All Summer in a Day is a short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954. Find it in Ray Bradbury Stories Vol. 1. It’s interesting to see how science fiction evolves alongside our increased understanding of other planets. “All Summer In A Day” is a story of its time, written in an era when people believed Venus probably looked like a jungle.Continue reading “All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury”
Method 1: Rune Stave
For this one you must go to Iceland. Once in Iceland, get your hands on a magical text full of spells and suchlike, a.k.a. Icelandic grimoires. But to save you the trouble, refer to the recipe below.
You’ll need a magical rune stave. There is literally a rune stave for every possible thing you can imagine up.
The invisibility run stave looks a bit like a snowflake. The one you need is called the hulinhjalmur. Google it.
I’m sure you can recreate that with a marker on paper. Hold your horses, it’s not that simple though. You must engrave this rune stave onto a piece of lignite using magnetic steel that’s been hardened by soaking in human blood.
Be careful how you blend the blood. You need three drops from the index finger of the left hand and three from the ring finger of the right hand. Worse, you also need two drops from the right nipple and one from the left.
Next you need an alive raven. Don’t kill it. You will need to extract six drops of blood, though, straight from the raven’s heart.
Melt it all down, along with the raven’s brain and parts of a human stomach. I’m not actually sure if the raven’s still meant to be alive at this point. I assume the human is not.
Now you should be invisible. Bear in mind, there may be rune staves for picking locks, keeping the butter from going rancid and for protecting yourself against ghosts but there is no rune stave to make you un-invisible. This is your life now. I hear Iceland is beautiful.
Method 2: The Witch Way
Are you a witch? Do you want to be a witch? Let’s be witches. We’re going to Papua New Guinea for this one, where witches have the power to see inside others, and also have the power to become invisible. The best of both worlds. In PNG there is a concept known as gwumu. This refers to a spirit which can live in people, rendering them invisible. (There are also evil spirits, known as sanguma or spirit nogut in Tok Pisin. They came to the world via pigs. Look, it says so in the Bible.)
In other countries, witches don’t become invisible per se, they simply transmogrify themselves into other animals, like ravens. No one thinks twice about a particularly witchy-looking raven flying across the sky at night, right? As ravens, witches are free to attend their moonlit sabbats.
But in the Papua New Guinea highlands, witches don’t bother with the faff of transmogrification. They can, I mean, if they want. They might become a quick, highly mobile creatures: bat, rat, bird, moth, grasshopper, butterfly, cicada… or they might simply become invisible.
Let’s do that. That way, we can go about our supernatural lives alongside regulars and we don’t have to worry about a thing.
Except for one thing: We will still be blamed for the following:
- lack of development
- portentous world events
- that overall feeling that the apocalypse is nigh.
Method 3: Escape to the Woods
Are you living in a fairytale reality? If so, entering a forest will work. Disclaimer: So long as you’re not hiding in the English woods, which are not very vast and expansive these days. By the start of the 20th century, just 5% of Britain was wooded. It doesn’t take too long to find you in the spinneys.
This tactic may work better in, say, America, Canada or other parts of Europe. Works really quite well in the Australian bush.
Downside: You may not make it back out alive.
Method 4: Wear a Mask
Admittedly, masks work better if you’re a character within a fictional story rather than in real life because for some reason I’ve always been recognised even when wearing a mask. I have this in common with Dwight Schrute.
The human brain is very good at recognising someone by their gait. So if you really want to come across as someone else, don’t just rely on the face mask. Change how you walk. Change your height and BMI while you’re at it.
Method 5: Creep Around Like A Ninja
Ninja techniques for hiding are called ongyo-jutsu (隠形術), the way of the hidden form.
- When sneaking in the dark, slow your movement.
- Stop moving if someone is facing you.
- Camouflage yourself
- Hide in the shadows
- Make yourself small e.g. crouch in the shape of a quail (for some reason)
- If you have white skin, hide your white face
- Be mindful of light sources
- Standing in front of a wall or tree may be more effective than you think, because the enemy is busy looking behind rocks and whatnot. Only works if you’re camouflaged and hiding your big white face
- Don’t accidentally breathe on your enemy
- Be absolutely silent
- Risk making noise only while other noise is happening
- Use a throw cloth to muffle your footsteps
- Bring an animal e.g. a rat to let loose and distract a sentry
- Stand downwind of guard dog snoots
- Or hide under water making use of a snorkel
- Throw down a toothpick to attract the enemy’s attention. While they’re glancing at the toothpick you’ll be able to hide.
Method 6: Dress Like Your Background
Also known as camouflage.
Think outside the box. If you’re playing tennis, wear the same hue as the court, perhaps with one or two white stripes across your body. If you’re planning on staying home, maybe dress like your cushions.
Of if you’re freaky, dress like your wallpaper.
Method 7: Become A Middle-aged Woman
“That she held herself well was true; and had nice hands and feet; and dressed well, considering that she spent little. But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs. Dalloway, not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.”Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway
Katherine Mansfield explores this kind of invisibility in her short story “Daughters of the Late Colonel”.
A 2001 episode of This American Life asks which superpower would you choose: Invisibility or Flight?
When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead is ten years old now, published 2009. I’ve seen this middle grade novel described as magical realism, though for knotty political reasons we might prefer to call it fabulism. It is also science fiction and grounded in the real world. It packs a lot into 40k words.
There are many things to admire about When You Reach Me. But I’m not a fan of the title. I keep getting it wrong. (I keep thinking it’s When I Reach You.) It was originally called You Are Here, which I like better. (That would match the cover better, too.)
First, I admire the 12-year-old-ness of it. Take the following passage, which demonstrates the narrator is right there in a 12-year-old’s headspace.
“It’s okay.” I was so grateful that she had something to apologize for that it didn’t really occur to me to think about how it had actually made me feel. But I have thought about it since then. It didn’t make me feel good.
I’ve heard this style of narration was sort of invented by Katherine Paterson. I’ve seen it described as ‘third-person limited omniscient narrative’, which basically means the narrator is looking back on fairly recent incidents. A little time has passed, but not much. They’re still a kid telling the story. We know it’s not an adult looking back telling the story because ‘it didn’t make me feel good’ is a kind of emotionally naive thing to say. An adult would be more articulate about it.
Yet at the same time, the narrator is saying something universal and true.
REBECCA STEAD AND KATHERINE PATERSON
Speaking of Katherine Paterson, Bridge To Terabithia has The Chronicles of Narnia as a possible intertext and When You Reach Me has the very clear intertext of A Wrinkle In Time. Are young readers expected to be familiar with A Wrinkle In Time? A children’s story with a strong intertext must exist as complete in its own right. No knowledge of Madeleine L’Engle’s work is needed here, but those who’ve read it will get more out of this one.
I do think readers who haven’t read and enjoyed Madeleine L’Engle‘s A Wrinkle in Time can enjoy this book, but I would suggest reading L’Engle’s book before picking up this one; it will mean so much more.Goodreads reviewer who also loved A Wrinkle In Time as a kid
Stead was inspired by Madeline L’Engle’s classic and initially only mentioned it briefly but her editor advised her to make more of it if she wanted to keep it in at all.
Stead was aware that she did not want A Wrinkle in Time to have too big an influence on When You Reach Me. Keeping this in mind, she reread A Wrinkle in Time through the perspective of different characters, which enabled her to develop new connections and ideas in her own work.Wikipedia
Even better than reading A Wrinkle In Time, I’d say it’s helpful for young readers to have considered the possibility of time travel. That is the most complex part of this novel. Time is presented as like a book with all the pages filled in. (Actually, the analogy used in the story is a ring with diamond chips around it.)
Butchering it badly, the idea is this: we simply move through time, but we exist on each page forever. This is a mind-bending concept to consider. Brian Greene, Marcus Chown and other popular science writers are fascinating on this topic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6yMiUq7W_xI
(I see the potential for fascinating classroom discussions. linked to the science curriculum.)
I also love that Rebecca Stead sets up archetype characters and then subverts them. She doesn’t simply invert them — she properly subverts them. The Alpha Bitch turns out to be human and not that different from the main character. A bully character is set up then dismantled as a nerdy type.
Connected to these subversions: By the conclusion of the novel it is clear that sometime there’s no grand fatalistic reason behind certain actions. The inciting incident, in which Sal is punched in the head, had no good reason behind it. It had a stupid reason behind it. The message, therefore, is that violence is senseless. (Sometimes it really is.)
But here’s what most critics have admired the most: The way all the time travel fits together, and how one clue leads directly to the next in this mystery, science fiction plot. There must be something especially gratifying for readers about that flow-on feeling you get from some stories, even if it’s only subconscious.
CHARACTERS OF WHEN YOU REACH ME
Stead doesn’t introduce the main child character’s name right away. In fact, we’re several chapters in before we know it. This has the effect of turning the main character into the Every Child, in which the readers can easily map themselves onto the fictional proxy.
Eventually we learn her name, at the beginning of chapter three:
- Miranda — so named because it stands for people’s rights. A standout quirk: Miranda reads and re-reads A Wrinkle In Time. She carries around a battered copy.
- Mother — Uptight, small (suggesting a nervous disposition), with a large social conscience. She wanted to be a lawyer but works in a lawyer’s office. In this era (she had her daughter in the late 1960s) it was very hard for women to become lawyers. Women were infantalised by the dominant culture. This mother now works in a lawyer’s office. They are not super wealthy, because they do lots of legal work pro bono. (A Save the Cat set up.) Miranda having access to legal help comes in handy later. (If you’d like to ruin children’s books for yourself, take notice of the parents’ profession.) The mother has her own character arc. That she only fits children’s clothes is a telling detail — the mother is childlike. Her constant rejection of the perfectly good, very nice Richard is a sign that she is yet to grow up. By the end of the story the mother is wearing business attire. Richard comments how good she looks. This change of clothing is symbolic of the mother’s own coming-of-age. Both mother and daughter undergo a character arc. You see this in the film Lady Bird, in Pixar’s Frozen, Thirteen and Freaky Friday. (Mother and daughter double reversals are common.)
- Richard — Mother’s boyfriend of two years, so basically Miranda’s step-father. German. A lawyer, also with a strong social conscience. Stead gives him the quirk of one leg shorter than the other, and a constant reference to this which marks him out as not actually perfect. He sits at the table reading the newspaper (like lots of children’s book fathers) and is more laid back than the mother (like most children’s book parents).
- Robbie B. — kid at school who says Miranda was named after a kidnapper. (I looked it up — he means Ernesto Miranda.)
- Belle — owns ‘Belle’s Market’ near Miranda’s house. The produce she sells there isn’t great. Belle is an older friend and mentor to Miranda. Rebecca Stead has populated Miranda’s life with a network of people across the age ranges — probably more age variety than would be typical for a twelve-year-old. But this helps to expand the time. Annie Proulx does the exact same trick in many of her short stories, especially the Wyoming ones. She’ll often open a story about one character by giving us backstory about how he’s the fourth generation to own this land, etc. This is very deliberate on Proulx’s part, as she’s said so in interviews. In short, children’s writers can also achieve this time-expansion thing by including a wide age-range of characters. This has been happening for a long time, with the inclusion of older mentors and grandparents, even as social networks in Western children’s real lives have, on average, shrunk.
- Sal — Sal and his Mom Louisa live in the apartment below. Sal ‘used to be’ Miranda’s best friend.
- Louisa — Louisa works in a nursing home.
- Mr Nunzi — another resident in the apartment block. Smokes, is careless with it.
- Mrs Bindocker — the neighbourhood busybody who talks a lot. (A Rachel Lynde character.) Even her name sounds like someone speaking quickly. (Maybe it also reminds me of the word ‘spin doctor’.)
- The Laughing Man — Quacker — Quack for short. Or ‘Kicker‘. The local scary guy. I listened to a true crime podcast once about a boy who went missing. One resonant observation: Police should always ask the kids for information. If there’s a weirdo hanging around, it’s likely the kids will know about it even if the adults don’t. When this guy is introduced we don’t know whether he’s going to be an opponent or an ally. Because this is middle grade, I’m going for false opponent who turns out to be an ally. As it turns out, The Laughing Man is a Jesus character in the same way that Leslie Burke is a Jesus character in Bridge to Terabithia, adding to the parallels I see between When You Reach Me and Bridge to Terabithia.
