Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Emma Coats

“You have a better chance than I do…”

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"Why me?"

Note: This post is the fifteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 16. You can read the previous installments here.

Writers are often told that it’s a mistake to build their stories around luck, particularly if it works to the hero’s advantage. As Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats famously said: “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” And it seems intuitively true that a story, whenever possible, should arise out of decisions made by the protagonist and antagonist. Yet this is a genre convention in itself, and it isn’t there, in spite of appearances, because it’s more “realistic.” Luck plays an enormous role in real life, and if exclude it from our plotting, it isn’t for the sake of realism, but plausibility, which are two entirely different things. In Adventures in the Screen Trade, William Goldman describes a hypothetical scene in which the hero, tasked with entering a heavily secured castle, simply blunders in without a plan. He climbs the wall within sight of the guards, who don’t react; wanders around for a while in plain view; trips a few alarms without drawing any attention; and finally ends up, by accident, in the room he’s trying to enter. If this were a movie, we’d throw tomatoes. But it’s exactly how a man named Michael Fagan once broke into Buckingham Palace and ended up in the bedroom of the Queen.

If we rule out such moments of luck in fiction, it isn’t because they can’t happen, but because we feel that they take the writer and characters off the hook. It seems lazy, and worse, it pulls us out of the fictional dream by breaking an implied contract between author and reader, which states that events should emerge from the logical consequences of the characters’ actions. But there’s one interesting exception. Sometimes the master plan is so farfetched that only an absurdly omniscient protagonist could pull it off, anticipating every last detail with pinpoint precision. (Think, for instance, of the Saw movies, or even of the Joker’s stratagems in The Dark Knight.) This can be even less believable than a plan that hinges on luck, so constructing the plot turns into a choice between implausibilities—or, better, as a balance between the two. You could see it as a problem of narrative engineering: a solution that depends solely on either luck or unerring foresight collapses under its own unlikelihood, but a combination of the two stands firm. The challenge lies in mixing these elements in the right proportions, with a little luck and a little cleverness, so that the reader or viewer doesn’t regard the result as anything less than a natural development.

"You have a better chance than I do..."

And whenever luck is involved, it’s best to push it as far from the center of the story as possible, or to make it a fait accompli, so that it seems less like a stroke of fortune than a condition of the plot itself. Most movies about an impossible heist, for instance, hinge on elements of luck: there’s always a convenient air duct, or a hallway without any security cameras, or a moment when the guards change shifts. A well-constructed story will introduce these elements as soon as it can. If Danny Ocean stumbles across an unsecured ventilation shaft during the heist, we cry foul; if he mentions it beforehand, we more or less accept it, although the element of luck is exactly the same. On a higher level, the villain’s complicated plan in Vertigo depends on a single huge assumption, as Hitchcock himself admitted to François Truffaut:

The husband was planning to throw his wife down from the top of the tower. But how could he know that James Stewart wouldn’t make it up those stairs? Because he became dizzy? How could he be sure of that!

Truffaut’s response is revealingly pragmatic: “That’s true, but I saw it as one of those assumptions you felt people would accept.” Which we do—but only because it’s there in the title of the movie itself, as a kind of anthropic principle on which the whole story depends. It’s still luck, but in a form that can’t be separated from the fabric of the overall movie.

I made good use of this principle in Eternal Empire, which includes more than its fair share of wild notions. Arguably the largest involves a plot point early in the novel: Maya Asthana, my unlikely mole, has to kill a man held in solitary confinement while avoiding all suspicion. At the very least, it was necessary that she be left alone with him without any security cameras—and here, already, were two big implausibilities. I “solved” the problem by putting it entirely out of her hands. Earlier in the novel, she and Wolfe visit Rogozin in detention, and it’s Wolfe who asks that the cameras be turned off, supposedly to put the suspect at ease, but really to make it less glaring when Asthana makes the same request later on. Similarly, in Chapter 16, it’s Wolfe who tells her to visit Rogozin, saying that she’s under too much scrutiny to go herself, while unwittingly setting the stage for Asthana’s plan. Clearly, from Asthana’s point of view, these are two enormous strokes of luck. I was reasonably fine with this, though, because the alternative, in which Asthana arranges for an unobserved visit entirely on her own initiative, would be even less plausible. Like most good villains, Asthana knows how to play the hand she’s been dealt. And if the deck has been stacked in her favor, hopefully the reader won’t see this until after the trick is over…

Brave and the fate of Pixar

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Note: Spoilers follow for Brave.

