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Month: March 2017 (page 1 of 3)

Le Week-end (2013) Storytelling Notes

Le Week-end is a comedy, drama, romance, but not a rom-com — unlike the bulk of romantic/comedy blends this is about a couple on their 30th wedding anniversary, attempting to fall in love with each other again. The promotional material shows the characters laughing, but this is not representative of the mood, which is heavy. The humour is dark. If you’re familiar with the work of Hanif Kureishi, well, that’s who wrote it. No surprises re the darkness.

This film bears resemblances to Date Night (2010) — an unusual  blend of comedy, crime and romance. This film, too, might have been ‘crime’ had the emphasis been slightly different. In order to bond, our old couple engages in petty thievery (doing a runner from a high-class restaurant) and then by maxing out their credit card on the most expensive suite in a fancy hotel. They walk out on that, too, and eventually they are forced to call on Morgan to bail them out of that mess. Judging by IMDb, neither Date Night nor Le Week-end have particularly broad appeal. This type of story must be especially hard to do.

This story is, however, a mythic journey. The journey underpins the structure. Even if the audience feels uncomfortable in the company of these characters, it is a very well structured film.

STORYWORLD OF LE WEEK-END

The setting of Paris is ironic and highlights out all the weaknesses in the characters, because if cities have their own symbolism, Paris is the city of love. If you’re failing at a romantic weekend, it’ll be all the worse if you’re failing in Paris. Micro settings within Paris itself area also symbolic, from the beige coffin of a room to the ridiculously luxurious room they choose next (a symbol of a life which is actually quite comfortable) to the graveyard they walk through to the jukebox cafe where they dance.

le week-end movie poster

DESIRE IN LE WEEK-END

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Rapunzel The ur-Story Of Young Female Sexuality

THE HISTORY OF RAPUNZEL

Girls locked inside towers, women locked in attics; missing girls, dead mothers. The life of a fictional woman hasn’t changed all that much over the years.  Rapunzel is not the only girl who was locked up — take the Irish myth of Ethlinn, for instance. Ethlinn was a moon goddess whose father imprisoned her in a tower so that she could not produce the son prophesied to kill him. Kind of like a cross between Oedipus and Rapunzel, don’t you think?

It seems so obvious it’s not even worth mentioning: The girl locked in a tower thing is a metaphor for how family members would gather around to protect a young woman’s virginity. The fertile woman’s body has historically (and into the present) never been considered her own.

Patrisonella — ‘Neopolitan Rapunzel’ by Giambattista Basile (1630s)

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What stories existed before the male myth form?

The mythic story as we know it today is a male myth. This story has been with us for 3000 years. What came before that was a story celebrating femininity.

Merida in Brave performs like a male in a male myth

Merida of Brave is gendered female but this is basically a male myth.

This week on Woman’s Hour there is an interview with a woman who spends part of the year living in the Kingdom of Women in China. This is the only matriarchal and matrilineal culture in the world. Rather, it’s the only matriarchal culture left in the world. It’s difficult to imagine what such a culture looks like, but we are told to ‘flip everything’. The men are revered, but as studs and heavy lifted. There is a hierarchy but the women in a matriarchy seem to treat their men better than men treat their women in a patriarchy.

For more on this Kingdom of Women, look for the Mosuo.

How is story different in a non-patriarchal society? I say ‘non-patriarchal’ rather than ‘matriarchal’ because there is no real evidence to suggest that before patriarchy was matriarchy. In fact, evidence points to a flatter social system altogether.

I have blogged previously about how the mythic form as we know it — the form which dominates Hollywood blockbusters even today — is a strongly male-centric story. Story experts such as John Truby have started to notice a very recent shift in storytelling to what he calls the Female Myth. In children’s stories, Inside Out is the best well-known example of that. In written form, I point to The Paperbag Princess as an example of the female mythic form. (Book creators have been doing it longer than Hollywood writers have.)

