Today I make the case that the city, in storytelling, often gets the ocean treatment. The city equals the ocean.
This was first pointed out to me in The Anatomy of Story. You probably already know that mountains and cities are metaphorically linked. The ocean is a less well-known metaphor.
A more powerful natural metaphor for the city than the classic but predictable mountain is the ocean. With this metaphor, the writer usually begins on the rooftops, which are gabled so that the audience has the impression of floating on the waves. Then the story “dips” below the surface to pick up various strands, or characters, who live at different levels of this three-dimensional world and are typically unaware of the others “swimming” in this sea.
— John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
The following music clip is an excellent example of what we’re talking about. The very slow zoom makes us feel as if we are swimming through water.
Mary Poppins — who floats down from the sky. (I’m talking about the original film adaptation.) In the house next door, a ship captain stands on the roof (deck of his ‘ship’), along with his first mate. From Mary, the children learn that you can float if you love to laugh the day away. Bert and the chimney sweeps dance on the rooftops, which he calls the ‘sea of enchantment.’ With bursting energy, they prance on the waves (the gables) and defy gravity until the caption fires a shot from his cannon and the sweeps all disappear under the ocean’s surface until it is time to dance once more.
Broadchurch — the opening sequence of the pilot episode shows an eerie but cosy seaside little town, and the camera floats along the main street of this village in a smooth, floating, creepy fashion, as if a ghost. Or a fish.
Panic Room — the camera floats through the house, first along the floorboards then up and over, through objects and walls, waiting for the Jodi Foster character to discover her dangerous intruders. The story opens with the camera floating around New York City, establishing the location as Manhattan.
The trailer of Panic Room gives an idea of how the camera moves.
And here’s the ‘camera fish’ moving from a scene in the film:
But ocean as city is not all doom and gloom. The ocean is good like that — storytellers can use it to both scary and happy effect.
The city as ocean is also the key metaphor when you want to portray the city in its most positive light, as a playground where individuals can live with freedom, style, and love.
You can often pick a film using the city as ocean metaphor because film-makers often rely on the eye of the camera, with the camera gliding along gabled rooftops then dipping down below the “ocean’s surface” and into an open window.
Numerous picture books have taken a child’s bedroom and turned it into a night-time playground. The most famous in Australia is undoubtedly There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild.
Others have done similar:
The Night-fish by Helen McCosker is another more recent one, because the child brings a piece of the ocean into the bedroom. (With disastrous consequences.)
These stories, in which the child enters the depths of the ocean, even metaphorically, are quite different to stories in which the character travels over the surface of the ocean, as in Where The Wild Things Are or Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea. Consider the ‘sea surface’ a different setting from ‘sea depths’. The sea depths are analogous to outer space in storytelling.
Artist Nicoletta Ceccoli has a series of paintings with girls interacting with fish who float through rooms.
So much has been said about Narnia already. Can I add a single thing to the corpus by blogging about storytelling techniques in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
Probably not, but my 10-year-old is studying this novel at school. She’s home sick today. I know the rest of her class is watching the 2005 film adaptation this afternoon for a compare and contrast exercise, because they send home permission slips for PG rated material. (Honestly, heh, I showed this to my kid when she was about 5.) It’s been a while since we cracked open the DVD, so today we are rewatching The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, together at home, under a blanket.
This blog post is mainly about the 2005 film adaptation, not about the novel. I haven’t read the novel since I was in my late teens, though I keep meaning to go back. I bought myself a beautiful illustrated version for my 30th birthday. What’s keeping me from dusting it off? Probably all the commentary around it, and knowing how problematic it is as a vehicle for certain ideas.
The Wrestler (2008) directed by Darren Aronofsky remains one of the best, and also one of the saddest, films I’ve seen. Though their archive of reviews has been removed, I’m pretty sure Australia’s Margaret and David both gave the film five out of five stars.
Logline: A faded professional wrestler must retire, but finds his quest for a new life outside the ring a dispiriting struggle.
The Wrestler is a tale of self-destruction, but self-destruction with thematic purpose. Its raison d’être is not simple masochistic pleasure — this is a critique of entertainment industries, among other things. Most of the audience is neither a wrestler nor a sex worker. This story takes the concept of masks and work life (im)balance to create a widely relatable story.
The part of Randy the Ram was written for Mickey Rourke, inspired by the emotional arc of Mickey’s life (though we almost got stuck with Nicholas Cage). Cage agreed to the role once Rourke seemed unable to play it for obscure Hollywood reasons, but soon realised he’d never get bulky enough without resorting to steroids himself. Cage didn’t want to compromise his own health in that way. So the part went back to Mickey somehow.
Mickey Rourke didn’t write the story — that was Robert Siegel — but he did rewrite his own dialogue with the director’s permission. I’ve no doubt this is part of the film’s success. Writer Robert Siegel has also written a kids’ film about a snail (Turbo) and a baseball film starring Patton Oswald (Big Fan). The Wrestler is his standout success as a writer so far.
I watch this film through my fingers. If you have sensory issues around cutting, blood, needles etc. you will find the wrestling sequences of this film a challenge. But if you can watch them (and not just listen, as I did), apparently the pro wrestling is real, not just realistic. The actors are real-life wrestlers, and it turns out — happily — they can also act. This should be no surprise, since pro wrestling turns out to be a form of acting in its own right.
I also find this film so affecting that it stays with me for days. If you’re not up for that, avoid avoid avoid.
The reasons for all those details, by the way, becomes clear to me after reading something about storytelling by Celeste Ng, who read a whole lot of stories in quick succession for a project she was curating. She had this to say about the forgettable ones:
Why didn’t [many stories I read] work? Partway through a story about a couple at a party, secretly struggling with infertility and on the verge of falling apart, I realized something: the characters should have been desperately sad, but no one in the story actually seemed to feel much of anything. […] enough wasn’t said. Those stories, and that shorthand, ask the reader to do all the work—of figuring out how the characters are feeling; actually, of feeling, period. They assumed you knew what it felt like to be cheated on, or to lose a loved one—and that you’d feel the same way the characters did. The authors seemed to hope you’d project your own feelings onto the character, creating instant depth, like a 3-D movie. But what does that make the characters, and the story? A blank screen. […] The best stories—the ones I still remember, months or even years after reading them, the ones that punched holes in my heart—didn’t assume anything. They didn’t use shorthand; they spelled out those feelings with painfully sharp details, so that by the end, you did almost know what it was like.
— Celeste Ng
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1939) is a short story by American humorist James Thurber. The story has been adapted several times for film, most recently in 2013. I haven’t seen the films but it’s interesting someone financed feature length movies out of a story so short — “Walter Mitty” is 2,512 words.
“Brokeback Mountain” is a short story adapted far more successfully for film (though not according to Annie Proulx, because they butchered the main message). “Brokeback Mountain” is a capacious, novelistic short story, and and gives the director far more to work with, coming in at 9,135 words.
My theory is that sometimes short stories (and picture books) are simply too short to fill a feature length film. Scriptwriters must artificially bulk them out. Unfortunately, it’s hard to make money out of short films, which they probably should be.