Stranger Things as an Exemplar for Cyclical Fiction

Happy 4th of July, everyone! As a gift to the American public, the Duffer Brothers and Netflix have presented us with one of the best limited series on the platform so far: Stranger Things 3.

Unlike weeks past, I won’t beat around the bush. This conversation will contain MASSIVE spoilers for all of Stranger Things, especially so for the third season. If you have the time to invest, this series will not disappoint. That being said, you have been sufficiently warned, and advertised!

First, let’s start with a little bit of opinion. Personally, I think Stranger Things 3 is the best season in the franchise so far, with 1 coming in second, and 2 coming in third. The primary theme this time around is one that I quite like to explore in my fiction: change. Both ingrained in its plot, and in its subtext and preamble, ST3 deals with change in all of the following ways:

  • Who deals with change best?
  • Who is ready to accept change easily, and who struggles to find their place in it?
  • Why are some people more resistant to change than others?
  • Can forced change ever be healthy?
  • When a character sacrifices themselves, is it a refusal to change with the rest of the world, or acceptance that the world should change now that they are absent?

So, let’s look at the obvious facts. Change is most associated with bildungsroman, the classic coming-of-age story format, traditionally seen with child or teenage protagonists. Cue the alarms in your head.

Stranger Things has always been about its children. The gang of kids – which has grown in Season 3 to include Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), Will (Noah Schnapp), El (Millie Bobby Brown), and Max (Sadie Sink) – is always at the center of the action, whether they are all together or in small clumps doing separate, but related things to advance the plot.

These characters all react to change differently throughout the season, but all in very different ways. Going in order:

  • Mike longs for change more than anyone, becoming obsessed with his relationship with El, and fiercely rejected Will, who we’ll get to.
  • Lucas has seemingly gone through his change already, becoming quite confident in pivotal moments, as well as attempting to spread advice to others, primarily Mike.
  • Dustin returns from a month of summer camp to find that his friends have all moved on, and instead of changing with them, he elects to bond to another group, staying separate from the other kids after Episode 1 until Episode 7.
  • Will is held back by the supernatural events of the past two seasons, and now that he is not the center of attention, he wants to go back to the days of their childhood, urging the “over it” Mike and Lucas to play Dungeons and Dragons with him, as well as fully admitting to Mike that he truly did believe they could stay in Mike’s basement forever.
  • El, after getting together with, breaking up with, and getting together again with Mike, goes through a monumental amount of change, as she also gains confidence in the friend she’s made in Max, and has to grapple with rebelling against her surrogate-father before he tragically dies.
  • Max acts as the fire under El and Lucas, encouraging them to change periodically. This comes from her stark individualism in the wake of her living alone with her stepbrother, Billy, whom she has conflicting feelings about. Max must face her indecision about Billy’s goodness when he is able to thwart the Mind Flayer’s control over him (plot stuff), and sacrifices himself to save the town.

The kids aren’t the only ones who change, Steve (Joe Keery)’s arc in this season might actually be my favorite of them all, only rivaled with Jim Hopper (David Harbour), who faces very real depictions of single-fatherhood in a world of the vividly imagined.

But you may be asking, “Well, people change in every story. What’s the big deal?” I can’t exactly fault you for that question, as any good story needs round characters (those who change) and flat ones (those who don’t). The first thing that sets Stranger Things apart is that it doesn’t focus on the changes themselves, rather how established characters deal with said change.

Let’s take Jim Hopper, the Police Chief and biggest badass in Hawkins, Indiana. We can see Jim’s arc in the story as an attempt to become a family man, taking on strict rules with his adoptive daughter El – especially as they pertain to boyfriends and the “keep the door open three inches” rule, which nearly everyone can relate to – and his failed attempts to get with Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), whom he admires as a mother and as a woman in general.

Hopper’s actions are consistently over-the-top this season, a change from the more laid-back persona of previous installments. He shows a growing frustration towards Mike, going so far as to threaten him into not seeing El anymore. As for Joyce, while his attempts in the past were small, limited by her relationship status or overriding concern for her son Will, Hopper now pursues her fervently, and gets quite upset when she stands him up. He even goes to the point of calling into question every other male that Joyce spends time with this season, despite recognizing that he doesn’t have ownership over her. In fact, Hopper seems to be throwing tantrums and yelling at people more often than not in this season, which can be both stressful and exciting for the viewer.

So, as a result of all of the things seemingly going wrong in his life throughout the season, Hopper is frequently a whistling kettle. His anger seems to be genuine, coming from an understandable contrast in how he wants the world around him to change in certain ways, while rejecting some of the ways in which the world responds. Hopper’s fatherhood of El exemplifies this, as he wants to change to become a true father for her, but refuses that El has the capability to change into a grown woman herself.

After he dies, sacrificing himself to save the world, Joyce eventually shares a speech he had written with El. The speech was supposed to have been read to her before, but never happened. In the section of it he wrote without Joyce, Hopper goes on to admit that he has faults, especially pertaining to how much he cares for El. Posthumously, Hopper tells his daughter to go through life feeling pain, making mistakes, and changing to become the best woman she can be. In his chilling words, “the hurt is how you know you aren’t stuck in the cave”, a cave which he admits that he is fearful of living in. It is this admission, that he has problems facing emotional pain, that lets us know what Hopper is going through in this story.

So, let’s get back to the title of this post: How is Stranger Things cyclical, and why is this a good thing? For that, we will analyze the second, more important way that it deals with change. Through the viewer.

In a world where seemingly half of the popular TV shows and movies are remakes, adaptations, or sequels, consumers are generally Nostalgic. It is a natural state of being for us, and while it is frequently criticized, this aspect is not something to be afraid of.

The Duffer Brothers, co-creators and show runners of Stranger Things, have created a world in which we may not only experience our nostalgic state, but reflect on it. The 80s are a prime candidate for this time of reflection, as the Differ Brothers themselves grew up in that decade, and the modern consumer of the Binge Series frequently did as well, or is passingly familiar with its tropes. Back to the Future, Rubik’s Cubes, and ridiculous hair, all of these are symbols of a decade we all clearly know so well. A time when, supposedly, things were so much simpler. “Goodness, if we could only go back to the 80s,” right?

We really do hear it all the time. But why? Well, I posit that it is all about change, and eventually, circles. But we’ll tackle change again first.

Using Stranger Things as an exemplar (cue the alarm), the 80s were a time of simplistic consumerism in rural America, combined with massive change. Supposedly, things are all good, man, but under the surface of the 80s, we see the middle ground of where our current population grew up – ergo, went through the highest collective amount of change.

We all look back to the days of campy horror, fun coming-of-age stories, and Back to the freaking Future, and think “Well what a swell time.” ST has always encouraged this, through its hyper-80s spectacle, enhanced with post-modern cinematography and possibility. Now, in ST3, we finally discuss something just as nostalgic, but a little less simplistic.

Unlike past seasons, where the kids’ group was just kids, and the teenagers all got together and partied, and the grownups were their own entity, Stranger Things 3 shows us a period of Hawkins where people are growing up, changing, and these lines are getting blurred. The kids are all getting boyfriends and girlfriends and moving on from Dungeons and Dragons, and Dustin doesn’t hang out with those kids anymore, instead opting for a couple of the teens. Meanwhile, all of the teens that we know and love are out of high school, and trying to make their way in the real, adult world. And the adults have it the worst, having to constantly adjust themselves in a world where their children are now making decisions, and affecting their previous superiors.

Clearly, we are presented with a sort of turmoil that is refreshing, and harshly realistic in ST3. Our characters are changing, and as they do, they cannot be so easily defined as they were before.

This reflection of how we – the viewers – have changed overtime lends itself to the core idea of this blog: we are naturally encouraged and built to love circles.

Now, stay with me for this, I know it sounds weird. When I refer to a circle, there are many aspects to which circles affect storytelling in positive ways, but here, I am not referring to the literal shape, only to the idea of circling back to things. Referencing, if you will.