The very recent Female Myth form aside, the Male Myth form — the one we’re all veeery familiar with — has been dominant for the last 3000 years.

3000 years sounds like forever, but humans have been around longer than that. We’ve been telling stories for longer than that. What did the original female myth look like? 20th Century feminist Marilyn French offers some insight in the first chapter of her 1985 book Beyond Power: On Women, Men and Morals:

  • Most of the metal, human-shaped ornaments found from ancient times are figures of women. There are men too, but most are women. Like, not just 51% women — the overwhelmingly majority are obviously female. Some of these figurines date back to 9500BCE. (Metallurgy wasn’t widespread back then but it was still practised in certain areas.) This suggests that women were more visible in these very old societies, only later wiped from the history books.
  • These female-shaped figurines last right up almost until the Christian era.
  • Many researchers believe these figurines were significant when it comes to worship. Old cultures worshipped regeneration and fertility. It made sense to them that everything came from the female, not the male. Other symbols of regeneration (apart from the female body) included: eggs, butterflies and the aurochs (the wild ox of Europe).
  • The mother goddess was not only in charge of birth but also of death. (“I brought you into this world, and I can take you out!” Anyone?) She was also mistress of the animals. So she could also be symbolised by dogs and pigs and other animals vital to human survival. She was also seen in the form of a bird. (We have to remember that all early art was symbolic.)
  • This view of the world — one ruled by a goddess — wasn’t limited to a small area. It was all over the show. Like, China, the Middle East, Mesoamerica, and in Europe from the far north to the Mediterranean and in Middle Europe as well. For more on this look up work done by Marija Gimbutas.
  • Around the 4th or 5th millennia BCE cultures started to make more and more male figures alongside the female ones and they started to become elaborately dressed.
  • Other changes: The female figurines of the Paleolithic era were corpulent, but after the agricultural era was ushered in she was slimmed right down. She became flanked by domesticated rather than wild animals (dogs, bulls and he-goats). The goddess was also often associated with the bear. Bears are considered particularly good mothers, and may have had a big impact on Europeans.
  • Funnily enough (for anyone who’s read the Old Testament), women were also associated with snakes. This is because snakes lose their skins and ‘regenerate’. There are a whole bunch of other symbols to do with women too, like chickens, which puts me in mind of Baba Yaga. (The bear puts me in mind of Pixar’s Brave — see, we’re still making use of these ancient symbols today.) We even see oversized depictions of female genitalia. From here things start to go downhill for women.
  • From the beginning of what’s known as ‘the Classical period’ (300CE to 900CE) women still appear as sculptures, but only as goddesses or priestesses. After that, right up to the 14th century, depictions of women — anywhere, in any form — basically cease. When we do see women, like in some Aztec art, women are huge, ugly and terrifying.
  • Between 1500 and 1900 there was a lot of religious art: Madonnas and Annunciations coexisted with many crucifixions. There were many, many portraits of saints and Church Fathers and gory martrydoms. In secular art there were condottieres on horseback, gorgeous naked Davids, kings and miinisters in ermine and gold, wizened-looking Protestant merchants with their wives and possessions spread around them.
  • Today, of course, women have reappeared in art but we continue to be depicted in a much more heavily sexualised way. We are back in the story, but even in children’s literature there are 3 male characters for every female. (See the work of Janet McCabe if you need to know someone counted.)

What the hell happened?

