22/07/2018

End Of The Week Shorts #67



Today's shorts: Central Intelligence (2016), The Life Aquatic (2004), Kramasha (2007), One Week (1920), Veer-Zaara (2004), Skyscraper (2018), Sam Kinison: Breaking The Rules (1987)



After seeing this for the first time, I didn't have any intention to ever see it again, but, as fortune has it, I re-watched this today. And long story short, I didn't need to see this again, and will be steering clear from it in the future.

Kevin Hart and The Rock play their same old roles in a highly contrived and rather unfunny story about undercover cops, unwilling civilians and friendship. The funniest thing about this film is, in fact, the blooper reel. Beyond this, I don't think I managed to laugh. On the first watch, I didn't mind that this was also trying to be a film about bullying. But, on this watch, I couldn't help but question who this message is for? Young teenagers? Adults? Kids? It's hard to say considering its manic tone, but I can't see this movie changing any lives. That said, what more can I say about this other than it is a very mediocre comedy, and a poor film more generally. Not worth the re-watch.



With Wes Anderson, I find there's only ever two questions worth asking, one of style and one of character. A third may be conjured concerning how the two meet, and I find that The Life Aquatic pleasantly answers both, if not all three, questions rather well. In such, Anderson's strict and formulaic style flows very well with his staccato, off-beat characterisation and dialogue. This doesn't produce as much comedy as The Grand Budapest Hotel, but the feel of story and adventure is particularly strong in The Life Aquatic (far stronger than in his recent effort, Isle of Dogs). What this then does so well is take a basic and much-seen narrative about adventure that leads away from family life, a father estrange from his children, yet seek reconciliation, flourish from dead-pan absurdity. What keeps this at just a very good film for me, however, is its ability to only take a basic Hollywood movie and present it with a unique form. Unfortunately, not much is added to the depth of narrative of character with this formalisation, but, at least this provides a good cinematic experience.



Kramasha, or To Be Continued, is an experimental film that feels very much so like an ethereal fairy tale. It is put to celluloid with a tone, to my senses, derivative Jean-Pierre Jeunet being most central. This is found in the complex sound-montage and the rhythm of cutting. These come together to produce an atmosphere with haste in its sails, yet time for levity. Furthermore, the quirky bounce given to the cinematic space by the edit is lifted with some strict camera movement (maybe more reminiscent of Wes Anderson than Jeunet). Alas, there is a texture given to the frames of this film that is highly Tarkovsky-esque - especially as nature and the elements are explored with close-ups and patience. There is then a counterpoint to the lighter aesthetic sensibilities, highlighted by the search for serious colour and hue - all of which are loomed over by the scratchy, radioed-in and angsty V.O. The end result is slightly bizarre fairy tale whose narrative I can say I gripped, but was nonetheless fascinated by.



Homing some of the greatest visual gags and stunts ever put to screen, One Week is a blast from almost 100 years ago that, like Keaton's best films, has you re-think the idea that cinema has been evolving - changing, sure - but, evolving for 100 years?

The premise is simple: a newlywed couple try to build a portable home but are sabotaged. Yet, as simple as this is, the imagination and skill put into bringing it to life and to the screen is dumbfounding. It is easy to critique the lack of character and story captured here, and I certainly would sustain that the likes of Chaplin had, for a few years now, become a far better storyteller than Keaton. But, whilst it is indubitable that Keaton had more imagination, I think there is something subtly touching about the comedic duo who wrestle with their new house in this short. And such makes minor allergy about the start of a new marriage one of the best Keaton shorts I've seen. Strongly recommended.



A sublime melodrama, Veer-Zaara picks up the Bollywood romance myth (which means that its structure is practically identical to so many other movies - just one example being Hum Aapke Hain Koun) and provides an explosive extravaganza about the quality of true love and the depths of real compassion. There are a few minor faults, such as a few select moments that are maybe a little too contrived and a sometimes abrupt approach to the sound design, but, in all honesty, I was entirely blinded to these by all that is incredible about this movie.

What Veer-Zaara does so well, beyond retell the Bollywood romance myth masterfully, is expand moments of high drama and excavate all the emotion and weight out of them through slow-motion and song. As this film constantly opens up its narrative and characters, it is then impossible to not fall in an be lost. I cannot recommend this more.



I have previously written about this film's structure and compared it to Die Hard, but I have not yet provided a specific review of this film, so here's a brief one:

This is not too bad. It is certainly not trying to do much beyond entertain, and this, I felt, it does quite well. What makes this work in my view its its world and the rules that constantly manifest alongside the plot. I then appreciate Skyscraper's inventiveness (despite it being not very original). That said, not much imagination goes into the direction or characterisation; everyone is rather anonymous and pretty flat - especially the bad guys, who have almost no real motive or depth. This is then run-of-the-mill blockbuster stuff that I found watchable enough. Alas, for all the positives I can say about this, I'm sure I won't be trying to watch it again.