It pains me to say this, but there’s no other way: I no longer fully trust Pixar. While I’m aware that this may not be a popular opinion, Brave strikes me as their weakest movie of any kind, weaker even than Cars 2. As I said at the time, Cars 2 had big problems, but it was only a rewrite or two away from being a entertaining movie. Brave, by contrast, comes off as fundamentally misconceived, and in ways that raise troubling questions about Pixar’s vaunted storytelling skills. There’s no doubt Pixar takes its storytelling very seriously, and as we saw with the recent list of narrative tips shared by artist Emma Coats, it’s developed a formidable bag of tricks. But in the case of a movie like Brave, such tricks amount to smart tactics in the service of no strategy whatsoever. Much of Brave works fine on its own terms—it’s consistently beautiful, ambitious, and rendered with a lot of love. But the more I think about it, the more it looks like a story that could only be fixed by being thrown out and radically reconceived.

At its heart, Brave‘s story is startlingly simple: a teenage princess, Merida, annoyed by her mother, Queen Elinor, casts a spell that turns her mother into a bear. This isn’t a bad premise in itself, but as handled by Brave, it suffers from three major problems: 1. Neither Merida nor her mother are strongly developed enough as characters to make the latter’s transformation meaningful. We don’t really know Queen Elinor before she’s transformed and can no longer speak, so the long sequences with Merida and Elinor as a bear can’t build on anything that came before. 2. Elinor’s metamorphosis is supposed to bring mother and daughter closer together, but there’s nothing in the situation that reveals anything new about their relationship. It’s just a generic crisis that doesn’t cast any light on the central conflict, which is that Merida is smarting under her mother’s expectations. 3. The movie’s treatment of magic is casual at best, with Merida essentially getting her spell from a witch who dispenses plot points, and the rules are never really explained, which undermines any narrative tension, especially near the end.

It isn’t hard to think of a version of this story that would have worked better than the one we’ve been given. We could make Elinor, not Merida, the central character, which automatically makes her transformation more interesting. We could turn Elinor’s father, the king, into a bear, and have mother and daughter work together to save him. We could have Merida take a rebellious interest in magic, and be drawn to a witch—not the witch we see here, but perhaps someone more like Maleficent—as an alternative mother figure in place of the queen, with disastrous consequences. Or we could even keep the story we have and approach it with a lighter touch, as Miyazaki might have done. Totoro barely has any plot at all, yet the grace of its conception makes it seem elegant rather than half-baked. Brave‘s technical splendor actually works against it here: it’s so visually compelling that it takes us a long time to realize that we’ve been given a rather simpleminded children’s movie, and that the studio gave less effort to exploring Merida’s motivations than it did to developing her hair.

In the end, we’re left with a deeply muddled movie whose constant harping on themes of destiny only makes its confusions all the more clear. Merida, for all her talk about fate, doesn’t seem to have any particular sense of what she wants out of life, and neither does the movie around her. (Just repeating the word “fate” over and over won’t convince us that you have anything interesting to say on the subject.) And the result is a film that seems less like an ordinary misfire than a tragic waste of resources. It’s possible that the change of directors was to blame, or the fact that, contrary to what the filmmakers have said, the studio was so intent on making a movie with a female protagonist and a fairy tale setting that it forgot to make either distinctive—or to see that Tangled had already done a better job. If I’m being hard on Pixar, it’s because it’s capable of far more, and I’m afraid it may see Brave as the best it can do. But it isn’t: it’s the work of a great studio that has lost its way. And only time will tell if Pixar can manage to change its fate.

Written by nevalalee

June 25, 2012 at 9:52 am

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