A Glut of Content

Last month I wrote about Netflix and how I’d like to drop it (maybe someday!). Recently I find that I’m not even watching Amazon Prime Video all that much, aside from an occasional episode of Baylon 5. Of course adding endlessly to my Watch List remains a great pleasure.

I touched upon this the other day, but the amount of content out there now is just amazing. Now that time has gone from valuable commodity to luxury item, I find myself mostly looking for two things in my video entertainment –

1. Value for cost

2. Chunkability

By value for cost, I mean that I am willing to pay for something if I really want to watch it (like Criterion Collection J movies on sale at Barnes and Noble this month!). But with so much free, decent-quality content available out there plus the two subscription video services I’m already paying for, I’m not going to shell out to watch Premium YouTube or Hulu AllStars or HBO Mega. It’s gotta really be worth it.

This can be taken even further when you consider the free trials available out there. After the baby was born, I did the Hulu one-month free trial so I could rewatch Last Man Standing and Adventure Time. When I get more time, I’d like to try out Film Struck, as well…

Chunkability is my way of saying I can watch it in short, easily digestible pieces and put it down constantly without losing too much. This is a huge benefit of video over video games right now, actually. Watch a 20-minute episode of something; chunk and chip 15 minute-increments out of a 45-minute episode. Movies are doable, but shows with shortish episodes are best.

If I had to enumerate to 3, I’d say I crave entertainment untainted by politics and the culture war. Unless I’m watching a Crowder video, I’d rather be enjoying art or movies or comics or scifi for itself and not struggling to look past its wokeness. I work in a DC liberal bubble – I don’t need to be reminded that conservatives are Nazis and that we are literally living in a Handmaiden’s Tale.

 

So what kind of stuff do I watch? Well here are a few flavors I like to lick:

PA TV

The Penny Arcade guys don’t just do comics. I used to watch an occasional First 15 (where the dudes just play the first 15 minutes of a random video game and comment as they go). Surprise – Jerry and Mike are funny and interesting guys.

Well, the gate is open now. I recently finished watching PA: The Series, and I am working my way through Strip Search now. I’m generally not a big fan of reality TV, but the PA flavor combined with the novel theme of “comic artistry” scratches an itch I didn’t know I had.

Cinemassacre

I’ve been watching The Angry Video Game Nerd for years. Yes, it’s gimmicky. But the guy’s love of video games and cinema is contagious, and the low budget special effects he peppers in have grown on me.

Red Letter Media

Come for Mr. Plinkett’s renowned Star Wars reviews, stay for Scientist Man.

I didn’t used to care much for Half in the Bag (the team’s regular movie review show), but I’ve come to appreciate these guys. I don’t always agree with them, but they’re good critics and just funny dudes.

Other

There’s plenty of great stuff out there – from Eric Rap Battles of History to Legolambs’ musicals to Jordan Schlansky videos, depending on your tastes. Go out and discover!

So I’ve got plenty to tide me over while I wait for my old samurai movies to arrive…

sanjuro2

-Bushi

bushi

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Writing Topic: Foreshadowing, or Why Does Stuff Happen in a Story?

  • by Gitabushi

A few weeks ago I wrote “Economies of Scale”, a fairy tale.  One thing I wanted to do in that story was make the main character encounter a series of obstacles, overcome them in his path to achieving his goal, and even have some of those obstacles actually contribute to achieving that goal.  Meaning, the main character wouldn’t have succeeded if something that seemed bad at the time didn’t turn out to help.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So the story was partly an exercise in trying to make a coherent, believable narrative.

I cheated, perhaps, by making it a fairy tale, which relaxes some of the rules of realism.

It didn’t work for everyone.  One critique I got was that it just seemed like things happened because the author wanted them to happen.  I disagreed: I thought I set up fairly realistic obstacles, had the character make fairly realistic responses to the obstacles, and the outcomes were also fairly realistic.  I just figured he wasn’t the audience for the story (which was a big breakthrough for me in writing confidence).

However, after thinking about it for a few days, I realized that what it meant was I didn’t set up the foreshadowing adequately.

[As is my wont, now is the moment when I suddenly make a sharp turn into a different topic that seems like a digression until I bring it back to the main point]

In music, there is no impossible collection of notes.  Anything can be musical.  You can walk up to a piano and slam your fists down randomly on the keyboard and still make it sound like music, if you are skilled.  The trick, the key element, is resolution.  Each note must be carefully resolved toward consonance. If one step isn’t enough, two or three probably are.  In fact, the best music is often that which hits what would be a very discordant, unmusical sound (if heard in isolation) that, nonetheless, is beautiful and even moving when properly resolved to a consonant chord.  You can make it even better if you approach it carefully and properly.

