Posts Tagged ‘Plot’

*This post was sponsored and proofed by Grammarly, a free proofreading service. 

Warning: spoilers for The Killing (Danish version)

Over the past few weeks, my husband and I have been watching our way through all three seasons of The Killing – an amazing Danish crime show following Sarah Lund, a detective based in Copenhagen, as she investigates a series of politically connected crimes, each one of which forms the backbone of a particular season. The quality of the scripts, plots, acting and overall everything are astonishingly high, and I’d unhesitatingly rate the series as one of the single best crime shows I’ve ever seen. The final episode, however, has left me feeling deeply annoyed – not because it’s inconsistent with everything that’s come before, but for precisely the opposite reason.

Right from the outset, The Killing sets itself up as a gritty, no-nonsense thriller series: lots of political backstabbing with undertones of noir. The tropes in play are textbook – Lund is a single parent; she has a difficult relationship with her son, and is so obsessed with the job that, particularly in season one, her dedication sees the rest of her life systematically lost or broken; there’s an overriding theme of power corrupting even good men; and, crucially, all the primary victims are women: two raped and murdered teenage girls (Nana Birk Larsen from S1, Louise Hjelby from S3), a tortured and murdered lawyer (Anne Dragsholm from S2), and a kidnapped child (Emilie Zeuthen from S3) – and yet their execution is anything but. Lund is one of the more complex, compelling female detectives I’ve ever seen, played with incredible skill and subtlety by Sofie Grabol, and despite the traditional use of women in refrigerators to fuel the plot, just the fact that each death is dealt with, carefully and in detail, over the course of an entire season, is itself a humanising change from the endless parade of procedurals in which multiple such deaths are investigated and forgotten within the space of a single episode.

It’s also notable that, despite other thematic differences, key tropes recycle – and, indeed, feature prominently – across all three seasons: in particular, the good politician forced to accept the corruption of his peers for the sake of political expediency; the duplicitous political aide whose decision to withhold key information “for the good of the party” invariably leads to more deaths in the long run; the ruptured-but-repairing marriage of a couple trying to parent a young child or children while dealing with a crisis; and, of course, the steady disintegration of Lund’s personal life, which in S1 alone includes breaking up with her partner, an abortive move to Sweden, the loss of custody of her son, the death of a colleague, and, eventually, the loss of her job (albeit temporarily). Given the fact that S1 is 20 episodes long, whereas S2 and S3 are only ten each, the tropes it uses really do cast a long shadow over the rest of the series; which isn’t, I hasten to add, an entirely bad thing. As I’ve said, each season is incredibly well-constructed, and even though familiar themes and elements tie them all together, there’s still a real sense of tension and mystery to each whodunnit.

But where Lund’s personal life is concerned, it doesn’t take long to realise that her universe is a crapsack one. Important family occasions and crucial conversations with loved ones are invariably interrupted by urgent, work-related phone calls or summonses. If Lund makes a promise to meet with her mother, son or partner, you can bet she’ll either fail to make the date or be entirely preoccupied during it, with her early departure taken as a given. This self-destructive pattern of events is hardly unique to The Killing – the fact that I’ve long since thought of her as Wallanderesque is proof of that – but it does seem more unremitting than usual, not because Lund falls into a bleaker pit than other, similarly obsessive detectives (she doesn’t), but rather because the promise of recovery is never really dangled before her, either. Lund’s personal life is monotone: once her move to Sweden is called off midway through S1, we know that things have fallen apart forever. This pattern only continues in S2: not only does she grow increasingly estranged from her son and mother, but as her fledgeling love interests turns out to be the killer, it sort of hits home the point that Lund is not a character for whom things will ever work out.

And that’s entirely fine. What bothers me about the ending to S3, though – a plot-twisty scene in which Lund shoots the killer dead in cold blood, not because he attacked her, but because she lacked any evidence with which to convict him, a vigilante-style action that sees her fleeing the country to escape justice – is that it takes this phenomenon to an unnecessary and unrealistic extreme, both narratively and in terms of Lund’s character. Narratively, it’s a weaksauce decision: not only did Lund have a new lead and new suspicions about the killer having additional victims, but three other prominent characters had actual evidence to support her theory. Had Lund stayed to stand trial rather than fleeing – or had she refrained from shooting the killer at all – their collaboration would have been natural; instead, with Lund fled, none of the other parties have any reason ever to meet again, which ensures that the matter stays buried, and while that might fit with the overall theme of politics winning out over propriety, it feels like a cop-out designed to ensure a bleak outcome in the face of common sense. Similarly, I couldn’t help feeling that such a dramatic action was out of character for Lund: not only did the shooting come at a time when she had more to lose than ever – having just reconnected with her son, become a grandmother, accepted a cushy new job and rekindled an old romance – but as far as the rest of the series goes, we’ve never seen her run away from anything, and especially not the consequences of her actions. Even though her shooting of the killer felt forced to me, I didn’t think it implausible; but her fleeing from justice felt wholly out of character. Lund has always broken the rules in pursuit of justice; yet every time, we’ve seen her stay and face the music. That the final season ended with her escape was deeply irritating – a decision I felt was made, not because it was in the best interests of the plot, but to ensure that the whole series finished on a suitably bleak and gritty note.

Which is why, to finally come to the point, I had something of an epiphany tonight: that stories whose emotional outcome can be broadly inferred by what genre you’re in are almost always, on some fundamental level, going to disappoint me, because even though their individual events might surprise me, their actual endings won’t. All the way through S3 of The Killing, I kept on thinking, there’s no way this will end well. The absolute best that can happen is that they’ll save the girl - because even gritty noir shows tend to flinch from killing nine year old girls in the final act! but otherwise, Lund is screwed, because she’s ALWAYS screwed. And of course, that’s exactly what happened. Which isn’t to say I disliked The Killing – as I said earlier, it’s easily one of my favourite crime series. But while there were doubtless viewers for whom the ending came as an emotional suckerpunch, for me, it just felt like a bland continuation of the overall theme of bleakness; because once you firmly establish that there’s no room for Lund to end a season happily, then no matter how spectacular you make the cause of her unhappiness, past a certain point, I’m just going to struggle to find it in me to care.

And this made me realise, in turn, that I have just the same problem with romance narratives – or rather, with stories that are explicitly marketed as romance. By which I mean: if I know from the outset that Story X is a romance, then you’re simultaneously telling me the emotional catharsis of the ending – that the protagonists end up together, happily ever after. And sometimes, that’s exactly what I’m looking for in a story. But if I want to be surprised, there has to be some emotional uncertainty. By definition, genre is always going to codify at least a few things about any given narrative. If I read a whodunnit, I can be pretty sure that a crime will be committed, and that at some point during the course of events, I’ll find out who the guilty party is. What isn’t certain is whether the criminal will be brought to justice, how the detective and/or protagonist will cope with it, and who’ll be hurt in the process. In other words, while I might know beforehand some of what happens, I won’t know how I’ll feel about it ’till afterwards, and that uncertainty is what motivates me to get to the end.

