The Alexandrian

Posts tagged ‘thought of the day’

The End of Watchmen

November 29th, 2016

Watchmen

I really enjoyed Zach Snyder’s Watchmen movie. I felt that, despite the limitations of its form and the flaws in its creation, it still managed to capture many of the things that were amazing about the original work. (And the opening tableau is jaw-droppingly awesome.)

But he totally prat-falled when it came to the ending.

“I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

First, the plan from the original story shifts from framing aliens humans will never find but would be able to at least hypothetically defend themselves against (as evidenced by the fact they just made a mistake in their invasion plans) to framing a guy who humans absolutely, positively cannot defend themselves against (as demonstrated by the fact he just casually destroyed two major cities) and who is going to live on Mars. This fundamentally changes the tone of the plan from “humanity will come together to face a common foe” to “humanity will behave itself or the angry god will come back to punish us”.

More importantly, Snyder screws up the execution. What makes the line haunting in the comic book is that you linger in a moment of stillness and silence; the reader basically joined Rorschach and Nite-Owl standing in a stunned silence as the horrible implications of that simple, casually spoken statement. (I’ve also always read the line as being delivered the same way someone might say, “I picked up the groceries today.” But I recognize that that’s idiosyncratic.)

Snyder doesn’t give you that moment. He doesn’t let the meaning of the words settle over you. He doesn’t give your imagination a moment to catch up to the rest of your brain and go, “HOLY SHIT!” Instead he:

  • Cuts away from Ozymandias just before he says the line to a reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite-Owl.
  • Has the camera in motion.
  • Has the score rise to a crescendo.
  • Hard cuts away from the line to immediately show what happened 35 minutes ago.

The entire effect is to anticipate (and thus undercut) the line; and then place the emphasis on the action to follow instead of the line itself.

All of that, by itself, would completely ruin the effectiveness of the line. (Which is why you never see anybody quoting the line who hasn’t read it in the comic book: In the movie, it’s simply not quotable.)

He also rewrites the line. The first of these (changing “Republic serial villain” to “comic book villain”) is largely irrelevant to the current discussion (although it does needlessly remove nuance; one of the major points in Watchmen is that in a world where superheroes actually exist, they aren’t perfect heroes — it isn’t the Marvel universe where the Marvel comics are actually published; it’s a universe where superhero comics didn’t exist). But the crucial change is from:

  • “I did it thirty-five minutes ago.”

to:

  • “I triggered it thirty-five minutes ago.”

And the semantic shift, though subtle, is not insignificant. If you trigger something, you have set it in motion (which inherently means you could still stop it). If you did something, on the other hand, then it’s done. This, too, effectively undercuts the ability for the finality of the line to land.

If I was teaching a class in film editing, I would cue this up along with the special editions of the Star Wars movies as examples of how subtle the difference in editing is between a great film and a mediocre one.

It actually reminds me of the story told by the scriptwriters for Casablanca. That film was infamously being rewritten basically up until the last day of shooting, and they had just written the famous ending to the film the day before it was filmed. (“Round up the usual suspects.”) So the director films it, it gets edited, and then they call the writers to tell them that the ending isn’t working. So the writers head over to the studio and they discover that they’re basically trying to do it in one take, “Major Strasser has been shot.” (looks at Rick) “Round up the usual suspects.”

And the writers say, “No, no, no. You have to say, ‘Major Strasser has been shot.’ And then cut to Rick. And then cut to Renault. And then cut to Rick. And then cut back for, ‘Round up the usual suspects.'” You have to see the thought. And so they recut the scene and, of course, it’s a classic.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

Since I’m talking about this, I’d also like to delve a little deeper into what makes the original Moore/Gibbons storytelling in this moment so utterly compelling.

Look at the composition of the full page:

Watchmen - I Did It Thirty-Five Minutes Ago

It consists of three panels, each taking up the full width of the page. (You can click any of these images to see them at a larger size.)

The first panel, of course, contains the definitive quote. The fact that it takes up a full page width causes the perceived moment to extend in the reader’s mind.

The second panel is a completely silent reaction shot of Rorschach and Nite Owl. Their faces are completely blank in shock; like they’ve been hit in the face with a two-by-four. Notably, the panel is framed to show a bank of clocks in the background. The current time in New York is shown as being one minute to midnight: Which is where the Doomsday Clock has been for the entire comic. Snyder tries to do the same thing, but (a) puts the reaction shot before the revelation and (b) makes the metaphor literal by showing the the actual countdown clocks of the operation at 00:00 (which also means he cuts away from the moment).