Pretty terrible.

I like a few of Kinison's bits, primarily those that he performed on T.V where he seemed to have a control over his stage persona and was able to mediate between obnoxious rage and a meekness that was all too soon going to dissipate. This, however, lacks mediation, nuance, timing and real delivery. Kinison becomes a caricature of himself, screaming about how women are the devil in between short breaks in which he admits that he's the real problem. It's here that he reverses his older shtick. Before, the rage represented the truth and the quietness was the lie; here the rage is some stupid bullshit from a seemingly pathetic person with little moral fortitude whilst the truth comes in side notes. In the end, no need to watch this. A guy with a mic is a dick and he screams a lot. That's all.






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Skyscraper/Die Hard - Quality Via Structure

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21/07/2018

Blog News


Over the course of the next few days, I am going to be attempting to sort through the blog and give it a slightly new structure. This is to account for the new variety of posts that I'm producing - those that look at books, paintings, music, plays and more. Furthermore, this new structure will help me manage the End of the Week Shorts. My schedule has changed quite a bit recently (it has got a lot busier) and so I have struggle to carve out time to sit down and sort through the shorts - give every one one its own page and place on the film list. I don't think that this practice is a particularly useful one and so I am considering discontinuing it.

In general, I am not yet entirely sure how the blog is going to be altered, but I have decided to notify you all before I make any changes. I will notify you all again when everything has been sorted through. Before I let you go, however, I'd like to let you know that I'm open to suggestions of any kind. I get movie suggestions every now and then, but, if you have a book, play, painting or piece of music you'd like to read about, comment below or send a message over any of the social media. Thanks for reading.





20/07/2018

Skyscraper/Die Hard - Quality Via Structure

Thoughts On: Skyscraper (2018) & Die Hard (1988)

A tower besieged by terrorists that must be infiltrated by a man with particular skills and a loved one in harms way.


I had two hours to kill yesterday and so decided to step into the closest cinema and watch the earliest screening of any movie possible. And at 10 O'clock in the morning that movie was Skyscraper.

I had heard bad things about Skyscraper; how it was a terrible and needless rip-off of Die Hard with basically no merit. I was surprised, however, by how little I saw this. Both films have very similar plots: a police official of sorts has to infiltrate a tower under siege of terrorists because his family is within. But, whilst the premise of Skyscraper is undoubtedly unoriginal, and whilst those making the film embraced the comparison with Die Hard through certain film posters, I believe Skyscraper does a good job in separating itself from Die Hard on the directorial and dramatic level. And it does this through a script that is derivative, but maybe better structured than the original Die Hard's.

There is difficulty in declaring this as Die Hard is such a loved movie, but I believe Skyscraper may be better in some respects. (How good either film is, I would say, is limited; both are well constructed pieces of entertainment). I want to make clear my apprehension and caution in suggesting this as Die Hard has been tested across three decades now and I have only seen Skyscraper once. But, again, having seen this movie only once, I managed to see through my pre-judgements and find a movie that is certainly no more profound than Die Hard, but maybe a little more entertaining and interesting in its own realm.

To assess Skyscraper, it is then important to highlight that, at its core, this is a kind of movie that is all about the script. In American action, adventure, crime, comedy and mystery movies (often horror films too), it is very apparent that all is built and viewed through a structural assessment of the script. In fact, I believe that, whilst the ambiguous "glitz and glamour" is often thought to be the crux of the Hollywood aesthetic, the truth lies in the screenplay. Anyone may get a sense of this if they try to learn to make a (Hollywood) film. Pick up, then, a book about making a movie and it will always point to the script first. Pick up another book on screenwriting specifically, and you will almost definitely find yourself with a book about building (or "fleshing out") a character and structuring a story. Hollywood's structuralism--and I say this having not studied this topic too closely--seems to have emerged from their studio system, which not only formalised the film business, but also the process of making a film; this is why there is a classical Hollywood style of directing built around terminology still used today: one-shot, two-shot, dolly, medium close-up, establishing shot, etc. However, it is sometimes overlooked that the script was also formalised. The reason for this, in my estimation, is because the American philosophy of film has always fundamentally been predicated on entertainment. Film, to the American audience and the American filmmaker, then has a very ambiguous base, one I would equate to happiness.

I would equate a philosophy of entertainment to a philosophy of happiness - a mode of thinking and being that seeks to only entertain to a mode that only seeks to be happy - as both philosophies are without solid bases; both then fall apart with one question: What is happiness/entertainment? This question may also be phrased as such: What does it mean to be happy/entertained? Before you attempt to answer this question yourself, it is crucial to ask if this introspection is embedded into the general film-as-entertainment philosophy - or even any philosophical structure that suggests that the root meaning of anything is something as vapid and capricious as just happiness or just entertainment.

