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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 16, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Wolf Children, Gravity, Getaway

If it weren't for my younger daughter, I don't know if I would ever have become aware of Japanese anime films. Oh, I knew that something by that name existed, but the animation was so non-Disney that I found it off-putting.

But then there was Kiki's Delivery Service, which I primarily listened to, over and over. It was so non-Western in its storytelling that it often seemed as if the filmmakers kept changing their minds about what the story was about.

Yet after a few more films, I began to realize that Japanese storytelling had its own internal logic, and one of its virtues was that it didn't follow the Disney formulas.

I remember working with a former Disney animator on a series of animations of scripture stories. I had already done hundreds of audioplay scripts and had a high standard of faithfulness to the source, fictionalizing as little as possible while making the stories as clear and entertaining as I could.

But he was such a total believer in the Disney formulas that he actually insisted we needed a cute talking-animal sidekick in every script. Maybe it didn't have to talk; maybe it didn't have to be an animal. But it had to be cute and a sidekick, and either an animal or full of funny dialogue or other antics.

This struck me as insane, but we worked out a compromise - I left, and he brought in a writer who didn't think it was insane, not to mention sacrilegious, to add such elements to scripture stories. But I did learn one thing about animation: Disney takes its cliches and formulas seriously. They are never to be violated.

Maybe that's why Japanese animations, called "anime" from the French, quickly moved from weird to refreshing, as far as I was concerned.

There are cliches and tropes in anime that were just as repulsive as anything in Disney - suddenly a believable character will change faces completely in a hideous caricature of "funny" or "angry" or "in love." But the best of the animes generally don't use these.

This Thanksgiving, our youngest - now in college, and even more discerning than she was as a child (though she was sharp and sensible from the start) - approached my wife and me with a new anime called Wolf Children (or, in Japanese, Okami kodomo no ame to yuki).

(Please notice that in the previous paragraph I wrote that she "approached my wife and me," not "approached my wife and I." If you are one of those people who would have said "my wife and I" because some teacher taught you that it's always "other person and I," let me assure you that I am right, and your teacher is hopelessly, second-month-of-learning-English-as-a-second-language wrong.)

Wolf Children is definitely Japanese. It has a powerful story to tell, but it starts out obliquely, or perhaps farther in the backstory than most American storytellers might have chosen.

Hana is a city girl who falls in love with a man who, from time to time, changes into a wolf. He never harms her, and he's a good and loving father to their two children, Ame and Yuki. One is a boy and the other is a girl, but I'm terrible with names and don't remember which is which, though I think Yuki is the boy. And because I think that, he probably isn't. So I'll call them "the girl and the boy."

They are still little when their father is hunted down and killed in the city. Hana, worried that the children's shapeshifting will be noticed, moves out to a farming village, hoping that in an isolated fixer-upper house, she'll be able to feed them with farming - and remain isolated enough that their "talents" won't be discovered.

So up to now - and this is well into the film - it seems to be Hana's story.

But it isn't. Because after neighbors help her learn enough about farming to stay alive, the story shifts to later years, with the kids in school. The girl has learned to socialize in order to survive, but the boy is unhappy in school - he far prefers to go out in the wild and run with the wolves.

And that is where the main story takes place - in school and in the woods.

Except that once again it shifts. It's a story of mother and children after all, and of choosing your own path in life, and ... well, it's an excellent Japanese anime, so it's about a lot of things that can't be explained in a log line.

Here's the remarkable thing, as far as I'm concerned: It's a moving, emotional story, and the melancholy bittersweet ending brought tears to my eyes. Yet along the way, there was plenty of comedy and plenty of danger and excitement.

Is it Frozen? No. Frozen is the best Disney movie in a long, long time - but it's still a Disney movie, with all the formulas intact. Wolf Children is a different kind of thing. A wonderful thing. It leaves you with a different kind of feeling.

You can buy the DVD (or download it) from various online sources. Give yourself to the movie, instead of expecting it to deliver Disney-paced storytelling. It moves a bit more slowly. But it takes you somewhere Disney never can. And now and then, that's a good thing.

....

