Storytelling & Anne Hathaway’s Speech in Interstellar


Last night I finally got around to watching Interstellar. The wife and kids were off at her folks’ and my friends were busy, so I decided to catch up on some movies I had been meaning to see. I ordered some Thai, sat down, and proceeded to watch one of the better movies I’ve seen in a long time. I had been meaning to do some house hunting stuff on my laptop while I watched, but I was so into the movie that that was all forgotten. I want to watch Interstellar again, which is my personal high-water mark for a movie’s quality. Then I posted on Facebook that I liked it, and got back the comment I had been dreading: in short, “Ugh, Anne Hathaway’s speech.”

If you’re not familiar, around halfway through the movie it’s revealed that Hathaway’s character, Amelia Brand, may be pushing to explore one particular destination over another because her onetime lover was sent to that destination. She gives a speech about love, about how it is a motive force, and then winds up speculating that maybe love exists beyond biology and has an extra-dimensional character to it. A lot of people got worked up about this, because they felt it was too much “new age woo” in their science fiction.

In fact, all it really was, was a bit of new age woo in a sad, lonely, and desperate person on the sharp edge of a potentially futile mission to save humanity. It was a revelation of her character. The story itself never really validated her speculation.

This is one of those neat things you can do with storytelling. Let’s say I have a character who says, “Peanut butter is God” and another character who says, “Might be, all I know is, it tastes good.” If the story doesn’t then have the characters receiving the will of God by way of peanut butter, then the author is not really trying to make a point about the divinity of peanut butter. The story is not about the divinity of peanut butter. The story is just showing that under some circumstances, someone might feel that passionately about it. If either of them decide they should go to the store and get more peanut butter, driving forward the action or the plot, that’s still not any kind of statement on the divinity of peanut butter.

Interstellar talks a lot about love and family and what drives people, especially in desperate circumstances. It does not validate the idea that love is cosmologically significant, just that it’s significant to the actions of people. Which, amazingly, it is! Like fear, hate, greed, anger, etc. The only thing Interstellar says, definitively, about the nature of the cosmos is that a) it still has secrets we have not uncovered and b) we need to leave Earth if we want to uncover them.

A Week It Has Been

Yeah, I wanted to try blogging every day, but that just didn’t work. For, you know, reasons. One of the big ones was that I was actually successful in getting some fiction writing done on my lunch hour. Pretty sweet, right? Right. As is typical for me, I have a dozen things I’d like to be working on simultaneously, but with kids and a day job, that’s kind of tough. I have the time/energy for one thing at a time, though I suppose I could refine the process a little, if I could perfect switching gears on command. I’m also trying to read more, of course, which makes it tricky, too.  I’m still meandering through The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. It’s been good so far, but like with everything, if I just sink into it, then nothing else gets done, including this.

And yeah, this might not seem as important as, you know, reading, but I find it rather useful.

Life, otherwise, has been life. Work, wife, kids, house hunting, convention planning, theatre planning, and so on. Went to a convention planning party on Saturday, and that was fun as far as it went. But I do wonder if I’m not burning out on it a little. I guess we’ll see how I feel in the fall as we start to ramp up to the convention. I know a lot of people who do convention planning say this, but… I’m wondering if I wouldn’t enjoy just attending for once. It’s been a while since I did that.

Just bought two books for my Nook: The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk, which I twigged to thanks to a BBC Travel article, and Tripwire by Lee Child, third in his Jack Reacher series. We’ll see how long it takes to actually get to them…

Gentle Rebuttal: Ferrett & Star Wars


I don’t like starting internet fights (any more), but every so often, I do like to engage in a bit of contrarianism, just to keep the waters muddied. So this morning, I read Ferrett Steinmetz’s blog post about active old folks and the upcoming Star Wars movie, and didn’t so much decide to disagree as just sort of found it happening. Now, overall, I like his point: I too kind of have a hate on for the trope of dragging old heroes out of retirement for One Last Adventure. I’d rather they, like Pratchett’s Cohen the Barbarian, keep adventuring right up to the very end. (And as an aside, I don’t personally care much for the stories that revolve around the “I’m too old for this shit” trope. I get it, we’re all getting older, it’s nice to relate to in that way. But can I have some more adventures before we get to that?)