- The boys by the garage — In a flash back, one of them beats Sal up. Clear bully opponents. The one in the green army coat punches Sal. Later we learn his name is Marcus and he goes to the same school as them.
- Marcus Heilbruner is not your typical storybook bully. He likes to read books about maths. He believes time travel is possible. His bully characterisation is thereby subverted.
- Julia — a rich classmate who goes on trips to Switzerland etc. The middle-grade equivalent of an alpha bitch trope. Julia describes her own colouring by referring to her skin and eyes in comparison to foods, which by 2019 is something many women of colour are wishing white people wouldn’t do. (Julia is a girl of colour but she’s been written by a white author.) But how woke were any of us back in the dark ages of 2009?
- Annemarie — Annemarie’s longtime bestie. But in sixth grade Julia decides to punish Annemarie. Annemarie’s bedroom is covered in pictures of Julia, which reminds me of the Eleanor Estes story — The Hundred Dresses.
- Alice Evans — the girl who gets picked on most. Gullible but book smart.
- Dick Clark — the host of the gameshow Winner’s Circle. This is based on a real game show called The Pyramid Game.
- Mr Tompkin — a teacher at school. Described by Miranda’s mother as a ‘frustrated architect’. The mother is herself a frustrated lawyer, so her thumbnail sketch says as much about her.
- Wheelie — the school secretary. The students consider her the person who runs the school. She is nicknamed Wheelie because she never seems to get off her castor-wheeled office chair, but simply rolls around. Another quirk of Wheelie: She doesn’t take any shit and she’s precious about people using her stationery, and later, her phone. This adds tension after there’s a ticking clock set-up and Miranda really, really needs to use her notepad, then her phone.
- Colin — a boy at school who follows Annemarie and Miranda around these days. He is the middle grade romantic interest of Miranda. Miranda wonders if Colin likes her. There’s some non-sexualised touching, like pressing foreheads together. Eventually the reader is rewarded when Colin kisses Miranda.
- Jimmy — the guy who owns the sandwich place. He hires Colin, Annemarie and Miranda to work for him during their early lunch hour. He’s a schlubby guy but he provides the equivalent of a ‘cafe hub’ (seen in many TV series, especially) where the middle grade kids can legitimately, safely hang out. Well, I doubt this would ever happen in real life. Parents and teachers would be all about the child protection, though I don’t know what it’s like to grow up as a 12-year-old in New York City in the late 1970s. Maybe there really was that much freedom? See also: Lampshading Parental Absence In Children’s Literature. Stead herself has said: “[F]rom age nine, my friends and I were on the streets, walking home, going to each other’s houses, going to the store. I really wanted to write about that: the independence that’s a little bit scary but also a really positive thing in a lot of ways. And I’m not sure that most kids have that today”. This is a good reason why so many contemporary children’s books are set in a time before mobile phones and so-called helicopter parents.
- Jay Stringer — a kid at school who doesn’t notice anything when he’s reading. Characters like this serve to populate the story authentically. This is why they’re given names, despite being part of the scenery.
STORY STRUCTURE OF WHEN YOU REACH ME
Possibly the best-plotted middle-grade book ever written.Sam Eddington
There is, quite frankly, a lot of stuff out there to like. So what I have to do here is convey to you just how this book is, pretty much, one of the best children’s books I have ever read.Betsy Bird
- Each chapter is headed something like ‘Things That Smell’ or ‘Things You Keep Secret’, which is the structure of the gameshow Miranda’s mother is preparing for. In this way, the mother’s desire to win money at a gameshow is a subplot and structural guide to Miranda’s story — wanting to solve a mystery of notes which seem to come from the future.
- The chapters are very short, more like micro chapters. There are advantages and disadvantages to doing this. The advantage is that you feel you’re making progress. Structurally, short chapters fit the theme of time as a series of individuated moments. But here’s what one of my Goodreads friends had to say:
I didn’t hate [When You Reach Me], just found it quite hard to read. The chapters are very short which seriously interrupted the flow of the story for me. I understand that this is probably aimed at keeping the interest and attention spans of the target audience (children) but I think it would have been better to extend the chapters and allow the reader the chance to get drawn into the story more.
- Miranda herself is more of an observer than someone on a hero mission. People around her each have their own desires and plans and she regards her community as a mystery to be solved. Who is the laughing man? Why isn’t her best friend talking to her anymore? Is time travel possible? Why did the bully punch Sal? What is the Queen Bee mean girl planning for her beta? And so on.
- For the final quarter of the book, the reader is in audience inferior position. We watch Miranda embark upon a mission. She’s in a 1970s assembly, helping Annemarie get to the toilet before she wets herself (a Save the Cat moment which endears her to us). She’s asking Wheelie for paper (we don’t know what for). Miranda has gone from being a fairly passive viewpoint character to being the hero of her own story. This is a subtle but satisfying switch and increases narrative drive as readers head for the climax.
Miranda is the Every Child so her shortcoming is that she has limited freedoms. These kids have quite a lot of freedom, to my mind, being New York City kids and living in a socially connected neighbourhood.
She’s a mimetic hero — not especially good at many things. She’s no good at cutting sandwiches, no matter how many times she does it. But she’s surprisingly good at making origami frogs. Like regular kids, she is still working out her strengths.
Because Miranda is narrating her own story from the near future, she has a little bit more emotional maturity than she had before, but not much. She is a typical twelve-year-old in all respects.
Miranda has her own minor moral shortcomings.
[Rebecca Stead] tied in parts of her childhood into the novel. Besides the laughing man, she included her primary school, her apartment and a sandwich store where she used to work. Stead also added memories of herself acting mean without reason.Wikipedia
Mystery desireline: Miranda wants to know who is sending her the postcards.
Romantic subplot: She wants to remain best friends with Sal, the boy in a neighbouring apartment. Unfortunately, he doesn’t feel the same way. This is therefore a story about learning to let go of your crushes.
Rebecca Stead wastes no time in setting up the mystery, which functions, structurally, identically to an opponent. (The unseen opponent is the person sending the postcards.)
The mystery element of this story has a strong visual motif — that of the knot. Richard likes to untangle knots when he’s working on a difficult lawyer problem. Miranda learns this trick from him. Knots as motif endure throughout the story, alongside keys. Miranda’s mother refuses to give Richard a key to their apartment. In the end she does — two keys — tied together with a knot. In a parallel plot thread, Miranda has solved ‘the key’ to the mystery of the Laughing Man, and the symbolism is (literally) tied up.
A bully hierarchy is set up by the author but eventually subverted.
Miranda is often at low key odds with her mother, who is still quite childlike. Richard, on the other hand, is her emotionally mature ally.
Jimmy is an opponent as well as an ally — he provides a safe space for the kids to hang out and work though there is the subplot of him thinking they stole his two dollar bills.
Here’s the thing about mimetic, childlike heroes. Paul Jennings does this too. Kids aren’t great at planning unless they have excellent executive functioning. Kids like Miranda don’t so much go about formulating a plan to solve a mystery. They tend to function as reactionaries. Others have the plans — they react. They are good observers, though, which makes them good storytellers.
So, Miranda gets a postcard, reacts. Gets another postcard, reacts. The plans she does make are not in service of solving the mystery. That’ll resolve itself eventually. Contrast a kid ‘hero’ like Miranda with a single-minded cop like Sarah Linden from The Killing.
Rebecca Stead uses an interesting technique to dilate the pacing of the death scene. She numbers the events sequentially.
I consider the truck death scene the first part of the Battle.
The Anagnorisis comes quite early, before the Battle sequence. Miranda has a developmental milestone by realising that she is part of something much bigger. This is achieved by use of what is called The Overview Effect:
Then I sat on the couch and closed my eyes. I pictured the world. I pictured the world millions of years ago, with crazy clouds of gas everywhere, and volcanoes, and the continents bumping into each other and then drifting apart. Okay. Now life begins. It starts in the water, with tiny things, microscopic, and then some get bigger. And one day something crawls out of the water onto land. There are animals, then humans, looking almost all alike. There are tiny differences in color, the shape of the face, the tone of the skin. But basically they are the same. They create shelters, grow food, experiment. They talk; they write things down.
Now fast-forward. The earth is still making loops around the sun. There are humans all over the place, driving in cars and flying in airplanes. And then one day one human tells another human that he doesn’t want to walk to school with her anymore.
I’m sure there’s probably a Heideggerian explanation for this particular developmental milestone, in which children realise they are a part of something bigger. I have previously looked at one of Heidegger’s more famous theories in relation to children’s stories — Being-toward-death. That’s what kids realise they are going to die someday. It’s a pretty common character arc in young adult literature. The magical age of 12 is a time for many such revelations, and Miranda is indeed 12. Now, I have a limited upper capacity for reading about Heidegger, but perhaps someone else can confirm, or write a doctoral thesis on how Rebecca Stead’s work is about children realising that they are a part of something bigger, a.k.a., Being-in-the-world. (I just Googled it. It ain’t been done.)
Back to talking about structure. After the Battle sequence in When You Reach Me we have the mystery part of the plot which comes together. We learn that The Laughing Man has been sent to save Sal from being run over by a bus.
The words ‘book bag pocket shoe’ are revealed as the places where Miranda finds the notes.
Then we learn the big reveal: Who The Laughing Man is, and you probably guessed it before it is revealed (or confirmed) and this makes us all feel very smart.
Just as well, because the time travel part of this book confuses the hell out of me.
There’s a romantic happy ever after, though not for the main character. She gets her friendship happy ever after, plus the budding romance with Colin.
And for anyone who says you can’t get away with epilogues in middle grade novels, I present to you When You Reach Me as example.
The Electric Grandmother is basically a Twilight Zone episode for kids.
The teleplay (and a short story adaptation of “I Sing The Body Electric”) was written by Ray Bradbury, and was later remade by the Disney Channel as a full-length Made for TV movie called “The Electric Grandmother”.TV Tropes
The Twilight Zone for a contemporary audience is of course Black Mirror. I wonder if Charlie Brooker watched “The Electric Grandmother” growing up, as well as The Twilight Zone. “The Electric Grandmother” reminds me very much of “Be Right Back“, in which a woman orders a synthetic version of her deceased boyfriend.
I’m not the first to have noticed this, and Charlie Brooker counts The Twilight Zone as one of his influences.
It took me a few minutes to place the father, played by Edward Herrmann, who later played the grandfather in Gilmore girls.
The friend who shared this via YouTube remembers The Electric Grandmother fondly, and hadn’t forgotten the songs. Apart from the songs, the most resonant scene, remembered long after the name of the story and the plot is forgotten, is the one where the grandmother squirts milk from her forefinger.
Every story needs a resonant scene like this — one which the audience remembers after details are long gone.
I believe it was the late Rosalind Russell who gave this wisdom to a young actor: “Do you know what makes a movie work? Moments. Give the audience half a dozen moments they can remember, and they’ll leave the theater happy.” I think she was right. And if you’re lucky enough to write a movie with half a dozen moments, make damn sure they belong to the star.William Goldman
This Milk Finger scene resonates for several reasons:
- The audience hasn’t seen this exact thing before.
- Memory experts advise people to put dissonant things together in order to remember them. For instance, if you want to remember to buy cabbage at the supermarket, imagine the entire supermarket made out of hollowed-out cabbage. We can utilise this when telling stories, too. And next time you need to remember milk at the supermarket, maybe think of yourself squirting milk from your finger, like this scene from The Electric Grandmother.
- This milk finger scene is the first time the audience sees what The Electric Grandmother can do. Until this point, the electric version of the grandmother has seemed just like the dead one.
RESONANT IMAGERY IN STORYTELLING
Is there terminology writers use to describe ‘the part of a story which remains with the audience’ forever?
At Fiction Writers Review, Elizabeth Meyer writes of ‘strange objects’, which is a good term for this:
Strange objects, objects that exist beyond our expectations, do all the work of ordinary objects; but by making the imagination work harder, by requiring the reader to see beyond the everyday, they also create an even more thorough engagement with the text. In “Congress” by Joy Williams and “Sewing for the Heart” by Yoko Ogawa, bizarre objects play dominant roles. In both stories, strange objects serve to mesmerize the reader as well as the characters themselves. Their strangeness fixes our attention, drawing us with curiosity deeper into the narrative while also revealing more submerged themes within the texts and illuminating the characters around them.
