Tag Archives: Storytelling

La Machine

There were monsters in my city last weekend. Seriously.

Ottawa just finished playing host to La Machine, a street performance collective from France, and they brought a 3 day long battle between a Horse Dragon and a a giant spider to the streets. The monsters were enormous robotic creations, with (fascinatingly to me) wood making up a significant part of the construction. Long Ma (the dragon) and Kumo (the spider) were both tremendously impressive to see, whether in pictures or video or (more impactfully to me) glimpsed rather more imperfectly looming over the huge crowds that turned out to watch. Maybe my favorite image of the whole weekend was when I looked up Sussex, packed with people, and towering above it all, in the middle of the street (just like in a monster movie) was this huge creature.

LongMA

Ok, so the monsters were amazing. Long Ma roared and breathed smoke and flames. It also snored charmingly when ‘asleep’ between shows. Kumo climbed down the front of a building and shot presumably venomous water. Just seeing these things tool around the city was pretty incredible, and kind of right in my wheelhouse as someone who writes stories in which the supernatural intersects with the world with which we’re familiar. This was that idea, done on a huge scale, and so it was very fun to watch.

There was also a story to it all. Long Ma is supposed to be a cosmic force from the ninth level of heaven, watching over all humanity. Its wings are stolen and its temple robbed by a sinister force in the form of a giant spider. Long Ma tracked the spider down in Ottawa (amusingly described as ‘the mother-city of all spiders, which will resonate with anyone cynical about Canadian politics) and here they had their confrontation. Long Ma (of course?) ends up retrieving the wings and restoring things to rights.

Kumo.jpg

Pretty good, legendary-style story. I only found out about it by doing some research on the internet, though. I’m not sure it would be possible to come up with all that just watching the monsters and what they did. Obviously the two creatures were not friends – the roaring, flames and water jets when they crossed paths would tell you that – but the rest is certainly not immediately obvious.

I started to think about that from a storytelling perspective, and whether it was a problem. On one level, clearly not, because you could enjoy the spectacle of the city’s titanic visitors without knowing any of it. They were just fun to watch. It’s also possible that La Machine expected you to do the (fairly minimal) amount of research that I engaged in before going down to see the show, if you cared about the story. That’s quite possibly fair enough.

The more I think about it, though, the more I think that maybe you weren’t exactly expected to have the whole story down. Watching the show and figuring out what you thought was going on may have been the plan. There were probably parts of the ‘official’ narrative a lot of the audience would pick up on: Long Ma is clearly designed to be charming. It has big expressive eyes with long lashes, a sort of pleasantly deep rumbling voice, and an elegant stride. The giant spider – given our usual associations with spiders – seems more obviously an antagonist. When Long Ma was snoring cheerily in front of City Hall, Kumo loomed ominously from the top of a building. All of which to say, identifying the ‘good monster’ and the ‘bad monster’ from the pairing is probably fairly easy.

Fight.jpg

From there, most people could probably write their own story. One of my friends, in posting their La Machine photos, also presented their own narrative, which I really enjoyed. Their theory was that Kumo was angry with Long Ma because the dragon woke it up (which it did, on Friday afternoon), the fight and the day’s long chase through the ByWard Market proceeding from there. Suddenly, there’s a version of events where I have a lot more sympathy for the spider.

This strikes me as – potentially – a really cool way of telling a story, or causing a story to be told. Most people who saw La Machine didn’t see the whole thing; they went to one or two encounters with the creatures (although some did apparently follow them throughout), saw part of the weekend’s events, and came away with their own part of the story, their own interpretation of what it all meant, whether cosmic battle between good and evil, grumpy, sleep-deprived spider, or something entirely different.

This is, of course, the mode in which most of us learn about the real world. We almost never have all the facts and the full story about anything, at least not when events are in motion. We encounter what we encounter, experience what we experience, and construct our narratives about what it all signifies about the world, society, other people, and ourselves, from there. There are piles of studies with witness testimony to show that basically no two people are likely to come away from even the same experience with the same story about what happened, never mind each person with their own unique experiences to build from. We all write our own stories, all the time.

I’m not sure if that was really the intent of La Machine, but I think it’s both an inevitable consequence of a big, publicly performed, lengthy spectacle like their story was, and a pretty cool idea. Everyone who saw Long Ma and Kumo (and who didn’t then go and look up the ‘real story’ like I did) came away with their own version of what had happened, what was important, and what (if anything) it meant.

Fight2

This isn’t (I think) a form of storytelling that translates very well to books, although I guess some of the collected interview and diary style books along the lines of World War Z nudge somewhat into the territory. They still take all those different points of view and weave them into a ‘big picture’ for the reader, though. I’m not sure you could really recreate the La Machine experience with a written story unless maybe electronically, with the reader being presented with selected scenes from an overall whole and then having to put them together into a narrative, or not.