The third panel shows a street in New York. Utterly silent. It is, in fact, the fourth page in a row which has the final, page-wide panel depict that New York street:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

The previous instances had Ozymandias talking over them in captions; but this one does not — it further extends the moment of silence that persists in that room between Ozymandias, Rorschach, and Nite Owl. And it simultaneously reveals that all those shots of New York you were seeing were, in fact, in the past… which inevitably leads you to imagine the destruction which is about to happen.

And then you turn the page and there it is. But you still don’t actually see a giant explosion. You see people react to it. And then you see them vaporized by it:

Watchmen - Destruction of New York

It’s absolutely brilliant visual storytelling in every single way.

Snyder, of course, goes for the disaster porn instead.

Caverns of ThraAsh McAllan sent me a tweet: “Hey @hexcrawl I keep referring people to [Jaquaying the Dungeon]… but noticed you’re using Jaquays’ deadname? Needs updating.”

(For those unaware, the author of The Caverns of Thracia transitioned in, if I recall correctly, 2012.)

This is something I’ve actually given quite a bit of thought to, both generally and in the specific instance of Jaquaying the Dungeon. And my philosophy is that name changes generally progress forward through time.

First: If Jennell had been Jennell when I wrote the essay, I’d have used Jennell. But what I wrote is what I wrote when I wrote it. Similarly, I don’t think we need to edit this video and dub in Caitlyn Jenner’s name.

I don’t think it’s either practical or necessary for us to revise extant works in order to match people’s changing identities. For example, what if I was dead? Who’d have the authority to decide what needed to be rewritten in my work? And what if I’d written a poem and rhymed a word with the name “Paul”? You can’t just search-and-replace names and necessarily arrive at something true.

Second: For similar reasons, I think it’s accurate to say that Cassius Clay won the Clay-Liston fight. (Because that was his name when it happened.) I also think it can be accurate to write that Muhammad Ali won that fight. It would not, however, be accurate to say that Cassius Clay won the Rumble in the Jungle (because that is not a thing which ever happened).

So, in the future, I may refer to “The Caverns of Thracia by Paul Jaquays”. Because that was her name when she wrote it.

There are archival issues here (i.e., you can’t reasonably track down every extant copy of The Caverns of Thracia and scratch out the author’s name on them; and even if you could, there would be some really significant ethical issues with rewriting cultural history like that). There are also issues of historical accuracy (which can be demonstrated with sentences like “Muhammad Ali then changed his name to Muhammad Ali” — which makes no sense if you’ve succeeded in your hypothetical mission to strike all references to the name Cassius Clay from the historical record).

Important proviso here: All of the above is discussing public figures and publicly known events. Very different standards apply to non-public events and private individuals, many of whom may be living stealth. Even if we ignore the ethical right for someone to control their own identity and privacy (although I can’t honestly think of any reason why we would want to do that), there are very real dangers in outing someone. Arguing that someone should say “that was back when HE graduated from college” because that happened before Jane transitioned is to inherently say that Jane should be outed any time events from her life before transitioning are mentioned.

(Some of you may be thinking that there shouldn’t be a distinction here. Consider a hypothetical scenario where Jennell was living stealth. Therefore, I should refer to past events in her life using only her current name and pronoun, right? Except if I say, “Jennell wrote The Caverns of Thracia.” that combines poorly with the public knowledge that the name “Paul” appears on all those extant copies of the book. I would have just functionally outed Jennell. Private and public information work in fundamentally different ways, and trying to treat them in the same way doesn’t work.)

In my ideal world, the changing of identity for a transexual or transgender person would be no more notable than any other change in name and identity. And we’d be able to treat them all openly and without any significant comment because, honestly, it’s just not that big a deal. Unfortunately, that’s just not the world we live in. In this world it is a big deal — it can literally be a life or death deal. And that needs to be respected.

Star Trek - Captain Kirk

One of the problems with running military games in an RPG is the chain of command: Realistically speaking, even on remote missions with a small team (i.e., ideal RPG fodder) there should still be one guy who’s actually in charge of the op. This can either be an NPC (which can either lead to railroading or, for the GM not interested in railroading, a really tricky balancing act between having the NPC commander do their job vs. letting the players take the initiative). Or it can be on of the PCs (which can remove the dilemma created by requiring the GM to issue literal orders to the PCs, but which can result in incredibly fragile gameplay that’s highly dependent on the player running the captain).