Meyer has gone further than the object itself, linking it to what I’ve also heard described as the ‘symbol web’. Though I’m not sure the milk finger in The Electric Grandmother is especially symbolic. It’s just… weird and memorable. In literary work for adults, I would certainly expect the strange object to be linked to the symbol web.
Related to all this, David Lynch uses a term called ‘The Eye Of The Duck’ to describe a critical moment in film.
I’m not sure Lynch would describe the Milk Finger image in The Electric Grandmother as an example of what he’s talking about, but it’s the closest I’ve come so far to a description of these moments/images in a story which feel perfect, and perfectly memorable.
He used the phrase in an interview with the “Daily David”, in which Lynch talks to an audience about storytelling stuff. You can also see it on YouTube.
Why does he call it that? Because when you look at a duck, you feel like its eye couldn’t be placed anywhere else on its body. The eye of the duck feels like it’s in exactly the right place.
Lynch compares film as a whole with the body of a duck and claims that every film has a scene that can be compared to the eye of a duck on a metaphorical level. The placement of the eye, the jewel, within a duck’s body is crucial because it would not make sense anywhere else. It “feels correct” and completes the overall appearance of the body. The very same thing applies to a film (the “body”) and a certain scene (the “eye”).
An eye of the duck scene is not necessarily readily identifiable.
The Eye Of The Duck is not always critical to advancing the plot forward. The insights they convey do not necessarily affect the story of the film to a great deal. Instead it affects the way the audience perceives the film. It’s a concept used by writers who don’t really believe in story structure. David Lynch has said that he eschews traditional story structure. These people (Chatman is another one) believes that an audience provides structure to a story if they need one.
(Others say that although David Lynch prides himself on having no structure to his stories, he actually follows story structure pretty conventionally.)
It will be the scene which sticks in your memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest. For me, an eye-of-the-duck Twin Peaks moment is the dancing dwarf in the red room, but I also remember the phrase, “It’s on the turn” to describe a piece of fruit (and use it often).
Lynch’s medium is film and TV, but Flaubert came up with a very similar phrase to describe ‘the exact word or phrasing’ in a text: le mot juste.
HOW TO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN EYE OF THE DUCK
Lynch advises storytellers to remain open to ideas. Sometimes something suddenly feels complete after a new idea, when you’d assumed it was finished before. Dive within. This ‘eye of the duck’ doesn’t come from the intellect but from intuition.
“Stay true to the ideas. If you love them stay true to them… Maybe some fish comes that is not part of this dinner. Put it away and save it for another time… If something needs to be said twice there’s a feeling, a knowing that it’s correct… Stay on your toes because a thing isn’t finished until it’s finished.”
This is important advice because sometimes, in this age of minimalism, writers are urged to cut, cut, cut. But sometimes, even if a scene exists purely for its aesthetic value — not because it adds obviously to plot, character, theme or setting — you should still keep it there.
See also: Unexpected Detail In Fiction
“The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov is a science fiction short story first published in 1956. The ideas are even more relevant today than they were back in the 1950s.
I have annotated the short story in a Word document, which can be downloaded here.
Isaac Asimov was an ideas man. I generally find his work hard to read because I read for character first. Asimov worked the other way around — he created characters to convey his ideas. Asimov was able to visualise all sorts of futures, but not a future of gender equality. However, this one is accessible to a wider audience.
“The Last Question” concerns the fallacy of the magic porridge pot. Based on the fairytale, this is the idea that there’s a never-ending supply of everything. By extension, if one group draws heavily from a particular resource, they are able to reason, happily for themselves, that they are not simultaneously taking away from someone else. The ‘someone else’ might be a disadvantaged group in the present. In the case of this story, the ‘someone else’ is future generations.
Another modern term related to the ideas in “The Last Question” is ‘Techno-Jesus’ — the idea that technology is going to save us all (from climate change etc.) We’ll get another Steve Jobs, so don’t worry.
This makes “The Last Question” particularly relevant to today. Interesting that even back in the 1950s, these ideas were considered. Already, back then, some people — especially Americans, perhaps — could see that all this increase in consumption could not go on forever.
Importantly, this was Isaac Asimov’s favourite of all the short stories he wrote. Asimov liked it best for two reasons:
- He wrote it in a ‘white heat’, and it required hardly any modification after the first draft.
- “The Last Question” proved to be the most resonant for his readers. Once you’ve read this story, you won’t forget the main idea.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAST QUESTION”
The ‘main character’ of this story is ‘humanity’. But even an ideas man needs the usual character web of opposition and allies. Because Asimov was not especially interested in individuals, he used the 20th century default to people his worlds — men. Women were needed occasionally as powerless children, wives, mothers and sexual interest.
The shortcoming of a technologically advanced humanity is that we grow increasingly reliant upon technology to the point where we don’t understand it.
The shortcoming of an ever expanding civilisation is that we are propelled forth even against our will to grow bigger and bigger, go further and further.
To expand. To not die.
But for story purposes, Asimov sets up conversations in which two characters disagree with each other… until he doesn’t. Then it’s computer against the two human characters, and finally there is no conflict because everything has become one.
Humans do their utmost to preserve their immortality. They even go so far as to create new planets from dust and turn them into massive computers.
Each vignette summarises a part of the over-arching Battle against entropy. By the end of each vignette, it is clear that the humans have progressed in one way, but still lost the big struggle.
The revelation, for each of these characters in each of the vignettes—and therefore for the reader—is that there’s no getting around the fact: Humans will never, ever last forever. No matter what we do, entropy is more powerful than all of us.
There is nothing. But because the final sentence is reminiscent of Biblical language, any reader familiar with the major religions will recognise that this is also the beginning of some new universal cycle. We assume this plays out over and over and over for infinity
Next time round, it’s highly unlikely mammals such as humans will reign supreme. It was pretty much a fluke in the first place.
The Iron Giant is a 1968 science fiction middle grade novel by Ted Hughes, adapted for film in 1999 by Tim McCanlies and Brad Bird.
Brad Bird later wrote the screenplays for The Incredibles and Ratatouille. Tim McCanlies has worked on Denis the Menace, among many other things.
SETTING OF THE IRON GIANT
Rockwell Maine, in a leafy, hilly suburb. The diner is the hub of the community. This is also where Hogarth’s mother works. Since waitressing pays so badly, this conveniently keeps Hogarth’s mother working long hours. Hogarth has plenty of time to himself. Lack of money is also useful to the story because Hogarth’s mother is keen to have a boarder, looking past the fact that Mr Mansley might be evil.
A shot of Annie reminds me of a shot from Thelma and Louise.
In general, parents who are tired and overworked are useful in children’s stories. It gets them out of the way. (See below.)
Though the novel was published in 1968, The Iron Giant is set earlier, in 1957. This is the era of the Cold War, an inextricable part of the story. At this time in history — it’s easy to forget now, or perhaps we’re starting to be reminded again — people lived in fear of an atomic explosion. They remembered the last ones. Especially in America, I’d say. (I’m not sure the fear was equally strong in New Zealand, where my parents were growing up.) American children were being taught what to do in the event of a bomb. (In New Zealand they were being taught what to do in the event of an earthquake.)
The Iron Giant takes place unambiguously in autumn. I wondered if this was mainly an aesthetic choice rather than a symbolic one (as seasons often are). Because a lot of the story takes place in a forest, which allows for a beautiful palette of orangey reds. At the end of the film I realised how well the red contrasts against the magical green bomb type thing released by the Iron Giant, symbolically contrasting this visitor from outer space with his environment, underscoring how he doesn’t belong there, and will never fit in.
The beautiful colours of autumn also serve to create a kind of utopia. And as we all know, utopias attract big, horrible events.
Note also that Rockwell, Maine, is set next to the ocean. I wondered if the town is inspired by Rockland, Maine, which is a real place. In fact, the town is named after Norman Rockwell, the famous American artist known for his utopian depictions of American 1950s childhood.
The 1950s was a weird decade. It seems a certain proportion of the population would love to return to this era. We think of the 1950s as emblematic of how families had always been — nuclear families with the father going to work, the mother making home cosy, full-time caring for the children, with White people dominating the utopian neighbourhoods, Black people out of sight, out of mind.
In fact, the 1950s were unique. That’s not how the world looked before, and the world will never look like that again. But because this decade is utopian in our collective memory, storytellers (and audiences) seem to really like 1950s stories. We have the threat of something, but it never really happens. (Atomic warfare.) Characters live with the memory of something terrible — Hogarth is a baby boomer, but did his father die in the war? Was his father a wartime soldier fling? (The movie doesn’t tell us.)
This era is well-known to be a patriarchal time. Part of Hogarth’s vulnerability is that he only has a mother. When his mother finds love with Dean McCoppin, Hogarth’s life has not only become more stable, but also more safe. He has a man in the house — not the fake man who flees in terror at the end, with the ironic name of Mansley, but a real man. Interestingly, the screenwriters of the 1999 film updated this book by making Dean McCoppin a hippie character. McCoppin is a bit of an anachronism — the hippie movement began in San Francisco at the beginning of the 1960s, so McCoppin is a few years ahead of his time. (Or super ahead of the curve.) I think the screenwriters took ‘year of publication’ as setting rather than ‘original year of setting’ from the novel.
But even in stories made today, the ultimate happy ending for a child living with a single parent is for the parent to find a partner. Indie coming-of-age drama The Birder’s Guide To Everything does this, as does horror film Lights Out, in which the older sister accepts advances from the sort-of boyfriend.
NOTES ON THE MOVIE
Though Ted Hughes didn’t live quite long enough to see the movie in its finished form, apparently he loved what the screenwriters did with his story. (Unlike, say, Roald Dahl, who refused to even watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)
- Dean McCoppin is established as sympathetic with a Save the Cat moment. In the diner he backs up the local drunkard who has seen something, standing up for the guy even when the other men laugh. We initially wonder if McCoppin’s going to be friend or foe – he looks ominous with the dark glasses and slicked back hair.
- Hogarth is a trickster – doing exactly what his mother told him not to, eating junk food and watching scary movies. He is a boy who is influenced by pop culture of the 1960s. We’re reminded of this with the close up on the magazine. He’s off on a mission, but he thinks it’s a pretend adventure. He is also shown to be empathetic towards creatures with the squirrel. His mother tells us he has a history of collecting animals. For Hogarth, the Iron Giant is kind of like finding a woodland animal.
- The Iron Giant is presented as childlike first by mirroring Hogarth’s way of sitting on the ground. Then he offers Hogarth the gift of metal. This is a thank you present — the Iron Giant has been saved by Hogarth, who switched off the electric power station. Hogarth then trains the Iron Giant as if he’s a dog. My daughter says that the Iron Giant is her favourite character.
- Hogarth thinks he should tell an adult but, talking to himself, immediately changes his mind. “People always wig out and start shooting when they see something they don’t like.” When children in stories see something amazing and choose not to tell adults, this needs to be covered in the story. Hogarth lists a whole number of reasons for not telling. “If I tell Mom, that’ll start the screaming…” It turns out later that Hogarth has indeed talked to his mother. “That’s funny, he’s so tight-lipped now. The other night he was going on about hundred foot robots and so on.” But this is left off the screen.
- The Iron Giant is set up as a duckling type creature, following Hogarth as if he’s fallen in love with him in a maternal way. Now he starts misbehaving like a very dangerous toddler, eating the railway line. Hogarth’s motivation changes: now it’s his mission to stop this creature from wreaking havoc. Though Hogarth is the parent with the robot, at home he very much needs to be parented.
- Kent Mansley turns up — the opponent within the house. Even his name suggests that his masculinity is going to outstrip Hogarth’s. He’s also an opponent for the attentions of Hogarth’s mother – if Hogarth is not careful he might end up with him as his step dad. Mansley has a strong desire line of his own – to provide his boss with photographic evidence of the giant so that the government can send troops over to get it.
- The detached hand is a horror movie trope, though this one is mischievous rather than horrible. It was used more recently in The Cloverfield Paradox, with both comic and horror effects.