If you recall my discussion of Hot Fuzz, which you may read or reread here, I established a branch of literary technique which I call The Reference. As a brief synopsis, it is a sort of combination of repetition, allusion, symbolism, and motif. There are Internal and External references, the former having to do with repeating aspects of plot points or symbols in a single work, the latter having to do with how different works reference each other, and use each other to create familiarity in viewers. There are also Anchors, which are the aspects which serve as the reference points.

So, as a result of Stranger Things 3, I would like to make an addendum to The Reference, and how we should view it going forward. Insomuch as there are two types of Reference, Internal and External, I would like to further illustrate that there are two types of External Reference, which I will dub Objective-External Reference and Personal-External Reference.

Objective Reference is what we already understand the External Reference to be. We take a plot point or other Anchor from a story which can be seen replicated in another, thereby connecting the two stories.

Personal Reference will work the same way, outside of an initial work, however instead of affecting another object or story, the Anchors in this category will be attaching themselves to traits of a viewer’s knowledge and/or experiences.

Think about how Stranger Things works in nostalgia, to gain our attention just because we were once children going through changes like the kids. In watching this story unfold, the idea of your first girlfriend / boyfriend / friend-friend becomes the Reference. Maybe you played Dungeons and Dragons in the height of the Satanic Panic, and one day you decided you were too old to play: the idea of that is now Reference. Or, your first falling out with a friend: Reference, simply because the story related itself to you.

In these cases, it is the idea behind a plot point or story moment that becomes the Anchor to a Personal Reference. The beautiful thing about this branch is that the Anchors can be as detailed or nonspecific as you want. Because the individual viewer is the one making the Reference and finding the Anchor, you get to choose at what intensity you want it to affect you.

The Personal Reference can also be seen as the catalyst for a trait we talked about last week. If you remember the post on the American Novel (which may or may not be up yet, oops), you will remember that we discussed how some of the most famous novels we study in school are simplistic plots on historical backdrops that we are familiar with, or can learn more about. So, take To Kill a Mockingbird. How the novel deals with post-Civil War consequence may act as the Anchor to a Reference regarding what we already know about the era. Because we are all aware of the tragedies and pitfalls of justice systems in the south during the era, reading TKaM today can either reaffirm what we knew, or change our minds on the subject’s complexity. This is due to The Personal Reference.

So, if we see The Reference in all of its forms as creating a bunch of little connections in our minds from a story to itself, to another story, or to ourselves, we can recognize its potential for creating a fully-realized web of understanding and knowledge. Like a private eye who has been on the case of a murderer for decades, coming up with countless connections and ideas that reflect on others, our mental cork board becomes so convoluted overtime that we can’t help but relate things to other things, no matter how different they may seem.

If you know me personally, which you probably do, you know I think this is a good thing. An incredible thing. I think we, as humans, are naturally mired in community, and in making connections. I believe that our knowledge-acquisition systems are tailor-made for us to make connections. And why do I believe that?

Well, to put it simply, I am a philosopher, so naturally, I have vested interest in absolute, objective truths. While I often contemplate whether objective truth is possible, it is always without doubt in my own mind that in order to find the closest things to objective truths, we must know as much as we can. How better to get that knowledge than with a sturdy net?

And like I said, I believe that all people are like this. Connections make sense. If we know what happened to one thing, and see the signs of it somewhere else, we can make predictions. In uncertain worlds, predictions are what keep us alive.

So, bringing it back to Stranger Things one last time, I posit that the story’s brilliance comes in the form of its intense involvement in every form of The Reference. Also, the final fight in Starcourt with the Mind Flayer is f***ing awesome. (This little D&D nerd is very happy with this pop culture illithid.)

But that’s all for today. I have more thoughts on other Binge Series which come along similar lines to these in regards to cyclical story structure, which I may or may not post online somewhere before my paper. I’ll keep you posted on that! (pun so much intended, I always intend my puns don’t @ me)

Next week, we’ll be discussing Modern Musicals! What has Broadway presented us with in the past five or ten years, and is the Broadway crowd changing forever? I’ll be finding out first hand, when I go to see my first ever on-Broadway musical! I would suggest listening to the soundtracks for Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Book of Mormon, and Waitress if you can find time.

Until then, happy watching and listening! And remember: every ending is open to discussion.

What Does it Mean to Be a Hero?: Watchmen, My Hero Academia, and the MCU

When consuming superhero stories, there are many key aspects to the genre that are important to look for/be aware of the absence of, but there is one theme which appears to always be present no matter what the story: What does it mean to be a hero?

While the question may seem like an obvious one, different approaches to the superhero genre tend to come up with extremely nuanced and intricate responses. To demonstrate this, I will be reviewing the presence of this theme in three different stories, all three being extremely popular yet varying instances of the genre: Watchmen, the graphic novel by Alan Moore; Boku no Hero Academia, the ongoing manga by Kohei Horikoshi; and The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I set up several days ago as having a very clear indication of what it means to be a hero.

So first, let’s deal with the graphic novel that changed the way graphic novels were received as literature, and simultaneously tore down the superhero genre of the 70s and 80s: Watchmen.

Originally appearing in DC Spotlight back in 1985, to eventually be published as a twelve-chapter series from 1986 to 1987 over the span of twelve months, Watchmen is generally considered Alan Moore’s greatest masterpiece, of which there are – admittedly – a lot.

Watchmen tells the story of roughly half a dozen supers, their relations to each other, and the threat of nuclear destruction as the Cold War looms on the horizon. One of these supers, Dr. Manhattan, is quite literally a walking hydrogen bomb. The story follows the 1980s trend of more adult sensibilities and theme in comics, which is identified in all of the big three hits of the genre: Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.

As you might expect, the more adult approach to this story mixed with Moore’s penchant for mysticism, cynicism, and ambiguity created a moral lesson that seems quite negative, largely because it is. This is represented in a vast amount of SPOILERS, so be aware.

The clearest picture of Moore’s cynicism appears in the death of one of the stories’ main characters: Rorschach. Rorschach is a ruthless detective based roughly off of Batman, whose passion for illegal justice in a world otherwise bereft of passion gets him killed. When fellow superheroes begin to be murdered, Rorschach is the only super who wants to bring the murderer to justice. When he, along with an on-and-off supportive friend Nite Owl discover the truth about who is committing these crimes, his doom meets him.

The former superhero, current Bruce Wayne/Tony Stark-archetype Ozymandius has been killing off his former coworkers as an end to the days of supers, seeing that they have only sped up the process of international turmoil. Oz manages to convince every hero except Rorschach into complacency, as he successfully detonates a nuke that demolishes most of New York City, but cleverly makes the destruction look like it was an extraterrestrial declaration of war (plot stuff).

Nite Owl changes his identity and moves across the country to live out life with his new wife – also a former hero – and Dr. Manhattan, whose literal omnipotence provides practical godhood, finds that he would rather continue to live far into the reaches of space, where the triviality of humanity cannot pain him anymore.

So, how does Rorschach die?? I hear you asking. It’s simple, ingeniously written, and extremely sad, truthfully. After walking out of Oz’s hideout to return to the demolished New York, Rorshach is confronted by Dr. Manhattan, who is fresh out of a conversation with Oz himself. When Manhattan refuses to let Rorschach go, and ruin public perception of the sacrifice that Oz made, Rorschach simply tells Manhattan to kill him. Figuratively declaring that he cannot live in the world with this knowledge like his comrades, Rorschach is executed by Manhattan solely because of his passion for justice and righteousness in the world around him.

To me, this somber, morally ambiguous ending speaks clearly to the idea of heroism in Watchmen. Moore seems to be saying two things, which the audience is free to choose between. You may either agree with Rorschach, in that ‘to be a hero is to fight against all injustice, for all people’, or with Ozymandius, in that ‘to be a hero is to make great sacrifices, and dedicate your life to the bigger picture and the greater good’.

