Posts Tagged ‘storytelling’

The Scale of the Human Condition

Sunday, October 11th, 2009

I’m currently reading Lathe of Heaven (1971), by Ursula K. Le Guin. I have not read many books by Le Guin–just The Left Hand of Darkness–but I am very fond of her writing.

Lathe of Heaven is a story about a man named George Orr. When George Orr sleeps and dreams his dreams effect the world around him–things change. Things small and large, from paintings to the population of the planet, change.

At the start of the story, Orr is forced into therapy with a psychiatrist, named William Haber. Haber discovers Orr’s ability and attempts to use it to improve the world. Meanwhile, when Orr suspects that Haber may be manipulating his dreams, he seeks help from no-nonsense attorney, Heather LeLache.

Lathe of Heaven Cover (1st Edition)

Lathe of Heaven Cover (1st Edition)

This story is huge, but Le Guin’s telling of it is small. The world–even the universe–changes around these three people in the space of a single page turn. Rapid, enormous, important changes that we, as the audience, experience through the eyes and actions of Orr, Haber and LeLache. Le Guin’s narrative restraint reduces the cosmos to the scale of the individual.

Le Guin manages to address big social concerns, such as over-population, climate change, nuclear proliferation and racial tensions through the–ever-changing–lives and experiences of just three people. And the effect is to place these big, and radical for their time, concerns into a relatable context that tends away from preachy didacticism.

The effect of Le Guin’s choice to restrain the scope of her narrative is to create a story that is compelling on a very human level, while informing the audience on an Earth-sized scale.

Story versus Spectacle

Monday, April 6th, 2009

I almost titled this post, “Story versus Style,” but that would have been misleading. I believe that it is very possible to have style without spectacle and that’s the point that I think I’m trying to make.

For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been watching the first series of Doctor Who (2005) and I’ve been thoroughly impressed. On the surface, the show is a series of preposterous scenarios, poor special effects, and clumsy editing. Once that surface is cracked, however, the viewer finds a television show that is immensely fun, imaginative, and witty.

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in Doctor Who.

Billie Piper and Christopher Eccleston in Doctor Who.

When the series was conceived in 1962, it was intended to be an educational science fiction series for children. With a central character who can travel through time, the episodes were intended to be split between historic and “future” episodes that would introduce children to history and science. The goal was to educate and entertain. Over it’s 27-year history, the show evolved and the “future” episodes came to dominate the series. Still the whimsy of the show’s origin remained.

Doctor Who was relaunched in 2005

Mono No Red Dwarf

Saturday, March 14th, 2009

The Japanese have a concept known as mono no aware; I’ve always translated this to mean, “sensitivity to things,” but I like the Wikipedia translation [1] better: “An empathy towards things.” I’ve spent the last five years trying to explain this concept, or at least my understanding of it to anyone who will suffer my interest in the subject. And though I don’t believe that I’ve ever become particularly good at it, I will attempt to discuss the matter here:

My most summary explanation of mono no aware as a story-telling technique is: It is the function of emotion as a near tangible element of a story’s narrative, often expressed by the over arching context of the physical space within which the story takes place. As one might map a character’s development over the course of a story, in stories that use mono no aware, a similar map might be plotted for a specific emotion.

Mono no aware, in my opinion, is not exclusive to Japanese culture and Japanese story-telling. James Joyce’s, “The Dead,” [2] from Dubliners, and “Araby” and “An Encounter” are all English-language stories that exemplify the use of mono no aware. This, from the final paragraph from “The Dead,” is illustrative of the technique:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

This passage offers and introspective look at Gabriel’s inward development as expressed by his surroundings and the context of his surroundings. The thick, soft, dampening effect of the snow is a literal whiteout over his past and an indicator of his future.

