Favorite Moments: It’s a Giraffe!

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The video:

Why it’s great:

It takes one of the greatest film moments of the 1990’s and gives Alan Grant the voice of Patrick Starfish. That’s all you need to know.

Okay, maybe a more detailed explanation is in order. I adore how taking the audio from an episode of Spongebob Squarepants changes the mood and feel of such an emotional scene by making it comedic. It’s probably a cosmic law that adding circus music to anything makes it funnier, no matter how dramatic, heartwarming, or awe-inspiring it is, a law I’d love to explore and see if it’s true or not. But until then, I’ll continue chuckling at Dr. Grant acting like an over-excited starfish.

What we can learn from ‘Honest University Commercial’

Today’s video should hit pretty close to home for anyone who’s ever gone to college. While a college degree has long been held as the key to financial and personal success, they’ve been getting more expensive as time goes on, to the point where your great-great-great grandchildren will have to tell their grandchildren that they’ll have to work to pay off your debt. Okay, maybe not, but there’s no denying that college can be a major source of sticker shock. Making matters worse is how many of these universities and colleges produce fancy commercials to make it seem like attending their hallowed halls was a guaranteed path to success, instead of a one-way ticket to catastrophic debt and no guarantees of a job that can even pay the bills.

But what if these for-profit colleges were unashamedly honest about themselves? That’s where the hilarious (or heartbreaking) Honest University Commercial comes in, with three great lessons for writers:

Consider having a shady organization cheerfully promote their vices

We expect commercials – already little more than capitalist propaganda – to be as clean, friendly, and idealized as possible, their producers doing everything they can to convince you to buy their product or service. We, as readers and viewers, expect fictional companies to do the same.

But what if they didn’t?

In our own writing, and if the situation fits (i.e. you’re doing a comedy), try having an evil or shady organization doing a commercial to promote themselves, and not bothering to hide how shady and evil they are, even relishing in pointing out how greedy or corrupt their institution is. That’s what ‘Honest University Commercial’ does so well. We’re used to seeing ‘good’ institutions doing so, or even having evil companies putting on a good face, but when they don’t bother, it’s more memorable, and will stick with our audience. For another great example, look no further than one of the all-time classics, ‘Big Bill Hell’s’ (warning: Video is NOT safe for work).

Consider having people be relentlessly cheerful about their problems

What happens when things aren’t going your way? You get upset. You get angry. You complain. It’s only natural, and no one would begrudge you for needing to vent. But if you were cheerful and upbeat about how life is awful, you’re going to get a lot of baffled looks. You’re not supposed to be happy about getting into crushing debt for the rest of your life, about losing your loved ones, or having an unsustainable lifestyle (unless you’re a spiritual masochist, but we won’t go into that), which makes such a reaction stand out.

For writers (especially comedy writers), having characters be relentlessly cheerful about their problems can be a comedy goldmine because audiences don’t expect them to be that happy. After the initial humor wears off, they’ll want to learn if the unfortunate soul is delusional, crazy, a masochist, or someone who’s about to snap and go on a blood-drenched rampage. Consider poor Stanley Johnson:

Someone who’s happy when anyone else would be miserable makes audiences suspicious because there’s so many things that could be going on behind that stepford smile, giving writers plenty of material to work with. (personally, I think it’s only a matter of time before poor Mr. Johnson straps some chainsaws to that lawnmower, dons a hockey mask, and sets out to take his revenge on capitalism.) 

Consider using humor to make a point about absurdities in everyday life

Humor is great for more than just a quick laugh: the very best humor makes us reflect on life and it’s more absurd situations. ‘Honest University Commercial’ is merciless in pointing out how our higher-learning institutions are more focused on making money and how expensive it is to get a degree than they are about giving their students practical skills and not wasting time on subjects they have no interest in or will ever use (damn you, physical anthropology!). It’s funny, but also thought-provoking and sad at the same time.

There’s no shame in going for humor that’s meant only to make our audiences laugh and feel good for a few moments, but making them laugh while thinking and realizing a deeper meaning will leave a longer, more lasting impact.

The Takeaway

When doing a comedy, consider having an evil or shady organization promote themselves and not caring about broadcasting that they’re evil or shady (or both). For people who are affected by that organization (or the harsh realities of life in general), consider having them be relentlessly cheerful about their problems and difficulties, while using the absurdity of it all to point out how absurd real life can be.

Favorite Moments: ‘Cut ’em out!’