Which is also why I tend to have a preference for romance narratives that appear in stories which aren’t earmarked as romance: because even though I natively want my favoured characters to end up together, the minute you tell me that the pairing is predestined, it takes away some of the clout of the finale, because it simultaneously removes the possibility of an emotional surprise. And sometimes that’s comforting; sometimes, as I’ve said, it’s what I’m after – just as at other times, I’m in the mood to feel cynical about life, the universe and everything. But the stories that really get under my skin are the ones that make me doubt; the ones whose climactic moments have me physically hunching forwards, desperate to learn what happens next – and a truly great story can make me forget what genre it belongs to. The first time I saw How to Train Your Dragon at the cinema, the climactic battle was so well done that, when Hiccup and Toothless fell through the sky, I actually forgot I was watching a children’s film, with all the narrative safeties that traditionally implies: I watched them fall, and my heart seized up, because just for an instant, I thought that one or both of them was going to die. The story was so well-crafted, I stopped watching through the lens of genre awareness and became completely immersed in the narrative, as awestruck and uncertain as if I were six years old, and for someone who spends as much of their life doing meta-analysis as I do, that’s no small thing.

So if this post has a point, it’s this: that, regardless of the genre in which you’re writing, emotional uncertainty is important. Audiences can tell the difference between fake conflict – aka, There’s Only An Obstacle Here To Make The Plot Work, Otherwise They’d Just Kiss On Page Ten And Get It Over With – and conflict that genuinely unsettles the characters; similarly, they can also tell the difference between forced bleakness – aka, We Decided This Story Was Going To Be Serious And Depressing, Therefore Nobody Is Allowed To Have A Happy Ending – and a story where tragedy feels organic to the narrative. It’s a subtle distinction at times, and as in all things fictional, YMMV, but far too often, I feel as though creators and audiences both fall into the trap of relying on the audience’s knowledge of genre to smooth over bumps in the plot and characterisation. After all, the human brain excels at filling in gaps: a lot of the time, we see what we expect to see, and if what we expect (for instance) is gritty compromise, then why stop and question the logic of Sarah Lund shooting an unarmed suspect when she had a new lead, a whole new life to live for, and several powerful, dedicated allies she could turn to for help? Easier just to shrug and say, well, that’s how this sort of story goes. And as I’ve said, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. But for me, it won’t ever really be a surprising thing – and sometimes, that’s a type of disappointment all its own.

*A few weeks ago, I was contacted by Grammarly, who offered to sponsor a writing-related post in return for an Amazon voucher valued at USD$50. I agreed to do so on two conditions: one, that I disclose that I was being paid, and two, that I actually liked the product. Which, from my limited usage, I do:  some of the things it checks for, like use of the passive voice and particular grammatical constructions, are probably more applicable to formal or academic writing than informal blogging, but as a tool, I found it easy to use, and it’s certainly more thorough, and with a nicer user interface, than the spellcheck in Open Office.   

Prior to starting my watch-through of The X Files, my abiding assumption about Mulder and Scully’s relationship, given its status as the UST-OTP to end all UST-OTPs, was that their romance would be highlighted from minute one. I thought this because, by and large, it’s just what happens in procedural shows where the main character has a regular associate or partner of the opposite sex: sure, there are a handful of platonic exceptions, like Pete and Myka of Warehouse 13 and Lisbon and Jane of The Mentalist (for the first four seasons, anyway), but otherwise, the default setting is to comment, loudly and often, on the protagonists’ Secret Attraction. Whether it’s Booth and Brennan (Bones), Castle and Beckett (Castle), House and Cuddy (House), or Olivia and Peter (Fringe), the audience is never left in any doubt as to the presence of a love that dare not speak its name.

And so, not unreasonably, I’d assumed that at least part of the reason for this was the legacy of The X Files – and to a certain extent, that’s true: Mulder and Scully’s relationship casts such a long shadow that every subsequent TV partnership has been forced to address its specter. But the thing is, for the first four seasons, there’s not so much as a whisper of romance between them. Don’t get me wrong – their relationship is devoted, intense, exclusive and loyal, with neither one forming any other significant secondary attachments outside it, and you can certainly infer their attraction as subtext. But as I’ve said before, before S5, it’s only subtext: there are no lingering glances, meaningful conversations, awkward moments or obviously-engineered setups designed to force them together or highlight their romance, and nor do any other characters make a habit of commenting on their relationship. It’s all very refreshing, such that, somewhat ironically, it actually serves as a more genuine basis for their eventual romance than if the attraction had been earmarked the whole way through.

But in S5, Mulder starts to flirt with Scully – subtly, to be sure, but the change in his behaviour is nonetheless evident. He loves her, and yet makes no demands of her. Instead, he simply contents himself with indulging a slightly more intimate sense of humour than previously, and otherwise continues to treat her as normal. In S6, however, the writers have begun to shiptease in earnest, with other characters commenting on their attraction and mistaking them for a couple, and the advent of episodes whose premises force them together in quasi-romantic situations. The first movie, Fight the Future, bridges these two seasons admirably – not only because of the almost-kiss that (arguably) serves to intensify their relationship, but because it brings the primary alien plotline to a dramatic head.

But even once the shipteasing begins, there’s still a degree of subtlety to their relationship that’s unheard of in subsequent shows. Partly, this has to do with the quality of the acting – both Anderson and Duchovny turn in very wry, reserved performances – but mostly, it’s down to how understated the cinematography is. I’ve always known that the romances in other shows are heavily underlined and emphasised, but without being able to compare the default to a different approach, I hadn’t quite realised how pervasive the problem was, and how much it annoyed me: not just on the grounds of being narratively redundant, but because it treats the audience as inattentive and oblivious.

With regard to plot and execution, I’m still enjoying the show. S5 is an incredibly strong season, and S6, while slightly woolier on the main plot – understandable, given that Fight the Future had already provided something of a catharsis for the big themes – is still consistently strong when it comes individual episodes and characterisation. Which leads me to wonder if I’ll ever really tire of the show, even if the quality starts to drop (which experience would suggest it inevitably will). Because as far as I can tell, the three things that most bother me when applied to successive TV seasons – inconsistency, retconning and escalation – aren’t present in The X Files; or at least, aren’t present yet. By which I mean: the characterisation is still solid and internally consistent, there hasn’t been any obvious retconning of previously established information in order to allow for later plots (Chris Carter might be a pantser rather than a plotter, but he still respects his own established canon), and because the premise has always been one of world-altering conspiracies that extend to the highest levels of power, there’s no real scope for the plot to suddenly escalate beyond its original, local parameters (as has happened, for instance, with the death of Brennan’s mother in Bones, the death of Beckett’s mother in Castle, and the advent of the Potentials in Buffy).