  • First – don’t get the wrong idea. Those ancient figures of corpulent women didn’t necessarily mean everyone was living in a matriarchy. All that means is that people valued fertility of all kinds above all else. People lived very close to the land, and had not yet begun agriculture. Men just didn’t seem as important in that kind of society. Maybe it’s because early societies didn’t even know that men were necessary for reproduction? It’s just as likely that they did know — I mean, we know now that both parties are equally important to human life but we still have a gender hierarchy. The male’s role in Paleolithic and early Neolithic society simply wasn’t considered as important as it is now.
  • Then agriculture happened. Those central ideas of fertility, regeneration and a sense of humans as integrally connected with nature… dissipated.
  • Agriculture lead to bigger populations.
  • Bigger populations lead to more complicated social systems. It’s interesting and sad that today, our definition of an ‘advanced society’ is one with an established hierarchy, between men and women, between the very rich and the very poor.
  • With agriculture humans started to use coerced animal labour. For examples, mules were roped in to till our fields for us. This lead to humans pulling away from nature. We no longer saw ourselves as part of nature, but in opposition to it.
  • And when I say ‘we’, I mean men. Men considered women, like their mules, to continue to be a part of that ‘civilization/nature’ dichotomy. It was men and men alone who were elevated to this special place, holier than everyone and everything else. For millennia, women had been considered goddesses of regeneration, so they couldn’t just jump ship away from nature with the men, right? We see this attitude clearly exemplified in works such as the Holy Bible, in which we are told that God made the Earth and the animals for the express use of humans (addressing mainly men at the time).
  • Don’t forget that before men started to use mules to till the fields, this was work which had been done by women. Even without the mules, agriculture requires male strength. Men are in charge of all areas of food production now, not just the hunting. Men control the food source. They are therefore basically in charge of who lives and who dies. It used to be the other way around.
  • It is not clear to anyone exactly how it happened, but there are plenty of clues right there. Communities started warring with each other and the status of women fell. Fell so much that women were now owned as chattels, alongside farm animals. Men owned women until very recently, and women are still fighting for equal status. See this Timeline of Women’s Rights for more on that. Most recently the fight to be in charge of one’s own reproduction is one of the main feminist issues.
  • Joseph Campbell has pointed out that this change in human society can be seen in how (and who) humans worship: Campbell divides his study of creation myths into four stages: in the first, the world is created by a goddess alone; in the second, the goddess is allied with a consort and the efforts of the pair lead to creation. Next, a male creates the world using the body of a goddess in some way; and finally, a male god alone creates it. For an example of that evolution take a close look at the Greek myths (some of the best studied mythologies in the world) and you’ll see the evolution from Ge (Earth) to Zeus. At one time Hera was the primary goddess and Zeus becomes powerful only by marrying her. Take a look at Athene — at one point she is born from the head of Zeus. (For some reason it makes more sense to be born from the head of a man than from the vagina of a woman.)

So, was this some kind of retribution? Did men get sick of living in a matriarchy and decide that men were in charge now?

No. First of all, there is no evidence that humankind lived in a matriarchy. There is no evidence that the Mosuo of today are representative of how most of the world ran way back when. Men have about twice the upper body strength of women and women, during pregnancy and childbirth (most of a woman’s life without contraception) are reliant upon men for survival and protection. There is no good reason to think that — goddess worship aside — women were ever hierarchically above men.

Marilyn French makes the distinction between ‘social charter myths’ and ‘transforming myths’.

‘(Social) charter myth’ is a term used to interpret myths which validate or justify power structures.  Any myth that seems to confirm patriarchal or establishment ideologies is probably a “charter myth”.  For example when Virgil arranged events in the Aeneid to validate the Julio-Claudians by directly connecting them to Romulus and Remus.

A ‘transforming myth’ is also known as a ‘shapeshifting myth’.

As French explains, one of these mythic forms has been worse for women than the other:

Social charter myths implicitly ascribe power to women, if only in the past. They can be read as suggesting that the sexes were once equal, or that women once dominated men. Myths transforming or diminishing female figures like Hera elide such suggestions. Instead, they omit the past and transform the character of the female into something venomous, ugly, dark, mysteriously threatening. By erasing any reference to an earlier power or power struggle they make the hostility of these female figures appear unmotivated, a given. Social charter myths at least acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not acknowledge intersexual conflict. Transforming myths do not — thus the evil power of females appears to be biological, natural. Such a procedure penetrates the moral realm and affects an entire society’s view of women.

