Alec Nevala-Lee

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The essential strangeness of fairy tales

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Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

Note: I’m taking a break for the next few days, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on March 30, 2015.

Over the last few months, I’ve been telling my daughter a lot of fairy tales. My approach has been largely shaped, for better or worse, by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: I happened to read it a few years ago as part of an unrelated writing project, but it also contained insights that I felt compelled to put to use almost at once in my own life. Bettelheim is a controversial figure for good reason, and he’s not a writer whose ideas we need to accept at face value, but he makes several points that feel intuitively correct. When it comes to fairy tales, it seems best to tell the oldest versions of each story that we have, as refined through countless retellings, rather than a more modern interpretation that hasn’t been as thoroughly tested; and, when possible, it’s preferable to tell them without a book or pictures, which gets closer to the way in which they were originally transmitted. And the results have been really striking. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have seized my daughter’s imagination, to the point where we’ll discuss them as if they happened to her personally, and she isn’t fazed by some of their darker aspects. (In “Hansel and Gretel,” when I tell her that the parents wanted to take their children into the woods and leave them there, she’ll cheerfully add: “And kill dem dere!”)

There’s no denying that the traditional versions of these fairy tales contain elements that most contemporary parents find disturbing or inexplicable, like the red-hot shoes that the evil queen in “Snow White” is forced to wear to dance herself to death, or the willingness of the father in “Hansel and Gretel” to abandon his children in the forest. (When my wife told me that she thought that the real villain in that story is the father, I replied: “Actually, I think the real villain is the witch who cooks and eats little kids.”) It’s tempting to tone down the originals a bit, sometimes to the point of insipidity: I recently came across a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother at all—she just gets scared and runs off to hide behind the house. But based solely on my own observations, I think it’s a mistake to shy away from the darkness: not, as Bettelheim would have it, for its psychological benefits, which can be hard to pin down anyway, but simply from the perspective of good storytelling. A version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless. And kids who sense that their time is being wasted won’t ask to repeat the experience.

Tangled

And there’s a particularly important point here, which is that the more bizarre or irrational the detail—and the harder it is to extract any clear lesson from it—the more likely it has survived for a reason. Plot points that are simply functional or logical, or which serve an obvious didactic purpose, as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” will be retained out of practical considerations; when something arbitrary, grotesque, or even borderline immoral lingers on through countless retellings, it can only be because it gets at something fundamental. It reminds me a little of the criterion of embarrassment in literary analysis, which states that a historical detail that would have seemed embarrassing or strange to its original authors or readers—like the crucifixion—is likely to be authentic, since they wouldn’t be inclined to invent such an inconvenient fact if they had any choice. (Similarly, in classical philology, when you need to choose between two variants of the same text, the stranger or more unusual form is usually the older one: it’s more probable that a scribal error would smooth out a perceived anomaly to make it more conventional, rather than the other way around.) We may not be able to articulate why these details are there, but the fact that they were selected to survive speaks to their importance and resilience, which would be foolish to underestimate.

And it can be disorienting to move from the older versions of these stories to their more recent, Disneyfied incarnations. In the version of “Rapunzel” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the story is set in motion by the mother’s obsessive desire to eat some of the lettuce from the garden of the sorceress next door. We aren’t told why she wants it so badly; she simply tells her husband that if she can’t have it, she fears that she will die. In Tangled, this detail is rationalized and clearly motivated: the lettuce becomes a flower with magical healing properties, and it’s literally used to save the queen’s life. This version has the benefit of explaining away the weirdness in the original tale, and it’s far more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it also diminishes its mystery and resonance. I like Tangled a lot, and I’m not going to reject the Disney versions of these stories—which have considerable artistic merits of their own—just because they soften or minimize the darker elements of their sources. (Although I do avoid the Disney storybooks, which follow the plot points by rote while losing most of the appeal of both the movie and the original story.) But it’s worth remembering that each version exists to fulfill a different need, and a child’s inner life ought to have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

May 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

The essential strangeness of fairy tales

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Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

