Monthly Archives: March 2015

My Theory of Functional Illusions

About a year ago, I coined a term called “Functional Illusions.”  A Functional Illusion is an understood lie that the people of a certain culture generally accept or allow because it serves a purpose that the culture sees as important.  A simple example is a mirror, although this is a very weak Functional Illusion (as I explain in the following paragraph).  The mirror deceives the eyes by creating the appearance of another person who isn’t really there, but we don’t really think of mirrors as “lies” because we are all well aware that this illusion isn’t reality, but it is very helpful.  A slightly stronger example would be puppetry.  We know that puppets aren’t real, but we allow ourselves to act as if they are so we can enjoy the stories they tell, and sometimes we tell children that the puppets are real, which is essentially lying.  Therein lies the danger of the Functional Illusion.

A strong Functional Illusion is one that people really, really want to believe is a reality, and a weak FI is one that everyone is perfectly fine dismissing as a meaningless illusion, such as the mirror.  Some FIs are strong for some people, but weak for others.  To an adult, Santa Claus is a very weak FI, but to a child, discovering that his/her parents lied all those years can be devastating, and in extreme, rare cases, lead to bad trust issues.  The discovery that an FI isn’t real can be handled well by taking an interest in how the illusion is created.  It can be handled badly by hating either the illusion, or those who reveal it to be only an illusion.  (In some cases, people hate puppets because they were so devastated to find out the characters on Sesame Street aren’t real, whereas others, such as myself, become fascinated with puppetry because of the discovery that it’s an illusion.)  Naturally, a very strong FI that many, many people want to believe is a reality can lead to intense fury throughout the culture.

America is essentially a Functional Illusion.  Well, okay, the nation that is the United States of America is real, and the landmass consisting of North, South, and Central America is real, but those are not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about the Idea America (yes, I thought that term up to, and I hope no one else has used it first).  The Idea America is the American Dream, the American Way, and freedom and justice for all.  There is clearly a big difference between the Idea America and the USA, but some people don’t see the gap, or at least try not to, because they are such a big fan of the Functional Illusion.  Essentially, everyone who claims that America is or was the greatest country in the world and the city on a hill is overly attached to the FI.  This is somewhat scary because FIs need to be understood in order to serve their proper purpose, and in order that we can make progress.  The best purpose of the Idea America is not for people to be proud to be American, but rather for people to see that which America must become.

The Functional Illusion is important.  Mirrors are helpful, Santa Claus is fun, makeup is an interesting form of expression, and auto-tune can be a great artistic tool if used appropriately.  However, there is a danger to encouraging faith in them.  People in the music industry may all be aware that the industry is to a large extent comprised of FIs, but people outside that culture may not be aware of this when they set out to make hits of their own.  Some FIs become a sort of dogma that is detrimental to intellectual progress.  The answer to problems that come from Functional Illusions seems to be better education, encouraging young people to use reason to question the illusions without assuming they are good or bad.  Like many human tools, Functional Illusions will only do harm if humankind is not yet smart enough to use them wisely.

UPDATE 4/8/15 – There is now a follow up essay on a specific type of Functional Illusion, available to read here.

Ed Wood Review

(MINOR SPOILERS)

There are a couple of downsides to doing movies about real people and events.  The first is that it can often limit one visually; the filmmaker almost always must portray a world that is believable to the audience, which typically means no animation, no theatrical lighting/color, no surreal sets or props, etc.  Secondly, some liberties have to be taken with the characters since they are based on real people, meaning that names must be changed to avoid lawsuits, or the people must be fictionalized to seem likable and interesting.  There’s also the simple, obvious problem that the series of events that take place in real life are seldom as interesting as what is commonly found in fiction.  Did Tim Burton’s Ed Wood successfully avoid, or at least properly handle, all of these potential dangers?

On the whole, yes, the movie manages to have very interesting visuals, characters, and story flow.   Mostly. To be fair, there were a lot of times when I was a little bored by the movie because it can be kind of tedious. With a slightly faster pace, I would have enjoyed it a lot more, but I did still enjoy it.  It was really the characters that got me through it, because I did enjoy the majority of the cast.