- The next problem is finding enough metal for the Iron Giant to eat. The scrap yard they find just so happens to belong to the Dean guy from the café, the one who let a squirrel out of his fly. He gets some great lines.
- Dean is portrayed as a hipster. He drinks coffee, a fairly new drink back then. (My parents started drinking regular coffee in the 1970s, though that was New Zealand.) He’s also an artist, and though left off the page in this children’s film, he’d be a dope smoking kind of guy who probably thinks he’s hallucinating when he sees a massive tin man turn up in his scrapyard.
- “I’m not the kind of guy who reports things to the authorities.” This is what Dean says when Hogarth says he’s not going to call his mom, is he? This is the lampshading the writers have already had to do for Hogarth himself – why wouldn’t an adult just call someone about this thing?
- Hogarth is adamant that ‘it’ is a ‘he’, though where does he get that idea? Robots don’t have gender markers. The viewer is not encouraged to question it. He is big and therefore dangerous and does not have a pink ribbon on his head and is therefore coded male. I bet he has a crop growing out the back.
- Hogarth spikes Mansley’s drink with laxative — about the only kind of drug spiking considered funny and therefore allowable in children’s stories. (Though if you’ve had it done to you as a high school prank, it really ain’t funny — my brother’s friends poured an entire bottle into his coke.)
- Hogarth considers it ‘undignified’ to have the mighty Iron Giant doing ‘arts and crafts’. While Hippie Dean lives outside the strict masculine gender norm, Hogarth doesn’t.
- The death of the deer symbolises what could happen to the Iron Giant if the authorities were to find him. The Robot doesn’t understand the concept of death and has to have it explained. Hogarth then goes into the concept of ‘souls’, lending a religious tone to it.
- Hogarth’s trickster side, established early, comes in handy later, when he sneaks out of bed ahead of Mansley, leaving behind the helmet to make Mansley think he’s still there.
- Over the course of the story, the Iron Giant develops his own motivation –- he wants to be Superman. Giving up on this dream, he sees the opportunity to save two little boys hanging dangerously off a building. For more on ‘main characters’ and ‘how do identify the star of the story?’, refer to my post on character functions. Both the Iron Giant and Hogarth change over the course of the story. Hogarth comes of age because of his bravery (and possible self-sacrifice) — he doesn’t know for sure that his presence is going to turn The Iron Giant from a raging maniac back into a loveable big pet.
MESSAGE OF THE IRON GIANT
The message in the movie is simplistic, but appropriate to its young audience:
“You are who you choose to be.”
As you can see, there’s nothing subtle about it. Hogarth even whispers it at the big big struggle scene, as voice over narration.
In order for this to work, the writers first establish a binary of good vs evil. The Iron Giant learns to be ‘good’ because he learns from Hogarth, who is likewise morally good. He is kind to animals (though perhaps catching them and bringing them into the house isn’t so kind, really). The Iron Giant has been created to destroy, however. It is only via his relationship with Hogarth that he can override this functionality. There is no moral ambiguity.
When we see hippie McCoppin wearing that yin yang dressing gown in his house, I do wonder if this is a wink to the adult audience — though this story establishes the good/evil binary, the dressing gown expresses a slightly more sophisticated (and modern) idea of psychology — that there’s a little bad in good people and a little good in bad people. We’ve since moved past this — the contemporary view is that we are all capable of great good and great bad, depending on context. Children’s lit is yet to catch up.
Theme is expressed most clearly through a moral dilemma. In this story, it is the Iron Giant who has the moral dilemma — does he carry out his original purpose, to destroy mankind like a massive gun, or does he continue being good, as he has learnt from human Hogarth Hughes (note the alliteration). Hogarth stands for humanity in the humane sense. (I explained this to my daughter, whose initials are also HH. I’m not sure she caught my drift.)
Ideally, moral dilemmas have no easy resolution. But the choice between ‘not destroying the world’ and ‘destroying the world’ is not really all that hard — we know what he’s going to choose. There’s no reason for him to destroy us. But that’s because we don’t have the other side of the story. Who knows? Maybe the universe would be better off without humans? This is actually pretty similar to how war works — our side is the good side. We don’t think about the terrorists and their motivations.
The idea that ‘People choose to be good or bad’ applies to anyone, and to anyone with access to the nuclear codes. The main part of the message is that no one is ‘inherently evil’, which is actually an evolution on the fairytale binary.
A good/evil binary is comforting, and I think this is why it features so heavily in children’s stories. Ted Hughes wrote this story to comfort his children after their mother, Sylvia Plath, suicided.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROBOTS IN FICTION
L. Frank Baum’s 1907 character was a precursor to modern sci-fi robots.
In Andy Buckram’s Tin Man by Carol Ryrie Brink (author of Caddie Woodlawn), Andy uses scraps around his farm to build several robots that will help him with his chores.
Since the first detonations of atomic bombs in the 20th century, pop culture has been morbidly fascinated by the realisation that humanity has developed tools powerful enough to destroy itself. For instance, Black Mirror reveals our fear of robots and algorithms we can’t control.
Today’s tin men stories are about:
- virtual reality
- artificial intelligence
What are we afraid of?
- privacy breaches
- a loss of the simple pleasures of real life and real human interaction
- automation leading to loss of our jobs
- loss of personal autonomy
- anything we can’t understand or imagine
We’re told to fear robots. But why do we think they’ll turn on us?
Focusing on the dark side:
- Black Mirror
An article at LA Screenwriter divides robot characters in fiction into
- The robot as comic relief (robotic behaviour is inherently comedic)
- The robot as other
- The robot as protector
- The robot as friend
- The robot as us
The Iron Giant starts off as a friend then turns into a protector.
FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION
Rise of the Machines from Smithsonian Libraries
Black Mirror is a science fiction anthology series exploring a twisted, high-tech world where humanity’s greatest innovations and darkest instincts collide. Each story says something about our relationship to technology and how technology affects our relationships with others.
SEASON FOUR: USS CALLISTER
LOG LINE: A virtual woman wakes up on a Star Trek-esque ship where the crew praise their all knowing and fearless captain.
Think Inside Out but for adults. As in the Pixar film for children, we have two separate plot lines running in parallel but intricately linked — one taking place in the ‘real world’, the other an ensemble cast of characters who exist only in one of the real world characters’ heads. The ‘main character’ of the ‘real world’ layer is different from the ‘main character’ in the fantasy layer, though I talk more about character function below. As is the case in Inside Out, I feel USS Callister does lag a bit in the middle, but I know this opinion isn’t shared by all types of viewers. Unlike Inside Out, one of the storylines in USS Callister is a happy ending, the other a tragedy.
I’ve seen approximately five minutes of Star Trek in my life, which was enough — given its pop cultural status — to know that the game spoofed in this episode was Star Trek. There’s nothing subtle about that. This genre spoof was the source of its humour — the buttons where it doesn’t matter which one you push, it’s all the same, to the smooth crotches sans genitalia, which is a comment on the sexlessness of Star Trek, but also a comment on the inhuman asexuality thought to be a defining characteristic of the show’s super fans.
The episode opens with a lengthy Star Trek scene which almost lost me as I zone out for the jargon, but then we’re in an elevator with Jesse Plemons’ character and I’m suddenly interested — this is a West World sort of story where a digital gaming life exists beyond the futuristic real world. At first we don’t know if it’s the reverie of a trekkie on his way to work, but sophisticated drama can no longer get away with such simplistic tricks. We know there has to be more to it than ‘then he woke up and it was all a dream’.
The writers use every trick in the book to endear us to Robert Daly. As I’ve already explored in a close reading of the Breaking Bad and Sopranos pilots, when creating an antihero you really need to go over the top to engender empathy first. Daly is:
- very competent — genius, in fact, a ‘sublime coder’
- comically under-appreciated
- we see him humiliated when he trips over someone’s poorly placed sports bag (sports bag to set up your classic nerd vs jock opposition)
- he is further humiliated when we see a couple of colleagues seeming to laugh at his misfortune through glass walls
- he has been socially excluded in the office, shown by him tentatively asking if a guy will make coffee for him, as well as for everyone else
- a reveal is that he is in fact one of the two big bosses, and the fact that everyone is treating him as the underdog when he is the brain behind the entire company feels upside down and very wrong to the audience
- his business partner is a real asshole, flicking him on the back of the head
- but Daly is nice to his underlings, to the point where the underlings are doing the job of project management on their own (Daly’s psychological shortcoming)
Jesse Plemons is the perfect actor for this role, playing both bad guys (Breaking Bad) and underdogs (Friday Night Lights etc.), but always with humanity.
Level of Technical Detail
I watched USS Callister with my husband, who happens to be a developer — not for a gaming company but in cybersecurity. I noticed that he was far more engaged with this episode than I was, so I’m sure this storyline appeals especially to viewers who are:
- Star Trek viewers
- Work in offices
- Especially developers/testers/project managers and anyone else in that chain
I’m none of those things and my husband ticks all four boxes. I zoned out at the beginning and also later, during the big struggle sequence. “Do you understand what’s going on?” I asked. “Yeah, I get it.” I waited until after the episode before asking him to fill in the gaps.
Turns out I hadn’t missed as many things as I had thought because there are certain parts of the tech we’re meant to gloss over. Namely:
- How do the clones have all their memories to the point that think they’re the same, sentient individual as their real-world counterparts? Wouldn’t they have no memory? This is glossed over in the story but we do hear the phrase ‘sentient code’. There’s no such thing, of course, so we’re not supposed to understand it at all. We’re supposed to just go with the idea that Daly has found some way to clone not only bodies with DNA, but also the memories of the original brain.
- How does Daly get stuck inside the game world when the others get out, into the wider world of the game? It helps to know that by getting through a firewall the digital clones will lose any mods that Daly gave the game. So once they break past the firewall, they’ve escaped him. Asking for more details than that is fruitless because getting stuck inside a game is total fantasy. Thusly, it doesn’t matter how they get in and out.
So that was an interesting case study in how much tech detail is required to satisfy a technical sort of viewer, notorious for pedantry when it comes to fake IT plots written by non-IT people, and almost always fans of mimesis, even in story. As a non-tech viewer, I was left with the feeling I had missed a lot, but now I’ve had a post-episode discussion I’m pretty sure the tech details in this plot work like the buttons on the spaceship — “You can press any one, it doesn’t matter.” Transliteration: “You can make up concepts without explaining them, just so long as the viewer gets the gist.”
It has been said of Charlie Brooker’s plot lines that at some point in each story the audience is ‘waiting for the other shoe to drop’. Meaning, events have been set up, they’re in motion, we know what’s going to happen. Now we’re just waiting for it to play out. (Others less generously call this the ‘yeah, no shit’ rule.)
That may be so, but these stories are far from predictable. The interesting settings keep us engaged. I didn’t predict what was happening in this particular episode of Black Mirror, partly because the tech concepts were new to me, but my husband picked immediately that we were looking at a West World sort of plot. He also knew immediately that Nanette was sending the message to her real world self.
When Nanette manages to blackmail her real world self with naked pictures, that is the point we’re waiting for ‘the other shoe to drop’. We know they’re going to get out. This is when the tech details become interesting (for technical viewers) and the humour is amped up a bit (with genre parody of Star Trek, as well as in the acting itself).
What are the character functions of USS Callister?
- The story tricks us into thinking that Robert Daly will be the main character in many senses of the word — the guy we see the most of, the guy we feel empathy for, the guy who will undergo the character arc. But it is soon revealed that Daly is an antihero, and although his circumstances change, he doesn’t really undergo a character arc. His manic laugh at the end puts us in mind of a baddie like The Joker, who has been defeated but hasn’t grown psychologically.
- Nanette is a classic viewpoint character — she’s new to the Infinity Office and to the spaceship, which puts her in the exact same position as the audience. It is Nanette who undergoes a character arc. Okay, technically she doesn’t. Technically she bifurcates early in the story and her clone is put into a position where she transforms from a mild-mannered, fangirling office worker into a powerful leader.