Over the last few months, I’ve been telling my daughter a lot of fairy tales. My approach has been largely shaped, for better or worse, by Bruno Bettelheim’s book The Uses of Enchantment: I happened to read it last year as part of an unrelated writing project, but it also contained insights that I felt compelled to put to use almost at once in my own life. Bettelheim is a controversial figure for good reason, and he’s not a writer whose ideas we need to accept at face value, but he makes several points that feel intuitively correct. When it comes to fairy tales, it seems best to tell the oldest versions of each story we have, as refined through countless retellings, rather than a more modern interpretation that hasn’t been as thoroughly tested; and, when possible, it’s preferable to tell them without a book or pictures, which gets closer to the way in which they were originally transmitted. And the results have been really striking. Stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” have seized my daughter’s imagination, to the point where we’ll discuss them as if they happened to her personally, and she isn’t fazed by some of their darker aspects. (In “Hansel and Gretel,” when I tell her that the parents wanted to take their children into the woods and leave them there, she’ll cheerfully add: “And kill dem dere!”)

There’s no denying that the traditional versions of these fairy tales contain elements that most contemporary parents find disturbing or inexplicable, like the red-hot shoes that the evil queen in “Snow White” is forced to wear to dance herself to death, or the willingness of the father in “Hansel and Gretel” to abandon his children in the forest. (When my wife told me that she thought that the real villain in that story is the father, I replied: “Actually, I think the real villain is the witch who cooks and eats little kids.”) It’s tempting to tone down the originals a bit, sometimes to the point of insipidity: I recently came across a retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother at all—she just gets scared and runs off to hide behind the house. But based solely on my own observations, I think it’s a mistake to shy away from the darkness: not, as Bettelheim would have it, for its psychological benefits, which can be hard to pin down anyway, but simply from the perspective of good storytelling. A version of “Little Red Riding Hood” in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless. And kids who sense that their time is being wasted won’t ask to repeat the experience.

Tangled

And there’s a particularly important point here, which is that the more bizarre or irrational the detail—and the harder it is to extract any clear lesson from it—the more likely it has survived for a reason. Plot points that are simply functional or logical, or which serve an obvious didactic purpose, as in “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” will be retained out of practical considerations; when something arbitrary, grotesque, or even borderline immoral lingers on through countless retellings, it can only be because it gets at something fundamental. It reminds me a little of the criterion of embarrassment in literary analysis, which states that a historical detail that would have seemed embarrassing or strange to its original authors or readers—like the crucifixion—is likely to be authentic, since they wouldn’t be inclined to invent such an inconvenient fact if they had any choice. (Similarly, in classical philology, when you need to choose between two variants of the same text, the stranger or more unusual form is usually the older one: it’s more probable that a scribal error would smooth out a perceived anomaly to make it more conventional, rather than the other way around.) We may not be able to articulate why these details are there, but the fact that they were selected to survive speaks to their importance and resilience, which would be foolish to underestimate.

And it can be disorienting to move from the older versions of these stories to their more recent, Disneyfied incarnations. In the version of “Rapunzel” recorded by the Brothers Grimm, for instance, the story is set in motion by the mother’s obsessive desire to eat some of the lettuce from the garden of the sorceress next door. We aren’t told why she wants it so badly; she simply tells her husband that if she can’t have it, she fears that she will die. In Tangled, this detail is rationalized and clearly motivated: the lettuce becomes a flower with magical healing properties, and it’s literally used to save the queen’s life. This version has the benefit of explaining away the weirdness in the original tale, and it’s far more acceptable from a narrative point of view, but it also diminishes its mystery and resonance. I like Tangled a lot, and I’m not going to reject the Disney versions of these stories—which have considerable artistic merits of their own—just because they soften or minimize the darker elements of their sources. (Although I do avoid the Disney storybooks, which follow the plot points by rote while losing most of the appeal of both the movie and the original story.) But it’s worth remembering that each version exists to fulfill a different need, and a child’s inner life ought to have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