This may not be my favorite Tim Burton film that I’ve seen thus far, but it is my favorite Johnny Depp performance.  Yes, he’s playing the type of character that he tends to play too often, but heck, I’ll take this over his Willy Wonka any day. Ed Wood is a very likable character and relatable character, in spite of the fact that he’s kind of an idiot.  I just can’t help but admire his passion and enthusiasm for making movies the way he believes they should be made.  Also, Martin Landau is fantastic as Bela Lugosi, and Bill Murray is Bill Murray at being Bill Murray all throughout the Bill Murray. Bill Murray.

There are a lot of great scenes in the film that work for a variety of different reasons.  The scene in which Bela is about to commit suicide is the most Burton-ly shot scene in the film, and is thus my favorite visually.   My favorite in terms of character and story, which is probably more important, is the exchange between Ed Wood and Orson Welles.  That’s the scene that makes the whole movie worth watching.  The scene in which Bela appears on television (with no idea how to improvise) is really a painful scene to watch, but not because it’s a bad scene.  Rather, it’s because it hurts to see him struggle in such a difficult, awkward situation.

The big problem with this film is not historical inaccuracy, a cinema sin that is also present, but is actually the simple fact that this guy’s life was difficult to focus into one cohesive story that clearly moves in a particular direction.  It’s always a little difficult for me to watch a movie if I get no sense that each scene is a part of getting the story to its climax, and Ed Wooddoes kind of drag for that reason.  Still, I would recommend that everyone go into the movie prepared to be a little patient, and then enjoy getting to meet this delightful character called Ed Wood.  Plus Bill Murray.

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Pulp Fiction Review

So,there are some movies I’d recommend that people see without any knowledge of what the film is about, what’s going to happen, or who’s in the film.  The Truman Show is a good example, as is Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  Then there’s a movie like Pulp Fiction.  I think I was only able to like it because I knew all about it going into it.

I knew the type of storytelling and approach.  I knew it was a weird Tarantino film that would jump around, and I knew he had carefully structured everything so that he was ahead of the audience, and no one could ever predict where the story would go next.  I knew he would use everything that the movies have trained us to expect to happen in a story against the audience to trick them.  I knew to expect that I would never know what to expect, and most importantly, I knew better than to play The Movie Game.

The Movie Game is my term for when the audience member tries to figure out where the plot is going, and what will resolve everything, with the understanding that the movie has to set up its twists and turns ahead of time, and the story will follow the standard structure.  This is partially based on a great quote from screenwriter Terry Rossio: “You know that the audience will try to guess where you’re going with the story.  It’s a given.  It’s fun.  After all, they’re sitting there virtually motionless in the dark for two hours, with nothing better to do but second-guess you.”  When The Movie Game is too easy, it’s a boring game, so it’s a bad movie.  I played a great game with The LEGO Movie, and the movie won.  I beat Frozen, but it was still a good game, and therefore a good film.

Naturally, when I get most upset by a movie is when I feel cheated, particularly because the movie doesn’t follow any normal structure, so I don’t get to play my favorite game.  The way to avoid feeling cheated is simply to know what game the movie is playing before going in, rather than assuming it’s playing the same game as I am.  What game is Pulp Fiction playing?  I have no flippin’ clue, but it’s not quite as fun as The Movie Game.

It’s nice, every once in a while, to see a movie that does storytelling really differently.  However, because of how different the storytelling is from what I’d ever seen in a movie before, and because I didn’t get to play the game, it didn’t feel like a real movie to me. It felt like a crazy Tarantino art project.  I happened to find out that Tarantino felt the same way about it when it first came out. I respect it since so much in the film is impressive, but it didn’t feel quite like I was watching a movie, nor was it quite as entertaining as a more ordinary film.  The entertainment value is lost to some extent when the movie doesn’t build in any normal sense, so some scenes are essentially pointless.  Again, they may be impressivescenes, but they serve no purpose other than displaying themselves because the director feels like showing these scenes to the audience because they mean something to him, even though they mean nothing, in some cases, to an overarching story.

I don’t identify with the characters, so they are not my favorites, but they are strong. The dialogue is perhaps more profane than it needs to be, which I generally view as a Cinema Sin of sorts because that generally means the writer is either going for shock value, or simply can’t think of anything meaningful or interesting to write.  However, the writing is very, very impressive – Tarantino is pretty darn good at dialogue.  The way he interwove the three main stories was clever.  The soundtrack is nice overall, and the visuals, while sometimes more bloody than I like, were overall very well done as well.