Where this technique shines the most for me is when it is used in comedy. For example:

Rimmer and Mr. Flibble in Red Dwarf's, Quarantine

Rimmer and Mr. Flibble in Red Dwarf's, Quarantine

Red Dwarf is a British sitcom about a man named Lister, his roommate, Rimmer (a hologram), and Cat (a Felis Sapien). Red Dwarf is set 3-million years in the future and 3-million years away from Earth.

Lister is the last living man on the mining vessel, Red Dwarf. He was in protective stasis when a nuclear accident killed the rest of the ship’s crew. As a precaution, the ship’s computer sent the ship into deep space to ensure that no-others would be exposed to the deadly radiation, while Lister was held in stasis until it was safe to release him. What this means is: Lister is probably the last living human being. Everyone and everything that he has ever know is probably gone. And even if some semblance of the world that he once knew still existed, it would take him 3-million years to get back.

Everything about that setting is tragic. There is something deeply sad about the scene from the pilot episode, “The End,” in which Lister is released from stasis to find that everyone he knew, all of his friends and peers, every-living thing is dead.

LISTER: Where is everybody, Hol?
(The Ship’s Computer): They’re dead, Dave.
Who is?
Everybody, Dave.
What, Captain Hollister?
Everybody’s dead, Dave.
What, Todhunter?
Everybody’s dead, Dave.
What, Selby?
They’re all dead.  Everybody’s dead, Dave.
Petersen isn’t, is he?
Everybody is dead, Dave.
Not Chen?
Gordon Bennett!  Yes!  Chen, everybody.  Everybody’s dead, Dave.
He’s dead, Dave.  Everybody’s dead.  Everybody is dead, Dave!
Wait.  Are you trying to tell me everybody’s dead?

It is deeply sad and memorably funny and it’s an example of mono no aware. The desparation of the setting serves to reinforce Lister’s development as a character, while acting as a foil for the audience to heighten the humor and reinforce the humanity of this rediculous character in a rediculous setting.

The Visual Language of Emotions

Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Michel Gondry is the writer and director of The Science of SleepSleep (released in 2006*) attempts to reveal the workings of the mind as it reconciles inward, emotional expectations with outward, somatic truths**.

Gondry seems to be fascinated with the mind and how its rational workings try to cope with its emotional foundation. In his films, like The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Gondry tasks himself with showing thoughts and feelings. He has to create a visual language to describe what takes place in a pre-visual state of our consciousness.

Still from "The Science of Sleep," by Michael Gondry

Still from "The Science of Sleep," by Michel Gondry

Showing emotion is more than showing a smile or a frown. It’s more subtle than a tilted head and a distant gaze. Those are indicators of a state, not the state itself. Gondry’s visual language, the images that he uses to showfeelings is a language that manipulates scale, color, light and texture. These are the tools that he uses to alter an image and shift it from the real world, from what we expect to see, to something different, something that reflects the fuzzy nature of our thoughts and mind.

For example, in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the protagonist, a grown man, is reduced to the size of a child and placed in a world that is strange in its scale, but familiar in its context in order to reveal elements of his insecurity and fear.

In both films, Sunshine and Sleep, the fantasy worlds are painted in a pallet of desaturated colors, with carefully selected highlights and contrast. Gondry’s fantasy pallets are are clearly distinct from the rest of the narrative and indicative of a shift in perspective and occur with regular thematic repetition; for example, the fantasy worlds of Sleep rely heavily on blues and whites.

The addition of contextual texture shifts is also an important tool in his language of visual queues that describe emotions and inward reckoning. In Sunshine, there is a use and reuse of irregular line, such as in striated ice and linear, sea-side landscapes. In Sleep it is the repetition of irregular surfaces, such as crumpled paper and cellophane, and coarsely knitted fabric. These queues represent a change in the psychological landscape of his characters, from state-to-state, from outward-to-inward, from controlled-to-free.

Gondry’s characters are often frantic, almost manic, in their interactions with others; their subtlety comes from their interactions with self. This contrast is what highlights all other changes. And though words like frantic and manic sound like emotional states, they are also visual.