March 30, 2015 at 9:07 am

My ten great books #2: In Search of Lost Time

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In Search of Lost Time

The best advice I’ve found for approaching this enormous, daunting book is Roger Shattuck’s observation, in his useful study Proust’s Way, that Marcel Proust’s most immediate precursor is Scheherazade, the legendary author of The Thousand and One Nights. In Search of Lost Time has less in common with the novels that we usually read than with the volumes of myths and fairy tales that we devour in childhood, and it might seem more accessible to the readers who currently find it bewildering if, as Shattuck suggests, it had been titled The Parisian Nights. Proust is a teller of tales, and like Homer, his work is infinitely expansible. An exchange that lasts for a few lines in an oral epic like The Iliad could have been expanded—as it probably was for certain audiences—into an entire evening’s performance, and Homer deploys his metaphors to introduce miniature narratives of human life that don’t otherwise fit into a poem of war. Proust operates in much the same way. One observation leads naturally to another, and an emotion or analogy evoked in passing can unfold like a paper flower into three dense pages of reflections. In theory, any good novel could be expanded like this, like a hypertext that opens into increasingly intimate levels: In Search of Lost Time happens to be the only book in existence in which all of these flowerings have been preserved. Its plot could fit into a novella of two hundred unhurried pages, but we don’t read Proust for the plot, even if he knows more about suspense and surprise than you might expect. His digressions are the journey, and the result is the richest continuous slice of a great writer’s mind that a work of fiction can afford.

And the first thing that you notice about Proust, once you’ve lived in his head for long enough, is that he has essential advice and information to share about everything under the sun. Proust is usually associated with the gargantuan twin themes of memory and time, and although these are crucial threads, they’re only part of a tapestry that gradually expands to cover all human life. At first, it seems a little unfair that our greatest writer on the subject of sexual jealousy should also be a genius at describing, say, a seascape, as well as a mine of insight into such diverse areas as art, class, childhood, travel, death, homosexuality, architecture, poetry, the theater, and how milk looks when it’s about to boil over, while also peopling his work with vivid characters and offering up a huge amount of incidental gossip and social reportage. When you look at it from another angle, though, it seems inevitable. Proust is the king of noticing, and he’s the author who first awakened me to the fact that a major novelist should be able to treat any conceivable topic with the same level of artistic and intellectual acuity. His only rival here is Shakespeare, but with a difference. Plays like Hamlet speak as much in their omissions and silences, leaving us to fill in the gaps. Proust, by contrast, says everything—it’s all there on the page for anyone who wants to unpack it—and you can’t emerge without being subtly changed by the experience. Like Montaigne, Proust gives us words to express thoughts and feelings that we’ve always had, and if you read him deeply enough, you inevitably reach a point where you realize that this novel, which seemed to be about everything else in the world, has been talking about you all along.

Written by nevalalee

May 9, 2017 at 9:00 am

Land of the giants

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Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War

Earlier this morning, I found myself thinking about two of my favorite movie scenes of the year. One is the sequence in Zootopia in which Judy Hopps chases a thief into the neighborhood of Little Rodentia, where she suddenly seems gigantic by comparison, tiptoeing gingerly past buildings the size of dollhouses. The other is the epic fight between the superheroes in Captain America: Civil War, in which Ant-Man reverses his usual shrinking power to transform himself into Giant Man. Both are standout moments in very good movies, and they have a lot in common. In each one, a normally meek and physically vulnerable character is abruptly blown up to gargantuan proportions, a situation that offers up more natural comedy than if it had involved a more conventional hero. (It’s a lot of fun to see Hank Pym treating the rest of the Avengers as his personal action figures, when it wouldn’t mean much of anything to see a giant Hulk.) Both are bright daytime scenes that allow us to scrutinize every detail of their huge central figure, which is logically satisfying in a way that a movie like the Godzilla remake isn’t: the latter is so weirdly loyal to the notion that you shouldn’t show the monster that it keeps cutting away nervously even when Godzilla ought to be the biggest thing in sight.

Most of all, of course, these scenes play with scale in ways that remind us of how satisfying that basic trick can be. A contrast in scale, properly handled, can be delightful, and it’s even more instructive to see it here, in a pair of mainstream studio movies, than it might be in more refined contexts. As the architect Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order:

The first thing I noticed, when I began to study objects which have life, was that they all contain different scales. In my new language, I would now say that the centers these objects are made of tend to have a beautiful range of sizes, and that these sizes exist at a series of well-marked levels, with definite jumps between them. In short, there are big centers, middle-sized centers, small centers, and very small centers…[Scale] provides a way in which one center can be helped in its intensity by other smaller centers.

It might seem like a leap from the harmonious gradation of scale that Alexander is describing here and the goofy appearance of Giant Man, but both draw on the same underlying fact, which is that contrasts of size provide a standard of measurement. When Giant Man shows up, it feels like we’re seeing him and the rest of the Avengers for the first time.

