Using Viktor Shklovsky

My hero.

[This post began as a response to some comments made by Douglas Storm on Amber's most recent post.]

The name “Viktor Shklovsky” comes up a lot at this site (I’m guilty of mentioning it in perhaps half of my posts), and one might wonder why the man and his work matters. Below, I’ll try and lay out what Viktor Shklovsky has done for me, and what he might be able to do for you, too! Because Shklovsky might be the single most interesting and, above all else, useful critic I’ve ever encountered…

Continue reading

A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: X-Men: First Class

X-Men: First Class.

A D: Much like how you hated The Tree of Life, Jeremy, I hated Bryan Singer’s two X-Men films. Hated them!

Jeremy: What, seriously? They made you physically ill?

Yes, seriously, ill. I would have gnawed my own arm off to escape, if it hadn’t meant forfeiting my malt balls.
Continue reading

An Interview with Me at Untoward

just went up—well, Part One did, in which Matt Rowan asks me questions about my first book (Amazing Adult Fantasy), G.I. Joe, geek culture, Ota Benga, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and bad writing habits; we also discuss Curtis White, Theodor Adorno, Viktor Shklovsky, and ninjas, among other things.

[Update: Part Two, which focuses more on my first novel, Giant Slugs, is now up.]

A D & Jeremy Talk about Movies: Source Code, Moon, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

[You click this link, you go back to the first installment, which found me and Jeremy unable to get service at an Applebee’s, following a screening of Duncan Jones’s Source Code. Increasingly hungry, increasingly desperate, we debated the nutritional value of our napkins and tablecloths, before Jeremy remembered that Applebee’s coats all such textiles in an indigestible plastic (to prevent sullen teenagers from rending or defiling them). Our gazes fell upon the Awesome Blossoms sizzling on our various neighbors’ tables.]

A D: Let’s keep talking about movies; it’ll distract us.

Jeremy: Capital! I liked Source Code better than Thor, I’d say (though not so much as Ang Lee or Bill Bixby’s Hulks). Because Source Code is a nice little movie. Though not as nice or little as Moon, Duncan Jones’s debut.

Continue reading

“Is Your Villain Appropriate?”—Examining Character Construction in Different Media

"Phyrexian Ironfoot" (2006). Artwork by Stephan Martiniere. Copyright Wizards of the Coast.

Every Monday, I read Mark Rosewater’s weekly column “Making Magic,” partly because I have a casual interest in the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering (I once played it, and some of my friends still play it), but mainly because Rosewater routinely offers great insights into aesthetics and game design. (He’s also a strong writer who regularly experiments with his column’s form.)

In an article published a few weeks back, Rosewater outlines why he thinks one of Magic’s villains, the Phyrexians, are that game’s best. As is typical with Rosewater, it boils down to a design principle—in this case, how the game operates narratively:

As a story-telling venue, Magic is best when it is telling what I call environmental stories. That is, the best thing Magic can show off creatively is an environment. The genre of a trading card game requires that you show lots of creatures and places and objects. This does a good job of showing off a diverse environment.

The Weatherlight Saga [a series of much older sets] was an attempt for us to tell a plot driven story through card sets. What we learned from that is that it’s very hard when we can’t control the order that players see the cards to convey traditional plotting. [...] What Magic is good at is telling stories about changes that happen on an environmental level. This way the changes aren’t seen on a single card but a wide swath of cards. When we tell a story in another medium, we will tell a story that plays to that medium’s strength. Card sets, though, have to tell stories that can be told through card sets.

One of the reasons that I believe the Phyrexians make a perfect villain is that they attack on an environmental level. Take Scars of Mirrodin [one of the game's most recent sets] as an example. The attack of the Phyrexians isn’t something seen on a single card but on many, many cards [...]. My contention is that Magic’s best villain is one that works in the kind of stories that Magic (the card sets) can tell.

In a basic sense, Rosewater is advocating that an author tell a story appropriate to his or her medium—age-old advice. But let’s look beyond that simple rule of thumb: What does it mean for a story to be appropriate? And what are the consequences for characters?

Continue reading

My Favorite New Movies of 2010

I changed my mind! I loved it!

Hello and welcome to 2011. Time to make a list of what I liked and didn’t like in 2010. A word though first: I don’t consider the following definitive; I’m not trying to pronounce some final judgment on each of the following films. In ten year’s time, I might feel very differently about these movies; who knows? But I think it’s worthwhile to document one’s critical impressions, and I’d encourage you to check out the films I liked (if you value my opinion).

For comparison’s sake, here’s my 2009 list [and 2011 is here]. One correction I’d make now: I saw Jane Campion’s Bright Star a second time, and it’s become one of my favorite films of 2009 (alongside Beaches of Agnes and Face).

Like last year’s list, the following is divided into three parts: my absolute favorite new films, other films that I liked, and the ones that did little or nothing for me. Without further ado…

Continue reading

Schrödinger’s Laura

I had a stray thought recently about Otto Preminger’s classic 1944 noir Laura (1944), based on Vera Caspary’s 1943 novel of the same name. The film’s first half revolves around the murder of the title character, although of course it’s more complicated than that. And I’d like to argue that it’s slightly more complicated than even that, owing to a quality that’s perhaps inherent in plot itself.

(This contains spoilers—although, as we shall see, they may not spoil much of anything…)

Continue reading

Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception (AKA, All Knowledge Isn’t Equal)

Let’s consider the truth behind advertising.