It probably doesn’t matter if you could do it in writing, though. One of the great things about storytelling is that it’s possible to do it in all sorts of different ways, with different techniques and technologies, and each has special possibilities. La Machine was the oft-cited “rule” of ‘show, don’t tell’ taken to its extreme extent, where you were told nothing and had to interpret the experience yourself, and (depending on how much time you wanted to spend navigating crowds on Ottawa’s streets, where summer had finally arrived) probably from a partial sample of the whole experience.

It was pretty great.

I really enjoyed the little sliver of La Machine that I got to see in person, and it’s been almost as much fun to see all the different pictures of the monsters taken by other people and to hear about what their experiences were like in different places and at different points of the weekend.

I’m really pleased that for a weekend, a fantastic, amazing story took over the city, and I hope maybe we’ll see something like it again.

This entry now includes some wonderful photos taken by my friend, Rohit Saxena.  Check out other examples of his work here and the rest of his La Machine shots here.

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Last Jedi

If you follow the news at all, you’ll of course have noticed that a lot of powerful and momentous events have happened since I wrote here last. On the one hand I feel like I should write about them, because they’re important and I feel strongly about them, but I also feel strongly that this is not a political blog and that most of you don’t come here to read about my political thoughts and ideas. So I’ll leave that commentary off for now; if you happen to want to know what I think you can probably figure it out from my Twitter feed anyway.

Instead I thought I would join the multitude scrabbling for every scrap of meaning that can be wrenched from the poster for the next Star Wars movie. There isn’t much. It’s just a black field of stars, with the familiar ‘Star Wars’ logo in unfamiliar red, and the movie’s title: The Last Jedi. Not a lot of meat on that bone, but still we gnaw away.

I guess arguably some of this might count as spoilers, but it’s all my speculation (I have no inside source of information, alas) so I think it’s fine, but consider yourself warned.

The obvious thing the title suggests to me (and suggested to many others) is that Luke Skywalker will die in this movie, leaving Rey as the last of the Jedi. I suppose the safe bet is that he’ll perish at the hands of Kylo Ren, his former apprentice. Broadly this would fit with the middle movie of a trilogy, where things are often left in a fairly dark and nasty place to set up the eventual resolution in the final act. This is, of course, what happened in Empire Strikes Back where we were left with Han Solo captured by Boba Fett, Luke defeated and demoralized by Vader, and the best that could be said was that our heroes – mostly – got away. So from that, and the red logo (‘red’ in Star Wars usually denotes the bad-guy Sith, and in a more general sense means emergencies and blood), it’s a reasonably safe bet that this movie is going to have some Bad Things happen.

The death of Luke is the obvious one. From a narrative perspective, the story just doesn’t work very well if Rey goes off to find Luke in the hopes that he’ll fix all the problems, and then he comes back and actually does fix them. It’s a much better story if everyone expects that Luke will (once again) save the day, but then he either fails or succeeds imperfectly, dying in the attempt, and leaving a younger, relatively untried student to try to put things back together. That’s not a bad setup for a third movie where Rey – who is still really just a kid from a junkyard no-one has heard of – will have to shoulder a much heavier burden than anyone anticipated.

Now, lots of people have criticized that as following the arc of the first Star Wars trilogy too closely, and if Last Jedi does unfold according to expectations then it will be running from a fairly familiar playbook. (I mean, broad strokes: Vader kills Obi-Wan, his former teacher, Luke gets his act together to eventually defeat Vader) However, as very many people have also pointed out, the Star Wars story has always been kind of doing that anyway, with its ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ structure and elements plucked from other sources like The Hidden Fortress. In other words, it seems a little late to start getting down on Star Wars for telling a familiar tale; that’s kind of what it has always done. The charm has been that it told that familiar tale well, with heart and humour and flair. As much as writers (and I guess readers) sometimes idolize Original Fresh Plot Ideas, sometimes I think the important part really is that you do a good job of storytelling.

I do also think the writers have left themselves enough room to manoeuvre that even if Rey’s story seems likely to follow a well-traced path, there will be fresh stuff in there. Most prominently, Finn is a character we really haven’t seen yet, and exactly where his path is likely to lead is far less clear. Presumably he’s going to confront his First Order past a little more thoroughly, and he’ll need to figure out what it is he wants to be now that he’s decided not to be a stormtrooper – up to quite recently, his only identity. Through Force Awakens he was more or less carried along by the current of events; at some point (perhaps while recovering from his injuries) he’ll have to decide what he will be now. That’s interesting, to me at least. Who is Finn when it’s not a crisis, when there isn’t a battle to fight? I want to see the answer to that.