King Kong and Citizen Kane

The movies have always taken pleasure in toying with our sense of proportion: there’s a reason why a new version of King Kong seems to pop up every few decades. If film is naturally drawn to massive contrasts of scale, it’s in part because it’s so good at it. It’s hard to imagine another medium that could pull it off so well, aside from our own imaginations, and movies like The Thief of Baghdad have reveled in bringing the giants and ogres of folklore—who are like a small child’s impression of the adult world—to life. Every movie that we see in theaters becomes a confrontation with giants. When we watch Bogart and Bergman on the big screen in Casablanca, their faces are the size of billboards, and you could argue that we respond to giants in the movies because they force the other characters to experience what the rest of us feel in the auditorium. Hollywood has always seen itself as a land of giants, even if it’s populated by moral pygmies, as Gloria Swanson reminds us in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” And I’ve always been struck by the fact that the classic posters for King Kong and Citizen Kane are so similar, with the title character looming over smaller figures who stand terrified at the level of his ankles. Kane and Kong, whose names go together so well, are both monsters who came out of RKO Pictures, and perhaps it isn’t surprising that Orson Welles, like Brando, grew so large toward the end of his life.

The idea that a giant might symbolize the gigantic qualities of the work of art in which it appears isn’t a new one. In his great essay “Gravity’s Encyclopedia,” which I seem to think about all the time, the scholar Edward Mendelson lists what he calls “encyclopedic narratives”—The Divine Comedy, Gargantua and Patnagruel, Don Quixote, Faust, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, and Gravity’s Rainbow—and observes that they all have one thing in common:

All encyclopedias metastasize their monstrousness by including giants or gigantism: the giants who guard the pit of hell in Dante, the eponymous heroes of Rabelais, the windmills that Don Quixote takes for giants, the mighty men whom Faust sends into battle, Moby-Dick himself, the stylistic gigantism of Joyce’s “Cyclops,” and, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the titans under the earth and the angel over Lübeck whose eyes go “towering for miles.”

Your average blockbuster is even more gargantuan, in its way, than even a great novel, since it involves the collaboration of hundreds of artisans and the backing of an enormous corporation that can start to seem vaguely monstrous itself. Like most adult moviegoers, I hope that Hollywood gives us more intimate human stories, too. But we can also allow it a few giants.

Written by nevalalee

December 15, 2016 at 9:01 am

Anthologies of interest

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The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology

If you really want to influence readers, don’t be an author—be an anthologist. Anthologies are among the earliest books that most of us read: the collections of fairy tales and poems we’re given as children, followed by the textbooks of stories we’re assigned in grade school, mark our first general exposure to literature of any kind, and all of those selections have been chosen for us by another human being, at least in theory. (These days, textbooks are more likely to be cobbled together by committee, drawing primarily on the work of their predecessors.) Later in life, when we pick up paperback anthologies for our own reading pleasure, it’s out of an unconscious desire to replicate or extend that education. The world of literature is so vast that it seems too large for any one reader to navigate alone. We depend on curators to cull it for us, singling out the essential nuggets from the disposable fluff that every healthy culture produces in such great quantities. The result, we hope, will be a sampling accurate enough to allow us to understand the whole, and for most of us, it comes to define it. But it’s really something else altogether. Even if we assume a perfect anthologist gifted enough to truly present us with “the best,” judging a culture or a genre from its masterpieces alone delivers a skewed picture. How much better was the best from the rest? Does it really reflect the experience of a reader at the time, who had to figure out what was good, bad, or mediocre without any assistance from the outside? As Nicholson Baker writes in his novel The Anthologist: “Anthology knowledge isn’t real knowledge. You have to read the unchosen poems to understand the chosen ones.”

