Genrely Speaking: Low Fantasy

Time to speak Genrely.  Low fantasy is, as you might expect, the polar opposite of high fantasy. Low fantasy plays around with many of the trappings of high fantasy but applies them to very different ends. The names of the genres kind of sum up the differences. While high fantasy focuses on the big ideas of the human condition low fantasy examines the minutia. Interestingly, it is possible to craft a story that mixes elements of high and low fantasy in one of the harder to quantify genres in existence (see Quintessence for one example).

So what is it that makes low fantasy what it is?

  1. An emphasis on characters who are not at all important in the scheme of things. The people who make up the central characters of a low fantasy story are not movers and shakers, not planning to overthrow governments and not wielders of forces that are out of the ordinary for their world. The scale of events and the people they focus on are, in some ways, much more normal than the typical fantasy stories.
  2. Focus on day to day activities. While this doesn’t exclude the kind of swashbuckling adventure that you’re accustomed to seeing in movies like The Lord of the Rings or reading about in The Chronicles of Narnia, the action in low fantasy ultimately has much less impact on the state of nations than the action in high fantasy. The genre simply assumes that there are people who do that kind of work for a living. There will always be tombs to rob, monsters to fight and evil wizards to put down. After a while it becomes kind of humdrum, and what does that mean for characters and societies?
  3. An abundance of magic. Magic in low fantasy tends to be commonplace. Not everyone knows how to use it but chances are everyone’s seen it a time or two. It tends to be of the sufficiently analyzed version, will come in all kinds in all kinds of shapes and sizes, might be tied in some way to a person’s ancestry or powerful artifacts, or follow any one of a dozen other rules, or just be available to anyone who takes the time to learn it. Its presence or absence in a situation is in no way significant.

What are the weaknesses of low fantasy? It tends to come off as the fantasy equivalent of status quo is god. The characters aren’t out for big purposes they are, at best, out to help a few people they know or just out for their own good. It can be hard to get invested in stories where nothing meaningful ever happens. Sure, the characters go out and have adventures but ten years later they’re sitting in the same bars, drinking and trying to figure out where their next big break will come from. I’m not saying stories about people in regular situations struggling with realistic problems are bad. But something about them cuts against the grain of a genre grouping that shares the same root with the word “fantastic” know what I mean?

What are the strengths of low fantasy? Low fantasy thrives on the way it proves ye olde maxim, the more things change the more they stay the same. We may not live in a world with flying carpets or travel between parallel earths but we can all appreciate the importance of paying the bills and keeping thieves and murderers off the streets – no matter how those crimes are accomplished.

At first glance low fantasy may look like an unappealing genre. Why add all the swords and sorcery if it’s ultimately incidental to the stories? Isn’t the author just being lazy, making sure they don’t have to research all the gritty little details of what they want to write about? Isn’t this a cop out?

The answer is, no. Low fantasy can act as a kind of insulation between the audience and the story. Some things may be uncomfortable when looked at in a way that hits close to home. By looking at these things through the perspective of the fantastic we can give the audience a degree of separation that makes these subjects easier to handle. Of course, by the same token the fantastic may turn off part of your audience as well. It’s important to know who you’re writing for, after all. What’s important is to take low fantasy on it’s own terms – stories of little people in big worlds. And after all, isn’t that what we all are?

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Cool Things: Rear Window

Let me just say that I have a soft spot for Alfred Hitchcock. Not the crazy horror movies like Psycho or The Birds, but the masterful suspense films like To Catch a Thief, North by Northwest or The Man Who Knew Too Much. In fact, I seriously considered making this month “Alfred Hitchcock Movie Month” but there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. So to round out Classic Color Movie Month, here’s Rear Window.

Rear Window is part of the National Film Registry, a perennial favorite of the American Film Institute and well liked on sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. What more can one man possibly add to the discussion?

Well, probably not a whole lot. Other than telling you that you really, really need to see this movie if you haven’t. But we’re going to try anyways.

At the center of Rear Window is photographer L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart). He’s recently broken his leg and spends his time in his cramped apartment confined to a wheelchair, watching the goings on in the courtyard outside his window and the buildings across the way. Equipped with a telephoto lens and a large supply of time on his hands, Jefferies alternates between contemplating the world below and trying to hold off the advances of his high society girlfriend, Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly). A nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), provided by his insurance company also visits from time to time.

Things really go wild when one night, during a downpour, Jefferies hears a woman crying help. Among his neighbors there is a travelling salesman named Thorwald (Raymond Burr) who’s wife is a bedridden nag and who, after that one stormy night, Jeffries never sees again.

Jeffries soon begins to suspect that she’s been murdered. But if a man won’t stop at murdering his wife and cutting up the body to hide it, is there really any reason to think he’ll stop at anything else to get away with it?

It’s no surprise that Rear Window is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. While the typical thriller starts at a breakneck pace and doesn’t let us off until it’s all said and done, Rear Window takes a very, very different approach. Things start mellow and almost relaxing and we get to know Jefferies and his friends. We’re most of the way through the first act before Mrs. Thorwald disappears. Even then, no one’s really sure what happened. And it’s not like someone would commit murder right there, in an apartment facing a courtyard where everyone has been sleeping with their windows open in an attempt to beat the heat.

Would they?

Perhaps the most brilliant part of the story is the fact that Jefferies is confined to his apartment. He really can’t leave to investigate, can’t talk to people other than those who come to his apartment to visit, can’t do much of anything that we, the viewers, can except talk to his friends and ask them for favors.  This creates a kind of empathy between audience and character, we’re alike in our powerlessness. We can only observe and hope things work out for the best. At the end, when Jefferies faces his reckoning, we almost feel like we should be there helping, because we feel we’ve been just as meddlesome as he has even though we ourselves have done nothing.

