The Myers-Briggs Test and Film-Makers

The Myers-Briggs is one of the oldest and most reputable personality tests around. It is based on Carl Jung’s notion (which he actually got from his lover Toni Wolff) that we approach the world in different ways. Some of us are extroverted, meaning we get energized by social contact, and some of us are introverted, meaning we refuel by time alone. Some of us are sensing types, meaning that we rely primarily on our five senses to experience the world around us, and some of us are intuitive types who go on gut hunches. Finally, he said, some of us rely more on our feelings when making a decision — on what has value for us — and some of us rely more on thinking, on logical reasoning.

That’s as far as Jung got. Later, the mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers added another pair: perceiving vs. judging. Perceiving types don’t edit the world; they see and are open to everything, and it all seems good to them. Judging types, on the other hand, are very good at filtering out things according to their own internal search criteria, and casting aside anything that’s irrelevant to the point.

My other job is as an editor. I’m good at it because I’m a judging type. I can see at a glance what needs to go. When I work with a perceiving-type writer, this causes a lot of wailing, because they can’t see that the thing they love so much is an irrelevant tangent that not only doesn’t contribute to what they are trying to say, it actually may distract or confuse the reader.

After seeing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, I’m now convinced of something I have suspected for a long time: Peter Jackson is a “perceiving” type. He can’t just stop with the source material; he keeps having more ideas and adding them all in. And because he is not just the writer and the director, but sits in on the editing as well, he keeps it all, because he loves it all. He can’t see when he goes too far.

He’s not alone. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are guilty of the same excess. I do not remember now which of the Star Wars prequels featured seventeen scenes of different spaceships taking off and flying away through an obviously CGI landscape, or flying in through an obviously CGI landscape and landing. I may have missed a few as I found these by skipping to the next scene throughout the movie; there may have been take-offs and landings that weren’t at the start of a scene. I’m not talking a 10-second take-off or landing; each one took at least a minute. So 17 minutes in the movie of spaceships landing or taking off. We know George looooves spaceships. But does that love help the film? Unh-uh.

Steven King and Annie Dillard are two excellent writers who tell wannabe writers that you have to edit out the thing you love the most from your writing. It’s too personal to you and will either bore your readers or put them off. I can’t read most fanfiction — or, sadly, a lot of stuff being published these days — because the authors not only don’t know this rule, but in fact emphasize the thing they love to the exclusion of anything else (like plot or characterization).

When I first started writing my own stuff, I sometimes got in the grip of an emotion so strong that I couldn’t stop writing for 18 hours at a time. I thought this was the muse and I needed to let it happen. But as I become more conversant with how the unconscious works, I realized that it wasn’t the muse; instead, I was in the grip of a complex — a strong emotion with meaningful ties to my past — and was letting it rule me. It felt really good, apart from the fact that I didn’t eat or sleep. But when it was over and I read what I had written, it was pretty much crap. It was all emotion and wishful fantasy, nothing I’d ever show anyone else.

Eventually I learned that the muse works very differently. I learned how to invite it by creating a regular writing routine which includes limits on how long I write at a time. When the muse strikes, I don’t feel seized by strong emotion. Instead, I find myself writing something that I didn’t know was in me, something true and wise that — and here’s the key — speaks to others too. 

I’m a judging type, so I can usually tell when I’ve gone off the rails. But not always, so I hire an editor to look at my stuff. I think all writers, including scriptwriters, profit from seeking an outside opinion. If they are perceiving types, they absolutely need an editor to whom they give the power to slash away at the work and trim out the excess. But I fear it’s too late for some of these big-name directors, and we all lose by it.

Mixed Messages in Austenland

I really wanted to like Austenland. I’m a huge Austen fan. I’ve read all her books and can quote from most of them. I’ve seen every television or movie version of “Pride and Prejudice” out there and own four of them, including the Bollywood Bride and Prejudice. And yes, I have a crush on Mr. Darcy.

Austenland should have appealed to me. The story is that of a rabid Austen fan (“I memorized the first three chapters of Pride and Prejudice when I was 13″) who spends all her savings to go to England and live for a week totally immersed in the Regency era at a manor where all guests are promised “romance.” This sounds like a fun vacation to me. Until we have holodecks or time machines, this kind of extended cosplay is the only way we have to experiencing life in another time and place. And sure, I’d like to live for a little while in a world where politeness and courtesy between men and women are high priorities. (Yes, I’d get bored after a while, but I could handle a week of that.)