The best attempt I've seen at rationalising with the Hollywood philosophy of entertainment comes from the 1941 film, Sullivan's Travels. The assertion made by this comedy is that there is value and meaning in laughter; a value and meaning predicated on (unfortunately, this is where the exploration runs aground) happiness. The basic implication of Sullivan's Travels, much like other self-reflexive Hollywood films such as Singin' In The Rain, is then that entertainment provides happiness to the masses. This seems to be the depth of the Hollywood philosophy of entertainment. (There is more to be found in Sullivan's Travels, but it is not necessarily asserted by the film, rather, represented and possibly extrapolated). The limitations of this philosophy are important to note because it is through this rather weak conceptual framework that one learns and teaches others how to make films.

In Hollywood, film is a part of show business, thus is it partly a commodity and an object with which to make money (or to satisfy ego). Beyond this, there is the philosophy of wanting to entertain. Yet, how does one teach and learn this philosophy? Hollywood's usual answer: give audiences what they want. How do you figure this out? With screenplays, you take what works and break it down into its basic components, implying a universal structure, or beats that must always be hit so that the audience is entertained: you formalise. It is through this reduction that Hollywood films, especially  genre films with emphasis on plot, feel unified under a banner of Americanism; this is the feel of a Hollywood film, its structuralism or formalism.

I bring up this subject matter not for its own sake, but to start towards a comparison between Die Hard and Skyscraper. My general purpose in doing this is to highlight how Skyscraper is not necessarily a terrible film, most certainly one that is not made redundant via reference to Die Hard - which this betters in certain respects. The major point of comparison that must be made between these films is in the script and its structure, which is why I delved into the Hollywood structuralist philosophy. Die Hard is renowned for its tight script and, in my opinion, its self-justifying formulaic nature. This is actually true of many renowned Hollywood movies (maybe not all of the classics released between the late-60s and mid-70s; they are so often renowned for their breaking of tradition). As implied, the Hollywood philosophy of entertainment has no solid base and so it turns to formalism of some kind to build a value system predicated on measurement. There is, I believe, value beneath the philosophy of entertainment that reaches into ideas of the archetype and unconscious truth, but we shall not delve into them. It is important to make note of these, however, as, when a deeper truth below Hollywood movie structures resonate through their surface values, the formula becomes self-justifying - and this is because there is a more essential truth beneath the clumsily contrived reasoning for cinema's existence that Hollywood, its audiences, critics and filmmakers so often espouse that can shine through. (This more essential truth is what we so often try to access when looking at the meaning of a film on this blog - Ready Player One is just one recent example).

Without getting lost, let us zoom in on Die Hard. Die Hard's greatest structural virtues lie in the fact that it is 'tight'. What this means is that it has very little fat on it. However, what 'very little fat' means is that everything relates to plot. This manifests in Die Hard with numerous set-ups and pay-offs, which is to say that if the movie opens with information about the status of a marriage, it will constantly objectify this and relate it to the plot. This is why the picture of John McClain in his wife's office becomes a symbol of conflict; not only does it embody the fact that their marriage is falling apart, but it may get John or his wife killed. With a closer look at Die Hard, you can find many pairs of this sort as the nature of a tight script is the fact that everything that is put on the screenplay page has a reason for being there, reason often attached to another component of the narrative on another page of the script. On screen, the perfect movie in regards to this perspective will not have one shot in it that is not essential to the telling of the story - in other words, to the translation of information and genre-based entertainment of some kind (e.g. comedic, action-based, romantic or horrifying moments). Other examples of films like this would then be Home Alone, Casablanca and Chinatown, but one of the tightest scripts ever written might just be Back To The Future - if not Die Hard.

In being derivative of Die Hard, Skyscraper is incredibly tight, constantly emphasising certain details only because they will eventually tangle into the plot. Skyscraper, much like Die Hard, then makes the plot a determining factor and measurement of its own value. And because a plot is merely the stream of information and happenings of a story, a plot-centric film's value lies in its ability to have us follow events and gather information as to do so and, furthermore, find joy in doing so. Because the plot becomes a mildly engrossing game in Skyscraper, it is self-justifyingly tight. On this level, I believe it is quite possibly equal to Die Hard - at least approaching it. However, there are a few other elements of Skyscraper's formula that can be explored.

Firstly, logic. From a philosophy of entertainment and the plot comes a form of criticism entirely predicated on logic (the logic either characters or filmmakers display in their choice of actions). This form of criticism is probably best encapsulated by CinemaSins, but, more generally, an approach to film criticism through a movie's own internal logic is very common.