— Marilyn French

Rumpelstiltskin

The tale of Rumpelstiltskin asks a moral question: Who is the worst of the three men? The lying father who gives away his own daughter, the greedy King who threatens death, or the proto-men’s rights activist dwarf?

rumpelstiltskin dancing around a fire

This is my all-time favorite fairy tale because it’s so twisted. It’s got everything: greed, abandonment, deceit, royalty. If you ask anyone who the monster of this story is, they’d most likely say Rumpelstiltskin, the little man who bargains with the desperate young woman for her firstborn child. But here’s the real story: The young woman’s father wants to impress the king, so he brags that his daughter can spin straw into gold. The king imprisons her over the course of a series of nights and demands that she perform this trick (which she does, thanks to Rumpelstiltskin). The last time, the king tells her that if she doesn’t succeed he’ll kill her, and if she does succeed, he’ll marry her. So of course she does succeed, and then she gets to marry the king who threatened to kill her. Happy ending?

That last story gets me every time. Who’s the real monster? Is it actually the little guy who fulfills his promise? Or is it the father who sells out his daughter to impress the king? Or is it the greedy king who is already rich but threatens the life of a powerless young woman in order to get even richer…and then forces her into marriage? I don’t know about you, but there are a couple of pairs of red-hot iron shoes I’d happily give to those guys.

Riveted

Or perhaps we are to pass judgement on the miller’s daughter, who promises her first born under duress and then ‘fails’ to follow through, by handing the baby over to the gold-spinning dwarf? We are certainly invited to pass judgement on The Frog Queen, who promises to marry a frog if he retrieves her golden ball, and then promptly changes her mind once the frog has given it back. The idea that women have free will is a much newer concept than this tale. The morality of the miller’s daughter is interesting because she is both trapped in a prison, but also an honored guest. Scholars of feminism will realise that this gilded cage has resonance for many women even today.

This is a rags-to-riches tale of sorts — we don’t hear about the miller after he gives his daughter to the King, but we can assume he lived in comfort, at least for a good while. Continue reading

Badjelly The Witch by Spike Milligan (1973)

BADJELLY THE WITCH, THE RADIO PLAY

Badjelly The Witch is more well-known as a radio play than as a picture book, at least to any New Zealand child of the 80s. There wasn’t much in the way of media entertainment back then, and I looked forward to Radio New Zealand’s Sunday morning children’s show with Constable Keith and Sniff the German shepherd, who was also voiced by Constable Keith. This ‘duo’ issued safety warnings and life lessons to children but also offered quizzes where you could ring in (I once even got through!), and these gags and lessons were interspersed by a selection of radio plays, mostly British, the number of which I can count on the fingers of one hand. This meant that Badjelly the Witch, performed by the comedian author himself, was played pretty much every single Sunday morning to children throughout the country.

There was also a radio play featuring snails who spoke in deep, slow voices about lettuces, but I can’t remember the name of that. There was another about a train — I think it might have been The Little Engine That Could. As you can see, Badjelly the Witch was the radio play which left the strongest impression on my childhood. It is read by a British male narrator who chuckles at the jokes. The radio play underscores the fact that Milligan’s narrative voice is primed for oral recitation: Like fairytales such as Little Red Riding Hood of yore, and nursery rhymes with punchlines such as “wee wee wee, all the way home!Badjelly The Witch is meant to be performed rather than recited.

BADJELLY THE WITCH, THE PICTUREBOOK

My copy has a purple cover and is full of line drawings rendered in ‘naive style’, epitomised best of all by the literal naivety of Milligan’s six year old daughter, who drew the opening double page spread. The author has handwritten the story himself and has fun with the font, turning words into pictures in places.

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I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore

Here’s what happens in the 2017 indie American film I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore:

When a depressed woman is burgled, she finds a new sense of purpose by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour. But they soon find themselves dangerously out of their depth against a pack of degenerate criminals.