I’ve been thinking about anthologies a lot recently, mostly because of the daunting amount of reading I need to do for Astounding. Obviously, I need to read as much as I can of the science fiction and fantasy that John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard wrote, and I expect to get pretty close to that goal by the time the book is finished. But what about the rest? I can’t make critical judgments about their work without a sense of what else was happening at the same time, and my reading up to this point in my life has been fannish but unsystematic, leaving me with considerable gaps in my understanding of the genre. As I’ve mentioned before, I have a complete collection of Astounding Science Fiction, but I can’t possibly read all of it, and it doesn’t even include what was going on in the other magazines. Predictably, then, I’ve turned to anthologies to fill in the blanks. Earlier this year, I put together a reading list for myself, drawing mostly on a shelf’s worth of classic short story collections. These include the three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame; The Astounding Science Fiction Anthology, which was edited by Campbell himself; The Astounding-Analog Reader; Analog’s Golden Anniversary Anthology; Analog Readers’ Choice; Adventures in Time and Space; The Road to Science Fiction; The Golden Age of Science Fiction; and various other “best of” lists and reader polls. The result is a list of nearly five hundred novels and stories, ranging in length from a few pages to massive tomes like Battlefield Earth, and at the moment, I’m about two thirds of the way through.

Nicholson Baker

Of course, this approach has obvious limitations. It ends up focusing mostly on Astounding, at least through the early fifties, so it doesn’t tell me much about what was going on in Amazing or Thrilling Wonder or the countless other pulp magazines that once flooded the newsstands. There’s very little from before the golden age. It’s almost exclusively in the English language, and particularly from American authors—although I’m willing to accept this shortcoming, since it reflects the milieu in which my four major figures emerged. Stories of limited aesthetic interest but considerable historical significance, like Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” tend to fall through the cracks. And the result probably doesn’t have much in common with the experience of a reader who was buying these magazines from one month to the next. But it’s a beginning, and in some ways, it’s better than it sounds. In trying to read these stories more or less in the order in which they appeared, I’m creating an alternate version of myself who was born in, say, 1920, and was exposed to science fiction at the age when I was most likely to be influenced by it. In practice, what I end up with isn’t so much the inner life of that bright twelve year old, but the memories of that same reader thirty years down the line. Memory naturally filters what we read, leaving the stories that made the greatest impression on us at first glance, the ones that only gradually revealed their power, and a few that have stuck around for no discernible reason, aside from where we were in our lives when we first encountered them. And I’m hopeful that the subset of science fiction stories I’ve been reading will provide the same sort of background noise for the book I’m writing that my half-remembered reservoir of fiction does in my everyday life.

Needless to say, very little of what I’m reading now will end up explicitly in the book: given the nature of a work like this, I doubt I’ll have a chance to discuss more than a handful of stories that weren’t written by my central four authors. But I wouldn’t be doing this at all if I didn’t feel that the experience would change me, and how I think, in ways that will be reflected in every line. This is true even, or especially, if I forget much of what I read. In his story “Incest,” John Updike uses the phrase “vast, dying sea”—a description that Nicholson Baker quotes with approval in U & I—to evoke all the poetry that his main character has forgotten over the years. We all have a similar sea inside of us, collected and neglected by our internal anthologist, who operates when we aren’t aware of it. The anthologies we all carry in our brains differ markedly from one another, even more so than the tables of contents of the anthologies in print. (One of the nice things about the anthologies I’m reading is how little they overlap: only a few stories, like Asimov’s “Nightfall,” appear in more than two, which indicates how flexible, varied, and mutable the canon of science fiction really is.) An anthologist is the custodian of a genre’s past for the sake of the future: as time goes by, aside from a handful of books and authors that everyone is expected to read, anthologies are our only conduit for transmitting the memory of what a literature used to be, at least for the majority of readers. The same can be said of the reader’s own imperfect memory, which preserves, through a sort of memetic natural selection, the bits and pieces of the tradition that he or she needs. We can’t all be writers, or even perfect readers. But we’re all anthologists at heart.

Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2016 at 8:37 am

Quote of the Day

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Paul Sills

We may never learn to know ourselves by thought, said Goethe, as I read in Yeats, but by action only. No one comes near this secret who reflects upon it; one only comes near it by doing the pertinent deed. If this is difficult stuff intellectually, it is the joy of story. Cinderella is not allowed to go to the dance; Simpleton cannot be permitted to go into the forest to chop wood. But these most miserable creatures do overcome; they do the impossible thing as all heroes do; with help of the helpers they become whole, unified persons who live purposefully in the world and can expect marriage and half the kingdom. This is real teaching to my mind.

