather vulnerable (he is in his 70s, after all), giving K. the opportunity to be the one and only hero.

But the ostensible reason for the fight – Wallace’s henchmen and women are taking Deckard off-world to torture him, because for some inexplicable reason they can’t torture Deckard on earth (even though they can walk into LAPD HQ, steal evidence and murder officers and staff with impunity) – makes no sense. And part of the reason it makes no sense is that we don’t understand the power-structure of this world well enough to judge this pretext as credible, rather than as something the screenwriters threw in at the last minute to justify a stand-alone action set-piece.

Even as a set-piece, the fight is not perfect, however. A number of people have commented that Luv’s drowning goes on rather too long. I hope it’s not pleasurable in 2017 for most audiences to watch the brutal drowning death of a woman. I certainly didn’t take pleasure in it.

But in terms of storytelling mechanics, it lacks meaning because Luv and K. have no personal animus against each other. They have only met once before in a purely instrumental, procedural sort of scene at Wallace HQ. They are both Replicants, and Luv is essentially just following orders.

(Incidentally, if she wanted to kill him, why didn’t she do it in Las Vegas, instead of leaving him for dead? Again, because the plot requires it – so K. can get picked up by the Resistance, or whatever they call themselves – not because it makes any sense.)

K. is acting out of a kind of free will, but their fight has no deeper meaning, because they mean nothing to each other. If Luv were a true femme fatale (this is, after all, a neo-noir), she and the hero would have some real relationship, and that would inform their final confrontation. Not here. They are just obstacles in each other’s paths. They have nothing to say to each other, no witty or profound banter to exchange. No one is fighting to persuade the other that they deserve to live, or that they are human, as Batty did with Deckard at the end of the original film. They just beat each other up in silence, and there is nothing to distract us from the brutal violence of that essentially meaningless encounter.

PATRIARCHY, DYSTOPIA, AND MALE FANTASY

Which brings us to a frequent talking point around this film: is it sexist or misogynistic? A strong case could certainly be made. There is an awful lot of sexualized violence against women in it, as well as general objectification of women’s bodies. Defenders of it may say, ‘But that’s faithful to the original film.’ Actually, I think it is more than faithful – it amps up both the violence and the objectification five-fold. But was this necessary?

The difficulty I have is that the filmmakers give us no hint as to whether they think there is any problem with this, or whether they just think it is kind of titillating and ‘edgy’ (as they likely did in the original). It is disturbing to think, in 2017, that women can still be used so casually as sex objects and victims of male violence in entertainment without comment.

But whether you think it is misogynistic or not, the lack of complex, consistent female characters is a huge missed opportunity – we might even say a failure of imagination. The film actually has quite a large cast of female characters, but very few of them have any agency of their own.

One, Joi (Ana de Armas), is literally a holographic housemaid/fantasy sex partner, and – no offense to the actress portraying her – but I don’t know why I want to spend three hours getting to know a character that is literally not a character in any meaningful sense of the term. Stories are about humans facing human problems in recognisable human ways. A robot/android/Replicant who is in love with a hologram following a clichéd male fantasy love-script is getting pretty far removed from the subject matter of any (human) story worthy of the name.

If Joi expressed any discontentment at all with her situation – being switched on and off at will – she could have been a much more interesting character and would have given women in the audience something to hang onto. (To see this done much better, see Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s ‘Air Doll’.) She does play a significant role in the plot – I think she is the closest thing to a real femme fatale – but it seems to go unnoticed by K., the person it affects the most, so the audience can be forgiven for thinking her feeble protestations of love are to be taken at face value.

Those female characters that do have some agency (Freysa, Mariette) are generally on screen so little that we have no chance to hear their stories, or even understand their motives.

Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) is intriguing and potentially complex, though she too fits into a patriarchal trope: the unsullied virgin kept safe in her tower. As a friend said to me, “She’s the only woman in the film you can’t f&$% or kill.”

Those that get more screen time, like Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) and Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), say and do inexplicable things that undermine the sense that there is a coherent character there at all.

It really is remarkable to think that for the length of this film and the size of its cast, we really don’t meet one fully fleshed out character, save perhaps Deckard, who carries half or more of his humanity into the film from its predecessor.

WHEN ‘GOOD’ MOVIES FAIL

I have tremendous admiration for the sheer force of will it must take to direct a film and keep all the moving parts in line. It’s an insanely complicated affair with all of its doubtless crazy-making financial, time and other pressures. So I feel for Denis Villeneuve, I really do. It pains me to say these things about his film, because I really wanted to love it.

Some commentators have noted that for all its Asian visual references – kanji and katakana signs, Wallace’s yukata – there are almost no Asian faces in the film, unlike the original, which at least had Asian characters in supporting roles. This was, I suspect, due to the decision to film in Hungary, rather than Los Angeles. But still, it is a notable oversight. And another reason why this story might have worked better as a prestige TV series, rather than a film. This would have provided an opportunity to explore other stories, give some life and dimension to the female characters, and show some diversity in the Blade Runner universe.

Again, it is a very high-grade failure, but a failure nonetheless, which makes all the handwringing about why this “good” film is doing so badly at the box office a bit comical.

Let’s see: it’s brutally violent, presents a grim dark future when we are living through a grim dark present moment, has no really good roles for women or minorities, it’s glacially paced, it’s nearly 3 hours long, it’s a sequel to a 35-year-old film that was itself a flop and that most people have never seen – oh, and the story is next-to-impossible to follow, and makes no sense in any case, even if you have seen the original. Why isn’t it a bigger success? I wonder…

My question is, why in the lead-up to the film’s release weren’t more critics able to see through the hype and say what is obvious: the film works on every level except the most important one, that of story. The only answer is that most film critics are among the smaller-than-we-thought group of people who admire the original and thus were predisposed to like this one. In short, they saw what they wanted to see, not what was actually there.

But for all the beauty of the images, the performances and the soundtrack, without a story that works, no matter how good it looks or sounds, you just don’t have much of a film.

 Rachel (Sean Young) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) - the emotional centre of 1982's 'Blade Runner'

Rachel (Sean Young) and Deckard (Harrison Ford) - the emotional centre of 1982's 'Blade Runner'

Top 15 Plot Holes, Problems, Quibbles & Queries with ‘Blade Runner 2049’:

  1. If all the newer model Replicants have serial numbers in their eyes, then K. should be able to just scan himself to find out if he was born or not. If born, he shouldn’t have a serial number. One quick scan with the device he used on Sapper Morton in the opening fight and the whole impetus for the film is eliminated. The story is not necessary!
  2. Unlike the opening to the original film, in which an immature Replicant (Leon) snaps and kills his interviewer - thereby establishing the Replicants' volatility and the danger they represent - this film starts with K. (Ryan Gosling) murdering in cold blood a Replicant (Sapper Morton) who appears to be doing no one any harm, and is in fact quietly going about his business growing food to feed the denizens of L.A. At minimum, this is a very confusing start - particularly for people new to the Blade Runner world. Why are upstanding Replicant members of the community like Sapper Morton being killed? And is K. a good guy we are supposed to sympathize with or a bad guy we are supposed to despise and mistrust? Again, someone coming to this story with no knowledge of the previous film could be forgiven for thinking it's the latter.
  3. Wallace has no way of knowing there was a baby, but speaks of it from the first moment he is on screen. (You might call this a cheat more than a hole, but we need to know how he knows.) The only possible conduit for such info is Joi, but K. has not discussed the likely existence of a child with her yet. Now, there is a potential explanation for this built into the film, it would seem, but you have to be quite a detective to find it, you have to make a bunch of pretty flimsily justified assumptions, and some of its details contradict the original film. A fan theory on the Internet is that Rachael is a Nexus 7, because her serial number starts with ‘N7.’ In the original film, she is identified as a Nexus 6, but maybe Tyrell was lying. (Her original difference was that she was the only one with implanted memories to give her a stable emotional life, but now we are adding another layer of complications.) It’s possible that by showing up and asking questions about Rachael, K. tips Luv/Wallace off to the fact that there is something special about her. And maybe when they search the records, they discover that Rachael was designed to be a capable of carrying a child. That’s demanding a lot of an audience to think they are going to put all that together. And we keep hearing about this blackout in 2022 that is supposed to have destroyed most electronic records, so it’s convenient that this detail is somehow preserved in the Tyrell archives. It’s a stretch, to say the least.
  4. Lt. Joshi says that Rachael/Deckard’s child will “break the world”, but why? Replicants have, presumably, been having sex for decades without producing children. Wallace cannot, for all his efforts, produce fertile Replicants. Rachael was once able to produce a child with a possibly human, possibly Replicant lover (Deckard), but the fact that one Replicant did it once is not much of a threat, especially given that she's now been safely dead for 30-odd years. You’re not suddenly going to have armies of natural-born Replicants.
  5. When K. goes to the orphanage, he is protected from his attackers by a kind of drone controlled by Luv, but seems not to find this odd or remarkable. He should know if this is LAPD or some other actor. And since it is clearly some other actor, it means he is being followed by higher powers and ought to take appropriate measures to hide his movements. He takes no such action.
  6. After a fierce firefight outside, K. walks into the orphanage and is received like Jesus. No one is alarmed by his presence or wants to know what has just happened outside. Nor is the building guarded in any way. He’s even able to physically assault the leader(?) of the orphanage, and no one stands up to K., when presumably the same group of people outside were ready to kill him. What sense does this make? If he is outside of LA, what authority does he have to do any of this, and why would anyone tolerate it?
  7. Lt. Joshi accepts on no evidence except K.’s word that he has completed his mission (of killing Deckard/Rachael’s child), yet the film earlier established the protocol of producing an eyeball for identification purposes. Granted, the child should not have a serial number [see #2 above], but Joshi is awfully gullible not to see his story for the transparent, self-serving lie it is, especially given the odd circumstances under which he was hauled in.
  8. Luv is twice able to walk into LAPD headquarters, steal evidence and murder officers and staff, including a Lieutenant, with no apparent consequences. There is also no security camera footage of these incidents?
  9. After K.’s ‘escape’ from the LAPD, he wastes 10 – 14 hours sleeping off a virtual ménage-a-trois, and despite his protests to the contrary, we never see any evidence that the LAPD is pursuing him, even though he is AWOL and his boss is soon lying dead in her office. He even escapes in what appears to be an LAPD squad car. Again, no one at headquarters appears concerned that he (or his vehicle) is missing.
  10. Ana Stelline is said to have an immune disorder which requires her to live in her bubble. Later, we learn that she is the child in K.’s horse memory. But how can she be running around the very dirty orphanage furnace room if she has a life-threatening immune disorder? Wouldn’t she have been in this bubble more or less since birth? And how did she build this brilliant career from inside an isolation bubble?
  11. When Luv and her crew arrive in Las Vegas to pick up Deckard, they inexplicably leave K. behind, even though he is the one who has been investigating the case and knows a hell of a lot more than Deckard.
  12. Why doesn’t K. clue in that Joi is a cipher that has been feeding info back to Wallace, via the cloud, and thus that she has betrayed him? She is the film’s true femme fatale, but because she is not a human with any will or her own, her actions are meaningless from a story point of view. K. should understand – and we should understand – in the end, that he was ‘seduced’ by an illusion, and that it nearly cost him his life. He should react emotionally when he realizes this – around the time Luv arrives in Las Vegas would be logical. How else did they find him, after all? (Deckard poses this question to K. directly, and moments later Joi is back on the scene, even though she was supposed to have been left back at the car. But neither of these PROFESSIONAL DETECTIVES puts two-and-two together!) Of course, it was snapping Joi’s antenna and going offline that alerted Luv to his actions, which K. should also have known would have the exact opposite of the intended effect.
  13. According to Deckard’s own dialogue, (a) he was not present when his child was born, and (b) he never went looking for her, because he didn’t want her dissected. Yet, somehow, she has a carved horse from him with her birthdate inscribed on it. So, did he send it to her after the fact (would seem to go against his dialogue), or leave it with Rachael before he left, and someone else inscribed the date? (But then how/why would he have wood from the place he is GOING TO - Vegas - before he goes there?) Either way, Deckard is a detective: if he is trying to conceal his relationship to the child and his own whereabouts, is sending a piece of wood contaminated with an utterly site-specific trace radioactive element a good way to do this? And is it a good idea to just wait around in that same location for 30 years to be found? K. certainly doesn’t have any trouble finding him there.
  14. The killing of the Rachael clone is painfully gratuitous. It’s offensive on the level of taste. But, also, what sense does it make? If Wallace’s goal is to produce fertile Replicants who can make their own babies, isn’t he at least curious to know if this new Rachael can conceive? And doesn’t Deckard have any sympathy for this being, regardless of where she came from? If she thinks she is Rachael, which it seems she does, then she will be as traumatized by his rejection (for having the wrong eye colour) as Rachael would be. Deckard, Wallace and the film itself treats her as utterly disposable. It is a very difficult scene to watch. I would have happily had it left out of the film entirely.
  15. If, despite that pesky blackout in 2022 (sometimes so convenient, sometimes so annoying), they have accurate DNA records of every child born in the year 2021* – the ones K scans to find himself/Ana – why doesn’t Wallace just take a sample of Deckard/Rachael’s DNA and trace the child that way? Why do they need to torture Deckard, who likely doesn’t (- in fact, he doesn’t -) even know where the child is? And why do they need to go offworld to torture him when they can apparently kill LAPD employees with impunity? He’s not free to torture people inside his big pyramid? How powerful or powerless is he? What is his relationship to the other powerful institutions in this society? We have no idea, so his actions/claims make no sense.

*N.B. There's also a factual error in this scene, where K. is looking at the DNA records. He finds a boy and a girl with identical DNA and then says that two humans can't have the same DNA. Well, of course they can. They are called identical twins. What he likely means is, a male and a female human can't have the same DNA. But even this is not strictly true. If one is intersex or transgender, they could still be genetically identical at birth. Or, if one has androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), she can be born female and continue to develop as female, but technically have male DNA (XY), and thus, be identical (on that level) to a male twin. Wouldn't it have been interesting if instead of assuming HE was the child of Deckard and Rachael that he and a twin sister he's never met are their children? It's just as logical as the conclusion he draws that he is the only one. But it would come awfully close to the famous twins of the 'Star Wars' series, and, like so many other moments in this story, simply remind us of all the other times we've seen science fiction, fantasy, action films trace similar plot points (the is-it-Bane-or-is-it-Miranda twist in 'Dark Knight Rises' being the obvious analogue for the reveal we get in 'Blade Runner 2049'). 

 

bladerunner fog copy.jpg

Some additional problems in this film are, I think, almost accidentally introduced by trying in some ways to be more faithful to Dick’s original novel than was ‘Blade Runner.’ There are a number of elements that are obviously inspired by or pay homage to the novel, but because they have been imported only partially, they create awkward narrative problems that the filmmakers either missed or glossed over hoping we would miss them.

1) RETIRE TO SUNNY CHERNOBYL!

In the book, everyone is living in nuclear fall out from World War Terminus, leading to widespread sterility, emigration to off-world colonies, and the need for artificial animals and humans. They try to keep an aspect of this by putting Deckard in a ruined Las Vegas, but there is no reference to a terminal nuclear war in either film, only an eco-crisis in the 2020's. So if only Las Vegas is contaminated (by a dirty bomb), isn't moving there a pretty strange choice for Deckard? (I mean, running away is one thing; moving to Chernobyl - unless he has a death wish - is pretty odd) And if the radiation has cooled off enough to be safe, why is Deckard the only one in town competing for the oceans of booze apparently left lying around?

2) NUCLEAR WINTER OR GLOBAL WARMING?

Also, they have snow falling in Los Angeles, which is suggestive of nuclear winter - again, a possible nod to the book. But they also have giant seawalls to keep the ocean out, a reference to global warming. So which is it? There is no climate change scenario I am aware of that has snow falling in LA, and nuclear winter would tend to reverse global warming and cause global cooling. They've kind of muddled the two concepts up together, and in any case, when K. and Luv have their final fight, the water level is way down at the base of those giant walls - so they have something solid to scrabble around on - so why are the walls even necessary?

3) MY KINGDOM FOR A (WOODEN) HORSE

Barkhad Abdi’s Doc Badger character, who analyzes the wood for K. and Joi, behaves as if it is extremely valuable and says he can get K. a real horse in exchange for this wooden one. But this makes no sense. Again, in the original film, animals were so rare, valuable and precious that they had synthetic replacements - Zhora's snake, Tyrell's owl. This was consistent with the original novel, but here it is all muddled up. And what earthly use is a tiny piece of wood, anyway, compared to a real live horse? Where would Badger even get this horse? Very puzzling.

4) STERILITY OR OVERPOPULATION?

The orphanage sort of makes sense within the context of this film, but not relative to the original film or the novel. In the book, many people who remain on earth (even Deckard himself) are either infertile or live in fear of becoming so because of nuclear fall-out. So even though the LA of Scott's original film looks like a crowded Asian-megalopolis, the buildings - including Deckard's - feel mostly empty (we never see any of his neighbours, for example). Here, the city is teeming with life (many linger rather oddly right outside K.'s door), and stacked up to the sky (I suppose because of Wallace's miraculous engineering of a new food supply, though no amount of healthy food will reverse radiation-induced sterility). And there's at least one orphanage full of children, but where are these children coming from? If life is so precious, and Replicants are needed to do manual and other forms of disagreeable labour, how can there also be surplus humans?

Troubled Students, or Troubled Film?

Entre les murs (The Class) - 2008 (directed by Laurent Cantet; adapted from the novel ‘Entre les murs’ by François Bégaudeau)

The glowing Guardian review describes the 2008 Palme d’Or winner ‘Entre les murs (The Class)’ as a piece of “humanist, realist, [and] optimist cinema.” The film is certainly naturalistic; the performances of the young actors playing the students are absolutely persuasive – it feels less like a fiction film than a documentary. But as a teacher, I don’t see much optimism in it. I can’t help watching it without feeling profoundly sad, and I don’t know whether to praise or condemn it for being so bleak.