CHARACTER LINE: a depressed woman finds a new sense of purpose

ACTION LINE: by tracking down the thieves alongside her obnoxious neighbour

SOME SENSE OF THE OUTCOME: They are either going to win or lose their battle against the pack of degenerate criminals. It may well be a pyrrhic victory since Ruth is well out of her depth.

I Don't Feel At Home In This World Anymore film poster

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The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake

For fans of Into The Woods by John Yorke, The Enormous Crocodile is an example of a story which mirrors itself perfectly.

The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl Quentin Blake

THE PAIRING OF QUENTIN BLAKE AND ROALD DAHL

For those of us who grew up reading Roald Dahl in the 1980s, it’s impossible to separate the author from his enduring illustrator, Quentin Blake. It’s easy to forget that at first Dahl was paired with a few different illustrators before Quentin Blake. (Rosemary Fawcett is one illustrator whose career may have been ruined by Dahl’s dislike of her macabre illustrations, which is a bit rich.) Continue reading

Character Study: Walter White

Following a television trend started by The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad is an engaging example of a modern antihero.

walter white portrait

I have already taken a close look at how the pilot of Breaking Bad engenders empathy in the audience.

In my mind, the best television series to date is Breaking Bad. When I analyzed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.

A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. Walter was capable of being very gentle, and he was for five seasons with certain characters—and violent and brutal with others! The dimensionality fascinates the audience.

By the time that last episode was executed, we absolutely knew everything about Walter White and his Heisenberg doppelgänger. He was ready to die because he was completely expressed, up to the last scene.

Walter changed every week. We never knew where the hell Walter was. Every time he did things one way, and we would feel that that was who he was, he would just reverse himself and do things in an opposite way.

Robert McKee

Here’s another reason why Walter White is so engaging: Continue reading

Must Heroes Of Children’s Stories Be Likeable?

First, some quotes from storytelling gurus who are not writing specifically about children’s stories but about stories in general. Here we have Lena Dunham, who has no doubt noticed that female characters, like female people, are held to a higher standard when it comes to niceness:

“I sort of object to the notion that characters have to be likable. I don’t like most of my friends, I love them. And that’s the same way I feel about most of the characters I write. So often, women are sort of relegated to sassy best friend or ingenue or evil job-stealing biatch, and it’s really nice to work somewhere in the middle.

from Lena Dunham talking about Girls, quoted here.

Here’s John Yorke, from his book Into The Woods.

If it’s difficult to identify a protagonist then maybe the story is about more than one person (say East Enders of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts) but it will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience care about most.

But already we encounter difficulties. ‘Care’ is often translated as ‘like’, which is why so many writers are given the note (often by non-writing executives) ‘Can you make them nice?’ Frank Cottrell Boyce, a graduate of Brookside and one of Britain’s most successful screenwriters, puts it more forcibly than most: ‘Sympathy is like crack cocaine to industry execs. I’ve had at least one wonderful screenplay of mine maimed by a sympathy-skank. Yes, of course the audience has to relate to your characters, but they don’t need to approve of them. If characters are going to do something bad, Hollywood wants you to build in an excuse note.’

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Storytelling Tips From The Homesman (2014)

With similarities to Million Dollar Baby, The Homesman is a film about an old man who has a character arc after meeting a young woman in desperate circumstances.

The Homesman movie poster

As in Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank has a tendency to wind up ‘starring’ in films which are ostensibly about her — the film might even be named after her character — but in which she exists to assist the character arc of the old man who she chooses (sort of) to come into her life due to desperate circumstances. In Million Dollar Baby it was Clint Eastwood (director); in this film it’s Tommy Lee Jones (also director). So if you’re wondering why Tommy Lee Jones stands front and centre in the movie poster looking contrite while Hilary Swank is literally on her knees looking desperate, we can at least say that it’s an honest representation of the character arc within, even though what we see at the beginning indicates these two should switch positions.

I do wonder if these old men of Hollywood even realise that they haven’t made a film about a woman — that it’s still all about them.

PREMISE OF THE HOMESMAN

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