Paul Sills, in an interview with Laurie Ann Gruhn

Written by nevalalee

April 5, 2016 at 7:30 am

The story whisperer

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Storyboard for Aladdin

If you really want to learn how a story works, you should try telling it to a three-year-old. Over the last twelve months, as my daughter has begun to watch longer movies, I’ve developed a sideline business as a sort of simultaneous interpreter: I’ll sit next to her and offer a running commentary on the action, designed to keep her from getting restless and to preemptively answer her questions. If it’s a movie I’ve seen before, like My Neighbor Totoro, I don’t need to concentrate quite as intently, but on the handful of occasions when I’ve watched a movie with her for the first time in theaters—as we’ve done with The Peanuts Movie, The Good Dinosaur, Kung Fu Panda 3, and Zootopia—I’ve had to pay closer attention. What I whisper in her ear usually boils down to a basic description of a character’s emotions or objectives, if it isn’t already clear from action or dialogue: “He’s sad.” “She’s worried about her friend.” “He wants to find his family.” And I’ve come to realize that this amounts to a kind of reverse engineering. If a movie often originates in the form of beat sheets or storyboards that the filmmakers have to turn into fully realized scenes, by breaking down the action in terms that my daughter can understand, I’m simply rewinding that process back to the beginning.

And it’s taught me some surprising lessons about storytelling. It reminds me a little of a piece that ran last year in The New York Times Magazine about Rasha Ajalyaqeen, a former interpreter for the United Nations. Like Ajalyaqeen, I’m listening to a story and translating it into a different language in real time, and many of the tips that she shares apply equally well here: “Be invisible.” “Leave your opinions behind; your voice should reflect the speaker’s feelings.” “Forget pausing to find the right word.” And most of all:

Word-for-word translation can result in a nonsensical mess. Instead, break longer, complicated phrases into shorter units of single concepts. “A good translator does not interpret words; he interprets meaning,” says Ajalyaqeen, who grew up in Syria. Be prepared to dive into sen­tences without knowing where they are going grammatically…”Sometimes you start and you don’t know what your subject is—you’re waiting for the verb.”

“Waiting for the verb” is as good a way as any to describe what I often have to do with my daughter: I’m not sure where the scene is going, but I have to sustain her interest until the real action kicks in.

Storyboard for Aladdin

This is a valuable exercise, because it forces me to engage with the story entirely in the present tense. I’ve spoken here before of how a story can best be understood as a sequence of objectives, which is the approach that David Mamet articulates so beautifully in On Directing Film, the best book on storytelling I’ve ever read. In practice, though, it’s easy to forget this. When you’re the writer, you find yourself thinking in terms of the story’s overall shape, and even if you’re just the reader or a member of the audience, you often skip ahead to anticipate what comes next. When you’re trying to explain it to a three-year-old, there isn’t time for any of this—your only goal is to explicate what is happening on the screen right now. After you’ve done this for a dozen or more movies, you start to appreciate how this approximates how we subconsciously experience all stories, no matter how sophisticated they might be. A good movie or novel doesn’t just put one scene after another, like a series of beads on a string, but that’s how we absorb it, and it needs to be told with clarity on that simple sequential level if its larger patterns are going to have any meaning. Like a properly constructed improvisation, an engaging story comes down to a series of “Yes, and…” statements. And the fact that it also needs to be more doesn’t excuse it from its basic obligation to be clear and logical with each individual beat.

And talking your way through through a movie like this—even if the three-year-old you’re addressing is an imaginary one—can lead to unexpected insights into a story’s strengths and weaknesses. I came away even more impressed by Zootopia because of how cleverly it grounds its complicated plot in a series of units that can be easily grasped: I don’t think Beatrix was ever lost for more than a few seconds. And when I watched Aladdin with her this morning, I became uncomfortably aware of the golden thread of fakery that runs through the center of that story: it’s a skillful script, but it hits its beats so emphatically that I was constantly aware of how it was manipulating us. (Compare this to Miyazaki’s great movies, from Kiki’s Delivery Service to Ponyo, which achieve their effects more subtly and mysteriously, while never being anything less than fascinating.) I’ve even found myself doing much the same thing when I’m watching a television show or reading a book on my own. When you try to see the story through a child’s eyes, and to frame it in terms that would hold the attention of a preschooler, you quickly learn that it isn’t a question of dumbing it down, but of raising it to an even greater level of sophistication, with the story conveyed with the clarity of a fairy tale. Anyone who thinks that this is easy has never tried to do it for real. And at every turn, you need to be asking yourself a toddler’s favorite question: “Why?”