You have to understand why I didn't see Gravity when it first came to the theaters. I heard people raving about it, but everything they said told me:

This is 1950s Campbellian sci-fi storytelling. It will have no characterization because it's about one thing: A Competent (American) Person in jeopardy, who is forced to find resourceful technical solutions in order to survive and get home safely.

In the 1950s, these were called "competent man" stories - the culture had little room for women in space - and nobody bothered to mention that they all seemed American. Even when they were nominally of some other background, sci-fi was pretty much an American genre.

Campbellian sci-fi (named for editor John W. Campbell, who guided writers like Asimov and Heinlein in creating this kind of literature) was a huge step forward. Previously, sci-fi had been John Carter of Mars or Flash Gordon ... or Giant Ants.

And that's what happened in the movies, too. Movie sci-fi was either serialized Flash Gordon or one-shot horror films with weird alien or radiation-spawned monsters eating large cities. You know, like Independence Day.

But Campbell insisted on scientific and technical rigor. What could realistically happen? Let's have science-and-technology problems that the hero solves using science and technology.

The result was an amazing florescence of wonderful idea stories. Smart stories. Stories that made you think, stories that taught you true things about science, stories that made you proud to be human (and American).

But in these stories, everybody was their job description. Astronauts were astronauts. Soldiers were soldiers. Aliens were aliens. It didn't matter who they were, what mattered was the problem they had to solve, and either they solved it or they didn't.

So in "Cold Equations," when a girl stows away on a ship being sent to bring medicines to a plague-infested planet, the pilot can't let himself care that she was only hoping to see her brother. Her presence on the ship makes it so that there won't be fuel enough to bring the medicines to the planet. Either she goes out into space, or hundreds of thousands of people die.

That's just how the math works out. It's a moving story. But it doesn't matter who they are except that the girl is innocent and well-meaning so that when she dies, it breaks our hearts. We know the pilot is devastated to have done this, not because of who he is, but because it would devastate any decent human being to have to kill an innocent child, even if it's to save the lives of so many others.

Do you see the point? Characterization - the literary process of individuating characters so that their particular motives and backgrounds shape the story - would only interfere with a Campbellian tale. There's no characterization in "Cold Equations" - or in "The Nine Billion Names of God" or "Nightfall" or "The Star" or any of the other idea-based stories in that great age of science fiction.

Characterization would be a waste of time.

I finally saw Gravity over the Christmas holiday and guess what? It is exactly what I thought it would be. Yes, the "competent man" has been changed to a "competent woman," but that's trivial. There are no important characters.

It doesn't matter to the story that it's this woman. Yes, yes, she lost a daughter and misses her. But that never changes her actions except for a brief moment when we wonder if she'll just give up. We wonder - but of course she won't give up because then there'd be no point in making the movie.

George Clooney's character is a Campbellian throwaway. He isn't a character at all, he's a playful jokester - a type - who, if you think about it, would be so annoying you'd start thinking about cutting his air hose if you actually had to live with him for two weeks in close quarters.

But for the purpose of the story, his jokiness is an "endearing" eccentricity. It amounts to nothing. He exists only to have a "Cold Equations" moment in which he decides to die in order to give Sandra Bullock a chance to survive.

Giving Bullock a dead child certainly raises the pathos level (I can just hear the executives sighing with relief in the pitch meeting when they realized that this film would indeed meet all the film-school-formula requirements). But we could have made her a newlywed, or the sole surviving child of a lovely lonely widow, or whatever. It wouldn't have changed the story in any way.

And all of this is ... a good thing!

What? Having no significant characterization is good?

Most films have no significant characterization. Even films that purport to be about characters usually have nothing more than a bit of eccentricity as the film goes off in pursuit of a maguffin ("Hi, Rosebud!").

But for science fiction film to finally catch up to 1955 printed sci-fi is a huge leap forward. Sci-fi film has been caught in the 1930s for so long that people who know only film sci-fi think that's all there is. They think Star Wars and Star Trek were fresh and new - but they're just Flash Gordon all over again.

And the really current sci-fi films aren't called science fiction at all. All the time-travel romances are billed as romances (Somewhere in Time, The Time Traveler's Wife, About Time).