But I couldn’t get into it. The film cuts to the chase too soon; we get a quick succession of brief scenes and an expository friend to tell us that Jane Hayes, the heroine, is obsessed with Austen to the point that it’s disrupting her ability to 1. pick a boyfriend who’s not a loser and 2. live in the real world. Yet she has friends, a job, her own large apartment, and money in the bank, so I couldn’t see what the issue was. (HINT: the expository friend is PREGNANT.)

Despite her friend’s opposition, Jane goes off to England and meets the first of several caricatures she’ll be interacting with on her stay. Here’s where the movie began to lose me. Almost every person at the Regency Manor is exaggerated and ridiculous. The two other women guests are wealthy and clearly hoping not just to find romance but sex. The men are hired actors, and despite one character’s assurance that the owner of the manor hires “the best,” they are terrible. The owner herself despises Jane, who could only afford the “copper” experience and thus is treated as a poor relation by everyone except the handsome young coachman who also seems to do all the hard work around the estate. Then there’s the Mr. Darcy character, “Henry Nobley,” who turns up his nose at all of them.

He is, in fact, the voice of the film, speaking for the film-makers themselves, who despise the play-acting Austenites as much as he does. And Jane soon despises them too. She and Henry form an alliance which mostly consists of agreeing that they are better than the others, for they have a true interest in the time period (we find out eventually that Henry is actually an historian) while the others are just playing dress-up.

At one point the house party is roped into putting on a play. Both Henry and Jane are revealed as terrible actors, and later Henry tells Jane that this means that neither of them is good at pretending to be someone they are not. But everyone else in the group is also a terrible actor, so the exposition is once again at odds with what the film is actually doing.

Eventually Jane finds out that even the coachman is an actor, and for some reason this fills her with such disgust that she leaves the manor, saying she wants “something REAL.” We’re supposed to be happy for her because finally Jane has freed herself from her obsession with Austen, no longer wants to live in that time, and no doubt is going home to get married and have babies. Which is what this film defines as success for a woman. In the first gathering of the party, it comes out that Jane has a “tragic” history of a series of failed relationships. Everyone looks pityingly at the poor woman who is OVER 30 and NOT MARRIED. “Tick tock” says one of the men, smiling sadly at her. The “real life” that her Austen obsession has robbed Jane of is marriage and babies.

Jane Austen herself never married, never had children. Instead, she wrote some of the greatest books of the 19th century, books that have never gone out of print and are more popular today than ever. This film banks on that popularity to draw in the very people who love Austen, and then sneers at them.

This is not the worst of the film’s mixed messages. For most of the movie, we’re being told that fantasy is bad and that we need to live in reality every moment. Yet at the very end, Henry shows up at Jane’s door and, when she tells him she is done with fantasy, says “you’ve got it backwards. Jane, you are my fantasy.” Apparently, while it’s wrong for a woman to have fantasies about the kind of man she’d like to be with, it’s a good thing if a man does.

If Austen had written this movie, yes, some of the people would have been caricatures. But she would have also peopled the movie with reasonable and interesting characters who would have helped Jane see past her own blind spots and stand up for herself. Henry would have never told Jane that she was his fantasy, but instead have made a speech about how her integrity helped him to see his own shortcomings and realize what he valued most in life. One or both of them would have defied the very people who were trying to make them conform to society’s expectations, and together they would have formed a true partnership of like minds. But Austen did not write it, and instead we get a movie populated almost entirely by caricatures in which one fantasy is exchanged for another one.

Bella Swan: The New Sleeping Beauty

We all know the story of Sleeping Beauty. She’s a beautiful princess who lives in a bubble, protected by her parents from every danger and apparently content to be so. Eventually a witch invades her bubble, but only to put the princess to sleep. And sleep the princess does until awakened by a kiss from the heroic Knight in Shining Armor who has fought his way to her side. The story ends with her marrying the prince. We assume that her life will go on as it was before: in the castle, protected by her husband for the rest of her life. She’ll have children, but they will be cared for by others; everything will be done for her. She will continue to live in a bubble.