There’s more to Rear Window, of course. All the best stories are wheels within enigmas within mysteries of storytelling. Stewart is a brilliant actor and his costars match him in every respect. The cinematography is brilliant and the music is a nice touch. But, above everything else, the pacing of Rear Window, it’s incredibly slow but inexorable buildup to the climax, the way it feels at once relentless and light, inevitable yet somehow a little fun, is a lesson in pacing many modern film makers could draw on. A lot.

This is really a classic, not just for reasons of nostalgia but for it’s incredible construction and pacing. If you’ve never seen Rear Window, I think it’s time you went out and remedied that. Right now.

Memorial to a Saint

(Author’s Note: I had originally intended to take a week off after finishing Water Fall to get the summer schedule knocked into place, finalize some ideas and share with you my plans. Long story short, this was supposed to be a post announcing another series of short stories in-between Water Fall and Thunder Clap. Then I remembered that today is Memorial Day and decided it would be more fitting to have this post today, take next week as the week off and continue from there. So today, a Project Sumter short story. Next week, the summer schedule.) 

For the first month and a half the Charleston office of Project Sumter had been one of the busiest places in the city, possibly in the state. But after a solid eight weeks of dominating the news cycles the existence of what the public had quickly dubbed superheroes but the government insisted on calling talented individuals had started to feel more blasé and less exciting. First superhuman stories didn’t make it above the fold anymore. Then talented people got relegated to the second page.

Freelance journalists like Addison Michaels weren’t happy about that, but they were learning to accept the changing realities. If nothing else a journalist knew how to be flexible.

That didn’t mean she didn’t find herself trudging down the street from the bus stop, hoping that this time there might be a worthwhile story hanging around the reception area. Sure Lawrence the receptionist left a lot to be desired, with his constant lisp and poor grasp of manners, but he was a hold over from the days when discouraging the public was the way things were supposed to work, not a deviation from expectations. And while Lawrence could be rude he did know everything that was going on around the office – and thus, he had a good grasp on what was up with talents all across the country. If there was a story to be had, he’d know it.

At least, so her thoughts had run as she came around the corner and started towards the steps up to the office building where Sumter Headquarters was located.

Then she saw the car.

Well, not so much the car, that was a fairly nondescript black sedan, the kind of thing people had been associating with secret government work since long before people knew about Project Sumter. It was more who was getting out of it that mattered. He was, as she had heard so many people say in print, on the radio and on the morning news, shorter than you expected when you met him in person.

In fact Alan Dunn, or Special Agent Double Helix as many people still insisted on calling him, was barely tall enough to see over the roof of the car he stood beside. But that wasn’t what really mattered to Addison. What mattered was that, next to Special Agent Samson, he was probably the most famous talent in the country. That wasn’t saying much at the moment, but the news that he was in town had to be worth something to someone.

She hustled down the street to the curb as he swung the door shut calling, “Excuse me? Agent Dunn?”

For a split second Addison thought she saw Helix’ shoulder slump forward but, almost as soon as it registered he was turning, drawing himself up straight and smiling. If the smile looked forced and his posture was a little more wooden than you’d expect she tried to be understanding, not for the first time reminding herself that these people didn’t expect the press any more than a freelance journalist expected respect, especially from those with steady employment.

“Good morning,” Helix said, taking a few steps away from the curb to meet her. “What can I do for you, ma’am?”

“Hi, I’m Addison Michaels.” She held out her hand for a handshake. “I’m a freelance writer.”

After a split second’s hesitation he accepted the shake saying, “I guessed as much. I’m sorry, Miss Michaels, I’m not actually here in any kind of formal capacity so I don’t really have anything to say at the moment.”

“No, that’s fine Agent Dunn – do you prefer Agent Dunn or Double Helix?”

“I haven’t answered to Alan Dunn for years, outside of tax purposes.” He offered an eloquent shrug. “Most people call me-”

“Helix! Is that girl a friend of yours?”

Sometime during their brief conversation a huge man with sparse white hair and a face like Ayers Rock had managed to slip in behind Helix and open the sedan’s back door. Now he was carefully helping a small woman in a flower print dress out of the back seat. Helix addressed his next words to her. “Grandma, this is Miss Addison Michaels. We’ve just met.”

“Oh. Have we?” Helix’ grandmother turned to stare at her with an eerily blank expression. A flicker of something passed behind her pale blue eyes and she turned to the white haired man and said in a poorly modulated whisper, “Introduce us, dear. We’ve just met this girl and she seems nice.”

It was a little like having her own grandmother visit her church before she passed away and Addison did her best to hide a wince of sympathy. For his part, the woman’s husband made no indication that he found anything wrong with what she said. He just nodded to his wife and said to Addison, “I’m Sergeant Wake. This is my wife, Clear Skies.”

A shiver passed up Addison’s back. Unless she had misunderstood something, Lawrence said these two were founding members of Project Sumter. “What brings you two to Charleston, if I may ask?”

“Charleston?” Clear Skies looked at Helix in horror. “Are we in Charleston, Helix? Daniel won’t like that.”

“Sunshine.”

Clear Skies looked up at her husband. “Don’t ‘sunshine’ me, you two have never gotten along and I know you promised him you’d avoid each other after the war.”

“Sunshine,” Wake said, his voice gentle as baby, his face showing all its years. “Daniel’s been dead for sixteen years. He had a bad heart, you know.”

“Oh.” Her face fell. “I’d forgotten.”