And the deeply weird, inventive stuff that comes out of the sci-fi New Wave of the 1960s (Inception, Being John Malkovich, The Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind) is not billed as sci-fi either, because that would only confuse an audience trained to expect either spaceships or monsters. So these pure sci-fi stories are called "mind-bending thrillers" or art films.

Gravity has spaceships, though. Real ones - or real-ish, anyway - and instead of running into monsters or mystical space beings, there is a wholly technical solution to everything.

Now, because it's movies, and ignorant executives (and, probably, writers and producers and the director) are giving notes and making decisions, it can't actually be as rigorously accurate as Campbell required his writers to be.

So we have some moments of mind-numbing stupidity. For instance, when Sandra Bullock uses a fire extinguisher to propel herself, basically everything goes wrong, as far as making sense goes.

She uses the fire extinguisher like a rocket, only it's a diffuse spray instead of a tightly focused one, so it can't really be aimed and much of its force cancels itself out by going a lot of directions at once.

Even if it had been focused, though, she made no effort to calculate her own center of gravity. So it wouldn't have just pushed her away from the dying station - it would have set her spinning, just as she spun around before, only more violently and with no one to stop her from spinning.

She'd have been better off just pushing off with her feet toward the Chinese station. Then, if she needed course correction, she could have used the fire extinguisher in a microburst aimed between her legs.

Finding your center of gravity downward is relatively easy, because our bodies evolved to stand upright; our whole system of balance is designed to calculate our center of gravity in relation to our feet!

But all of this is moot, because the real stupidity is this: When the film shows her firing bursts from the extinguisher, she sputters around like a balloon with the air going out of it - and then stops.

The first time I couldn't believe what I was seeing. The CGI people couldn't have been that stupid, could they? But yes, they could, because it happens a couple more times. Even though the movie already made the correct point that once you start going in a direction (including spinning) in null gravity, you can't stop until something stops you, they really did have the fire extinguisher blast set her in motion - only to have each motion stop, not because she pointed the extinguisher the other way, but because ...

Because they felt like it. In a very non-Campbellian set of decisions, they got a bit of comic relief but did not have to live with the consequences. They just waved a magic wand and poof - inertia went away.

So it's hardly worth pointing out that when the escape pod hits atmosphere, it's tumbling head over heels, so to speak, and without attitude jets there is simply no way it's going to be able to stop that spin.

And since heat-shielding weighs so much that you can only afford to put it on one surface of a reentry vehicle, the inevitable result of a tumbling reentry is the rapid cooking of any meat inside the capsule.

Only all of a sudden, another bit of magic! Without fuel, without rockets, the capsule conveniently stops tumbling, rights itself, and enters the atmosphere with the heat-shields downward, after all.

So at the end of this competent-woman story, all of a sudden we might as well be in Star Wars, with the Force doing all the godlike magic.

But not really. The filmmakers might be cheating - or so ignorant of physics that they don't even know they're cheating. But in terms of the story, none of it is magic. The story thinks it's still Campbellian. And so it's still Campbellian sci-fi, even if there are moments of ineffable eff-ups.

I hear that there are some people trying to give Gravity a mystical 2001: A Space Odyssey or Contact ending, in which everything from the moment of her hallucination of a dead person on to the end is just her dream as she dies. But of course that's just silly. This isn't that kind of movie.

They've just been trained to expect something "mind-bending" in sci-fi movies that don't have monsters or aliens or rayguns/phasers/lightsabers. There's nothing mind-bending intended here. The movie is what it seems.

It's a good movie, with good actors playing non-characters and some dumb technical mistakes. But the dumb mistakes are no dumber than the computer nonsense in War Games and Sneakers, and the audience forgave the stupidity in those movies, too.

I hope that, with the money Gravity made, more executives will greenlight scripts that try, at least, to be Campbellian in their approach. I hope that, with Gravity, sci-fi film is finally ready to move from 1935 to 1955.

....

As a writer who works at home, getting to work should be the easiest thing in the world. All I have to do is walk up to the attic, go into my little garret room with its claustrophobic sloping ceiling and its lone window with a great view of (a) sky and (b) the neighbor's little attic window, and start typing.