Anyway, I found myself disagreeing in two parts. In one case, despite having a hate on for the “out of retirement” trope (Is that on TV Tropes? I dare not go look…) I disagree because it makes sense from a meta-storytelling perspective. Especially, let’s say, in the Star Trek reboot, which Ferrett references. It is actually shown that Spock is off doing stuff and has been all this time. (He’s got his own little ship! Red matter!) But it’s also useful to at least imply he’s being pulled out of retirement because, for the audience, that’s true. There haven’t been ongoing adventures (for the most part, tie-in novels aside) for Spock or the rest of the crew. They are effectively retired, so it creates some resonance when the character is brought back to us if the character is being brought out of cold storage within the universe.

I was all set to say just that when I got to the end of the post and Ferrett mentioned the announced, canonical tie-in novels, and how he was sure those wouldn’t figure in. On the whole, I’m sure he’s right. They won’t even have time to reference much in them, if anything at all, and still serve the main story. Yes, having them reference stuff can add some depth and resonance. When used as it was in the first movie, reminiscing about the lost, it worked well.

When it was used in the prequels, however… well, there it went horribly wrong as Mike Stoklasa pointed out in his Mr. Plinkett reviews. There it was used simply to stand in for character development of Obi-Wan and Anakin and fell utterly flat. Now, we probably won’t need much character development for Han, Luke, & Leia… but then again, we will need a little something to show how they’ve grown and changed over the intervening years. And there are lots of ways they can do that, just as there’s lots of ways to show that they’ve been out adventuring, rather than just lounging around in idle retirement. Just showing the Millennium Falcon, for starters, goes a long way toward this. Do you think that thing was just sitting in the garage for the last 30 years? Pffft.

Sensitivities, Part 1

I’m rapidly coming to grips with a lot of mental/emotional sensitivities lately, and one of them seems to be hype. I certainly remember experiencing it before now (Harry Potter was the big example), but lately I’ve found that nothing ever really sounds good when it comes to reading or movies. And I realized that’s because I follow too many authors and readers on social media. Which is silly, on some level, because I love talking about this stuff, but social media has been so deeply co-opted by marketing sensibilities, that I find myself kind of numbed by it all.

Now, this isn’t a condemnation of social media in general, or one of those hand-wringing “what has it all come to” type posts. It’s just… me. Penicillin is great for 99% of the population and saves a lot of lives, but if I take it, I’ll blow up like a balloon and die. And I’m thinking it’s a lot like that for me. I’m happy people’s books get hyped and spread around on social media. I hope like hell if and when I publish, it’ll work like that for me. It’s just a thing that seems to work in reverse for me.

Thinking about it, I realized that part of the problem is that I’ve come to miss just discovering things. My “golden age” for reading (and watching movies for that matter) was when I would just wander the aisles and pick up what looked interesting, primarily back in high school. I discovered some lemons that way, but I also discovered a lot of what became my favorites, and hidden little gems. Just the other night at dress rehearsal I was mentioning the David Mamet movie A Life in the Theater, starring Jack Lemmon and Matthew Broderick. None of the other actors I mentioned it to had seen it, but it’s a great little film (adapted from a play, of course–with a recent production starring Patrick Stewart, no less) about working actors in New York, and I keep thinking about it now that I’m acting again.

It’s much the same with books. I discovered my favorite author, Lois McMaster Bujold, that way just browsing the sci-fi shelves in the library. Now, I know part of this is just a change in general awareness. I can’t put a lot of genies back in bottles, and I’m probably always going to have some low-level awareness of authors and works if I plan to continue pursuing a career as a writer; it’s almost unavoidable, unless I go full recluse. (And you never go full recluse.) So I understand I can never quite recapture the magical feeling of discovery that is often what I feel is missing when I read a book or rent a movie these days.