A film can be measured in regards to logic with two elements: the set-up and then the drama it inspires. Primarily, logic is effected by the tone or nature of the drama. This is the element of the film that implies how seriously you must take it and to what degree you must suspend your imagination. If a film then opens with a girl spontaneously breaking out into a song about a place over the rainbow, it welcomes into its general logic houses that can fly and, therefore, witches, talking scarecrows, walking tin men and lions that are cowardly as they walk and talk. The reason why this is so requires much thought and is a very complex topic. Alas, the first tone-setting element of Skyscraper's logic is typhlodramatic - that is to say that the drama manifested is unreal, but moves towards realism. This tone-setting element is the skyscraper which the film is based upon; it is a marvel of technology and the world's tallest building. The skyscraper's existence is unreal, yet it is pretty believable, especially considering all the drama that emerges from the skyscraper's existence; drama sourcing from the safety systems, officials, security, terrorists, etc.

The second element of a film's logic is all in relation to the set up; it is the maintenance of a certain tone of realism or verisimilitude (believability). Sustaining its tone, the drama that follows from the outset of our introduction to the skyscraper of Skyscraper is almost always typhlodramatic - which is to say, it is almost always believeable despite being based on unreal events. There are points, however, when the action and drama moves the tone towards melodrama somewhat unwelcomingly. One instance of this is a huge jump between a crane and building that no human could possibly make, and so is rather unbelievable and non-typhlodramatic. Furthermore, the film does a somewhat good job of inflicting damage and pain upon its main character, The Rock, but, it must be said that it is rather forgetful and so neglects certain wounds that should effect him across the entirety of the narrative - which breaks its logical fortitude. What Skyscraper does manage to do, however, is give its central character a strong weakness that always plays a part of the action; that is, he lost his leg through a mistake he made as an officer. This leg debilitates him physically and mentally, and so is one of the film's central symbols upon which a character arc is developed (the leg becomes a strength) and physical conflict intensified. This leaves the film's typhlodrama more complex than that in Die Hard, but not as stable; it tries to do more, to be bigger and better than Die Hard, but stumbles in doing so.

It is because Skyscraper does try to do so much more with its physical drama that I found this slightly more impressive than Die Hard. What's more, I found the presentation of the action to be often more striking than that displayed in Die Hard, but nonetheless the direction and use of the camera, especially considering the technological advantage Skyscraper has over Die Hard, leaves quite a lot to be desired. That said, indeed, Skyscraper loses the precision of its predecessor in attempting to up its scale, and so can be said to not be as tight, but, the scope of its drama, the size of its world and the breadths of the plot overshadow Die Hard, which is not as tense, not as expansive and far more secluded. The effect and outcome of this, for me personally, was positive; if Skyscraper, like Die Hard, wasn't aiming to do much beyond plot and entertainment, I appreciate its relative momentum and scale - all of which is sustained and wrapped up in a plot whose logic is rather solid and drama that is, sometimes melodramatic, but often more typhlodramatically intense.

The last point of comparison that I will make concerns the meeting of drama and character. Die Hard and Skyscraper are, in my view, romances of the masculine variety. This means that the drama is physically centred, but the themes all relate to love and romance more generally. (For the sake of clarity, a feminine romance is predicated on emotional conflict in relation to love - and the designation of gender is, for a lack of a better word, transcendental, not related to male and female persons). The characters in this masculine romance are built upon a dichotomy of action and love; in fact, it is their character arcs that establish a constant movement through action and into love (feminine romances see love become action). We see this in both films with both central characters saving their respective family members. It is then through their problem solving and, for lack of a better word, ass kicking, that they are allowed to establish and secure romance of some kind. Die Hard has a stronger arc embedded into it as their is a lack of romance at the inception of the narrative, but a surplus in the end. Skyscraper, on the other hand, starts out with an abundance of romance that is constantly fought to be maintained and preserved - that said, it does intensify.

Whilst the acuteness of a character arc is a way of judging the quality of character, the most fundamental means is the search for meaning through character action (drama). So, whilst Die Hard contains an acuter character arc and general narrative arc (the change that occurs over the narrative is rather dramatic), it holds less meaning.