Perhaps I bring to it the expectations of an American uplift picture about a great teacher who rescues a troubled class. (It was praised by many critics precisely for not being such a film, and fair enough.) Instead, we get a teacher, Mr. Marin (François Bégaudeau, playing a version of himself) who is arguably just about as troubled as the students, if only because he can’t seem to see – or to say vigorously enough to his colleagues – that the students are not the problem.

The students are energetic, perhaps overly casual (even vulgar), but they don’t strike me as particularly troubled. None of them is coming to school with drugs, guns or knives. When he makes careless assumptions about them, like that they have never been into central Paris or to certain cultured districts of the city, they rightly react defensively: “We live in Paris. We’re not peasants.” And it takes him longer than it should to understand why a Muslim student was unhappy about being offered food that smelled of bacon! If anything, they seem like normally playful, cocksure teenagers, eager to do something at school that’s of interest. What is not so clear is if the teacher (or the system) provides them with stimulation to match their energy level. What, after all, does the syllabic structure of French poetry have to do with any of their lives?

The film shows the naturalistic ebb and flow of a classroom over the course of a year. The teacher gets into conflict with one student or another. They are not on speaking terms for a while. Later the chill thaws and they are friendly again. But we don’t see what changes, we just assume that human relations are taking their natural course. Nothing out of the ordinary happens, really. Egos are bruised and tentatively repaired. A new student arrives from another school. A student gets hit in the face with a bag, by accident, and bleeds a little. The student responsible (in the most limited sense) gets expelled, and this – sadly – is also ordinary.

In the classroom, we see a typical dynamic: the ‘troublemakers’ (mostly kids of colour) sit at the back, the teacher hovers near the front, and they spar off and on every day. Most of the students remain anonymous. We only get to know a handful, mostly kids of colour (Africans, Arabs, one Chinese boy). I was aware the whole time of the dynamic of a white teacher teaching a largely irrelevant bourgeois colonial curriculum to immigrants and students of colour. But is the film aware of this? I really don’t know.

I get no sense of the film having an ‘analysis’ of the racial dimension of the educational failure we are watching unfold. We see, in the background, black and perhaps Arab faculty members, but they never speak a word on screen. When the disciplining of black students comes before the teachers’ various committees, no black teacher ever speaks to the issue. We see white faces disciplining black bodies and we, rightly, feel uncomfortable. What is the goal of this system? It seems to be about little more than a failed grasping after social control.

The teacher tries to reach them with a self-portrait project, but he offers no self-portrait of his own. He forces the students to share their work with the class, whether they want to or not. And he does it with his power as a teacher, not with persuasion, inspiration, or the creation of a ‘safe’ space for this kind of sharing. At the risk of sounding a bit superior, I think a basic rule of teaching – that I’ve always tried to apply – is: “Don’t ask the students to do anything you are not willing to do yourself.” If the students have to share intimate details of their lives, details that may be used against them later (as they are), why should the teacher get to remain safely anonymous? We never learn anything about his personal life. The students provoke him one day by – quite politely – asking him to address the rumour that he is gay. He skirts it with sarcasm and teacherly put-downs. He shares nothing of himself, his own hopes, dreams, struggles, insecurities, etc. And why would he? He behaves like he is in a low-grade war with the nearly unteachable. Is it any wonder they respond in kind?

Indeed, his preferred way of interacting with them is a kind of self-defensive sarcasm. He demands respect simply because he is a teacher, but does he show respect in return? At one point, he is provoked into calling two of the girls “skanks”, which they naturally push back against, and he resists taking responsibility or admitting his mistake far longer than he should. He plays into their (mostly playful) taunts at each other (about the soccer teams they support, etc.) and feeds the hopeless cycle of threatened egos and escalating defences thereof. As any good teacher should know, when our lizard brains are kicked into fight or flight mode (a so-called “amygdala hijack”) you have lost the students for a minimum of 20 minutes – the time it takes to calm down from such a heightened state of arousal. But the teacher regularly pushes them toward it, with his confrontational, sarcastic style, rather than helping them back away from it.

The film does a good job of capturing the claustrophobia of a teacher and a set of students trapped in a room together for hours and hours each day. We see little or nothing of the teacher’s or students’ lives outside the classroom or the school. We don’t see them in their homes, at their part-time jobs, in their neighbourhoods. We don’t see the teacher with a spouse or friends, don't hear what he says to them about his job, have no idea what he does on the weekend. All we see is the school and the classroom, day after punishing day. It seems like punishment for both the students and the teachers. But does the teacher have anyone but himself to blame for it being so?

Part of the confusion and ambivalence the film (consciously?) provokes in us is owing to the positioning of the teacher as the hero, or at least the protagonist. We see the story very much through Mr. Marin’s eyes – after all, the film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel of Bégaudeau, the (non-?)actor playing a version of himself. What is it he wants us to observe about either him as a teacher or the system in which he works? And is he positioning himself as above it, or as hopelessly mired in it, and all its inadequacies? I really can’t tell.

He comes off best when contrasted with the other teachers, some of whom simply dismiss the students as ignorant animals, unteachable. (It is important to remember this is a perfectly average Parisian middle school, not a ‘ghetto’ or ‘slum’ school.) Amazingly, none of the other teachers contradict this teacher when he goes on this vicious rant in the staff room. Having had some experience of teaching in ‘inner city’ schools, I can say that this frustration on the part of white middle class teachers with students who don’t behave like white middle class kids is absolutely banal. And we can guess how invested some of those teachers are in the success of those students, or how readily they are written off as hopeless cases, as the student Souleymane (Franck Keita) is in this film.

Incredibly – and I wonder if this is a holdover from May ’68 or some such student uprising – two of the students from Mr. Marin’s class are allowed to be present as class reps when the teachers are discussing the students’ marks for the semester, and thus, privy to all the dismissive, even insulting things that are said about their classmates. The teachers, bizarrely, do not curtail their comments in any way in light of who is present, such that even Mr. Marin is heard describing Souleymane (a Malian student, the chief ‘troublemaker’) as “academically limited.” When this gets back to the students, it inevitably causes not an uproar but understandable hurt feelings, for which Mr. Marin will not apologize. Instead, he blames the class representatives for reporting what they heard. This betrays an astonishing lack of empathy or understanding on the part of the teacher, such that we wonder, what is this film about? The advertising copy on the DVD has (falsely) led us to expect a touching story about a unique teacher connecting with a needy group of students. Instead, the feeling we are left with at the end of the film edges close to despair, as one student comes up to Mr. Marin as the school year is winding down and sincerely, even mournfully, says, “I have learned nothing.”

If the film is brave, it is so for showing not superheroes working educational wonders but mediocre teachers in a mediocre system producing mediocre results. Mr. Marin only admits his own fault (calling two of his girls “skanks”) under compulsion from his superior, and only to avoid future liability. But the film captures the sad irony toward the end when Mr. Marin tepidly tries to fight for Souleymane, who is facing expulsion (after riding him all year and labelling him a ‘troublemaker’ to his face). All the little reactionary and totally ineffective acts of discipline and correction inflicted on this boy have led – inevitably – to his expulsion. It’s a foregone conclusion, the disciplinary hearing an empty ritual.

The student, clearly, has not been well-served by the system. When another student warns Mr. Marin about the dire home situation he is condemning Souleymane to if he is expelled, Mr. Marin dismisses her concerns, telling her not to worry about it, and makes no attempt to confirm what she says by speaking directly to Souleymane. When his mother arrives for the disciplinary meeting, she speaks almost no French, and no translator (other than her son) is present to speak for her. The school seems blithely indifferent to her needs (can’t hardly even imagine them), and to his.

By contrast, the teachers take up a collection to help pay the legal bills of the mother of the Chinese student, Wei, who is fighting deportation. Why doesn't Souleymane's family inspire a similar amount of sympathy and aid? Is it just because Wei is a 'good' student? One wonders if Souleymane ever had a hope in a system more interested in controlling him than educating him?

The film documents the 'problem' well enough, I suppose, but offers nothing in the way of suggesting what needs to change. And the price of failing to come to grips with these problems is evident everywhere in the gloomy landscape of contemporary France. Sympathetic though the conflicted protagonist may be, the film that centers him so prominently never comes anywhere close to suggesting that – maybe, just maybe – these are entirely the wrong teachers for these students.

Toni Erdmann: An Appreciation

A note off the top: this is an appreciation, not a review, so it will have spoilers. However, I have divided my comments into a short and a long version. In the 'Short Version', I briefly summarize what I admire about the film. This version is SPOILER-FREE. The ‘Long Version’ that follows, however, contains spoilers, discusses the film in detail, and interprets the ending. So, if you haven’t seen ‘Toni Erdmann’ and don’t want to know what happens, don’t read beyond the end of the ‘Short Version’. But do enjoy!

THE SHORT VERSION (SPOILER-FREE)

The premise of ‘Toni Erdmann’ is as simple as it is delightful – a father, Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek) tries to reconnect with his busy professional daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), by insinuating himself into her professional life. When his first attempt fails, he returns in the wild alter ego, Toni Erdmann, a self-styled life coach, and all manner of both chaos and pathos ensue.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

That’s really it. The film is uncomplicated in plot and focus, however, it is deeply complex in the conflicts and competing emotions at work beneath the surface, touching on issues of gender, social and economic power, the challenges of parent-child relationships, and of course life and death. In short, it does what all great works must: it offers a simultaneously profound, surprising, entertaining, persuasive and moving glimpse of a few specific lives that illuminate the larger mysteries and meaning of life itself.

There were so many things I liked about this film, so here’s the short list:

  • It’s rare to see a film about a strong female protagonist that centers so much on her workplace relationships and the power dynamics at play there; in that sense, it is a very strong feminist film, and gives us the classic line, from Ines to her boss: “I’m not a feminist, or I wouldn’t tolerate guys like you.”
  • The film contains a subtle critique of (economic) power relationships in the world at large, showing us the bubble of luxury and privilege that foreign executives float around in while everyday Romanians struggle to survive around them. But, as Sydney Pollack is supposed to have said, “A good film is two sides of a good argument,” and while we can guess the filmmaker’s sympathies are more with the Left-most side of the argument, the film does not definitively come down on one side or the other.
  • The common wisdom is that comedies should run about 90 minutes, but ‘Toni Erdmann’ stretches to 160 minutes! And yet, none of it feels superfluous, and you’re not really aware of its unusual length while watching it. It is at times hysterically funny, but it’s a comedy with serious themes, and thus, earns its length and weight. I suspect the screenplay is not unusually long because so much of the film’s power comes from the silences between the characters, and there are many moments when we are simply watching the father and daughter watch each other, with great pathos.
  • You could almost see the film as an ironic essay on the stereotype that Germans have no sense of humour. They do, but it is wickedly dry, brutal even – though, at the film’s core, Winfried/Toni strikes me as a very joyful, warm, humane character who is trying to help his daughter reconnect with those same qualities in herself.
  • The film has moments of the truly bizarre (and gross), and playful in an almost ritualistic way – evoking the spirit of Carnival – and yet, none of them are implausible or stain credibility to the breaking point. It is those touches of the bizarre that break the characters out of their everyday, rational, utilitarian roles. The film is a glorious reminder of the ways art and imagination can transform everyday life and bring us back into contact with core values, relationships and emotions.

Another classic formula says that a good film must have no bad scenes and a few great ones. ‘Toni Erdmann’ absolutely fits this description – nothings struck me as a false note or misstep, and it has some scenes that simply have to be seen to be believed. (One of the many rave reviews says something like: “Contains the funniest nude scene ever committed to film!”) And even though it is long, it is very tightly constructed. It’s not a big, baggy mess of a movie – everything is to a precise purpose. The payoff is brilliantly set up so it doesn’t feel forced or come out of nowhere.

So if that hasn’t gotten you interested in seeing this film, nothing else I can say here will!

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

THE LONG VERSION (SPOILERS AHEAD!)

The film is basically about the difficulty – and the necessity – of really connecting with each other. And the mechanism for trying to make that connection is this wild, playful character that the father creates, which brings the world of clown and carnival into the real world and transforms it.

As I said in my introductory piece about film criticism, the reasons specific films resonate with us are often highly idiosyncratic and deeply personal. In the case of ‘Toni Erdmann’, part of what made it so enjoyable for me was that the father reminds me so much of my own (late) father: his rumpled physicality, his madcap sense of humour, the blood pressure monitor that he wears constantly and that goes off at random (my dad wore one too), the false teeth he carries in his shirt pocket (my dad kept his dentures there too). It was eerie how much this evoked my memories of my dad. But I realize that’s not going to be true for everyone. Nonetheless, the film is worth seeing for Peter Simonischek’s hilariously moving performance all on its own.

But there is so much more to it than that. Both Winfried/Toni and his daughter Ines feel absolutely authentic and are totally persuasive to me. One of the reasons I like seeing foreign films is that while the acting is often superb, you’re not distracted by the performers as ‘stars’. They just look like regular people. I completely bought the relationship, the difficult familial bond between them, and just loved watching them interact in these increasingly painful, awkward, and ultimately touching situations.

(Incidentally, the film is going to be remade with Jack Nicholson and Kristen Wiig in the lead roles. It might still be very well done, but I doubt it will have the original’s power.)

But let’s try to go through the film a bit more systematically. It divides into roughly three acts, corresponding with the shifts in the father-daughter relationship.

Act I takes place (briefly) in Germany, where we meet Winfried (an elementary school music teacher), get our first glimpse of the alternate ‘Toni’ persona (as he receives a package from a courier and makes a distressing joke about it perhaps being a letter bomb!), and we begin to see the tensions between him and his daughter, who is home on a short break from work. Then it shifts to Bucharest, Romania, where Ines works as a consultant for a major oil company and is charged with making recommendations that may cost hundreds of locals their jobs.

Winfried shows up in Bucharest for an unannounced visit, and proceeds to drive his daughter crazy, make a bit of an ass of himself in public, and jeopardize her career. He tells his daughter’s high-powered client, Henneberg (Michael Wittenborn), that he has hired another girl to act as a substitute daughter, since his real daughter is never home. Henneberg, not really understanding what’s going on, cheerfully plays along, inviting Winfried out for drinks with them, and drawing him deeper into Ines’s professional world. She snaps after several days of this and demands that her father leave. The complex play of emotions on her face as she waves goodbye from her balcony is just a hint of the power this film has in store.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

Act II begins with Ines trying to get back on track after her father’s visit, going out to meet some female ex-pats to network and talk about their jobs (what Ines’s boyfriend dismissively calls “business nail polish”), when Toni Erdmann (her father in ghoulish false teeth and a just slightly purple tinged wig) makes his first appearance. To save face, Ines is forced to play along, and before long Toni is hobnobbing with Ines’s friends, coaching Henneberg, introducing himself as the German Ambassador to eligible older women, and making Ines’s life even more difficult than before.

In Act III, Ines gives up fighting her father off and makes a kind of unspoken agreement with him: “If you are going to force your way into my life, I am going to take you right up into the muck of it.” He gets to see her ‘partying’ (joylessly) with her vulgar boyfriend, who serves champagne like he’s masturbating, and sees her sniffing cocaine with him. She’s rubbing her father’s nose in her unhappiness, and it is painful – for him (and us) to watch. And yet this is when the film begins to reach its true depth.

If you listen carefully to the music in this section, it sounds like relatively generic, meaningless dance music (no offence to fans of the genre!), but the lyrics are actually painfully appropriate:

“I could lift you up
 I could show you what you want to see
 And take you where you want to be

 You could be my luck
 Even if the sky is falling down
 I know that we'll be safe and sound”

Music and lyrics © 2011 by Ryan Merchant and Sebu Simonian

That’s what Winfried/Toni is trying to do: lift his daughter up, connect with her, make her ‘happy’ (or help her relearn how to be happy, how to know if she is happy or not), to keep her safe. But there’s a chasm between them. The looks between them in the dance club are so painful, because there is so much unspoken love and a longing to connect there. She looks like she’s on the edge of tears the whole time. She loves her father, she wants to connect with him too, but she has a life to live, a career, and has to live in a world he doesn’t understand, and (possibly) does not approve of.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

Another film I quite liked this year, Mike Mills' ‘20th Century Women,’ touches on some similar themes. In it, Annette Bening has a nice line where she says to her son’s girlfriend, “You get to see him in a way I never can. You get to see who he is out in the world, when I’m not around.” We never get to see our children that way but in this film, Winfried/Toni does, and it is harrowing.

Ines, can be a very tough, cold, harsh character. She has to be to survive in this high-stakes business world. But it didn’t fully register until my second viewing how tough and cold a character she can be. The film has some incredibly harsh lines: “If I’m going to throw myself out the window, you and the cheese grater [her father’s silly birthday gift to her] aren’t going to be enough to stop me.” Imagine saying that to your parent: “I’m unhappy, I might kill myself, and your goodwill mission is not going to change anything substantial in my life.” (And, remember, this is a comedy!)

That’s why it is so poignant when she’s on the balcony, waving goodbye to him – it’s a place from which she might throw herself if she does want to end it all. Fortunately, that’s not where the movie is going, but we feel the danger of it going there – or of any of our lives going there.

THE DESCENT INTO HELL

‘Toni Erdmann’, more so than other films I admire, made me realize that a great work of art has to approach heaven and have a little touch of hell in it. To me, hell is this nightclub scene, and the rather gross ‘sex’ scene with the petit fours that precedes it (I won’t say what Ines and her boyfriend do with them, but it’s pretty icky). There is also a broken toenail scene, right before an important business meeting, that is pretty cringe-worthy too, but it shows us what a tough cookie Ines is. The show must go on.

All three of these scenes put me in mind of Jonathan Franzen’s habit of including a gross-out scene (or two) in each of his novels: the abortion in ‘Strong Motion’, Alfred’s psychotic incontinence scene on the cruise ship and Gary cutting his hand open in ‘The Corrections’, the rape in ‘Freedom’. But they serve a similar purpose to the scenes in ‘Toni Erdmann’, I think, which is to remind us of the precise contours of our usually comfortable lives by skirting the edge of hell.

