Monday, August 20, 2012

What I want is not more origin stories

So, The Matrix was on, is on actually, don't have time to watch it at the moment but I did catch Morpheus' "No one can be told what the Matrix is," scene and followed it through to just before Neo tried his first jump.

At first, in the scene where Morpheus is talking about the Matrix without letting on what it is I was thinking of all of the other stories that could have that exact same speech in it.

The Matrix could be culture itself imposed on us by the Illuminati/the gods/aliens to keep us from ever realizing our true potential.  This speech could have fit in a movie like They Live (soon to be on Blu Ray for those who are into that sort of thing) or a story about why there's no magic/superheroes/dragon riders/whatever in the modern world.  This could be about the patriarchy.  This could be about anything.

So I was already starting to think about what other stories might have been told when I realized, not for the first time, that what I would have liked to have seen was the crew operating together as a unit.

We don't get to see that.  We've barely had a chance to meet the characters before Cypher goes betrayer and it's down to Neo-Trinity-Tank trying to save Morpheus.

We never see them on a mission, whatever their missions actually are.  (Do you know?  I don't.  They must have them, otherwise why the hovercrafts broadcasting a pirate signal.)

I have no objection to Neo's origin story being told, but in truth I'm far more interested in the crew that's already originated.  If there hadn't been a betrayal, or Cypher's betrayal had failed and the rest of the crew survived, that's a story that would have interested me more.  The ensemble of the cast working together the interesting characters we had hinted at actually being allowed to be interesting characters.

Maybe instead of Neo's transformation into The One being instantaneous it could have been something he grew into over the course of the trillogy.  Climax of the first movie could have been largely the same, the realization that he is The One, but instead of that being all there was Morpheus and his ship would keep on doing its job (again, job largely unknown) throughout the the show and the crew we started with could be explored as characters.

It's the same thing I had with Twister, what interests me is the team that's already together working as a team as they are accustomed to do.

And it occurs to me that what I'm saying here might be seen as, "I would have liked it if the crew in The Matrix had been handled more like the crew in Firefly," so be it.

I like a lot of origin stories, I like the Matrix, or did the last time I really saw it, but it irks me that the stories always seem to be about coming together or falling apart or finding yourself, or whatever the fuck it is that changes, but never about being.

If there is a team at the beginning of the movie, it will not survive. (Possible exception for sequels.)  Twister may stand alone as an exception, but the team was overshadowed by the screwed up love story.  Speaking of which:
If there is a couple at the beginning of the movie, they will break up.

If they form a team in the movie, them getting the whole working together thing down will be the end of the movie.
If people fall in love, them finally getting together will be the end of the movie.

This is The Matrix:
At the start of the movie there is a team, it is doomed, naturally.
Neo joins team with doubts and insecurities plus romantic tension with Trinity.
Neo trains.
Team from the start of the movie is destroyed.
The survivors form a new team and complete their first mission together, the end.
Concurrently: Neo becomes a hero, the end.
Concurrently: Neo and Trinity become a couple, the end.
It's all about becoming, not being.  Becoming a former team, becoming a new team, becoming a hero, becoming a couple.

What about this?
At the start of the movie there is a team (which, if memory serves, had a couple on it already)
Neo joins team with doubts and insecurities plus romantic tension with Trinity.
Neo trains.
The team does an important job, which is also Neo's first.  In the course of which we get to see the team actually being a team and the original couple actually being a couple.
Concurrently Neo can still become a hero and he and Trinity can still get together.
Initial team and couple intact, work left to be done and a future left to face, the end.
I'm not saying that the Matrix should have been rewritten, this isn't a "how I would do it" post.  That's just the example that I bumped into this morning.

What I am saying is that I'd like more stories of being, rather than becoming.  Becoming stories end right were the being would start to happen, and it tends to leave me feeling like the part I really wanted got left out.  I'm much more interested in when the people who have finally got their shit together face whatever it is they face, than I am in them getting their shit together in the first place.

If you're going to get together, as a couple, as a team, as a whatever, then my position is do it already so I can see some of that before the movie ends because that's the part that interests me.