In being an archetypal 'rescue the princess from the dragon' narrative, Die Hard sees its main character venture into a place and extract wholeness (a bond with a woman) via a fight against evil (a dragon) with goodness. It complexifies this commentary with the dragon being two-faced; a potential divorce as well as potential death. However, because there is no relation built between these two faces, Die Hard lacks individual expressivity and so has no specific meaning to extract beyond, 'sacrifice for the greater good and you become more whole' - yet this is what all rescue the princess narratives suggest. Skyscraper is slightly more developed than Die Hard because it tries to say something about the nature of trust. So, whilst out hero goes into the skyscraper to defeat the terrorists (the dragon), he must maintain the faith his children and wife have in him. Because the severity of the drama is not at all deep and the narrative arc rather flat, the main character never loses the trust of his wife and children, nor is their trust ever in deficit. As a result, he merely builds further trust (further romance) among them. And whilst this lacks depth, it is given expressivity through the symbolic action of turning something off and back on again - such as a phone. This introduces an element to the rescue the princess narrative that not only suggest that one must sacrifice to become whole, but maintains that sacrifice takes a toll on the body and mind, and that, to do good, one must trust in the inherent functions of a system. Thus, to turn something off before turning it back on again relates to the narrative's exploration of an ex-officer, an officer that is essentially switched off, but switched on again, constantly beaten down, yet given the strength to rise and beat the dragon. The dragon itself in this narrative becomes fatigue; it is as if this is what the dragon breathes instead of fire. The only way to defeat this fatigue-breathing dragon is to submit, to sleep and to wake again and take another step towards coming into contact with it so that a deadly blow may be landed. Granted, this commentary is only briefly woven into the fabric of this narrative's drama, but it is there because of the more abstract symbolism and metaphors.

Because the main character of Skyscraper manages to carry this dramatic and symbolic meaning, he becomes a character of greater depth in my view. There is more to character than just meaning, but, on this basis Skyscraper is better structured than Die Hard. In other respects, such as the quality of the writing and the complexity of character reasoning and general being, one could argue that John McClain is a stronger character, but, in regards to structure, I find Skyscraper's main character, Will, stronger (though, far less memorable by virtue of the lack of complexity and individuality).

To bring things towards a close, I'd hazard to say that Skyscraper is the better structured film. Yet, whilst structure is the centralised element of both Die Hard and Skyscraper, there is more to the films than just this (e.g. character, entertainment and meaning beyond structure, world building, general aesthetics, etc.). So, it is not possible to conclude which is definitively the better film, but, I certainly do not think that Skyscraper is outright subservient to Die Hard. I leave things open to you now: How bad or good is Skyscraper in your view, and how can you rationalise your opinion?







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17/07/2018

The Functions Of Dramatis Personae - Concept-Object Reduction

Thoughts On: Vladimir Propp's Narrative Theory

A question of the structuralist philosophy through Morphology of the Folktale.


The Functions of Dramatis Personae is the central chapter in Vladimir Propp's hugely influential book, Morphology of the Folktale. This is an important book because it is the work that makes Propp one of the most fundamental structuralists. To understand this work and its place in literary criticism, it is then key to understand the structuralist philosophy.

What is a word? Most fundamentally, it is simultaneously two things: one face of a word is real, the other is unreal; one conceptual, one objective. Ferdinand de Saussure, another key structuralist who dealt with signs and language, defined this phenomena with his theory of the signified and the signifier. A word is then an object in a network of signifiers, which is to say that it is a symbol or sign that, objectively, only is. However, when confronted by the human mind, what is objectively just a thing becomes something with an implicating function. As a result, when we see a thing - a word for example - we see through it and into a network of concepts. A word then is a signifier of its own meaning; meaning is signified by a word. Let us reduce this to the most basic formula: a signifier is an object and the signified is a concept; I write 'cow' and am merely contriving pixels on a screen (the object; the signifier), but I am simultaneously signifiying your idea of what a cow is; its image, smell, size, shape, location, maybe even that one friend who is really annoying (the concept; the signified).

We can map this idea of the object and concept onto, not just specific words, but networks of words: sentences, paragraphs, essays, stories and books. In doing this, one can take a body of words (images, symbols or anything that represents ideas) and analyse them in regards to what is signified or how they signify; in regards to the concepts they produce or how they are objectively put on a page. This is structuralism. Structuralism is involved in this process of turning literature into concepts and/or objects that can then be put into a system and processed.

It was Propp who found much success in applying the structuralist philosophy of concept-object reduction to narrative structures. He was a Russian interested in a deceptively simple question of how to define Russian folktales. He observed that those before him had defined and categorised Russian folktales in regards to what they were about, for example, animals, dragons, fights, certain characters, etc. and had reduced them to components that were not fundamental enough. He then wanted to find all of the irreducible functions (objects/concepts) of folktale narratives as to formulate a system (a list) that represented the general structure of all folktales. This general structure is the 'morphology', which simply means the nature or character of a form or shape. And it was most important to Propp that every element that he found could not be reduced or seen as identical to another element; every single one had to be fundamental and individual.