A particularly intuitive reader may notice an extreme similarity to the MCU’s depiction of heroism. However, if you believe my previous claims that the MCU places one methodology above another, then wouldn’t that imply that Watchmen does as well?

I would say yes, however Moore doesn’t seem to fault the viewer for choosing the other side. Due specifically to the sadness behind Rorschach’s death, we are inclined to sympathize with him and the way he sees the world, which indicates to me that he is the story’s true moral compass. You wouldn’t be wrong for believing the Oz’s sacrifice is noble, but like a true cynic, Moore seems to have a lofty expectation for how we should morally conduct ourselves, versus how we do.

Now, on a much lighter note, let’s take a trip to the far east, where in the past five years, a new story has dominated the minds of pop culture readers. This story has spread to be just as popular here in the west, perhaps due to its western influence, or just because it is a truly stellar superhero story with a killer animated adaptation. Of course, we’re discussing Boku no Hero Academia, also known as My Hero Academia.

My Hero follows a young boy named Izuku Midoriya, a quirkless boy in a world where nearly everyone is born with a quirk – the story’s name for natural superpowers. After a heroic action he takes despite being quirkless, Japan’s Number One hero All Might admires him, and decides to pass on his quirk to Izuku.

Izuku embodies a viewer of traditional hero stories, as his years of being enamored with heroes without having the capability to be one result in him taking vast notes on the heroes and powers around him, and being hyper-aware of what the world needs. Like All Might, whose power begins fading at the beginning of the series, Izuku wants to become a Symbol of Peace for the world to look up to, so that he may inspire others like All Might inspired him.

In a world where everyone is super, it would seem to imply that no one would be as a result, but Horikoshi paints a clear picture that his super-powered world exists on a spectrum, which Izuku plans on climbing to the top of. To do this properly, Izuku spends a lot of his time learning from other heroes, but at the same time inspiring them as well as his classmates to act appropriately, confidently, and justly.

In the ‘Hero Killer: Stain’ Arc of the story, one of Izuku’s friend’s Tenya discovers that his brother has been gravely injured by a villain known as The Hero Killer. This killer, Stain, goes about killing all of the heroes which he sees as not living up to his heroic ideals. He wants the greed of heroes created by monetary reward and fame to be replaced by the ideals of All Might. To save people truly, to the greatest ability, with no attention paid to the reward. As Tenya, Izuku, and their other friend Shoto confront and fight the villain, Stain recognizes Izuku’s potential for fulfilling the proper heroic ideal, and vows not to kill him. However, Tenya becomes a prime target due to his bloodlust and revenge, as he cares less about saving the victims of Stain than he does about avenging his brother.

In the end, Stain falls in battle, being defeated by the trio of students, but not before declaring that his true wish is to be killed by All Might in battle, to make a statement about how he believes the hero world should operate.

While Stain’s life is long gone in the current story, his effect on the series is longstanding. Many villains still look up to him as a martyr, while heroes are forced to reflect on his actions and change themselves appropriately. It is in this arc of the story that My Hero most clearly defines its moral standpoint. While Stain was inherently evil, and took his viewpoints to an unhealthy extreme, the notion that ‘a hero is someone who saves people for the sake of saving them, and thinks of nothing else’ remains ever-present in the narrative. After All Might’s power is fully extinguished, it is up to Izuku to speak this message to the world.

So, My Hero Academia ALSO seems to give a similar message to Captain America’s viewpoint! As Izuku wants to save people simply because he hopes to inspire others like All Might did for him, the MCU’s Steve Rogers wants something very similar. As he says multiple times throughout the comics, “I see people who need saving, and I save them.”

If we use our past conversations, and see that Captain America’s morals represent Deontology, then is there something particular about deontological morals that speaks to the success of the superhero genre? Perhaps we admire stories that show us extreme, admirable examples of morals? Or maybe the Categorical Imperative lends itself to the storytelling which we recognize as fictional.

I believe that the last option might be the closest to the truth, and as a result, I plan on looking into the CI in future weeks of research to see if it spreads past this genre.

So, next week, we will be focusing on the tenth grade all across America, delving into the American novels which we read here so en masse, and perhaps finding reasons as to why these pieces of true literature are still popular today.

Happy reading/watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.

The Reference in Story: Edgar Wright’s Contributions to Storytelling

It is without question in my mind that Edgar Wright is perhaps one of the best comedic directors in all of cinema history, and while I am not particularly interested in direction for this project, I cannot help but put the idea forward that for all of his accomplishments in the field, many of Wright’s films should be considered in my Classics category.

I would personally list half a dozen of Wright’s films as classics, or classics-to-be, based not just on his particular comedic styling, but his unmatched attention to detail in the fields of story structure, theme, and what I will call The Reference. The Reference is my own term which encapsulates a wide branch of literary technique, which I first learned to put together and pay close attention to because of Hot Fuzz. But we’ll get to that later.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is vkque0ms7ug01.png

Wright’s films have a particular witticism to them, which makes sense seeing that five out of the six that are popularly discussed are labelled as comedies. It is traditionally my view that to really nail humor, you have to have a great understanding of the potential disparity between how your characters think their world works or should work, and how it actually does.

Furthermore, for a director/writer to show off their knowledge of the world, they must show the world in strict, tight choices, a move set which Wright has mastered. Each of the six films I push forward has particular attributes that reflect the world it takes place in, setting up excellent groundwork for intelligent conversation:

  • Shaun of the Dead (2004) carries an air of comedy and out of place normalcy with its horror background, a move which reflects how the apocalypse has not changed Shaun’s family issues and relationships.
  • Hot Fuzz (2007) exudes gritty realism in regards to crime amidst its beautiful rural backdrop, heightening the difference between how Sergeant Angel and the rest of his police force view the world.
  • Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) embraces its comic book origins with crazy cartoon visuals that give form to how the nerdy Scott views the world.
  • The World’s End (2013) takes itself as seriously as the rest of the Cornetto Trilogy, allowing for a group of easygoing, wishing-they-could-be-bar-crawling protagonists to not feel out of place among an alien invasion.
  • Ant-Man (2015) finds its place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe by not cheesing up how much of a superhero Scott Lang is, instead reflecting on fatherhood and his own childlike innocence.
  • And Baby Driver (2017), perhaps the best of them all, introduces a killer hip hop soundtrack and jaw-dropping cinematography to pull the audience into Baby’s crazy, dangerous, postmodern Atlanta metropolis

While these six films aren’t all equal in their critical praise or fan response, they all are expertly crafted jumps into exceedingly different worlds. While Ant-Man may rank lower on the list of the best MCU movies – which I will be discussing in full next week, just you wait – it is perhaps one of the funniest, allowing Scott Lang to kill it on screen once End Game came around.

As for Scott Pilgrim, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t love it, and its adherence to the source material is worth respect if nothing else.

Despite these films being great, I would like to condense the amount to which I talk about Wright in The Classics at large, as any one director dominating a field will say less about the field as a whole, and more about that artist, and perhaps their affect on others or others’ affect on them. So, I will push forward the envelope on just two: Baby Driver, and Hot Fuzz.

Despite these films being great, I would like to condense the amount to which I talk about Wright in The Classics at large, as any one director dominating a field will say less about the field as a whole, and more about that artist, and perhaps their affect on others or others’ affect on them. So, I will push forward the envelope on just two: Baby Driver, and Hot Fuzz.

Barring the actions of one particular cast member, Baby Driver is as close to perfection and a classic as we have in the past couple of years. While it is always hard to tell what will be enjoyed in the future from our current repertoire, Driver is genius and unique to the point of its certainty as a continuing film.