- We empathise at various points with Daly (first), Nanette (second) and maybe even with the clone of Walton after he tells us about how he has been manipulated by Daly and lost access to the real version of his own son. At the end we may even feel a little sorry for Daly, stuck there forever in space. That’s pretty terrible. Unlike the others, Daly isn’t a clone of himself — it’s the real Daly there in the game. A brief shot of him slumped at his computer shows that he is effectively brain dead. Also, the real world Daly is not an asshole. This is an example of a story that really plays with character empathy.
Thematically, MSS Callister is another story of its time. At the end of 2017 I am put in mind of:
- Men in the workplace who are passive aggressive bullies to other men, because those men are competing for a position in the pecking order. But when it comes to the bullying of women, the woman only needs to piss him off by being sexually desirable and out-of-reach, and then the bullying becomes sexual, also known as sexual assault. Daly is a sexual predator, but only in the virtual world. (Unless swiping someone’s DNA and creating a sentient clone to use and abuse can be considered assault, which I’m sure it can, to be fair.)
- Which plays into how I feel about underdog male gamers. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the worst offenders online are probably underdogs in their real lives, and take out their aggression online, with avatars they perceive to be weaker than them (female avatars being worst targeted).
- As usual for a Black Mirror episode, we are asked to consider the gap between ‘the real world’ and ‘the virtual world’, with the inevitable conclusion that these days there is no gap. The person who is an asshole online but meek at work is the same (real) person.
- But as far as that online bully is concerned, others online are not real. To the online bully, he might as well be abusing avatars.
- What does it mean to be a ‘real person’? Is it really so bad to create digital copies and abuse them? Is that abuse? What if the existence of the fake people is the outlet that allows you to make it through your working day among people who you despise, without blowing your top? Is it okay then? Also, were these digital copies real? If they are sentient, aren’t they basically real people, and should be treated as such?
LOG LINE: After nearly losing her daughter, a mother invests in a new technology that allows her to keep track of her.
Arkangel is the name of the company trialling chips for parents to implant permanently into their children’s heads in order to keep an eye on them. Archangels are angels higher in rank than ordinary angels (good to know you can’t escape a very human pecking order up there). Why the change of spelling? A reference to Noah’s Ark? Where the apocalypse is coming, and only those in the know will be able to save their children, by means of the latest in technology? I don’t know.
It makes sense that Jodie Foster directed this one — she’s done her share of ‘missing child’ films, notably Flightplan. If the first episode of series four appealed to gamer techie types, this one appealed to parents, especially mothers. I don’t enjoy stories in which a child goes missing. On my daughter’s first day of kindergarten her school put her on the wrong bus. This was a 39C afternoon (102F) in rural Australia, and since I didn’t even know she was on a bus (the school office had closed), that was the most harrowing hour and a half of my parenting life so far. Most parents have lost a kid at some point, if only for seconds. The fear is utilised in this story. Even non-parents are able to empathise with loss of a loved one.
This is the ‘grain’ of season two’s The History Of You, but applied to a child.
It’s a solid plot, following the mainstream conventions of storytelling:
- A single main character (the mother)
- Who is faced with a moral dilemma
- And is eventually set up as an opponent to her own daughter
- Although we are given enough information to empathise with the mother’s decision we do not approve of all of it
- The mother makes a bad decision (to keep using the tracker app) and is punished in the worst way
- Ending in the tragedy of a broken family and a damaged daughter on the path to destruction (reminiscent of Rhonda Volmer’s fate in Big Love, getting into a truck with an unknown man and leaving town.)
Arkangel is an unsubtle critique of helicopter parenting and censorship, coming down firmly against it. A mother and daughter have a great relationship until the daughter discovers her mother has been spying on her in her most intimate moments. And I guess that tablet is not based on an Apple iPad, because it is used to bludgeon the mother’s head without shattering the screen.
At what point do we lose empathy for the mother? The mother is a good antihero because I understand her motivation at all times, even while disapproving of her methods. I never lost empathy for the mother, but it’s clear from the moment the chip is implanted where this story is going to go. It goes exactly where you think it’s going to go. This is another ‘waiting for the second shoe to drop’ plot. But that’s okay. It’s still a gripping story. Arkangel is an example of a story which is predictable but still satisfying. Not everyone agrees:
It feels like one of those lightbulb ideas of Charlie Brooker’s that sputters and dies in the execution, a bit like last season’s “Playtest.”
As Gilbert goes on to say, the interest in this story is not in the plot — it’s in the message:
Far more interesting to me was the episode’s subtext about what kids already have access to. When young Sara’s chip is turned off, a kid in her class shows her hardcore porn and execution videos on his iPad with disturbing nonchalance. Later, in her first sexual encounter, Sara mimics the women she’s seen in pornography, horrifying her mother, who’s turned on the long-dormant Arkangel device to find out where her daughter is. The impact of this kind of instant access to adult imagery is as novel as the implant is, and as unclear.
Where the message itself falls short:
But the episode seems more concerned with lining up a tidy parable about helicopter parenting than peeking into the prospects of the nearer-present.
The story itself doesn’t offer its audience anything new in its ideas, but what it can do is open up a dialogue. This is a Black Mirror episode I would like to watch with my daughter at some stage, to open up a discussion about parental surveillance and its limits. Because we’re already here. We already keep track of our children using the preinstalled Find My Friends app, or with a GPS wristband. The photographing of everything and its obligatory uploading onto social media means parents know far more about the current generation of teenagers than they ever knew before.
Side note: When the daughter has been shielded from anything raising her cortisol levels she is eventually unable to read situations correctly. A psychologist tells the mother ‘I don’t think it’s autism.’ I’m grateful for this snippet of dialogue because there’s this erroneous idea circulating that ‘too much screentime causes autism’. Sometimes when storytellers (accidentally) create stories which intersect with certain popular but bad ideas it’s necessary to forestall misreadings in this way.
Further side note: I blame Charlie Brooker first and foremost, but there were women working on this episode. A woman directed, women acted the parts. I can’t understand how misinformation about the emergency contraceptive pill slipped past. “Emergency contraception, for terminating a pregnancy,” are the words. Emergency contraception is for preventing pregnancy, not terminating it. This kind of misinformation has real world effects.
LOG LINE: A woman interviews various people using a device that allows her to access their memories.
This wasn’t a good episode. It felt recycled and unoriginal — partly because Charlie Brooker seems to be borrowing from his own self, with another chip stuck to the side of the head. This is another take on the The History Of You episode, which was very strong and felt totally original. This episode even recycles a song from an earlier episode. I wonder if this was deliberate or due to budget constraints.
There’s nothing engaging about watching a character dig themselves into a deeper and deeper hole, involved peripherally in a murder, then making a huge leap as murderer, then serial murderer, then baby murderer. The motivation here didn’t feel strong enough.
This routine murder plot is improved by the parallel plot of the woman whose job it is to interview witnesses to crime scenes, recording their memories then amalgamating them to establish the truest account of an event. But even here, there’s no time to see her as a person — we only see her doing her job (empathetically) and also getting a guinea pig, which you just know is going to function as a Chekhov’s Gun, because there was unusual emphasis on it. The scene where she is given the guinea pig does accomplishes nothing but to show her in the home environment — in order to avoid acting like a big giveaway (at a certain point, after the reveal that the baby was blind), its introduction would’ve needed to be more subtle.
But maybe the writer wanted us to guess correctly that the guinea pig was going to be used. I was really looking forward to seeing inside a guinea pig’s head but alas, the episode ends before we get to see it! I imagine including guinea pig observations would tip the sci-fi thriller horror into comedic territory though, because some people have attached GoPros and heart rate monitors to their dogs and those are pretty darn funny.
David Sims pinpoints the main problem with the plotting of this episode:
Any hint of lingering humanity is quickly erased as Mia turns into a rampaging monster. Soon, she’s only killing people to set up further plot points in an episode that turns into a strange sort of treatise on body cameras and crime surveillance.
As I was watching it I got a little bored by the story and it’s not until the insurance agent’s storyline is introduced that we get any sci-fi stuff at all. Unfortunately that’s why you sit down to watch a Black Mirror episode. Without the sci-fi tech stuff, some of the plots aren’t strong enough on their own, and Crocodile is one of example.
HANG THE DJ
LOG LINE: A new dating app hits the scene, where the matched couples are told how long their relationships will last.
Romance is really hard to write, despite all the genre beats being there for you, and despite romance genre readers expecting a happy ending and therefore predictability. One of the reasons romance is so hard to write is because in contemporary Western culture it’s hard to come up with a reason to keep two romantic opponents apart for the entire length of a movie. People tend to get together early on these days, so the sexual tension is cut short. The fact that this is a TV length episode and not a movie helps the writer, too. Yet, as others have noted, it still sagged in the middle a little. That’s how hard it is to write romance. I don’t think romance is Brooker’s particular thing.
I enjoyed “Hang the DJ” a lot, although it sagged a little in the middle, like Black Mirror episodes tend to do.
Charlie Brooker has taken the technology of dating apps and swung the hook-up culture in the opposite direction, leading once more to a conservative, dystopian, The Giver type scenario in which technology is used to take choice and control away from people looking for love. The technology itself is keeping two lovers apart. (Ostensibly.)
This episode is traditionally satisfying because the nature of the technology is explained early on. Also, the main characters are empathetic and we relate to their very human plight. Even more satisfying is the massive reveal at the end, harking back to the San Junipero episode in which we find out these people are VR. But in San Junipero, suddenly things that didn’t make complete sense, do. For instance, the women in San Junipero are outrageously blase about a near-death experience with a car wreck. This makes sense in hindsight, when we realise they can’t die inside the simulation, because they’re already dead on the outside world. Hang the DJ isn’t as satisfying in that respect because the angst and anguish over sleeping together and the annoying tics and the unsatisfying sexual experiences don’t map well onto a VR world.
LOG LINE: A black and white film about a woman attempting to survive a dangerous land full of “dogs”.
Kudos to the CGI studio who made that creepy ass dog beetle thing because the success of this episode hangs on the sheer terror of being chased in a cat-and-mouse plot where Charlie Brooker hasn’t told us any backstory whatsoever, including why this woman is breaking into the warehouse and why she is being chased. In other words, we don’t see her psychological shortcoming (though her ‘moral shortcoming’ might be ‘breaking into places she shouldn’t’). Her only desire is surface level — to get something from a warehouse, then to escape with her life from a terrifying machine. We don’t see any ‘under the surface’, psychological desire. This is a straight horror, without the character development. It is what it is.
We do get a few clues at the end — she’s breaking into the warehouse to get a teddy bear, for a child? My husband found this episode far more satisfying than I did. He didn’t care why she was being chased. But I don’t watch a story for the thrill alone — I felt frustrated that we were given nothing, nothing at all — just plonked into what is effectively someone’s nightmare — no context, just terror. Hearing about someone’s nightmare is more riveting than hearing someone recount a random, absurdist dream but… only just?
I suspect the team who came up with this story have seen the horrifying videos coming out of MIT’s robotic department.
Then again, there’s a real life analogue and reality is even more scary than fiction.
The Russian military is … investing heavily in new technologies to transform its armed forces, developing robots that are capable of mounting operations to evacuate wounded soldiers from the big strugglefield and to diagnose and treat casualties. Researchers are also working on biomorphic robots like the four-legged Lynx, which will be equipped with a machine gun and anti-tank guided missiles and will be able to operate in conditions including on ice and in sand that would test, challenge and tire human soldiers.
— The New Silk Roads, Peter Frankopan (2018)
It’s called Laikago.
LOG LINE: An anthology of its own, a woman enters the Black Museum where the proprietor tells her stories relating to the artifacts.
The tech plot in this one seemed to drill down deeper and deeper in a kind of vortex plot, a mise en abyme of embedded consciousnesses. It gets confusing if you’re on your phone at the same time. Even so, I was able to guess who the young black woman is.
If Stephen King put you off clowns, this may well put you off monkeys.
This desert museum functions as a kind of hell-on-earth, but I was strangely reminded of Willy Wonka. Here we have a man who takes great delight in showing off his macabre little world. This tour guidance looks and feels more like stage performance. Like Wonka, the tour guide in Black Museum displays “a frightening combination of warmth, psychosis, and sadism”.