On my bucket list is running a Star Trek-like open table campaign where every player designs a captain and their bridge crew. When a player requests a session, that player would be running the captain and anyone else who shows up for the session would pick up the roles of their crew troupe-style (meaning that those roles would, over time, be played by a variety of people). This doesn’t so much solve the problem as work-around it by giving everyone their turn in the captain’s chair.

Here’s another thought: Everyone at the table takes on the role of a bridge crew member. But then you also have an Everyone is John-style cap system which gives everybody at the table control over one “slice” of the captain’s personality / skill set and the ability to bid for immediate control over the situation. Unlike Everyone is John — where the character being portrayed is literally suffering from multiple personality order — the goal of the table here is still to portray a coherent character; it’s just that the disproportionate agency possessed by the commanding officer is now jointly shared by the entire table. (Which makes it much more closely resemble the rough-and-tumble democracy of a typical RPG group where everybody usually gets a say in what the next course of action will be, but occasionally somebody will just charge off and force people to follow in their wake.)

First Secret of Prep: It will always, always, always add value to your game and make for a better session IF (and this is a very important if) you focus your prep on the stuff you can’t improvise at the table.

Second Secret of Prep: What you can improvise effectively will depend on your own strengths as a GM, it will change over time, and it will vary based on the system you’re running. I talked about one facet of this in The Hierarchy of Reference, but it applies across the board. Maybe you struggle with having dynamic battles featuring clever tactics, so you spend a little effort prepping Tucker’s Kobolds. Maybe you find it easier to run Pathfinder monsters if you make a point of highlighting feats you’re unfamiliar with and jotting down a note about what they do. Personally, I know that I get too tight-lipped with NPCs revealing the deep secrets of a campaign (because I ruined a campaign once by getting too loose-lipped with those secrets and it’s a Pandora’s Box you can’t close — if the PCs don’t know something they can always learn it later; if they learn too much they can’t forget it), so personally I focus a certain amount of effort on prepping exactly what NPCs know.

Third Secret of Prep: Some stuff you find hard to improvise can be made easy to improvise if you prep the right tools. Procedural content generators are an obvious example of this. But it can also include stuff like “if you’re bad at coming up with names on the fly, prep a list of names”.

Particularly valuable prep targets, of course, are the things that can never be improvised on the fly. Props and handouts are perhaps the most obvious example of this.

I was recently linked to this story on Facebook: U.S. Government Bans Native American Tribe From Protesting On Their Own Land – Send In Police To Remove Protesters.

As far as I can tell, the linked story is bullshit. First, it’s unclear which judicial action it’s reporting on. The article was written on September 7th, but the only judicial action on that day was actually a victory for Native American protestors.

Digging a little deeper, however, it appears that this is actually just a spam site that’s repackaging a story that got a lot of clicks on Facebook so that it can harvest some of that proven clickbait. It was most likely posted by an algorithm that noticed an uptick in Native American-related or pipeline-related stories on social media, and decided to copy-paste an earlier story on those topics which was a known success at attracting likes and shares.

The story it was copying, however, was actually just a spammy repackaging of actual reporting that had taken place several days earlier by Telesur.

Telesur’s story, however, wasn’t accurate. And their headline (“Native Americans Banned from Protesting Pipeline on Own Land”) was total bullshit. As Native News Online accurately reported, the judge’s order only prohibited them from physically interfering with construction. It didn’t ban them from protesting. Furthermore, the site covered by the judge’s order wasn’t actually on a Native American reservation, so it never banned them from ANYTHING “on their own land”.

So, to sum up: Inaccurate reporting tied to a completely inaccurate headline caused a bunch of fringe websites to post mock-outrage stories about something that wasn’t actually happening. One of those mock-outrage stories remixed the headline into a mostly fact-free rant masquerading as a news story and paired it to a really great photograph that caused people to click it and share it. Then some trashy sites noticed that the post was popular and duped it in order to harvest the advertising revenue.

The photograph, by the way, is actually of a Brazilian man from 2012: “An indigenous man stands as riot police stand guard during the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, or Rio+20, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Wednesday, June 20, 2012. Brazil’s indigenous are protesting the government’s plan to construct the large Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.”

And that’s how most Americans are getting their news in 2016.

Which is a problem. Because, as we’ve just demonstrated, what the algorithms, systems, and mob psychology of social media select for is not the dissemination of truth. It is the dissemination of outrage. When you unthinkingly allow yourself to take in that outrage, you’re doing a disservice to yourself. And when you unthinkingly allow that outrage to drive your actions — even the simple action of hitting a Like or Share or Retweet or Up Vote button — you’re doing a disservice to everyone around you.

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