I’m less sure what the plan may be for Kylo Ren; the general Star Wars arc would call for some form of redemption, but I think they’ve made that a fairly difficult road this time. Darth Vader killed Obi-Wan in the first movie and was, eventually, redeemed, but Obi-Wan wasn’t his father and wasn’t a character with the resonance of Han Solo. If Kylo kills Luke as well as Han it’s going to be pretty hard for a lot of the audience to buy him as redeemable, but if he’s not redeemed by the end of the trilogy it would be a surprisingly dark direction for Star Wars. Generally, the movies say that if you want to come back from a dark place, you always can. Maybe they’ll tell us the story of why Kylo Ren doesn’t want to, but that would be a bleaker story than the franchise usually gives us. We’ll see.

Anyway, that’s a lot of words about an image that had only 5 words on it to begin with, so I’ll stop here. Perhaps needless to say, I’m looking forward to the next installment quite a bit.

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I can’t quite leave it without saying something about the horrible shootings in St. Foy, Quebec, when innocent people were murdered while they were at prayer. There was horror, there was a great deal of confusion. Authorities called it an act of terror, which it was, and eventually it emerged that the perpetrator was a white man with hard right-wing views. We don’t know everything about what led him to act exactly how and when he did, but the broad strokes of the story are all too evident.

This is what happens when people promote ideas of division and intolerance. When we say that this or that group shouldn’t be here, or that this particular religion is a danger, or that people who live their lives a certain way cause some kind of hazard, we naturally create a climate of fear and crisis. Given time, eventually some distressed, frightened and hateful soul will lash out against these enemies we have created. You can only tell people they’re in danger for so long before they’re going to react, and all to often people react with violence. We know this. I like to tell myself this isn’t a deliberate orchestration, but we should know well enough not to do this any more.

You can’t preach hate and division and then wash your hands of the consequences. Think very carefully about the ideas you spread and the ones you fail to denounce. The end point of intolerance is what happened in St. Foy. No political agenda you may have can possibly be worth the slaughter of people who have done nothing to anyone. If Sunday night’s massacre horrified you, then stand firm against the ideologies that led to it.

We can’t have it. I believe we won’t stand it. I believe the tide runs very firmly in the opposite direction, that society will become more and more diverse and that we will have more and more different kinds of people, and it will be wonderful. Of course, it only happens if we make it happen.

We do that through resistance to what is not right, to calling what is wrong what it is, and through being the kinder, more tolerant, welcoming people we all want to live with. The future is ours. Let’s go get it.

Thanks for reading.

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Star Wars

Goofy idea postponed yet again (at this rate I may never do it!) because, as you may have seen on the Twitter, later last week I was finally one of the last sentient creatures roaming the surface of the planet to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m gonna ramble on about that a little bit today. In the interests of the last few entities wandering around out there who haven’t seen the movie yet, I’m going to keep this as spoiler-free as I can, including especially the part where Jabba the Hutt turns out to be the new head of the Jedi.

One of the interesting things in waiting so long (in the safe damp darkness underneath the rock where I live) to see the movie was that I got to see a bunch of reactions to it before I went myself. Overall the tone of these seemed to be positive, although there is/was a significant minority of negative outcry as well. So I was ever so slightly sceptical as the stupid preshow smartphone games and previews finally ended and the iconic Crawl O’Text began to make its stately way up the screen.

My first reaction, honestly, was relief. Star Wars was back.

I should explain. Through my teens and into my early twenties (not quite a long, long time ago but verging upon it) I was an enormous Star Wars fan, perhaps to a somewhat excessive degree. I absolutely loved the original trilogy of films, and could have done most of the dialogue from memory. I had Star Wars posters all over my walls, played all sorts of Star Wars games, and was frequently kitted out in Star Wars t-shirts. I was deeply invested in the franchise, to say the least. Then Phantom Menace came out, and some friends and I rented out a VIP screening room to watch it on the first possible day. The movie started. I still keenly remember sitting there trying to convince myself that the movie wasn’t shit, and eventually failing. I had looked forward to a new Star Wars movie so much, and it was awful.

As a result I waited for the reviews on Attack of the Clones, heard it was shit, and so … never saw it. I never even considered seeing Revenge of the Sith. The movies sold tons of tickets so I just basically filed away Star Wars as a franchise that was no longer ‘for me’ and put it away in the ‘fond memories’ category. Time passed and I thought about Star Wars less all the time (probably a good thing) until the news started to trickle out about new movies being made, and then The Force Awakens came out.

As I said, with some scepticism I (eventually) went to see it, and again, wow, Star Wars was back. Part of it was (of course) the return of familiar characters like Han Solo and Leia, but they also just got the overall tone and feel of the movie very nearly exactly right. I’ve seen the movie criticized for ‘playing things too safe’ and being too much like the original trilogy and I guess especially A New Hope, but for me a movie that looked and felt like the Star Wars movies I had loved was exactly what was necessary. Maybe the next two movies will take more ‘risks’ but I hope they don’t do too much, because fundamentally the Star Wars setup works pretty well.