The ‘sex’ scene is harsh, and yet, so revealing of Ines’s character. A subtlety I didn’t pick up on the first time I saw the film is that her boyfriend (a co-worker) says that their boss told him not to ‘f$%@’ her so much that she looses her ‘bite’ (i.e. her edge, her killer instinct). It is extraordinarily sexist, and gross, that her boyfriend and her boss talk about her like this. So, to ‘punish’ him, she refuses to have sex, and quotes the line back to him: “I don’t want to lose my bite.” But there’s a truth about her in this too. She has to be tightly controlled. She can’t ever really unwind. That’s not how she got to where she is. She did so by being disciplined, tough, all but unyielding. She is quite a piece of work. But we also see the toll it takes on her.

Act III basically consists of four long scenes (or set-pieces) in which all the film’s themes and character dynamics come into sharp focus. The first is the nightclub scene. The second is the next morning when Winfried/Toni handcuffs himself to his daughter (on the charge of having used drugs) and then hasn’t got a key to open them. It’s a playful move, but there is also real concern beneath it. He saw something terrible the previous night and he is not letting his daughter out of his sight. Significantly, she does not panic or overreact. Either because she knows she can find a solution to even as absurd a situation as this (she gets in a cab, handcuffed to her father, and goes to a shadier part of town where some guys who look either like auto mechanics or low-level gangsters are able to undo the cuffs), or – I think – because emotionally she has surrendered to the Toni character at this point.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

ECONOMICS & POWER

I’ve already mentioned the way the film subtly critiques the economic relationship between Germany and Romania (or the First World and the developing world) simply by showing the contrast between the lifestyles of the foreign executives and the locals. Watch the arrogance and sense of entitlement in Ines when, spending time at a spa with her father, she walks out of a massage that wasn’t hard enough for her and demands, as compensation, not just another massage, but two glasses of freshly squeezed orange juice, two gourmet sandwiches, and two glasses of champagne.

(Incidentally, it is here that Winfried first raises the question of whether his daughter is happy in her life here. All the evidence is that she is not. She fights the question off with dismissive sarcasm about him casually raising such a big topic, throwing it back on him – what’s his formula for happiness, she wonders? Does he think he has it all figured out? He has no answer, but the theme will return at the end of the film.)

There are so many subtler and more overt references to the workings of economic power throughout the film: Henneberg’s wealthy Russian wife says she likes living in Germany because countries with a middle class “relax” her – i.e. because the middle class is a social buffer between her class and the poor that are all around them in Russia and Romania; Ines’s comment that the shopping mall is more Romanian than the Ceausescu Palace because it is full of things that people have no money to buy; and of course her job in Romania is to dis-employ people through outsourcing. She’s inflicting economic violence on vulnerable people in the name of efficiency and profit, which really comes to the fore when (in Act III’s second set-piece) she and her father visit the oil field.

There she needs to meet with Illiescu (Vlad Ivanov), a manager who has been subtly pushing back against her efforts by providing unreliable data to her team of consultants. That she takes her father with her to the meeting, again, shows the extent to which she has surrendered to Toni. She may even see him as an asset at this point. By having her father pose as a senior consultant who will not hesitate to fire masses of people (mostly through brooding silence in the office), she cleverly resets the relationship with Illiescu. Next to Toni, she seems more reasonable. But Toni is too good-hearted to really sell this hard-nosed persona, as the next scene proves.

While out talking to workers at the drilling site, Toni notices that one worker is handling the toxic oil with his bare hands, against regulations. Illiescu thanks Toni for pointing this out and fires the man on the spot. Toni is horrified, says it was just a joke, and insists that Illiescu not fire the man. But it’s too late. Illiescu will not change his mind, and when Toni tries to enlist Ines’s help, she delivers one of her harshest lines: “The more people he fires, the fewer people I have to fire.” Toni is appalled, but he’s not in control. She has manipulated the situation in such a way that his good-natured humour leads, inadvertently, to a personal disaster for a stranger, and it obviously pains Toni.

Despondent, Toni wanders off to go to the washroom, and is discovered in the bushes by a local who speaks no English or German. He kindly invites Toni to come use his ‘washroom’. In fact, it’s not a washroom – just a toilet in the corner of an open room (possibly the kitchen?). The man has to leave his own house to give Toni some privacy. It’s a very compassionate moment. When Toni tries to pay the man for his trouble, the man refuses, but his young son happily takes the money. Their visit at an end, Toni tries to make a human connection by telling the poor Romanian, “Don’t lose [your sense of] humour.” The cheerful man seems to take it as it is intended.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

In the car, however, Ines says to her father, “That was very bitter” (i.e. because the man is about to lose his job). Winfried insists, “That’s not what I meant.” It’s only bitter because of the fraudulent context in which he was present (playing the role of the hard-nosed consultant) – the context she set up.

“You piss your pants when we fire one person,” she says. “How are we going to fire hundreds of them?” (i.e. with that sentimental, soft attitude). Now he has seen her with her claws and her fangs out – she’s a cold-blooded, bureaucratic ‘killer’. But she manages to turn it around on him and make him out to be a hypocrite. “I can show you every step [in the economic chain] that connects you to these people. Your ‘green’ attitude won’t help you.” She’s right, in some sense, but this is exactly the sort of comment that provoked Winfried to ask of her (earlier in the film), “Are you human?”

In a Collider interview, director Maren Ade comments on this intergenerational dynamic:

I was also interested to have that political conflict between the father and the daughter. I mean, he belongs to a very typical generation in Germany, the post-war generation that was very political and raised their children with a lot of warm human values and then sent them out into the world to be curious. But that generation also believed in this world without borders and also in an economy without borders. But it’s their children who have to deal with it. Now, he’s confronted with that result in a way that everything turned against him in a way. She’s not home anymore and his view of the world for her is constricted and naïve. I just wanted the film to touch that situation.

THE GREATEST LOVE OF ALL

At this point, Toni’s had it, and demands the cab driver take him to the home of a local woman he met at a party, to whom he introduced himself as the German ambassador (and Ines as his secretary, ‘Ms. Schnook’). Ines, curious as to what he’s doing and where he’s going, follows him in. (This becomes the third of the four set-pieces in Act III.)

They walk in on an Easter celebration, where children are painting eggs. Winfried gives it a quick try, then insists his daughter sit down to it and leaves her there with two women to assist her. Rarely, under the intense pressure of her career, does she have a chance to sit down to something artistic like this, so meditatively simple. But she cannot fully surrender herself to it. She’s self-conscious, an outsider and an amateur who senses (or fears?) she is merely being humoured. She gives it a perfunctory try and then tries to extricate herself as quickly as possible, failing (or refusing) to connect with these people.

Seeing that she is fighting off the experience, Toni does something quite aggressive. He forces her to sing for their hosts, while he plays the piano. It becomes a moment when something breaks inside of Ines, and, once again, the choice of song – ‘The Greatest Love of All’ (made famous by Whitney Houston) – is not random or casual. The lyrics ironically reflect the situation she is in. It suggests so much of the backstory of her relationship with her dad.

Notice that we never get a flashback or anything that shows us how they were together when she was younger. It’s all implied, and never more strongly in this scene. We can imagine that he taught her piano, maybe taught her singing, that she was good at it, probably took some pleasure in performing when she was younger, maybe loved this particular song, and that all of that has been sort of crushed out of her by adult life.

What is the song about? It’s about a person who was idealistic and optimistic and has been hardened by life to depend on no one but herself. It’s far too earnest for the Ines we know. But some part of her (maybe) has held onto that optimism, or simply buried it – that childlike quality that Winfried/Toni is trying to revive in his girl.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

“I believe the children are our are future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier

Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be

Everybody searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfill my needs

A lonely place to be
So I learned to depend on me

I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadows
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I'll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can't take away my dignity

Because the greatest love of all
Is happening to me
I found the greatest love of all
Inside of me

The greatest love of all
Is easy to achieve
Learning to love yourself
It is the greatest love of all”

© 1977, Michael Masser (music) and Linda Creed (lyrics)

"The greatest love of all is easy to achieve" the song says. But the film shows us how hard it is to love ourselves, and to not take the people closest to us for grant. The song is bitterly ironic in this context.

And what does she do after giving this show-stopping performance? She walks coldly away. Her father has forced her (almost violently) to make herself vulnerable to these strangers, and she of course resents it, because it awakes buried feelings and memories of her childhood with her dad that are difficult for her to process. It’s a tremendous scene.

Winfried, of course, does not chase after her, because he knows what he has done. He sits on the stairs in the hall, maybe feeling like he has failed. A tiny detail that I loved: the host knows he is not the German ambassador, because she knows the German ambassador socially. But she sees something wild and free and fun in Toni that she wants to allow into her life too. It’s very tender.

And, of course, the Bulgarian folk ‘mask’ (part of a wild costume we’ll see in the 4th set-piece) is there beside him in her house, giving him the inspiration for his final gesture, which is the deepest and most profound yet. It totally subverts any kind of rational response and takes us into a deep part of the Id or the Unconscious. It is where the uncanny – the bizarre, the fantastical – fully enters the film, and it is glorious.

CARNIVAL & PLAY

The film brilliantly deploys the theme of how art, ritual and play can transform everyday life, but perhaps nowhere more pointedly so than in the final set-piece, Ines’s birthday brunch. Refashioned as a team bonding session for her co-workers, she runs into trouble with her too-tight dress and spontaneously decides to make it a naked party. She greets her first guest (an American businesswoman) in nothing but panties, and then goes completely nude thereafter. The woman plays along briefly, offers to help Ines pick out an outfit, then gets the idea that something stranger is going on, and is forced to leave.

It’s an insane conceit, and yet, this is where Ines has arrived after all the tensions and traumas of the previous few weeks. ‘If these people can’t take it, f*%$ them,’ seems to be her attitude. She’s had it and she’s willing to risk her career at this point. This is the cumulative effect Toni Erdmann has had on her. It’s her graduate thesis after his crash course in clowning.

Early on, Ines tries to insult her father by calling him a clown, and that’s exactly what he is. Clowns, like Shakespeare’s fools, exist to take the air out of our pretensions and self-importance, to humble us and help us stop taking ourselves so seriously. They make it safe to be ourselves by breaking up the rigidity of rule-bound, polite, instrumental (and thus, false) social relationships – like virtually all of Ines’s workplace relationships.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

Winfried arrives at the party dressed up in an enormous Bulgarian folk costume of head-to-toe black fur that looks like some relative of Chewbacca’s! This is the fully embodied spirit of carnival entering the film. It reminded me of the spirit-animals that patronize the bathhouse in Hayao Miyazaki’s ‘Spirited Away’. Superficially innocuous, their sheer strangeness evokes that mix of comfort, protection, otherworldly intrigue and possible danger that children must constantly navigate in this world full of those giants known as adults. And, of course, Ines ultimately responds to this strange creature with all those potent childlike emotions. (It is her father inside that costume, after all.)

Harold Bloom has said that a great work of art must have a fundamental strangeness to it that we can never quite assimilate, no matter how many times we come back to it. Every time we read or see ‘King Lear’, it shocks us again. We forget that it is so brutal – and so true – this multi-layered portrait of aging, the arrogance of power, the ingratitude of the young. Toni Erdmann has this strangeness in spades, while remaining a credible, realistic, and often hilarious film. And that Bulgarian folk costume is the pulsating black hole of weirdness at the film’s centre.

It takes the story to another place entirely, and it’s crucial that – even though she can guess it is her father – Ines doesn’t say so right away. He and ‘it’ are there to teach her how to be human again – through play, through clowning, through loosening up and enjoying the moment (at some risk and cost, of course). It’s very humane, very loving, what he has done. He helps her break through the icy, cool exterior that she uses to protect herself from the world. Some of her guests (like her boyfriend, and the businesswoman) are confused and turned off by the naked party. But others (her assistant, her boss), indirectly infected with Toni’s madcap spirit, choose to embrace it. By revealing who she really is to them, she forces them to reveal who they really are, and it’s joyful. As in carnival, they all feel temporarily, magically liberated from their usual, rule-bound lives, roles and relationships.

It’s a wonderful climax, made all the more poignant by Ines running out into the street in a robe to chase her father down and hug him in that big, bizarre, strangely anonymous costume.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

PLAINSONG: CODA

If you saw the film ‘Boyhood’ a few years ago, and loved it (as I did), you cherished the feeling of watching this kid grow up almost in real time. It feels very naturalistic (free of all the melodramatic coming-of-age clichés: no car crashes, no drug overdoses, no suicide attempts), and – more importantly – that it could go on forever. It feels correct, and yet, more or less arbitrary to end it where Richard Linklater does, in the boy’s first week of university. We feel like we could keep watching him forever.

It occurred to me on a second viewing of ‘Boyhood’ that the screen going dark at the end might actually be symbolic of the death of the mother. As she says, not long before, “We’re just hitting all these milestones, and you know what the next one is? My fucking funeral.” She’s a bit young – in her 40s – to be worried about this, but in terms of the narrative, it is the next logical plot development. And it speaks to a painful truth: we would all like to follow our children and keep them safe at every step of the way, but eventually we drop out of the story and just have to trust that they have the skills to survive on their own.

‘Toni Erdmann’ ends in a similar place. Ines comes home for her grandmother’s funeral and says simply, “I wish I had seen her” (i.e. before she died). And that’s the whole point: you never know when the people you love will drop out of the story, so if you get too caught up in the busy-ness of life, you might miss your chance.

Ines has quit her job in Romania and is getting ready to head off to Shanghai for two years. She seems to take for granted that her dad will still be there when she gets back. But will he? He could easily pass away in that gap.

That is, in fact, what happened to me. When I moved to Vancouver, at 23, I never imagined my mom would be dead within four years. I saw her and spent time with her when she was sick, but never did I dream moving away at that age meant no more Christmases together, or that by leaving I was essentially ending our family life as we had known it.

Similarly, if I had known my dad would die when he did (in 2013), I might not have chosen to spend three of the last six years of his life living in Japan. But, like Ines, that was where my career took me. I needed the job and the job was in Japan. Fortunately, I got to spend three more years with him here in Toronto, but I never dreamed it would be that soon after getting home. Yet that’s what death is like. It likes to surprise us. We always think we have more time with people than we really do.

Ultimately, the film states its theme quite baldly in the final scene on the veranda when the topic of how to be happy comes up again. Winfried asks his daughter, “How do we hold onto moments? We’re so busy getting things done that life is just passing us by.” Maybe that’s banal, but it’s very poignant when we think about our parents and the inevitability of their deaths. It’s also the theme of one of my other favourite films, ‘Six Degrees of Separation’, near the end of which Stockard Channing makes a similar speech: “We become these human jukeboxes spilling out these anecdotes. But it was an experience. How do we keep the experience?”

Ines reaches into her father’s shirt pocket, pulls out his crazy false teeth, and briefly indulges him by mirroring his antics. She pops the teeth in her mouth and puts on an old hat from out of her grandma’s wardrobe. He loves it, and asks her to hold the pose while he goes off to get his camera – trying to hold onto the moment.

  All images © Sony Pictures

All images © Sony Pictures

While she waits for him to return, she slowly reverts to her normal self – cool, rational, pragmatic – taking off the hat and the teeth.

Something delays him. She looks out over the veranda, toward Shanghai, toward the future perhaps?

The film ends.

Will her father die in her two-year absence? Maybe, maybe not. We never know. Life goes on.

Then in comes this fabulously grand, beautiful, melancholic song from out of my mopey adolescence – ‘Plainsong’ by The Cure (which is about death too, by the way) – and I just lost it. I thought, “Wow, this filmmaker has read my mind - not just at this moment of my life but in tying many of the most poignant, emotionally charged moments of my life together.”

You can’t ask for a better movie going experience than that.

_____________

Read my introductory piece in this series on film criticism - "Total Legibility"

“Total Legibility” and the Art of Film Criticism…

There’s a charming anecdote in the middle of Steve James’ documentary on Roger Ebert ‘Life Itself’ in which Ebert explains the plight of the film critic:

"I sit next to the desk of our music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. People are very worshipful of him. [They’ll ask,] ‘Oh, what did you think about [George] Solti’s conducting last night?’ And then he will say [what he thought], and they will nod and go away. And then they’ll come up to me and say, ‘I totally disagree with your review in this morning’s paper’."

Isn’t that just the way it is? Part of the appeal of ‘Siskel & Ebert’ was that they would get into the sort of heated arguments that real people get into over movies they loved or hated. “That’s the way people do relate to films,” Ebert says in ‘Life Itself,’ “that argumentative sort of way in which if [you think] you’re right, nobody can tell you you’re wrong.”

  What's on your DVD shelf? This is less than 20% of mine. (The embarrassingly large remainder is safely tucked away in CD wallets.)

What's on your DVD shelf? This is less than 20% of mine. (The embarrassingly large remainder is safely tucked away in CD wallets.)

As the old adage goes, everyone’s entitled to their opinion, especially in the era of the Internet – the ultimate democratizer of expression. Maybe there are better and worse opinions. Certainly there are more informed or illuminating ones. But at the root of all this is the fact that we each respond to works of art based on our own life experiences, interests, intellectual equipment, the stage of life we’re at (childhood, adolescence, middle age), all of which shapes our emotional readiness, sensitivity or receptivity to a given work. No two people will respond to the same film in the same way, at the same moment, for the same reasons, because they are not the same, nor are they at the same place in their lives.

Another critic I am fond of, Philip Marchand, says that criticism (of whatever sort) is a middle-aged profession because you have to outgrow your youthful enthusiasms. You need to practice passing judgement on works over a long period of time, and see whether your judgements hold up over time. A critic is a kind of futurist, someone making predictions about whether they will feel the same way about a work 10 years in the future as they do today. When you return to a work years in the future, you inevitably ask yourself: “Is this instant masterpiece that I admired 10 years ago still resonant, or does it seem (out)dated now?” Or – “Does that thing I hated, dismissed (or walked out of) 10 years ago actually have a strength and a staying power that speaks to me now as it didn’t then?”

Marchand also says that to read great writers like Shakespeare or Tolstoy and not recognize their greatness is simply to be lacking in taste, period. There are some works of such transcendent quality, he – and many other critics – would insist, that to deny it reflects only on the intellectual defects of that particular reader or audience member, not on the work itself.

I don’t disagree with this. And yet, like a lot of people, I have read works by great authors and seen great movies (like ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Chinatown’) that leave me pretty cold. I can appreciate them intellectually, and acknowledge the skill with which they are made, but they don’t speak to me on any emotional level. They don’t illuminate my life or my experience, which I think is what a lot of us enjoy about movies, books, or any sort of narrative art form.

