Thursday, November 22, 2012

Totally Messed Up Rising

The grand finale of the Batman films, The Dark Knight Rises, is a complete mess. The 2.5 hours have a plot that's a maze where the first to get lost were the scriptwriting brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, the latter of which was also the director. That didn't help.

The film got lost already at its prequels, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. The whole thing with a secret cult of vindictive martial artists had little to do with the Batman archetype, but seemed to be an accidental mix in the clipping board with some Hong Kong kung-fu spectacular: Bruce Wayne becomes Bruce Lee. Didn't work.

The very essence of Batman is the “Lone Ranger” in the big city, an archaic figure refusing to adapt to the modern world and proving that there's still room for him. One man on a personal mission, flamed by his childhood trauma and the rage it created. His motifs are questionable, taking the law into his own hands and punishing the criminals swiftly, without the least consideration to fair trial and all that.

The Dark Knight of Christopher Nolan's films is a social creature, although griping. He cares for the city as if secretly dreaming of becoming its mayor. That makes him hopelessly entangled in society, by which his behavior tends to be as megalomanic as that of the cult he rejected. And just as predictable.

So, the film doesn't have much to work on, from a dramatic perspective. There's a big threat introduced – as big as possible – and a lot of struggle overcoming it. Not enough for 2.5 hours.

It's obvious in the script, which tries telling a lot of stories on the way, almost like starting over repeatedly. It would be better as a miniseries for TV, where it would be graced by our forgetfulness between each episode.

In the dramaturgy of it, the main character is the policeman Blake, played by Joseph Gordon Levitt. He is increasingly frustrated by the impotence of the police force system, finally throwing away his badge and taking the steps towards becoming the next Dark Knight – be it as Robin, the sidekick of the comic strip.

I wouldn't be surprised if there will be yet another Dark Knight movie with Levitt as a Batman incarnate. As an actor, Levitt is definitely better equipped for the role than Christian Bale has proven to be. But only if the character is allowed to bleed internally from waves of self-doubt and the anguish of ghosts from the past.

In this film, though, the metamorphosis he goes through is far too minute to carry the dramatic incentive of the story. He's an honest heroic cop from the beginning to the end, simply taking the consequences of this. For the drama to work, he would have needed to make much more of a quest.

No one else in the film goes through any process to mention. They are what they are, from beginning to end. They act as they would. So, what's to keep the audience interested, except for the mass scenes, the frequent musical crescendos and countless explosions? I kept watching in the fading hope of having a real story starting at some point. It never did.

I don't think the film can make any lasting impression.

Hollywood has great trouble when putting comic strip heroes on the screen. The well-chiseled mythical ingredients of the comics seem to escape the movie producers. They probably want the films to grow up from the boyish comic strip settings, but lose the powerful symbolic patterns in the process.

They would do better to invent new superheroes directly for the movie screen. But then they would need creative minds, something mainstream Hollywood is not particularly famous for. So they stick to squeezing old fruit from other gardens.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Not Taken by the Dramatic Curve

The film Taken from 2008, where Liam Neeson is a retired agent showing all his fury in saving his daughter from human trafficking, is a decent action movie, much thanks to him, but it fails mainly in its dramatic curve. So, the end can be nothing but disappointing.

Any drama needs to conform to the dramatic curve of increased and decreased tension. That also goes for thrillers, action films, horror stories, and so on. Basically they're all drama, from a narration perspective.

Now, the drama that gets us hooked from the beginning to the end has a curve of tension or excitement, which is almost the same in every successful drama. The simple form of this curve is the exponential increase of tension all the way to the climax, after which the tension drops to almost nothing as the closing scene unfolds. It looks something like this:

The dramatic curve.
It plays tricks with the senses, if well executed. A good drama gives the impression of having its climax about one third from the end. Actually, it's no more than five to ten minutes. Check it with a timer. You'll be surprised.

It's needed, because the climax leads to the solution, and after that the audience is impatient to exit.

In a refined drama, the curve gets more complex. It can start with quick initial excitement, just to  grab the attention of the audience. Then it drops to low, followed by a slow increase – maybe with some short drum beats of tension on the way. But the general figure of tension development is still basically the curve above.

The film Taken failed completely to follow that curve. It started slowly, like a thriller usually does, but at the moment of the daughters kidnap it went up high and remained there all through. Were it not for the very competent acting of Liam Neeson, we would have lost interest long before the end.

He was an interesting hero – a seemingly loving father with a raving mad capacity. That's why an audience would not be disappointed until the end, which was simply finding the girl and killing the bad guys. Exactly what he set out to do.

In that way, the film also failed another basic law of drama: the development of the protagonist. For the audience to stay enchanted by the story, it has to show some major development of the one who is the real main character of the story – often not the obvious hero. Someone has to learn something, discover something, or accomplish something previously deemed impossible for him or her.