Suddenly Addison felt like an intruder. In many ways that was the job of the press, to intrude on behalf of the public, to keep those in the public eye honest. But these two had never been in the public eye and they’d stopped doing things worth public attention a long time ago. “You know,” she started to say, “maybe I should-”

“There weren’t imbedded reporters with our group, you know,” Wake said, straightening up again. “I never really missed them then, but these days. Well, there’s one story I always thought more people should hear.”

“Grandpa-”

“Don’t ‘grandpa’ me! It’s high time.”

Addison suppressed a smile, wondering if Wake even realized he’d mimicked his wife’s phraseology and town of voice exactly. “I’d love to hear your story, Sergeant Wake.”

Wake offered her his other arm and, after a moment’s hesitation she rested her hand in the crook of his elbow and they started towards the building at a pace clearly aimed at letting Clear Skies keep up with the rest of the group. Ever dozen steps or so, Wake would check on his wife out of the corner of his eye in a way that was really kind of cute. As they made their way leisurely towards the building Wake began.

———

Wake

I only knew him as Saint Elmo, he was this wiry little Italian guy with a mouth so foul you’d never believe the first part of his code name. Back then, Project Sumter was officially a part of the War Department and we were all in the war effort. And back then there was a real important word in front of Air Force – Army. They weren’t different services. So me and Elmo, we’d known each other since back in basic. But the eggheads up in Project High Command, which is what they called it back then, had Ideas about how they were gonna be using his talents. So after basic he shipped out to flight school and I went on to infantry training.

We found each other again in England. That’s a story all in itself. Point was, by the time we flew out over Europe in late September, 1944, we were old pals, me and Elmo. He was the mechanic on the plane that took me out on jumps. Then I’d catch a boat back and we’d do the whole thing again.

But this was something special. It was the last time I’d jump, although we didn’t know it at the time.

I can’t tell you about Operation Garden Grow, it’s still pretty scary stuff. I think about it, sometimes, but rarely on purpose. As I say, I can’t tell you what we were going to do or why high command thought Operation Market Garden would be a good time to do it. This story is about Elmo, so it’s more about getting there than what we did there. So it really starts when our modified B-24 was over the English Channel, me getting settled for another longish trip to Deutschland and trying to stay out of everyone’s way. Wasn’t that hard just yet, since most of the crew doesn’t do much until something unusual happens.

Now Elmo’s crew did these kinds of delivery runs all over, I wasn’t the only talented person running around doing stupid things behind enemy lines and there weren’t that many crews that could be spared to ferry them around. So he saw a lot more of the war than I did, all things considered, and he knew people who could find things, and on the cheap. So when Elmo sat down beside me and handed me a small box I knew it was going to be good.

I’m not real great at describing but she’s still wearing that ring, so you can see it if you want. Nice, ain’t it?

So I ask him, “How much?”

And he tells me, “For you, Sarge, at cost. Three hundred dollars.”

Now that wasn’t just cheap that was downright thievery. Three hundred dollars back then was a lot more than it is now but still. That ring was easily worth five hundred and I said so.

“I picked it up in Cairo from one of the British boys who came through Casablanca,” he says. Gives me the hand wave. “Everyone out there was selling jewelry to try and get out of town before the war. It’s still pretty cheap.”

So I said, “Okay.” And I promised to pay the man once I got back, so long as I did.

We shook on it and Elmo hands me the ring, says, “Now be there to pay up or I’ll make a liar out of you.”

And I give him a glare and say, “I ain’t never been a liar, Saint Elmo, and if you was a real saint you’d be able to see the honesty in my eyes.”

“The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, who can know it?” He tells me, and crosses himself all pious like. Sometimes I wish he’d said anything else. And that I’d done something other than laugh at him.

There we are, two guys not quite twenty five, maybe over water, maybe finally over land, flying away without a care in the world when the Messerschmitts show up. Suddenly things get crazy. Flying into combat in a bomber ain’t like the movies. You don’t zoom around much, there’s no rolling or flipping. Usually the flight commander just tells you there’s incoming and you strap down. Then you listen to the guns going off until somebody’s plane quits working and crashes or the other guys decide to go home. When you’re the bomber’s actual payload you don’t even get to see what’s going on.

I’ll spare you what it was like. I don’t know why you kids like the kinds of movies you watch, the kinds of books you read. The whole point of that war was so you wouldn’t have to live all that but you still try anyways. But enough soapboxing. This is about Elmo.

I’d never seen him do anything unusual on any of our flights before. There were guys who were supposed to be able to mess up German radar just by sitting there and frowning, I always figured Elmo was one of them. Useful trick to have up your sleeve but not so great when they already know where you are. Turns out Elmo did his job once we were found, something that hadn’t happened on my last three trips into Europe.

So I’m strapped in down in the hold, Elmo’s up in the middle, ready to deal with problems, the gun crews are pounding away. Maybe we get hit some, maybe we don’t I honestly don’t remember. Maybe that lasts five, ten minutes, maybe it’s an hour. Hard to say.

Finally the flight commander yells from up in the cockpit, “Saints and ministers of grace preserve us!”

That’s Shakespeare, by the way.

So a second after he yells that I see Elmo go rushing past with a weird looking box under one arm. I figure if Elmo’s doing it then it must be Project business so I unstrap and try to get up to him without getting shot or falling over. And I made it most of the way, too, Liberators aren’t that big after all. But as I got to the point where I’d first seen him I happened to look out the window and said a few things that’d shame my mother.

Then, since it’s the kind of thing pilots like to know, I yelled up to the flight commander, “The wing’s on fire!”

“Relax.” Captain Benet, who was my supervising officer, caught up to me and started dragging me back to my seat. “It’ll be fine. Haven’t you ever stopped to wonder what it is Elmo does on these flights?”