Written by nevalalee

March 29, 2016 at 9:22 am

The magic feather syndrome

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Spirited Away

Note: I’m on vacation until next Tuesday, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run, starting with a series on writing and parenting. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on January 6, 2014.

Recently, my baby daughter learned how to clap. It’s her latest trick, and she’s very pleased by it, so the two of us have taken to applauding together on the slightest of pretexts: if she finishes her breakfast, if she stands by herself for a few seconds, if she knows the correct answer to “Where’s your nose?” And for a girl who just passed her first birthday, these are achievements to be celebrated. All the same, at the back of my mind, there’s also the lurking fear that I’m raising yet another narcissistic kid. You know the type. It’s the middle-class child whose psychological health has been a topic of increasing concern in recent years: she’s endlessly coddled by her parents, told how special she is, and assured that she’s exceptionally talented. At school, she racks up gold stars; at her athletic events, everyone gets a trophy; and by age thirty, she’s in therapy, having never been informed of the uncomfortable truth that not every human being is equally gifted and hard work alone is no guarantee of success. As Jean Twenge, one of the authors of The Narcissism Epidemic, has said: “[Being raised this way] gives them an inflated view of their specialness compared to other human beings. Instead of feeling good about themselves, they feel better than everyone else.”

If there’s one place where this message is repeatedly, even cloyingly underlined, it’s in contemporary children’s entertainment. A while back, Luke Epplin of The Atlantic decried the easy inspirational morals of movies like Turbo and Planes, which both suffer from what he calls the “magic feather syndrome.” He writes:

As with the titular character in Walt Disney’s 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists’ primary liability, such as Dumbo’s giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather—or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears—and believe that their greatness comes from within.

Epplin goes on to note that these movies equate following one’s dreams with pursuing unusual, exceptional destinies at the expense of everyday work, including the kind that goes hand in hand with any meaningful accomplishment. These characters are enabled solely by believing in themselves, which, as adults know, is all very well and good, but not nearly enough in itself. (It’s the preschool equivalent of the convention of The Chosen One, often encountered in movies made ostensibly for adults, in which the lead character is fated for greatness from birth.)

Disney's Planes

But there’s another point that needs to be made about the movies that Epplin discusses: both Turbo and Planes are, by consensus, fairly mediocre films, and this would be the case regardless of the messages they were trying to convey. And there’s a strong and surprisingly sophisticated argument that children do, in fact, need to be given idealized images of their own strengths and potential, at least at a certain age. Bruno Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment forcefully advocates for the role that fairy tales play in a child’s early psychological development, and while some of his Freudian terminology has dated, the central thesis remains sound. We often forget how vulnerable young children really are: they’re relatively weak and helpless, without agency in their own lives, surrounded by adults who can transform in an instant from benevolent giants to fearsome ogres. Fairy tales, with their preternaturally resourceful protagonists and happy endings, don’t paint a realistic picture of life, but if they did, they wouldn’t be nearly as effective. In order for a child to trust his own mind and body, leave the comfort zone of his own family, and venture into the larger world, he needs stories that dramatize these rites of passage in an unambiguously positive way, with good rewarded, evil punished, and the hero living happily ever after.

True, the world doesn’t always work this way, but that’s something that children naturally come to understand on their own, not through a premature introduction to hard truths that adults think they need to hear. And it doesn’t mean that every story that takes such an approach is equally worthwhile. Bettelheim wasn’t especially impressed by The Little Engine That Could, which he felt gave children a superficially positive message without addressing their deeper anxieties, and I suspect that he’d feel the same way about Turbo or Planes. But I’d also like to think that he’d look favorably on a movie like Spirited Away, the best children’s film made in my lifetime, in which the heroine quietly and believably transforms the fantastic world around her for the better. In the best films of a director like Miyazaki, the message isn’t stated baldly in the dialogue, as we see even in Pixar’s weaker movies, but baked directly into the story itself. That’s also true of the best fairy tales: Jack climbs the beanstalk, steals the enchanted harp, and slays the ogre, and he never stops to remember the importance of believing in himself—he’s too busy getting things done. As with most things in art, the message only works if it’s properly delivered. And while I think it’s fine, even necessary, to tell children that they can be anything they want, it’s equally important to remind them not to settle for anything less than good storytelling.