The same is true, albeit in reverse, in writing fiction.

You can have the most incredible, unbelievable, unrealistic event or character action/decision…if, and only if, you set it up correctly.

Chekov said that if a gun is on the mantel in the 2nd Act, it must be fired by the 3rd Act. Or something like that. A quick search returned so many different versions, I’m just going to stick with my gist.

The corollary of this is that if you want to have a gun go off in the 3rd Act, you should have it innocuously appear in an earlier act.  It can’t be just pulled out of nowhere. Even worse if you take the time to set up a conflict that looks completely unresolvable with the current tools and options open to the main character, and then resolve the problem by having them pull out a tool the audience didn’t know they had, like a pistol.  This is how I understand the weakness of a Deus Ex Machina ending.

So one way of understanding why my friend didn’t like the plot development is I didn’t set up each obstacle resolution properly, with enough foreshadowing.

One technique I tried to use was something I don’t know the name of: if the character is going to find or use something that helps, it must also be used to hurt the main character.  The reverse is true, as well: if the antagonist can use something to harm or block the protagonist, then it is fair game for the protagonist to use it in return.

Go read the story again to see if you can spot the times I tried that. Let me know if you thought it too clumsy, or what I could have done to do it better.  I say “could have done” because for better or worse, the story is done.  I like it. It has weaknesses, but I think it works as is, so as is it shall stay.

Later, in a discussion with my friend, he pointed out that another thing that would have helped make the story better is if the main character has a better feeling of agency, meaning that all the actions taken by the characters seem, um, in character with the personality/person I’ve established.

I admit, that one’s harder than me. I have a difficult time thinking in characters. I fear that everything I write is going to end up sounding like “me, as a space pirate”, “me, as a dragon hunter”, “me, as an assassin”.  I hope not.  My characters do seem different from each other to me, but they’ve grown on the page, rather than me choosing a specific voice, or specific attributes.  This is one I really need to work on.

Thoughts?

Netflix is part of the Apparatus

This post is probably going to sound a little more crankish than you get from me, but now that I have a flesh and blood son who’s rapidly growing up, I find myself thinking about certain things a lot more often and critically. Specifically, how will he be educated? What shows and movies will he watch? And what values will be passively hammered into his impressionable young mind?

I’m not a big conspiracy theorist, but I think it’s clear enough, if you stay abreast of the news and have baseline observation skills, that Education and Entertainment have been the domains of the Left for some time now. It may not have happened in any kind of concerted way beyond people hiring those with views similar to their own, but here we are.

I think the pendulum will eventually swing back the other way, though how and when is anyone’s guess. There’s a glimmer of hope to be found in the Indie Spring that new technology has allowed in recent years.

Amazon and YouTube are not safe havens for creators. YouTube has been quietly demonetizing unfavored affiliates for a while. But still, there’s a lot more content out there now that the TV broadcasters and movie studios aren’t the only ones with access to large audiences.

This is a very good thing, in light of the direction companies like Netflix have been taking their business.

I won’t hold Netflix’s push for big-government Net Neutrality against it too much; after all, it would benefit them greatly, and they are ultimately a business.

Earlier this year, though, Netflix hired Susan Rice to its board of directors. Rice, of course, is a controversy-embroiled former member of the Obama administration. You may remember her as the one who told Face the Nation that the Benghazi attack was the result of a spontaneous protest sparked by a YouTube video.

Sounds like someone I’d want helping to steer the ship of my online streaming video business, and not at all like some kind of politically motivated hiring.

Shortly after, Netflix announced deals with…Barrack and Michelle Obama. To produce films and series. Right.

Let’s not forget that a decent chunk (not all) of the original content that Netflix has been putting out over the years has been postmodernist, “progressive” (that is, dismissive or hostile to traditional values), and/or openly Leftist.

Yes, Netflix scrambles to pick up talent like Amy Schumer and the Obamas. And yet when Last Man Standing, ABC’s second most watched comedy was inexplicably (or politically) canceled, and viewers were wondering if another network would pick it up, Netflix…did nothing. Fox recently announced that it had snapped up the series, but it makes you wonder. If Netflix were really interested in diversity of programming, you’d think it would have jumped at the chance to pick up a more conservative-leaning, popular TV show. So why didn’t it?