*My apologies regarding a post that went up earlier today that has since been deleted; it was a draft that had been set to be posted automatically, but I forgot to expand and revise it.*

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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Previous installments of this column have looked at scenes that I enjoy watching, but today marks the first that, while brilliantly done, is not a fun scene by any stretch of the imagination.

Back in 2001, I was a 15 year old teen in high school who was eagerly looking forward to ‘Pearl Harbor’ and all the explosions, sinking ships, and general war carnage that hot-blooded teenagers go nuts over. Imagine my surprise to find that most of the movie revolves around a romance that drags on for over an hour before the actual attack starts. When the film came to an end, I was annoyed and disappointed, with the film quickly fading from memory as I headed home.

That is, except for one scene.

For all the flak it’s taken about the unwanted romantic subplot, the inaccuracies of the attack itself (including clearly visible modern-day destroyers), there’s one horrifying scene that ‘Pearl Harbor’ does perfectly (skip to 1:32):

 

Even 18 years later, this remains the most unsettling moment in any war film I’ve seen, and is easily the most heartbreaking scene in any movie directed by Michael Bay: Several sailors are trapped inside the upturned USS Oklahoma and screaming for help as the ship continues to flood, but drown only inches from safety as their rescuers fail to cut them out in time, unable to do anything but listen to their muffled screams as they die.

What’s so unsettling about this scene is how it uses an inevitable suffering scenario: That is, people who are going to endure something awful and there’s no way to stop it. Here, it’s the sailors who are going to die in one of the most horrific ways imaginable (drowning), but to make it even crueler, the only thing keeping them from escaping is a single piece of steel. They can see the daylight outside, and the people trying to save them, but it’s too late to get them out. And to twist the knife even further, we see the rescue attempt not from their perspective, but from the people trying to cut through, forcing us, the viewer, to imagine what it must be like underneath that steel. All we see of these doomed sailors are their hands and a screaming mouth.

Pearl Harbor suffers from focusing too much on a romance that nobody really wanted, various inaccuracies, and other issues, but for one scene, it perfectly captures the horrors of war.

What we can learn from my favorite videogame commercial

In tales, myths, and legends told throughout the centuries, one constant rule is that the characters in our stories are unaware that they’re fictional. It’s only been in the past few decades that writers have played with this idea by occasionally having these characters realize that they’re characters in a book, a movie, or a video game, existing only to give pleasure and enjoyment to their observers. Naturally, it’s logical for these characters don’t react well then they realize that they don’t exist beyond the confines of the medium they’re in, that they’re little more than playthings of the author. And who can blame them? If I found out I was a background character in a sitcom, I’d probably go crazy, too.

But what we rarely see is when the fourth wall is broken is characters who are okay with their situation. Even rarer is the work where the characters are grateful to their author, player, or audience, which is shown so beautifully in the Sony PS3 ad, ‘Long Live Play’:

When doing a fourth-wall breaking story, consider having your characters be grateful to their creator/audience.

‘Long Live Play’, my favorite video game commercial of all time, is perhaps the best example I’ve found of fictional characters being grateful to their audience. Aside from the coolness of seeing numerous characters from different video game franchises coming together (and just hanging out instead of fighting), it runs with the idea of the player (in this instance, Michael) being a sort of god who helps all of them accomplish great things, which they wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise, ending with all of them cheering Michael’s name in gratitude for everything he’s done for them.

For writers, ‘Long Live Play’ shows that when the fourth wall is broken, it can lead to fascinating story concepts. We aren’t confined to tales of fictional characters fighting off suicidal depression at realizing that they’re not real, or raging against all the hardships and sufferings they’ve been forced to go through; why not try a story where those characters look at their creator, audience, or player with gratitude and reverence for all the good things they’ve been given? Even better, explore how would self-aware fictional characters interact with their creator? Do they try to have a face-to-face meeting with him/her/it? Do they start a religion? Do they ask for certain things to happen to them, in hopes that the author will grant them that request?

Breaking the fourth wall can be a good source of comedy and tragedy, but it also gives the author a chance to explore what it means to be a god, and the relationship that god has between themselves and their creations. And in doing so, it also invites the reader to rethink our relationships with our favorite characters from books, films, comics, and games. How would they react if they learned about you, or the reasons why you enjoy following them? Such questions invites us to expand our thinking and see fictional characters in a whole new way. And while it was meant in the context of videogames, consider what Youtube user Tia Shok said:

“This was the commercial who showed us that game companies can give characters souls, but it’s the players who give them heart and morality and nobility. Players can make characters into heroes. Thank Sony for understanding the power gamers give their characters.”