Origin stories are interesting, but it's like having the entire biography be about the birth, or the company history end with, "And then the company was founded."  It's like the story of America ending in 1783 because with the ending of the Revolutionary War the country was finally started.  I've been single my entire life, but I doubt that most couples consider the story of their relationship to have ended with, "And then we started dating."

These are the places the stories begin, but they're almost always where the movie ends.  I want more middle in my movies.  The tendency to focus exclusively on the beginningest of the beginning or the endingest of the end (usually of the previous story, to set the groundwork for the beginningest of the beginning of this one) really irks.

Give me some fracking middle on occasion.


  1. YES. This. I don't think it's a coincidence that my two favorite movies of the past five years are Speed Racer (where the team, the relationships and Speed's reputation as a promising up-and-comer are already established) and Scott Pilgrim (all about established relationships), and why my favorite comic book adaptations, The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series and the second Ninja Turtles cartoon, are ones that acknowledge that people already know how the basic story goes and can wait for the specific details. (Of course, continuing series have different things to worry about, but still...)

  2. Ho boy, there's a lot to unpack here. :-)

    First of all I think that there's a feeling among literary types that stories worth telling are about transition: no-relationship to relationship, loners to team, in the extreme case something like the Hero's Journey of naïf young farmboy to world-saving superman. Much of the time I agree with this; I get very fed up with the sort of short story in which, essentially, nothing happens, and the guy coming out of it is much the same as the guy going into it.

    The exception that I make is serial, or at least potentially serial, fiction: something's happening, but the hero isn't necessarily changed by it. Consider a classic police procedural: most of the time, the heroes at the end are much the same people as the heroes at the beginning, who started off competent and went on that way. Or the Doc Savage novels, where the first one mentions where he came from as background but basically he strides onto the stage fully-formed. (Robin Laws calls this sort of character an iconic hero: more at .) In the extreme case of that, you get the classic American-style TV series where episodes can be shuffled around by the network and nobody knows the difference.

    The literary types say that serial fiction of this kind is lousy, because there's no end and (in the days before DVD sets) no beginning. (But they're happy to write stories that are all middle themselves, so I spurn them.)

    A story-telling form I quite enjoy is a hybrid that in my perception at least came along in the wake of Babylon 5: episodes are generally able to stand alone, but if you watch them in order you'll pick up more stuff about what's going on in the bigger story. The unit of story generally becomes the block of episodes produced in one season. But stories like this spread out their origin tales if they do them at all: you learn about the building of Babylon 5, or what McNulty did before he became a homicide cop, very slowly over the course of many episodes, rather than dumped on you all at once at the beginning. At the beginning, and at the start of each episode, you just get the basics of what you need to know to follow the story.

    I suspect that producers shy away from this when it's a science-fictional or fantasy setting: what about the guy who just tuned in for episode 217, who has no idea what's going on? But there are various things moving against that: people don't channel-flip as much, they tune in to a show they've already read/heard about and so already have some idea. A quick teaser can generate a sense of immediate dramatic tension even if the viewer doesn't necessarily know why it's important that the big metal plate is glowing red. And some of these shows have been pretty successful - Stargate SG-1, Battlestar Galactica...

    (And of course there are shows with weird components but set basically in the real world; I suspect those are easier to sell, because "like now but with vampires" is simpler than "everybody's on a bunch of spaceships".)

    Where was I? Yeah. So back in film-making-land, if you're trying for critical respectability you may well feel you have to tell self-contained stories about change, and if you're doing something weird you have to explain that to the audience (who may not have watched the previous film), and both of these things push against the idea of a static team setup with no origin story.

    Firefly's a great example. When they made it into a film... they made it a story about the team changing. (And that's quite spoilery enough for you to see what I'm talking about.)

  3. Whoa, this is getting long. Too long for a single post, as it turned out - good thing I was doing this in a text editor. OK, second thing. Something that I'd really like to see coming into English-language TV/filmmaking as a narrative form is the telenovela - broadly like a soap opera in style, but with a set endpoint when the story will be over. It's broadcast 5-6 days a week, with maybe 120 episodes total, to fill a half-hour (usually) or one-hour slot. That's potentially a brutal filming schedule, but you can at least get the whole thing in the can before you start broadcasting. I don't really care for the soap-operatic side, but I'd like to see the format take off for other types of story, when you know you've got enough material for 4-5 conventional US seasons but you can't be sure of keeping actors under contract or getting funding from one year to the next.

