Slap Happy Larry

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Storytelling Tips From Kiki’s Delivery Service

Kiki’s Delivery Service is a Studio Ghibli film released in 1989. This film was always popular in Japan but — though it’s hard to remember now — Studio Ghibli films didn’t take off in the West until 1997 with the release of Princess Mononoke.

Children’s books often begin with a child looking out a window, about to embark upon a journey. Kiki does something similar, but she gazes up into the sky.

BASED ON A POPULAR JAPANESE CHILDREN’S BOOK

Kiki’s Delivery Service is based on a novel published in 1985 by Eiko Kadono. Kiki’s Delivery Service is Kadono’s best known work. Like L. Frank Baum, she really only had this one big hit and wrote lesser known sequels which are lesser known. (There are 6 in the series altogether.) As of 2017, Kadono is 81 years old.

Hayao Miyazaki is 76. The film therefore has the combined sensibilities of a Japanese pair of artists born around the time of the World Wars. This affects both the setting and the sentiment.

“Just follow your heart and keep smiling,” advises the mother before Kiki sets off. This feels like not only a distinctly Japanese thing to say, but also an especially feminine aspiration, though probably applied to everyone in Japan born after the war.

STORYWORLD

Visby is a town on the Swedish island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea. It’s known for its well-preserved town wall, a medieval fortification incorporating defensive towers. The town’s many churches include the grand, centuries-old St. Mary’s Cathedral and the medieval ruins of St. Nicolai and St. Karin. The main square, Stora Torget, has cobblestone streets lined with cafes and restaurants.

Where are these Miyazaki films set? Not in Japan but not in Europe, either. The utopian storyworld of Kiki’s Delivery Service (and several of the other Studio Ghibli films) has the trains, the hilly suburbs and the closeness of the sea but also has the cobbled streets and nooks and crannies of somewhere like Barcelona, with intratext on the signs looking a lot like English with a few flourishes reminiscent of kanji. We are to believe this is another world, a world where magic exists unobtrusively in the real world of the story.

[Studio Ghibli] shot 80 rolls of film in Stockholm and Visby, gathering location images as inspiration for the scenes in Koriko. For the most part, Koriko is composed of images of Stockholm. A side street in Stockholm’s old city, Gamla Stan, is one model. Sweden was the first foreign country Miyazaki ever visited.

Fictional Koriko is, however, much larger than Visby and features buildings and shops with the look of Stockholm.

THE TITLE

This early cover gives quite a different feel, doesn’t it?

The series has since been reissued. This is number six. A completely different vibe again.

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Physiological Reactions In Fiction

I wonder if anyone’s ever had a GOOD case of diarrhoea.

– @stephenfry

Descriptions of physiology are hard to write well because:

  1. We all know what the feels to be thirsty/humiliated/busting to go to the toilet, so why does an author feel the need to explain it again, as if her character is any different? Why not just tell and not show?
  2. Every possible physiological response must have been written before, over and over, so how to sound original?
  3. It’s so easy to sound unintentionally comical.
  4. Certain physiological reactions can be cringe inducing unless done masterfully.

Yet now and again I come across a physiological description that’s original and engaging and poetic, and I’m filled with hope that it hasn’t all been done before. And then I think, “The field of possibles has just narrowed. I wish I’d written that!”

Feeling Hot In Summer

Wherever you went in the summer in America it was murder. It was always ninety degrees. If you closed the windows you baked, but if you left them open everything blew everywhere – comic books, maps, loose articles of clothing. If you wore shorts, as we always did, the bare skin on your legs became part of the seat, like cheese melted onto toast, and when it was time to get up, there was a rippling sound and a screaming sensation of agony as the two parted. If in your sun-baked delirium you carelessly leaned your arm against the metal part of the door on to which the sun had been shining, the skin where it made contact would shrivel and disappear, like a plastic bag in a flame. It was a truly amazing, and curiously painless, spectacle to watch part of your body just vanish. -Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Since I come from a Land of Celcius, I had to look up ’90 degrees’. I found out it’s a measly 32.222 degrees celcius, which means Bill Bryson should make it to Australia one day. (Oh that’s right. He did.) Part of what makes Bill Bryson so funny (to many, at least) is his creation of unlikely similes. He sometimes takes something quite grand (say, a landmark river) and compares it to something everyday and unremarkable (a drink spilled across a table). He compares many things to food. (Like legs, to cheese on toast.) If you are writing comedy, it’s possible to be endlessly original about physiological reactions, because you’ve got an infinite list of bizarre imagery at your disposal.

Awestruck

Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent. Even children are stilled by it. I was a particularly talkative and obnoxious child, but it stopped me cold. I can remember rounding a corner and standing there agog while a mouthful of half-formed jabber just rolled backwards down my throat, forever unuttered. I was seven years old and I’m told it was only the second occasion in all that time that I had stopped talking, apart from short breaks for sleeping and television. The one other thing to silence me was the sight of my grandfather dead in an open coffin. – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

I love how the first paragraph is serious, mock poetic, with the three adjectives listed to conclude. Of course, this is a build-up to the clincher: Grand Canyon compared to an old man dead in a coffin, which I probably shouldn’t find funny, but do. Wonderful juxtaposition.

Kissing

And then we’re kissing.

I lean in this time, and she doesn’t turn away. It’s cold, and our lips are dry, noses a little wet, foreheads sweaty beneath wool hats.

– from Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan

It’s very easy to sound Mills-and-Boonish when approaching anything sexual, and it’s sometimes safer to make it deliberately unarousing. The wet noses make sure of that. (Unless you love dogs, perhaps…)

Homesick

It was like hell, she thought, because she could see no end to it, and to the feeling that came with it, but the torment was strange, it was all in her mind, it was like the arrival of night if you knew that you would never see anything in daylight again. She did not know what she was going to do.

– Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

So ‘homesickness’ isn’t technically a physiological reaction. But the psychological is connected, somehow, to the physiological.

Notice the very long, run-on sentence making use of commas rather than full-stops. This echoes the feeling of ‘no end’ in sight. It’s almost always a good choice to follow such sentences with a short, pithy one, and this is exactly what Toibin has done.

Sexually Aroused

It is like a little pocket of air has rushed into her mouth and sent a little shiver down her back and tugged at the empty half-basin of her pelvic bone. She feels a prolonged and dislocated swoop in her belly and a yank of emptiness in her ribcage, and suddenly she is  much too hot. Isolde feels this way sometimes when she is in the bath, or when she watches people kiss on television, or in bed when she runs her fingertips down the soft curve of her belly and imagines that her hand is not her own. Most often the feeling descends inexplicably — at a bus stop, perhaps, or in the lunch line, or waiting for a bell to ring… Here in the hallway Isolde is thinking, Did I feel this feeling then, that night? Did I feel this jangled swoop of dread and longing, this elevator-dive, this strange suspended prelude to a sneeze?

– Eleanor Catton, from The Rehearsal

That’s the most original description I’ve read. (And in case you’d thought that was all that could be possibly said on the subject, it goes on in totally original fashion for another few pages.)

A more succinct description:

He turned to look at her…Purl felt her pelvic floor contract and she steadied herself against the bar.

– Rosalie ham, from The Dressmaker

Accurate enough, I suppose. Functional writing. Slightly comic, which is the intention. That’s the thing about making use of the correct anatomical terms. It can come across as comic even when unintended. A few years back I complained that a drink was too hot and that it had ‘burned my esophagus’. This was not met with sympathy, but laughter. Apparently it was only funny because I’d used the correct term. Besides, some body parts can’t help sounding comical, and esophagus is one of them.

I woke up half an hour later, when she sat down on my bed, her butt against my hip. Her underwear, her jeans, the comforter, my corduroys, and my boxers between us, I thought. Five layers, and yet I felt it, the nervous warmth of touching — a pale reflection of the fireworks of one mouth on another, but a reflection nonetheless.

finding alaska by John Green

A perfect portrayal of a teenage proto-relationship.

Orgasmic

Elizabeth stared up into the darkness. She could feel, like tiny electric shocks, involuntary muscular spasms at the very core of her being, as if her body, like her mind, was trying to come to terms with what had transpired.

– Judy Nunn, from Maralinga

I don’t read much romance but I’m sure there are plenty of better examples. I’ll add a few more excerpts if I come across them. Even so, I’m thinking ‘spasm’ might be a popular choice of word.

Related Post: Why is there no good sex in fiction prize? from The Guardian.

Gasping For A Drink

Dick had not been married long and at the thought of the beautiful and curvaceous Dinah a clot of emotions lurched sweetly, a sensation he had come to terms with. It was a sensation which cried out for strong drink. Dick had found Dinah an exotic dish to have on his menu. Her presence, her absence, the very thought of her, called for a heady sauce. He took a turn around the room and peeped into the cupboard, although he knew before he opened the door that the bottle with the famous label which stared blankly back at him would be a skinner.

– Came A Hot Friday, by Ronald Hugh Morrieson

Two emotions are described above: wanting a drink, and being in love. For this character, the feelings are similar and he’s unable to fully separate the two.

Tipsy

I wanted to like booze more than I actually did (which is more or less the precise opposite of how I felt about Alaska). But that night, the booze felt great, as the warmth of wine in my stomach spread through my body. I didn’t like feeling stupid or out of control, but I liked the way it made everything (laughing, crying, peeing in front of your friends) easier.

(several pages later)

With her mouth half open, it occurred to me that she must already be drunk as a I noticed the far-off look in her eyes. The thousand-yard stare of intoxication, I thought, and as I watched her with idle fascination, it occurred to me that, yeah, I was a little drunk too.

looking for alaska, by John Green

Flat Out Drunk

I don’t know how many beers I had, but – I will be frank here – it was too many. I had not allowed for the fact that in the thin mountain air of Santa Fe you get drunk much faster. In any case, I was surprised to discover as I stood up a couple of hours after entering that the relationship between my mind and legs, which was normally quite a good one, had broken down. More than that, my legs now didn’t seem to be getting on at all well with each other. One of them started for the stairs, as instructed, but the other, in a burst of petulance, decided to make for the rest-room. The result was that I lurched through the bar like a man on stilts, grinning inanely as if to say, ‘Yes, I know I look like an asshole. Isn’t this amusing?’

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

I’ve never been drunk, myself, so all I know about being drunk is what I’ve read in books and hearing people whinge about it afterwards. I’ve heard that you don’t always lose control of your legs when you get drunk – it depends. On what, though? Anyone know?

Hungover

“All right. All right. No screaming. Head hurts.” And it did. I could feel last night’s wine in my throat and my head throbbed like it had the morning after my concussion. My mouth tasted like a skunk had crawled into my throat and died.

– looking for alaska, John Green

I can’t see that being hungover is any different from any other kind of dehydration headache. Anyone willing to comment on that?

Stuffed With Food

The… plate was such a mixture of foods, gravies, barbecue sauces and salad creams that it was really just a heap of tasteless goo. But I shovelled it all down and then had an outsized platter of chocolate goo for dessert. And then I felt very ill. I felt as if I had eaten a roll of insulation. Clutching my distended abdomen, I found my way to an exit. There was no moving sidewalk to return me to the street – there’s no place in Las Vegas for losers or quitters – so I had to make a long weaving walk down the floodlit driveway to the Strip. The fresh air helped a little, but only a little. I limped through the crowds along the Strip, looking like a man doing a poor imitation of Quasimodo…

– Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Blergh. I hate that feeling, evoked excellently here.

