Arrival and Some of Its Layers

We start today by talking about layers. I like layers existing in certain things – cake, bricks, geological strata – but spent a great deal of my life thinking that when you mention layers around any kind of art, that it immediately becomes the cue for pretentious wankery and arrogance to emerge to show you how smart other people can be while showing how clearly smart you’re not.

People would bring up the idea that this book or that film or the painting over there would have layers and I’d nod and make very agreeable sounds, really just in an effort to make them stop talking. It’s not that I couldn’t see all the layers, I just wasn’t very interested in getting that deep into what have been a very one comedy or nice piece of desktop wallpaper.

This changed a great deal over the last few years when I started getting my hands dirtier in story structure and developmental editing, because “layers” (the concept) had layers to it, and once you get past the part where people want to tell you something  some tweed-sucking academic once told them something in an airy tone that they later used to try and get a dry handjob in a closet from someone in their dorm, you see that layers are coiled springs of potential energy – the ability to convey information in a concentrated form without overtly stating it repeatedly.

I’ve seen Arrival 3 times now, it has layers, and I’d like to talk about them. In no way am I saying these are the only layers, these are just the ones I’ve seen in my 3 times. I absolutely encourage to go check it out for yourself. And before we go onward, yes, there are spoilers here, because it’s going to be impossible for me to mention these layers without giving away some plot elements for context. Don’t ever let spoilers dissuade you from checking something out, learning what Point B is when you’re at Point A still leaves you to discover the route, and still lets you draw your own conclusions as to how you felt.

Layer 1 – Challenging the traditional sci-fi organization

Arrival is a great movie. It’s enjoyable. It’s visually engaging. It’s got great acting. It’s well edited. The soundtrack is cool. Past that, it does a really interesting job in taking on one of the major elements in alien/monster-encounter media, the knowledge-malevolence axis (that’s not its real name, it’s named after a lady who wrote about it in the ’60s, I think her name started with an R, I cannot remember it, but we’re gonna talk about it as the axis because that’s what my notes have)

The knowledge-malevolence axis is the measure of how the alien or monster (also called “a creature” when you go back to B-films), regardless of whether they’re a time-traveling murder robot from the dystopic future, or they’re a benevolent water mirage, or a Xenomorph or Mr Hyde or whatever, interacts in a positive way with the humans in the media.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to rack up a body count, they rank higher in malevolence, because there’s no “positive” interaction, the humans don’t gain anything from the experience except possibly not dying.

If you want the audience to assume the alien’s purpose is to help or challenge humanity, then they’re not aggressive, and in fact are represented as smarter than humanity.

The shorthand is “as intelligence grows, body count drops”

Traditionally, if your aliens are straight-up murder factories, their intelligence isn’t really developed as a story point past whatever utility it serves in making the body count rise. They’ve got to smart enough to trap, fight, and kill humans, period.

And if your aliens are super geniuses with a mission, they don’t have to murder anyone, and don’t pursue that unless the antagonist of the film ends up meeting their end via tentacle, mental power or nifty CG.

Arrival smartly packages the knowledge-malevolence axis not in the aliens, but in the humans.

In the film, all the violence (from an aborted bombing to some tanks, helicopters and I think threatened missiles) is human-generated. Because the movie smartly points out that in the absence of a traditional alien antagonist that bleeds so we can kill it, we default back onto our second greatest fear – inferiority.

This tension is so often discarded in alien media. We see some uniformed guy questioning the protagonists as to the alien’s intentions, some lasers go off, and sure enough we know the alien’s intentions to invite us all to the dead body pile.

Here the uniformed guys take that same stance, but no lasers go off. So … they wait for the lasers to go off. And no lasers ever go off. But we have to assert some kind of toughness, so we’re ready with all this military bluster. The tension is one of humanity’s design.

So there’s no body count, there’s no overt threat (we’ll get there in the next layer), so what kind of alien-encounter film is this?

It isn’t. It’s a character study, there just happen to be aliens in it as vehicles for that study.

Onto the next layer.

Layer 2- Narrative Toolbox

I think we need to do just a little plot and character setup here. Our protagonist is a linguist (Amy Adams should get an award), and she’s recruited by the military to work on figuring out what our aliens are saying, so that we can figure out if there’s going to be a body count. She’s partnered with a physicist (because you can’t have a science fiction movie without science), and the pair of them go figure out how to talk to aliens.

It’s worth pointing out here that 2 things become pretty clear: first, our protagonist has an easier time talking to aliens than people (and not in that overused Aspergers-is-a-superpower-way), and second, that this is a movie about what people say and what it means. Now before we get to how the alien language is fucking super rad, we need to lens this movie through the idea of communication. Who has what to say, and what does it mean?