That being said, I wouldn’t be surprised if it ranks lower due to our current culture’s proclivity towards ignoring great art made by or including terrible people, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The movie focuses on Baby, a young man who was orphaned at an early age, after a car crash killed his parents and left him with tinnitus. To combat his disposition, Baby becomes enamored with music at a young age, and constantly listens to music on his earbuds, and finds joy in mixing the sound effects of life around him.

With this brief synopsis, the basis for my claims about its genius are already fully stated. Similar to Disney’s New Trilogy of princess films, Driver‘s plot is so intertwined with Baby that neither would make any sense without the other.

The movie’s soundtrack is praised as a work of art unto itself, which can be seen as a direct parallel to how Baby views his world. In his dangerous life, the one thing that keeps him sane and driving is music, so having the stellar soundtrack surround his extraordinary life convinces us of his passion.

Additionally, Baby’s stellar driving can be seen in many ways as a reaction to his family’s fate. Having killed his parents and crippled him, we can see Baby’s strength and will power before he even takes action in the film, as instead of being scared of driving, he embraces it to make himself a stronger person. This subtle character development which is never expressly stated weaves into the movie’s message regarding hope, creating new family, and not letting your weaknesses become a negative definition.

A tightly woven story structure, with themes that Baby learns as he teaches them to himself, give the movie huge credit in my mind, and none of that is to mention the stellar shot composition, believable dialogue, all-star cast, set design and sound design that embellish the film’s excellence.

A passion project from Edgar Wright indeed, I believe that I would be at an extreme disadvantage if I tried to talk about the affects of Classic movies without including this future classic.

As for Hot Fuzz, to explain my primary reasoning for its inclusion, we need a greater knowledge of the trilogy that surrounds it.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Three-Flavours-Cornetto-Trilogy.jpg

The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is a series of three unrelated movies which Edgar Wright is famous for. They were all co-written by Wright and Simon Pegg, who plays the lead role in each movie. Along with their continued work on the series, actor Nick Frost is a costar in each movie, with other actors and actresses making appearances in each as well.

The series gets its name from a joke made during the press tour for Hot Fuzz. Wright and Pegg explain that after using a Cornetto ice cream in the first movie as a hangover cure, a reference to Wright’s own use of the ice cream, the company that makes Cornettos sent a lot in the direction of the team. Based on that action, the writing duo made it a point to include the ice cream several times into Hot Fuzz, hoping they may get officially sponsored by the ice cream.

While they were never sponsored, the symbolic ice cream connection between the two movies resonated with Wright, resulting in a more purposeful attempt to latch the two together, despite them being completely disconnected by genre, other than the loose connection of both being highly comedic.

The trilogy is connected in themes of continued adolescence versus the absence of it, the individual inside a collective, and relationship comedy surrounded by external craziness. We can see these themes rise with Shaun of the Dead, as Simon Pegg’s character Shaun struggles more with his personal issues than the worldly zombie epidemic. They come to a fever pitch in Hot Fuzz, what I personally consider to be the master work of the franchise, where this time Simon’s character starts as a cold, rule-abiding law enforcer who sees himself as the individual who must take on the sole responsibility of seeing over the collective. Finally, in The World’s End, Pegg and his group of friends continue down the slope towards acceptance of occasional adolescence with admitted responsibility, as their quest to simply get into one last bar fight is still surrounded by serious issues which the group takes head on.

Such a lengthy explanation is required to understand Hot Fuzz at its most base level. Beneath the cop thriller, beneath the comedy, and beneath the relationship drama is a meta-commentary about The Reference, and it is that which allures me to no end.

I define The Reference as the internal and external techniques a story uses to relate itself and its attributes to other stories and attributes, with the purpose of entertaining an audience on the basis of their recognition of repetition. The Reference can come in two forms, both of which are necessary for a work’s complete involvement in the idea at large:

  • The Internal: an internal reference is when a story creates a callback to previous moments of itself, through a visual gag, story beat, dialogue choice, symbol, or musical cue.
  • The External: an external reference is when a story creates a similarity to another story. These are more specific, including direct conversations about the other story itself, visual gags, dialogue repetition, musical cues, or symbol. (Note that story beat is not included, this is important.)

The Reference also comes with one extra bit of terminology: The Anchor. Anchors are the actual reference points, and are referred to as such because they ground viewers while giving them reference points to work on. Because they can be a reference point or give a reference point, they cannot be called as such so simply.

So, The Reference can be seen as combining several literary techniques, including but not limited to repetition, symbolism, and allusion. “But, if these terms already exist, why create a new, more confusing envelope to fit them in?” I hear you asking.

So, The Reference can be seen as combining several literary techniques, including but not limited to repetition, symbolism, and allusion. “But, if these terms already exist, why create a new, more confusing envelope to fit them in?” I hear you asking.

And that is a fantastic question. It is my belief that by creating this specific definition of a phenomenon, we may find another aspect of stories at large which we naturally gravitate towards.

I’ve been alerted to this idea for some time, with the basic principle of human psychology (which I don’t understand fully, so I won’t pretend to be an expert) which states that we gain a sense of satisfaction from figuring something out based on recognition of patterns. It’s why we teach our kids memory games, and why we repeat simple tasks in early school, to get better at recognizing patterns.

Patterns help us understand the world at large, and with that little note out of the way, patterns can help us understand Wright’s ideas in Hot Fuzz as well. The movie is placed in The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, and has visual references to the tasty treat just like Shaun and World’s End. This tells us that there are similarities here to pay attention to.

Additionally, Wright’s second major film has conversations with other famous cop thrillers, specifically mentioning about a dozen throughout its two hour run time. From shooting guns while jumping in the air, to shooting guns into the air as a sign of frustration at not being able to shoot someone you love, to “You ain’t seen Bad Boys II?”, Hot Fuzz is full of comedic moments that double as Anchors for viewers.

As for Internal Reference, Hot Fuzz finds its unique voice in the fact that literally every one of its jokes – I counted – is reused as an Anchor later in the film, sometimes more than once. The remarkable thing about it is that this never gets dull. Jokes are duplicated with dedication, having no repeat footage, and always altering the context of the Reference slightly upon reuse.

So, why is The Reference in Hot Fuzz such a great thing? To me, The Reference exemplifies something integral to the human experience. Repetition has always been my favorite literary device, and the universality of understanding that we do the same things day in and day out, no matter who we are, makes repetition accessible to not just most of us, but all of us.

Hot Fuzz wants us to laugh at that fact, as well as acknowledge it, accept it, and be happy with it. It is through Anchors that Nicholas Angel solves the mystery. It is through Anchors that Danny Butterman accepts his mother’s suicide, and learns to scorn his father for his abuse of repetition. Repetition may have ripped Sandford apart in the Neighborhood Watch Alliance’s attempts to always win Best Village of the Year (plot stuff), but that also causes Angel to realize that he really does care about that town, and wants to make it actually the best village.

In the end, The Reference is what drives Hot Fuzz forward, and I believe it does the same to many other Classics to lesser degrees. On Friday, I will discuss Hot Fuzz and Baby Driver alongside other Classics, with The Reference in mind, to hopefully find some clear similarities between what we remember and continue watching.

The movies other than these two that we will discuss are Star Wars: A New Hope, Pulp Fiction, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Godfather, and Forrest Gump.

Happy watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.

Tony Stark and Steve Rogers: A Battle of Philosophic Heroism

The time has finally come! Perhaps the most compelling story being told in real-time today is that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As much as this grand project is very much ongoing, the recent opus directed by Joe and Anthony Russo represents the end of an era.

And no, I am not referring to just Phase 3 of the MCU. All of the last eleven years of Marvel’s cinematic conquest can be looped into a story arc for Earth-199999 (the universe that the MCU canonically takes place in) which revolves around the rise and fall, ebb and flow, rage and grace of two brilliant men: Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.

Tony and Steve’s journeys clashed frequently from Iron Man to Avengers: End Game, so let’s review how their struggle played out, and what its absence now paints in their wake.