“Radar, right?” Because what else would he be doing, know what I mean?

But the captain just snorts and says, “Do you even know what Saint Elmo’s fire is?”

“A… camping thing?”

“It’s a weird thing static causes around planes in flight or the tops of old sailing ships. It looks like fire but it doesn’t burn” He shoved me toward my seat and, since I trusted the guy, I let myself be sat down. “Elmo’s got a gizmo that lets him make the stuff pretty much whenever he wants. I’m guessing they’ve got him making it now. Which means-”

The plane suddenly dove down and I was fumbling to get strapped back in.

“-we’re going to be playing the wounded bird any time now,” Captain finished.

The floor remained tilted at a really uncomfortable angle for a while. And I mean at least a weak, possibly longer. Then the bombardier stuck his head into the bay and said, “There’s one plane that won’t break off. I think the rest left to play with the bomber streams, but if this last guy rides us to the deck he’s gonna nail us when we try and pull up.”

“Can’t your gunners peel him off us?” Captain asks.

“They’re trying. But you may have to jump out early.”

“I can do that,” I say, “but Captain Benet’s gonna splatter something fierce if he bails at this height.”

“Thanks for your concern,” he says, real dry like. Then he thinks for a second. “Jump now.”

“What?” The bombardier and I ask together.

“Fighters can turn sharper than bombers, so they dive longer too, and pilots like to attack from above because it’s easier to hit from that angle. Jump now and hop back up to take out Fritz as his plane comes in for the kill. We’ll circle back and I’ll jump once we get some altitude back.”

There ain’t anyone who sees the really stupid stuff coming. Particularly when it involves people jumping five or six stories straight up and tearing apart a fighter plane with their hands, though that’s not actually how it happened. The thing I remember the most is bailing out of a plane going well over a hundred miles an hour and pushing out, against the ground, as hard as I could as I came down. I hit hard and jumped a couple of times, like my dad and granddad taught me. Flailing around on the way down I caught a small tree, about as big around as my leg, with an arm and knocked it over, which gave me an idea. Rather than go up after the ME myself I sent the tree up instead.

Getting the leverage for that kind of throw is tricky – I had to wrap an arm around an even bigger tree in order to brace myself and get the thing started on it’s way, then I spun it around a bit to gain momentum. By the time I had that done I was sure that I’d lost my chance to hit the plane but all told it only took a few seconds.

I don’t think I need to tell you that flinging trees at incoming fighters is not something they cover in basic. Or even advanced training. I was pretty much on my own. So I gauged the angle as best I could and let the tree fly as the ME-109 got close.

Of course, I missed.

But the funny thing about a tree flying over your head at forty miles an hour is people tend to duck. It’s pure reflex. So when my tree sailed over his canopy I guess I can’t really blame him for swerving to avoid it. Unfortunately that messed up his attempt to pull out of his dive and he lost control, smashing into the ground seconds later. I winced and took a moment to shake myself out, then found a tree that looked like it could hold me and climbed it.

It took a few seconds for our flight crew to come back around and drop off Captain Benet. I knew when they did because for a few seconds the wings lit up with streamers of fire for just a second and I could see his chute backlit by them as he came down. That was the last I ever saw of Saint Elmo and his crew. I never paid him the three hundred dollars I owed him, because I made it back and he didn’t. Always felt like that made me a liar. And I never even knew his name. I came here today to fix that.

——–

Addison and Helix stopped by the door as Wake and Clear Skies headed out into the small courtyard at the center of the Sumter office complex. Maybe twenty gravestones dotted the grass. There was another pair of men there, one aged enough to need a walker, the other somewhere between Helix and his grandfather. As Helix’ grandparents made their way across the cemetery it quickly became clear they were headed towards the same grave the other two were standing at. In fact, the older of the two men there waved the younger away.

“Who is that?” Addison asked.

“Chief Stillwater,” Helix said, leaning against the side of the building as he watched. “Elmo flew grandpa in. Stillwater hauled him out. Grandma made sure the weather was good for the trip. It was a self contained team.”

“Until they lost Saint Elmo.”

“That was part of it.” But Helix didn’t elaborate on what else might have changed.

Rather than possibly alienate her subject Addison decided to accept a change in subject. “What did Wake mean when he said he came here today to fix something?”

“This is kind of like our Arlington Cemetery here,” Helix said, gesturing around at the gravestones. “Most of the talents killed in World War Two are buried here, those we could find remains of. But even here, their lives aren’t – weren’t – remembered with real names. Not until last month, when mandatory codenames were officially abolished.”

“So they can finally find out who he was. But… don’t take this the wrong way, but does that make a difference?”

Helix gave her a sideways look. “I heard a lot of grandpa’s stories when I was younger. He thought I needed to know what I was signing up for if I joined Project Sumter, so he didn’t spare me much and he didn’t worry about whether I had clearance to know what he told me. But he never told me that story.”

She nodded. “I’m honored.”

“No.” He scowled. “Well, yes. You were. But you were also practice. If I know my grandpa, and I do, he’s not going to stop with just a name. Elmo had family. Possibly kids, definitely younger brothers and sisters. He’ll find them, if he can. And then he’ll tell the story again. He’ll tell it to any of them that will listen, until he’s gone and it stops being his story and it becomes their story.”

“Not quite.” Addison leaned back against the wall next to Helix and watched the three old soldiers standing quietly by the grave, and said, “It’s history.”

A hint of a smile passed unnoticed and Helix said, “I suppose it is, at that.”