All in all, then, The X Files is still proving to be one of the most consistently enjoyable TV shows I’ve ever seen. The steady development of Mulder and Scully’s relationship has been done respectfully over the course of many seasons, and yet has remained subtle rather than being constantly underlined and unnecessarily foregrounded. The monster-of-the-week episodes are still strong, and if the main alien plot is starting to run out of steam, that’s hardly surprising after six seasons and a movie. There’s even been a notable decrease in racefail episodes, which is definitely a plus. And frankly, even if things do start to go downhill from this point on, the show has won enough of my goodwill that I’ll be willing to tolerate a lot before losing patience with it. So: onward to S7!

Warning: spoilers.

Much to my pleasant surprise, Dinosaurs actually turned out to be a pretty solid episode, not only by dint of comparison to the monumental arsetripe of Asylum, but in its own right, too. I did have a few points of irritation – Nefertiti hitting on the Doctor, the screamingly camp robots, the frenetic pacing early on and some jumbled bits of dialogue – but otherwise, it managed to take a fairly flashy idea and actually make it work. It makes perfect sense that the Silurians, convinced their world was ending, would send up a space-ark complete with local fauna, while the slow reveal of Solomon’s capitalistic villainy, coupled with his eventual demise gave a nice, dark catharsis to the piece.

The writer, Chris Chibnal, has some pretty great credentials: apart from having penned the brilliant S3 episode 42, he’s been a major force in Torchwood and was also a writer for Life on Mars. Which possibly goes some way towards explaining why, for the first time in memory, we’ve got a DW episode that knows how to handle a bigger cast: apart from the Doctor, Amy and Rory, we’ve also got Queen Nefertiti, Rory’s dad Brian, Riddell the game hunter and villain Solomon in play, all of whom actually get meaningful screentime, and all of whom feel like genuine, fleshed-out characters.  Not only that, but Amy and Rory actually get to do something other than be in a tempestuous relationship: Amy banters with Nefertiti (at last! an episode that passes the Bechdel test!), fights dinosaurs with Riddell, solves the mystery of the ship’s origins before the Doctor does, and still gets to have a touching conversation about being left behind that neatly foreshadows the season end; while Rory gets to talk with his dad (whose presence and character both go a long way towards explaining Rory), demonstrate his nursing skills, pilot a spaceship away from the Earth, ride a triceratops and threaten a couple of robots. And honestly? That’s more than they’ve had to do for quite a while.

And then there’s the secondary characters: Chibnal treats Nefertiti with respect, establishing her firmly as intelligent, powerful and and courageous without simultaneously making sexist or racist asides at her expense (as Moffat has a tendency to do with River Song). Nor does he flinch from giving Riddell the gender attitudes appropriate to his era without making him either hostile to or dismissive of the women around him – instead, he seems genuinely to enjoy being confounded by them. Brian, by contrast, is an utterly adorkable dad, and it’s a testament to Chibnal’s deftness that he manages to both introduce and evolve him within in the space of a single episode: the contrast between his initial travel-related distemper and the final, iconic image of eating him lunch from the TARDIS step is an utterly lovely gracenote, and one that balances neatly against his role in piloting the ship. And then there’s Solomon: a genuine grasping merchant, frightening and cold – who is, I think, the first actual sentient villain we’ve had in ages.

Though Dinosaurs has something of a manic start, it soon finds its feet and manages some truly fun moments: Brian’s trowel, a triceratops who wants to play fetch with golf balls, Amy’s cheerful assertion that yes, she is a queen, and the closing image of Rory having switched domestic roles with his dad. But what really sold me on Dinosaurs was the treatment of the ladies. Not only do Amy and Nerfertiti talk, they actually get along: they trust and respect each other, make jokes with each other, and back each other up. Both of them call out Riddell for sexism – Amy says he needs a lesson on gender politics – but most importantly of all, when Nefertiti decides to go with Solomon to protect the rest of the group; when she holds up her hand, defies the Doctor’s objections and says that, no, it’s her choice? The Doctor lets her go - he respects her agency in the moment, and though he later shows up to get her back, it’s Nefertiti who gets the drop on Solomon, cathartically pinning him with his crutch-arm just as he did to her.

Still, as I said, it’s not a perfect episode: while the image of Nefertiti going off with Riddell was fun in the moment, it was loaded with unfortunate colonial overtones that felt a bit squicky; there was no reason for Solomon to kill the triceratops except as a kick the dog moment; and while I liked the Mitchell and Webb cameo as the robots’ voices, I didn’t like the robots themselves – they were bit too cartoonishly on the nose for my taste. But overall, it was a strong offering from a good writer, complete with memorable characters, solid emotional development, a mystery that made sense while still being compelling, and a proper, well-paced structure. It was, in other words, the polar opposite of Asylum in every important respect, and has gone some way towards soothing my earlier rage. I might not like Steven Moffat, but Chibnall has succeeded in reminding me that I do like Doctor Who - and that sometimes, I get to have the latter without the former.

(Plus and also: Arthur Weasley and Argus Filch in a single episode – squee!)

Warning: total spoilers.

There’s a lot I want to say about Brave - plot, execution, structure, controversy, characterisation – but before I start all that, there’s something else to be dealt with first: the fact that, with literally one exception, no Disney princess has actual female friends. Instead, they have animals or talking objects, all of whom are either male or androgynous. Snow White and Aurora have forest creatures; Cinderella has singing mice; Ariel has Flounder and Sebastian; Belle has Chip, Lumiere and Cogsworth; Jasmine has Rajah; Pocahontas has Flit and Meeko; Mulan has Khan, Mushu and a cricket; Rapunzel has a chameleon; and now Merida has Angus, her horse. The exception is Tiana, who has a devoted female friend, Charlotte: however, there are still two animal sidekicks (Ray and Louis – again, both male), Tiana herself spends most of the film as a frog, and given the risk Disney perceived themselves to be taking when it came to the inclusion of their first black princess, my inner cynic cannot help but wonder if the reason for Charlotte’s prominent inclusion had less to do with promoting sisterhood than a ploy, however subconscious, to offset possible negative reaction’ to Tiana’s race by putting her alongside a traditionally likeable, non-threatening, blonde girl, who – thanks to the titular frog transformation – actually gets more human, princessy screentime than Tiana does herself.  Even so, the two girls have a loving, important friendship; the only other princess who gets anything even close to that is Pocahontas, who’s shown to be best friends with a girl called Nakoma; but her animals still play a much bigger role in the movie, and after Nakoma effectively betrays Pocahontas – thus fulfilling her narrative purpose – we never see them reconcile, presumably because the relationship isn’t deemed important enough to bother. Even if you stretch really far into the Disney archive and rummage around for other prominent female characters who aren’t official princesses – Megara, Kida, Thumbelina, Eilonwy – the same pattern still holds: all of them have leading men, but even in the absence of animals or other such companions, none has female friends.

Why am I bringing this up now? Because until today – until I saw Brave - I’d never even noticed; but part of the reason I did notice is because, unlike every other Disney princess and Pixar film, Brave is actually meant to be about female relationships: specifically, the mother-daughter bond. And in that context, I suddenly found myself wondering – where are Merida’s friends and playmates? Where are Elinor’s peers? Merida is the first princess without a romantic storyline, and even with all the focus on her relationship with her mother, it still felt telling that both characters existed in a seemingly lady-free vacuum. By contrast, every male character had visible friendships with other men: Fergus with the clan leaders and the clan leaders with each other. It wouldn’t have been hard to have the clan leaders bring their wives, thus enabling Elinor to have a scene among equals and actually act like a person; and by the same token, Merida could quite easily have had a female friend among the servants. At just 100 minutes, Brave is a short film which, unlike Pixar’s other offerings, manages to feel short, in the sense of having skimped on the characterisation. And to me, that missing ten to twenty minutes – the longer Pixar films tend to come in at somewhere between 110-120 – was all the more noticeable for being exactly the length of time you’d need to give either woman some friends and have them talk without competing.

Which isn’t to say I hated Brave: the animation was breathtakingly beautiful, the pacing worked, the comedy had me laughing at all the right junctures, and as far as positive rolemodels go, Merida is lightyears ahead of every other Disney princess simply by virtue of being the first teenager not to end up married or in an official relationship*. It was a good, even solid movie. But here’s the thing: Pixar isn’t known for doing good and solid. They do breathtaking, original, moving, powerful, classic, brilliant, delightful stuff. The only blemish on their otherwise stellar record, Cars 2, can be directly attributed to the meddling, marketeering hand of Disney, to whom they now owe their allegiance and, presumably, their souls. But when it comes to original stories, Pixar is – was – unparalleled. And it angers me that Brave is the film to further break that pattern: not just because it should’ve been so much better, but because the mid-production firing of Brenda Chapman, the original writer/director, will forever leave open the question of whether the problems in Brave were there from the beginning; or whether the decision to give what should’ve been Pixar’s first female-scripted, female-directed, female-inspired movie over to a man who, apart from anything else, had never previously directed a full-length feature, caused the film to reach somewhat less than its full potential; or whether it was a mix of both, and if so, to what extent.

So here’s the plot in brief: Princess Merida, a headstrong young lassie and peerless archer, chafes under the expectations of her mother, Queen Elinor. When Elinor announces the time has come for Merida’s betrothal, her daughter reacts with disbelief and anger, despite the fact that, as a princess, she would presumably have known this was on the cards. However, on learning that her suitors, the eldest sons of the three clan leaders,  must compete for her in a contest of her choosing – a contest whose wording specifies the entrants must be the firstborn child of a clan, not the firstborn son – Merida chooses archery and, in open defiance of Elinor, enters and wins the right to her own hand. An argument ensues; Merida slashes a tapestry of her family, literally cutting her mother out of the picture; Elinor retaliates by throwing Merida’s bow on the fire; and Merida flees into the night, leaving Elinor to pull the (still intact) bow from the flames and clap her hands to her mouth. Lead through the forest by magic will’o the wisps, Merida stumbles on a witch’s cottage and ends up with a magic cake, the purpose of which, rather nebulously, is to ‘change her fate’ if she feeds it to her mother. What actually happens, once she returns to the castle, is that Elinor turns into a bear. Mayhem ensues as Merida first sneaks Elinor out of the castle, then goes in search of a cure, eventually finding out that unless she can ‘mend the bond torn by pride’ before the second sunrise, the spell’s effects will be permanent. Interpreting this to mean that the slashed tapestry needs to be stitched up, Merida and Elinor the Bear reenter the castle, only to find themselves stymied by the presence of the clansmen. Merida distracts them with an apology and, following Elinor’s pantomimed instructions, a solution that the old tradition of forced marriage be abandoned. This is greeted well; the men head to the cellars; and both Elinor and Merida get back to the tapestry. But, of course, things go wrong again: Elinor is spotted, a bearhunt ensues, and Merida is locked up. From here, you can probably guess the ending: Merida escapes, stitches up the tapestry and, after a climactic fight scene, manages to place the tapestry around Elinor’s shoulders before the sun comes up – but in the end, it’s not the stitches that break the curse, but Merida’s apology for her behaviour. Cue the human restoration of a less strict, more sympathetic Elinor, and that’s a wrap.

Well, almost: those who’ve actually seen the film will notice I’ve left out any reference to the monster bear, Mordu, whose origins and defeat ostensibly serve as a combination of backstory, motive and framing device. You’ll also notice, however, that the above synopsis makes sense without it – which is actually part of the problem with Brave, albeit a comparatively minor one: that it actually has two separate plots, which, while technically interrelated – Mordu turns out to be an ancient prince transformed by the same spell Merida uses on her mother – are nonetheless so distinct both thematically and in terms of execution that it’s possible to describe the film entirely through reference to one without mentioning the other. It’s slipshod scripting, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call the Mordu plot tacked on, it’s also extremely predictable, devoid of all Pixar’s usual unexpected yet sweetly cathartic gracenotes. There’s nothing at the end you couldn’t have picked at the beginning, and if you haven’t guessed the Big Reveal by about the halfway mark, either you’re not really paying attention or you’re probably not old enough to see the film unaccompanied. Again, this isn’t a cardinal sin – it’s just way below Pixar’s usual standard of excellence.

Part of the problem is their use of a traditional three-act structure, something their films have otherwise either actively subverted or avoided altogether – it’s an old-school Disney structure, in fact, and one that’s much less endearing than it is clunky when deployed sans the usual bridging musical numbers. Which isn’t  to say that Brave suffered on that count, but rather to point out that, as it’s the only non-musical Disney princess film, it’s conceivable that the imposition of a narrative structure that’s more usually fitted to Disney musicals – and I am going to say imposition, because I honestly can’t think of any other reason why Pixar would choose Brave, a film that already represented a departure from their norm, as the vehicle for a structure they’d previously eschewed, except that someone from Disney put their foot down – undermined a premise, to judge by what happened to Brenda Chapman, in which the studio already had less faith than usual.

More egregious in terms of error, however, is the fact that the main event – Elinor being turned into a bear – effectively hinges on an idiot plot. When Merida meets the witch, not only does she fail to explain the specific manner in which she wants her mother ‘changed’, she doesn’t stop to ask what the spell she’s been given will actually do. For a heroine who’s otherwise painted as intelligent, clever and resourceful, this is really a facepalm moment, and a massive oversight in terms of characterisation. It would be one thing if the witch were actively deceitful, lying either out of either malice or mischief; but instead, and seemingly for no better reason than to shoehorn in a few extra gags, she’s simply doddery, betraying zero awareness of the notion that her customers might not want to turn into bears. Never mind that her workshop is full of bear-themed carvings, which would seem to be something of a giveaway: it literally makes no sense that Merida would simply accept the magic cake on trust, without any attempt to properly uncover what its effects will be. The fact that, having established what the magic cake does, she not only leaves it in the kitchen but encourages her baby brothers to go inside and eat whatever they want only compounds the idiocy, cementing the fact that, in this instance at least, the desired plot outcome – more bears! – apparently trumped the need for consistent characterisation.

Which brings me to my single biggest problem with Brave: Elinor herself. Both early on and in flashbacks, we see her playing with the infant Merida – a loving, creative, supportive, attentive parent. Yet when we meet her during Merida’s adolescence, she presents as strict, staid, traditional; even nagging. We’re never given any insight into why she’s changed, nor given the impression that her stern facade is a mask she wears for Merida’s benefit. Like the bear spell, it’s seemingly more a function of necessity than of characterisation: Elinor needs to be antagonistic to Merida, and therefore she is, no matter how much dissonance that creates between her past and present selves. Crucially, we’re never encouraged to sympathise with Elinor in this state, and it’s noteworthy that even Merida, when thinking of Elinor’s good points, returns to memories of childhood rather than anything more recent. There are, however, plenty of gags at Elinor’s expense once she’s in her bear-form, and while I’ll admit to laughing at some of these, the bulk didn’t sit easily with me, particularly as so many seemed to be based on the absurdity of Elinor’s attempts to retain her human – but specifically dainty and feminine – mannerisms, despite Merida urging her to be more bear-like. In that context, it felt significant that Elinor’s real transformation – her sympathy for Merida – only happened once she started behaving like an animal and, as a consequence, having fun. Literally, that’s the comparison: the posh queen learns to empathise with her tomboy daughter, not by seeing things through her eyes, but by learning to disregard her own femininity in favour of behaving like a beast.

And that grated on me, not just because I resent the implication, however unintentional, that tomboyishness in girls can be reasonably compared to animalism, but because it made the reparation of Elinor and Merida’s relationship wholly one-sided. Elinor learns to respect Merida for who she is, but we never see the opposite happen: no sooner does Merida try and accept the betrothal than Elinor concedes her point and prompts her to speak against it, and while that’s certainly the right decision, we don’t see Merida adopting any of her mother’s positive beliefs and behaviours, either. The closing scenes are all of Elinor doing Merida-stuff – riding, adventuring, wearing her hair loose – but not of Merida studying to be more like Elinor, and the implication becomes, not just that femininity is inferior, but that Elinor was wholly in the wrong to begin with: the bear spell is Merida’s fault, yes, albeit by accident, but  everything up to that point is essentially put on Elinor. And for a film that’s meant to be about the mother-daughter bond, it bugged me that the ultimate conclusion was that feminine mothers ought to be more like their tomboyish daughters, with the latter being preferable to the former. Similarly, the fact that Elinor’s transformation from antagonist to ally happens at a point when she can’t talk means that we never hear her side of things, or understand what’s prompted her change of heart as she sees it: Merida gets to give a speech about everything she’s done wrong and how she’s misunderstood her mother (despite the general feeling that she’s been in the right all along), but we never hear Elinor give the rejoinder, either to make her own apology or to explain her new beliefs.

Brave, then, is not an aptly-named film in any sense of the word. The theme isn’t bravery – either martial or emotional – but empathy and love. Merida is definitely a compelling heroine, and as I’ve said, I enjoyed the film; but despite the animation, it’s ultimately more Disney than Pixar, with all the pitfalls that assessment entails.

 

*Technically, this is also true of Pocahontas and Mulan; however, both of them get properly paired up in sequel movies.

As keen readers of this blog will have had occasion to notice, the most recent season of Doctor Who has not exactly met with my approval. That being so, and with the marvelous advent of A Doctor World to inspire me, I decided to rewatch the whole new series – Eccleston, Tennant and Smith – with an eye to understanding the show’s development. Right now, I’m midway through Season 3, and in keeping with the seriousness of my self-appointed task, I’ve been taking handwritten notes on the structure, themes and byplay of every episode. Specifically, I’m interested in the depictions of female characters. How much agency do they have? Are their odds of survival comparable to that of their male counterparts? How do they die, and under what circumstances? Are they villains or allies? Do they rescue other characters as often as being rescued? How many episodes pass the Bechdel test?

It’s this latter question which has occupied most of my thoughts. How heavily should I rely on it? Though undeniably useful, the Bechdel is far from being the ultimate arbiter of narrative – or even feminist – success. Passing it does not, for instance, guarantee that the female characters in question are three-dimensional, believable human beings, nor does it protect against thematic sexism. Pass or fail, however, the results are always interesting – not just because of what they say about particular stories, but because of how the test itself reflects our culture of storytelling. At first glance, it’s utterly trite and obvious to point out that every day, everywhere in the world, human beings pass the Bechdel: after all, half the human population is female, and in accordance with the fact that we are all (as it were) named characters, the overwhelming majority of our conversations, if transposed to a narrative context, would pass. And yet, despite the obviousness of this fact, a disgusting number of movies, TV shows, books and plays all fail. Looked at as a purely narrative problem, it’s a disconcerting dissonance with reality. Looked at as a human problem, however, it’s a travesty.

As per Gail Simone’s observations on women in refrigerators, there are any number of reasons why individual writers might choose to structure a story such that there are no female characters, or only one female character; or why, given the presence of two or more such women, they don’t have occasion to speak to one another; or why, if they do, it’s only about a man. The limit of the Bechdel is the ease with which its detractors can argue – correctly – that the inclusion of women characters who talk about things will not automatically improve a story: not on a thematic level, if the point is to allay concerns about sexism, and not on a narrative level, if the point is to fix a plot. The failure of this objection, however, is that it willfully misconstrues the inclusion of women to be meant as a panacea. It’s not about instituting what amounts to a storywide affirmative action policy, because the suggestion has never been that women, by themselves, make stories better, or fairer, or anything other than stories with women in them, just as stories which lack women, or contain few of them, aren’t innately inferior. Rather, the point has been to ask why, if we believe our society, culture and ethics to be egalitarian – and, more, if we personally support these ideals – our stories say something else.

Consider the following hypothetical instance of a film centered on the adventures of a male lead, Guy, and his female love interest, Gal. Already, Gal is defined by her relationship to Guy: because the narrative fulcrum rests on Guy specifically, Gal’s presence is justified by her participation in his story. (There’s no reason why this scenario can’t work in the reverse without changing the genre – and yet, how much more common is it for stories with female love interests to be action-oriented adventures, while stories with male love interests are billed as romantic comedies?) Thus, Gal’s only investment in the plot comes through her association with Guy, making it much more likely that he, and not she, will take the lead in future plot-oriented conversations – after all, it’s Guy who needs answers, while Gal is just there for the ride. Obviously, that’s a simplification of matters: in save-the-world plots, for instance, the ultimate stakes affect everyone, while personal survival is a pretty strong incentive for even the most reluctant, dragged-along love interest to sit up and take an interest. Assuming Guy and Gal encounter other women in their travels, either as villains or comrades, there’s every reason why Gal might talk to them, and they to her.

Except, more often than not, they won’t – which is where we hit the gender snag. Because in instances where Guy is the protagonist, Gal’s character development matters less than his: not because she’s a girl (or at least, we hope not) but because it’s his story, and any conversations which don’t include or mention him are going to be viewed as extraneous to the plot. Ignoring the false economy of a storytelling style which jettisons secondary character development in the name of streamlining – and ignoring, too, the fact that female love interests are so deeply ingrained as an action movie archetyps that their very presence can feel like last-minute shoehorning – this puts considerable pressure on any fem/fem conversation to be relevant to the action; and if the writer wants to really showcase Guy’s intelligence, strength and resourcefulness, then having two other characters think up a plan, chart a course of action or otherwise save the day will only serve to undermine his specialness. Throw in the necessity of keeping Guy and Gal together for most of the plot – you can’t kindle sparks if the flints don’t touch – and just like that, you’ve practically eliminated any opportunity for Gal and Gal2 to have a conversation. Trying to force them together would just be another sort of shoehorning; and anyway, what does it matter? It’s just a story.

All of which is, frankly, bullshit. Characterisation shouldn’t be the sole privilege of protagonists. Male heroes don’t require a monopoly on good ideas and snappy dialogue to be viewed as heroic – and if you think they do, you’re probably part of the problem. Women shouldn’t be token characters: I love a good, sassy romance as much as the next person, but there’s a profound difference between a love interest whose only investment in the plot is their attachment to the hero, and a fully functioning character who develops into a love interest. As for the age-old argument about some eras, professions and settings being necessarily male dominated, I put it to you that if Deadwood, a well-researched, historically anchored show about life in a lawless town on the American frontier can pass the Bechdel test with ease, then any film the sole premise of which is Shit Gets Blown Up should be able to do it backwards and upside down, particularly if the setting constitutes a departure from everyday reality in any way, shape or form. Which is another way of saying that if you’re willing to break the established laws of physics and human endurance such that the male hero can get blown up, tortured and beaten shortly before running approximately ten miles at top-speed during a thrilling laser gun battle, you can probably stretch to having a female character whose capabilities extend beyond the rigours of looking decorative.

Unless you think women shouldn’t really have key roles in action movies, in which case, see above, re: being part of the problem.

All of which brings me to my sudden inability to think of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth as a realistic fantasy world (which sounds like a non sequitur, but bear with me). I’ll be brutally honest: watching the How It Should Have Ended clip for The Lord of the Rings has not done wonders for my perception of its plot, such that when I sat down this evening to watch the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I found myself wanting to yell at Gandalf to just GO GET THE FUCKING EAGLES. But as I tried to settle into the narrative, I kept asking myself: where are the women? I don’t mean Arwen, Eowyn and Galadriel, who are all wonderful characters despite their lack of screen time: I mean, where are the wives and sisters and mothers? Why, when the succession is so important, is neither Faramir nor Boromir married? Where are the wives of Denethor and Theoden, the mothers of Arwen, Eowyn and Frodo? Why are so many races – the Ents, the Orcs, the Uruk-Hai, the Goblins, the Dwarves – drawn as if they were all male? For a setting which is otherwise so rich in cultural and historical detail, this reads as a serious problem. It’s not just that the trilogy fails the Bechdel test; it’s that the lack of women means we have very little idea of how that society treats them, beyond the basic, obvious knowledge that there must be wives and sisters and mothers of some sort, even though almost every woman in a position to occupy such a niche is either conveniently dead or mysteriously absent. And when, in The Silmarillion, Tolkien does venture to write female characters, it’s almost always in a romantic, devotional context: women who died to support their brothers or husbands, or who were pursued against their will, or who tragically fell in love with someone they shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have.

Which is where I start to wonder if the absence of female characters in Middle Earth is less a species of exclusionary sexism than it is a tacit acknowledgement on Tolkien’s part that, for all he was trying to write a magical, romanticised version of the medieval period, he didn’t know how to do so in a way that would benefit his women the same way it did his men. The happy resolutions to the lives of Luthien, Arwen and Eowyn all hinge on partnerships with men of their own choosing, men with whom they are genuinely in love; and yet a scholar of Tokien’s standing can’t have been unaware of how rare an occurrence that would have been, historically speaking. Perhaps, then, the wives and mothers of so many characters are absent as a preventative against the acknowledgement of exactly that problem; of the fact that one can believe in the restorative magic of feudalism and the aesthetic stylings of chivalry for only so long as one either postpones the question of women’s happiness or takes its existence for granted. As compassionately as Tolkien paints Eowyn’s desire for glory, and as determinedly as he makes Luthien the saviour and rescuer of Beren, the latter stance seems less likely than the former. But in dodging the issue, he undermines the story – because while his male characters are allowed to ask questions about their purpose in life, expressing bitterness at their circumstances and feeling haunted by unwanted duty, he cannot dare let the women do likewise, or else the whole myth of Middle Earth’s glory would come crashing down around him. The elves, conveniently enough, are exempt from this dilemma, presumably on the basis that if everyone in a given society is granted magical supremacy, immortality and eternal beauty as a matter of course, then unhappiness as a result of imposed gender profiling probably won’t be an issue. But humankind are not, which is why, despite how well-drawn she is, Eowyn’s fears are masculinised: her biggest concern is being denied a chance at battle, and not that Theoden or Eomer will see her married off, even though the structure of Tolkien’s society dictates that one must be at least as distinct a possibility as the other.

And that’s why I’ve lost my faith in Middle Earth: because I cannot reconcile Tolkien’s aesthetic mood of beauty, nobility and contemplation with the necessary ugliness and bias of male-dominated feudalism. Which explains why I’m such a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, adapted recently to the HBO series A Game of Thrones: all the history and pageantry is still there, all the chivalrous words and noble aspirations, but we still get to see the women – their desires, struggles, success and persecution – without recourse to either convenient absenteeism or rosy-lensed love. Call it gritty fantasy or nihilism if you must, but no matter how pure and glorious your ambitions, it’ll take a lot to convince me that a standard medieval setting will lack the problems of forced marriage, rape and battery – or worse, that these things don’t matter – just because you choose to emphasise chivalrous conduct.

So, to recap: if you find yourself steering clear of female/female dialogue because:

a) women have no place in your story;

b) it doesn’t feel plot-relevant;

c) you don’t want to develop your female characters; or

d) the women might question the logic of a world you want your male characters to enjoy,

then I would humbly suggest that you are, in fact, part of the problem. Which is why the Bechdel test matters: not because all stories need women, but because the manner of their absence shouldn’t contribute to a culture of inequality.

My husband and I went to see The Sorcerer’s Apprentice yesterday afternoon. On the basis of the trailers, it looked like it might be decent fun, if not exactly a life-altering future classic. And, for the most part, it was fun: Jay Baruchel and Nicholas Cage had a decent on-screen repartee, there were some genuine laughs, the magic looked beautiful, and if Baruchel was convincing as a hopeless-but-really-not physics nerd, then Cage, with his dishevelled wizard-hair and giant leather coat, was unexpectedly, well, hot. (Doubtless that’s a minority view, but I’m sticking to it.)

That being said, and even taking into account my low expectations, it was a film that niggled. The opening voiceover scene, wherein the entire backstory is explained in such detail as to moot all later reveals, was both cheesy and redundant. None of the female characters had any character development or personality whatsoever, their sole purpose apparently being to serve as narrative justification for certain actions of the male protagonists. Disney films, for all their faults, usually manage to pass the Bechdel Test – but not The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And then there was the Merlin issue – a personal bugbear which never fails to set my teeth on edge.

In the opening spiel, we learn that Merlin, greatest of all wizards, had three apprentices: Balthazar (Nicholas Cage), Victoria (his love interest, who gets two lines at the end of the film) and Horvath (the villain), to whom he taught his secrets. Their enemy was Morgana, aka Morgan le Fay, who wanted to cast the Rising, a terrible spell that would raise an army of undead sorcerers and allow her to conquer the world. Horvath, of course, betrayed the Good Guys, during the course of which Merlin was killed and Morgana imprisoned. As his master lay dying, Balthazar was charged with finding – wait for it – the Prime Merlinian, a powerful sorcerer who would one day defeat Morgana, and who Balthazar could identify through his affinity with Merlin’s magic ring. Ignoring the fact that this massive infodump occurs in the first five minutes, I am so sick of lazy writers namedropping Merlin as a means of stealing narrative legitimacy. Merlin has his own awesome, complicated mythos: either adapt it intelligently – which isn’t that hard! – or go out on a limb and do something else. Similarly, while Morgan le Fay doesn’t come off well in the Arthurian legends, she was still a complex, powerful character. Using her name to avoid the necessity of actual characterisation is a cop-out: if your ultimate villain only appears at the very end to deliver a handful of Stereotypical Bad Guy Threats, the least you could do is build up some sort of motive for her character in the interim, as opposed to letting everything rest on She Is Morgana And Therefore Evil.

Also, the lack of coherent worldbuilding? So irksome. Note to Hollywood scriptwriters: if you’re going to have two immortal wizards kicking around for thousands of years in opposition to one another, they are probably going to train some acolytes! Because this is what wizards do. I refuse to believe that Balthazar’s quest to find the Prime Merlinian prevented him from training a single Goddam ally, especially as Horvath and the Morganans have been proliferating for the same length of time. And riddle me this: if all wizards except the Prime Merlinian are unable to use their powers without the aid of a magic ring, then who made the rings in the first place? Violating casaul logic is not, generally speaking, considered to be a helpful narrative attribute. But then again, during the big climax scene, wherein dead Morganan sorcerers are raised from their graves all over the world, you were stupid enough to show a couple coming out of the damn pyramids – that is to say, buildings which predated both Morgana and the Arthurian myths by thousands of years. So clearly, chronological integrity wasn’t high on the list of must-haves.

Other minor points: that trope about magic coming from the other, unused ten percent of our brains was old in the 90s and is now in danger of becoming an antique. Find another explanation. The thing with the Tesla coils was new, but still lame. And please, for the love of God, do not make the love interest’s sole basis of attraction the fact that she’s pretty and blonde – some species of personality would be appreciated!

Ultimately, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was never going to be a spectacular movie. The fact that I still managed to get any enjoyment out of it was testament to the fact that quirky nerd heroes as played by the likes of Shia LaBouf, Justin Long, Michael Cera and now Jay Baruchel, while fast becoming a new stereotype, are still fun to watch on screen. And the magical effects really were lovely to look at. But with the Pixar team and studios now a part of their empire, regular Disney needs to lift its scriptwriting game. Audiences for young adult films, regardless of their age, have been taught to expect more. Either put up, or shut up.

Warning: total spoilers.

By and large, I’m a fan of Quentin Tarantino. Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Volumes 1 & 2 and Death Proof are among my favourite films, and I’m far from averse to cinematic violence. I hadn’t heard much about Inglourious Basterds, but given that it was Tarantino, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

This is not a course of action I would reccommend to anyone.

Inglourious Basterds is, without a doubt, one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. It is a Tarantino production only insofar as there is graphic violence, and even then, it’s not up to his usual standard. But I’m getting ahead of myself: first, before we proceed any further, a plot summary.

Our story begins in Nazi-occupied France, where Col. Hans Landa, central antagonist of the film and nicknamed the Jewhunter, is in the process of questioning a local dairy farmer, whom he suspects of harbouring a Jewish family. Drawn out over roughly half an hour, their conversation serves to introduce three plot elements: Landa’s facility with languages, his conversational eccentricity, and the eventual massacre of the Dreyfus family, who are hiding beneath the farmer’s floorboards. The latter is relevant not only as a means of demonstrating Nazi brutality, but because the teenage Shoshanna Dreyfus, our soon-to-be heroine, escapes and flees for the hills.

Cut to Brad Pitt – sorry, Lt. Aldo Raine – addressing a group of Jewish American soldiers, the titular Inglourious Basterds, as they prepare to head behind German lines. Their mission, as described by the distantly part-Apache Raine, is to collect the scalps of one hundred Nazis apiece, a task they are positively hankerin’ to accomplish. Over an hour passes before these two plotlines meet up, but then, at two and a half hours long, the film is quite happy to take its time. Eventually, however, all becomes clear, or at least marginally less uncorrelated: now four years older, Shoshanna Dreyfus is running a cinema in Paris under an assumed French identity, where a young Nazi soldier, Fredrick Zoller, the subject of a soon-to-be-released propaganda film produced by Joseph Goebbels, starts to take an interest in her life. Almost instantly, Zoller decides that Shoshanna’s cinema will be the venue for the premiere of his film – at which point, enter the Basterds and some British allies, who, with the help of German actress-slash-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark, are planning to blow up the opening night, thereby killing not only Goebbels, but all of the Nazi high command and even the Fuhrer himself. Shoshanna, meanwhile, having been forced to endure a meal in the company of both Goebbels and Landa, has her own plans for eliminating the Nazis on opening night, operating parallel to, but not in concert with, the efforts of the Basterds.

Wacky hijinks, as they say, ensue. Or at least, that seems to have been the general intention. But despite its complex tangential plotting, eccentric supporting characters and bizarre premise, Inglourious Basterds is anything but entertaining. Though usually a master of black humour, witty dialogue and satisfying revenge plots, Tarantino has, in this instance, unfathomably failed to perform in even one of these categories, let alone all three. The grand finale, which features Hitler being shot with a machine gun as the leaders of the Nazi party burn to death, fails on so many levels that it’s difficult to articulate; and when watching Jewish soldiers gun down Hitler in a Tarantino movie isn’t even remotely funny, satisfying or relevant, then it’s fair to say that, somewhere along the line, things have gone spectacularly wrong.

More than anything else, Inglourious Basterds stylistically resembles a Tarantino version of the most recent Cohen Brothers offering, Burn After Reading. Both featured casts composed almost entirely of vile, morally bereft characters, none of whom were the least bit likeable, which consequently made them difficult to watch; both featured loosely interwoven, anti-cathartic plotlines where an excess of human error and mad violence saw everything go horribly wrong; and both starred Brad Pitt as a weird guy with a moustache, although at least in Burn After Reading, he was given a couple of good lines.

At every turn, the viewer encounters a mess of contradictions. We are meant to enjoy seeing Nazis shot, burned and beaten to death on principle, as Lt. Raine’s opening speech makes abundantly clear – a somewhat redunant message, as this will be the automatic position of most viewers. But from thereon in, the Basterds themselves are endowed with no personalities, no histories, no redeeming qualities: they are viscious, avenging demons, which might still be workable were it not for the fact that every Nazi they encounter is given more depth, more humanity and better dialouge than the whole group put together. This makes for some grim, uneasy scenes: there is simply nowhere for the viewer to turn. Raine and his men are faceless brutes, impossible to like, while the Nazis, though more complex characters, are still Nazis. With both sides thus rendered unpalatable, the only hope of narrative salvation lies with Shoshanna Dreyfus, but even there, the audience is denied. Tarantino has a solid history when it comes to revenge films, particularly as orchestrated through the actions of strong, wronged women, but in the final wrap, despite the fact that Landa is directly responsible for murdering the Dreyfus family, he ends up the only Nazi of our acquaintance left alive. Indeed, Shoshanna never so much as singles him out for revenge, instead concentrating her suicidal efforts on bringing down the whole Reich establishment, and while this is not a cardinal sin in and of itself, it stands as a massive and poorly-executed departure from Tarantino’s stock in trade.

Smaller problems, too, abound. Samuel L. Jackson’s token voice-overs are bizarre, given that (a) he doesn’t have so much as a cameo role  and (b) the film is otherwise entirely unnarrated. The deliberate misspelling of Inglourious Basterds is shown only once, carved into a rifle butt, with no explanation. We see one character flash back to being whipped, presumably by the Nazis, in an incident which has hitherto never been mentioned, but which appears only minutes before the subject is killed, thus rendering it pointless. Shoshanna and her lover plan death for the Nazis, but while suicide is never discussed, neither do they try and save themselves. History is completely abused in orchestrating the grand finale, but tiny fragments of accurate socio-historical minutiae, like accents, hand gestures and detailed cinema knowledge, nonetheless prove the undoing of multiple characters. Arguably, this latter point is the straw which breaks the donkey’s back. Having spent over an hour painstakingly building up one suite of characters, Tarantino then kills all save one of them in the type of scene which is best described, in the immortal words of Something Positive webcartoonist Randy Milholland, as belonging to the ‘Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies‘ oeuvre.

I wish I could say otherwise, but when push comes to shove, Inglourious Basterds is two-point-five hours of my life – and yours – that can never be reclaimed. If you want to see a gripping action film with brilliant scripting, awesome effects, humour, genuine insight and future cult status, then I suggest you buy tickets for District 9. Anything else is folly.

There are two types of people in the cinema-going world: those who like M. Night Shyamalan films, and those who don’t. It’s not an issue on which there’s much, if any, middle ground. With the possible exception of The Sixth Sense, his films, while mainstream releases, have a tendency to polarise in the manner of arthouse flicks: either they’re revelations, or rot.

I used to be one of the unenlightened. Watching Signs on the big screen, I snorted with laughter. The Village left me irritable – what the hell kind of ending was that, anyway? I’d been frightened out of my young life when Haley Joel Osment confessed to seeing dead people, but at that point, I didn’t even realise the films were by the same guy. Had friends not taken me in hand, my opinion might never have changed, but after The Village, they sat me down and asked, in exacting tones, exactly why I was disappointed.

After twenty-odd minutes of flustered debating, we hit upon the crux of my frustrations, viz: the film had been marketed as horror. Although the first half of the narrative fit this pattern, the character relations, plot twist and conclusion took an entirely different turn, which lead me to believe that the whole was a botched attempt. So, my friends asked. Was the problem with the film, or just with what you thought it was meant to be?

I opened my mouth, closed it again, and thought back. I’d gone in expecting to see a horror film, and so had watched for narrative markers appropriate to the genre. They’d been there early on, but then vanished entirely, which left the possibility that I’d been actively misinterpreting the film, imposing my own assumptions on how it should work, and judging it wanting. It was a strange realisation, but the more I considered it, the more it made sense. Hadn’t I thought the same thing about Signs? It was as if I – and, for that matter, Hollywood – had been looking for The Sixth Sense in every subsequent Shyamalan film, when they weren’t really horror at all.

With Lady in the Water, I made a conscious effort to ignore the marketing and test my hypothesis: to watch with no expectations and an open mind. Might I see something I’d missed before?

I could, and did. Near the end, I realised what should’ve been obvious all along: Shyamalan’s films are always about people. The pseudo-horror setting is simply his preferred vehicle for storytelling, a background mechanism designed to threaten, not the audience, but his characters. Thus menaced, the point of their reaction isn’t fright, but inter-development: how they draw together, and how they mend. Because healing, faith and self-acceptance are big themes in Shyamalan’s work. In both The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, supernaturally gifted protagonists come to terms with their powers, not in order to save the world, but to help the people in it. Quietly and with inner strength, the heroes of Signs and Lady in the Water regain their faith, two broken widowers made whole. And in The Village, a community of emotionally scarred people are forced to confront their injuries by the actions of three who are physically wounded: a dying man, a blind girl and her mad brother.

The subtlety of Shyamalan films simultaneously acts as their blessing and curse. Early scenes deliberately set up the false horror that, inevitably, constitutes their sales pitch, but the plots become introverted. It is as if the film is a train travelling towards a junction: the audience expects to travel one way, and instead is taken another. What we protest is a percieved error – turn back, turn back! – when, in fact, our course was planned from the outset.

Except for The Sixth Sense, which he didn’t produce, and Wide Awake, which he neither produced nor appeared in, Shyamalan has, at 37, written, produced, directed and appeared in all his films. Given the excellent characterisation, scripting, cinematography and production values, it’s hard not to be impressed. But more impressive still are the moments of beauty and revelation which characterise his work: the idea that even though we are all flawed, we can fix ourselves.