Charlie Brooker has imagined a more realistically diverse future in many ways — mixed race couples, for instance, and a Muslim insurance agent in a previous episode. But in Brooker’s vision of the future gender dynamics are as cliched as ever. It’s mothers who become problematic helicopter parents, and Hang The DJ couples are 100% hetero, despite a huge number of young people identifying as queer even today.
In Black Museum I rolled my eyes at the wife inside the husband’s head, reminding him to wash his hands, vaguely disgusted by his bodily functions in a prissy, motherly kind of way, despite being his former lover. The episode could have been written the other way around (the husband inside the wife’s head) but I suspect we would’ve had an inverse set of sexist tropes. (A husband who gets sick of watching rom-coms, overly interested in looking at himself naked in the mirror etc.) It remains very difficult for writers of sci-fi to reimagine a world in which gender norms have been challenged. Yet these same writers have no problems coming up with original and interesting technological scenarios. I conclude that these writers don’t even want to imagine a world in which a wife inside a husband’s head might, say, become as masculine as the husband himself, because she has become one with him. Or a man who learns to embrace femininity.
Season Four of Black Mirror has been patchy but compulsory viewing for me. Brooker has done a great job of taking either an accepted or negative truism about certain technologies then flipping to its ironic opposite outcome. I did feel that Brooker is borrowing from his own work a little too heavily, suggesting he’s running out of ideas, or is being pushed too fast to create. Next season I would love to see revisionings of what it might look like to exist as human alongside these future technologies, rather than simply plugging 2017 humans into a projected future. Of course, sci-fi has always been about current times, never really about the future. Even so, sci-fi writers need to take the least conservative (most progressive) version of 2017 if they want to get anywhere near close to challenging the collective imagination.
- Fathers who look after children
- Gender tropes subverted
- People who understand what the emergency contraceptive pill actually does
- Queer sex normalised and fully catered for in popular apps
- Female villains who actually have some depth
- Black doctors who are the stars of the show, not just black sidekicks and scrappy underdogs
That kind of thing.
- Blaxites highlights issues that arise when different data systems are connected.
- A Model Employee examines data ownership and the need to earn a system’s trust.
- Frames exposes the problems in trusting sensor data and facial recognition to interpret human behaviour.
In The Snowman Cometh 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.
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 familiar 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.
Via Eustace’s complaining we immediately learn why they are there: Muriel booked a holiday at a resort without checking first that the resort was at the North Pole.
The takeaway storytelling lesson here: Exaggeration, exaggeration. There are plenty of stories about characters who book a nice holiday and then everything goes wrong. Typically, first of all, the weather is bad. There’s an example of this in one of the Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movies — the father takes everyone on a fishing holiday and it rains the entire time. The mother is grumpy on the way home. (One enthusiastic parent, one interminably grumpy parent is a common duo.) Here we have a holiday which is not only ‘a bit too cold’ but ridiculous. There is no place colder than the North Pole.
When writing a comical story, exaggerate a bit, then plonk on another 20 per cent. Whatever exaggeration you’ve chosen, linger on it. It is so cold inside this igloo that the soup refreezes in their bowls.
As usual, Muriel is making the best of things and is having a great old time in the igloo but Eustace is grumpy and Courage is the lowly dog who is required to do exactly as Eustace says.
Courage wants to stay inside the igloo where it is a bit warmer but they are running low on wood for the burner so Courage is sent outside to find some.
Outside in the cold, the camera pans and we see nothing but flat snow. But there is one thing: a snowman, and the snowman has wooden sticks for arms. Courage takes one of the arms and is alarmed to hear it talk to him. He also mentions that it wasn’t here before.
This is an interesting choice because it’s a commonly employed trick in this series — things just appear (in the yard, from behind backs) and we are not encouraged to wonder how they just popped up. It’s interesting, therefore, that the writers can happily decide when they would like this sudden appearance of things to be a wonder.
The snowman looks ominously through the window. Courage is frantically trying to alert Eustace and Muriel.
Of course, when they go outside to look for themselves the snowman is gone. So far, just like most of the other Courage episodes.
Next we switch to scenes featuring the Snowman. He lives in a castle made of snow, lined with famous snow creatures. He wants to become immortal.
Courage sets out to find this Snowman and keep an eye on him. With Courage watching on, the Snowman delivers a dramatic monologue which — to any writer’s ear — would sound ridiculously on the nose were it not a comedy.
We learn from this monologue exactly what the Snowman’s intentions are: He is determined not to melt despite the warming temperatures, and he has formulated a plan to tap the two humans (Eustace and Muriel) of the genes which allow them not to melt.
This is where it gets interesting: How is this visually represented? With taps — two actual faucets that you’d buy from a hardware store.
The writers/animators obviously realised that it’s so difficult to portray this storyline accurately that they might as well go to the opposite extreme and instead of the usual spiral image most of us know to represent ‘genes’, the genes on this show are a syrupy green goop which can be tapped out of someone by plugging a faucet into their head. All you need are a few test tubes with which to catch the solution.
This is worth pointing out because it’s a huge advantage of comedy — there is really no need to be scientifically accurate. However, there may well be an uncomfortable inbetween space, wherein mimetically minded audiences will criticise a sequence which is sort of like science but not really. See for example The Very Hungry Caterpillar Lied To You As A Child. The criticism there is that a caterpillar transforms inside a chyrsalis, not a cocoon. I wonder if the publishers/writers believed chrysalis to be too difficult for the target lexile rating — I have the distinct memory of struggling with that word as a six or seven year old when it was on my spelling list. The problem is that a lot of adults don’t know the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis (I didn’t notice the error until it was pointed out), so perhaps the rules of thumb are:
- If you are able to use the correct words use them
- If you’re going to get science wrong get it really, really wrong
- Unless you’re willing to get the science exactly right, avoid that middle ground in which the story appears to be pedagogical.
When Courage comes back to the igloo after his reconnaisance trip he finds Muriel’s apron. Both Muriel and Eustace are gone. It is up to Courage to save them.
The big struggle sequence looks a bit like the beginning of the first Ice Age movie, making use of all the possible natural features of the North Pole as it exists inside our imaginations: Sliding down steep, snowy hills, falling into holes in the ice, re-emerging in ice-blocks.
For variation we see Courage in very high places and also very low — including under the water. In an exaggerated story, make the most of the natural features of your chosen landscape. Go high, go low — go big, go small, and everything in between.
Single-scene challenges must be overcome by Courage using nothing but his wits. Here he sucks his way out of a prison made of ice bars.
Courage saves the day by ramming a jug onto the Snowman’s head. Despite being made of snow, the Snowman can’t get it off.
The revelation is simply that they’re going to be all right after all, having escaped the Snowman. But notice where this revelation occurs — in front of a huge evening sun, on the Arctic equivalent of a ‘tropical’ island. Revelations often take place either in high locations (a la the Bible) or in places of natural beauty.
Like any non-tragic sea movie, a ship appears to save them.
Eustace, unfortunately, has melted. His genes have been tapped. Courage mops him up.
At home, the camera lingers upon Muriel and Courage just long enough for us to wonder what’s happened to Eustace.
The great thing about this recurring series in which characters never change — Eustace can end as a jug of water in this episode and be miraculously back to his human old self by the very next episode. And we never wonder how that happens. This is basically all the alternative universes of a couple — in one universe Eustace melts into a jug, in another he is propelled into space, in another he is mummified. And so on and so forth.
Time travel! Romance! Japan! If you love the films out of Studio Ghibli you’ll love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, too.
An arc word/phrase is also known as a ‘leitwort’, which literally means ‘lead word’. In order to be an arc phrase and not just a catch phrase the phrase must help define the tone of the entire work, or at least the plot arc.
‘Time Waits For No One’ is a fairly cliched English phrase, but perhaps a Japanese audience finds it a little more exotic, like we find Chinese characters exotic when we tattoo ourselves with them. This idiomatic expression is written across the black board, presumably after an English language lesson, and explains the basic message of this tale: Even if you had the ability to go back in time and change things, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about the basic nature of fate.
The magic in a very early Twilight Zone episode called One For The Angels (in fact this is the second episode ever) is such that even if you yourself manage to avoid death, the fate must be transferred to someone else.
Proud of having outsmarted Mr. Death and now virtually assured of immortality, Lou is informed by Mr. Death that “other arrangements” must now be made, that someone else will have to take his place. Mr. Death chooses a little girl, one of Lou’s good friends who lives in the same building. When she is hit by a truck Lou immediately offers to go with Mr. Death but is told it is too late.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a Japanese anime from 2006 directed by Mamoru Hosada, who is also known for my daughter’s favourite Wolf Children and the long but engrossing Summer Wars. This film based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, which was originally published way back in 1967. It has been adapted many times.
For example, there was another (non-anime) film adaptation of this novel made several years later in 2010, but reception wasn’t as good. (Yasutaka Tsutsui also wrote the book Paprika, another well-known anime adaptation.) After the novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was adapted into film, it was then adapted back into book form, this time as a graphic novel.
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has elements of a portal fantasy.
What Is Portal Fantasy?
If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.
If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.
Classic fantasy takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane. So, classic fantasy is also portal fantasy.
A passageway is normally used in a story only when two subworlds are extremely different. We see this most often in the fantasy genre when the character must pass from the mundane world to the fantastic.
The room into the science lab beside the classroom is treated as a kind of portal, with the camera lingering on the door, with a shadow forming a cross over the door. Inside there is a kind of witch’s lair. The mother has already mentioned a ‘witch’ in jest when saying goodbye to Makoto in the morning. She finds something magical on the floor. The colour scheme switches to blues as we accompany her through time, with images of mustangs running across plains and something like the inside of a computer.
This is also a coming-of-age story.
What Is A Coming-of-age Story?
A coming-of-age is film genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre; it relies on emotional responses and dialogue, rather than action.
After finding the time-leaping device Makoto visits her auntie witch who works at an art gallery. Auntie exists to explain the magic/science of time travel and it often happens to girls your age. This marks the motif of the time-leaping device as a metaphor for growing up and its confusion, as well as the almost universal desire to have do-overs after you’ve reflected on a mortifying scene in your teenage life and performed less well than you would’ve liked.
I would also argue that this story is an example of magical realism.
What Is Magical Realism?
Magical realist stories are basically set in the ordinary, everyday world we all share but there is a little bit of magic, unexplained to the audience. We just know that it’s there and accept it. In the case of this story, Makoto’s mother wishes her goodbye in the morning and makes a reference to her going to see her ‘Witch Auntie’. We don’t know exactly why this woman is a witch, but we accept that witches exist in this world.
If the mother had not mentioned the witch auntie I would be more confident in calling this magical realism, because ideally there should be some doubt in the reader’s mind about whether the fantastic elements are real or not. If they mother hadn’t been ‘in on it’ the visits to the witch auntie might well have taken place entirely in Makoto’s mind.
In the West it can be difficult to find good stories about girls who are friends, without being ‘frenemies’ or without fighting over a boy, or over who looks the prettiest. The abundance of mean girl tropes is frustrating because it’s simply not how female relationships work, and it paints girls out to be nothing but bitchy. To find some excellent stories about female relationships we can instead go to Japan, where we’ll find stories such as this one, with its more nuanced female character web.
IS THIS A FEMINIST STORY?
The film poster itself is a shot of a high school girl who seems to be dressed from the male gaze. By Western standards, the school skirt is far too short. I’ve yet to work out though if Japanese culture sexualises legs to the extent that Western culture does. Short skirts in Japanese schools — at least those that don’t rule otherwise — are very short, and I believe it comes from the fact that legs look longer if skirts are shorter. (An optical illusion as much as an expression of sexuality.) What I am quite sure of, though, is that this female main characters in Western animations are not designed with such short skirts unless that character is the designated hot mean girl.
There are a number of diehard tropes that come out of Japan. One of them is the sharing of the umbrella as a way of striking up a relationship with a stranger you meet on the street. Which is fine. It’s the classic ‘meet cute’ scene, and is common in the West as well.
Another is the ‘riding bitch’ trope, in which we see a boy give a girl a ride home on his bicycle, him leading the way.
This trope is popular in Studio Ghibli animations also.
Is there anything wrong with the riding bitch scene? When it happens over and over again it tells boys they must take the lead and girls that they must submit. The real problem is that we never see the gender reversed. That’s when you know it’s a problem.