Fiction Index

Amazing vs. Spiderman – A Deconstruction

A couple of weeks ago (actually, only a week at the time of this writing but longer once this actually goes up) I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2. I’ve heard a lot about how Marc Webb’s Spiderman movies are superior to Sam Raimi’s, usually from the perspective of faithfulness to the comics, but personally I wasn’t sure what that was based on. I felt that Spiderman was a better movie than The Amazing Spiderman but then I’m not super familiar with the source material. People were saying the sequel was also really good, and that this new Spiderman franchise was shaping up to be great. So I went to see The Amazing Spiderman 2 expecting to see something better than the first movie.

I was… somewhat disappointed.

So I was thinking to myself, how can I turn this waste misapplication of time and money into something useful? Then I realized! It’s time for another episode of disappointment deconstructed!

OBLIGATORY SPOILERS WARNING! I CANNOT DISCUSS THE THINGS I WANT TO DISCUSS HERE WITHOUT SPOILERS! DO NOT READ PAST THIS POINT IF THAT BOTHERS YOU!

Okay, with the obligatory spoilers warning out of the way let me start by saying this analysis is going to be entirely about the writing of the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies and the first two Marc Webb Amazing Spiderman movies. Here are things that I’m not talking about:

  • Faithfulness to the comics version of the character. I’ve never read any large amount of Spiderman comics, although I have seen some of the 1990s Fox animated series. More on this later, but I just wanted to say –  I care more about the movie being as strong as it can standing alone than being totally faithful to the comic book character. Spiderman is like any comic book character who’s been around more than ten years – he’s been written by a lot of people in a lot of different ways, I’m not sure it’s fair to say there’s any one right way to depict him. The Raimi version may have been farther afield than most, but the real question is does that make the movies better or worse as movies?
  • Andrew Garfield and/or Toby Maguire. This isn’t about the acting in the films, most of the cast did well with what they were given. I think Garfield did a better job as Peter Parker in his two films than Maguire did. He’s better suited to the role, he felt more engaged in his performance and he’s got great physical humor skills. But you can hit a home run in a disappointing movie and the movie will still be disappointing.
  • Cinematography or effects. This have come a long way in ten years. It’s not really fair to compare them. They certainly don’t define how good a movie is.
  • The directors. While I’m going to be occasionally identifying these movie franchises as “Raimi’s” and “Webb’s” I do recognize that directors don’t usually have that much influence over the scripts they’re given. It’s just a way to refer to the movies without having to type out the longer titles – and the Spiderman movies are often tied back to Sam Raimi when they’re mentioned anyway. Why fight convention?
  • I’m not discussing the third movie in either franchise. One hasn’t been made yet, the other may as well not have been. ‘Nuff said.

So what, exactly, is it that disappoints me about The Amazing Spiderman and The Amazing Spiderman 2, particularly as compared to Spiderman and Spiderman 2?

Power vs. Responsibility 

Uncle Ben’s declaration that with great power comes great responsibility is such a classic piece of Americana that I knew it even before I’d seen or read any Spiderman at all. It’s supposed to be a foundational part of Peter Parker and Spiderman.

Raimi’s Spiderman takes this lesson to heart and becomes a costumed hero, defeats some villains and does his best to do it quickly, before anyone gets hurt. He feels bad about screwing up his job delivering pizzas, missing dates with his girlfriend and cutting class and, while he keeps doing what he knows needs to be done, he’s not sure he makes a difference. Spiderman eventually grows to the point where, when he faces down Doc Ock, he passes on what he knows – the Doc is the one to face up to what he’s done and clean up the mess he’s created, not Spiderman. Sure, Otto needed Spiderman there to smack sense back into him but ultimately the runaway fusion project is ended because Spiderman convinces Doc Ock of his responsibility to fix things, not because Spiderman is a hero.

Although in some ways teaching heroics to others might make him one.

Webb’s Spiderman doesn’t seem to learn anything about responsibility. He makes a promise to Captain Stacey which he clearly has no intention of keeping, wastes time yammering at crooks for no good reason instead of getting with the arresting, all while the city around him is shot up and run over by crazed Ruskies, and eventually sees another person he cares about die so he can relearn the lesson he supposedly learned when Uncle Ben died: he has an obligation to protect people with his abilities. Seriously, why did I sit through the second half of The Amazing Spiderman and 98% of The Amazing Spiderman 2 just to discover that Our Hero has made no appreciable character growth?

Most of the villains Spiderman confronts are representative of power without responsibility attached to it. Unfortunately all the slapstick antics Webb’s Spiderman spends his time on make it hard to see any contrast besides one of degree. Sure, Peter Parker’s not burning down the city or ruling the world but part of me wonders if a superpowered clown is really any better than a normal one…

Friendship vs. Obligation 

Harry Osborn is the son of Norman Osborn, heir to Oscorp and a friend of Peter’s. He’s supposed to serve as a kind of foil to Peter, they’re the opposites in terms of wealth, sociability and popularity.

In Raimi’s Spiderman we meet Harry almost as soon as we meet Peter. They hang out, they do stuff, they vie for Norman Osborn’s approval (well, more Harry tries to get some attention from his dad, Norman loves Peter).

Then Norman turns himself into the Green Goblin and fights Spiderman to the death. Harry never knows about his father’s alter ego but he does find Spiderman with Norman’s body, and forms a grudge. He knows Peter knows something about Spiderman and pressures his friend to do something to bring his father’s killer to justice. Suddenly Peter is caught between his friendship with Harry and his duty as Spiderman. It’s good, dramatic, character building stuff.