Nauseated

It was too dark to see the gemstones in the sand now. She was fighting back nausea and swallowing back a bile in her mouth that tasted like warm beer, pasta, and woody aftertones… all mixed with a hint of self-loathing.

– from Girl At Sea by Maureen Johnson

Violently Ill

Alternating waves of hot and cold washed over her, and she knew she needed to get out of the bed, but her legs would not hold. Remaining on her knees, she crawled to the door. Shaking violently, she tried once again to stand. This time her legs stayed under her, but she could not get her equilibrium. She felt as though some central ball bearing inside her that made balance possible had been knocked loose… Never had she been this sick before. Kneeling with her head over the commode, she was so violently ill that the contractions sent pain into her neck and back. Her head throbbed so that she no longer saw shapes, only patches of gray and black. She felt as if she were being turned inside out, as if she were being scoured.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

 

…the urge to be sick became even more intense then before, forcing her to get down on her hands and knees and vomit a thick liquid with a vile taste that made her shudder with revulsion when she lifted her head.

The ship’s movements took on a harsh rhythm, and replaced the sense of lunging forward and then being pushed back she had felt when she woke first. … There was hardly anything left to vomit, just a sour bile that left a taste in her mouth that made her cry…

– Colm Toibin, Brooklyn

 

In a state of profound agitation he arrived back at Elphaba’s little eyrie atop the corn exchange. As he climbed the stairs, his bowels turned suddenly to water, and it was only with effort he managed to make it to the chamber pot. His insides slopped noisily, wetly out, and he held his perspiring face in his hands. The cat was perched atop the wardrobe, glaring down at him. Voided, washed down, and at least loosely done up again, he tried to coax Malky with a bowl of milk. She would have none of it.

— Gregory Maguire, Wicked

Frightened

The room was big. He could feel its size although he could not clearly see. He could feel a cold breeze in his face, the blood in his heart. It was cold, too, the blood, and it felt as if it cracked — like ice — when his foot bumped into a soft heap on the floor. A body, a dead body.

– Christopher Pike, The Party

That one doesn’t work for me at all. I think it’s something to do with the extended metaphor of ‘cold blood’ – which is hard get away with, because it’s so old. (Truman Capote, anyone?) Not only is the blood cold, it’s ‘frozen’, and cracks, which is overdoing the metaphor.

Blomkvist shut his eyes. He suddenly felt acid in his throat and he swallowed hard. The pain in his gut and in his ribs seemed to swell.

– Stieg Larsson, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Most often ‘bile’ is mentioned in this case, to the point where ‘bile rising in one’s throat’ is almost cliche. I think it’s therefore wise that the translator made use the word ‘acid’ instead. I think I know this reaction, but I may have led a sheltered life because I can’t think of a time in which I was so shocked and frightened that I actually experienced it. I wonder if  I have a stronger stomach than most, or if it takes extreme stress to produce the bile in one’s throat (the sort of stress most often recreated in thrillers), or if this physiological reaction is used disproportionately more often in novels than happens in real life.

She woke screaming, the smell of burning fabric assaulting her nostrils… Although she didn’t see or hear anyone in the room with her, it felt like a pair of strong hands grabbed her from behind and pulled her out of the room… Vivi’s fear was so strong she could taste it in the back of her throat. So strong it caused her to pee ever so slightly in the borrowed boxy panties she wore.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Wells hasn’t mentioned ‘bile’; instead she says ‘could taste it’, which is judicious, given the aforementioned cliche.

Her head was in her hands, and when she looked up at Vivi and Pete, her black face was streaked with tears that shone silver in the fading light… Vivi could hear Genevieve’s screams coming from the master bedroom. She ran past Shirley and up the stairs. When she stepped into the bedroom, Genevieve was slapping Mr Whitman on his face, his neck, his arm, whatever she could reach. Teensy stood by herself, near the bay window, her hands covering her face.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

The character of Shirley describes the involuntary scream of shock (at a son’s death) as ‘the screech howl’, which is executed perfectly in the film. One woman commented on the YouTube segment of this movie that unless she had personally witnessed her own auntie’s reaction at losing a child, she’d not have believed that this screech howl happens in real life. She would have considered it melodramatic. It does seem that people do unexpected things when faced with terrible news; some more than others, some cultures more than others.

For a moment, everyone in the gym was silent, and the place had never been so quiet, not even in the moments before the Colonel ridiculed opponents at the free-throw stripe. I stared down at the back of the Colonel’s head. I just stared, looking at his thick and bushy hair. For a moment, it was so quiet that you could hear the sound of not-breathing, the vacuum created by 190 students shocked out of air.

I thought: It’s all my fault.

I thought: I don’t feel very good.

I thought: I’m going to throw up.

I stood up and ran outside. I mae it to a trash can outside the gym, five feet from the double doors, and heaved toward Gatorade bottles and half-eaten McDonald’s. But nothing much came out. I just heaved, my stomach muscles tightening and my throat opening and a gasping, guttural blech, going through the motions of vomiting over and over again. In between gags and coughs, I sucked air in hard.

– looking for alaska, by John Green

Crying

She began to cry until tears soaked her face, her hair, her gown. She did not remember putting on the gown she wore, did not recognise it. She needed terribly to blow her nose, but she did not have a handkerchief. She could not bear the thought, but she decided she was going to have to blow her nose on the sheets.

– Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Crying is one of those things that you can’t get away with much in a book — I don’t identify with characters who mope about and cry all the time, regardless of their circumstances. I think this has something to do with passiveness. Also, the act of crying can sort of absorb the feeling which caused it; if the character cries, the reader doesn’t have to. That said, it’s done well in the paragraph above.