Having established his goal, Propp sought to look through the plot of numerous folktales narrative and find motifs, which he describes as 'the simplest narrative unit'. He would not call his units motifs, instead, functions. What Propp then follows is a logic that we have discussed in a theory of 'what cinema is for'. In my estimation, drama is the most fundamental aspect of narrative. My rationalisation for this is that narratives are mimetic (imitative of the unknown and known of life). To represent or manifest imitation, one requires action, and drama is action put into a system and embodied by character. Thus, drama encapsulates the core of imitation and brings all other elements of imitation (the creation of a place, language, people and more) to life. For Propp, the idea of 'function' is similar to a conceptualisation of drama I have outlined. Function implies a reason for something occurring. Furthermore, it implies action. Function is then action with reason; it is drama with a purpose. And this is exactly what Propp sought to find. He hypothesises that there are a limited set of actions, with a limited set of reasons attached to them. More generally, however, all actions have the same purpose for Propp, and that purpose seems to be the construction of a whole folktale. Thus all functions are cogs that help a system spin.

It is at this point important, I believe, to state the ways in which Propp's work is deeply lacking and wholly incomplete. We have discussed before that many literary analysts seek to question what something is whilst neglecting a question of what something is for. Propp is highly guilty of this as he provides a universal structure or overarching conceptual structure of the folktale without ever attempting to confront a far more difficult question of why the folktale is structured in such a way.

This separates Popp from the biologists and linguists that he seemingly seeks to imitate. A biologist dissects an organism as to map out every structure and substructure. They do this to in turn figure out what they are for so that, when they need fixing or altering, this is a possibility. A doctor then must know what a kidney is, what it is made of and how it fits into a larger system as to figure out how to combat a kidney disease. A linguist, on the other hand, takes structures that (often, not always) already have function and attempts to realise how that function, or meaning, is formulated. As a result, they will already know what 'door' means, but would be interested in its nature and place as a noun with a certain origin, pronunciation and so fourth. Propp makes a mistake of acting as if he is a linguist dealing with words such as 'door' when, in reality, he must act as a biologist of sorts. After all, what folktales mean is not inherently known, nor is it objective like the meaning of 'door'. 'Door' means door, a barrier that separates and joins two spaces with an open and shut function. 'Door' becomes more complicated when used in a larger sentence; for example, 'doorway to my heart' manipulates the objective meaning of the word. And a door can be ever more complicated when framed in a larger narrative; what, then, does the door with the number 237 on it mean in The Shining?

It is clear at this point that when a linguist loses specificity and singularity, they have to start becoming a biologist, which is to say that they can't assume that they already know the meaning of something that is functioning, but must instead discover its purpose alongside its being: the reason and function. In The Shining, for instance, 'door' becomes something like a kidney; we cannot then assume that because we can define a door as 'a barrier that separates and joins two spaces with an open and shut function' that we understand what the doorway to room 327 is.

There is, in relation to our assertion here, a fascinating rhetorical interrogative that Propp proposes in delineating the history of the problem he means to confront. He asks: "Is it possible to speak about the life of language without knowing anything about the parts of speech?". If this was not posed as a rhetorical question and he actually engaged it, I believe Propp's theory would be so much stronger. To expand on why, I shall reference one of my favourite sequences of the Tao Te Ching:

Can you balance your life force
And embrace the One
Without separation?

Can you control your breath
Gently
Like a baby?

Can you clarify
Your dark vision
Without blemish?

Can you love people
And govern the country
Without knowledge?

Can you open and close
The gate of heaven
Without clinging to earth?

Can you brighten
The four directions
Without action?
Give birth and cultivate.
Give birth and do not possess.
Act without dependence.
Excel but do not rule.
This is called dark Te.

So much could be said about these lines, but, as are, they contain much that goes beyond what is necessary to discuss. I'd like to then zoom in on the question: Can you love people and govern the country without knowledge? This, in my estimation, is very similar to Propp's question: Is it possible to speak about the life of language without knowing anything about the parts of speech? This could in fact be a highly Taoist line if it were phrased as such: Can you speak about the life of language without knowing anything about the parts of speech? And it would appear Taoist as it bears the philosophy of embracing the darkness and unknowing of the passive, chaotic and feminine Yin. Alas, Propp proposes a rhetorical question. In such, he suggests that it is impossible to do without knowing, to speak of the life of language without first formulating and analysing language itself. He then presents an entirely antithetical philosophy to the Taoists. Lao-Tzu (author of the Tao Te Ching) suggest that virtuous action (Te) is performed without intent and without knowledge. Propp on the other hand suggest that the only action that can be performed requires judgement and discrimination beforehand. If life is a forest, do we chose to walk in blind or do we try to construct a map? Lao-Tzu believes we must walk in blind because the map is already within us and can be accessed with proper action. Propp seemingly places his trust in our ability to draw and rationalise.