There is a danger in ‘tomboy’ stories that they border on femme phobic. The empathetic female protagonist has short hair, a unisex name, likes to play baseball and hangs out with guys. She could easily become your classic ‘guy’s gal’, the kind who would say things like, “You know, I really just prefer guys over gals because gals are waaay too much drama.” (Internalised misogyny.) This film avoids that because Makoto doesn’t only have guy friends, she is also close to a girl, and she has a slightly dramatic but loving relationship with her sister, too.
Another thing I like about this story is that the girls are allowed to eat. Makoto works up a ravenous appetite by extending her days time-leaping. She raids the fridge in the way most often attributed to teenage boys.
THIS STORY AS AN INSIGHT INTO JAPANESE CULTURE
When Makoto falls asleep in class her teacher drops a book on her head. While unacceptable in the West, I have seen this sort of interaction happen in Japanese classrooms in this general era — male teachers in particular can sometimes slap students about the head and come down heavy with the ruler right next to someone’s hand. This sort of intimidation is no longer acceptable in many countries.
The ‘purin’ that Makoto’s little sister eats is a loanword from English ‘pudding’ but refers to a specific product. The purin is as much a part of Japanese childhood food culture as the Twinkie seems to be in America. It’s basically set custard that you eat cold out of the fridge in summer.
In the fridge you can also see cans of Asahi beer, almost certainly for the father’s consumption. They eat teppanyaki one night, which the more feminine younger sister has helped the mother to prepare. Japanese housewives spend a lot of time in the kitchen, as traditional Japanese meals require a lot of preparation time. (Similar to Indian food in that regard.)
Japanese high schools don’t employ cleaners. It’s up to the students to clean their own classrooms daily, and at the end of each term there is an entire afternoon spent on ‘Big Cleaning’, in which students scrub the corridors and toilet floors. It’s therefore quite normal that Makoto would be doing the errand of delivering the stack of books to the science lab, even though in my Western high school this room was full of dangerous chemicals and equipment, and therefore off-limits to all students unless a teacher was present.
22 Steps Breakdown
Anagnorisis, need, desire
Makoto Konno is the classic loveable heroine: clumsy and nondescript (like Bella Swan) who describes herself as average in ability. This is a story of an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. I mention above that she is a Japanese ‘tomboy’. Her body language is masculine. In Japan it’s frowned upon for girls to cross their legs while sitting on the couch. When laughing you cover your mouth. But Makoto’s body language is wide and expressive and when she laughs she throws her head back and her mouth becomes comically huge. If you listen to the original Japanese she speaks in a much more masculine manner than the English dub would lead us to believe, even referring to herself as ‘ore’, which is slang for the first person pronoun and generally used only by boys.
Even the name Makoto is more commonly given to boys in Japan (though it’s reasonably popular among girls, too).
Symbolic names work best in comedy and children’s literature.
真琴 is the kanji used for Makoto’s name in this story. When written like this it’s generally a given name for boys. The ‘koto’ refers to the traditional Japanese stringed instrument. ‘Ma’ means ‘truth’.
(The first name of the original 1967 novel was Kazuko is now an out-of-date sounding name, because it was very popular after WW2. In that era girls were given ‘peace’ names, and Kazuko is often written as ‘Peace Child’. It’s therefore reminiscent of grandmothers (and great grandmothers).
Makoto, phonetically, means ‘truth’, which makes this an allegorical name, or an ‘aptronym’ — Makoto must learn to be truthful rather than mucking people around, using time travel to play with their emotions.
Makoto is always leaving disaster in her wake, like setting fire to a pan in cooking class. She tells us via the storyteller narration that she has no real skill in anything and doesn’t even know if she’s going into arts or sciences in senior high school. This is a very important decision in her Japanese life in her third year of middle school because she’s about to enter the ‘study hard’ years. She jokes with her friends that she’ll be a media tycoon or maybe an oil baron. ‘You need to take life more seriously,’ she is told.
This is a specifically Japanese psychological need for a main character –- in Hollywood you’re more likely to find a main character who needs to lighten up a bit, especially when it comes to teenage girls, who often have their glasses removed as part of their character arc.
The ghost is something that happened to a character in the past that explains their motivations and reactions. The ghost will be revealed at some point in the story, often quite late.
Since Makoto is depicted as the ‘every girl’ (with a tomboyish nature to make her more endearing) there is nothing really unique about her. A Japanese audience (especially girls, perhaps) will be able to imagine themselves in her position, in this generic Japanese suburb. Therefore, Makoto doesn’t have her own ghost.
The ghost instead belongs to the mysterious Chiaki, who has a secret — where did he come from? Chiaki even gets a ghostlike sequence when he disappears in the ‘statue’ scene, where he and Makoto walk through the frozen crowd. First his body disappears, then Makoto can hear his voice, then he fades away to nothing as if slipping into death.
This is more like the residences you’ll find in Shitamachi these days. (Google street view.)
Any standalone house in Tokyo is very expensive. This is an affluent family and although Makoto needs to watch her purin to make sure her little sister doesn’t nab it first, things like money and starvation are never an issue. This is a Wind in the Willows type of utopia, where the necessities of life just are. All that’s left is to worry about the social aspect. Even the news announcer is talking about a day which has been designated as a celebration of nice. Makoto runs to school saying ‘Good morning!’ to everyone.
Japanese high school students spend long hours in school and more than in Hollywood high school dramas, this high school feels homelike, with the characters trusted to relax inside the classroom, gazing through windows as if from their own living rooms.
The house where the main character lives is ‘cottage-like’ insofar as a Japanese suburban house can be described as such – there are vines growing attractively across the front.
This suburb is almost a kind of utopia — people are basically kind to each other and there is no real feeling of physical danger.
Among this suburban utopia though, commuter trains running through suburbia present a vague threatening presence; there is just an inadequate safety bar between pedestrians and instant death. Trains are the opponent in nature, the forest equivalent would be a hungry wolf, leaping from behind bushes.
In the vicinity of the train line in the shopping district is a town clock featuring creepy elves. Childhood images equal horror symbols in Japan as in the West, with our clowns, night-time playgrounds and ice-cream van music.
The river running through the suburb is where Makoto goes to practise her time-leaping, and is also a universal metaphor for the inevitable passage of time — the message in this story is that, try as you might, you’ll never really alter the inevitability of getting older, and you can never truly go back. This is demonstrated when Makoto tries to replay things, but finds they are never exactly the same second time around.
The crossroads where Makoto meets with her two friends (time and again) have a sign which says ‘koko kara’, meaning ‘from here’. I haven’t seen this road sign in Japan so I don’t know if it’s a real thing, or a motif designed specifically for this movie. The sign seems to be asking the question: Which road will you choose from here?
The story is set in the modern era – the flip phones give us a guide as to exactly when. (That said, flip phones seem to be making a bit of a comeback.) Housewives put dinner on the table. Fathers go to work. Children are given full autonomy to conduct their own school lives during the day. This is no doubt partly due to the fact this is based on a 1967 novel, in which mothers almost always stayed at home and suburbs were almost always safe.
It is July – the height of summer, and they are in the middle of a heat wave. We hear lots of cicadas, which for mainland Japanese mean heat. Our story starts on July 13. Time is important to the plot so we’re told the exact dates and times of events. Clocks are everywhere, in every form — on phones, announced on the TV, digital and analogue clocks. The main characters are planning what they’ll do during their upcoming summer vacation – they discuss attending the fireworks festival together wearing yukata (summer kimono) or going to the beach.
Shortcoming & Need (Problem)
Makoto’s childhood is about to be left behind because she is preparing to enter senior high school, which in Japan is a really tough undertaking. Once Japanese students get into good universities they are permitted to slack off a bit, but those three years of senior high school definitely mark the end of childhood. (In the West I argue that the age of 12 marks the end of true childhood, at least in children’s stories.) This is symbolised by Makoto being required to choose either the arts or sciences track but having no idea. This is a big problem for her.
That said, high school — at least, the high school in this story — is a kind of utopia. High schools as depicted by Hollywood are so often cold, hard places, and always have the symbolic locker scene, and the running of the gauntlet down the hallway, planning routes to avoid bullies. Bleachers are scary places where bad things can happen. Locker rooms even more so. But this Japanese high school, which looks exactly like a fantasy-enhanced version of the Japanese high school I attended on exchange in the mid nineties, is utopian in nature.
Utopias in Young Adult Literature
It’s significant that this film is based on a YA novel from the 1960s because we have since entered an age (and I include Japan in this) of the ‘snail under the leaf setting’, in which everything seems hunky dory, but scratch the surface and you’ll see the horror and the rot.
In Sweden, a critic has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.
— Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
So Makoto needs to make some big decisions in her life about her future but she is no good academically and has no idea what she wants to do. Most kids her age would at least know whether they are of a science or literature bent, but Makoto needs more time to grow up before facing these decisions. One way around that, of course, is to play around with time. Her days are about to become much longer and jam-packed, because she’ll be reliving the same day over and over until she gets it right, in a Japanese version of Groundhog Day.
Many high school aged protagonists are outsiders. I don’t get the feeling that Makoto is an outsider at the beginning of the story. Rather, her magical experiences turn her into a kind of outsider as the events progress.
At the beginning of a coming-of-age story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control.
After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, she is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse, or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain. In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.
The Opportunity Makoto gets is the magical ability to leap through time and have do-overs. This is made possible by the discovery of the time-leaping device, and with practice she learns how to make use of it.
In the original novel, the protagonist is cleaning the science lab and is overcome with the overwhelming scent of lavender. She wakes up three days later, therefore spending significant time in the portal. In the film, too, the screenwriters make sure to linger on the science lab. First we have the door. (The portal is literally a door in this story.) The shadow moves to form a cross on the door knob, as if daring Makoto to enter. The lab is chock full of equipment which gleams in the shaft of light coming through a window — this is a beautiful depiction of a science lab and invites the eye to linger. It’s more like a witch’s lair than a school equipment room.
At the beginning of the story Makoto only desires to be left alone in her childlike state, playing baseball with her friends after school, planning fun things to do over the summer holidays, singing karaoke.
There is no oft-mentioned ‘Call to Adventure’. I don’t think many modern stories operate on that basis. It’s only ever young men pumped up on testosterone who have had the desire to go out and save the world of their own volitio n, and those stories now seem old-fashioned.
Chiaki has reddish hair to mark him out as distinct from Kousuke, in a classic red-devil, blue-devil trope. The coloured hair also makes Chiaki seem more alluring and mysterious. Kousuke, in his sexy glasses, is the brains while Chiaki is more brawn, but is later revealed to have a sensitive, artistic side when it is revealed he came back in time to see a painting.
Auntie Witch – This character understands what time leaps are, and in the narrative she functions as the character who explains to the viewers how the science works in this story. In fact, to a modern audience, this form of exposition feels like a bit of a hack once you’ve given it a bit of thought. But it’s far from unusual in film.Michael Caine functions this way in Interstellar and various other films by that filmmaker.
In the film it is not explained how Makoto even knows the Auntie Witch. This is where it helps to have some background on this classic Japanese story — the Auntie Witch is meant to be the protagonist of the original 1967 novel (though she does look a little young… She should be the age of a grandmother by 2006.)
If this were a Hollywood production I’ve no doubt the group of airhead junior girls — the volunteer club — would have been depicted as clearcut love rivals in the mean girls tradition. The Japanese dynamics are a lot more nuanced and, in my opinion, more realistic. The girls in this story are not outright rivals — they are interested in the same boys (for varying reasons) but they cheer each other on and take their share of ‘love hits’. Theirs is a spirit of sharing and caring for each other. In this story, Makoto finally declares her interest in Chiaki and her love rival backs off before her crush even begins. All of this is far more interesting than your usual mean girls crap.
But the writers of the Pixar film Inside Out, a hugely successful story, say that the most relatable villain is yourself, or nature:
I came on Inside Out, Pete [Docter] was not leaning towards any villains. I think at one point there was the idea floated that those Forgetters are villainous in trying to grab the core memories so Riley would forget them. But it just never really caught Pete’s imagination and it really wasn’t what he wanted to focus on. And as a storyteller, I love that more complex idea. And so Pete Sohn [the director of The Good Dinosaur] decided very early that you’ll have characters that Arlo will come into conflict with and challenge him for sure. The villain is, if there is one, you want it to be nature. The movement of nature and the idea that nature is something to be respected—that was the antagonist of this movie.