What, then, is the purpose of criticism – amateur or professional? What can it accomplish?

Basically, a critic offers an interpretation of a work, based on all the things he or she brings to their experience of it. They articulate what they saw in the film, the things they were provoked to think about or remember while watching it, the emotional and aesthetic effects it achieved for them, and try to make these explicit for the reader. If they are able, they may illuminate technical aspects of how the film is constructed, and thus, how it achieves those emotional and other effects. In short, they try to make a case for why this film – among limitless other options – deserves our attention, why it matters (maybe), why it is worth your time NOW.

If a critic can communicate very precisely the reasons for their enthusiasm about a work, they will very likely infect you with it – and that is their gift to us: the value of their critique is self-evident in the heightened appreciation we gain when next we experience the work.

  If you haven't seen Steve James' doc about Roger Ebert, watch it now! It's about so much more than just his love of movies.

If you haven't seen Steve James' doc about Roger Ebert, watch it now! It's about so much more than just his love of movies.

I am not Roger Ebert (or Philip Marchand), of course, but I’ve spent a good chunk of my life watching and re-watching films. I am old enough now to have tested some of them against the passage of time, that question of whether they continue to resonate for me at different ages and stages of life. What I hope to do, in a series of maybe ten posts, is to revisit some of these films and express what I think they’re doing that is so special, why it has continued to speak to me over 10, 15, 20 years, and why it might speak to you too.

But first, a few words about my approach…

TOTAL LEGIBILITY

Have you ever seen a film you didn’t quite get, but you had a hunch that something was there? Maybe you stopped watching it, or finished it and just left the theatre scratching your head. But something of it stayed with you. Maybe you went back to watch it a year, two years, ten years later, and suddenly everything snapped into focus. You got it, and you loved it.

Now, have you ever had that experience of complete understanding the first time through, with no barriers, feeling moment for moment, scene-by-scene, “Yes, yes, yes – I know exactly what this film is doing, and it is genius!” That, for me, is the experience of “total legibility.” It’s the greatest aesthetic thrill I know.

The faith of the critic is that he or she can equip another viewer – by giving them some information, some things to pay attention to, some context – to heighten their sensitivity to what the film is doing and appreciate it more fully, simply by explaining what he or she saw in it. It’s probably an absurd faith, given how different (and how differently prepared) we all are. But it is that amazing feeling that carries us out of the theatre from time to time and makes us want to tell others - “You have to see this movie!”

(It’s also, I suspect, what makes people want to be amateur or professional critics.)

Let’s step back a moment, and think of all the things you bring to your viewing of a film:

  • All your life experience to that point, whether you are a child, an adolescent, a young adult, middle aged, or older
  • All your previous movie-going experiences
  • All your education, your casually and formally acquired knowledge of the world, the arts, other cultures and periods of time, etc.
  • The mood you are in that day, your reasons for going to that particular film, the expectations you carry, the things you are hoping it might do for you
  • The company you are in (did someone drag you to it? or did you drag them?), unless you are seeing it alone (and all the personal and social factors that have led you to seeing it alone)

Then think of all the things that are happening while you watch:

  • You’re responding to faces and voices that are familiar or unfamiliar and judging their performances, perhaps being made to think of other performances, or real people
  • You’re identifying, sympathizing or empathizing with certain characters and not others; you’re taking sides, judging their actions morally or ethically
  • You’re thinking about other similar movies, responding to genres and story structures that are familiar and comparing them with other examples, making predictions about how the story will progress and end
  • You’re thinking about things in the movie that connect with your own life
  • You’re being thrilled or distracted (or not) by the style of the film, the things that jump out at you (positively or negatively) as very filmic, rather than realistic or life-like, or you’re submitting to the illusion that this is very much like real life
  • You’re being moved (often subliminally, automatically) by music, images, moods assembled by the filmmaker in order to do so

To a greater or lesser extent, the filmmaker is trying to control all these elements, to anticipate the combined effect they will have on the audience, to produce a particular overall effect. But that’s extremely difficult to do, which is part of what makes film such an exciting – and potentially disastrous – art form. If we assume that ‘unity’ is one of the goals of any work of art, there is so much that can go wrong in creating ‘unity’ when so many people and elements are involved in the finished work.

But imagine that the filmmaker has done his or her job well in skilfully controlling all those elements, and then – miraculously – it turns out that you, as the viewer, are exactly the kind of viewer the filmmaker has anticipated. You know the things they need you to know, you are sensitive in the ways they require you to be sensitive. It’s as if you, your intellectual and emotional reactions, are like a musical instrument, and the filmmaker is playing you perfectly. And you can feel it. You know it’s happening, and it feels wonderful.

Every once in a while, I see a film that gives me this feeling. Somehow its themes and subject matter, the realm of ideas in which it operates, its visual strategies and techniques, its characters and situations, are all recognizable and resonate for me in the moment. That is the rush of what I’ve come to think of as “total legibility” – being able to interpret (I think accurately, but perhaps that’s just an idiosyncratic delusion – so be it) what the filmmaker is doing in real time, while still being absorbed in and moved by the story. It’s an incredible feeling. And you can’t come away from such an experience without wanting to share it with others.

The most recent film that gave me that feeling was Maren Ade’s brilliant ‘Toni Erdmann’, which I will discuss in a separate post. Perhaps I – along with many established and amateur critics – am guilty of crowning it an “instant masterpiece,” and my opinion might change in 10 years, but I am confident ‘Toni Erdmann’ will still delight me, move me and speak to me in a decade or more, as so many other films have.

I hope you’ll join me as I begin to share a number of them with you here.

Click here to read the first in the series: 'Toni Erdmann: An Appreciation'

Political Correctness, Power and Privilege in Comedy

Or, as one of my Improv teachers puts it, 'Screw your dumb jokes'

Ever since Jerry Seinfeld made a lazy gay joke on a college campus and didn’t get a laugh – and then whined about it to Seth Meyers – there’s been renewed interest in the debate about whether political correctness is killing comedy. College campuses, which used to be primary tour destinations for stand-up comics, have been declared off-limits by the likes of Seinfeld and even Chris Rock for being too PC. Somehow, college audiences have lost their sense of humour. Or have they?

Comedy historian, writer and podcaster Kliph Nesteroff sees things differently. Speaking at Toronto's Comedy Bar, while promoting his recent book ‘The Comedians’ (a history of the personalities that have shaped comedy in North America), he was asked about Seinfeld's anti-PC lament. Nesteroff replied, sensibly, that comedy dates quickly – it’s generational, and tastes are always changing. Jerry Seinfeld, he pointed out, is 62 years old. And Rock is now in his 50s. They are comics from a previous generation, and college audiences are no more likely to find Seinfeld funny now than the young audiences that first embraced George Carlin or Eddie Murphy were likely to find Bob Hope funny.

There is of course growing diversity among the ranks of stand-up comics, and women, people of colour, and members of other under-represented groups suffer no lack of biting material to draw from. Part of the challenge white, male, presumably straight comics (who continue to be the majority) face on college campuses is that college audiences are less white and less male than they used to be. Much of comedy springs from a pool of shared cultural assumptions and social experiences between the comic and his (or her) audience, many of which simply can no longer be taken for granted. You are not necessarily just like them; and they certainly are not just like you.

In any case, blaming your audience for lacking a sense of humour may be reassuring to people who no longer have to do stand-up for a living, but it doesn’t help any younger would-be comic who’s just starting out. For them, the rule of thumb is the same as it’s ever been – if the audience doesn’t laugh, it's not funny. Your job is to read the audience and figure out what they will find funny. And these days, that requires more than a little awareness of where you stand relative to them in various relationships of power and privilege.

So how have tastes changed in the past generation, and how can comedians do a better job of speaking to this generation of comedy audiences?

Interestingly, as Benjamin K. Bergin documents in his book ‘What The F’, there’s been a reversal of what is likely to cause offence since the 50s and early 60s, when profanity was off limits, but sexism, homophobia and all manner of racial jokes were fair game. (This is what gave George Carlin’s classic routine about ‘The 7 Words You Can’t Say on Television’ it’s boundary-busting punch.)

Today, the reverse is true. Young people are not in the least fazed by profanity. They’ve grown up marinated in it thanks to cable TV and the Internet. The use of the F-word has gone from a form of emphasis to a form of punctuation, so ubiquitous it no longer has any impact. But slurs, for the most part, are no longer tolerated. And younger audiences rightly get their backs up at hackneyed racial stereotypes, homophobia, and blatant sexism.

All of this speaks to the generally understood rule that comedy should punch up, at the powerful, not down, at the vulnerable. This rule is needed because comedy does have a dark and a light side. The dark side consists of ridicule, insult and humiliation. This is the humour of schoolyard bullies, when directed at the weak; hopefully most people grow out of that. In adult life, however, these tools are mostly off limits, except when directed at the powerful, ideally in the hands of a skilled satirist.

The problem is that if you’re white, straight and male, there aren’t a lot of people to punch up towards. And if you’re rich and famous, like Seinfeld, there’s almost nobody above you. So what’s a comic who's not Aziz Ansari or Amy Schumer to do? We’ll get to that in a moment…

The lighter side of comedy is, of course, aimed at correcting our own bad behaviour, poking fun at our foibles and social gaffes, exposing our own bad manners. Making fun of ourselves is fertile ground, and unlikely to offend. Where it gets dicey is when those bad manners expose our ignorance, our unexamined prejudices and stereotypes. And yet, because nowadays we want humour to be edgy and boundary-pushing, that’s exactly where many comics want to go - at their own peril!

So how do you do that without slipping over to the dark side of ridicule and humiliation, and entertain audiences full of people who are not necessarily like you in privilege or power?

What comics need to do is the same things writers and other artists need to do when representing the Other, as laid out in an excellent Buzzfeed article by Daniel José Olderthey need to think more deeply about how power works in the world, and where they stand in that dynamic. They need, in short, to become aware of their own privilege, send it up and ridicule it if they can, and certainly not abuse their audiences with it, or expect the audience to find it funny when they are so abused. As a gay man, I am subjected to lazy gay jokes in comedy settings all the time. I'm not sure why someone as powerful and, to give him his due, talented as Jerry Seinfeld gets to tell me that I should find his dumb joke funny, rather than doing what he would have done as a young, hungry comic – reworked the joke until it actually was funny.

So who does it well, and how do they do it?

Louis C.K.’s brilliant routine about dating is, I think, a great example of making people laugh at a very delicate topic – the constant threat of sexual violence faced by women everywhere. How does he do it? By acknowledging the insanity of the power dynamic at work, and asking the men in his audience (gently, implicitly) to see and own up to their own role in perpetuating it. He can do this because he is a man – and he is treating the men in his audience as ‘playmates’ and equals (to use Henri Bergson's term) – creating a safe context (of comedy) in which he can force them to look at something unpleasant in themselves.

Louis C.K. says, “It takes courage to go on a date. Two very different kinds of courage.”

For men, he says, it’s merely fear of rejection, which he makes great sport of. The anxiety of approaching someone and being shot down is something anyone, male or female, can relate to. Again, he’s talking to his audience as playmates. The message is: ‘We’re the same.’ But then it turns.

“The courage it takes for a woman to say yes is beyond anything I can imagine. A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane, and ill-advised. And the whole species’ existence counts on them doing it! I don’t know how women still go out with guys, when you consider the fact that there is no greater threat to women than men! We’re the number one threat to women! Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. We are the worst thing that happens to them. That’s true. You know what our number one threat is? Heart disease. That’s the whole thing. That’s it.”

Notice that he says, ‘we’ are the worst thing, not ‘you’, or ‘them’. He includes himself in the group that he is holding up for scrutiny. That’s one way comics can interrogate their privilege on stage, and have everyone laughing along with them.

Closer to home, a great Canadian comic, Peter White, has a routine (featured on CBC's Laugh Out Loud, Nov. 4, 2016) that touches on a similar theme: how straight men respond to the situation of being hit on in gay bars.

Again, he speaks to the – homophobic – men in his audience as peers, as playmates. He’s gently ribbing them about their absurd level of fear, and forcing them to recognize that the vulnerable person in that situation is the gay man, not you – the straight one.

After being hit on with an implicit, if very polite, offer of casual sex, White realizes, “ ‘Oh my god – that’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me!’ For real? You’re going to buy me shots first? What is this, my birthday? That’s amazing. Is this what being gay is, cause this is supercool. I mean the dude part I don’t love, but everything else. Oh my god, that’s insane. Like if a girl ever said that to me once, that would be the single greatest day of my life. It’s never happened, it’s never going to happen. So far it’s only been four dudes.”

But then he goes on to interrogate the homophobic response of many of his peers, which is no joke in a world where the ‘gay panic defense’ has been used in court – sometimes successfully – to justify straight men murdering gay men who they believe are hitting on them.

“ ‘Did you hear what that son of a bitch said?! Said he wanted to take me downstairs and ‘show me a good time!’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’re allowed to be mad at that. You can’t be mad at that. It’s such a friendly offer. I know it’s not exactly what you want, but you can’t be mad at that. It’s like being mad at somebody for trying to give you a bunch of money in the wrong currency.' ”

Really great, innovative, fresh comedy makes us laugh at things we’ve never thought funny before, because we’ve never seen them that way before. In other words, things we take for granted, things we don’t even notice. And what is more taken for granted than power and privilege by those who hold it?

Smart comedy can expose the workings – and the absurdities – of power and privilege, show us their outlines, mock their pretences – chiefly the pretence of weakness, when the would-be victimizer poses as a victim and demands our sympathy. It doesn’t need to go after people’s identities simply to ridicule them and get cheap laughs, or to go after people’s feelings simply to offend, shock or belittle them.

If the most recent U.S. election has reminded us of anything, it is that there is no security for minority rights in a democracy unless the majority supports them. That’s a chilling thought. That was the terrible lesson the highly assimilated Jews of Weimar Germany learned. And as long as the majority is a straight, white, patriarchal majority, those whose identities fall outside of that presumptive ‘norm’ will never be secure. Not even in as innocuous a setting as a comedy club.

Jerry Seinfeld doesn't get to decide if his gay joke is offensive or not. The gay members (and allies) in his audience do. Just as, in life generally, we don't get to decide what language to use when addressing members of vulnerable groups, or discussing issues relevant to their very dignity, survival and personhood. They decide, and using their preferred language is literally the least the majority can do—to show that we are on board, that we truly believe in the equality we profess to cherish and uphold.

That’s called checking your own privilege, showing yourself sensitive to how power really works, and doing what you can to make it work differently. And if that’s ‘politically correct’, then it’s hard to imagine what principled argument can be put forward for behaving any differently.

In other words, ‘Screw your dumb jokes.’

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ADDITIONAL LINKS ON POLITICAL CORRECTNESS AND COMEDY

1) PC Makes Comedy Better

2) When Bigoted Humour Just Isn’t A Joke

3) Maybe Political Correctness Isn’t Ruining Comedy

4) CBC The 180: Is Political Correctness Killing Comedy?

This is an interesting discussion of the issue, but it doesn’t make a sufficiently clear distinction between poking fun at the beliefs and sacred cows of a group to which you belong, and poking fun at groups to which you don’t belong, and over whom you have a measure of power or privilege.

 

The Making of Maggie MacDonald (interview)

A conversation with the artist and activist about her various practices and how they relate to her interest in ‘the epistemology of ignorance’

Maybe we need a new term. ‘Renaissance woman’ comes the closest, but it doesn't quite capture the unique way of being in the world that Maggie MacDonald embodies.

A candidate for public office before she was even a university grad, a punk and indie rock veteran of the Hidden Cameras and Republic of Safety, a street-level activist, a published author of fiction and plays, an interactive and visual artist whose work has been featured at the AGO, an institutional activist for one of the country’s leading environmental NGOs, and the University of Toronto’s first – and last? – ever graduate in something called ‘Network Studies’, Maggie MacDonald has done a lot in her relatively few years on the planet. (She's also a hard-core science fiction nerd with an unabashed affection for the really bad stuff.)

She’s the sort of person you wouldn’t be surprised to hear – all of a sudden – was either launching her own sustainable fashion line, gunning for the Prime Minister’s job, or leading a mission to Mars. Seriously. Her passionate desire to engage, her boundless curiosity – and seemingly boundless creative energy – can incorporate them all.

I sat down with Maggie the day after the U.S. election to talk about anything but American politics – her art, her activism, nostalgia and aging, and her four-star rating system for ‘space camp’: the really cheezy sci-fi she just can’t seem to get enough of.

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Q: It’s interesting that you went directly into electoral politics because the kind of activists that I knew back in the early 2000s were very much against directly participating in mainstream politics. Can you talk about some of your early involvement in political activism?

“Sure. I started university in Kingston [at Queen’s], and then I transferred to U of T for the rest of undergrad where I got more involved in campus activism. I also moved into this collective house on Portland Street, a place that threw parties so massive people thought it was a night club. Six of us lived there, and none of us had keys! The door was never locked. People would just show up and crash. You’d wake up on Sunday morning and some political puppet group was in your living room building a giant puppet, and none of them lived there. It was just known as a space where you could do that. It was a really interesting place to live.

“After the Battle in Seattle, there was a debrief for Toronto activists that Naomi Klein facilitated in our living room. Dave Meslin was living there at the time. We were part of the same larger crew of activists, and he and I were both in the Hidden Cameras for a time. It’s interesting how a lot of the people I was in activist communities with ended up playing music together, like Luis Jacob – who was involved in the free school movement and doing some really interesting stuff there – and Mez [Dave Meslin] who was, and continues to be, active around issues of public space and city governance.”

Q: I have friends who went through a similar progression of going to the Battle in Seattle, for example, and then becoming disillusioned with that kind of street level activism, and – I think – realizing at a certain point that if you’re white and middle class and have access to education, the barriers to having real influence are not that significant.

“Especially in the Canadian system. It’s very easy to get into institutional work here. It can be hard to get full-time work in more activist institutions, like in the environmental movement, unless you are already connected to certain communities. But if you want to get involved with a political party, for example, that’s actually pretty easy in Canada.”