Favorite Moments: Enya’s Space Jam

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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Today’s post doesn’t cover a favorite literary, film, or videogame moment, but a musical one: After I discovered the magical world of Space Jam remixes, I’ve been on a quest to find the best, most catchy, most implausable mashups I can. I’ve found many, but this one, which combines outer space basketball with my favorite musician, has quickly become a favorite. Enjoy!

What we can learn from The Onion’s interview with God

Of all the challenges that writers face in our craft, there’s one that sounds easy, but is anything but: How do you portray God? How do you put a face and a voice to The Creator Of Everything, especially when some ordinary person meets God. Let’s see how The Onion interprets such a meeting between us and our Creator:

Uhmm… Well, that was… something. Let’s dissect it and see what we can learn from one of The Onion’s most memorable videos.

Consider doing a shocking swerve

What’s so memorable about the video is that it starts off so innocently, complete with a dignified title screen and quiet piano music. We’re expecting a humanoid being to sit down before the interviewer (let’s name him Ted), and talk in a powerful, but gentle voice.

Then, seconds later, BAM, here comes an inter-dimensional being to take Ted on a fun adventure into madness.

As I noted in my critique of ‘Every 90’s commercial ever’, this kind of swerve is great for comedy, because luring our audience into expecting one thing, only to unexpectedly give them something else throws them off their feet, grabbing their interest as they try to make sense of what’s going on.

Consider having an encounter with the divine be pants-wettingly incomprehensible

When you imagine what God looks like, I’m betting the first things that comes to mind are either an old man in a white robe or a very bright light. What The Onion’s video does very well is portraying God more as a force of nature that is beyond anything we can make sense of.

For writers, try embracing that idea: Make your deity something beyond our comprehension. Make it so that even if your deity is benevolent, your character/s are so terrified that all they want to do is dive under the covers and cry for mommy to save them from this incomprehensible being who could destroy them in a nanosecond. By portraying a deity is an impersonal, incomprehensible being, you show your audience that you’re not going to be following traditions when it comes to portraying gods.

However, that impersonal power doesn’t have to be so terrifying: if your deity is benevolent, you can have them assist your character/s by using some of his/her/its power to stabilize their mind or counteract the effects of going mad. That shows that, despite being so far beyond its creations, your deity does care about them, and won’t just sit around passively while they go mad in its presence. Of course, if your deity doesn’t care, or is evil… well, helping your characters won’t be an issue.

Consider leaving it ambiguous if an encountered deity is malevolent or benevolent

While most people would assume that God is benevolent (or, at least, favorable to us mortals), we obviously can’t know for sure (assuming that God even exists). The Onion’s video, instead of portraying God as a beautiful, holy, benevolent being who loves us beyond all measure, goes for portraying God as a purple angel/skeleton thing that reduces Ted to a state of both sheer terror and unmatched ecstasy. We don’t know if God in the video is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.

On the malevolent side, God turns into a hideous skeleton, makes Ted seemingly go mad with fear, and at one point seems to suck something out of his mouth. But on the benevolent side, God did show up for the interview, apparently grants Ted ultimate understanding about everything, and creates a beautiful tree after the interview is over, Either way, though, we don’t know if The Onion’s God is friendly, ticked off, or just messing around (or, as one Youtube user suggested, He’s just saying, ‘Thanks for having me’).

One pleasure of writing a god in our stories is the possibly of creating a being who is so removed from our notions of good and evil that its mortality is impossible to understand, similar to how ants, insects, and other small animals can’t possibly comprehend our own actions or the reasoning behind them. That opens up tremendous opportunities to explore morality, how it changes from culture to culture, or even if there is such a thing as absolute good and evil, or if it’s just something humanity has come up with. But there’s also another bonus to making your god morally ambiguous: When we can understand how a deity thinks, that god’s power and majesty is reduced. But when there’s a deity that we cannot understand in any way, it remains a mysterious, terrifying, and beautiful enigma. It’s the ultimate unknown, and leaves the door wide open for stories about characters trying to understand it.

The Takeaway

When writing about God (or a god), surprise your audience by portraying God not as a purely benevolent, humanoid being, but as something that can drive you mad trying to comprehend or understand, even if He/She/It is benevolent. Add more complexity by not showing if your god is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.