Netflix does have neutral content and a smattering of conservative-friendly stuff, but the real answer is that the company has got one foot in the liberal, California tech world and another in the liberal, California entertainment world. And now it’s bringing on Democrat politicians, as well. Diversity, to these people, does not include differing ideas or philosophies. It means non-white, non-Christian, non-heterosexual, non-male.

The company may see itself as a plucky upstart challenging Entertainment’s Big Players and striving to provide something for everyone, but the reality is that Netflix has become a Big Player. It’s become part of the Apparatus.

Conservatives don’t tend to boycott as much as liberals do, and I think most average folk probably don’t recognize what’s going on. I mean, as much as I could get by fine with just Amazon Prime, I’ve got a wife who wants to watch A Series of Unfortunate Events and Lost in Space: the Gritty Reboot. So Netflix will keep doing its thing and people will (for now) keep watching.

But one day the pendulum is going to swing. And it won’t be just for Netflix.

In the meantime, we have to be vigilant. As a parent, you can’t completely insulate your children, and you can’t control everything they’re exposed to. Nor, arguably, should you. But at least during their formative years, you’ve got to be responsible for their education and make sure if they’re exposed to modern dreck that they’re also provided context and truth.

And when it is under your control (a little TV before nap time!), you’ve got to know what your kids are watching and make sure it’s something wholesome. For which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?

-Bushi

bushi

A secret Hobbit song

HP’s Summer of Tolkien has got me hankering for some Hobbit!

I’ve got very fond memories of the old Rankin and Bass production that HP recently reviewed. I saw it before having read the book, and no doubt it contributed (along with the other Rankin and Bass films, David the Gnome, Eureeka’s Castle, and the like) to the strange brew that fostered my strong and lasting love of fantasy and scifi.

Perhaps needless to say, the songs from the Hobbit cartoon poke me in the nostalgia bone.

The other day I was killing some time with my son, who’s just starting to notice shapes and colors and reach for things with his hands, and I decided to play “The Greatest Adventure” for him. Conveniently, I found a whole playlist of the OST!

And…what’s this? Track 3: Old Fat Spider.

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Quite interesting. I don’t know if the Mirkwood scene involving Bilbo’s fight with the spiders was originally slated to run longer, but this song didn’t make it to the final cut.

So if you’re a fan of the animation, check it out. A nice little secret tune.

-Bushi

bushi

MUST WATCH CINEMA: “Zorro, the Gay Blade”

  • by Gitabushi

I have come to the realization that “Zorro the Gay Blade” isn’t a very well known movie.  It should be.

Zorro_the_gay_blade
Copyright likely held by 20th Century Fox; picture taken from Wikipedia

Watch it here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoYvjJMNnc0

Like many near-40-year-old comedies, it does suffer from slow pacing at times. But much of the humor has help up very well, and it is highly quotable.

I recommend it without reservation. Great movie.

Writing Tip: Frustration of Goals

  • by Gitabushi

I’m currently reading some stuff. Yes, my parents are very proud.

I’ve been reading some science fiction by some aspiring writers, but at the same time, I’m also working my way through Jin Yong’s “The Deer and the Cauldron” in Chinese.

Jin Yong is the Grand Master of Chinese martial arts pulp. To give you a sense of what I’m reading, the martial arts heroes of his genre are probably closest to our comic book superheroes.  They were considered garbage literature as he wrote it, widely popular among the less-educated, not as illuminating or uplifting as the Four Great Novels or Lu Xun (the Mark Twain, perhaps, of Chinese literature).  And yet, it was Jin Yong’s books that have inspired dozens of movies and television adaptations. His characters and stories are still found as pop culture references everywhere. And in retrospect, many consider Jin Yong’s books (and those he inspired) to actually be literature.

That’s why I consider his writings to be the Chinese version of pulp.

As such, I have multiple reasons to read the books: 1) they are good. 2) it’s great practice for my Chinese reading and general language ability. 3) they are well-structured stories of adventure and heroism.

One thing struck me in my last reading session: I haven’t even finished the introductory chapter, and the framing characters are still just discussing the back story, and yet, the villain fails twice in his attempt to create mischief!