We may then ask now, who is right? And we must ask this as to determine how to confront Propp's fundamental logic underlying his book. Do we have to make a map as to walk correctly and understand the world? In my opinion, a map would be required. But, I am not convinced, as Propp is, that the map must be drawn before anyone can walk correctly. There seems to be a relationship between the walking and cartography that defies human logic and planning; we cannot know everything, but, in telling ourselves we do, we only welcome pointless meandering and suffering, therefore, do not follow a map of territory not yet explored. Embracing this logic, Lao-Tzu provides a positive start to a journey by asking if we would be willing start blind. However, after starting blind, one would hope that they could open their eyes; to love people and govern a country without initial knowledge, yet gain it in the process - which is not to say that one should have no knowledge and not accumulate competence before taking up a large task, but should recognise that what knowledge they possess now is likely reducible to a zero if the task they have before them is truly substantial (for example, governing a country or loving someone). This is what Lao-Tzu asserts with: "Give birth and cultivate. Give birth and do not possess. Act without dependence. Excel but do not rule".

In regards to narrative, I believe that this assertion translates to us having to speak of the life of speech before knowing anything about its parts, to give birth first and then cultivate. Therefore, we must accept that the start of the journey towards answering what a narrative is for (a question that is embedded into "what is narrative") must begin without knowing and yet be propelled by an investigation of its life. This is to say, we must walk before we map; we must speak of what narrative is for before better specifying what it is, and thus we must induce a cycle that clarifies and strengthens our developing answer to the questions, what is narrative and what is it for? Again: give birth and cultivate.

Because Propp never engages the question of purpose, I believe he fails as a narrative biologist before he even starts his work. He seeks to find the organs of the folktale and assumes that, having done so, his work is done. If we were to cut Propp some slack, however, we could accept that he believes that his work is just the start of a larger battle. He wants to provide us the names and characteristics of certain organs and thinks that from here that it should be the work of others to compare what he finds in Russian folktales to what others find in other narratives as to then answer a "what for?" or "why?" question.

Alas, keeping in mind that Propp's work represents the start of something far more larger than himself, let us return his conceptualisation of the functions. As said, he deals with functions as spinning cogs that just make a system work (what it works for we are never told). His spinning cogs are nonetheless characters, thus, he derives the fundamental motifs of folktale narratives from their 'dramatis personae'.

Dramatis personae is an interesting term as, though it only means main characters, the direct Latin translation is 'masks of the drama'. The Latin 'drama' is derivative of the Greek 'dramatos', however, and so though the Latin 'drama' defined theatrical plays, the Greek 'dramatos' defined 'play, action or deed'. The more accurate translation of dramatis personae may then be 'masks of the action'. And in reference to the theatrical masks that Greek theatre is known for, this term is an embodiment of the idea that characters are the face of action - which is, itself, is the manifestation and representation of imitation, leaving characters mimetic masks. 'Dramatis personae' is also a more universalising term than 'character'. Character implies individuality, whereas a mask or persona is generalising (why else does a mask cover a face?), leaving one to imagine a caricature or archetype. And so Propp, more so as an aside or assisting function, identifies caricatures, character types or archetypes alongside his narrative functions. Furthermore, he specifies that the limited set of archetypes are embedded into, and catalysing of, the narrative functions. Before we then look at Propp's structure of the universal folktale, let us first look at his universal masks, his archetypes:

Hero
Helper
Villain
False Hero
Donor
Dispatcher
Princess
Princess' Father

Because I have provided so much commentary already, I will not further comment on these archetypes, nor on the functions I will soon list. I do, however, encourage you to research and ponder upon them. Let us then look through Propp's 31 narrative functions:

1. Absentation: Someone goes missing
2. Interdiction: Hero is warned
3. Violation of interdiction
4. Reconnaissance: Villain seeks something
5. Delivery: The villain gains information
6. Trickery: Villain attempts to deceive victim
7. Complicity: Unwitting helping of the enemy
8. Villainy and lack: The need is identified
9. Mediation: Hero discovers the lack
10. Counteraction: Hero chooses positive action
11. Departure: Hero leave on mission
12. Testing: Hero is challenged to prove heroic qualities
13. Reaction: Hero responds to test
14. Acquisition: Hero gains magical item
15. Guidance: Hero reaches destination
16. Struggle: Hero and villain do battle
17. Branding: Hero is branded
18. Victory: Villain is defeated
19. Resolution: Initial misfortune or lack is resolved
20. Return: Hero sets out for home
21. Pursuit: Hero is chased
22. Rescue: pursuit ends
23. Arrival: Hero arrives unrecognized
24. Claim: False hero makes unfounded claims
25. Task: Difficult task proposed to the hero
26. Solution: Task is resolved
27. Recognition: Hero is recognised
28. Exposure: False hero is exposed
29. Transfiguration: Hero is given a new appearance
30. Punishment: Villain is punished
31. Wedding: Hero marries and ascends the throne

This is the key result of Propp's morphology, and it is this unique work derived from the study of hundreds of Russian folktales that made Propp such an important structuralist. His lists provide a range of functions and archetypes that are present in all Russian folktales and even have their place in books and movies. It is important to note, however, that not every character and every function is in every folktale; it is merely the case that a folktale or story without some or most of the functions or archetypes is incredibly rare. What we then see represented here is an example of how narratives can be reduced to concepts and objects. One could argue that Propp deals only with objects - that meaning, he reduces narratives to masks and functions. If this is unfair to suggest, however, it seems clear that the concepts underlying the 31 functions and 8 archetypes are certainly lacking depth. Alas, with Propp provided as an example of the structuralist philosophy applied to narrative, I'd like to leave things with you and on a question of what you think about the philosophy or approach of structuralism and its results.