Storytelling Notes On A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2017)

The 2017 TV adaptation is a newly darkened version, similar to how Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was darkened with the 2005 film. Count Olaf is the Willy Wonka, of course, surrounded by quirky unpleasant characters plus the odd angelic child and sweet helper adults.

Daniel Handler wrote the teleplay (as well as the books) and his voice and politics come through loud and clear. Handler loves wordplay, and is not shy of delivering a ‘moral lesson’ on the difference between ‘literally’ and ‘figuratively’. Words and their meanings are consistently explained, but because Klaus, at least, already knows what the words mean, the young viewer does not feel condescended to. The joke is almost always on Count Olaf. Handler also has a keen handle on the most common storytelling tropes in children’s literature, and makes fun of them whenever he can. Lemony Snicket is on the side of the child.

In the books the storyteller is hidden from view, but for the television series Lemony Snicket is portrayed in the form of Patrick Warburton, whose formal dress juxtaposes with the humorous positions he is placed in: sitting on a lifesaver’s chair, coming out of a sewerage hole in the middle of the street and so on. See: The Role Of Storytellers In Fiction.

This is the fist scene in which Lemony Snicket tells us to look away. We are put in mind of film noir (which is not a genre by the way, more a stylistic descriptor invented by critics).

The storyteller addresses the camera directly while, quite often, funny things happen in the background. While the characters cannot see him, sort of like a ghost, he is also in mortal danger, narrowly escaping death for instance.

Storyteller as ghostly lifeguard

A Series Of Unfortunate Events is famously metafictive, in which a character called Lemony Snicket warns children that this is going to be a terrible, horrible tale and they’d best turn away. Tongue-in-cheek reverse psychology. This advice is taken to its metaphorical limit in the TV series, in which the theme song advises us to ‘look away, look away!’ Then we have all the eye imagery — the viewfinder views, Count Olaf’s gaze through the peep hole (the first the Baudelaire children see of him), his eye tattoo and so on.

The cinematography of the Netflix TV series seems influenced by the films of Wes Anderson, both in symmetry and in colour. An audience knows to expect quirky from this style, and dark humour. (It was filmed in British Colombia, Canada, and you may recognise an actor or two from Orphan Black.)

Two point perspective as a train rolls past a static camera

The reflection of the old mansion allows the viewer to see both the children’s expressions as well as what they are saying goodbye to.

I’m guessing the clouds have been digitally manufactured in this distinctively storybook scene.

The brother and sister Baudelaire children stand in for ‘The Everychild’. They do not have all that much in the way of personality, aside from being inherently good and kind and well-behaved. There are differences between them — while I read Klaus as an autist, Violet is a comically Pollyanna character, determined to make the most of the situation when she asks Klaus to come across the worst predicament he’s ever encountered in his reading, then concludes they are not so badly off. Again, this is Daniel Handler making fun of the character trope that girls and boys in popular children’s stories are expected to be ‘nice’ and ‘good’. This doesn’t matter — we have Count Olaf for the laughs. In fact, all of the surrounding characters have more quirks and personality than Violet and Klaus, who, like the child audience, are newcomers to the situation and are to be read as ‘normal’.

The baby has magic super powers — she can chew things to pieces, and even create entirely new objects simply by using her four teeth. Her baby language is treated as if it’s an entirely different language, which only her siblings and surprising other characters are able to understand to the exclusion of everyone else. The baby’s words are subtitled in a font from the silent film era.

This storyworld is an example of Magic Realism. It also has steampunk elements, not so different from the Spy Kids series, in which our child heroes are expert at building contraptions. These expertise are first shown as a means of them having fun (retrieving the perfect skimming stone from the ocean), but of course these skills come in handy later, to get themselves out of dire trouble.

“It’s only scary because of the mist,” Klaus says metafictively, as Mr Poe (surely named after the horror writer?) approaches them on the beach to deliver terrible news. See: Fog Symbolism.

“It’s only scary because of the mist.”

A lot of the humour comes from the juxtaposition between the fairytale storyworld and very modern problems. For instance, when Hook-Handed Man ruins an old-fashioned typewriter (because he has hooks for hands) he asks for IT support. When Count Olaf says Violet will be marrying him ‘in an hour’ he upends a giant hourglass which he can’t remember the name of. This is making use of the classic ‘ticking clock’ storytelling device, often used to heighten suspense, but when the timer runs out nothing happens, except for Count Olaf losing face by returning through the trapdoor of the attic to explain that, actually, he bought the thing online and he didn’t know the sand went through so quickly so the children will have to turn it over a few times.

Handler is a master of irony, and there is irony in every scene and in a large proportion of the dialogue. For example, the Baudelaire children are at first taken to Mr Poe’s family — an archetypal cosy house with both parents, full of children and a well-coiffed mother in an apron who at first appears to be the epitome of a caring 1950s housewife.

We soon learn, however, that not all is well in the suburbs and she is in fact unwelcoming, taking obvious and great pleasure in the publicity she is able to garner for her own family via this tragic event.

Later that night, her children ask the Baudelaires how they managed to kill their parents, presumably because they’re hoping to do the same. The following morning we see just how small and ‘cosy’ the Poes’ house really is. Small-minded people live in very small houses — ‘cramped’, more than ‘cosy’, as first suggested by the dining table scene.

 

“I know he’s very eager to meet you and he’s employed as an actor so you know his excitement is genuine.”

This ironic tone pairs very nicely — like a great pair of serif/sans serif fonts — with the fact that much of the dialogue is in fact ‘on the nose’. The plot itself is signposted. While we are busy enjoying the storyworld and humour, we are not expected to work too hard to understand what is going on.

“Chop chop, Baudelaires. Now that I’ve found you a suitable guardian I’m going to take you to your new home before banking hours begin.”

Daniel Handler is firmly on the side of the child audience.