The villain is an official who has earned the just desserts for his corruption: fired and penniless, he’s begging for money to get home. He flatters a rich man about his son’s manuscript in hopes of getting increased charity.  The rich man realizes the official has never read the book, and tries to provide a financial incentive for the official to read and be transformed. The official, however, finds the gold leaf slipped into the pages without reading. And yet, the trick works, in a way: the official actually reads the book, but only in hopes of wheedling additional gold from the rich man.  However, upon reading, he is not educated or enlightened, but actually recognizes the text of the book provides him with an outstanding opportunity for blackmail.

So, rather than using the gold leaf to return home and start his life over, he prepares his blackmail gambit by mailing the book and his accusations to a local administrator, and uses the money to remain in the area to wait for his plot to come to fruition. He waits a year.  Nearly out of money, he discovers that the rich man was tipped off and sidestepped the blackmail peril by editing and republishing the book.  The corrupt official scours all possible locations for the original book across the entire province, and can’t find a single one.  Since he sent in the book with his accusations, he has no proof to continue the scheme, so finally heads home.

Nearly home, he stumbles on someone who has an original copy of the book.  Without enough money to offer to purchase it, he steals it.  Although he was nearly out of money, he economizes his life to stay in the area longer, and re-tries the gambit, but at the nation’s capital.

The rich man was ahead of him, however, and bribes the higher officials to only review the revised editions.

The corrupt official economizes once again, and puts everything into a public display of all his denouncements, so that it can’t be covered up by allies of the rich man at the right government positions.

I haven’t read far enough to see how it turns out, but since the blackmail has to work for there to be a story, I’m assuming this is where he finally succeeds in his nefarious schemes.  I’m also fairly certain he doesn’t profit by it.

There is so much good here.

First, human nature: Good people do good, expecting there will be good results; they never realize that the evil will always find ways to turn good intent to serve their selfish urges.  The evil people see goodness as weakness.  And yet, the evil is simple, human-sized, and believable: love of comfort. The evil man could have taken the gold concealed in the book and lived the rest of his life at a level beyond the dreams of the multitudes of poor people.  Or he could have economized his lifestyle fairly early and lived decently, although not terribly comfortably, for a few years while he improved his abilities or reputation for his next career opportunity. Instead, he lived large in expectations of future windfalls, for as long as he could, until he no longer could.  And then when he realized the need for change, it was only to endure longer to bring about the windfall.  He worked harder on a blackmail scheme for a big payoff than he would have to earn that same amount through hard work and diligence.

This makes the story more believable.

But the most important lesson to me here is obstacles.

This is backstory.  This is a minor character who we will never see again. This is the key issue that will launch the oppression that forms the backdrop for the main story.

And yet the author *still* thwarts plans multiple times before finally allowing the realization of goals.

This is, as I said, a backstory, but it is very nearly a full novel of developments in itself…merely shrunk down into a condensed narrative that spans a handful of paragraphs.

Too many times I read stories where everything the heroes attempt, succeeds.  Sure, we want to read stories where the heroes win.  But it shouldn’t be direct.  The Sci-Fi book I’m reading simultaneous to the “Deer and the Cauldron” has a *few* twists thrown in, but when they get a new mission, I know they’ll be successful at the mission, pretty much as planned. As such, in contrast to the “Deer and the Cauldron,” it comes across as too predictable for me.

One rule of writing I absorbed somewhere was: if you tell the readers the plan, it can’t succeed.  If you want the plan to succeed, don’t tell them the plan.

Consider Ocean’s 11.  They make you *think* you know what the plan is.  Then so many things go wrong.  It looks like they have no chance.  And then they reveal that you never knew what the plan was at all. It actually worked to perfection.  But that’s what made it good.  If you were told what would happen, and then it happened exactly like that, you’d be bored.

What Jin Yong did here is closely related.  But the writing lesson here is: nothing ever goes as planned. Nothing is simple, and nothing is straightforward.  Even the bad guy will have most of his attempts thwarted.  What makes him a bad guy is he persists at being bad until he succeeds. And therefore, what makes the good guy good is he persists at being a good guy until he succeeds.

Too often, I think, writers want their good guy to succeed, and they lack the patience (or insight into humanity?) to put them through very much.  Early Edgar Rice Burroughs actually suffers from this, but within a few years, he’s doing a great job making his heroes’ plans fail the first few times they try.

But most writers, just like ERB, let their villains have it too easy: whatever scheme they hatch works fine, right up until the good guy defeats it.  And that’s okay, I guess. You have opposition, you have suspense. But you know the good guy is going to win.  You know the good guy is better/smarter/stronger than the bad guy, so the result is inevitable.

Jin Yong shows us another way.