In comics, stories are told in static representations of motion, scale, (sometimes) color and (always) light and texture. Like Gondry, comics artists must develop a language of visual queues that represent emotion, inward and outward displays that carry a narrative on multiple levels.

As a comics artist, I find Gondry’s creativity inspiring. His work is not limited to traditional constraints of film. Watching Michel Gondry’s work reminds me of early cinematic works, like Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête. Cocteau didn’t have any rules, or many models to follow, instead he invented his own story-telling techniques. Gondry’s work reminds me that fifty-years of film making doesn’t have to result in stale and stagnant film. Even though much of it is, and even though the same can be said about comics, it is still inspiring.

* I’m a little slow to move through my Netflix queue.
** This sentence almost resulted in a tangent about Proust, but three references to French artists would be too much.

Mountain Goats and Monologues

Friday, February 27th, 2009

John Darnielle, also known as the Mountain Goats [1], has a way about his craft that I admire: He does with words, what I, as an illustrator, wish to be able to do with a pen (or stylus). He distills univerisally recognizable emotions into actions.

John Darnielle, live in San Francisco (by Nicole L. Browner)

John Darnielle, live in San Francisco (by Nicole L. Browner)

Unlike many song writers, Darnielle doesn’t depend upon metaphor-heavy lists to convey sentiment in his songs. Instead, he describes a scene, an act that carries with it a kind of meaning that works on many levels, an act that is more visceral than many other commonly used poetic devices. For example (from “Woke up New,” on Get Lonely):

On the morning when I woke up without you for the first time,
I felt free
and I felt lonely
and I felt scared
and I began to talk to myself almost immediately,
not being used to being the only person there.

The first time I made coffee for just myself,
I made too much of it.
But I drank it all,
just ’cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.

The beginning of the first verse is like the establishing shot in a comic book or movie in that it gives the context for the rest of the narrative. “Here’s what happened,” he says, “and here’s my state of mind.” The speaker then begins in the second verse, to describe his actions and it’s in those actions he affirms the established context and “describes” how he feels.

The short list of feelings from the first verse is made up primarily of single-syllable words in simple, declarative statements. George Orwell liked words and statements like these because he felt that English speakers reacted to them almost instinctually [2]. We don’t think about them, we understand them. That, I think, is what John Darnielle does so well, he anticipates a reaction to his work from the actions that it describes.

Darnielle’s songs remind me of the poetic form called Dramatic Monologue. The most well known modern examples of this form can be found in the works of Emenem, in songs like, “97 Bonnie & Clyde.” Not that I’m comparing Darnielle’s work to that of Emenem….

Dramatic Monologues are poems in which a speaker attempts to explain his or her actions. They are often written in a voice that is not intended to be the voice of the author. This form of poertry was popular during the Victorian period and was typical of writers, such as Robert Browning [3]. When I studied Robert Browning in college, I had much of the same reaction to his work that I have when I listen to songs by the Mountain Goats. From the described actions, I perceived feelings–strong, visceral* feelings that worked on a visual level for me.

What Darnielle does, what a Dramatic Monologue does, and what I am trying to understand and learn, is create a visual representation of feeling and emotion through the description of action. A different part of my brain works when I hear pieces like this, the part of my brain that understands and doesn’t think–it’s that instintual reaction that Orwell described. I don’t comprehend the words, I see them. What I’d like to to do is to learn how to take those same pictures, put them on paper, and with them generate the same kind of emotional response.

I saw John Darnielle perform last night (2/24/2009) at the Sweedish Hall in San Francisco [4]. It was a wonderful show and we had great seats with the stage, maybe, 30-feet from us. Still, I attended much of the show with my eyes closed. As pretentious as that sounds, it was like looking up towards to sky when trying to remember something; it was hard not to do. With my eyes closed, I could see the words better that way.

* I hate using visceral twice, but I hate using a thesaurus more.

(The picture comes from The Bay Bridged)