So, in the end, I really like this movie for what it is, but I don’t know that I like it much as a movie.  When I don’t get to play The Movie Game, I feel a little like I’ve been invited over to a friend’s house to play a game with him, but he’s just playing it by himself and encouraging me to watch him; I don’t feel included, and that’s just boring.  I think I’ve certainly learned a lot about film, storytelling, and myself from watching it, which means it has good reason to be considered a classic.  So, I like it.  It’s good.  But give up on The Game before it begins, because he just isn’t playing along.

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The Naked Gun 33 1/3 Review

*Sigh of mild disappointment, but understanding why it is what it is.*

It has its moments.  It was fun seeing their take on the Academy Awards, even though I missed a few of the references.  (The girl in the traditional Native American attire was a clever throwback that got me laughing.)  The 24-hour Johnny Mathis station was brilliant.  Aside from that, the movie is rather weak.  However, this is the type of sequel that is enjoyable not because it is on par with the original, but because it is an opportunity to spend more time with the characters we love and miss.  Those are important too.

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How to Write a PIXAR Movie in 10 Easy Steps

  1.  Make the audience terribly sad.  The easy way to do this is to take two seconds to establish a character, and then kill ’em.  Even if you have to play the same two bars of sad music on the piano over and over for an eternity, you must force the audience to cry.
  2.  Find something that obviously does not have consciousness and give it consciousness so the kiddies will have guilt whenever they don’t show it proper care.  Should they ever mistreat a toy, bug, fish, rat, or car, all of which are apparently people too, they will be hurting a conscious creature, and their guilt will remind them of your film, so they will always think about it and buy the merchandise.  Nothing’s too ridiculous – PIXAR’s beloved mascot is a conscious desk lamp.  So remember, kids: that toy felt pain, that bug had a life, that monster under your bed needs your help to survive, and that bear is your mom.
  3.  Have two or more characters argue with each other.  Forget the fact that arguments are some of the most annoying experiences in life – the audience won’t see it as annoying.  They’ll see it as either great comedy or great drama no matter how pointless the argument is.
  4.  Throw in some pointless physical comedy.  Did you ever see the Mr. Bean cartoon based on the Rowan Atkinson character?  No, nobody did, because it wasn’t funny.  The physical comedy had no effect because the cartoon wasn’t physical, it was animated.  The audience somehow won’t notice the same problem in your PIXAR movie, so with the right score you can work that physical comedy whenever you need a laugh.
  5.  Add a character who can’t get a simple idea through his/her head.  He/she can continually forget the whole friggin’ plot, or ignore the fact that he/she is a toy/animal/vehicle/whatever, or simply not notice that nobody likes him/her.  The only thing that matters is setting up a chance for another character to force your ignorant character to come to grips with reality, which will lead to more sadness and drama.
  6.  Shock ’em with a big reveal about the villain that’s really kinda obvious.  You know that explorer/pilot that the protagonist always adored so much?  He’s actually the villain!  You know that teddy bear who shockingly turned out to actually be the villain?  He’s gonna start being nice now… no, wait, he’s still the villain!  They’ll never see it coming if they’re in your target demographic of six-year-olds.
  7.  I must reiterate the first point about making the audience cry.  You have to do this a few times because everything seems funnier if it’s pulling you out of a sad scene.  Works like magic.
  8.  All hope must be lost, and it must be really dramatic.  All movies do this old trick, so you have to do it more to stand out.  It doesn’t matter if it’s all no big deal in reality.  You can make the audience believe that toys getting stuck on a plane to Japan is the worst thing that can happen to the universe.  A fictitious French restaurant getting a bad review can be a terrifying thought, and a town on Route 66 getting closed down because hardly anybody lives there can be a travesty.  There are no molehills; there are only volcanoes erupting on top of your audience.
  9.  Wrap everything up with a precious moment that’s so dang heartwarming they’ll get heartburn.  Use the old Three-Second Test: if the ‘awww’s of the teenage girls in the audience continue for three seconds or longer, you’ve done your job.  A great way to do this kind of scene is having some characters who’ve moved apart, if only emotionally, reunite.  If that’s not strong enough, have one of them quote something the other said earlier in the film/franchise, perhaps (but not necessarily) slightly adjusting it to make it even nicer and more precious.  Any crap about the importance of friendship is good too.  Actually, on second thought, put these throughout the film any little chance you get.  These are the moments PIXAR is all about.
  10.  You now have a hit movie that’ll make lots and Lotso money (see what I did there?) and now you just need to do it over and over again for the sequels!  Happy franchise-building!