    Third thing... I think there may be issues of dramatic tension, and particularly the idea that if you want to tell a lone-hero story one way to ramp up the audience's anxiety is to give him something to rely on and then take it away. The Matrix is a good example; the Lone Wolf gamebooks had an unfortunate tendency (after the first few, once your character is basically a known hero) to say "this is a really important mission, have a bunch of soldiers to go with you... oh dear they've all been killed". It's a balance between tension from the immediate situation and tension for the narrative future of the characters (for which there's probably a proper literary term but I don't know it): if the bad guys planning to set off a nuclear bomb / rule the world isn't enough, will our hero clear his name / get the hot lady scientist into bed? That's what the ending scene of "and then we started dating" is for: it's the payoff on the tension that's been going along, not the launch-pad for further stories, even though sometimes it pretends to be both. (All too often, if there is a further story added on, that payoff is undone - most blatantly in Alien3, but many sequels shift from "yay, me 'n' my girl are together" at the end of one film to "we done had a fight, will we get back together" at the start of the next.

    I'm going to shut up now.

  4. I'm not advocating for stories in which nothing happens. My primary criticism of the game Portal (original with the revised ending, I haven't played the second) is that absolutely nothing happens in it.

    The game begins with main character in captivity and evil AI alive. The game ends with evil AI still alive and, in the revised ending, main character in captivity. Total difference made? Zero. Most pointless game ever. It would make an even worse movie.

    What I do think there is a shortage of is movies in which we get to see something happen instead of beginning to happen.

    If, for example, The Matrix had been about the crew doing a mission, something would have had to happen in it (the mission.) Unless every single member of the crew was afflicted with a very specific form of depression, they'd all be affected by it. Maybe not a lot, they presumably do a lot missions, but what people do has effects upon them.

    The Matrix could have been about fighting the war, instead it's about Neo beginning to fight the war, and stops just as soon as he's involved at full strength.

    The sequel is about undoing the significance of the ending of the first movie, and then about the war we've been hearing about completely changing so now, unlike the first movie, it's everybody's first time. And we still never see so much as a single actual mission. Just side stuff done to reset the hero's journey.

    The third movie is a mess, but it's much of the same.

    1. I regard the original Portal as complete in itself - like Aliens - and I have no truck with retroactive attempts to change things. :-)

      I think that I was trying to get at your point from a different angle, and not putting it very well: from a film-production point of view, there are strong pressures to stick with a standard hero's journey cum origin story, and the less sure you are of getting a sequel the less non-standard stuff you can get away with putting in.

      My ideal "episode" - which could be one or two episodes of a TV show, or a single book or film in a series - has a full story in itself (which may be an entirely standard plot, but if anyone's having an origin it won't be the established main characters whom we already know, and if anyone's having a conclusion it's probably ditto). At the end, the plot is resolved, the bad guy is caught, whatever. But the main characters go on, more or less as they were at the beginning. Batman is still out there beating up criminals, Gil Grissom is still running the night shift at the crime lab, Doc Savage is still doing... whatever he does while waiting for trouble to find him.

      If the episodes are good enough, there's no need for the first one to contain anything but the most cursory setup to get the heroes into their starting slots.

      As far as I can see this is compatible with your hypothetical Matrix-mission film...?

  5. I love origin stories, but yeah, I totally agree that watching a team do team things and play to their strengths is the height of awesome. It seems to work well on TV shows, but there's no reason you can't do it in movies. (Avengers, you are on notice!)

    I kind of have the same thing with love stories. I love first-time falling-in-love, but then I want to see the awesome people having their awesome relationship and awesome sex and whatever in sequels. And since my romance people tend to, like, fight crime on superhero teams, or explore space on science teams, or whatever, it goes along with the team thing.

    I also think things about a new person becoming a leader are fine but I'm sick of stories where the experienced leader gets killed in the first ten minutes. If you are going to do that why is that character there at all? If the answer is "lots of flashbacks" then I don't know, maybe it's justified. Probably not.

  6. The movie X-Men, released in 2000, fits your hypothetical plot structure almost perfectly.