One of the things I enjoy is that you have characters who are clearly Good, if somewhat flawed at times, and characters who are clearly Evil, and the story the movie tells is essentially a conflict between these. I think part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars as a setting is its (usually) unapologetic presentation of a confrontation between Right and Wrong and an overall narrative that suggests that, in the end, evil will be defeated. I think that’s a story that twangs something very deep inside us, it’s a story we’re sort of culturally primed to like, and part of why stories like Star Wars and Robin Hood and King Arthur and Beowulf are the ones that we keep coming back to.

That’s not to say that you can’t tell a good, compelling, ‘shades of grey’ story, obviously you can and I enjoy them immensely at times. (Battlestar Galactica was almost entirely shades of grey, by the end, and it was a fantastic series) At the same time, I think that not every story needs to be grey, that there’s an undeniable appeal in a story that gives you clear Good Guys and Bad Guys.* In a lot of ways, I think we ultimately want it to be true that there are truly good forces in the world, and that in the end the bad things in our society and our world can end up being defeated.**

That’s one of the things fiction can do very well: provide an inspiring or comforting vision of the way we would like things to go in the real world, something we can look at or read and think ‘yes, this is the way it should be‘. Perhaps it can be that way in the real world. Perhaps we can make it that way. I think, at times, fiction can be an aspirational text, the goal we’re aiming for, and in a very loose way Star Wars can be that for some people. Certainly I think there are examples there that can excite, motivate, and inspire you, if you let them.

I think that was part of the reason that teenage me got so into Star Wars. It was an ultimately positive vision, and I tend to like those. As I’ve said before, right now I think we get more than enough examples of it being difficult to find unproblematically good figures in the world and plenty of examples of what is wrong going unconfronted or uncorrected that it’s nice to not get that in my fiction as well. I think the new movie, in this particular way and in a lot of others, remembers what was really fun and good and enjoyable about the first trilogy of films and gives it back to you. I guess you could say that’s not very daring or ambitious, but I think it’s also very welcome.

Ok, I’ve already written a lot about this movie and I’m not going to go on very much more about it, but I want to address one of the most loudly-expressed objections to what we got in The Force Awakens at least a little.

I read a lot of criticisms of Rey’s character prior to watching the movie, primarily that she is a ‘Mary Sue’ – (briefly) one of those (often very annoying) characters who have every special talent, can do everything and handle anything. In my opinion, it doesn’t hold up. Rey does get to do a lot of cool things in the movie and is at the forefront of most of the action. However, that’s because she’s what we call the main character, or the star of the show. So of course she’s leading the way, that’s what main characters do. You can’t go into (say) an Indiana Jones movie and complain that Indy does everything; that’s what protagonists or main characters do.

<Gonna get slightly spoiler-y here for a second>

 

 

 

Rey also does exhibit a fairly wide range of talents, although again in part that’s just a hero being a hero. However, even by the movie’s internal logic, they make sense. She’s good at fixing starships because she’s been taking them apart her whole life. Presumably that’s also why she has an idea of how to pilot one; she’s done the equivalent of growing up in an enormous junkyard and therefore having a basic sense of what to do with a car. She turns out to be really good at it because of the Force. I mean, you can hate that as an explanation but it’s imbedded in the Star Wars setting. Luke was a great starfighter pilot with no training because of the Force and does probably 98% of the things he can do because of Space Magic. Same deal with Rey, in fact if there is a criticism here it’s that it’s quite so close to Luke’s story.

 

 

 

<spoilery stuff ends>

I suspect some of the criticism of Rey comes from people trying to justify being unhappy with a female lead. That’s immensely disappointing and distressing, for reasons that I trust I don’t have to lay out here. She’s a great character, well acted by Daisy Ridley, and I’m already looking forward to the next part of her story.

All right, that really is it for this week, except to say that if you are one of the remaining sentiences out there on the planetary crust who hasn’t yet seen The Force Awakens, I’d recommend it as a good time.  Thank you for indulging what became a more than slightly bloated, fanboy-ish gush of a post. Normal service will resume next week.

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* – Yes, of course I’m aware that it’s possible to problematize Star Wars by thinking about innocent bystanders on the Death Star and that ordinary citizens might possibly like the order provided by the Empire and so on. I think it’s clear, though, that this isn’t the vision the story is intending you to pick up. It’s fun to read against texts and unravel things, of course, but you also have to be aware that that’s what you’re doing.

** – Avoiding spoilers, but of course in the original trilogy and in this new movie these victories don’t come without various kinds of sacrifice. That’s generally the way the narrative goes in these kinds of story though, isn’t it, and (without getting too anthropological) I think it’s another useful part of the message. Evil can be defeated, but not trivially, not without commitment. That’s one of those things that you sense is true as soon as it’s suggested to you.

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