The trouble is that besides being easy to get to work, having my office at home means it's also easy to skip work and stay home.

I'll go up and do my writing later. Right now I need to:

Get on the treadmill and exercise.

Unless the weather's good. Then I'll take a walk or run through the neighborhood.

While I'm going back and forth on that, I need to refill the bird feeders.

While I'm restocking the feeders, my assistant tells me that there are books to sign in the office, for people who ordered them through my website, www.hatrack.com.

But first: The mail is here! Got to go out and get the mail and sort through it.

It includes a new issue of Commentary or Weekly Standard or New Yorker or The Atlantic - you know, the magazines that actually do fact-checking (if you skip the New Yorker editorials) so you can put some trust in what they say. Have to glance through whichever one came today. Or else check out a catalog.

Since I'm sorting and reading at the kitchen table, might as well get up and pour a glass of juice. And as long as I'm in the fridge, there's a nice chocolate bar. No, must be righteous. Yogurt instead!

Telephone! Someone wants me to do something that isn't writing!

My wife is running some interesting errands. Do I want to come along? Ha ha. Of course I do, because it isn't writing.

And since it's only a couple of hours till dinner anyway, I'll just sit down in my recliner and watch some of the shows TiVo has been saving up for me.

Do you know how many days can go by without anything getting written?

Enough days that when I do get back to the novel, I can't remember where I was and have to reread everything so it all gets back into my head.

But then I have a deadline for the Rhino Times, so instead of a chapter of the book I get paid for, I write 3,000 words of a column for which I don't get paid. Thus I refute thee, Samuel Johnson!

(Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever writes except for money. Since I refuse to accept blockhead status, yet more than half my writing in any given year is unpaid-for.... OK. Yes. I'm a blockhead.)

Sometimes, in order to jumpstart a novel, I simply have to get away from my daily routines and go somewhere that isn't Greensboro. A place where there aren't any distractions.

I have had several such hideouts. A time-share in Cherry Grove, South Carolina, served for a time. The home of friends in northern Virginia. The home of my cousin in Los Angeles. I even wrote two novels while in a car, commuting (Sarah) or on a long trip (Robota). (Someone else was driving.)

The trouble is that each hideout eventually becomes like home - I learn where all the good restaurants are. I find all kinds of delicious distractions. Pretty soon it's as hard to get to work as it is at home.

Right now I'm at my latest discovery: Spa Koru in Avon, North Carolina, during the off season at the beach. I've long used Spa Koru as my gym when I'm at the beach, and my wife and every other female who has stayed with us loves their massages and other spa services.

But we've never used the villas that are part of "Koru Village" because we always needed a much bigger rental house.

If I were here vacationing, my wife and I would take those leisurely drives, on uncrowded roads, to Nag's Head or Duck for the good year-round restaurants, the movie theater, the interesting stores. We'd take walks on the beach - which is fun to do with company even when the wind is blowing and the air is bitter cold.

But having company right now would defeat the whole point of my being here: No Distractions.

The villa I'm in has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a big common room with a table that's just fine for typing, a huge kitchen, and ... it's just across a driveway from the best gym I ever use (since Gold's forced Fitness Today out of business, I don't have a gym in Greensboro).

The beds are comfortable. The linens are plush. The villa has all the amenities of a first rate beach house.

Best of all, because it's the off season everything but Spa Koru is closed. The nearest movie theater is an hour's drive away. There's a Food Lion and an Ace Hardware because the year-round residents need them. But no other distractions.

Heck, I don't even have TiVo here, so I can only watch what happens to be on TV at any given moment. It's almost never anything I want to watch, so even the television can't steal my attention.

Of course, I still have distractions that I brought with me: Nuisance games on my Samsung Nexus Android tablet, big honking time-sucking games on my computer. I have to have some self-control to get my work done; and I have to have some entertainment between writing sessions.

The result? I've been here a week so far, and finally, finally, the third and final volume of the Pathfinder series is really moving. I won't finish it here, but once I'm really moving on a book, I can finish it at home - the story itself keeps me from being so easily distracted.

So yes, I'm at the beach, and Spa Koru is a wonderful place to go for a getaway.


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