Our protagonist has to, on a plot level, figure out what the aliens are saying.
Our protagonist has to, on a secondary level, figure out what her visions/dreams/thoughts mean (they grow progressively more intense as a b-plot and bookends in the film)

The aliens have to, on a plot level, communicate a particular set of ideas to the humans.
The aliens, have to, on a secondary level, validate a decision they make that’s not immediately apparent or stated to anyone else (we’re gonna talk about it, hang on)

The army has to, on a plot level, interpret the alien actions and take appropriate response.

Communication is the primary currency in power dynamics. It doesn’t matter if we communicate through words, gestures, asses getting kicked, or dance offs (dances off … is like courts martial and surgeons general?), characters communicate with the intention of either maintaining or changing a power dynamic.

Our protagonist has a unique position in the film – she’s subordinate in every power dynamic she is a part of, but she never loses agency and is a pro-active character for the majority of the film.

It’s her actions that lead to alien conversation. Her actions that resolve military tension. And ultimately her actions that end the film on brilliant gutpunch. She’s got agency for miles, and she uses it.

The other element in communication is about the distribution of information that we communicate. We know that based on the shapes of symbols we see as letters, and the sounds we know to associate with them, that a few lines and dots turn into words. And we know that because of where a word is in a sentence, it has a certain importance and value to the information we’re trying to convey.

For example:

My dog is asleep on the couch means you picture my dog, being asleep, on a couch, in that order.

When we jumble those words up (not change the words, just their positions, the package of information doesn’t make sense.

The on dog couch my is asleep isn’t something we understand based on how we’ve come to interpret language. Left to right, finding nouns, verbs, prepositions, and all that.  (I’m way simplifying the study of word order typology here)

Yes, foreign language readers, many languages either operate as subject-object-verb as well as subject-verb-object, so you can tumble that sentence around and see how it comes out in Korean or Quechua for instance and still makes reasonable sense to both eye and ear.

Now we get into something a little deeper. Let’s talk about embedding, because it’s part of the alien language and it’s one of the two primary elements that tie the protagonist and the big story question together (the other being the last 2 minutes of the film)

Embedding is the idea that you take an idea that can’t stand on its own (a clause) and you nest it like one of those Russian dolls in and around other clauses within a sentence. You bury the idea not to obscure it (at least not intentionally), you bury it to give it a context.

Like this:

The man that the woman heard left.

To dissect this, you’ve got some unpacking to do:

  1. “left” refers to a past tense verb, not the directional
  2. A marker like “that” should clue you in to find the next nearest verb (“heard” in this case) and consider that to be a clause on its own.

So, if we were going to visually organize this sentence it’ll turn into

The man || that the woman heard || left.

You can, rightfully for the sake of parsing, chop the sentence down to “The man left.”

But what about that clause, what about “that the woman heard”, it’s important, right? It gives a context in addition to us pictured an absent dude, yeah?

Yes, it is important. If we’re establishing that what happened to the person she heard is more important than the fact that she heard him at all, it’s super important (because the sentence ends with “left”, meaning his absence is the last thing we take before going forward). And if we’re establishing a contrast between people the woman did and didn’t hear, the it’s super important because it distinguishes one man from another.

Embedding as an unconscious writing practice (where we shoehorn in all kinds of stuff because it’s important but we’re not really sure where to put it but we don’t want to lose it so it has to go somewhere) is one of the most comment manuscript murderers that I see at Parvus. It’s a congestion of information that makes it difficult to follow along and develop the intended mental picture.

Embedding as a conscious writing practice, being deliberate in the packaging of an idea inside similar ideas, is a great way to add layers inside sentences, or put another way, layers inside layers.

This is like a turducken quesorito, which sounds gross now that I’ve written it out.

So why did I have to lay out embedding? Because it’s central to the other big part of the narrative stuff here – embedding allows for non-linear development.

If you can package an idea within a sentence, and then take that sentence and put in a paragraph, and that whole paragraph creates a picture in the reader’s head, and that picture is shaped by context of all the other surrounding pictures, then it won’t matter what time this or that piece came into the mix if you’re already looking at the whole ensemble.

Back to the plot – the visions our protagonist has are due to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (no not the Klingon), which says that language either determines or at least influences thought, meaning that immersion in a material produces thoughts and therefore dreams in that material (like when you listen to the Moana soundtrack enough times you start thinking about being a voyager).  These visions are dreamlike, but they’re revelations of her future. The conceit of the alien language, the semagram nature of it and its ability to be embedded with information means that time is no longer constrained linearly, as in you can reach point C from point A even though B in the future that hasn’t happened yet is known to you and tells you how to do it.

Armed with future knowledge, she can take actions in the present to make sure the future happens.

Relevant to the subject of her visions (a dying child and a broken relationship), we go down one more level.

Level 3 Terminality

This is the level where I cried. I have zero shame in saying that, because it’s rare that I find this sort of idea expressed in a satisfying way that’s not playing completely for maudlin necessity. No one’s dying a noble sacrifice, no one’s dying to complete prophecy, people just … die. And it sucks, and it hurts.

So, you’re our protagonist, you find out that after you deal with these aliens, you’re gonna end up in a relationship, have a daughter, then lose that daughter early. The question then is – why have the daughter if you know how it ends? (See how this parallels to our spoilers mention up top?)

Our protagonist says yes, and we the audience take an uppercut to the breadbasket over it because we’re immediately shown the title and end credits. She knows what’s coming, she accepts it anyway. It’s gonna suck, but that’s her choice.

This isn’t a movie about aliens teaching us about linguistic relativity. This is a movie about embracing life and making decisions knowing that it will end in something more pointed than “everybody dies.” This is a movie about communicating and sharing that information even though it has consequences.

Her relationship ends not because the daughter dies, but because she knew the daughter was going to die and she didn’t tell her husband. Did he have a right to know? Would he have said yes to having the daughter or the relationship if he knew?

And likewise, if you needed there to be the daughter (Point C from the above layer) without the daughter how could you have reached Point B at all?

What we’re left with at this level is the question of knowing the future and allowing it to impact the present. To me, for me, that’s a big giant shout-out to terminal illness. Granted, I’m biased, but hey this is my blog and I’m me, but knowing the future absolute influences the present in positive and negative ways.

It’s great motivation for finally accomplishing dreams. It’s terrible reckoning as to the reality that a pet will likely outlive you. It’s great for encouraging a change in character, and woeful for coming to terms with just how awful that character was.

But it’s not all bad, just like it’s not all good. In Arrival, she got to have that relationship and a daughter, for a little while at least. Yeah, you can argue that it was unfair to be taken away so short, or that it was her own fault for inciting it all, but … she still had it, and it had to have some good moments, right?

And for me, yeah, it can suck knowing that there’s a finish line to the marathon I only recently starting caring about participating in, but I’m still running (well, ambling, I mean, shit, I’ve got bronchial pneumonia at the moment) and I’m not done yet.

It has good moments. And you hold onto them and you use them as raft, bumper car, touchstone, lighthouse, reference point, and starlight to get you through the bad moments.

Go watch this movie. Please. And then go create things.


Happy creating.

What The F Did I Just Watch – Batman V Superman

Note: I am about to talk about a movie that is still in theaters. I will do my best to avoid spoilers that aren’t otherwise available in the trailers or in the reviews

Note #2: I am about to give my opinion on a variety of topics. It is possible that we, dear reader, won’t agree.

I can count on three fingers the number of movies I have walked out of, and I can now count on one finger the number of movies where I have asked for my money back. At the time I write this, I am 55 minutes removed from leaving Batman V Superman (hereafter BVS) during what I suspect was its third act. Maybe, hopefully that was the third act, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

On the ride home, I struggled to compose this blogpost. Not because I had no place to start, but that I had so many potential elements to discuss. To that end, I’ve divided this discussion into three parts: characters, plot, and writing.

Let’s detail the major characters, as well as some of the minor ones.

Superman – Ostensibly, this is a Superman movie. I mean, he’s the established property already, and everything new is being added to his material. That said, I can’t say I saw a lot of Superman in a Superman movie. Sure the actor was there, and I saw his CGI version doing stuff, but Superman wasn’t really there. See, Superman (like all the comic book characters), represents an ideal that we the readers can project ourselves towards. We see these characters and we are inspired, firing our youthful imaginations one more time until we tie towels around our necks and fight the badguys.

What Superman represents is the best and idealized version of “doing the right thing.” He’s the Big Blue Boy Scout for a reason, and he is empowered (literally) with all the best traits. Granted, this makes him exponentially over-powered to handle mundane problems, as his superiority does place him in a deific position, and this movie is fat with religious imagery.

Wait no, it’s not just fat. It’s so packed with images of ascension, silhouettes of light, and light over darkness, that I ‘m surprised Jerry Springer didn’t appear to saw off part of the house it lives in and drive it on a flatbed truck during sweeps week. Again though, I’m getting ahead of myself

Because he possesses such an increased power, it’s hard for conventional plots to challenge him. (The old joke about Superman standing still while getting shot, but ducking to avoid the gun? It’s so the actor wouldn’t get hit in the face.) This is why you need to give Superman a global threat as a challenge. This is particularly true in the Snyder universe, where Superman is only the Man of Tomorrow if your tomorrow includes building demolition and eye lasers.

Batman – I have a deep love for Batman. Of late, that love has been wrecked by video games, advocating that Batman be Batman behind the wheel of a tank during timed missions, rather than the predator of criminals from the shadows. Gone are the detective and ninja, replaced with a cowled gladiator and his large weapon inventory.

Affleck as Batman was a risky choice. He completely shit the mattress store as Daredevil, but that was ten years and two huge relationships ago. Here, Affleck’s Batman has seen some shit go down, and I would go see an Affleck-Batman movie. The Batman movie within this movie was actually enjoyable, to a point.

And that point is exactly the thing that soured me on digital Batman – the video game-esque antics, where Batman can press LB + Triangle, or LB+Square and deal a whole lot of damage to one guy, but can’t quite press Triangle twice to get past a damned knife guy.

Side note: If you’re the sort of person who’s about to say, “Well Batman isn’t a very good/interesting character, because he’s a psychopath.”are you suggesting that psychopaths aren’t interesting or that we shouldn’t be showing characters who aren’t psychopathic on-screen? How is that not stigmatizing mental health? That’s not very social justice-y of you. Batman’s premised on the idea of trauma and his extreme coping strategies. Also, it’s fiction. Lighten up, Francis.

For as deific as Superman is built, Batman is our everyman, assuming every man is infinitely wealthy and trained across multiple disciplines to near-perfection. But still, he’s not flying around and shooting eye lasers, so he’s at least slightly more credible. It’s too bad we have no idea what his motivations are, but that will come up later.

Wonder Woman – Oh, goody, we’re at the part of the blogpost where I’m going to ruffle feathers. How you ask:

With this sentence: Wonder Woman is Superman with boobs.

Meaning she’s the immortal daughter of the gods, imbued with powers and equipment that mortal man (even Batman) doesn’t have access to. She’s in this movie because DC has elected to truncate the Universe-building down a movie or two, rather than a patient decade of quality cinema, barring Thor 2 and Iron Man 2.

She’s also here to break up the superpower sausagefest, and girl power. I’m aware that as a man, I’m not supposed to say she looks good in her outfit, but she looks good in her outfit, and she’s got all the moves down: bracelets, sword, shield. She’s hollow.

Great, she can show up in the third act (she’s present in the rest of the movie, but only to do what some reviews called ‘flirting’, and she gets an email in the second act, but we’ll talk about that), and “save the boys.” Yawn. Give her a standalone movie. The internet needs more things to criticize, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.

Lois Lane – I’m pretty sure she was central to the first Superman movie. She suffers from Gandalf Syndrome, meaning she is the instigator and resolver of her own problems. She’s also the female romantic lead, and she’s got lines and everything.

Lex Luthor – Now in the comics, Luthor is an omnipresent force. He becomes President. he builds a powersuit. He’s Gene Hackman. He has a vast intellect and clear badguy motivations. Aside from some tics and a penchant to dress like he’s a Columbia undergrad, I’m not really sure what the Snyderverse Lex Luthor has. At one point in the film, I can’t tell if he’s wearing a bathrobe or a trenchcoat. He suffers from plot o’clock, which I’ll talk about further down in this post.

Okay, I could easily recap the plot for you, but the clearest route takes us right through Spoiler Town. I’d like to avoid doing that, so I’m going to say that if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve got the plot. You don’t have all the vestigial pieces, but you’ve got the bulk of it. Basically, superhero fights superhero for reasons. Stuff happens, for more reasons, then other stuff happens for reasons.

If you want a clearer explanation, so do I. I watched this movie while wide awake, sitting in a center aisle seat, in 3-D. I have no idea why people did what they did. I mean, I know the immediate reason of “the script says so”, but if we’re doing that thing where we assume these characters are real people, I couldn’t find a lot of expressed or explained motivations.

It was incoherent. But it was that sort of pretty incoherence, where the visuals and color palette cover the magician’s act. Snyder waves a CGI wand, and the good story disappears.

Here’s where I can deconstruct the film without giving specifics. Since you know we’re talking about this film, and I’ve already set the table above, I hope you’ll indulge me with a few paragraphs of disjointed commentary.

“Plot O’Clock” is a pacing and momentum problem that means time is malleable, and not in the Doctor Who sense. In Plot O’Clock, things take as long as they need to, even with a literal timer in a scene. The action occurs within 3 chronal planes: The amount of time it takes to watch as an audience; the amount of time relevant to the danger (see literal timer); and the amount of time spent actually doing things. An example of this would be setting a timer to have someone killed, and having it tick down while a hero fights their way through an army of people. As an audience, we’ll watch this for 5 minutes. The timer may tick down 10 minutes, and the hero dispatches the army in one combo, about 17 moves long.

The audience 5 minutes is not the same as 17 moves as 10 minutes of threat timer. I’m not suggesting all movies need to be in realtime, but if you’re going to introduce a time-based threat, keep that threat relevant. Make the potential failure matter. Even if all you need to do is press LB+Circle, LB+Triangle, and L2 a few times.

Cute Dialogue is another area where tension gets saturated. Comedy beats can teach us about character relationships, they can lighten mood, they can even advance plot, but placing them like hinges in the middle of action beats neuters the action beat. Let’s suppose you have that plot o’clock problem from before, where a hero fights to rescue a character. They fight through that army … to do what? Make a joke? Quip? It undermines the tension. It’s a wink and nod to the audience. Why not just break the fourth wall and give a big salesman smile with a lens flare off a bicuspid? Judicious use of comedy can underscore the relationship that is currently being tested or established via the action beat. Think of the buddy cop movie. Two cops crack wise to each other in a show of solidarity and friendship, and having that relationship be greater than the yakuza currently shooting at them.

Essentially an ensemble superhero movie is a series of relationships, where the powers and abilities augment those relationships. (See Civil War). It’s not just a measuring contest of empowered genitals and suits. Your heroes need not look like bad art.They need to be people, even if the audience cannot completely relate to them in all aspects. (And I’d argue that no character is perfect in that regard).

Metaphor and Allusion clog up story pretty quickly. Sure, it can be smart and helpful to draw parallels stylistically and narratively, but do it too often and you’re just diddling yourself. A reader deserves better than a bloat of imagery and reinforced theme in dialogue. Yes, he’s a god. Yes, gods and devils are a really easy binary to establish. Yes, man-god-devil is an age-old convention you can play safe. The reason that triune works is because the reader is often on man’s side. The least powered and the most tempted. But Superman is the christ-figure, and badguys therefore have to be the devils, so who exactly is man in this three-way? Not Batman. He’s touted as just as powerful, and he’s in power armor for about fifteen minutes. Don’t worry though, it vanishes pretty quick once he starts flying the Batplane.

Unclear Motivations will ruin any creative effort. Why are characters doing whatever they’re doing? Worse still, do they have to say out loud what they’re doing so the audience can follow along? This isn’t a team of thieves mapping the heist with miniatures. This is Bob saying to Sally, “I’m going to the kitchen to get a sorbet and then I’m walking to the couch and clipping my raptor claw toenails.”

Motivations are built in strata, through a combination of actions, consequences, and decisions. Characters know why they’re doing things, because they’re doing them. Other characters should be able to deduce why other characters are doing things, and dialogue can be a reaction to that. The thinking behind the decisions should be understandable, even and especially when the actions taken are out of the audience’s abilities (as in, I’m going to fly away either by superpower or weaponized plane). Audiences should be able to see why characters are doing things because they’re SHOWN the process of reaching that point, not just TOLD that X needs to happen.

Telling hurts motivation. It’s the villain monologue that allows the hero to escape. It’s the stomped on cliches of daddy issues, jealousy, uninteresting vague want for power, and because cooties.

Showing builds motivations. Show us disappointment with failure. Show us friendship through partnership. Show us hope through action, and confirm all this via soundtrack. I know, it’s not that easy, but it can be damn sure better than the movie I watched.

Did it have any good parts? Yes. It was pretty. It looked good. The product placement was obvious, but tasteful. The outfits looked comic book. The explosions looked large and not so rubbery or watery. The side characters like Ma Kent, Kevin Costner, Perry White, and that guy from the Blacklist are applied fairly effectively for world-building.

The soundtrack felt a little bit Mad-Max-and yay-we-have-Wonder-Woman power chords to me. It wasn’t screechy, but it didn’t hit all the emotional notes the way Man of Steel made you want to wear the towel and run around, and the Nolan soundtracks invited you to sail over the city while yelling at movie crew to get out of your light.

I know a lot of people have talked about how you don’t have to go see it, you don’t have to support the film, but without viewing the material and developing your own opinion, how can we have any discourse?

I’ll see you guys Wednesday, where InboxWednesday has a GREAT question about dialogue. See you then.

Happy writing.