Back in 2008, Iron Man brought viewers into the life of genius-billionaire- playboy-philanthropist Tony Stark, who despite being an adapted character from the minds of Stan Lee and others at Marvel, seemed entirely unique and wholly intriguing. Iron Man is portrayed in cinema by Robert Downey Jr., who brings new life into the hero and exemplifies every one of those four descriptors perfectly.

From a philosophical view, Iron Man is an interesting figure. Even with the smallest wealth of knowledge regarding Ethical Theory, just one look at the type of man Stark is will give you an immediate picture of how his ethics likely line up. To no little surprise, Tony Stark’s debut into our hearts came with a fifth tag: Utilitarian.

Stark is so overtly utilitarian that Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill ogle over him in their graves. While today, Utilitarianism is frequently confused with pragmatism, its origins spring primarily from two men who were concerned with the Greater Good. Remember all that stuff the Neighborhood Watch Alliance was spouting at the end of Hot Fuzz? That’s Bentham. Ever hear about the Trolley Problem, and how everyone believes they would make the “right” choice? That’s John Stuart Mill.

See, Utilitarianism is defined by the consequences of any particular action. What good will come out of one decision versus another? Which decision can I make that will result in the most good? These are all the right questions for a utilitarian to be asking, and what makes Stark such a great utilitarian is that he asks these questions through radically varying lenses.

As we are first presented to him, he has little regard for what’s beyond his own interests. Tony begins his story with Egoism, what I would call Utilitarianism Variant A. In both moral theories, one might ask themselves what will do the most good, but as an Egoist, the scope is changed to be exclusively self-serving. This seems like the Tony Stark of Iron Man‘s Act One to a tee, so while he may not emerge as a Utilitarian right away, his methodology is always consistent.

So of course, his scary and life-threatening predicament in Act Two of the film – being trapped in a cave by terrorists, forced to provide them with deadly weaponry and other inventions – changes the way his mind works. His mentor whilst in captivity, Professor Yinsen, dies in the process of Tony’s escape, solidifying the cost that was paid for Tony’s survival. We can see this death of a mentor affecting Tony deeply, as he begins to think about the physical costs of his actions.

By the end of the movie, after defeating the Ten Rings terrorist circle, Tony Stark takes a calculated gamble by announcing to the world that he is, in fact, Iron Man. Not only does he want to save people who need saving, he rationalizes the choice to reveal his secret identity in real time, assuming the role of a symbol of peace that society can look up to. Without seeming like some mysterious god, like so many other supers, Tony forms a connection with what we can see as “his potential consequences”.

Tony continues his career as a utilitarian fairly simply through Iron Man 2, but to get a better idea of how his ethics bring him strife, we have to flip the script towards America’s Sweetheart. Steve Rogers is biologically younger than Tony, but has lived much longer in truth.

As an extremely brief synopsis of some comic book logic for the uneducated, Steve grew up in the 1930s, fought in World War II as America’s first super soldier – where his super strength derives from – before being frozen in ice due to his ship crash landing in the Arctic. He stays frozen for many years, but is found after 70 years.

Before being given the super-soldier serum, Steve Rogers is a scrawny kid from Queens with a heart of gold, and a good sense of justice. He learns from a young age what it means to be saved, and the extent to which the individual can rescue another. Along with his childhood friend Bucky Barnes, Steve enlists in the army to fight the Nazis. Specifically due to his morals, he is chosen to go through a scientific experiment which would give him ample strength to be the protector he wants to be, a move which clues the audience in to paying attention to the Captain America Ethical System for the next nine years of the MCU.

So, what is Cap’s theory? Put simply, Steve Rogers seems himself and other supers as having a moral duty to saving folk who need saving. This duty gives us a clear answer to the philosophy which most closely resembles Steve: Deontology.

Deontology, made popular by 19th century thinker Immanuel Kant, is a system of ethics that is based on duty. It focuses on the universality of whatever action you might take. This means that we should – to quote Kant’s Categorical Imperative – “Act only on that maxim for which [we] may at the same time will that it should become universal law.” For example, if I wanted to kill someone, under Kant, I should have to think about whether I would want murder to be completely legal.

In a way, we can think of Deontology basically as The Golden Rule which we teach our kids.

And teach kids Cap does, being perhaps the most admirable of the MCUs cast. Chris Evans does a fantastic job portraying the man whose morals never seem to fade for anyone, giving off strong, if not radical ethics lessons. Steve even becomes a group rehab leader!

So, when The Avengers comes about in 2012, what do Steve and Tony think about each other? To put it simply, their physical disputes embody the differences in their moral compasses, and the quarrel that progresses from them for the next seven years afterwards is consistently as loud as a philosophical debate held between John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

At different moments in The Avengers, The Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Captain America: Civil War, the two biggest names of the superhero team find faults in each other. Tony frequently makes decisions based on the greater good, whether it is attempting to exterminate a threat which Cap believes should be spared, or even going so far as sacrificing himself at the end of The Avengers. Of course, his sacrifice is only present in intent, as he is able to escape certain doom before it closes in on him.

Each of these times, Steve is frustrated with Tony’s persistent “lapses of judgement”. It is clear to see that he takes issue with Tony’s obsession with consequence, such as the death of Tony versus the death of New York. Steve wholeheartedly believes that there is always an option that will yield the optimal outcome, and that by focusing on the consequences of binary outcomes, the best solutions lay hidden from those who jump to strategy.

Nothing better represents than the Sokovia Accords in Civil War. The document is a UN-implemented law which Tony Stark advocates for. It is created in the wake of the events of Avengers 2, stating that The Avengers shall become government-sanctioned, and that they may only intervene in a country when all involved parties agree to their involvement.

This angers Steve to no end, who finds that many of the Avengers Initiative superheroes disagree with him. He believes that the time it will take the UN to govern them will cost lives, something he cannot stand for. So when T’Challa – secretly the Black Panther – loses his father T’Chaka due to a terrorist attack on the very UN meetings that will decide on the Accords potential implementation, Steve goes rogue with a collection of unofficial supers to fight Tony and the Accord supporters, in order to complete their current mission of bringing T’Chaka’s killer to justice.

Cap’s team includes himself, his friend Bucky Barnes (The Winter Soldier), Scott Lang (Ant-Man), Clint Barton (Hawkeye), Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch), and Sam Wilson (Falcon). Noticeably, all of these characters have lost family, or see Cap as the only family they have, an idea which fuels Steve. If he cannot keep those he loves most safe, how can he help others? His followers seem to notice this. Furthermore, as an aside, T’Challa only supports Team Iron Man because he believes that The Winter Soldier is the one who killed his father. Once that air is cleared, T’Challa happily becomes one of Cap’s closest allies.

The main fight of the third Captain America movie occurs between the heroes which the audience has fallen in love with. Such a fight involves much more tension as it relates to methodology. Going further than sympathizing with a villain, the audience is pressured into validating both sides of the argument.

But there is still a winner of the fight, and of philosophies. It may have been obvious from my framing, or from the title of the movie which this occurs in, but Steve Rogers wins in the end, with Tony bested physically, and close to caving in mentally as well.

A few years later, by the time Infinity War hits in 2018, Tony has not forgiven Steve. He still believes that his idealistic tendencies and refusal to come out of hiding are choices which do not benefit the people of Earth. This is brought to a head when Thanos finally comes like a loan shark searching for his Infinity Stones instead of cash. Cap and Tony end up fighting him separately, just minutes after one another, and both of them fail.

Alright, so since End Game is still new, here’s the Spoiler Warning. But like, still go watch it, it serves as a thrilling conclusion to this battle of ideals, among being the no-exaggeration biggest cinema event in history.

In Avengers: End Game (2019), the world is in despair in the wake of Thanos’ victory. He wiped out half of all life in the universe, and casting aside all of the time-travel shenanigans that make up the movie’s second act – which actually serve as a beautiful re-imagination of moments from the past ten years – the climax comes in the form of one last bout with the purple Titan.