Webb’s Spiderman gets none of that. We don’t even see Harry until the second movie, we barely see Norman at all and he dies (of a genetic disease!) before he does a single thing of any significance. Peter doesn’t feel like he has any connection to any of the Osborns, except possibly through his parents who’s role in all this remains incredibly vague. Sure, Harry claims to have once been friends with Peter but we sure don’t see them acting like it much.

Harry and Peter’s friendship feels more like a plot contrivance here. They don’t have any real reason to know each other except that they need to argue with each other and a reason for Harry’s hating Spiderman needs to be established. This is achieved, but it’s sloppy and feels more than a little dumb. Instead of providing dramatic tension and giving character insight it just sort of sits there.

Acceptance vs. Rejection

Both Peter Parker and Spiderman are a kind of outcasts. Peter is ignored by his peers, Spiderman is reviled by a vocal portion of the general public. Both just want to be accepted for what they can do. This is one of the things that makes Spiderman effective as a teenaged and young adult superhero, as opposed to most superheroes who are depicted as mature, established adults. For must supers, even if their mask is hated they usually still have a stable secret identity to fall back on.

Now in Raimi’s Spiderman we get a sense of Peter as the exception to this rule. He delivers pizzas to make ends meet as a normal person and as Spiderman not only does the public view him with mixed feelings but J. Jonah Jameson, newspaper editor and occasional purchaser of Peter’s photographs of Spiderman, utterly loathes Spidey and is intent on destroying him in the press.

In short, Raimi’s Spiderman is in the middle of a classic teenager dilemma – no matter what he does he can’t seem to win. Why even bother? Other than Uncle Ben seemed to think it was a good idea, of course. And thus, conflict, character growth and story.

On the other hand, Webb’s Spiderman is… well, kind of a popular guy. At the least, the people of New York are happy to line up to help him in his final battle with the Lizardman and they all seem okay with standing around cheering during his fights with Electro. Sure, we’re told Jameson still hates the dude but we never see Jameson or hear any of his rants or really get any idea of how this makes Spiderman feel or how he struggles with it.

Gwen Stacey

Did anyone go to this movie not expecting her to die? Her death is apparently a major part of Spiderman’s character arc (or so I’m told.) I think it’s happened at least twice in the comics, maybe more. In fact, it is a trope.

So why waste two movies with her? Not to sound calloused, but the only reason to spend all this time on Gwen Stacey is to make a blatant bid to manipulate our emotions later on. I know that I’ve said the point of writing is to provoke a response but the key is to do it without being noticed.

It’d be one thing if Peter had started knowing Gwen, if she’d been the one bright spot for most of the first movie but we watched Spiderman slowly come between them – not necessarily as another love interest but just Peter’s new life interfering with his old – and they’d only come to an understanding as she died.

But instead we suffer through two movies of fairly unbelievable “romance” between the two of them, knowing that it can’t possibly go anywhere, until they finally kill her off. And, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t really feel like all this goes anywhere. Peter and Gwen don’t really grow as a result of all this. It’s just sort of there.

(Aside: if the writers really wanted to throw us for a loop they wouldn’t have killed off Norman Osborn without his doing anything. They would have let Gwen Stacey survive until the end of the series.)

In short, The Amazing Spiderman 2 was a mediocre movie at best. While it’s stars did a great job with the script they were given in the end there’s nothing there to elevate it out of the doldrums. In terms of writing it certainly wasn’t any better than Spiderman 2, although the acting may have been better. Should you not go see it? That depends on how much you like Spiderman and/or Marvel. If you’re a fan of either one, sure, go see the movie. You’ll be entertained. But I doubt you’ll still be raving about it in a year’s time. For my part, I’ve said my piece.

An American Tail

So it’s classic color movie month here at Nate Chen Publications. But before that, I need to make a quick disclaimer – today’s post is not exactly a classic. It was released in 1986, making it younger than I am. However, that also makes it a part of my childhood of which I am very fond. So I hope you’ll indulge me, just a little bit, as I geek out about one of my favorite animated movies from early childhood.

Most people think of animated movies and they think of Disney films like The Lion King, or Beauty and the Beast, or Aladdin or, more recently, of Tangled and Frozen. Or maybe they think of the really classic Disney movies like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty. And, to be honest, I do too.

But An American Tail isn’t Disney and I mean in more ways than it’s studio. Yes, it was produced by Amblin Entertainment and Sullivan Bluth Studios. But for another thing, it eschews  many of the themes that define most Disney movies, such as the transformative power of romance or the danger of meddling in the affairs of wizards. Other themes, like talking animals or not entirely accurate song lyrics (“There are no cats in America!”) are there, and the art is similar. But this is very much it’s own work.

The story revolves around Fievel Mousekewitz and his family, immigrant mice who have left Russia. The movie itself leaves the exact reasons for this vague, other than that the Mouskewitz’ home was burned by cassock cats. Keen observers familiar with history will quickly deduce, from the accents of the elder Mousekewitz and their family name, that they were most likely targeted because they were Jewish but this is a subtext that will fly right over the heads of younger children. (I didn’t figure this out until I was telling a friend about the movie in college. All the pieces were there, I’d just never looked at them from the right perspective before.)

Fortunately, An American Tail isn’t a morality play about racism. It’s a fish (or mouse) out of water tale, a story where reality and preconceptions clash and protagonists come out better for it.

Fievel is separated from his family on the boat during a storm. Washed overboard, his family believes he is dead and he must take to the mean streets of New York to try and find them. (Yes, they left Russia and arrived in New York. Don’t ask. I think arriving in New York is a trope of some kind, although it’s not in the catalog.)

The adventure isn’t all Fievel’s, although he’ll have to face down street rats (literally), charity workers, city slickers, idealists and politicians to straighten things out. Through out the course of the story we also glance back to Mr. Mousekewitz and his grieving family. They all have problems to deal with but the biggest one of all – cats.

