Thursday, February 21, 2008

Ghosts and Jerks

The MacGyver thing on Mythbusters was too much fun, though I did feel rather ancient seeing Richard Dean Anderson look like such a baby in those episode clips. I guess I got used to seeing him older on SG-1, and it was a jolt to realize that he was likely younger than I am now in those MacGyver episodes. That was one of my teenage TV character crushes, and how sad is it that the hair didn't bother me at all then, while now it's like, "Scissors, please, someone! Do something about the mullet!"

The Ghost Hunters thing was unintentionally hilarious. My favorite part was the beginning where they drive to the castle and then get the daylight castle tour. I got a wee bit homesick. But I was laughing myself silly while they were at the castle overnight and jumping at every little sound, totally convinced it was a ghost. I guess because I am familiar with the location and it's a happy place for me, I had a hard time imagining being truly spooked there. That wasn't a castle we visited often, even though it was right there in town, because, quite frankly, it's not a very interesting castle. But it was my first, and the first time I went there was when our next-door neighbors took us, soon after we moved there when we still didn't have our car (it was being shipped over). Our neighbors had sons one and two years older than me, and as I was ten, I was at the age where I was excited to spend time with cute boys just a little older than I was, but not yet sure what to do about it, or if I even wanted to do more than enjoy being around them. So I guess I think of cute boys when I think of that castle, so it's totally not spooky. It was on a hill over the part of town where the swimming pool was, and in the summer my friend and I would ride our bikes to the pool, so I also associate it with looming over the swimming pool, which relates it to fun and ice cream (we couldn't ride back home without getting ice cream, could we?). My family was more apt to visit a different castle down the road, where it had big stone towers you could actually go up in, and there was a good restaurant connected to the castle. It was a two-fer outing -- go out to dinner and visit a castle.

But can some of you more familiar with this show answer a question for me? Why were they trying to ask ghosts in a German castle questions in English? Is there a spirit world Universal Translator? Or are they assuming that human language becomes meaningless in the afterlife, and ghosts will understand them in any language? And isn't that a big assumption to make, considering there doesn't seem to be firm evidence? Wouldn't you want to play it safe and bring an interpreter with you to try asking some questions in German? Especially since the sounds they recorded were supposedly someone speaking in Old German. Not that I'm convinced by that -- the guy they had listening to it was familiar with the castle and its history and wanted to find ghosts, so he could have been mapping onto it what he wanted to hear (I did start to kind of understand it once he said what it was, so that influence thing was in effect, and I'm not sure how different Old German really is, since I understood it and I barely know any current German). I'd have been more convinced if they'd taken those recordings to someone who knew the language but who didn't know where they were recorded or what they were supposed to be and who had no preconceived notions of what he might hear.

On another note, I want to clarify from yesterday's post that this is kind of like that list of story elements I like. I was more talking about what I like in a story than saying what's "good" and what's "bad." I prefer stories where the heroes are heroes, with psychological shading but without a lot of moral ambiguity. If I'm going to read a book, I want to like most of the characters whose heads I spend time in. I was just quibbling with the idea that "good vs. evil" automatically has to be considered a "lesser" story. I know there are lots of examples of romance novels where the hero is quite the rake or otherwise isn't entirely moral and then reforms because of his love for the heroine, but I don't like them all that much. I also have never managed to get all the way through the movie of Gone With the Wind or beyond the first chapter of the book because I LOATHE Scarlett and don't want to spend any time at all with her.

However, it has occurred to me that, morally ambiguous as he might have seemed, Rick in Casablanca didn't actually do anything all that bad, beyond calling Ilsa a slut. He planned to do some immoral things, but he didn't carry them out. He was even a bit of a softy, rigging the game so the young couple could win money. I'd say he's pretty much like Mal in Firefly, where he's a good man who's had the idealism pounded out of him and is trying to be bad because it's so much easier to be bad. So maybe to get the effect, just the intention of doing something immoral works.

I also think the author's stance in The Anatomy of Story is somewhat skewed by the fact that his expertise is primarily in screenplays. As my agent pointed out to me in my one attempt at an edgy heroine, a film has an advantage in that an actor is cast in the role, and people who may not like the character may still give her a chance if they like the actor. The actor may bring certain lovable associations to a character who would be initially unlovable on paper. On paper, Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's is incredibly selfish, shallow and mercenary. I didn't like her at all in the book, in spite of having read it after seeing the movie. But in the film, Audrey Hepburn gives her a hint of her Audreyness, so you can't help but feel for her. There are actors who can play total jerks and still be lovable, so if you're writing screenplays, I think you have more leeway for allowing your characters to act in ways that hurt others at the beginning of the film. In a novel, the reader is making more of a raw judgment on the character and may even have to go inside the character's head, so it's harder to get a reader to identify with someone who's a jerk at first. Now that I think about it, the actor effect is strong enough to make people love villains. I see a lot of online gushing over despicable villains who are played by attractive or charismatic actors, but I haven't seen too much gushing over how sexy any book villains are, with the exception of books that have been made into movies, where the qualities of the actors playing the villains get transferred to the book characters.

And there are various techniques for getting an audience to love an unlovable or morally ambiguous character, but this is getting long enough and I need to get some work done today.

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