Tony faces Thanos alongside Steve and the rest of the surviving Avengers, now with a daughter to think about. His final act is to – you guessed it – succeed in sacrificing himself to kill Thanos and his army, but this time it’s different.

The choice seems inherently utilitarian, but at a closer inspection, Tony’s reasoning is a direct result of what Steve has told him to aim for over and over again. Tony is not looking forward to the most lives he can save, like times past; not exactly. Obviously he wants to save the planet, and give his daughter a world to grow up in, he is actually looking into his past when he gives his final words: “I am Iron Man,” a repetition of his last words in the franchise’s first movie.

As he looks into his past, my interpretation is that he is seeing the duty to protect his family and friends, the same duty that Captain America has always seen. This duty has less to do with defeating Thanos, as Tony is smart enough to realize that there may be more threats to the world even after Thanos. So instead of focusing on those unknown futures, or even the consequences of defeating Thanos, Tony Stark spends his final moments upholding a duty, and willing that the actions he takes can become universal. Instead of making risky decisions which he wouldn’t wish on anyone else, Tony sacrifices himself while coming to the greatest appreciation of those around him, including his wife, daughter, father, and surrogate son.

So, what does the end of Tony Stark and his potential conforming to Cap’s ideals imbue in viewers? Are we being urged by Kevin Feige to read up on Kant and adopt Deontology? Or are they simply presenting how two friends traversed through their lives, one in a traditional hero’s journey to proper understanding of the world, and the other with steadfast, sturdy gusto that never gave in to external beliefs?

I think that the MCU’s Infinity Saga, and the story of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers simply serves to make audiences more aware of the morals, ideas, and motives behind our actions. Naturally, given my literature and philosophy backgrounds, I think this is an excellent message to take away from the most profitable film franchise of all time.

But what do you think, random reader? Am I right, or do Cap and Iron Man’s thoughts not matter to the plot as much as I’ve presented? Feel free to continue the conversation, and look forward to further questions regarding these disparate ethical theories, whether they reign true or not.

Next, I will be diving into the postmodern Eastern take on superheroes, My Hero Academia, a brilliant ongoing manga and anime.

As always, happy watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.

What Makes a Movie a Classic?

When I drafted the weekly schedule of this project several months ago, it made the most sense to me to take the first few weeks and dedicate them to movies, to help a discussion get started in a well defined space. I would separate the first three weeks into the broad genres of Family Films, The Superhero genre, and…

There didn’t seem to be a perfect third category for movies to fit under, but since I needed other weeks for different mediums, it made the most sense to try to tackle “classic” movies. This is, of course, much harder to define than the other two genres which I saw as being particularly influential in 2019.

How do you define a classic? How can we know which movies we are commonly familiar with should be considered in this discussion? Does it matter what we include or don’t include? And lastly, is it even possible for there to be a single technique of story structure that creates classic movies?

The last question is the one I hope to answer, and while it may not be solved this week, taking the time to identify a wide range of “classics” should yield techniques which we can look to in the future of this project.

So, without further ado, let’s jump in to more individual analysis of seven of these films, before concluding on what similarities they might have.

1.) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

While it may not be the earliest release of the seven movies I’m exploring today, it makes sense to me that A New Hope should be first on the list. Not only does it hold its status of starting one of the biggest media franchises of all time, spawning a trilogy of trilogies, it also accounts for the first major instance of multimedia storytelling.

Multimedia storytelling can be defined as a franchise or story world which engages their audience in multiple mediums. An example of this can be when a cinematic world – like the Star Wars universe, tells stories in mediums like television, books, graphic novels, and anything in between.

From A New Hope‘s instant success, we can see that a popular fascination in multimedia storytelling began to grow. While it did not originally have the subtitle or Episode number when it was released in ’77, Episode 5 was released with the complete moniker on its release, quickly solidifying the films as part of something bigger. In a broad sense, George Lucas’ decision to release the films as Episodes Four, Five, and Six obviously implied the eventual backtracking to the prequel trilogy.

Such a decision allowed fans to be excited for what was to come without having much doubt of whether it would come or not, a move which does not seem odd to us now, but was brand new at the time.

As for the original Star Wars story, there is nothing about it that was particularly new structurally, and while its world was vibrant with potential, this film that is considered a modern day monument of genre is actually fairly typical. And this makes sense. While working on his story, George Lucas explicitly worked through it with Joseph Campbell, a story scholar who defined what we commonly refer to as The Hero’s Journey. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell illustrates a seventeen-step formula for a typical hero’s story, a formula which Lucas utilized with minimal adaptation.

If anything, Luke is stereotypical rather than a hero which brought about new concepts in story. However, this is not a complaint about the film – which I do have – as the Hero’s Journey was created to be a model of what audiences enjoy in their stories. Given this knowledge, I would posit that much of Star Wars‘ popularity comes from the combination of a traditional, by the numbers bildungsroman, and its established-from-day-one franchise.

2.) The Godfather (1972)

Before Lucas made his big debut into theaters, Francis Ford Coppola’s magnum opus made waves in one of the big sub-genres of the time – crime drama. The Godfather is widely considered to be the quintessential crime drama, and its place in literary canon is larger than nearly any other movie of its time.

However, it represents a work which I am very unsure of regarding story structure. I will never claim that story structure is the single thing which makes a work stand the test of time or not, or that it is guaranteed to be the most important aspect in that quest for every piece of literature, but it nevertheless befuddles me that there isn’t something clear about its story which stands out as particularly moving. However, I do have a few thoughts.

Perhaps it is something as simple as the severed horse head which appears so early in the movie, standing as such an outlandish consequence to Johnny Fontane’s potential inclusion in his Hollywood gig. The moves made by the film’s Dons, capos, and mafioso may act as an attractive element, but I don’t buy that it affirms the entire narrative’s placement in the classics.

Or maybe the horse’s head acts as an obvious Anchor which The Reference will make use of in literature in the future, and that acts as an attraction. Having set up such a unique, simple yet complex symbol for other works to reference may interfere with this as well.

Lastly, The Godfather may be considered so frequently for its characters fitting so believably into its world. This is a trait which I have attributed to Baby Driver in the past, but I don’t know that it alone can serve as creating a monument of genre. Under the assumption that is does, the world in which the Corleone’s live and work is entirely believable, mostly because we understand it to be our own world, if not a version of it that is ingrained in what has passed. The world does not feel like it was created specifically for Vito, Mike, and the rest of the families, but rather the characters act as natural cogs within the greater space.

So, perhaps story structure doesn’t fit in perfectly with The Godfather‘s longevity, but philosophy just may. This will be our first major dive into the hardcore philosophy behind a film, so as a preface, I will explain how I typically go about philosophy discussion:

Having a background in literary technique, I will frequently make claims about what a movie is saying objectively, however an important thing to keep in mind is that objective truths in philosophy are nearly always subjective. So naturally, as I discuss what I see in a film, it is perfectly valid for someone else to not see it. I also will not go into extreme depth regarding the specifics of many philosophies, because droning on forever is not friendly to the blog format, and certainly not my SEO practices. That being said, let’s just jump into it.

When we think about the moral teachings behind any story, we’re dealing with Ethics, perhaps the most readily available branch of philosophy. Naturally, this will be the branch I lean on most throughout the course of this project.

In The Godfather, we can see an interesting conversation that tows the line between two of the most popular ethical theories: Deontology and Utilitarianism. In the film, Vito Corleone – and later his son – go to extreme lengths to secure the family’s monetary success, and the process with which he goes about this is quite narrowed and specific. Corleone puts family above everything else, with business being naturally tied into the crime family. Vito seems to adopt the Deontological views of Immanuel Kant with some adaptations. The Categorical Imperative which Kant defines – “Act only on that maxim with which you may at the same time will that it be universal” – becomes less about the true universality of the maxim, but rather the micro-universe in which his family lives. Additionally, he lives by an almost-Utilitarian code at the same time. He is willing to do whatever it takes to secure his success, but unlike the traditional Utilitarian, his actions are not determined by the greater good, but rather the minute good of his family.