The Parable of the Desert Orange

Two explorers, an atheist and a theist, were out in the middle of the desert.  They happened to come across an orange sitting in the sand with nothing else around.  They found it very strange for an orange to be in the middle of nowhere, and the theist remarked, “You know, this exemplifies how my way of thinking is more logical than yours.”

“Oh?” the atheist replied.  “And just how is that?”

“You see, the logical mind observes this fruit, which has no apparent reason for being in this foreign place, and concludes that someone must have put it here.  One cannot assume that it appeared here randomly, so the obvious alternative is that someone meant for it to be here.  The same can be said of the universe, although you deny such intuitive logic.”

“Ah,” said the atheist, “quite contrarily, this is a perfect example of how my way of thinking is rational, whereas your religious mindset is intrinsically silly.  When I see this fruit, I wonder what logical series of events could have led to its arrival here.  Even if I cannot think of a perfect explanation, I will not just assume that it appeared here as the result of magic, which I likewise do not assume about the universe.”

The two bickered about the analogy for some time, arguing that the other’s rhetoric was twisting the truth.  Then, out of curiosity, they decided to examine the orange for fingerprints.  They wiped the sand off the orange and held it under a magnifying glass, turning it slowly.

“I clearly see prints on both sides,” said the theist.

“Actually,” the atheist rebutted, “the prints you see on one side appear to be from an animal, and the prints on the other are probably your own.  It seems just as probable then, if not more so, that this was carried here by natural means, not by any person.”

The two then argued for hours about what they were really seeing, and eventually they gave up on the mysterious desert orange, but only after the magnifying glass had completely scorched it.

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World Review

(MINOR SPOILERS)

When I first saw the trailer for this movie years ago, I thought it was a remake or reboot of some sort.  I really couldn’t figure out how Spy Kids could be remade since it is so unique, or why it should be since I’ve always found it kind of stupid.  I think I found it stupid because I saw it as a movie, or movie franchise rather, as one that used a bizarre, off-putting, artsy style to make up for a lack of quality.  Over the past month or so though, I have been thinking that the bizarre, off-putting, artsy style had just been keeping me from seeing all the quality that’s there.

This is a weird movie series.  Maybe the weirdest I’ve ever seen.  It has a ridiculous story running throughout based on a ridiculous concept; it has a lot of heart and messages about family balanced with crude and edgy humor and images far too freaky for kids; it takes place in a nonsensical world filled with nonsensical characters, but doesn’t quite feel cartoony enough or satirical enough to pull it off; it’s a special effects film series with loads of CG, but it looks far too cheap be believable, and yet not silly enough to be funny; continuity is out of the question since the storyline throughout the series makes hardly any sense and the editing is as sloppy as that of a college project.  So why the heck do I enjoy these movies so much?

I enjoy the Spy Kids series because I enjoy a challenge, and I see the films as a challenge.  I find the movies to be kind of ugly, with strange shots, lousy effects, and poor editing, but I understand that this is a stylistic choice.  I think Rodriguez could have made these films properly if he wanted to, but he felt like making them weird, so he did.  Heck, it’s a weird concept – a combination of the spy genre and the kids’ movie genre – so why not make a weird world for it?  What this ultimately does is challenge the moviegoer to appreciate the more important things in the movie than technical correctness and beautiful shots.  The films have great characters, good dialogue, interesting stories/conflicts, effective surprises, strong themes, and clever details out the wazoo.  So, I was hoping the fourth film would hold up to the standards set by its predecessors.

Thankfully, it’s a good movie.  The plot has more holes than there are Fooglies, but the challenge of the movie series is to choose not to care about that stuff.  What matters is that the characters are likable, the story is interesting, the angle is original, the villain is fascinating, and the twists are pretty darn good.  Oh, and did I mention that Carmen and Juni come back to make it an epic nostalgia fest?!  I was still thinking it might be a remake until I saw Carmen, and when I saw her, I totally freaked out.  My excitement continued as I saw all the old spy gear from the previous films, and the feels were just too strong for me to take.

Yeah, it makes no sense and looks kinda crappy, but it makes me feel like a kid again, so who Flooping cares?!

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