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Narrative Perplexity

I’ve spent the past couple of days of this long Thanksgiving weekend streaming Heroes, courtesy of NetFlix.  The remainder of the afternoon will be whiled away with Volume 5, but there are a couple of things I’d like to mention before making the final drive toward the last several hours of plot reversals, adrenal effusions and bizarre surprises.

Richard Stallman’s paraphrasing of Stewart Brand’s pronouncement (that “…information wants to be free…”) starts with this:

On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.


and goes here:

I believe that all generally useful information should be free. By ‘free’ I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the information and to adapt it to one’s own uses… When information is generally useful, redistributing it makes humanity wealthier no matter who is distributing and no matter who is receiving.


The Brand proposition attributes intent to data that people value, while the Stallman revision restates the original premise as a personal committment to people.  The difference is enormous, and Heroes manifests that disparity in the form of a contradiction.  (Many contradictions strike a precisely negotiated balance between extreme terms in continuum.)

Heroes is a television show that was born in the midst of media-industry transition from old-school TV to new.  It led a captive audience through a first season of exciting revelations concerning fictional characters that were designed to resemble our friends, our families, ourselves.  It did this by cleverly withholding thematic information selectively while supplying visceral thrills, moral questions and an intimations of overarching mystery, season after season…without ever actually satisfying the audience hunger to know why Heroes exists as a compelling, fictional metaphor for ordinary human existence.  And ultimately, it doesn’t.  As the seasons roll on and on, the thimblesful of insight into the human predicament afforded by this television show don’t adequately feed the appetite of the information-hungry audience it created.

Ordinary people are elevated in the fourth season to places of importance that rival the super-able stars of the show.  These ordinary people,  like Annie the anal roommate become grist for the mill of Heroes plot lines and kill themselves, are incinerated, disemboweled or are otherwise sacrificed to the penurious dispensation of truly-useful information that’s held tight to the bosoms of writers, while the audience’ attention turns elsewhere.

The barrage of visceral thrills, intriguing moral and intellectual issues, character studies and evolutions…don’t justify waiting around for four years for the persistent denial of service to the fascination that turned us on to Heroes in the first place.  What happens when several ordinary people discover special abilities in themselves?  Eventually the layers of perplexity surrounding a television show that asks that question loses its impatient audience to less ambitious questions…because Heroes doesn’t provide much information that’s particularly useful to (ordinary) people, let alone us real folks who aren’t een remotely ordinary. 

 Heroes hasn’t changed my life, and I don’t feel any wealthier, but do I find myself resenting its persistent refusal to service the premise that brought me to Heroes in the first place.  There’s a point at which narrative complexity gets lost in narrative perplexity.  Each of the seasons I’ve explored this weekend reaches that crisis by episode 5, when the Previously…On Heroes presents a ridiculously labyrinthine montage of memorable mysteries that always leads me to snort derisively at my stupidity in watching a show that promises to resolve straw-man mysteries it fabricates without ever resolving dick that’s truly meaningful beyond the fanciful confines of the show.  Heroes is about Heroes.  It’s bearing on real life is negligible compared to the investment of time and attention required to find it valuable weekly over several seasons, given that I’m having trouble staying interested in the course of a four-day weekend.

Jason Mittell’s landmark essay on Narrative Complexity needs rereading; the write environment DVD (featuring Joss Whedon and hosted by Jeffrey Berman) arrived in the mail yesterday, along with the Whedon/Jones Dr. Horrible prequel comic; Tim Minear on Breaking the Story and Joss’ remarks in The Master at Play…these things offer greater promise of deeper satisfactions between now and Monday than the balance of  Heroes episodes remaining before me in Volume 5 of Season 4; a perplexing numbering system, too.

“My favorite procrastination is working on the sequel of the work I haven’t finished.”

— Joss Whedon to Jeffery Berman for The Write Environment

28 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

A Matter of Life and Death

I’ve been cruising The Archers’ films because they’ve slipped way under my radar forever.  A Matter of Life and Death is a remarkable film on every level, but I’ll touch on only a few of the points that strike me as unusually clever, after making this single reference to the astonishing ability of these filmmakers to build even the simplest premise into a deeply moving, visceral experience that’s worlds of complexity apart from, yet very like I Know Where I’m Going!

The film opens in the midst of the cosmos with narration that gradually turns our attention to night on Earth, driving us slowly into a story that begins from an objective vantage very high over the English Channel and glides us into the belly of a severely wounded WWII British bomber; panning past the vacant cockpit as David Niven’s voice cheerily explains his dire situation to someone pleasantly female at the other end of his radio connection.  Eventually Niven, the pilot, makes his appearance visual, wearily slouched beside the body of his dead friend, Bob, as he draws the noose of this very tense tale taut around the neck of these first few minutes, with technicolor flames licking boldly past new windows blown in the fuselage while he’s facing the tail of the plane.  Then he jumps through a port in the floor of the burning aircraft, into the foggy night from an indeterminate altitude, prefering to drown, not fry.  No parachute.  Terse.  Abrupt.  Laconic.  Poetic and cool!

All through this opening sequence, Niven varies his tone around the theme which his variations circle like giddy vultures in a kind of intoxicating gallows-cockiness, as he falls in love with the American girl who’s sharing his very last words.  I found myself thrilling to the realization that the pilot was flying blind on autopilot, having lost his battle to save Bob’s life, he strikes up a final conversation with the nearest airfield, and gently passes a message for is mother into the shell-like ear of a real nice girl, before hurling himself into the abyss. 

The kicker is that he survives the fall, meets the girl on her way home from work, and that still leaves unspoiled about 80 minutes of this darkly beautiful and deeply enthralling film.

Ian Christie’s commentary is informative and reverent, pointing to the Archers’ intent to soothe tattered British-American relations at war’s end by putting the Empire on show-trial for crimes against the races of the world, with no less formidable an American prosecutor than the fearsome and fiery Raymond Massey demanding the life of this aviator, who stands in for the British Empire, but then, so does his plane.

Christie mentions the initial critical disfavor for the inappropriate denunciation of Britain that’s neatly articulated in the climactic scenes of this so-called “dated” film.  I’m amazed at the eloquent intelligence that an utterly (self)righteous American levels at England, as every scathing accusation he hurls fits post-1945 America at least as well as it fits Imperial Britain since the Battle of Cadiz, and even more especially well since 9/11.

Apart from (or in addition to) the bittersweet political irony, A Matter of Life and Death magically found its way into my gut and squeezed before it twisted; very much in keeping with the powerful emotional experience I found in I Know Where I’m Going!  Black Narcissus and Peeping Tom…not so much, but there’s plenty more of Powell and Pressburger, so I too know where I’m going; straight to Helen Mirren (40 gorgeous years ago), Colonel Blimp and Canterbury.  

FoE4 is a good deal glitchier than I’d ever imagined it would be — podcasts next week, if the good lord’s willing and the creek don’t rise.  Like I said, glitchy.

19 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 2 Comments

A Boil to Lance

I spent the end of last week with two of Lance Weiler’s films, The Last Broadcast and Head Trauma.  No spoilers, nor plot-recitation here, but I’ve been thinking about a couple of points of reference in two transmedia horror-mysteries made with the very-direct involvement of a pillar of the transmedia community.

At the heart of both films, a deeply buried injustice leads to two different approaches to telling a mystery story: 

In The Last Broadcast, a character named David Lee is making a film about a multiple-murder involving the two hosts of a cheesy, cable-access television show called Fact or Fiction.  Lee’s process of telling the story frames a succession of concentric frames around the story-within-a-story-within-a-story…and each of those frames is distorted by the dissonant agendas of each of the successive, objective storytellers who’s controlling the frame of the story-telling.  The most obvious of these agendas belongs to the unseen team of prosecutors who hire a disinterested video editor who they charge to bolster their case with a rhetorical video argument that hangs responsibility for the murders on the defendant of their flimsy, circumstantial case. 

But (almost) each of the several storytellers interviewed in the course of David Lee’s documentary filters, edits, and distorts information to redefine and scramble the pilosophical opposition of fact and fiction.  It’s a fascinating film on numerous levels, some of which exceed the confines of internal narrative by leaching into the processes of making a digital film, distributing it independently and outside the parameters defined by conventional practice, and exhibiting at Cannes.  Go define “success”.

Head Trauma elevates guilt to the status of a central character, whose crucial influence throughout the film leads to a very Weiler-y notion (as the story ends with the protagonist’s next-door-neighbor drawing images in his bedroom that suggest that) the connections between people may be more substantial, valid and influential than we’re inclined to attribute to reality; more important than stuff that fits in our philosophies, Horatio.  The viewer’s imagination lingers on the possibility that Julian’s friendship with George just might demonstrate the faith that no man is an island of isolation, that responsibility for an old injustice is most mysteriously shared.

I wouldn’t dare to deem these metaphysical themes beyond the reach of a filmmaker whose defiance of convention, established practices and teams of influential naysayers has already made history.  Whether Julian Thompson shows up as a sequel-character in another of  Weiler’s films matters a whole lot less than that Lance is making films that boil furiously beneath the surface, depict in narrative cinema and in cinematic practice the minority belief that the processes of making connections between people are significantly more important than the product.

12 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

State of Play

Every character appearing in this 6episode BBC television series is a traitor.  And the greater the interval each character spends on screen is the rough index of exactly how complete, complex and intricate is the betrayal of  each one’s nexus of conflicted faiths.

One interesting and inevitable difference between the series and the movie resides in the difference between 127 minutes and slightly more than 300, but the television version is vastly more sophisticated and interesting because it questions practically everything in which the audience places its confidence, including the blameless innocence of the television audience that relishes celebrity scandal, corruption in high office, and juicy stories that betoken the fall of comercialized journalism into the valley of the shadow of Internet.

Both stories center on the strenuous intelligence efforts of crusading journalists to dig ever deeper through layers of misleading lies while ferretting out Absolute Truth.  The American version keeps the protagonists (mostly Russel Crowe) reasonably pristine and admirable as he fearlessly plunges into the corrupting fusion of Big Business with Big Government that’s localized, crystalized and focused on a personal story to which he’s intimately tied through friendship, personal history and covetous, romantic aspiration — Big Media’s also complicit, by the way.

The American version whitewashes the protagonist for an NC17 audience that doesn’t really need to know about the British version of Cal McCaffery’s realized erotic liaison with his former best friend’s wife and the innumerable instances in which he lies to practically everybody with whom he comes in contact (recording conversations, bluffing to achieve advantage, betraying every confidence and in the process resigning himself from a personal life) while chasing the tail of a really Big Story, as though they don’t always shoot the messenger, because they always do.

All of the people in the British version are versions of Dominic Foy, deceitful, comedic tool and moderately-competent intermediary for deceitful Higher Powers.  The public face of decency, particularly in Foy, is always a dubious cover for the increasingly obvious treacheries that teem beneath his twitchy exterior.  The transparencies of Dominic’s various poses make him the comic foil pushed by the crusading journalists, and pulled by the various aformentioned Higher Powers, to spill every last bit of his guts with a ridiculous reluctance that’s drawn out through the length of the series, and culminates in a pathetic symphony of bathos in which we clearly see ourselves.  The thing is that everyone else who appears in the series goes through the very same process of being compelled by external forces to spill the truths of their chosen melange of indiscretions.  That even applies to Sonia Baker, whose single, deliberate act of conscience results in her suicide/murder that gets the whole gigantic wrecking-ball started.

The tale of the unravelling of John Simm’s Cal McCaffery takes upwards of 300 minutes to tell, but it procedes with a dark and ominous inevitablility that dwarfs the crises of conscience illustrated by Russel Crowe.

The state of the art of double-dealing is exquisitely rendered in the longform version of State of Play (which concludes without a conspicuous, resounding thunderclap of private resolution), although I very much enjoyed the movie version that offers a shred of hope of redemption for a world that’s now run by…(wait for it, Dominic)…my everloving peers.

07 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 1 Comment

Transmedia As Pretext

Transmedia storytelling, as defined by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 book Convergence Culture, is storytelling across multiple forms of media with each element making distinctive contributions to a viewer/user/player’s understanding of the story world. By using different media formats, it attempts to create “entrypoints” through which consumers can become immersed in a story world. The aim of this immersion is decentralized authorship, or transmedial play as defined by Stephen Dinehart in his 2006 transmedia thesis project “Journey of Jin” at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

There are two prominent factors driving the growth of transmedia storytelling. The first is the proliferation of new media forms like video games, the internet, and mobile platforms and the demand for content in each. The second is an economic incentive for media creators to lower production costs by sharing assets. Transmedia storytelling often uses the principle of hypersociability. Transmedia storytelling is also sometimes referred to as multi modality, referring to using multi-modal representations to convey a complex story through numerous media sources.

Transmedia Storyteller, Jeff Gomez, defines it as “the art of conveying messages themes or storylines to mass audiences through the artful and well planned use of multiple media platforms.” Jeff furthers this explanation stating the following: “Most of us flow naturally from one medium to the next. Unfortunately most of our content doesn’t. Instead the stories are repurposed and repeated. They do not extend the franchise nor do they build brand equity. With transmedia, each part of story is unique and plays to the strengths of the medium. The result is a new kind of narrative where story flows across each platform forming a rich narrative tapestry that manifests in an array of products and multiple revenue streams. The audience is both validated and celebrated for participating in the story world through the medium of their choice.”

I lifted those three paragraphs directly from Wikipedia in order to riff on “bible” as the name for the masterplanning document that ties together all of the various media that constitute the continguous, immersive storyworld of a gargantuan transmedia narrative.  I think “score” is a significantly better word for at least the following reasons:
1.  A bible is a holy book that is not meant to be modified by anybody but God.  Ask anybody at FOX News, the Jerusalem of divisiveness.

2.  The unifying basis for hypersocial behavior is significantly less important than the act of unification.

3.  The conductor of a symphony orchestra leads dozens of musicians (with the aid of a score which documents the intended sequence of performance for players who are engaged with a wide variety of instrumentalities across variations in key, meter, mode and ambiance) to invoke the wholehearted and selfless participation of an otherwise passive audience; from auteur to superconductor.

If the evolution of transmedia entertainment relies on a biblical metaphor it will probably neglect or underserve the contribution of the audience to change a narrative course that’s set in stone.  I think it’s significantly more visionary to regard the narrative as plastic, even dispensible, when the masterplan is introduced to the vagaries of audience participation; the urtext is only a pretext for hypersocial interaction.  Symphonic orchestras rarely encourage members of the audience to rise in the aisles for inspired choruses of air-guitar virtuosity, but that’s exactly the kind of participation transmedia entertainments are designed to facilitate and nurture…unless the bible metaphor persists, which makes this new media model especially vulnerable to mercenary exploitation, literalist misinterpretation and irrational stumbling blocks of Biblical proportions.

The two-hour video at the other end of this link:

is introduced by Dr. David Thorburn who reappears 106minutes into the lively discussion with skeptical observations and invaluable advice about reinventing media.

The Milch/Thorburn conversation is here now:

01 Nov 09 Posted by | Uncategorized | | 7 Comments