In general, The Godfather shows that with slight modifications to preexisting ethical systems, we can come to fairly nasty ways of living that still seem justified and systematic. If I had to draw a societal conclusion from this, I would say that it implies that we enjoy watching moral systems play out that we can recognize as wholly wrong? I am hesitant to believe that, but we will see as our discussion continues through the following weeks.

3.) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

From here we will be moving chronologically, so up to bat is an old favorite of mine, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. This film and I have a history, with me having seen it multiple times in highschool, of all places, and it always hit me with the strides of what high school might’ve been like if I wasn’t downtrodden with my particular mental afflictions. As much as I love myself, there is something about Ferris Bueller that has always compelled me to no end. Surprisingly, this isn’t just caused from his overwhelming charisma.

After my latest rewatch of the movie, I found that not only does it act as an incredible character study for its titular role, it also serves as a deep dive into a vast variety of characters’ lives despite its fairly linear A and B plot structure.

Ferris himself is portrayed as being a lovable punk, and while he may seem one dimensional for a large majority of the film, his genuine love for Sloane (his girlfriend) and Cam (his diametrically opposed best friend) shines through his leisurely, don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Despite being so carefree, Ferris is active when it comes to achieving his goals, and acts with extreme conviction when he must show off his ideals to the world around him.

What interests me most about the movie in regards to structure is the idea that our protagonist is a flat character, easily displayed in his fourth wall breaks, hyper-awareness of surroundings he could never feasibly recognize, and absent change of views by the end of the story. Instead of our protagonist needing change, the movie presents his side kick as the structural hero, Cameron. Cam goes through the traditional hero’s journey, which we have the pleasure of watching unfold from Ferris’ perspective. With how direct the movie addresses its audience, it becomes clear when Cam stops letting Ferris take action for him, and when he takes action for himself.

This tweak to the hero’s journey is extremely unexplored, and it is my belief that Ferris Bueller stands the test of time largely for it.

4.) Forrest Gump (1994)

Forrest Gump is a movie that needs no introduction, as its impact has reached nearly all modern day viewers. Moving well past its intended audience of Vietnam veterans and the generation of their children, the film is widely renowned by older and younger viewers alike. I would be a fool to not recognize much of this acclaim being intrinsically linked to Tom Hanks’ stellar performance. However, I would argue that behind his artistry is an equally important force in the film’s popularity, and it has a lot to do with Number 6 on this list.

Forrest Gump follows in multiple pathways of a similar tradition to Hot Fuzz: The Reference. It uses The Reference to its advantage in two major ways.

First, its Close Tense Writing, which I define as a work’s individual line structure and dialogue practices. This differs from Grand Tense Writing, which involves how a story’s plot is composed. That aside, the close tense work put into Forrest Gump seems purposefully memorable, with lines likes “Life is like a box of chocolates,” being used so intricately that its inclusion in popular nomenclature becomes forever linked to the film. This concept is related to the Reference because the famous line becomes an Anchor for other works to jump off of, at the same time as solidifying the film’s memory through the people’s diction.

Second, the film puts itself in league with a huge 1980s film genre: the war flick, and more specifically, movies about or revolving around the Vietnam War. During the 80s and 90s, dozens of war movies focused on Vietnam were released, and being towards the end of that trend, Forrest Gump fits into the bubble without really being entirely focused around it. Forrest’s time in the war reflects many adult viewers’ experience of the war: it was a huge, impactful part of their lives, and it seemed to fundamentally change the world after returning home. However, like life after the mid 70s, Forrest’s story is not over, and his life continues after the war, no matter how much it may have affected him. This theme acts as an appropriate cap to the period in film, as similar imagery and musical motifs to the genre are presented in the film’s second act.

So in the film, we see versions of both the Internal and External Reference utilized, a move which I believe assists the film stay relevant. Just like Hot Fuzz, Gump seems to hit at an innate human love of connection. It is my believe that we naturally gain satisfaction from drawing connections between things to gain better understanding of both things, and with story, this can be seen in The Reference.

5.) Pulp Fiction (1994)

Only a few short months after the release of Forrest Gump, another cult classic equally as big came to theaters: Pulp Fiction. The movie, as its titled implies, is a unique storytelling experience that’s plot is best explained as “Multiple plots that are all kind of one plot, but not really, but it all makes sense.”

The movie’s cast is made up of a small web of criminals including two enforcers, a sketchy drug dealer, a crime boss, his wife, and an unsuccessful underground boxer. Tarantino’s most famous work embodies the essence of crime drama – like The Godfather – but refuses to adhere to linear storytelling. More so than any other work on this list, Pulp Fiction‘s fame is dependent on its writing and philosophy.

Let’s tackle writing first. On a Grand scale, Pulp Fiction is a cinematic take on the mostly-dead genre known as pulp fiction (who would’ve thought?). For any who have never read samples of pulp fiction, think Conan the Barbarian stories, and popular, modern day myths of similar caliber. Essentially, the point of a pulp fiction story was to use a well known character which didn’t need much development or explanation, and to plot them in an action-based short story which spoke for itself, but may reward readers slightly if they had read other stories of the character.

It becomes immediately clear to us when – spoilers for the movie, seriously go watch it – we begin a story including John Travolta’s character Vincent Vega, who had just been murdered twenty minutes ago. The canon of the story in which Vincent dies is still reality, but due to the movie’s pulp structure, Vincent can still be used in other stories. The pulp fiction structure is not messed with frequently in cinema, where multiple stories might be told in a singular piece of art, so the execution of the tactic in Pulp Fiction stands out as unique.

Additionally, the movie’s script is rife with memorable quotes, making it excellent Reference fodder. You would probably be hardpressed to find someone who had never heard the words ” Say ‘what’ again! I dare you! I double dare you!” or “I don’t need you to tell me how f-ing good my coffee is” in a referential context.

As for Pulp Fiction‘s philosophy, the fact that it exists is undeniable, as the main duo’s penchant for philosophical musings is made clear to us in three separate stories in the film. Vincent and Jules – the pair of self-taught philosophers and henchman – even go so far as to ask the people around them to chime in to conversations whose context was literally left miles away.

So, what sort of arguments is the film trying to make? Primarily, it takes place in the areas of Theology and Ethics. Whenever Jules is about to execute someone, he recites a fake bible quote which is made from a mix of Ezekiel 25:17 and Psalm 23. The quote goes as follows:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

In short, this quote – written by Tarantino himself – translates to a justification of murder by God, under the qualifications that the victim should be an evil man who “attempt to poison and destroy [our] brothers”. It is implied that Jules has used this justification for his actions for many years, and with many “evil men”, but he comes to question his choices when six bullets miss hitting him at near point blank range, seeing it as divine intervention from God.

Later in the film, Jules abstains from killing another man who threatens to shoot him, even when the coast is clear and he has the advantage. Instead, Jules goes about attempting to reform the criminal – known only as “Pumpkin” – as a front to reforming himself. After the event, Jules tells Vincent that he is done with the criminal life, as he believes it is instead God’s will that he devote his life to helping all people, as opposed to justifying the easier path.

As this scene ends the film, I am personally left with the opinion that the movie is abolishing any and all justification of killing. It seems to posit that all lives are equal despite what sins a person might beset upon you. It simultaneously seems to criticize the idea of justification in general, as it places Jules in the position to recognize that his murdering is wrong, and also recognize that he was simply hiding behind justification to continue on the path he was on. As Jules admits to Vincent that it would certainly be easier to throw away his new ideas about faith, the film is saying that this easy method to self-appointed purpose is corrupt.

It is my belief that in the post-modern era, audiences may enjoy this sense of moral ambiguity and tearing down of past structures of faith, though that theme would have to be significantly repeated to merit much truth.