Written by nevalalee

January 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

Beyond good and evil

with one comment

Ponyo

First, a toddler movie update. After a stretch in which my daughter watched My Neighbor Totoro close to a hundred times, she’s finally moved on to a few other titles: now she’s more into Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s other great masterpiece for children, and, somewhat to my surprise, the original Disney release of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. All, thankfully, are movies that I’m happy to watch on a daily basis, and seeing them juxtaposed together so often has allowed me to draw a few comparisons. Totoro still strikes me as a perfect movie, with a entire world of loveliness, strangeness, and fine observation unfolding from a few basic premises. Ponyo is a little messier, with a glorious central hour surrounded on both sides with material that doesn’t seem as fully developed, although it’s not without its charms. And Winnie the Pooh impresses me now mostly as an anthology of good tricks, gags, and bits of business, as perfected over the decades by the best animators in the world. It’s sweet and funny, but more calculated in its appeal than its source, and although it captures many of the pleasures of the original books, it misses something essential in their tone. (Really, the only animator who could give us a faithful version of Milne’s stories is Miyazaki himself.)

And none of them, tellingly, has any villains. Beatrix hasn’t been left entirely innocent of fictional villainy, and she already knows that—spoiler alert—Hans is “the bad guy” and Kristof is “the good guy” based on her limited exposure to Frozen. Yet I’ve always suspected that the best children’s movies are the ones that hold the viewer’s attention, regardless of age, without resorting to manufactured conflicts. You could divide the Pixar films into two categories based on which ones lean the heaviest on scripted villains, and you often find that the best of them avoid creating characters whom we’re only supposed to hate. The human antagonists in the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo are more like impersonal forces of nature than deliberate enemies, and I’ve always been a little uneasy about The Incredibles, as fantastic as so much of it is, simply because its villain is so irredeemably loathsome. There are always exceptions, of course: Toy Story 3 features one of the most memorable bad guys in any recent movie, animated or otherwise. But if children’s films that avoid the easy labels of good guys and bad guys tend to be better than average, that’s less a moral judgment than a practical one: in order to tell an interesting story without an obvious foil, you have to think a little harder. And it shows.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

That said, there’s an obvious contradiction here. As I’ve stated elsewhere, when I tell my daughter fairy tales, I tend to go for the bloodiest, least sanitized versions I can find. There’s no shortage of evil in the Brothers Grimm, and the original stories go far beyond what most children’s movies are willing to show us. The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is as frightening a monster as any I know, and I still feel a chill when I read her first line aloud. The wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother whole, and as his punishment, he gets killed with an axe and sliced open with sewing shears. (At least, that’s what happens in the version I’ve been reading: in the original, Little Red Riding Hood herself proposes that the wolf’s belly be filled with heavy stones.) The queen in “Snow White” attempts to kill the title character no fewer than three times, first by strangling her with a lace bodice, then with a poisoned comb, before finally resorting to the apple to finish the job. And when you sanitize these stories, you rob them of most of their meaning. As I noted in my original post on the subject:  “A version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless.”

So why do I value fairy tales for their unflinching depictions of evil, while equally treasuring children’s films in which nothing bad happens at all? I could justify this in all kinds of ways, but I keep returning to a point that I’ve made here before, which is that the only moral value I feel like inculcating in my daughter—at least for now—is a refusal to accept shoddy or dishonest storytelling. Miyazaki and the Brothers Grimm lie on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they’re unified by their utter lack of cynicism. One might be light, the other dark, but they’re both telling the stories they have in the most honest way they can, and they don’t feel obliged to drum up our interest using artificial means. In Miyazaki, it’s because the world is too magical for us to need a bad guy in order to care about it; in the Brothers Grimm, it’s because the world is already so sinister, down to its deepest roots, and the story is less about giving us a disposable antagonist than in confronting us with our most fundamental fears. When you compare it to the children’s movies that include a bully or a bad guy who exists solely to drive the plot along, you see that Totoro and “Hansel and Gretel” have more in common with each other than with their lesser counterparts. There’s good in the world as well as evil, and I don’t plan on sheltering my daughter from either one. But I’m going to shelter her from bad storytelling for as long as I can.

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