Q: So those people have moved in their 30s and 40s toward more institutional activism – if you’ll forgive the term – more like what you are doing now.

“No, it’s true. I fill out spreadsheets in my daily life. Not all the time, but that’s part of what I have to do.”

Q: Not long after I met you (around 2005/2006), you were heading back to school to do your Master’s. Was that the idea, then, to move into a more institutional role?

“I was thinking I would pursue graduate school, actually, and become a prof. I initially wanted to do a PhD. I had been doing the music thing, and came off a really hard tour that made me realize I needed more intellectual stimulation in my life than a tour van was going to bring me.”

Q: So what did you end up studying? 

“My Master’s is in Social and Political Thought. That’s the official name. But what I studied was the epistemology of ignorance. How knowledge is created and destroyed. How social factors can interfere with the scientific process, and the gap between science and policy. How facts do not result in behavioural change. How the mind operates with both belief and disbelief. There’s a lot of interesting work being done in this area by people like Robert Proctor and George Lakoff, among others.”

(Of course, it's a topic that couldn’t be more relevant in the so-called ‘Post-Truth’ era.)

Q: I saw a talk online that Lakoff gave at the New York Public Library about how people can hold mutually contradictory ideas at the same time and that the right-left distinction doesn’t really hold water, because people are everywhere at once. He was challenging this rationalist, George Orwell-type view that if everybody has access to the same information, they’ll automatically come to the same conclusions. But they don’t.

“That’s exactly what I studied. ‘Naïve empiricism’ means a few different things, but sometimes it’s used to mean that. We have such a faith – a naïve faith – in facts, and the idea that if you have access to the empirical evidence, your beliefs will automatically align with it. But the world is more complicated than that.”

Q: How do you apply those insights in the work you do now?

“I work in the non-profit sector, in strategy and advocacy. Until recently, I worked for an environmental NGO and looked for ways of changing minds and bringing science and policy around environmental issues into alignment. I studied the science of endocrine disrupting chemicals, carcinogens, and toxic pollutants, and tried to figure out why the science didn’t always seem to impact the law to change policies.”

Q: What drew you to that particular portfolio within the organization? Do you have a personal connection to it?

“I’ve had a lot of friends and family who’ve been affected by cancer. Of course, some of that is related to lifestyle or genetics. But there is also a growing body of research now showing that a lot of it is not genetic, and not lifestyle-related either, but linked to workplace factors and environmental factors. (See the President’s Cancer Panel report Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk (2008-2009) for reference.) Social determinants of health – where you live, what kind of housing you have, and environmental racism – pollution in the environment where you live, particularly on reservations, for example, are factors. There’s definitely a personal connection to the work I do.”

Q: Cancer is very interesting because it’s an epidemic – they say half of all men and a third of all women get some form of cancer – and yet we have this very technocratic approach to it. We just seem to accept that we’re all going to get cancer, and to believe that we’re all going to be miraculously cured of cancer. But it feels like we skipped a step in addressing the causes. You see cement trucks belching out exhaust but they’re painted pink and, therefore, supposedly helping to fight breast cancer.

“Yeah, it’s pretty frustrating, that disconnect. There is that idea that it’s inevitable. But people have to realize, just because it is this way doesn’t mean that it ought to be this way. You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.”

Q: Or people say, ‘Oh, it’s just because we’re living longer’ – that if you live long enough, you will get some form of cancer.

“Which ignores the fact that when you look at the stats for people under 40, testicular cancer for men went up close to 40% between 1973 and 1999, and there’s been a similar rise in thyroid cancer for women under 40. So when you look at who’s getting cancer at what point in their life, people were not dying in droves of cancer before age 40 in the 1970s. You do see more people living to 80 now, and they may be more likely to get cancer, but when you look at certain cancers by age group, the trends are changing. It’s shifting in a way that really counters that aging population argument. (See the WHO UNEP Report State of the Science on Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals 2012 for reference.)” 

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WHERE ART MEETS ACTIVISM

MacDonald tries to strike a balance between her institutional activism and her more creative side by continuing to engage in her various art and writing practices. From her illustrated novella ‘Kill the Robot’ to her musical plays ‘The Rat King’ and ‘Young Drones’, to more recent visual and interactive work at the AGO, MacDonald’s growing oeuvre repeatedly returns to certain themes – the dangers and possibilities of surveillance technologies and artificial intelligence, the threat of environmental degradation, and the struggle to find hope in post-apocalyptic scenarios. Many of these may stem from her undergraduate work in ‘Network Studies’ – a program she “made up” for herself at the University of Toronto. But they might just as likely be rooted in her lifelong interest in science fiction, the only literary and filmic genre custom-built to help us imagine futures we want to move toward, and avoid the ones we don’t.

Q: How is it that you got to create your own undergraduate program? And what exactly is ‘Network Studies’?

“Back in the early 2000s [CBC commentator and new-media guru] Jesse Hirsch was running this email circle at U of T called Tao.ca. A lot of people who were activists had ‘tao.ca’ email addresses at the time. And I said to him, ‘I’m not sure what I want to study. I’m really interested in how the brain works, not because I want to build a robot, but because I want to understand what that means for politics.’ And he said, ‘No one will tell you this, but at the University of Toronto you can make up your own degree.’

“So I cobbled my degree together out of cognitive science, artificial intelligence – I was looking at surveillance and neural networks – and some political science, and I called it ‘Network Studies’. So I am the top student who ever graduated from U of T in Network Studies, because I think I am the only student who ever did it!” [Laughs]

Q: Tell me about your most recent artistic intervention at the AGO. 

“Bojana and Sean, who do the First Thursdays program at the AGO, invited me to do an interactive piece about ‘Nostalgia Canadiana’, which I was so pleased to be asked to do, because I think a lot about nostalgia and the past and the future and longing.”

Q: You’re getting older!

“Yeah, I am getting older and I have a lot of nostalgia. It can be a place of safe retreat, but it can also be toxic, like when people turn to nationalism. It’s great to be in a country that values diverse contributions to society, and there’s a lot to be thankful for about living in Canada. But when we start to get into nationalist nostalgia, there’s a concern, because nationalism and racism are so closely related.”

So MacDonald created a map of Canada where she invited people to collage what they think the country is going to look like in the future – including whether it will exist at all.

“We built a timeline of the future – Canada in 2025 – and it could even have a different name. People could change the borders, change the geography – everything was up for grabs. It was a collage that anyone who visited could contribute to making. And it was about having a conversation based in what hasn’t happened yet. You could put a UFO on the map and talk about the extra-terrestrial contact we’re going to have. Or if you don't like the UFO landing, you could place something else over it that you are interested in seeing.”

While MacDonald was careful to make sure that a wide variety of identities were represented in the materials available for the collage, she wanted to keep the conversation focused on the future, not the past.

“We can talk about different perspectives on Canada’s past – which we have to do, that’s an important thing that’s going on right now, and I’m glad of that. But when you’re talking in the realm of facts, often people will approach a conversation with their opinions already formed. They’re not necessarily going to be able to engage with an opposite view point and take something away, because people already know what they think about reality.

“But when you turn the conversation around and talk about the future, it hasn’t happened yet, it’s all up for grabs, and there’s a certain freedom to engage with people who have different points of view than you do with a more open mind. There are no facts to have an opinion about. There’s just this wide-open possibility.”

Q: What interesting things came out of the conversations that took place?

“I tried to photograph it over the course of the night as it evolved, and it was really interesting to see how people approached it. Even though they were invited to do whatever they wanted – no matter how extreme – people still really checked in with each other, including strangers. People were really minding their neighbours in an I’m-okay-you’re-okay kind of way.

“I just read that Rebecca Solnit book ‘Hope in the Dark’ about how a lot of emergency planning personnel or politicians assume that when there is a disaster there will be social chaos and the worst of humanity will come out. But often we find that when there are natural disasters, where authority is removed, people self-organize into support networks. People with boats in Louisiana, for example, after Hurricane Katrina, who were out rescuing anyone they could find, the people who felt abandoned by other forces.

“And so, it’s kind of interesting that given this kind of fictional context of – if you want to be a jerk, and say, ‘I’m going to delete all of the collage that everyone else made’ – no one was stopping them. But no one did that.”

Q: Do you get nostalgic for the scene you were a part of 10 years ago? What are your impressions of how those artistic communities have changed?

“My nostalgia is very much a personal nostalgia. I miss performing. I miss travelling with my friends and doing music for a living. So my nostalgia is a selfish nostalgia. It’s not a nostalgia for an ideal time or whatever. Unfortunately, I’ve had a lot of friends and loved ones die in the last 10 years – younger and older people. So there’s a nostalgia for a time of togetherness with those people, and for being younger and more able to engage in certain things. Having more energy. Not being tired!” [Laughs]

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SPACE CAMP 

Another source of nostalgia, and respite from the daily work of trying to solve real-world problems, is science fiction and Hollywood action films. MacDonald confesses to a weakness for the Marvel movies (she and a musician friend sneak off to see them on a VIP screen whenever they can) and for really bad sci-fi.

Q: What’s your biggest guilty pleasure movie?

“I love ‘Prometheus’. I’ve seen it over and over. I know it’s flawed, but I can’t get enough of it.”

Q: It’s visually spectacular, even if the story is a mess.

“Oh, yeah, it’s like eating chips. It’s the movie equivalent of eating chips.”

So MacDonald has developed a ratings system for the particular brand of cinematic cheese she enjoys. She calls it ‘space camp’, and she means – of course – ‘camp’ in the cultural sense famously essayed by Susan Sontag, not the place you get sent to as a kid to burn off your energy over the summer.

“It’s similar to the things I love about a John Waters movie, or ‘Boom’, the Elizabeth Taylor classic in which she plays a wealthy lady who lives on an island and gets injections all day long. It’s amazing. Space camp’s not exactly the same as gay camp. But there are some overlapping qualities of being larger than life, and a kind of earnestness where it’s supposed to be serious, but you just can’t take it seriously.

“So my ratings system for ‘space camp’ is not about whether it’s the best work or something you can treat like literature. It’s basically four criteria: to get a 4 out of 4 you need a spaceship, an alien, a robot, and women plural. If the movie has all of those, it’s a 4 out of 4.”

Q: So a movie like ‘Aliens’?

“Yes, ‘Aliens’ is a 4 out of 4 Space Camp movie. That’s a great movie.”

Q: What can we expect to see from you next?

“I’m writing a lot this year. I put a challenge to myself because last year I was recovering from a concussion and it really slowed me down. So I wasn’t as productive. Lately I’ve been working very hard, and I’m focused on writing new things. I just gave my friend a script for an action movie I’ve written, looking for feedback on that. [Laughs] Why not? I love those movies.”

Q: Does it have environmental or post-apocalyptic themes?

“It’s really character based, but those themes are always present in my writing.”

Add that, then, to the list of things we won’t be surprised to see MacDonald do: writing a sci-fi blockbuster full of robots, aliens, and gun-totting women who—like MacDonald herself—are too busy making their own maps to worry about what paths anyone else thinks they should be following. I’d paid to see that.

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Note: Intrigued by that notion of 'the epistemology of ignorance'? For a great video of George Lakoff talking about propaganda, truth, and why George Orwell was – if not wrong – certainly overly optimistic(!) click on the New York Public Library video link here.

"Prove Me Wrong, Universe!" — Nicole Passmore

A conversation about Improv, equity & awkwardness

In Toronto, she’s one of the newer kids on the block, but Bad Dog and Second City performer Nicole Passmore’s been an improviser since she was a sci-fi obsessed teen growing up in Vancouver. And she’s just back from a showcase of Canadian talent in L.A. hosted by former Kid in the Hall Bruce McCullough, where she performed with fellow cast members of the ‘Benjamins,’ who have a unique way of getting a suggestion from the audience.

“Just with the most painfully awkward banter,” Passmore says.  “Not because we chose it to be that way, it just was that way and we’ve chosen to continue it,” she explains. “For some reason the four of us in combination before a show are just painfully awkward. And we usually ask for something very strange. Or we’ll admit something true, and it’s almost like an exercise in being real.”

At their L.A. show they told the story of fellow cast member Kelli Ogmundson, who they dared to do a cartwheel inside the giant glass museum elevator at LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, only to have her “boob”—Nicole’s word—pop out mid-tumble. Unfazed, Kelli popped it back into place so seamlessly that no one else noticed until they looked at the video afterward.

Nicole: “So we’ll tell a story like that, and then go to the audience for, ‘What’s something you did that was fun?’ and just take something awkward they say and turn that into the source material for the show. It’s long form, so we come back to some certain ideas and characters, but it’s very free, and montage based. We don’t so much have a format as we do a style, which is very fast, irreverent, and uninhibited.”

I sat down with Nicole at the end of what she called a “raw week”—three days after the Trump election—to talk about her multiple roles as performer, writer, teacher, and coach, the big move from Vancouver to Toronto, and being a woman in a industry that doesn’t always make space for everyone to play.

Passmore and her sister grew up watching the gamut of cheezily great sci-fi shows (‘Stargate SG-1’, ‘Millennium’, ‘VR5’, ‘Sliders’) made in the city during ‘The X-Files’ era, and having the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy repeatedly inflicted on her by a babysitter who knew no other way to entertain his young charges.

The Passmore girls didn’t mind. They were hooked.

“I like that combination in sci-fi of – what do we already know about human nature? and how can we apply it to the mysterious and the unknown? I also love that feedback loop that happens with sci-fi of ‘We [the writers] imagine it, you [the scientists and engineers] make it, and from what you’ve made we imagine more, and then you make more.’ Which was true of [Star Trek creator Gene] Roddenberry. He would go to science conventions and look at new science products and extrapolate from that. And he would create things that scientists would then look at and make.”

She recalls an awkward get-to-know-you activity at school when her love of science fiction gave another student a little too direct a glimpse into her geek heart.

“The teacher asked everyone to pair up and ask questions of each other. This was in grade 4 or 5. And I was with this girl who was just beautiful, just a normal, cool girl. And she was, like, ‘My favourite TV show is E.R.’ And I misheard her, so I was like, ‘Oh, my god, I looove ‘VR5’ and went on a rant about it.

“Now, this show was terrible. It got cancelled because it cost $1 million an episode to create the virtual reality effects that you could probably do on your smartphone now. It was about a woman who hunted criminals through virtual reality. It was just terrible. But I loved it. And this other girl was like, ‘No, I said E.R.’ And I felt embarrassed, but I was also like – ‘No, this seems right. This is my life’.”

Those awkward moments would serve her well as she discovered a knack for comedy in her teens. Playing on a high school Improv team led Passmore to the Canadian Improv Games – and later, gigs coaching for CIG – as well as to the undergraduate theatre programme at UBC, where it took her three tries to get onto the university team.

But she didn’t let the discouraging audition process get in the way of doing underground stuff elsewhere, with co-conspirators Mark Little and Dave Morris. One thing led to another, teaching and performing in Vancouver, touring the festival circuit as ‘Virginia Jack’ with partner Briana Rayner, appearing in the Leo Award-nominated web series ‘Mental Beast’, and… even a gig at a women’s prison?

“Yeah, that was a really strange situation.”

Passmore explains that they were given certain rules up-front:

Don’t talk about Christmas, don’t talk about the holidays, don’t talk about vacations, don’t talk about husbands. The [people who ran the prison] were worried that those topics would be triggering. But every time we asked for a suggestion, the inmates would manipulate it to make the scene about one of those things.”

Q: Did the inmates know what the forbidden topics were?

“No. But in trying to protect themselves from things that the prison staff thought would rile the inmates up, they didn’t realize that those were the things the inmates needed to see to feel some sort of release. So at first we were careful and then we started throwing caution to the wind – we’d ask for a non-geographical location, like a bank, or a coffee shop. And they’d be like, ‘An airport! On our way to Hawaii! On a Vacation!’

“And then there was a scene where we Briana and I were a couple and halfway through I thought, ‘Oh, no’ – because I started to realize my character was going to leave her husband. And I could see the fear in Briana’s face, and I was afraid too. But we did it, and women started standing up and clapping and saying, ‘You go girl! You leave him!’ They literally cheered us on, and it got this huge reaction.

“The inmates didn’t care about the fourth wall. They would talk back to what was happening, but it was always positive. It was genuinely things like, ‘I like that character.’ Or, ‘That was a funny line’ Or they’d repeat things to each other and laugh. But they did get pretty riled up. So this one inmate just stood up very quietly and said, ‘Quiet,’ and everyone shut up. That was interesting. I was like, ‘Hmm, okay, you obviously matter here.’ Apparently everyone was afraid of her. They were getting too loud and she shut them down with one word – very impressive."

“Like I say, a really strange situation.”

Q: And then you came to Toronto in 2015. What prompted the move?

“Part of it was that I had turned 30, I had never been out of Vancouver for longer than a month, and I just felt that – nothing wrong with it – but I didn't want to live in the same city for the rest of my life. So I was feeling that itch to get out.”

Q: Had you been to Toronto or performed here before?

“I had come out to Toronto a handful of times to visit friends in the Improv community and to kind of just hang out. I had performed with the Benjamins at Comedy Bar, and I had met [Bad Dog artistic director] Julie Dumais-Osborne before that, but the first time we had gotten to really know each other was at the Austin Out of Bounds festival in 2009.

“It was a particularly good show for me, and pretty formative – one of the first times I felt really bold and free on stage. And every time I would come to Toronto, Julie would say to me, ‘You should move out here.’ Which everyone does to all their friends. But finally it just sort of clicked that that was something I wanted."

Q: Do you remember what specifically was so great about that Austin show?

“There was a scene where we were doing ‘Should Have Said’ ”—a short-form improv game where the audience can shout ‘Should Have Said’ any time they want to see the performer take the scene in a different direction—“and this one performer, who hadn’t been particularly kind to anybody, and was negating everything her partner offered her, kept getting ‘Should Have Said’ called five, six, seven times, for the same line, and nothing was changing. She kept bringing it back to the same core ideas, just slightly removed, so I ran onstage after one of the ‘Should Have Said’s and did the classic ‘What year is this?’ time travel routine."

Q: You dealt with a showboat by being a bigger showboat?