But I think that, lately, it’s hype that’s kept me from even trying.

Engage As Intended

As usual, I don’t intend anything prescriptive by what I’m about to say–I’m just kind of musing on art and story and experimenting with the conclusions that the musings bring me to. This is may well be a theme around here. Disclaimer out of the way, I’ll proceed.

The beautiful freedom of the modern age is that we as consumers can engage with art in almost any way we choose. In fact, the recombinant engagement that a lot of people choose across the internet, from fanfic to vids to Tumblr gifsets to mashups, makes literal a lot of what we talk about when we say that genre is a sort extended artistic conversation. To greater and lesser extents, the creators of recombinant and transformative art are directly engaging with the art in question, interrogating and deconstructing it in really unique and enlightening ways.

This is very cool, and I applaud it.

One of the other ways we’ve started to engage with media and art, lately, is the almighty binge. I remember the first time I binged on a show–the first time I could binge on a show–was when I got the first two or three seasons of Stargate SG-1 on DVD. As I recall, I spent a few days on the futon in my wife’s apartment (before she was my wife, of course) mainlining Jack O’Neill and Daniel Jackson and Samantha Carter and Teal’c like a fiend. Couldn’t get enough. It was glorious. It was a temptation I simply could not resist, if I could even conceive of resistance as an option.

I’ve discovered a few things about binging in the years since, though. One is that it leaves me wanting more where there is no more. I was lucky, back then. I ended up getting all of the DVDs that were out at the time, and got caught up to where Stargate SG-1 was when it jumped over to the Sci-Fi Channel. So then I had more on a weekly basis for about half a year, every year. But binging on a show that’s already done, when I’m watching all there is of it… that’s kind of a bummer.

The other thing I realized is that the binge leaves everything… more muddied. There really isn’t a chance to reflect on what I’ve watched, let it sink in, let any anticipation build. My wife and I are catching up on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. right now, after leaving it for most of the year. But, for various reasons, we can’t really binge on it. We get in about two episode a week, and that’s it. So, as of this typing, Skye is in near-death coma and has been since Saturday night. I probably won’t get to see the follow-up episode for another week-plus, given our weekend plans.

That’s cool. I’m down with that. It gives me time to think a bit on it, gives it time to mature, to “season” I guess.  I don’t need to rush through it.

One of the other things I’m finding is that people work on the weekly TV show as its own art form, within its own constraints. I think I first encountered this idea in a blog post by John Scalzi (don’t ask me to go spelunking through his archives for it; I’ll get lost down some 300 meter shaft), where he was advising, in his calm-headed way, that This New Medium did not mean the death of That Old Medium, that people had said the same thing about That Old Medium back when it was new. The idea being that stories will find their natural place, that if there’s a story that can only really be told in Smell-O-Vision, it will be best told in Smell-O-Vision but that won’t mean we can’t still create stories for the “traditional” cinema. We won’t have to create everything for Smell-O-Vision.

I’ll call this A Scalzian Principle (but not The Scalzian Principle–the dude has too many to grant any of them the definitive article).

Anyway, it has occurred to me that, especially with older shows, but still with new shows, there is a reward to watching them more or less as they were originally intended to be seen. Now, in a lot of cases, especially let’s say pre-2000ish, this did actually mean you could watch them in any particular order. A lot of them did feature the dreaded reset button, the horror of ungrowing characters and static, immutable situations. But I’m also coming to appreciate this constraint that the creators had to work in. How do you make Thomas Magnum’s exploits suspenseful when you know he and Rick and TC and Higgins are still going to be alive at the end of the episode?

I could probably write a whole other blog post answering that question, so I won’t try to get to it here. I’ll think about writing it another time, though. Suffice to say that I’m finding it both interesting and instructive to see the art in that kind of constraint. How is it handled, how is it done well, how does it fall down?

But, well, also I’m just enjoying the shows for the sake of the shows themselves. Just watching them as they are, as they were intended to be watched.