Before bringing things to a complete close, it must be noted that there is more to Propp's book, Morphology of the Folktale, than what has been mentioned here; we have only touched on the key chapter. I would then recommend reading the book (it is quite short at only 100 or so pages). You may also find this website useful as this lists the characters and functions and more.






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16/07/2018

The Stanford Prison Experiment - The Rain & The Rainbow

Thoughts On: The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

An experimental simulation of a prison system in a university yields results that no one foresaw.


Wholly chilling and entirely immersive, The Stanford Prison Experiment is something close to a masterpiece; the acting, the direction, the writing, the cinematography, I cannot fault any of it, not even slightly. I went into this film having studied The Stanford Prison Experiment in a psychology class a few years ago, and so I knew of everything that would happen and had spent time contemplating what the real experiment says about humanity. But, there is something entirely different about seeing this played out on film, almost unable to separate it from reality. From the film emerges more than the facts, numbers and interviews I studied; from the film comes this and a narrative so easily attributable to ourselves and history. One of the most important questions that this experiment then conjures is as follows: How far away was this from becoming Nazi Germany or Stalin's Russia? What would this experiment look like given more resources, a more complex goal and more people? Furthermore, what part would we have played as either the 'guard' or 'prisoner'?

Whilst so much could be said about the terror of authority that this film, and experiment, presents, I think there is value looking at this as not necessarily about authority. Authority, in my estimation, is an embodiment of something higher than, for example, a guard. Authority is such a scary term because it contains 'author', and authors, of course, construct worlds and rules. To have authority is to be able to write the rules of reality - and this is precisely what we see in the film/experiment: the guards and prisoners fall prey to a new sense of what is real and who they are, which is almost entirely constructed. However, this is not the fundamental element of the experiment in my view. Beyond the author and his ability to merely manifest rules rests something approximating an ideal, something representing reasoning and something encasing meaning. For the guards of this experiment, their authority lies in the ideal of control, of punishing and confining their prisoners; those who believe in control most then become the most influential writers of the prisoners' reality. The authority of the prisoners, what little of it that they have, lies in themselves; their self-autonomy, and decision to relinquish authorship of their own existence. Such is a terrible loop to be caught in: to hold authorship over an agreement to give up ones authorship. This seems to be why the 'best' prisoners, those who conform to the rules they've written for themselves, get so lost in the world they choose to accept from the guards and start to live as a true prisoner. That said, it bears worth to mention that the heads of this experiment have the most authority and the highest reasoning or ideal; they want to do good by seeing how bad things can go. And what another terrible loop to be caught in.

Without delving into too much detail, it becomes very clear that all that goes wrong in this film is predicated on authority derived from given ideals that, themselves, have a strong tendency to turn corrupt. In short, what this experiment proves above all else is the danger of a singular ideal allowed to be embodied by relentless authority. Maybe this says something about a time and place such as Nazi Germany; a corrupt ideal embodied by relentless authority gives rise to absolute hell.

There is light to be seen in this experiment, however: ideals change. The fact that the experiment was not completed says more about authority than the possibility of how far it could have gone. And this is for the simple fact that one can betray their own authority for an ideal of greater measure. It is then important not to see this film and lament the reality-bending properties of authority and corrupt ideals. There is potential in humanity for both good and bad and it manifests ideals of equal breed that, in reality, always conflict. So, whilst the experiment put to film here is not reflective of the reality of a prison system, it does have real humans within it. And so as the boundaries of the prison fall away, the humans remain, no matter how clouded and lost their shells become.

It is then as if Pandora's Box is opened by The Stanford Prison Experiment. As this box flings wide open and soul and humanity are swept away upon winds of corruption and authority, there is always potential for it to be closed before all is lost. The same force that opens Pandora's Box is the same force that closes it; it is the force of an ideal. What matters is what ideal possess the hands that can open and close the box, and how they battle to let truth and goodness overcome falsity that breeds endless darkness.

To bring things towards an end, it must be said that this film can potentially leave you speechless if you are sucked into its dark perspective's potential. Do not fail to see the light shone before your eyes. Ask, then, how far the experiment would go, yet, remember that the experiment was stopped. With responses at hand, ask what this says about humanity, not one or the other.






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