The bad guy has it rough, too. The bad guy has to work for his goals, too.  Life and perversity of people gets in the bad guy’s way, just like it gets in the good guy’s way.

And now, it really is a battle of equals. Anything can happen. Both are determined, persistent, and skilled enough to work past the normal obstacles of life. Now they are clashing in the final struggle.  Who will win???

The good guy, of course.  But now you have no idea how they will win.  You want to see how, you *need* to see how. You have no idea what new wrinkles will be thrown at both the bad guy and the good guy, because both will encounter adversity.

It adds complexity, but requires more patience.

I need to be more patient as a writer to let my story develop, and not just skip over events and narrative details to get to the good parts. Even the background should have tension and good parts.

 

Paradigm: Topology

  • by Gitabushi

 

At one point in my schooling, I was introduced to the idea of topology. “The properties of space that are preserved under continuous deformations, such as stretching, crumpling and bending, but not tearing or gluing.”

Topologically, a coffee cup looks like a donut.

Topologically, I look like Harrison Ford: I have a pierced left ear, and a scar on my chin, just like him.  Although there may be other differences I’m not aware of that make us different.  Probably healed surgical holes disqualify that. Whatever. It sounded good at first.

Anyway, there are different aspects by which topology can be applied to life, thinking, and philosophy.

For instance, I first encountered the concept of “skins” with WinAmp.  Change a skin, and it looks like you have a whole different program, but it is functionally the same.  Your character plays the exact same way regardless of which skin you choose (Yes, yes, in one of the recent Zelda games, your abilities change as you change your clothes. I don’t care).

But it can go farther than that.  In some ways, the first Jagged Alliance game was not much more than a skin of XCom: UFO Defense.  Sure, the missions were set up and executed differently.  The weapons were different, movement and obstacles were different.  The bad guys in XCom were much tougher than Jagged Alliance. But play one, and you really understand the game mechanics of the other.

Or the GURPS and D20 role playing game systems: Once you learn the underlying rules, the only difference is what skin you put on it, to be able to play a dungeon crawl, or a 20s Gangster game, or an Old West game.

One could also consider Clarke’s notion that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” to be a topological notion.  If you create a stream of fire by saying some magic words, or press a button to create the same effect, is it any different to the charred remains?

Okay, here’s the payoff, and it probably wasn’t worth your time:

The problem I have with most of the pulp I’ve read is it is topologically identical to the “story” I made up in this post.

To me, most pulp just doesn’t have any real tension.  You know the hero is going to win, and there isn’t even any real tension in seeing how he is going to win.  ERB, at his worst, is just Unique Setting and General Badassery. Even REH, at his worst, is nothing more than that, but maybe with some extra-lush descriptions thrown in.

To me, a story isn’t a story unless there is development of some kind, something to be learned, an idea to be shared, a concept to be taught or explored.

Have you ever watched a replay of a sporting event?  Perhaps at the time, it was so exciting to watch as your team came back and won. Or exciting to see them come back and just barely fall short at the end.  In the replay, though?  While you can evoke some of the feeling of tension and excitement, you really are just remembering what you felt at the time.  The outcome is set in stone. It already happened. I doubt you make a habit of re-watching old games, unless you are looking for some specific information, like how well the OLB handled coverage duties.

That’s what many pulp stories read like.  The hero has been given abilities to overcome whatever the author can throw in their way, so it becomes as drama-filled as watching someone else play Pong.

Sure, every story follows the same few plots, but what makes a story good, memorable, and worth sharing and re-reading is conflict: the main character wants something, and there is someone who opposes him.  They use their abilities to vie for who will succeed.  Or the main character has a conflict within themselves about what they really want and/or really need, and there must be a struggle to see which desire will win out, and if it will be to his benefit or sorrow.  Or the main character wants something, but if he gets it, he loses something else, and must decide how to handle the trade-offs, and see if he can minimize the trade-offs.

For this, a writer must understand human nature, must understand motivation, must understand how different people think, how they pursue their goals, what their priorities are.  From this understanding, good stories arise.

Star Wars is not topologically the same as Groundhog Day. Ghostbusters is not topologically the same as 13 Hours: the Benghazi Story.  A good story, with conflict, is unique.

Wrap up: Sometimes I think it helps to think of things from a topological standpoint: are these two things that look different, actually just the same thing with different skins?  Or are these two things that look the same actually different in nature?

Let me know if you ever use this sort of thinking in your analysis of life, books, games, etc.