— Interview with Pixar writer
Who is the villain in a Japanese high school story, in which the bullies versus the good kids tends to be less stark? Could it be that the villain in this story is time itself, or the nature of the magic inside the time-leaping device?
In this film the romantic mystery is presented quite late. Until we overhear some speculation between students we have no idea that Chiaki is new to the school and that no one has any idea where he came from.
The magical part of the mystery is: What is this little device Makoto found in the science lab, how does it work and what can it do? We watch her figure it out.
Changed desire and motive
When the story began Makoto just wanted to remain childlike, but after almost being (almost?) killed by the train Makoto realises something weird is happening. She wants to find out what.
First revelation and decision
Her aunt who works at the art gallery clears everything up for her. Makoto can put this tool to good use and help her to arrange her life in such a way that she is ready to move on.
Makoto will use this time-leaping skill firstly for inconsequential things, like getting more time in the karaoke booth and avoiding embarrassing situations socially at school, and redoing maths quizzes. The Witch Auntie is glad that she’s only using her ability for inconsequential things, but asks Makoto — and therefore also asks the viewer — if the outcome of changing time is really as inconsequential as it seems.
Gazing out onto the river she realizes she can do anything with this trick. The setting of the river is a metaphorical juxtaposition — in fact, you can’t stop the flow of time. At least, you can’t stop things happening to people, even if the victim is not you.
If you keep track of the timeline, or even just the set pieces, you will realize that Makoto discovered her powers, got asked out by Chiaki, and had her heartfelt goodbye at the exact same spot at the river, at the exact same sunset. In fact, the entire movie never progressed beyond that last sunset until that last goodbye, which is when everyone finally moves on and the Airplane of Love beautifully tops off the ingenious Three Parts of the Story created by Makoto’s choices at this single junction in time.
Opponent’s plan and main counterattack
The opponent is the magic itself, which does not always do what Makoto hopes it will.
When Makoto saves herself in cooking class, another boy gets into trouble instead, and this leads to a whole lot of bullying. Makoto can deflect disaster from herself, but it seems someone still needs to be sacrificed, according to the laws of this magic.
Makoto is determined to make the time-leaping work. Sometimes it means trying time-leaps again and again to get a situation right, and sometimes it means leaping back much further than she has energy for. This is basically a version of the very Japanese trait of trying again and again until you get it perfect (a la The Karate Kid).
Attack by ally
Auntie Witch continuously asks Makoto questions which lead to Makoto’s character arc. She’s talking to Auntie Witch, and tells her everything in her life has been fixed. Auntie, in her greater wisdom, asks if someone else may be suffering due to her good fortune.
After these trifling time leaps turn into something more serious — Chiaki’s declaration of love — Makoto talks to her witch auntie about her love life. The auntie advises her to be honest with Chiaki rather than ignore that he ever told her how he feels about her.
Later in the film auntie witch advises Makoto to go out with Kousuke, since he’s always the one helping her out. Auntie Witch points out that Makoto has ‘been playing all sorts of mind games with people.’
Auntie says, “I wonder who was able to create such a beautiful painting when it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end.”
I can’t be bothered putting them all in order, but each time Makoto has a revelation, it happens in Auntie Witch’s office, or as a direct result of her sage advice.
The crossroads/riding bitch scenes replayed over and over teach Makoto that she can’t change Chiaki’s feelings for her. She leaps back through time in order to give herself time to think of a good response and get out of the awkward romantic situation. To her disappointment it’s not as straightforward as she’d thought because the conversation is slightly different each run through. In the end, she leaps back to the crossroads and refuses to be dubbed home at all.
Things are going wrong now – Chiaki is blamed for the fire in food technology class and Makoto knows Chiaki likes her now, though Chiaki has no recollection of having told her he likes her (because he hasn’t). He wonders what’s up with her avoiding his gaze.
Now she avoids him entirely. (Montage sequence)
Chiaki looks for Makoto in vain and concludes he’s pissed her off.
Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive
Makoto decides to use her time leaping for good.
Second revelation and decision
Magical revelation: She works out her time leaps are limited in number. That’s what the number on her flesh means.
Plans Never Go To Plan
The important thing about plans made by main characters in stories: The plan never works out the way they expected.
Chiaki reveals that he came from the future.
There is a series of montage stills with muted colours and lots of muted red, including a red balloon in the sky.
He explains that he had a device that let him time leap but he lost it. He eventually found it in the science lab but it was all used up.
He came back because there was a painting he desperately wanted to see “White Plum Two Camellias’. In his time the painting has already been destroyed. This is the only place he can find it.
Now he’s unable to go back to his future time. He used up all his time leaps stealing the bike Kousuke was supposed to ride.
Kousuke and the girl did die once at the train crossing. He had to come back because Makoto was sobbing and blaming herself for it.
Chiaki has decided to stay here because being with Kousuke and Makoto has been so much fun. He rode a bike for the first time, discovered how enormous the sky was, and has never seen a place with so many people.
Makoto asks about the painting and its connection to the future. As they walk through the statue crowd, Chiaki explains that the painting is getting restored and he’ll be able to see it soon. She wants to take him to see it, with Kousuke.
But he’s not meant to tell anyone in the past about time leaps.
Third revelation and decision
Magical revelation: Makoto ponders this one at home then realizes one of her leaps has come back (from the number on her arm.)
She’s now convinced if she goes back far enough, Chiaki can get a leap back too. (I don’t quite understand this logic.)
We see a montage of times the three of them have spent together, with a staticky filter in muted colours. There’s a Japanese love song playing.
She’s back in the science lab with the notebooks and refinds the time leaping device. This time she doesn’t use up the device. This time she tells Yuri she really likes Chiaki a lot. Yuri is disappointed but says she thought so. She advises Chiaki to go see Chiaki and tells her, ‘Time waits for no one.’ This time she invites the volunteer club to play ball with them, so Kousuke can organically get to know the girl.
Plan to stop anyone from getting killed on her bike: She says he can’t borrow her bike unless he pays her five thousand yen. There is a scene where we see her running flat out. A lot of films show this scene when the main character has had a revelation. It’s meant to show that they’re resolving to do something, forming a plan, and that this plan is going to take a lot of effort to achieve.
Romantic revelation: She realises she likes Chiaki as more than a friend and if she doesn’t tell him, she’ll lose him.
“Why couldn’t I take what he said more seriously? He wanted to have a difficult conversation and I couldn’t handle it.” She goes to the roof and cries (a classic Moses scene) because big revelations in films often take place somewhere high.
Gate, gauntlet, visit to death
Makoto’s time leaps need to get really dangerous as she jumps from higher places in order to leap further back in time to change ever having used up the leaps in Chiaki’s device.
But the real visit to death is the near death experience of Kousuke and Yuri as Kousuke takes Yuri on his bike to get an X-ray after one of the horsing-around kids lands on her (instead of on Makoto, as happened earlier.)
Her number has changed to zero. She realizes she’s used up all her leaps. But just then he zooms past. She drops the phone. “I need to borrow your bike a bit longer!”
Now the situation is dire – she can’t catch the two of them. She falls over trying, and is covered in scratches and bruises. Kousuke and his new gf are thrown into the path of the train.
We see the image from the very beginning of the film, with the red numbers on black. (Symbolic colours — red = blood, black = death.)
Makoto yells ‘stop!’ and everything does freeze. The only two people who haven’t frozen are Makoto and Chiaki, who has her bike with its broken brake. It turns out Chiaki can time leap too.
I’ve noticed that although films always have a big struggle scene, the big struggle is often a transferred one. I mean, the big struggle Makoto faces is an inner psychological big struggle. But the literal fight the audience sees played out on the screen in front of us is actually the fight between the boy who ended up setting fire to his pan in food technology after Makoto changed her own fate, and the boys who have decided to taunt him because of it, taunting him with the fire hose. Finally this boy retaliates — goes off the edge — and in the first round of reality the bullied boy, Takase, who has a bowl of noodles on his head, throws the fire extinguisher at Makoto. Chiaki steps in front of her to save her. Makoto leaps back through time so the situation plays out differently, and Takase ends up throwing the extinguisher at Yuri, injuring her shoulder instead.
Makoto feels very bad that by changing fate she has lead to the injury of her best friend. Not only that, Chiaki is now going out with her best friend instead of her. She realises that this would never have happened had she accepted Chiaki’s declaration of love in the first place.
(Makoto promises Yuri if the incident leaves a scar she’ll fix things, but doesn’t explain how. Perhaps this is where Chiaki realises Makoto knows all about time leaping.)
Kousuke and Chiaki are playing baseball together. Makoto has told Kousuke Chiaki has gone to study abroad. We know this isn’t true because it was Makoto’s plan for herself.
Makoto has made a decision about her future. “It’s a secret.” She looks up at the towering cloud. I hope she’s not pinning her hopes and dreams on a future with a boy. (It’s possible that in the 1967 novel, that’s exactly the track the female protagonist will take, and in the setting of respected housewives, it’s not such a bad one, either.) But we never get told whether our young, modern Makoto chosen the arts or science track, or is just going to hang about waiting until she can reunite with the boy.
Makoto changes time until she can meet Chiaki in the baseball field. She hands Chiaki the device he dropped. She gives Chiaki back the device and when it explodes in the palm of his hand he gets an extra leap appear on his arm.
Makoto tells Chiaki she’ll work out a way to preserve the special painting he loves – “It’s not going to get lost or burned.”
Chiaki says goodbye. He tells her not to get herself hurt by jumping out in front of things. “The old look before leap thing definitely works.”
Chiaki disappears and by coincidence a couple who look very much like them on a bike sails past. She cries alone with the sunset in the background but then Chiaki rejoins her and gives her a hug. “I’ll be waiting for you.”
“Okay, I won’t be long. I’ll come running.”
A jet leaves a contrail across the sky in a long shot then fades to black, with red numbers.
Makoto is now playing baseball with the volunteer club juniors, and the audience surmises that she will be friends with them rather than almost-rivals. The audience knows that Kousuke will end up going out with Kaho (pronounced incorrectly as ‘Ka-who’ in the English dub), the girl with the crush on him, so he is sorted romantically for now.
TIME TRAVEL IN FICTION
1. Speed of light discovery: would you go back in time? and Time Travel In Fiction, from Guardian Science.
2. What Is Time? from Michio Kaku (a video)
3. Watch design built for ‘predictably late’ Indian time, in acknowledgement of the fact that different cultures have different attitudes towards time-keeping.
4. Why the past is different from the future, from Brain Pickings
7. Why Time Travel Stories Are Meant To Be Messy from io9
8. The 10 Least Competent Time Travellers from io9
9. Is Time Travel Possible? (a video from Unplug The TV)
13. Time Travel Via Wormhole Breaks the Rules of Quantum Mechanics from Discover
14. A list of books about Time Travel from Reading Matters
Gravity is a science fiction film from 2013, with a strong mythological, Christian influence.
Logline: A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.
Tagline: (seen above) Don’t let go.
Arc word: ‘let go’. “You’ve got to learn to let go,” Matt tells Ryan. We’ve also got the visual motif of Ryan letting Matt go irretrievably into space.
Controlling Idea: A middle-aged space engineer learns to appreciate life again and believe in herself after a series of narrow escapes in space.
Theme Line: When you feel all alone and about to give up, fortify yourself by finding some imaginary person to give yourself some comfort.
Story World: Floating around in space
Symbol Web: ‘Tethered’ (grounded) versus being ‘untethered’ (lost and all alone, with nothing to hold onto).
Mooshing The Science
This is a good example of a SF story in which the writers hired a science advisor, then picked and chose which parts of actual science would help and which would hinder their storytelling. They ended up with a film which can really annoy scientifically literate fans of mimesis, but for viewers who are able to suspend disbelief, and who enjoy predictable plots, this is a well-crafted sci-fi thriller with a satisfying character arc.Continue reading “Gravity (2013) Film Study”