6.) Hot Fuzz (2007)

I have already made a post regarding the last two movies on this list, so I won’t go into as much depth here. However, it is of note that I place Hot Fuzz in the Classics category. This decision is due to its place as the prime exemplar for The Reference. Not only did I create the parameters for the idea based off of Hot Fuzz‘s content, but the film is loved by nearly everyone who watches it to my research.

For a bigger discussion of its brilliance, find my blog about Edgar Wright’s films here.

7.) Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright’s second inclusion in this list is equally as refreshing as its predecessor, for very different reasons. Once again, I have a post linked here which goes in depth regarding Baby Driver, but I believe it is important to include what I see as a future classic in this list. We may look back at the past four or five decades at what has been loved, but how do our thoughts translate to modern works, and what has changed over time?

These questions are especially tough with this broad category of film, but I believe that their fame can be roughly thrown into the following expression:

  • Memorable Quotes/Plot-points + Carefully Crafted Script + No Unnecessary Scenes

Of course, this formula is nowhere near perfect, and it also ignores good acting, directing, shot composition, and more, which are absolutely important to how a film is received in the short term, which then enables long-term enjoyment. However, I believe the separate analysis of works can still be useful to this project, as we now have a variety of ideas to look for in other genres.

Speaking of which, Week Three is all about Superheroes, and due to this blog’s belated post, there will be even less of a wait! Truthfully, transferring the site to a different location, plus a difficult genre for only my second week rendered this a difficult week to keep up with. But my expertise should shine next week, so stay tuned for a Wednesday post detailing Feige’s take on the philosophical battle between Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and a larger post on Friday regarding the MCU’s effect on modern cinema, Alan Moore’s place in the genre, and more!

Until them, happy watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.

Week One: Moana and the Modern Family Flick

After at least half a dozen viewings of Moana over the years since its release two and a half years ago, I have finally found out why I love it so much! And it all has to do with Aristotle.

Okay, maybe I need to take a few steps back.

Hi, my name is Tom, and welcome to the first of ten major posts under my research fellowship, tentatively titled The Open Endings. Throughout the following nine weeks, I will be conducting research on a vast variety of popular culture phenomena through the lenses of storytelling and philosophy, to hopefully uncover some major truths about what we gravitate to most in society, and what the implications are for such gravitation.

As such, I will be posting every Friday for the following nine weeks about a different genre, and while there may be smaller, less formal blogs throughout the week, Fridays are when you – and I, honestly – can expect the most thoughtful and complete musings until I eventually publish a paper on my findings – hopefully.

Anyways, back to Moana.

Moana is the third of what may be commonly referred to as a “New Trilogy” of Disney animated features. While this New Trilogy has never been defined, seemingly universal love has been sent in the way of Disney’s last three non-Pixar, non-straight to TV princess flicks:

  • Tangled (2010)
  • Frozen (2013)
  • and Moana (2016).

This Spring, as I received my acceptance letter for a research fellowship, I was simultaneously watching Moana for a Story Structure course I was taking, which already had me alert to the idea that there was something special going on in the movie. Of course, the primary reason for analysis in that class was to talk about the presence of two key thinkers and their thoughts: Christopher Vogler’s famous teachings about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and more importantly, Aristotle’s six traits of literature. But as I thought about my summer research, I identified something about Moana‘s tightly knit story structure that goes beyond what Vogler and Aristotle once taught.

The titular Moana is not only an active player in the plot of her debut movie, but her personal growth is deeply rooted in pushing the narrative forward.

As we watch Moana grow up in the movie’s first act, we can see multiple major forces all trying to tell her what to be, what she is, or what she isn’t. Her father pushes her to stay on the land and set a good example for her people, her grandmother implies that her destiny is to save the world with only an illusion of choice, and through a vision, her ancestors show her that they were once voyagers, and that she too may be able to live out her dreams of being out on the ocean. Finally, after setting off on her journey to return the Heart of Te Fiti to its rightful owner (plot stuff), the demigod Maui tells her that she isn’t a hero, and that he “Won’t die so she can prove she’s something she’s not.”

The film easily places itself as a piece about morals regarding Who We Are, with each of the main songs being centralized around a character’s pursuit of finding out who they are, or relishing in who they already believe they are. By the end of the film, Moana has taken in the extraordinary world, and has a revelation about how she alone can define who she is, no matter how people may potentially react. She carries this thought into her final mission, wherein she must eventually use the knowledge to teach the BBEG, Te Ka, that she may also choose who she wants to be.

So, if Moana’s own mental strife is the key to success in her movies, how do the other two movies I mentioned fair? To my hunch, they both fit into this new mold perfectly.

While I won’t get as specific with these two, they follow similar patterns. In Tangled, every single obstacle which Rapunzel faces is a direct result of previous actions taken by her, or more frequently, her new companion Flynn Ryder. Flynn, revealed halfway through the movie to actually be known as Eugene, is a crook who goes through the steps to reconsidering his dastardly actions, and by the end of the movie, is ready to sacrifice himself to save Rapunzel. What becomes clear through watching his reactions to each new problem that he causes for his love interest is the idea that he is now seeing what his less than righteous acts directly cause for people other than him. Through each of these, Eugene gets closer and closer to who he becomes in the final act, eventually having the sensible power to act selflessly and without worry of his character.

As for Frozen, we follow two princess sisters after their parents die. Elsa, the elder sister of three years, develops ice powers at a young age, and as such is isolated from both the outside world, and her younger sister Anna. It is through her forced isolation that Elsa resolves to be who she wants to be – a girl who is unafraid of her powers – but at the cost of her permanent isolation. As Anna attempts to reconnect with her sister throughout the film, she is driven by her unconditional love for the only family she has left. By the end of the film, after Anna is frozen by a spell that can only be undone by “an act of true love”, it is neither of her love interests that releases her, but her sister Elsa, revealing that familial love is just as strong as any other form. Without Anna’s consistent outreaches towards her older sister, Elsa would not have learned this lesson, and the implication is that Anna would have perished.

Through thorough analysis, we can see these three princess films solidly weaving together Aristotle’s first two attributes of storytelling: Plot and Character. Instead of placing one above the other, it is my belief that the refusal to make a choice between having one higher than the other is key to why these movies are so beloved. Unlike genre-defining movies of the past, i.e Cinderella or Snow White, a character’s direct involvement in what is wholly considered their story makes such stories all the more believable.

To be clear, in his essay Poetics, Aristotle defines six key aspects of literature, or more specifically, what he knows as drama. This work is commonly accepted as the very first work of literary criticism, and it is therefore fitting that the meta-conversations I am continuing about literature fit so nicely with the start of the conversation itself. That being said, in the following order from most to least important, Aristotle lists and talks about the important aspects of all genre.

  • Plot
  • Character
  • Thought
  • Diction
  • Melody (what he knew as a Greek Chorus, no longer frequently relevant)
  • Spectacle

While Aristotle’s six defining features of dramatic story elements seem to reign true as overarching categories, the notion that they are ordered perfectly is highly debated. Upon first studying the work, I had identified myself in the camp of placing character before plot. However, upon my discoveries in Moana, I posit that we may come to more conclusions in storytelling at large if we accept that these six should not be ordered as important or not important, but that all should be acknowledged and considered simultaneously and in conjunction with each other.

I plan on working with this idea as the summer goes by, and I look forward to hopefully finding that the idea has further merit when used for genres other than drama, which is quite easily transferred to film, especially that of somewhat regal and royal stories that bear similarity to what Aristotle was watching.

So next week, we will continue this conversation of story structure and philosophy in our new genre, The Classics. We will be looking at films which have made big splashes in the medium and continue to be discussed today, no matter how old they are. Think Star Wars: A New Hope, Pulp Fiction, The Godfather, and Fight Club.

Happy watching, and remember: every ending is open to discussion.