I guess not everything you heard about America those days was true.

An American Tail isn’t a fantastic movie. But it does touch something deep inside. It’s a story about homes. Fievel has lost his old home, not just left his physical dwelling but been separated from his family, and not every offer of a new one is something that he wants. He has to do a lot of growing up very quickly. But he never gives up the hope that he can get back what he lost. His father used to tell him stories about how things could be better, the good things that had been before and might be again. When offered the chance, more than once, to believe the good things weren’t coming and settle for what he had, Fievel choses to keep looking. With enough perseverance and the right goals, maybe he can make the good things real.

And in the end, he does. The Mouse of Minsk was an odd place to start – but he does.

Really, is there any tale more American than that?

An Incident in a Family Diner

The eggs were dry and rubbery and the coffee was closer to water than an aromatic beverage. He wasn’t sure whether the blacked squares on his plate were supposed to be toast or some kind of scouring pad to clean the tabletop with before he put his elbows on it. But it was still a sight better than what he had been getting before they grudgingly let him go.

After a couple of months the folks called Project Sumter had finally given up fighting in the courts and allowed those people arrested while the organization didn’t technically exist and not yet tried in one of it’s shadow courts to go free. That mostly meant those who had been arrested as part of their operations intended to find Open Circuit, of which he had been one. So while the food in that shabby little diner wasn’t everything he could have hoped for it was still more than enough to satisfy him, at least for the moment.

Still, it was time to think about priorities. A safecracker of his talents, both mechanical and electrical, had been able to make a good living before the world knew fuse boxes existed. Doing a little accounting work by day was just a way to make a little on the side. Now, it might be time to start thinking about a new line of work. No one had ever been able to pin anything on him before because he’d been careful never to do anything big enough to draw the scrutiny of people like the Project but now that talents were out in the open it might be a different story. Perhaps if he went to work for the other side of things. Businesses would need security consultants to deal with all the new wrinkles talents could put in their security.

He was in the process of spreading the thin, unappetizing contents of a butter packet onto his scouring pad toast when two unfamiliar men sat themselves on the other side of the booth without bothering to ask permission. He glanced up and looked around, wondering if the small diner had really gotten so crowded that there was nowhere else to sit. As he suspected, it hadn’t.

The two men were a study in contrasts. One was skinny, white and dressed like a typical cubicle slave. Starched white shirt, tie, cheap dress slacks, habitual frown. The other wore blue jeans and a worn red shirt with grease as an accessory, his hair and complexion hinted at the kind of messy ancestry that made census workers throw a fit when it was time to put down an ethnicity. They looked like they’d walked straight out of a stereotype handbook.

He put his toast down slowly, eating forgotten. He’d worked with conmen in the past and even the worst had been better than these two. Maybe Project Sumter wasn’t done with him after all. “Can I help you two?”

They exchanged a look, then slid into the booth one after the other. “I’m Doug Wallace,” the mutt said, sliding into the seat last, the office drone already getting comfortable and pulling a strange coil of wire out of his coat pocket. “This is Greg Davis. We’ve spent a lot of time looking for you.”

Davis set the coil of wire down in front of him and it seemed to pull at him. He reached out to take it but Davis pulled it back with two fingers. “Careful,” the office drone said, his voice smug. “This isn’t quite ready for you to handle yet. But you can tell it’s special, right?”

He pulled his hands back and resisted the urge to sit on them, just to keep them under control. “What is it?”

“There’s no technical name for it, but it’s basically a special kind of electromagnet.” Davis tapped the metal rod, about as thick as a man’s thumb, that ran down the center of the wire coil. “When it’s properly attuned to the bioelectrical field of a category of persons like yourself, fuse boxes we call them, it allows that person to use their unique talent over a distance, rather than just by touch.”

He blinked once. “That’s not possible.”

“But you can feel it right now,” Wallace said. “We can tell by the way you’re looking at it. Even though it’s not attuned to you yet, it’s charged and close enough to your frequency that you can feel it even if you can’t use it.”

Wallace was right and everyone at the table knew it. Under the scrutiny of these two men, who’s cardboard cutout personas were apparently just a front for the even more confusing people beneath, he didn’t see any reason in denying it. He licked his lips and said, “Sure. I can see that. I don’t suppose I should ask how you know I’m a fuse box to begin with?”

“Does it matter?” Davis asked, holding the magnet up between them as if letting him see it from all angles. “Ask what you’re really wondering.”

He touched one finger to the coil of wire then jerked back in surprise. The electric potential inside actually seemed to grate on him like nothing he’d ever experienced before. “How can I get one I can use?”

“It’s fairly complicated, actually,” Davis said. “Calibrating one properly can require as many as a dozen MRIs, several weeks of troubleshooting. Once one is properly configured more can be made fairly easily, but getting that first template measured and tested can cost upwards of a hundred grand. On top of that, you’d need-”

“They’re not available to the general public,” Wallace summarized, he friend glaring at being cut off. “It’d take months and thousands of dollars of medal work to get you set up for one. Why, are you interested?”

He stared at the small coil of wire and let the possibilities roll over him. “With something like that you could control pretty much any electric motor, possibly any microchip, in a city block.”

“Not quite that large an area, not with one of these,” Davis replied, tucking the electromagnet back into his pocket. “But you wouldn’t be limited to touch anymore.”

“Nothing will be safe,” he said in amazement. “You could crack practically any modern lock in seconds with the right training. Shut down electronic surveillance, hit computerized records to cover your tracks-”

“All been done already,” Wallace said with a shrug. “You’ve heard of Open Circuit, right?”