“I recognize the irony! I looove being on stage. And I can be loud. But I made it a point to still use what she had brought to the stage and reframe it. I didn’t negate anything they were doing. I used their relationship. And that was when the audience finally got on board and said, ‘Yep, we’re going there!’ ”

Q: How did she react?

“Oh, she was furious with me after. But she had insisted so much on her own ideas when it wasn’t going anywhere. And it was a competitive show.”

Q: What did you learn from that experience?

“I just wanted to be bold and bring a ton of energy to that scene – without blocking what they were doing; I made that my goal the whole time – because there was no energy, and there was no joy, there was no fun, nobody was having a good time – the players or the audience.

“So that was the first time I really exercised that ability to still be real and committed and stay in that world they had created, but also be big and bold and playful. And the audience loved it. That scene got 5’s across the board.”

Julie Dumais-Osborne was in the crowd, they bonded, and Julie was soon making the case for Nicole to move to Toronto.

“But to tell you the truth,” Passmore confides, “part of the reason was – and I’m not super out-loud about this; I never know how out-loud I should be, but I’m having an introspective raw week after this election [in the U.S.] and how people are behaving around it – partly I also moved for issues of feminism.

“Because I was in a company where I had fought pretty hard to get to the position that I had, and it was a great position and a great company. But we didn’t have enough female players, and I voiced that concern. At the time, I was the only female staff member of 9 or 10 people – and we had qualified women who could have been teaching for us.

“So I spoke up about this and was met with the same sort of rhetoric that was happening at the time – ‘Women aren’t funny’ – and then, ‘There aren’t enough of them [out there]’, and then, ‘They’re not reliable’ ”—she says, her voice rising with a sceptical tone—“which is such an interesting narrative. For sure, some aren’t reliable, because some of all people aren’t reliable. If we’re going to pretend that there aren’t flaky artists out there, that’s silly, because there are.”

Q: That’s an aspect of sexism, isn’t it – that if a guy is flaky, nobody attributes it to his gender.

“Absolutely. Yeah, I feel like any quote-unquote ‘minority’ – because I know women technically aren’t – we are treated as if we speak for the whole, whereas others aren’t. They just speak for themselves as individuals. So I quit. And then I realized I didn’t have a place to call home.”

“But I had this woman”—Julie Dumais-Osborne—“who was strong but also very kind, and just great example of how a person could lead a improv company, and she was offering me this great opportunity. And, of course, there is something to be said for staying and fighting in a place, but I felt I had fought long enough. And it was just so hard to keep continually seeing inexperienced men be given opportunities over very experienced women, teaching and performing.”

Passmore is quick to clarify both that her former company is no longer run by the same artistic director, and has rebuilt itself in a much more progressive way. And that artistic director that she challenged also changed – he began to hire more women after she threw down the gauntlet and left.

This passion for bringing more diverse voices to the stage is evident in her various projects. Passmore lights up when she talks about ‘Sex is Funny’.

“ ‘Sex is Funny’ was a mix of Improv, sketch, stand-Up, contemporary art-slash-movement pieces, and burlesque. We would always do an Improv set, but there were sketch pieces as well. Our mandate was just to have as diverse a cast as possible, with no content being oppressive or shaming. It was a great show. It was really, really fun to do, and it was great to see different people’s interpretations of how sex can be funny.”

__________

The Most Dangerous Mind In The Room

As a student, I noticed this social justice and inclusion bent to Nicole’s teaching right away, and really appreciated it. She was one of the most ‘teacherly’ of instructors I had encountered: very precise, knows what she wants from you and how to get it, is great at giving feedback and at customizing her teaching to specific students. Everything was to a purpose. She knew her stuff.

Q: I wanted to ask you about teaching, because you have to develop an identity as a teacher. You don’t just become a teacher overnight.

“One-hundred percent.”

Q: And it can be awkward standing up in front of a group of students. I don’t know if you are naturally an introvert or an extrovert…?

“I’m one of those combinations. I think Amy Poehler has this thing where she says, ‘Comedians are all introverted and extroverted, arrogant and insecure, all of that rolled up.’ I think I’m that.

“I got my start coaching with the Canadian Improv Games, which was great for me because they’re young, they’re high school students (grades 11 and 12), so you have a built-in authority. And I got lucky – the team I started with was so talented. Very, very skilled. They were all in the arts, into acting, etc. So I had an easier time than most, because I didn’t have to worry too much about teaching them basics, like, ‘Here’s how we say ‘Yes’.’ I could push those kids harder, and I got to explore different creative ways of teaching with them.”

“And then I started teaching adults, and that was one of the hardest transitions – even though it was at an introductory level – teaching people who were double my age.”

Q: Yeah, adult students can be very demanding, and very critical.

“Absolutely. And they have very different goals – some are just there to have fun, some needed this for work, some were actors, writers, other educators. And that can be really intimidating. But I realized pretty quickly two things: one – I had more experience than all of them, and I was allowed to be confident about that. And – two – you have to own your identity as a teacher – the personality, the voice, the authority – otherwise it’s going to be painful, it’s going to fall apart.

“I have authority because of my experience, but I think the best kind of authority comes from someone who really owns their point of view. And I got some great advice early on from another improviser who told me, ‘In Improv, because there are infinite possibilities, then every student could continually ask, ‘Well, what if we did this?’ ‘What about this?’ And the answer is always, ‘Yes, you could do it that way.’

“So you have to know that even though the answer is ‘Yes’, you’re not giving them every answer. You’re giving them YOUR answer, and you have to be confident about what your answer is and how you view Improv. Which was a great reminder, because the pressure sometimes mounts to be everything to everybody creatively, and to have all these different answers for different students, but I can’t do that. All I can do is filter things through what I believe and what I know and what I feel passionately about.”

Q: How do you like coaching vs. teaching vs. directing?

“I like them both, but they are different beasts. Obviously, with teaching you are building up fundamentals; with coaching you are looking at the group or at the form itself and how to make it better; with directing you’re helping to shape something with your players, or from your own idea. And I do love them all. Because there is a certain joy to helping people learn even what Improv is, versus creating a fully crafted complete piece, versus helping a group discover their voice.”

Q: I liked your ‘Dangerous Minds’ anecdote on 'Stop Podcasting Yourself' about teaching a group of inner-city kids.

 “Yeah, those guys”—Dave Shumka and Graham Clark—“are really funny. I love doing that podcast.”

Q: Can you tell me a bit about what that experience was and how it happened?

“Sure. I taught at a lovely school but they had gone through five teachers already that year, and the teacher that finally stayed didn't know what she was getting into. They forced her to sign a one-year contract, and she was just frazzled. She was losing her mind.”

“70% of the kids in the class hadn’t asked to be there, she explained, and of those 70%, almost all of them had behavioural problems. Under the school’s elective course selection system, they were placed in drama because their other elective choices were unavailable – or because teachers didn’t want to deal with them – so only about 30% were there because they wanted to be.

“But I did 10 classes with them, teaching them Improv, and it was great, and they were great kids.”

Q: Had you ever worked with kids like that before?

“Not to that extent. Oh my god, no. The kids I tend to work with are ones who’ve chosen Improv, or at least chosen drama, rather than having it foisted on them. So there was a lot of rowdiness. They’d had so many teachers not like them, and not respect them, and not care. So, on the first day, when I was saying goodbye to them by their names, they were blown away that I knew them.”

Q: It’s such a basic thing to learn their names.

“It’s so basic, and it’s mind-blowing to me how much people overlook it or think it’s not important. It’s so simple. But that’s the core identifier of you as a human being, and if I’m willing to call you by your name, then you have an identity.

“So I got a lot of really good work out of those kids. But I also had a kid who disappeared and nobody knew what had happened to him. He literally stopped going to school.”

Q: Did he ever resurface?

“Not to my knowledge. Nobody knew what had happened to him.”

Q: But it’s a very specific skill set, working with young people.

“Yeah, you have to know how to behave around them. There’s a psychology there. You have to make them understand that they have to do real work, and there’s learning to do, but also how can you have fun without being, ‘Hey, I’m the cool old lady’.”

Passmore is up on Desiigner and Chance the Rapper, and she knows where the phrase “juju on that beat” comes from, but she doesn’t try to pass herself off as ‘cool’.

“That’s a death trap,” she says. “If I walked into any group, especially teens, and was like, ‘Hey, kids, I know what’s up.’ They’d be like, ‘We’re on to you, old lady’.”

_____________

The Race to Equity

As it happens, Passmore’s tenure as a performer and teacher at Bad Dog has coincided with sometimes contentious period of change in the comedy community due to a heightened awareness around issues of sexual assault and a general push for greater inclusion and diversity on Toronto stages. As a substantially female-led organization, Bad Dog has made a point of being a leader in this regard, with new sexual harassment policies, gender-neutral washrooms, and the addition of new drop-in workshops catering to people of colour, women, and the LGBTQ community.

Although generally well received, there has been some pushback against these efforts from the odd visitor who feels that the atmosphere feels hostile to men.

I asked Passmore for her take on these developments, and true to form, she responded with a mixture of passion and compassion.

“It’s not that I don’t feel sympathetic. But some part of me rolls my eyes, like, ‘Get over it. We’ve been dealing with [this set of issues] all our lives’.”

Q: What’s the saying – ‘When you’re accustomed to being on top, equality feels like oppression’?

“Right. I would love my mind to be changed about this, but every time someone raises a fuss about efforts toward greater inclusion, it’s always one of the usual suspects. And that’s the part where I’m like, ‘Prove me wrong, universe!’

“But I get it. There’s this very abrupt thing happening to men right now, and they’re still getting used to it. So to that extent, I feel sympathetic. And on the other hand, though, I feel like ‘You should know better, and you should have the same empathy and understanding’.”

Interestingly, Passmore suggests, when you include more women, other kinds of diversity tend to come along with that.

“I used to do this annoying thing where I would look at how many women were in a line-up [for an improv show] on Facebook, and it was always under 20%. You know, 19%, 17% – whatever it was, I would message [the director] or post it on their wall, just the percentage, and they always knew what I meant.”

(She generally knew these people professionally, by the way, so it wasn’t just a trollish comment coming out of the blue.)

“I would look for diversity in other ways too, and if a show happened to be diverse otherwise, they didn’t deserve those messages from me. But, generally speaking, if a show didn’t have women on it, it also didn’t have any other form of diversity.”

When everyone can see themselves on stage, Passmore believes, there is also room to genuinely acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of those who haven’t traditionally been excluded.

Colin [Munch] and I were talking about diversity one night after he had performed in a show. And we were commenting on how great it was to see so many women and people of different backgrounds, and people who don’t identify as heterosexual, in this pretty diverse cast.

“And I turned to Colin and said to him, ‘You did an amazing job tonight, Colin, and I’m really happy that people got to see that. And I think it’s important to remember to be a great example of what a white man can do onstage as well'."

(By all reports, the compliment was well received.)

"Because it’s important for people to see themselves on stage. All types of people.”

As for the gender-neutral bathrooms, Passmore has a little less patience.

“I still tend to use the traditionally ‘female’ washroom. But I had this one particularly clueless woman come in and say, ‘Gender-neutral bathrooms? How do these work? Like, how does this even work?!’ So she slams on the door to the stall and is trying to open it, saying, ‘I don’t even get it!’ And I said, ‘Someone’s in here! That’s how they work – like every other bathroom you’ve ever used in your life!’ ”

A fitting way to end a “raw week”—with a good laugh!

_______________

Catch Nicole Passmore onstage as part of HouseCo at Second City on Friday nights through the end of December, and at Theatresports (Saturdays at 8:00) and The Curator (every 4th Saturday, 9:30) BOTH at Bad Dog. 

Analyzing 'Funny': Mechanical. Absurd. Hilarious.

I’ve been watching and listening to comedy most of my life (my older brother used to stay up late, record Saturday Night Live on an audio-cassette – this was before we had a VCR – and play the routines for me the next day), and it feels like we are living in a kind of golden age of good new comedy. SNL is better than it has been in years, led largely by amazingly funny women. The Daily Show & Colbert Report were brilliant. A string of recent shows too long to list, but including The Office, 30 Rock, Arrested Development, Veep, Parks & Recreation (among many others) has reinvented the sitcom. There’s an amazing new crop of stand-ups out there, Louis C.K. being probably the most famous – and formally adventurous. It really is kind of mind-blowing.

So I’ve been thinking a lot of late about what makes things funny. (In part, also, because I've been taking Improv classes these past two years.) Seems like a silly question, maybe – anything that makes you laugh is funny. But why? Why do we laugh at things in one situation or context that would make us cringe or cry or become furious in a different context? What purposes – social, physiological – does laughter serve, and what mechanisms – in life, in stories, and in our bodies and brains – provoke it?

There is, of course, a large body of academic literature out there about the nature of humour, and even the physiological mechanisms of laughter. The one I read, acting on a university prof's recommendation (12 years later!) is: ‘Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic’ by the French philosopher Henri Bergson. (A book which is strangely difficult to find in libraries, but you can easily buy a cheap reprint on Amazon or elsewhere.)

The book is a bit dense, not because of jargon, but due to its long, abstract sentences. And most of the examples he cites are old: a lot of Molière and other theatrical and clowning references that are obscure to us in North America.

A playwright and clown friend of mine said, “I read it a long time ago and recall thinking that for a book about comedy, it wasn’t much fun.” He’s right. It would be a great project to ‘translate’ this work into modern, contemporary English, and to replace all the examples with contemporary ones from the amazing wealth of new comedy that’s been done in the past several years.

Bergon’s basic argument, though, is easy to understand – and test – by watching just about anything, asking yourself, ‘Why is this funny?’ and applying some of his insights.

In its most reduced form, his argument is that we laugh whenever human beings behave MECHANICALLY (that is, automatically, absent-mindedly) where they should be more flexible and adaptable to the variable demands of real life. REPETITION is therefore often funny because it makes human behaviour appear oddly mechanical. Ditto for obsessive behaviour and other repetitious actions and attitudes. We know this person is a nut, and we can anticipate that whenever a certain situation arises, he or she will react to it the same way. When they do, we LAUGH, because their behaviour appears as mechanical. They are slaves to their obsessions, neuroses, or habitual patterns of behaviour.

Often, this is accidental or unintended. When I saw ‘PROMETHEUS’ everybody in the theatre laughed at the scene where Charlize Theron is running away from a rolling spaceship that ultimately crushes her. Why? Because everyone in the audience was thinking, “Just go left, you idiot!” But, no – she continues to run straight ahead, that is, directly in the path of the rolling ship! Mechanical. Absurd. Unintentionally hilarious. (Watch the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sftuxbvGwiU)

Beyond that, however, Bergson argues that laughter is fundamentally SOCIAL, and CORRECTIVE in nature. In short, it’s a way we have – as humans – of signalling each other that we are behaving badly. We laugh at each other’s vices, failings, mistakes, neuroticism, obsessions, etc., as a way to correct our behaviour – but also, sometimes, at our virtues if they are over-the-top: people trying too hard to be ‘good’ or to play nice.

Thus, most humour arises from our SOCIABILITY (trying to be polite, nice, friendly, helpful, agreeable) and our ANTI-SOCIABILITY (being rude, aggressive, unfriendly, arrogant, vain, haughty, snobbish, etc.). 

I plan to write a much longer piece attempting to synthesize his argument further, and with more contemporary examples, but below I offer what I think is a nice illustration of how it can be applied.

The following is a short bit of comic business from a Buster Keaton film, ‘Sherlock Jr.’ (1924 – I know, very contemporary! But at least you can find it easily online. And sometimes it helps to go back to simple, classic routines to see how they work).

You can watch the entire film – it’s only 45 minutes – here on YouTube.

The part I want to discuss runs from 02:41 to 06:21.

Keaton’s character is an all-purpose employee at the local movie house – at times a projectionist, ticket taker, usher and janitor.

While sweeping up the trash after a show, he takes a little break and sees a $3 box of candy in the window of the shop next door. He wants to buy it for his sweetheart, but he only has $2 on him. He gives up when the clerk won’t negotiate on the price.

Luckily, when he goes back to sweeping, he finds another dollar. Now he has $3! He puts it in his pocket, puts his jacket back on, and is about to head back to the candy shop when…

(1) A finely dressed young woman appears and begins rummaging around in the pile of trash. He asks her what she is doing and she says, ‘I lost a dollar. Did you happen to find it?’ He says, ‘Can you describe it?’ She gamely provides a description of a dollar bill, and he is forced to hand it over to her.

(2) He’s back to square one. As he is getting ready to resume his job, an older woman comes rummaging through the pile of trash, also looking for a lost dollar bill. He’s perplexed for a moment, but suffering a pang of conscience, feels obliged to give her one of his own. Now he’s down to one dollar.

(3) A large and threatening man appears. Keaton hands over his (own) last dollar without question and runs inside the theatre for fear that the man might beat him. Keaton reappears a moment later and the man – surprisingly – gives the dollar back. This is a happy development. Until Keaton sees the man find what he is really looking for in the pile of trash – his lost wallet. The man opens his wallet and counts the thick stack of bills inside to make sure they are all there. Then he leaves, offering Keaton nothing.

Why is this sequence funny, other than being surprising – since surprises can also be scary, dramatic, etc.?

Let’s analyze the interactions one by one.

(Encounter 1) The first woman, to all appearances, is properly searching for her lost dollar bill. Thus, Keaton is in the wrong to keep it. First laugh: he wants to appear honest (vanity; sociability), but also to give himself a credible pretext for keeping it (selfishness; anti-sociability). Second laugh: he asks her to describe it, as you might some other more unique lost item (absurdity – all dollar bills are the same; anti-sociability – testing her honesty for no reason is rude). Third laugh: instead of taking offence, she (surprisingly, politely) plays along and he is obliged to do the right thing and give her back the dollar bill, giving us a fourth laugh. We laugh because he is forced – by conventions of politeness/morality – to do the right thing against his obvious will to do otherwise. The bit is already so rich, but it's far from over!