[This can be considered a response to this post, and its comments thread.]

1.

You’ve just become the fiction editor of a small journal. You open your email and see that you’ve received 1,000 unsolicited submissions. The first ten were sent by:

  • Carlos Shirley
  • Jeanne Goss
  • Jack Livingston
  • Christine Stribling
  • Melissa Mathieu
  • Benjamin Tatro
  • Tao Lin
  • Ryan Monk
  • Naomi Foltz
  • Matthew Orosco

Which one do you open and read first?

Continue reading

More on Inception: Shot Economy and 1 + 1 = 1

Some good questions came up in the comments section of my lengthy Inception critique (“Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception), and I thought it made the most sense to respond to them with a new post. So let’s wade back into Limbo, shall we…

Continue reading

Scott Pilgrim vs. Inception for the Future of the Cinematic Imagination

Fight!

Regarding my impassioned critique of Inception, many have asked me: “What could Nolan have done differently?” Which is one way of asking: “What could he have done that you would have liked?”

At first my response was along the lines of, “Well, not doing the things he did”—but that’s flippant. And so I next tried answering that question more specifically here, by analyzing a scene from The Princess Bride—an entirely conventional scene, but one that displays a wit and a charm—an imagination—that’s wholly lacking in Inception. In that post, I quoted Viktor Shklovsky:

There is indeed such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the rhythm of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” They represent today’s task in the theory of rhythm. We have good reasons to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.

…following which I wrote:

In other words: Yes, art proceeds by means of familiar conventions and devices (otherwise we wouldn’t understand it). However, each time, those conventions and devices must be made to feel new and fresh—otherwise, we won’t be having an artistic experience. The challenge confronting the artist is how to reinvigorate what so many others have already done. (And you can’t just make a list of ways to do that, because then those techniques would lose their power.)

But what does this really mean? Below, I’ll try to answer that by way of another film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Continue reading

Pop’s Beautiful Blankness

I wanted to add something to Tim’s recent post “On Pop Songs,” where he wrote:

Part of the magic of pop songs is their blankness as texts. How, with their generic sentiments, and accessible melodies that rapidly signal which emotion they’re meant to represent, they are easily appropriated. You know, like — ” Omigod, omigod, she’s totally singing about me.”And the best pop singers are the ones who know how to deliver this sentiment as though they’re singing directly to you. [...] As storytelling, pop songs often lack particularities of character, setting, etc. They are built around abstract sentiments. They suggest more than they reveal. They are customizable.

I agree, and want to take this idea a bit further.

Continue reading

Art as Device, and Device (When it Works) as Miracle (or, The Princess Bride vs. Inception)

"Have fun watching Inception, Adam!" "You think he'll like it?" "It would take a miracle."

In my recent criticism of Inception, I took Mr. Nolan to task for his inelegant use of screenwriting devices, such as his endless reliance on (often irrelevant) exposition. Some took objection to this. (See the comment thread here, also.)

To clarify: the problem is not the device, but the clumsy, bare-boned way in which it’s executed. A friend of mine said—and I wholeheartedly agree—that Nolan is simply shameless. This is what I mean when I call him artless. As Viktor Shklovsky put it in his great essay “Art as Device”:

There is indeed such a thing as “order” in art, but not a single column of a Greek temple fulfills its order perfectly, and artistic rhythm may be said to exist in the rhythm of prose disrupted. Attempts have been made by some to systematize these “disruptions.” They represent today’s task in the theory of rhythm. We have good reasons to suppose that this systemization will not succeed. This is so because we are dealing here not so much with a more complex rhythm as with a disruption of rhythm itself, a violation, we may add, that can never be predicted. If this violation enters the canon, then it loses its power as a complicating device.

In other words: Yes, art proceeds by means of familiar conventions and devices (otherwise we wouldn’t understand it). However, each time, those conventions and devices must be made to feel new and fresh—otherwise, we won’t be having an artistic experience. The challenge confronting the artist is how to reinvigorate what so many others have already done. (And you can’t just make a list of ways to do that, because then those techniques would lose their power.)

Continue reading

Seventeen Ways of Criticizing Inception

Truth in advertising.

Update: Related posts that may interest you:

1.

Christopher Nolan, while presumably a rather likable fellow (he does give work to Michael Caine), is a depressingly artless filmmaker. To be sure, some of the concepts in this new one are clever enough (even if they play like weak snatches from Philip K. Dick): the military developed shared dreaming, which then became a tool for corporate espionage—sure thing. The great Dom Cobb and his team now must infiltrate a businessperson’s mind in order to plant the seed of an idea, rather than steal one—a nice enough twist, and a fine enough premise for a caper.

But Nolan then fails to dramatize his concepts. His primary—indeed, practically his only—tool for delivering information to the audience is character dialogue. Rarely does anyone shut his or her mouth during the 148 minutes that are Inception. Its actors are talking threadbare ciphers, eager mouthpieces for their director.

Examples abound. After failing in their mission to deceive Saito, Cobb remarks to his teammate Arthur: “We were supposed to deliver Saito’s expansion plans to Cobol Engineering two hours ago. By now they know we failed.” (A potential response: “Hey, dude, I’m, like, your partner. I know the score!”) An even better one: the line where Cobb points out to Michael Caine’s character—a university professor teaching in Paris—”You know extradition between France and the US is a legal nightmare.” Yes, Mssr. Professor Caine probably does, in fact, know that! But I’m sure that somebody way in the back row was happy to hear.

Continue reading