Nothing of the sort happened in Taken. The father-hero just went on with his rampage until he saved his daughter, and then everybody was happy. Nobody changed significantly.

That doesn't work. We may still see the movie through, but we forget it the moment the end credits start rolling.

Aristotle told us more than two thousand years ago: there are rules to drama. If they are not obeyed, the story collapses. It's odd that Luc Besson, the merited film maker who was one of the script writers, failed that basic requirement.

Age-old Dilemmas Also Plague the Future

Looper is a film playing with the idea of time travel – but doing so with a dramatic nerve that leaves the intellectual paradox far behind. I wonder if that sci-fi ingredient is needed at all in the plot, except for the special effects. The story by director Rian Johnson is so classical, it needs no future.

As the plot developed in front of my eyes, I was initially confused by the main actor, who looked a lot like Joseph Gordon Levitt, and still not. I thought they had found a look-alike, because the character needed someone of his air and caliber.

Only when Bruce Willis' character entered into the story, I realized that it was indeed Joseph Gordon Levitt, made up to have his facial traits. That's so cool of him, and so professional. Many Hollywood actors are neurotic about their looks and profiles, whatever movie they make. Levitt worked hard, in makeup and in his acting, to be a probable younger version of Bruce Willis.

He did a good job, too. Not too much, but enough. I bet he had fun all the time.

For the film plot, it did wonders, since the two ages of the character meet (sorry about that and other spoilers, if you haven't seen the movie yet). Levitt sacrificed his “persona” to make it happen. As the story progressed and the two generations of the same man deviated also in character, this sacrifice of his got its reward. The dilemma of the film became flesh.

The movie does indeed raise some intriguing and alarming questions. Is there a value in being true to oneself, even if that means corruption of the soul? This man morally deteriorates as time passes, and I would say it's just as likely as the opposite.

Another eternally complicated question asked by the film is what's worth dying for? Paradise is exposed as a myth and the present world is filled with rewards that mostly seem to go to the greedy. Then, what's worth making the greatest personal sacrifice for?

The third impossible question raised in the film is: does the end justify the means? Here the end is the actual future, what it will be if nothing is done. The film's discovery is one of utter clarity: If we allow the end to justify the means, we thereby create the future we want to avoid.

Every great thinker of the past would agree.

Like so often, I'm reminded of what the ancient Chinese text Tao Te Ching has to say (chapter 29):

Conquering the world and changing it,
I do not think it can succeed.
The world is a sacred vessel that cannot be changed.
He who changes it will destroy it.
He who seizes it will lose it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Rage of Puberty

The film Chronicle, by director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis, is a high school supernatural thriller turning into tragedy. Underneath the spectacular surface, it's all about the torment and rage of male puberty.

If you haven't seen the film yet – watch out, because there are several blunt spoilers below.

Three high school boys mysteriously acquire what proves to be increasing superpowers. Raw power. They can move bigger and bigger things, they learn how to fly, and their powers keep on growing. So do the complications that follow.

Especially one of them, played with escalating intensity by Dane DeHaan, becomes unable to control the melting pot in which he falls, deeper and deeper. None can help or halt him, not even his equally equipped friends.

All the ingredients of puberty are there. The unhealed wounds of bullying, the sexual urge and disgracing failure, the revolt against a tyrannic father. So, his growing powers are doomed to run amok and lead to his own thunderous doom.

It's an allegory with a bite. The telekinesis and flying among the clouds actually increase the emotional turmoil that is the essence of the story. That's an odd aspect of storytelling – the more extreme the story, the more it seems to relate universally. It's because withing ourselves, we live magnificent lives. The grand scale is what we regard as the most appropriate.

That's never more true than in puberty. And all through the history of human culture there have been a lot of sparkling allegories about puberty, like Gilgamesh, Icarus, Hamlet, Spiderman, just to mention a few. They will keep on coming. Puberty will never be easy.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Patterns of Creation Myths

I made a new website, devoted to creation myths, their stories, structures, and patterns of thought. There is much to discover about the human mind in what kinds of ideas about the world beginning have been imagined way back in the dawn of civilization. We haven't changed that much since, nor has the essence of our perception of the world.

To begin with, the material on my new website,, is mostly stuff I earlier had on my website. But there it was hidden beneath layer of layer of other stuff. So, I thought I'd better make a new domain explicitly for my writing on creation myths.

And it got me adding a new text, about Rig Veda 10:129, an Indian hymn contemplating in a drastic way what might have been before the world was created. It's an old favorite of mine among cosmological writings of the past.

I've studied creation myths for years and years, mainly but not only within the history of ideas, where I'm still supposed to complete a dissertation on the subject. I don't know about that, but surely there will be a book of some kind, eventually. In the meantime, I will keep adding to my new website. Please have a look at it: