Monday, January 11, 2010

My Favorite Movies of the...what?

Well, when Eric Burns gets back to updating his blog regularly, I know it's time for me to get off the stick, so here goes:

Remember Veruca Salt?

No, not the band, though if I was more of a music aficionado, there might be an interesting post there, too.

No, I'm talking about the character from Roald Dahl's book, truly immortalized by Julie Dawn Cole's portrayal of her in the 1971 film adaptation of Dahl's book. The bratty, spoiled kid who meets a fitting end at the climax of the show-stopping song "I Want It All" by being identified as a 'bad egg' and sent into the factory's incinerator.

I was reminded of Miss Salt's character just over ten years ago, when the Year 2000 was approaching, and the air was filled with excitement about the imminent arrival of the 'new millennium'. I could understand that most folks probably didn't realize that Arthur Clarke had named his own famous S.F. book "2001: A Space Odyssey" specifically because 2001 would be the start of the third millennium, at least according to the Gregorian calendar. I could even get that most folks, blinded by the sight of so many zeroes in the upcoming year, wouldn't stop to consider that, since there was no Year Zero, the first millennium (had the Gregorian calendar existed then) would have started in Year One.

What I couldn't quite stomach was the insistence with which these people wanted to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Year 2000 would still be the start of the new millennium. It seemed petulant to me, as if people were saying, "I don't want to wait another whole year to celebrate the start of the millennium. I want my new millennium NOW!" Eventually I learned to just scowl at those folks, because after all, how many new millennia have I had the chance to experience for myself? It was a big enough deal that arguing seemed somehow to lessen the moment.

Then we reached the end of 2009, and I started noticing a flurry of retrospectives intended to recap the past decade at the start of a new one. Wha? Every argument that applied to 2000 not being the start of a new millennium applies to 2010 not being the start of a new decade. In addition, it's not as though people are missing out on new decades -- even short-lived adults get to see two or three before passing into the great void.

There's another point to be made about decades, though -- a Millennium has a certain connotation, just as a Century does. But a decade is, in some sense, just a period of ten years. So I thought I might wait a few years, then post a retrospective of the past decade: 2004-2013. It'd be just as valid as any other decade-wide retrospective, and would even make a snarky point about how people seem to feel about the turn of this decade.

In this case, though, there's another justification that can be used; in 2000, most people didn't have blogs that demanded regular content updates. So in that spirit, and because I need any excuse I can take to update my own long-neglected blog, I'll present my 10 favorite movies of the past this point, going from 2001 through today.

Ground rules: I'm only posting movies I've actually seen, thus can count among my favorites. I'm also going to avoid movies released in 2000, but I'll have an Honorable Mention at the end for one that would make the list if I was going with the seemingly-common interpretation of 'decade' as it's being used in the retrospectives I'm rebelling against.

10. Presto (2008)

You might not remember this one by name, or if you do, you might think it's a bit of a cop-out. "Presto" was the Pixar short film that played before "WALL-E" (about which, see more below).

Why I liked it

Two reasons, mainly:

1. The filmmakers gave an associate producer's credit to the late Jay Ward, creator of some of my favorite childhood cartoons (which, in retrospect, were a bit too subversive to be really targeted at children).

2. The film is itself a primer in the art of fantasy and SF storytelling, perhaps one of the best out there, despite not having a single word of actual dialogue.

Point two is going to require a bit of additional explanation, I can tell.

A lot is made of the idea that the fundamental ingredient of story is conflict, and a lot should be made. If your story has no conflict, it's not really a story -- it might be a well-crafted fictional essay, but if nothing happens in the sense of someone accomplishes something despite the resistance of some force or person trying to prevent that thing from happening, then all you have is an essay on utopia.

"Presto" presents a rabbit, whom we see at the beginning of the story trying to reach a carrot just out of his reach. He's hungry. Basic, understandable human need, and that the character is an anthropomorphized rabbit doesn't change our ability to empathize with his plight. The magician enters the room (in a nice touch, the magician has clearly just finished eating, as he wipes his mouth and licks his fingers as he enters), then suddenly realizes how late it's gotten and begins preparing for his performance by checking on the magical hat that makes him the 'amazing' magician that we saw written on the wall at the opening, while listening to the grunts of the poor rabbit trying to reach his own dinner. The magician tests his 'rabbit out of a hat' trick, then is just about to feed the rabbit when a knock on the door tells him that the performance is starting. Racing out to the stage without feeding the rabbit, the fundamental conflict in the story is thus established:

The magician wants to get through his act, and the rabbit wants dinner. Everything that happens from here on out is an escalation of this basic conflict to an energetic climax, with the occasional quick aside to make a joke about the situation.

Where does the SF/fantasy angle come in? Because of a premise in SF storytelling that the reader will give you one freebie in compositing your world. In "Presto", this is the MacGuffin of the magical hat, without which the action wouldn't be possible. Tricky stuff happens with the hat, but everything else follows from that basic 'gimme' premise.

(Those who might be inclined to argue that the anthropomorphic rabbit counts as another thing the audience must be willing to accept aren't necessarily wrong, but this is actually covered by the film being animated: one of the expected tropes of animation is that things like animals, plants, and even mechanical objects can have sentience and act like a character. Had the filmmakers tried to use a live rabbit and have it act the way the animated 'Alec' does, the story wouldn't have worked.)

Next time you're stuck trying to figure out where your story needs to go, ask yourself: which character is Alec and which is Presto, and whose turn is it to escalate the conflict? And if you can't answer that question, consider re-working your story until you can.

Next time: number nine!

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