Mr Poe: “I know you must be nervous about living with a guardian. I know how I was when I was your age.”
Klaus: “We’re all different ages.”

The joke is repeated again later when another clueless adult — Count Olaf — talks about how much he loved cupcakes when he was ‘their age’. Again, Klaus repeats, “But we’re all different ages.” As is the child audience. More proof that in Daniel Handler’s writer’s mind, the Baudelaire children stand for The Audience In General. Also, we are not to believe adults who use the annoying phrase, “When I was your age”.

When Klaus expresses dismay at Count Olaf’s having a tattoo of an eye on his ankle (not to mention all the obvious eyeball paraphernalia about the house), the very reasonable and politically correct Violet advises her brother, as well as the audience, that tattoos are simply a decorative pigmentation of the skin and do not mean the person wearing them is bad. This stands in stark contrast with much characterisation from The First Golden Age Of Children’s Literature in particular, in which we were actively encouraged to judge baddies based on what they look like.

A mystery is introduced when the children find a strange object hidden in the rubble of their family home.

Cinderella is the ur-tale behind A Series Of Unfortunate Events. We have poor orphans who have lost their caring and excellent real parents and who are sent to live in a big house which is emotionally bereft. They are forced to endure terrible hardships, though not of the realworld kind — that would be too cruel and not at all for children — cleaning and scrubbing and cooking and always failing to win approval. Basically an exaggerated form of how generally-cared-for children feel when they’re feeling a bit sorry for themselves.

The parents are not actually dead. We are reassured of this at the end of the first episode.

Why is it not more tragic that the parents (apparently) die in a terrible fire right at the beginning of the story? Because we don’t know the parents. The history of children’s literature (particularly American children’s literature) is chock full of orphans. If we don’t get to know them, their deaths are not sad per se, rather the plight of the children is the sad thing. See: Why So Many Orphans In Children’s Literature?

The dark, empty mansion belonging to Count Olaf is contrasted with the inverse living right across the road — Justice Strauss who is not the slightest bit evil, has a garden full of blossoms, a beautiful big library and is a very caring person. Extreme evil against extreme nice. Comic characters are often 2D and that’s just fine. These are dream houses, to use the terminology of Gaston Bachelard, so of course they have stairs, basements and attics. See: Symbolism Of The Dream House.

This is all we see of the Baudelaire children’s house before it is razed to the ground — a wonderful, warm library (and no parents in sight).

When the camera pans from Justice Strauss’s house to Count Olaf’s gothic mansion the camera follows a blue bird flying happily. Unfortunately, in the middle of the street, a raven swoops down and kills it. A raven in storytelling probably puts you in mind of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, among many others. The raven is a metaphor for death, understood by young audiences and jaded ones alike.

Blue bird, and blue sky on the sunny side of the street.

Raven swoops in front of Count Olaf’s mansion

Count Olaf himself is birdlike, watching the children from his bird’s eye view in the belfry.

Count Olaf ‘welcomes’ the children to his home.

It’s such a shame the Baudelaire children can’t live with Justice Strauss, and we are made to feel it keenly. This regret is underscored by her declaration that she’s just bought a new food processor, but who does she think she’s kidding because “I have no mechanical skills whatsoever”. Since we already know the children are expert mechanics, they would obviously be a great fit. Moreover, she has no way of cutting up the baguette, which the baby is excellent at doing with her teeth.

meeting Justice Strauss

Picturebook Study: The Amazing Bone by William Steig

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of William Steig’s The Amazing Bone. This is remarkable because it feels, in some ways,  like a much more modern picture book than that. This is all to do with Steig’s voice.  Pearl is at no point mortally afraid. We know and she knows that this is a storybook world in which good will always triumph. Steig writes knowingly to the reader — we all know this is a modern fairytale. So when he writes of the baddie, ‘He wore a sprig of lilac in his lapel, he carried a cane, and he was grinning so the whole world could see his sharp teeth’, he is holding nothing back from the reader.

Steig’s distinctive voice is also achieved by his choice of vocabulary, which is by turns highly specific against ‘fairytale familiar’ (as above:

On Cobble Road she stopped at Maltby’s barn and stood gawking as the old gaffers pitched their ringing horseshoes and spat tobacco juice.

STORY STRUCTURE

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The Secret To Russian Fudge

(This is not a food blog, but this was a popular post at my previous, more diverse blog so I’ll repost. Merry Christmas!)

Googling has so far not helped me out on this one, so while Mum was staying at our place this week I had an extended lesson in how to make it set every time, and now I feel obliged to put this up on the internet, because I can’t find anybody else who has adequately described what a ‘soft ball’ is, nor explain all the secrets to getting it right, though this description is a very good start. It really is all in the beating. Some of us noobs need a little more help, so for my own future reference as much as anything, I have taken some (relevant!) progress pictures. I’ve since made five successful batches without help, so I think I’ve got it now.

FROM THE EDMONDS COOKERY BOOK

  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 125g butter
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup

Put sugar and milk into a saucepan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves. Add condensed milk, butter, salt and golden syrup. Stir until butter has melted. Bring to the boil and continue boiling to the soft ball stage, stirring occasionally to prevent burning. Remove from heat. Cool slightly. Beat until thick. Pour into a buttered tin. Mark into squares. Cut when cold. Vanilla essence or chopped buts may be added to fudge before beating if desired.

EXTRA NOTES

This is from a New Zealand cookbook (though I’m to assume it comes originally from Russia?) so be sure to use Australian/NZ/British sized measuring cups, which are larger than American. I don’t know if this works if you use American sizes — I guess it’s all relative, but what I had been doing is using the Pyrex jug to measure the liquids (American) and a local measurements for the dry ingredients. Don’t do that.

It takes a longish time to dissolve the sugar and milk properly over a gentle heat. When bubbles start to rise, that generally means it’s dissolved enough. This part can be made faster by using castor sugar, in which case it dissolves pretty much instantly, and you can start adding the rest of the ingredients.

BOILING IT UP

The colour in this photo isn’t true to life (too yellow) but this is basically what the mixture will look like once you’ve got it to the ‘soft ball’ stage.

WHAT ON DOG’S GREEN EARTH IS A ‘SOFT BALL’?

To check whether the mixture is at the ‘soft ball’ stage, drop a bit of it into a glass of cold water.

 

This is what a ‘soft ball’ looks like when dribbled off a spatula into a glass of cold water. Next, tip out the water and scoop out the fudge mixture. It should look like this once you’ve rolled it between your fingers:

 

 

It’s hard to describe the feel of a soft ball in pictures, but you should be able to hold it briefly between your fingers like this:

 

A MOTHER OF A BEATING

The secret to good fudge lies partly in the length of time beating, but then again, at other times I have made this fudge successfully without much beating at all.

A stick mixer won’t do the job.

Then again, if you’re a pioneer, you’ll get by with a wooden spoon and a sweaty brow. As for me, I have to use an electric hand beater, and it usually takes longer than I think it should, on a medium speed.

This is what it looks like before any beating, and just cooled enough for it to stop bubbling. I’ve transferred the mixture into a plastic bowl so I don’t damage the non-stick saucepan with the beaters.

 

It takes about as long to whip fudge as to whip cream. Something I’ve never measured. The process is similar. Soon you’ll start to see it ripple a little bit.

 

 

Continue to beat. A few minutes later, the ripples will be more pronounced and the texture will have changed to something lighter in colour and heavier:

 

What you really want to see is the fudge starting to set around the edges:

 

 
As you can see from the electric beaters, the fudge has set into stalactites.
 

You know you’ve beaten enough when the mixture really starts to feel heavy on the beaters. (A good reason to use the medium setting on the beater — it’s easier to feel the texture changing.)

Here is the mixture poured into the pan ready for setting. As you can see, the mixture keeps its shape. The folds and peaks remain, unless I smooth them down with a wooden spoon. Be sure to grease the pan really well so that you can tip the whole thing out as a block later ready for cutting into squares, maybe on a chopping board.

 
Mark it into lots of small squares with a knife once it’s cooled a bit. Then put it in the fridge. When it comes time to cut it, use a hot, wet knife to avoid making so many tiny crumbs.
Post Script

I cut up the fudge and put it into Glad bags, ready for the freezer. I’ve never frozen fudge before, but apparently it’s fine, as long as you seal the container properly. My husband came into the kitchen and said, ‘What are you doing?’

‘Freezing fudge,’ I replied.

After a short pause he said, ‘You can say it, you know.’

‘What?’

‘You’re packing fudge.’
And in case you think I planned on eating all of these batches of fudge myself, I gave a large portion to my husband, with strict instructions to share it around at work. According to his Indian workmates, this fudge is almost exactly the same as barfi. I’ve seen better phonetic correspondences. (Here’s Breaking Barfi, a Breaking Bad parody. Hell, why not.)

There can’t have been much work on at the office either, because it was agreed that Russian fudge is actually Scottish.

Enjoy!

Movie Study: Serena (2014)

serena-poster

Here’s an example of a film in which the production values and acting talent far exceed the final product. Serena’s obvious symbolism and on-the-nose dialogue make for a film that’s narratively sub-par, but for students of storytelling  it’s an interesting case study.

  • The name ‘Serena’ is meaningful — although the character comports herself serenely in public and in front of her own husband (at least until the novelty of the relationship has worn off) she has a dark underside which we just know is going to come out sooner or later. We’ve heard about her from the gossipy woman at the hunting meet.
  • Who is the (tragic) hero of this story? The question is always: Who changes the most over the course of the story? In which case, the answer is both George and Serena. Their relationship is the main character. George becomes Serena and vice versa, symbolised very obviously during the blood transfusion scene in which George is giving his blood to Serena after her haemorrhage. (Hollywood politics are such — and the gender pay gap is such — that Jennifer Lawrence famously got second billing in this film. Bradley Cooper has since come out and said he will share his contract details with female costars in future to help with them bargain better with movie bosses who don’t believe in equality.)
  • In 1920s America the character of Serena is a very unusual woman. She expects her husband’s right-hand man to shake her hand (something even modern men don’t even know whether to do or not with women). She doesn’t seem like an enlightened feminist of the first wave, though, either. She pits herself in direct opposition to the Hillary Swank type woman (Rachel) who, at the story’s beginning, George has already gotten pregnant.
  • Serena and Rachel are Betty and Veronica types. Casting usually ends up with contrasting hair colours for women. Men can all have the exact same hair colour and skin tone (white) and we’re expected to look at their personalities, but female actors playing in opposition to each other are expected to change the colour of their hair. We do, however, have a red-headed man in this who plays a part in George and Serena’s downfall by taking the incriminating ledger books from the safe.
  • Serena knows from her father’s logging business in Colorado that eagles are useful. They kill snakes, which protects the men. Serena makes a name for herself by becoming the eagle lady, importing a trained eagle (trained by a woman, she specifies) to carry out this exact job. What is the symbolism of the eagle? Could it be that the writer wants us to think of Serena as a harpy — a half eagle, half woman chimera, who swoops in seemingly ‘on the wind’ (though actually on a train). Harpies steal food from their victims while they are eating and carry evildoers (especially those who have killed their family) to the Erinyes (a.k.a. The Furies). Their name means “snatchers”.
  • We know early on that fire is symbolic. There is much fiddling around with cigarettes and lighters and sitting in front of fires, gazing into them. So it’s no surprise really when it is revealed that Serena bears a scar — an outward manifestation of her psychic wound — on her back. George washes her lovingly in the bath. She tells him, and us of course, the event which wounded her — as a child her house burned down. As she ran away she heard the screaming of all her younger siblings, all of whom burned to death in the fire.
  • Anyone who has read We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson may wonder if it was Serena who set the original fire in the first place. Apparently it is strongly implied in the Serena novel that she set the fire in order to end up sole heir. I suspect this story owes quite a bit to Jackson.
  • The characters are all archetypes rather than rounded. If Serena is a mysterious beautiful woman who flies into town — a modern harpy with an obvious wound which has somehow made her sociopathic. George is a ruthless business man who — I think — we’re still supposed to side with, because he tells us at the town hall that he cares for the jobs of his men. Rachel is a poor country girl whose only way out of abject poverty is to hang around George until he feels guilty enough to hand her money. Buchanan is possibly a closeted and frustrated gay man who is betrayed by his love interest’s getting married. The characters get more archetypal as we move further out from George. A character straight out of a horror film is of course Galloway, whose mother told him as a child that a woman would save his life. When Serena sort of saves him after his hand gets axed he is convinced not only that it’s her, but actually knocks on her front door to tell her husband that he is indebted to her and is in her service forever. It just so happens that he’s been in prison for murder. “He had it coming.”
  • “He had it coming” is exactly the sort of uninspiring snippets of dialogue found throughout the film. “I have your child inside me,” Serena says to George, upping the stakes when their ‘future’ is at risk. Dialogue exists almost solely to tell the audience what should already be clear: “It’s so obvious now. My friend was never my friend,” says George after Serena and all of the entire audience has already worked that out. After describing the lethal fire of her childhood Serena finishes up with, “After that day I swore that I would never love anyone ever again. I can’t lose you.” Likewise, when Rachel Hermann asks for her job back we are told “If she don’t get a job her and that boy will starve.” With the most rudimentary of historical contexts we already know what a dire predicament Rachel is in, with no social welfare and no husband to support her.
  • At the end there is a chase scene, as the horror-figure of Galloway is determined to carry out the murder of Rachel and Jacob on Serena’s behalf. Miraculously, George finds Rachel and Jacob hiding at the exact same time Galloway does. He is able to fight him to the death right then and there in the climactic battle scene. Another coincidence of timing happens when George is killed by the panther, who might as well be fighting on a stage — all of the men out looking for him arrive just at that exact moment. These coincidences lend a very Old West air to the story. In Westerns symbolism is everything and we don’t question it.
  • The photo album allows the audience to see into George’s head. We can see him extend allegiance from Serena to Rachel. Did we really need such obvious visuals? The photo album I can stomach. When George actually places the loose photograph of his son on top of his own childhood photo, that’s when I groaned.
serena-imdb

copy entered into IMDb

  • Advertising copy for this film usually says something like George’s trouble began when he married Serena. I would encourage people not to take this at face value. It’s often the case that advertising material for a film is more misogynistic than the story itself, which has the benefit of depth and layers. It is certainly not the case that Serena was the cause of George’s problems. He had already abandoned a woman he impregnated in favour of a more sophisticated one with the potential to add expertise to his precarious fortune. He killed his right-hand man without any help from Serena. This is in fact the story of two disturbed individuals whose union made each of them worse.
  • This is not necessarily easy for women to watch, even though it has been dismissed as a mere ‘chick flick’ by amateur reviewers on IMDb. The women do not talk to each other — in fact one of them is decidedly laconic, in a way that George finds strangely appealing. Both women are motived singularly by their relationship to a man and even the woman at the beginning is a gossipy stereotype who, in Pride and Prejudice fashion, ends up throwing Serena and George together while meaning to do the exact opposite. Serena absolutely falls apart when she discovers she cannot procreate, despite being invested in and motivated by the logging business. A more nuanced story might see her eventually throw her energies into that as a way of moving forward. That’s not what this is, of course. This was always meant to be a tragedy and I have no criticism for that. Instead I’m sick of the same old female tropes, and dismiss it therefore as a film for and about women.

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Great Fusilli

The title card artwork is done by Margaret Frey. Main title by John R. Dilworth, the art director.

STORY STRUCTURE

This is the last Courage story of season one and it is fitting that the creators have made a work of metafiction — in other words, the audience is reminded that they are watching a TV show.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage: That it’s up to him to save the day despite being an ordinary dog

Muriel: That she is oblivious and trusting and just a little prone to fancy

Eustace: That he is easily persuaded by the promise of riches (among many other faults, this one is often his downfall, as it is here.) Continue reading

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: Little Muriel

Often in stories with a very small character there is some metaphorical/thematic reason for it, but in this case Muriel’s regression to the body and mind of a 3 and a half year old is pure fun. In other words, this is a carnivalesque story.

STORYWORLD

The first thing we see about this storyworld is that it is very windy. The sky is an ominous shade of purple, the windmill spins quickly and Muriel’s washing is flapping on the line.

We see the metaphor of a cliff in this story, as Muriel and Courage (and Eustace) come close to death. For more on that see The Symbolism Of Altitude.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

In his attempt to be helpful and kind Courage sometimes screws up. He has accidentally glued Muriel to her rocking chair thinking it was quick drying paint. And a storm is coming.

The story requires for Muriel to be stuck to the chair, but also for the chair to be stuck to the floor. She needs to be trapped. They get around this by showing Eustace in the basement fixing the basement ceiling — a long nail pokes right through and nails the chair to the living room floor.

The writers also get rid of Eustace by having him knock himself out cold.

DESIRE

He wants to save Muriel from the hurricane.

OPPONENT

Although it’s perfectly possible to make a story with only a natural opponent (hurricanes, tsunamis), the most successful stories (what others have called ‘3D stories’) require human opponents.