“Sure.” He scowled. “Apparently I was working  for him before I got arrested. Not exactly something that appeals to a person, not knowing you’re working for a terrorist.”

“Come now,” Davis said with a condescending smile, “if you had access to technology like ours would you really want to advertise your existence?”

His expression turned thoughtful. “No, I suppose not.” Then his eyes sharpened and he was back in the present. “What do you  two want with me then? I’ll tell you up front, after my last experience working for Open Circuit I’m not exactly eager for another.”

“Makes sense to me,” Wallace said. “But this won’t be like your last. This time you’re not going to be one of the rank and file. This time you get to be one of the inner circle.”

He raised an eyebrow. “And why should I believe that?”

“We need a fuse box to make these gadgets worth something,” Davis replied. “You were the easiest to find and the most likely to agree, but you don’t have to work with us.”

“You’re not doing a good job making your case.”

Davis leaned forward and steepled his fingers. “What if I told you we were building a network of devices such as the one I just showed which would allow a fuse box to control all the electricity in a city?”

There was a moment of silence as the three men stared at each other over the tabletop. Finally he asked, “And what would I do with such a thing, Mr. Davis?”

Davis answered with an unnerving smile. “Anything you want.”

Water Fall – Fin

Fiction Index
Previous Chapter

Writing Men: Last Full Measure

Humankind cannot gain anything without giving something in return. 

-Principle of Equivalent Exchange, Fullmetal Alchemist

So. Writing men, a recap in four five links: IntroductionObjectivityAxiomsBoxen. Smash!

People are different from things. This pretty much goes without saying, but for the purposes of this series of posts they’re actually kind of similar. After all, men don’t just test their things to the breaking point, they put themselves under the gun, too. Of course, in many respects the things I said last week about the importance of testing limits and knowing more about stuff applies to people as well as things. The difference comes in a willingness to take on sacrifice as a part of growth.

Now there’s a lot of talk about the evolution of gender roles, men as gatherers and women as allocators, feeling vs. thinking and what have you when modern people talk about men and women. I want to say that I’m not going to try and address any of that. Here’s what I do know: In my experience, men are far and away the more likely to face a situation where they want something and immediately ask themselves, “What do I have to do get that? Do I have to give something up? I’ll give up (fill in the blank) for that.”

And they’ll immediately be warned of the consequences of their decision by their sister/girlfriend/wife. Now, as with many of the things I’ve talked about in this post, this kind of behavior is by no means restricted to men. Women can, and do, make these kinds of tradeoffs all the time. Sacrifice is not gender specific.

The difference is, men tend to get excited about it. Men are objectively driven thinkers. They want to get somewhere. This is how they define themselves. What’s often missed in this equation is how much a man wants to get somewhere. The man who wants to own his own business, the man who wants to get the girl, the man who wants to get revenge, these are a few of the faces of the man with an objective. He cuts himself to the bone to get there, and he measures the importance of the goal by how much he’s willing to set aside to get there. As sacrifices pile up obviously he’s getting closer to where he wants to be, right?

Sacrifice is one of the ways men express themselves. It’s a sign of devotion, of value and of respect. Men sacrifice with a single purpose in mind. They know they’re going to pay for it, that there may be unintended consequences, that they’ll hate themselves later. But that (for whatever value of that) is worth the cost. For a man, the widespread consequences of laying something aside pale before the sheer excitement of the change they believe they’ll create.

In an interesting corollary, don’t be surprised if a man drops a goal if he finds he’s not willing to sacrifice to get to it. There’s a sort of know-thyself revelation in these things. Don’t want to pay the price for something? How much did you really want it? How does it stack up to all those other objectives you had?

Men are creatures of sacrifice. They have to be, it’s part of how they’re wired. As with all other aspects of manhood, this is neither a positive or a negative. I hammer this over and over again but this is one place where it particularly stands out. Society today tends to think of sacrifice as a negative, when we think of it at all. I think this has something to do with being a consumer society, we just want more we don’t think about cutting back very often. The one exception is in dreams and the future. People are often told to settle, that what they can get easily is enough. Enjoy it and don’t look for more.

And there’s nothing wrong with that advice in some situations. There are plenty of self-destructive kinds of sacrifice out there. The man who spends eighty hours at work every week so he can get to the top but never sees his family. The athlete who totally destroys his body in five years of competition and is a virtual cripple for the next forty years of his life. But can you really get anything worthwhile if you don’t give something up?

The alternative is to over glorify sacrifice, something that was more common in the past but isn’t talked about as much now. It does seem noble to set aside something you want to strive more totally for something else. These days we gloss over those kinds of costs but once upon a time that kind of devotion was highly praised. But if you’ve traded time with your family to slave away at a job that you’ll ultimately retire from totally alone, was the sacrifice really a good thing?

Objectives are in the future. Many of them cannot be reached without sacrifice and, as I’ve already said, sometimes when they’re called into doubt men give them up. But should they?

The American Civil War required that over 600,000 men sacrifice their lives. People still can’t agree over what they sacrificed for. But no one who’s been born and raised in the United States would disagree with Lincoln when he said they offered their last full measure of devotion. Even when we’re not sure what that meant, the fact of it still move us.

When writing men, then, the questions are these:

What will a man sacrifice?

What does he expect go gain from his sacrifice?

What will he actually gain?

How will the sacrifice change him?

Will it be worth it?

At the end of the day, the sum of a man is not measured in what he gave up and what he gained from it. Character, once created, cannot be destroyed. But as a man builds up and sacrifices, as his circumstances and mindset change over time with new frameworks for thought being set up, tested and cast aside, a man grows. Let that growth be the measure of him.