(Encounter 2) First laugh: a second woman appears to properly search for a lost dollar bill as well, establishing a comical repeated/mechanical pattern. We laugh again because this presents the possibility that the previous woman was conning Keaton (anti-sociability), and thus he should have withheld the bill from her – he’s made a mistake by being honest and fair with someone (potentially) dishonest. (It also makes his absurd testing of her story, retrospectively, legitimate, though it seemed rude and anti-social in the moment.) We laugh again when he gives the second woman HIS OWN dollar bill, out of a kind of excess of conscience (ultra-sociability). This behaviour is almost mechanical (thus absurd) because whereas before he selfishly wanted to keep the bill that was not his, now he is unable to adapt to the facts of the situation (he cannot possibly have this particular woman’s dollar bill, though he may have given it erroneously to the previous woman), and feels ethically compelled instead to give her his own, which is kind but also absurd. So we laugh.

(Encounter 3) First laugh: he gives the man the bill without question because the man is big and threatening. This is funny because (a) we have seen the pattern repeated 3 times now, with heightened degrees of absurdity, (b) it is a form of – again – absurd sociability (because it is ACTUALLY Keaton’s dollar bill, not the man’s), and (c) because his behaviour is mechanical, both in giving the man the bill and running away out of fear: it is a direct line from stimulus to response, as if he has no control over his impulses. (He doesn’t even know if the man is looking for anything, he just assumes it automatically based on the pattern set up by the previous two instances.) Second laugh: the man surprisingly gives the bill back as not his own (sociability where violence was feared). Third laugh: the man finds his wallet, filled with a good deal more money. Keaton has lost a chance that he didn’t know he had to pocket even more money (surprise, anti-sociability – the desire to find and keep other’s money if one can get away with it).

Over and over again, he is a hilarious victim of both fate and his own excessive conscience.

Part of what is delightful about this routine is that by the end we feel we have seen every possible variant, every permutation and combination of situations that can arise from one we have all found ourselves in: finding money that isn't ours and wanting to hang onto it. The comic potential has been thoroughly explored - and exhausted - in continuously surprising ways.

Notice, too, that all of these relate to very human interactions, urges, rules of etiquette and social morality. We laugh at his specific situation, but we also laugh at the general qualities of his behaviour that we also recognize in ourselves: avarice or greed, vanity, fear of violence, fear of discovery, situational dishonesty (the willingness to break rules if we can safely get away with it), and the poetic justice of the ironic ending. His punishment for his greed and mild dishonesty is that he ends up $2 short and loses out on a much bigger potential windfall.

Of course, we're not really aware of these 'moves' as they are happening, or rather, we perceive their significance - and react, with laughter - so quickly and automatically that we are not aware of having to do anything thinking or judging. Their meaning is immediately obvious, because we are all skilled observers of (and participants in) human social interaction. But if we slow the scene down, as we have here, and look at each 'move' in turn, Bergson’s theory sheds a good deal of light on what is happening and why it instantly triggers laughter.

So, the next time you watch something funny, ask yourself: what am I laughing at? Is it the characters’ anti-sociability: the casual rudeness and put-downs on ‘Veep’ between co-workers who (we know) will nonetheless go on working together for years to come? Or is it their excessive sociability (Steve Carell on the ‘The Office’): their almost painfully sincere desire to be liked, and their inept attempts to win others’ affection and admiration?

COMING SOON: A much longer work-up of Bergson’s ideas with contemporary examples (that is, more recent than 1924 – I promise!)

 

 

IOTA Stories: Participatory Microblogging Hamilton-style

Hey, Folks, 

Today (Sept. 16th) I have a tiny little piece about travelling with my partner on IOTA Stories, an amazing new microblogging project of my friend Deborah Grace, of Steel City Stories fame. 

Check it out at: editablankpage.com

You can read my IOTA story here.

And be sure to check out the website to see how you can submit your own IOTA story. So if you've been procrastinating on whatever writing project you have on the go, hurry up and write! As Deborah suggests, 'You can't edit a blank page!'

Have a great weekend!

Peter :-)

Top 10 Improv Rules For Writers

I’ve been taking Improv classes at Bad Dog Theatre here in Toronto for about two years, and it has helped me enormously with both writing and editing, because it has really helped to clarify my understanding of what a good scene is, what scenes need, where and how they can go wrong, and what this whole thing we try to do when we tell stories is about.

So the following are the ten most useful rules for writers that I have picked up from Improv, with some explanation of how to translate them from the collaborative, performance-based world of Improv to the more solitary, workmanlike-business of putting yourself in front of a computer, a typewriter, or a blank page and creating stories and characters that audiences will enjoy.

(Unless otherwise indicated, these are pretty well-known ideas within the Improv community. But of course I have all of my teachers – Jess Bryson, Gavin Williams, Colin Munch, Craig Anderson, Anders Yates, Nicole Passmore, and Shanda Bezic – to thank for helping me understand what they mean. Otherwise, they come from Keith Johnstone’s ‘Impro’, Mick Napier’s ‘Improvise’, or the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB)’s ‘Comedy Improvisation Manual’, with a few nods to Robert McKee’s ‘Story.’)

1.     The Day of Days: Today – the day on which your story or scene takes place – is not just any day. Today is the day on which something unusual happens. But it need not be something wildly unusual, like an asteroid hurtling toward the earth. It can just be an unusual level of candour between two characters, a revelation, a decision to turn left instead of right. Whatever it is, it has unpredictable consequences, and it sets your scene and story in motion.

2.     Every scene needs a Platform (the normal situation) and a Tilt, a Turn, or a First Unusual Thing (UCB’s term). Basically, we don’t tell stories about normal life, where things go to script or the way we expect. We tell stories about when things go off in unexpected directions. But before that can happen, we have to know what the normal situation is for your characters. (This can be established very quickly, because we are all familiar with a wide variety of normal life situations.) Then, when it veers off in a surprising direction, we know that the turn, or tilt has happened.

(Robert McKee says a scene can only turn on actiondoing something unexpected – or revelationsharing some unexpected information.)

3.     There are 5 basic elements of a scene: Where (setting), Who (characters), What (the situation or problem), Stakes (what it means to these characters; what they stand to gain or lose from each other in this interaction), and some kind of Ending (which may or may not resolve the tensions in the scene; it may leave them hanging there to be built on or concluded by future scenes). To me, the most useful notion here for writers is that of stakes. If you have a scene that is not working, that is vague, that lacks tension, go back and figure out what these people want, what they stand to gain or lose, and bring that into focus. 

4.     There are 4 special types of scenes: Scenes that deal with Truth (scenes in which something is confessed or revealed), History (scenes that reveal why a person or a relationship is the way he/she/it is), Metaphor (scenes in which characters communicate indirectly with each other, such that the scene is all about its subtext), or Philosophy (scenes that reveal a character’s view of life). Not every scene will be one of these, but these can advance the plot and deepen the themes and relationships in ways that make the stakes clear to the reader/audience.

5.     All human interactions are coloured by STATUS. Humans quickly figure out where they stand in terms of status in every situation – who has more or less physical or social power, or prestige. Humans are status-conscious animals. We can’t help but play status games with each other (playing high status – bragging, boasting, dominating others, condescending to others, etc. – or playing low status: belittling ourselves, being self-effacing, deferring to others, building others up, etc.). In different situations, and with different people, these strategies help us to get what we want from each other, often covertly. So status frequently plays into the subtext of a given interaction. (See Keith Johnstone)

For an excellent example of this dynamic in a dramatic film, see Bennett Miller’s ‘Foxcatcher’. Nearly every scene can be read very clearly through the lens of status.  Steve Carell’s John DuPont is the highest status character in almost every situation, except when his mother is present, when he is reduced to near zero. Mark Ruffalo’s character also has a way of diminishing DuPont – politely, not maliciously – but it quite literally drives DuPont crazy.

6.     Things people do and don’t talk about: In general, people don’t talk about what they are presently doing. When you are washing dishes, you don’t talk about washing dishes – you talk about something else: your day at work, some problem you are having with a family member, etc. People also don’t tend to talk about or say things that both interlocutors already know. They may, however, use their knowledge of each other to preface comments: “When we were at university together, you were a real a jerk to me!” – which is a more realistic way of sneaking in exposition about characters. And people often don’t talk about what they are really talking about: they use metaphors or other strategies to talk about things indirectly, which is what gives a scene subtext.

(Robert McKee says only in certain parts of Southern California do people casually share their childhood traumas and deepest, darkest secrets. He calls these ‘California Scenes’ and cautions writers to avoid them. For most people, sharing deeply personal information is a high-stakes affair that we avoid as often and for as long as we can.)

7.     Avoid having characters gossip about other characters we aren’t going to meet, or talk about past/future events that we’re not going to see. Keep the dialogue, and the scene, focused on the present and this relationship between these characters. What’s really happening between these two? What is at stake between them right now, which is another way of saying: what do they want from each other, and what are the consequences if they don’t get it?

8.     Hone your Third Eye – meaning – ask yourself what the audience wants or expects to see. For example, who’s the bad guy in this scene? Does the audience want to see him/her triumph or be punished? Why? What themes, story forms, or patterns does the scene tap into? Is there something from earlier in the story that should come back to resonate in the present scene? How would a story like this typically end? Can you work out some surprising or interesting variation on that expectation? - because all audiences love to be surprised. Just don't cheat by unfairly withholding information or manipulating the situation for a phoney or contrived surprise. (See Robert McKee)

9.     Scenes need conflict (or tension), but not all conflict needs to be fighting – that is, interpersonal conflict between characters. Empathy, agreement, and external sources of conflict, pressure and tension can produce more interesting scenes than just interpersonal conflict. Anger quickly gets boring because is escalates and then there is nowhere to go with it. In a flirtation scene, the tension is often positive – we enjoy seeing people make and respond to romantic advances; it's a kind of dance. The stakes in a scene about two excited, revved up characters can be about how these two are going to have increasing levels of fun (props to Jess Bryson for this example). Tension doesn’t always have to be negative.

10. Storytelling depends on an oscillation between tension and release. Audiences can’t tolerate endlessly building tension, except in certain genres (suspense, thriller) where this is the whole point, and even in these we get little breaks from it. The ways of giving the audience a break are: in comedy, laughter; in drama, it is often subplots, with lower stakes – or just different stakes – where we can take a breather from the higher tension and stakes of the main plot. (See Robert McKee)

BONUS! Since 10 is an arbitrary number, and since there is just so much good stuff for writers in Improv training, here are FOUR more useful tips.

11. Avoid stranger scenes. This is not a hard and fast rule, just something to be careful about. As we saw above, what makes scenes interesting – much of the time – is tension and subtext. Having your characters know each other gives you so much more to draw on to create tension and subtext, because they have a history together. Strangers generally interact in instrumental ways (transactions: buying things, providing services, etc.) and since they have no history, the only real avenues for subtext are things like sexual tension, rudeness, and status games (placing yourself above or below others). Characters that already know each other have all these plus a history together, so there is a lot more to build on.

12. The first rule in Improv – arguably less useful in writing – is ‘Say Yes’. This is used to build up the world and the characters in which the scene or story takes place, because the performers are making it all up on stage without a script or plan, so they have to get onto the same page first. Once that has happened, the next most important rule – and this is more useful for writing – is: If this is true, what else is true? Basically this means using a mix of logic and creativity to flesh out your characters and take them to the logical extreme of the situation in which they find themselves, or to add another element (a different location? a new character? a plot twist?) to raise the tension even higher. Audiences are smart. They don’t like to be cheated. And they spot cheating and fakeness right away, because they are asking themselves the same question: If this is true (what I already know about the character), what else is true (how would this person naturally behave in this situation, and where would this story logically go)? So, the more natural and logical your story is, and the more the audience feels like they know your characters, the more they will buy into your story, because they will see that the choices your characters are making and the situations they are getting into flow naturally from who they are.

13. Steer clear of Crazytown (UCB). Although we don’t generally tell stories about everyday life as it is normally lived, we also don’t want to go off into outer space. Or, rather, even when we are in outer space, we still expect characters to behave logically and naturally. (Which is not to stay rationally, because humans are often not rational, but consistent with what we already know about the characters.) We want to have the feeling of, ‘Yes, I believe that this kind of person in this kind of situation would behave the way the storyteller is having them behave.’ But if your story is full of kooky, eccentric people doing kooky eccentric things, we quickly get into what the Upright Citizens Brigade calls ‘Crazytown’ – a world in which no one is ‘normal’, and the audience is disoriented. The audience needs a surrogate – a character who stands in for them and reacts as a ‘normal’ person would, even in the most extreme situations – otherwise they lose their grounding in the reality of your story.

Even in something like Star Wars, you have robots and sasquatches and wizards walking around – it’s a pretty strange world – but then you also have Han Solo, a regular sceptical guy, like us, with no special powers, who makes us comfortable by looking at all this craziness around him and sort of saying to us with a wink, ‘Are you getting this? Can you believe this?’ And we do believe it, because he’s there reacting the way we would.

14. Go two or three steps away from your first idea. This one needs to be adapted a little, but the basic idea is that Improv starts with a suggestion, usually from the audience. The audience may not have seen a lot of Improv, so if you ask them for a location, they might gravitate toward zany or unusual places like ‘the zoo’, or – if you ask them for a relationship – they tend to go to extremely common ones like ‘co-workers’, which typically produces an office scene. This is not a good or a bad thing – it is up to the performers to decide what to do with these suggestions. One trick is to free-associate and go a few steps away from the initial suggestion. Maybe the zoo is a metaphorical zoo, like the Tokyo subway. Or maybe the co-workers are not in an office but on an oil rig or some other location that’s realistic, but that we don’t usually see.

The way this applies to writing, I think, is that when we are creating on the fly we naturally tend to gravitate to the most obvious thing, which is often a stereotype or cliché. So writers can also stop themselves from using just the easiest ideas that are at hand by free-associating, exploring the terrain around the idea, and going a few steps away. 

I hope these few tips have been helpful, and would love to hear (in the comments below, or email, or on Twitter @PDWalter) how they apply to the challenges you face in your own writing!

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Ready to take the plunge and try some Improv classes yourself? Try the Bad Dog Academy for a wide range of classes for students of all levels, including (for the commitment-phobic) several drop-ins each week!

DIY Bookmaking: A How-To Guide

If you’re like me, you like to try to do things yourself before paying someone else to do them. It saves money, you pick up new skills, and you maintain control of the process. So here’s a simple method of do-it-yourself bookbinding that I stumbled upon and have refined over the years. It’s not going to appeal to everyone – you probably want to spend your time writing your next book, rather than physically producing it. So do I. But if, like me, you live in a city where there is a lively small press and independent publishing scene, with opportunities to do face-to-face book marketing at small press fairs, etc., you’re going to want physical copies of your book to sell, give away, or distribute. And this is the cheapest, most practical method I have found, that still produces a professional-looking book that you can be proud of.

(Producing them in small batches will also allow you to continue editing and improving the book, as opposed to being stuck with, say 100 copies that you paid a printer anywhere from $5 to $15 a copy to print, only to realize you need to make significant changes.)

THE COVER

It's up to you whether you want to try to design the cover yourself or hire someone to do it, but once it has been designed, print your covers in colour on 11 x 17 inch cardstock at the cheapest location you can find. Near university campuses there are always discount printers that will undercut larger chains by half or more. You need a 0.5 inch bleed – an area that extends beyond the ultimate edge of your book on all sides – so that when you trim it, the cover image will extend right to the edge. (For more detailed info, click here: formatting your book, guts, and cover.)

This is the cover sample I gave to my illustrator, Ian Herring, so he knew how big the cover image and bleed needed to be.

PAGE LAYOUT (THE "GUTS" OF YOUR BOOK)

You can do your page layout in Microsoft Word – using headers and footers for page numbers, chapter headings, etc. Format it on a half-sheet (8 ½ inches by 5 ½ inches) by using custom page dimensions under ‘Page Setup’, and – when it is spell-checked, edited and formatted to your satisfaction – save a new copy of each file as a PDF (Adobe portable document format). This will allow you to print four pages on one sheet of standard letter-sized paper using the ‘Print as Booklet’ function in Adobe Acrobat. And then you just chop or cut the pages in half, glue them together, put a cover on it, and you’ve got your book. The rest of this post explains how to do that, assuming you’ve already got your pages and covers printed and ready to go.

Tools and Materials:

  • 2 pairs of Scissors (one sharp, one just a little more dull)
  • 2 Xacto knives or box-cutters (again, one sharp, one dull)
  • 2 C-clamps (normal, woodworking style)
  • 2 plastic clamps (low pressure, quick-release)
  • High-grade white glue (not the school glue stuff, which I think is watered down)
  • High-grade multipurpose craft glue (I like Aleene’s Original Tacky Glue)
  • mechanical pencil
  • ruler
  • 9 to 11 inch lengths of wood wrapped in black electrical tape (you will use these to compress your pages when gluing the spine; the tape creates a slick surface that white glue won’t stick to)
  • 8 bear clips (of a size that will wrap around the spine of your book without putting excessive pressure on your cover; depends on how many pages are in your book)
  • Some wide strips of white Bristol board (or poster board) for making ‘sleeves’ and ‘masks’ (to protect your pages, guts and covers from the clamps used at various stages of the process)
  • A clean toothbrush or small paintbrush (for applying glue)

Not pictured here: You will also need some strips of canvas or other light but durable fabric for the spine. (You can often find suitable fabric at Dollar Stores in the form of plain white dishcloths.)

Terminology

We only need a few special terms. The BOOKBLOCK is the stack of pages that make up your books (also called ‘guts’). The FORE EDGE is the right-side edge of a completed book where you can flip the pages. The TOP EDGE or HEAD is (obviously) the top of the finished bookblock, and the TAIL is the bottom.

Part 1

Stack all your pages together to make one BOOKBLOCK - (1a) and double-check that your pages are in the correct order, and no pages are missing. Then stand them on the FORE EDGE. Tapping the pages down gently on the table until they are all flush with each other.

Use a wooden ruler or similar object to tap the ends to make sure that the pages are flush at the top and bottom of the bookblock as well (1b). Note that even reams of machine-cut paper have tiny differences in size, and when the paper is cut in half to make a book – whether by hand or by machine – you introduce further tiny discrepancies. But with this method, you are hiding them in the spine. Clamp the stack together with the low-pressure plastic clamps, using a strip of Bristol board to protect the pages (1c).