The natural opponent is introduced early on and is of course the hurricane.

The human opponent will be revealed later — in this story it is Muriel as a bratty three and a half year old.

PLAN

Courage ties a piece of string between a rock and a tree and ‘trips’ the hurricane up. The hurricane throws Muriel onto the top of a high, pointy rock.

After returning home with little Muriel the computer tells him that the only way to bring Muriel back is to drop her into the eye of a hurricane going in the opposite direction, which can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a reference to the Coriolis effect (not actually observable in sinks and toilets as many believe).

BATTLE

I don’t get the feeling the writers really know children. Muriel as a three and a half year old has one tooth. This is an age when children (temporarily) have a full set of teeth.

I also don’t buy that Muriel would have been such a bratty three and a half year old, but that is not the point. (Show me the child at three and I’ll show you the woman.) The point is to have fun. I can believe the hurricane results in some kind of personality change.

It’s interesting what I find believable and unbelievable, because this show is full of unbelievable things. We accept that Courage magically finds a tricycle and a kite as he’s chasing after Muriel. It’s funny that he can ‘trip’ up a hurricane. If the writers wanted to, they could have had the house magically rebuilt when Courage returns. We often see the house decimated at the end of an episode, only to see it just the same as it ever was at the beginning of the next. But no — that’s the thing about the rules of story — the writers must wait until the end of this episode before rebuilding the house.

The carnivalesque antics must therefore take place in a house with no roof.

And this is the main battle — pleasing Muriel who demands very specific food and then refuses to eat it and keeping her safe.

When Muriel makes a nuisance of herself on the plane to the Southern Hemisphere even the pilot jumps out with a parachute, unable to stand it anymore. He wishes Courage good luck and hands him a plane flying manual.

The classic transfer of the hat (crown).

 

SELF-REVELATION

When Muriel walks out her own self we know Courage has saved the day.

The TV announcer lets us know that the hurricane warning is over. (Darkly humorous given the house is in total disrepair.) Now there will be a tsunami.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In this circular shaped story, we last see the Bagge family riding away on a massive wave.

EXTRAPOLATION

I am adding another step to John Truby’s story structure, which I’ve been making much use of so far.

We extrapolate that Courage will save them somehow because he knows ‘how to ride the waves’.

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

This episode of Courage reminds me of a type of picture book in which a cute character (often an annoying younger brother or sister) gets away with doing mean things behind the parents’ back. This must be a common family dynamic because I remember my own younger brother hamming up the cuteness in a way the adults didn’t seem to notice!

I’m reminded in particular of a picture book from the 1980s which I cannot find — perhaps it’s out of print. It’s about a girl called Caroline who does all sorts of naughty things. But was it really Caroline? “No, not Caroline, adorable sweet Caroline!” It stands out vividly to me because there was a girl called Caroline in my Standard 1 class who giggled and giggled whenever the teacher read it to the class. I remember wishing there was a picture book starring me, but I have yet to find a single children’s book with a character named Lynley.

Still bitter.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is kind, and this comes back to bite him in this episode. He rescues an egg which has been abandoned. We watch the flock fly across the sky. Initially our empathy for this left-behind egg are aroused. We’re half expecting an Ugly Duckling tale a la Hans Christian Andersen.

DESIRE

Courage wants to save a life.

OPPONENT

At first the opponent is Eustace, who thinks the egg is for his breakfast.

But when he cracks the egg into the pan and a chicken plops out, the chick immediately falls in love with Eustace. This is making use of the well-known phenomenon in which a duckling falls in love with whoever nurtures it. Taken to an extreme, this duckling falls madly in love at first sight, to the exclusion of all else. Muriel and Courage are immediate enemies.

This reminds me of writing advice from Elizabeth Lyons who in her book Manuscript Makeover says that readers are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. That very much works in this episode — Courage is the first character we see and we are definitely on his side.

PLAN

The duckling takes great care of Eustace, putting on his slippers, fanning him while he sleeps, smashing Muriel’s cup of tea and replacing it with a more lavish tray.

Courage is soon given a broken leg by this cute little duckling but plans to talk to him about being naughty around the house. Courage gives the duckling a lecture about not throwing cups of tea onto the rug. (We don’t hear the words, just a mumbly sound.)

The duckling doubles down.

BATTLE

The battle sequence is a real Tom and Jerry escapade which takes place inside the house. This is a truly evil duckling who wants to murder Muriel and disable Courage. Courage must save Muriel, who has no idea that the duckling has another side to him.

When the duckling saws off the legs of Muriel’s chair I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Twits

The duckling tips cement into Muriel’s bath

It all culminates in the basement, where the duckling has built a rocket in order to send Muriel into space. He gets his own wing stuck in the door. Courage manages to save Muriel by gnawing away at the rope tying her to the outside.

SELF-REVELATION

Muriel’s revelation is that the duckling is bad after all.

The bad characters in this are duly punished, so the message to the reader is that badly behaved characters end badly.

(I would say that this is the most satisfying way to end episodes of a comedy like this, but is not reflective of real life.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Instead of Muriel, Eustace and the Duckling end up on the moon together. The duckling is very happy about this. It’s what he’s wanted all along.

 

TV Study: Courage The Cowardly Dog: The Snowman Cometh

This episode of Courage is interesting for the way in which the writers comically represent a part of science which is difficult to understand and even harder to portray on screen.

STORY WORLD

A new location requires an establishing shot, though there is an establishing long shot at the beginning of every episode no matter where it is set.

Most of the Courage episodes are set in the Bagge family home in the middle of Nowhere but by this point in the series the writers must be looking around for ways to shake it up. This episode opens with a familar picture of Eustace to the right and Muriel to the left of the screen, but instead of sitting on their rocking chairs at home they are inside an igloo.  Continue reading

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