Part 2

You are now ready to glue the spine. Apply white glue to the spine and use a paintbrush or toothbrush to work it into the pages (2a). Work quickly, as you don’t want the pages to get too warped by the glue before you compress them with the wooden slats and clamps. (That compression will flatten out most of the warping.) 

Fanning the pages at the top and bottom as you work in the glue (2b) will help to ensure that all pages receive some of the glue. If you think of the spine as a tabletop, you want to apply the wooden slats to each side of the spine so that the top edges of the slats come up level with that table top, and clamp them (2c). If they’re too low they won’t compress the pages properly, allowing a ‘lip’ of the spine to bulge out, which is serious. (It won’t make for a good book.) If the wooden slats come up a little above the tabletop, it’s less serious, but you won’t get a nice flat application of the canvas material for the spine, and you may end up with a slightly concave spine.

Also, be careful that as you are tightening the clamps you don’t shear the block of pages on a diagonal. Keep an eye on the fore edge, head and tail to see if this diagonal shearing is occurring. If it does, just release the clamps and try again. The glue will hold the pages together, and still be pliable enough to allow for small adjustments.

Part 3

Once compressed, some of the glue will be squished out of the spine (2c). This is good. Add some more glue and then add one of the canvas strips (3a), pressing it down into the glue (the back of the toothbrush, if that’s what you are using, works well for this) (3b). The glue should soak through the fabric and make a nice seal all the way along.

You can now set your BOOKBLOCK aside to dry for 4 to 6 hours (3c), depending on climate and other conditions. Obviously working in a dry environment – houses with central heating or A/C tend to have dryer air – will help to speed drying and prevent warping. 

Parts 4 (5, 6 - includes extra steps for multiple book production)

Removing the clamps from your dry bookblock, you are now going to take your sharper pair of scissors and trim off the excess fabric (4a). It will be rigid now and easy to cut because it is impregnated with dry glue. You now have a perfectly trimmed bookblock ready for its cover (4b).

(If you are not making multiple books simultaneously, skip to step 7)

If, like mine, your book is under 200 pages, you can save a great deal of time and labour by making 3 books at a time. Simply follow steps 1a-c to make 3 bookblocks and stack them one on top of the other. I put 2 half-sheets of scrap paper between each of the 3 copies (4c), to make it easier to separate them later. Then follow steps 2a-3c.

Once you have a dry, trimmed bookblock (4b), take a ruler and divide the spine evenly into thirds (if you have made 3 books) by drawing a pencil guideline alone the spine where you are going to divide it into the 3 books (not pictured). Take the sharper Xacto knife or box-cutter and cut the spine along this pencil line (5b). (You don’t have to – and may not be able to – cut all the way through the spine, but a good deep groove will make it easier to ‘break’ the spine in the next step). 

Then flip the bookblock over and find the corresponding scrap pages between the 3 different bookblocks (4c) and open the book there. Holding the two parts firm in each hand, break the spine by bending the two parts away from each other at a 90-degree angle. (You can run the blunt edge of the scissors along that 90-degree angle to help the two books separate cleanly - 5a.) 

If you made a good deep cut into the spine (in step 5b), the bookblock should separate easily. If not, of if there are any fibres in the spine that remain stuck, simply cut the spine with scissors at this point to separate the books (5c). Run your finger along the sides of the new spine to find rough spots and trim them with sharp scissors (6a). Then peel off the scrap pages (6b).

Part 7

Hold the cover up the light (7a) and using a pencil make some markings to indicate where you are going to fold it along the front or back edge of the spine (it doesn’t matter which). I had my cover designed so that there was a strong contrasting colour change at the back edge of the spine, to help me get this line ‘correct’.

Now, take a ruler, and run the LESS SHARP Xacto knife or box-cutter very lightly along this line (7b). All you are doing is ‘scoring’ the paper (making a very light groove that will will fold nicely along). Now lift up the cardstock to the right of the ruler and create a nice fold by raising it 90 degrees while pressing down on the ruler (7c).

Part 8

You now have a cover with one 90-degree fold. Take your bookblock and place nestle it right into that fold (8a). Take your pencil and draw a second line along the other edge of the spine, making sure the bookblock is nice and snug in that 90-degree fold. Remove the bookblock and now score the cardstock along this new line the same way you did before, very lightly (7b, 8b). And fold it while pressing down with the ruler (7c).

Your cover should now snugly wrap around your bookblock (8c). And you’re almost done!

Part 9

This would be a good time to prepare a piece of white cardstock, Bristol board or poster board that will act as a protective sleeve when you clamp your finished book with the bear clips. You can use the same method of scoring the inside edges of the paper and folding them. The sleeve should be just a tiny bit bigger than your finished spine, because it is going to wrap around the outside of it. 

Apply some of the Aleene’s Tacky Glue to the spine. Just enough to cover it an a light even coat of glue (you can smooth it out with a scrap piece of paper or cardstock), and – just as important – run a line of glue down the inside edge of each of those two folds in your cover. Insert the bookblock into the cover, being careful not to smear glue along the inside of the cover, and press it firmly into the spine. (Be careful that your bookblock is not upside down! If it is, it’s not too late to pull it out and correct it.)

Fit one of the Bristol board sleeves around the outside of your spine, and use the bear clips to hold everything firmly in place (9a). Press the bookblock firmly into the cover as you are putting on the clips to ensure a good bond with your cover.

Allow this to dry for a few hours. Remove the clips and trim around the edges with the duller of the two scissors (9b). The bookblock gives you nice straight edges to cut along on all sides. Use the sharper scissors when you get to the spine, as the glue makes it stiffer and slightly harder to cut through (9c). If there are tiny air-holes or small gaps at the head and tail of the spine once it is cut (see 6c, for example), you can touch it up with a little bit of glue (smoothed out and made square with a finger or piece of scrap paper).

THE END

And that’s it. You’re done! You’ve got beautiful books, and you can be happy that this produces a lot less waste paper than other methods, because there is almost no trimming necessary – except for the cover. 

Let me know if you have any difficulty with any stage of this process and I’ll try to address your questions: pdwalterbooks@gmail.com, twitter: @PDWalter

Gallery

Click on image to advance to next slide.

Writers' Resources 1: Hopes & Fears

Series Introduction

Everyone loves lists, and if you’re like me, you like to try to systematize things and find internal, sometimes hidden connections between them. For years now, I have been gathering data on different systems and theories of how stories work, what their elements are, whether they can be boiled down to a few categories or patterns. How should we organize them? Based on genre? On plot? On the type or age of the hero? On the level and type of language? On the ‘shape’ of the story (ascent, descent, etc.)?

Various academics, writers, and teachers of writing have worked out systems and schemes for all of these, and I want to explore the connections and similarities between them. If you know what kind of story you are writing, what its typical elements are, you stand a better chance of finding a compelling and creative way to bend or break the rules of that form.

Part of me dreams of a grand synthesis of all of these systems, even though I have come to suspect it is both impossible and undesirable, since excessive simplification reduces the utility of such systems for writers. (But I will try to make as many coherent links as I can. Thank me later!) What I propose to do here, and in a series of short, useful posts to follow, is to deal with these different approaches as they may be applied by writers. Today’s topic is HOPES and FEARS.

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HOPES & FEARS: The Roots of Character

Most good stories begin with character, not plot. Who is your hero, and why do we care about what he or she wants? Interesting answers to those questions make for compelling stories. So how does one create a compelling main character?

Aaron Sorkin has a neat formula for how character relates to plot. For Sorkin, it’s all about the character’s INTENTION—what do they want? what is their goal?—and what are the OBSTACLES that stand in the way of achieving those goals? That gives you both your CHARACTER and your PLOT, which consists of what actions the character has to take (is willing or unwilling to take) to overcome those obstacles. All that’s left is whether the person succeeds or not, and what that means for the character, which gives you your ENDING.

So, what sorts of things do humans want? We want to get certain things (fame, wealth, love, respect) and avoid certain other things (pain, humiliation, injury, death). It would be useful to have a list, wouldn’t it, of basic human desires? And of the opposite – what we fear the most, particularly what we fear LOSING – since they are two sides of the same coin.

Of course, there's no better time to talk about fear than on Hallowe’en, and last October 31st I heard a great radio interview with Dave Alexander of the horror magazine and website Rue Morgue about the five basic human fears. Drawing on psychological research, he cited these as:

  • Extinction (Death)
  • Mutilation
  • Loss of Autonomy
  • Separation
  • Ego-death

(Notice that these proceed through a hierarchy from basic survival to social survival, similar to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.)

Alexander discussed these in the context of what a good horror story can do to push our psychological buttons. But, of course, for each of these basic fears, there must be a corresponding basic HOPE or DESIRE, which—attention writers!—will furnish the goal for the main character of ANY STORY in ANY GENRE. After all, the hero of any story must be animated by a particular goal, one linked to a hope or desire that all humans share. Often this is pushed to an extreme that forces your hero to confront certain moral dilemmas: how far is he or she (and  by extension – we, the audience) willing to go to pursue these goals? 

So I’ve expanded the list and paired each BASIC FEAR with a HOPE, and also a DISTORTED FORM that these Hopes and Desires may take when characters are pushed to their limits. (Where relevant, I have included literary or film references to illuminate the examples. More of these to follow.)

You’ll notice that for each BASIC FEAR, I’ve expanded the category of Hopes and Desires quite a bit, and generally divided it into two. This is because while mastery, wealth and status are all goals upon which our Ego or sense of self depend, for the purposes of writers it is worth separating them out, since the kind of hero whose goal is material WEALTH is going to be quite a different character from the hero whose goal is athletic excellence (MASTERY) or political power and influence (STATUS).

And, of course, these goals may change or shift over the course of a story. So, for example, early in his life Howard Hughes might have been motivated by curiosity, a desire for accomplishment or mastery (Goal 5). However, later in life, he was overtaken by an obsession that led to a distorted form of Goals 1 & 2, which actually detracted from his ability to achieve Goal 5. Indeed, his distorted pursuit of health, safety, a long life, actually diminished his status and esteem among the wider world, bringing about a kind of living Ego-death.

Many sports stories are underdog stories, also animated by Goal 5 (mastery, accomplishment, status). However, other underdog stories may be animated by Goal 3 – autonomy – such as stories that deal with handicapped or differently abled characters (Forrest Gump, Children of a Lesser God, Mask, The Elephant Man, etc.).

Your hero may have multiple goals, or multiple reasons for pursuing the same goal. Surely Charles Foster Kane is motivated by status and power in 'Citizen Kane' (Goals 3, 5), and yet as he achieves these, he feels increasingly isolated from those he loves (Fear 4), such that his final word – “Rosebud” – expresses (indirectly, cryptically) his unsatisfied hunger for the integrity and security of the family (Goal 4) and childhood which were violently torn away from him.

Pick a favourite story, think about the hero and his/her goal, and see where it fits on this table. Think about the hero of the story you are trying to tell. What goal or desire animates your hero? How might that goal become distorted, perverted, or turn into an obsession that is dangerous to the hero? Or how might it change as your hero gets closer to achieving it, or maybe does achieve it, like Howard Hughes or Charles Foster Kane, before the story is over?—in keeping with the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for, you may just get it.” Is it a purely positive goal, or is it the flip-side of a neurotic fear – something traumatic he/she is running away from, as much as something optimistic and forward-looking that they are running toward?

Again, interesting answers to these questions will create compelling stories. And, as Sorkin tells us, knowing them will give you not just your main character but – substantially – your plot as well.

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Can you think of any interesting examples of how this scheme of basic hopes & fears can be used either to analyze stories you love or to create incredible new stories? Share them below, or reach out to me on Twitter @PDWalter.

For Part 2 of this ongoing series, click here: 'Following the Plot'.

Loving the Alien (Pt. 2): Bowie as Songwriter and the Meaning of 'Blackstar'

Is it possible to be a Bowie fan and not be an obsessive nut? Perhaps not. He’s a love-him-or-leave-him artist, as likely to provoke confusion and indifference as fierce loyalty. Being a casual fan is difficult because much of his music is difficult, falling well outside of mainstream popular taste. Bowie’s musical personality can also be forbidding: cool, even austere, overly intellectual at times, aesthetically aggressive, often avant-garde. So, for as many obsessive Bowie nuts as there are out there, there is an equal or greater number of people who don’t get what all the fuss is about, or just have never found a way into his music.

At some point in writing this piece, then, I realized that I have unconsciously been writing it for these people, trying to explain Bowie’s appeal somehow, to give them a way in. I don’t know if I have succeeded. In any case, his best work—‘Heroes’, ‘Space Oddity’, ‘Rebel Rebel’—has a directness that requires no explanation, and yet, like all truly great art, it also has a quality of strangeness that can never be totally assimilated no matter how familiar it becomes. And that is his greatest guarantor of lasting relevance and fame.

_________

From story and character songs, to homage and pastiche songs, to collage and nonsense songs, there is no more prolific or promiscuous a songwriter in modern popular music than David Bowie. He left almost no genre and no style untouched, inventing several of his own along the way, and experienced substantial success in them all. But given that he was such a chameleon, one might be tempted to ask if any of his various incarnations was authentic or totally sincere.

A few years ago, in a period of deep infatuation with Joni Mitchell, I began to have precisely this doubt about Bowie. The music just didn’t resonate for me as it did when I was younger and more attracted to the avant-garde. It began to strike me as inauthentic, his whole career just a set of poses and postures with nothing ‘real’ or tangible – no vulnerability, no meaningful self-exposure – behind it.

Of course, I now realize that this was folly. By what standard can we judge the ‘authenticity’ or ‘sincerity’ of an artist for whom high artifice, the mixing of higher and lower forms, and the doctrine of Art for Art’s Sake were so central to his aesthetic sensibility? It’s like asking him to be some other kind of artist instead of being Bowie, and you just don’t do that. You don't ask Picasso to be someone else. It's an absurdity. You’re just grateful that there is a Picasso at all.

Incredible .gif by Helen Green of Bowie’s many incarnations (at www.thisiscolossal.com).

So what is the essence of Bowie’s aesthetic sensibility? Two Oscar Wilde quotes (at least one of which is featured in the Todd Haynes’ film ‘Velvet Goldmine’) go a long way toward illuminating it:

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

Bowie insisted in interviews, “I am not up here to be myself.” He flouted conventional notions of authenticity, embracing the fakeness of what he called “plastic soul”, for example. And then there were all those fictional personas, singing about Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane, and at the same time physically embodying them on stage. All of which made him remote from us in a way that artists who stick to one persona (say, Bob Dylan) or write more transparently autobiographical songs (say, Joni Mitchell) are not. Until recently, I had trouble putting my finger on this distance. But I think it has to do with the ways Bowie deploys irony in his songs, even long after he stops playing characters on stage.

Oscar Wilde again: All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” (In short: while all bad poetry is sincere, not all sincere poetry is necessarily bad.)

We should not expect direct, confessional ‘sincerity’ from Bowie, but it’s wrong to suggest for that reason that Bowie was insincere. His sincerity inevitably comes out in myriad other ways: in his obvious affection for the many styles of music he emulated—black American music in particular—and his championing of black artists (from the early too-white days of MTV to—most recently—his very high praise for Kendrick Lamar, and the inspiration Bowie drew from him on ‘Blackstar’).  It comes out in his virtuosic musicianship and vocal performances. And it comes out in his fond, fierce and frequent covers of other people's songs. (Bowie never stopped being a fan or supporting artists he loved.)

Despite my suspicions about Bowie's sincerity, I have also had a formula in my head that said: Bowie is at his least interesting when he is most sincere. But this was also wrong, because at the same time, he bores me when he is at his most pretentious, when he is straining to be avant-garde, shocking, or edgy. I can appreciate some of Bowie’s nonsense songs (‘Diamond Dogs’, ‘Looking for Satellites’, ‘Girl Loves Me’) for their musical inventiveness and sense of play, but I am never going to care about them as much as I do his great story songs (‘Five Years’, ‘Life on Mars?’), or his epic ballads (‘Absolute Beginners’, ‘Can You Hear Me?’, ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’), or the flavour of Bowie I enjoy the most: what I want to call Bowie’s ‘ironic sincerity’ on songs like ‘Ashes to Ashes’, ‘A Better Future’, ‘Strangers When We Meet’, even ‘Black Tie White Noise’. (More on this to come.)

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The High Priest of High Status

In the early homage song ‘Lady Stardust’, a celebration of the exotic and erotic glamour of Marc Bolan, Bowie clearly positions himself as an adoring fan. It is one of his most straightforwardly sincere songs, and so charming because of that. It also finds him in a relatively rare low-status position vis-à-vis the character he is singing about. But at that point in his career Bowie is already well on his way to being a bigger star than Bolan ever will be, and in an early suite of songs (‘Starman’, ‘Life on Mars?’, ‘Changes’, ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’, ‘Rebel Rebel’), he swiftly moves into the role of a high-status ally to the awkward kids, the freaks and geeks in his audience against the adults, the squares.

Take a close look at the language he uses in these songs—whether it’s the “god-awful small affair” of “the girl with the mousy hair” (in ‘Life on Mars’); or “the tacky thing”, the “tramp” whose “face is a mess” (in ‘Rebel Rebel’); or calling his audience “children” (in ‘Changes’ and ‘Starman’)—and you will see that he sets himself apart from them, occupies a position slightly above them. The language is full of terms of affection, but there is a hint of irony in that affection, owing to his superior status.

(There’s no room to go into it here, but for more detail on the literary nature of this type of irony, see Northrup Frye’s theory of literary modes.) 

In ‘Oh! You Pretty Things’ Bowie occupies a place between the adults and the rebellious children, telling them what they already know: “Oh, you pretty things, don't you know/ You’re driving your mother and fathers insane?” He flatters them by calling them “the start of the coming race,” and tells the parents they have to “make way for the homo superior.” He obviously sympathizes with these kids (deeply), for he too was such an alienated kid once, but he does so from a distance, a place of superior knowledge or experience. He will be their ringleader if they wish, but he is not exactly their peer. He’s already too famous for that.

Later on, when he pays homage to another hero in the song ‘Andy Warhol’, the innocent adoration of a fan is gone, replaced with a tinge of irony, implying superio