Vampires have morphed from creatures of horror that prey on others into sexy, suave, well-dressed, and yet dangerous immortals—something like James Bond crossed with the sun god Apollo. It’s no wonder that Bella Swan of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight books falls for the vampire Edward Cullen: he is a being of pure fantasy, the Knight in Shining Armor carried to the extreme.

We see the same trope with Angel of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and Bill and Eric of “True Blood,” and no doubt in the newer vampire-oriented television shows (which I must confess I have not bothered to watch, because enough already!). But in these shows, there’s a human heroine who is spunky and a fighter. Sookie and Buffy may love particular vampires, but they don’t let that stop them from speaking back to those men, rejecting their over-protectiveness, or going their own ways when they want.

Not so with Bella Swan. This is a girl with no apparent interests or talents of her own that might give her life passion and direction. Instead, she lives only for being with Edward. She is paralyzed with depression when he leaves her for her own good. Edward does not wish to jeopardize either her immortal soul or her right to live a normal human life and have the normal human successes–like children–but Bella doesn’t care about either of those things. She refuses to wake up from her fantasy and move on; she would rather die. In the face of this passive refusal to live, Edward gives in and kills her to make her a vampire too.

Bella, like Sleeping Beauty, is now in a state of suspended animation. She will remain 18 years old forever. She will never grow up; she will never grow old; she will never grow, period. She lives only when Edward kisses her. Meyer cheats and gives her a child, but the child grows up so fast that Bella has to be a mother only for a few months (and most of the child care is apparently done by others anyway). When Bella and Edward’s blissful non-life is threatened by the dangerous Volturi, Meyer gives Bella the ability to “shield” herself and others from their magic. Nothing can penetrate the bubble that surrounds Bella and Edward.

It is fitting that the final scenes of the series take place in the snow, for Bella and Edward are like figures in a snow globe, frozen in time, gazing only at each other for eternity. How boring!

Overuse Injuries

You know what an overuse injury is — when you do too much of something that normally wouldn’t cause a problem. It comes on slowly and then one day you wake up and you can’t do that thing any more.

Or, to use another example, what happens when you keep wearing the same clothes or using the same set of sheets or towels over and over. They wear out really fast or get all pill-y and look bad and don’t feel so good either. As much as you might have loved them at first, now you just want to toss them.

Many writers of TV series and movie franchises ought to ponder these similes. I’m thinking in particular of the Doctor Who series. Used to be that a lot of different writers wrote different episodes (including the brilliant Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) When the series was “rebooted” in 2005, the head writer was Russell T. Davies, but many of the best episodes were written by Steven Moffat, including the two-part “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” and “The Girl in the Fireplace.” When Moffat wrote the episode “Blink,” he gave us the scariest villains I’ve ever seen: The Weeping Angels. I was terrified of all statues for a long time after seeing that episode (and do you realize how many statues there are all around us?).

Of course the Doctor defeated them, but it was a near thing. But then Davies left the show and Moffat was put in charge. He immediately brought the Angels back for a two-parter. Again, the Doctor defeated them. Then they came back in another episode, and guess what, the Doctor defeated them. Moffat amped the odds up each time: there are four in the original episode, many in the two-parter, and in the most recent one, even the Statue of Liberty is a Weeping Angel.

And . . . yawn. I’m no longer scared. I feel the same way about the Daleks and the Cybermen. I also feel the same way about the alien from the “Alien” movies and all of the many, many derivative monsters that have jaws within jaws AND despite being reptilian with hard scales are also slimy and drool like a Newfoundland.

They’re trying to keep us scared by making zombies faster than humans instead of staggering slowly (but relentlessly) along. Peter Jackson in the second Lord of the Rings movie thought that giant wolves weren’t scary enough, so he gave us giant hyena-like creatures ridden by Orcs . . . sorry Pete, not scary, just wrong, as was your pink Orc in the last movie and the supersized Goblin King and Azog the Orc in the new Hobbit movies.

I’m as much a fan of “disaster porn” movies as anyone, but I laughed throughout 2012 which managed to combine them all: California falling into the sea because of a 10.0 earthquake, the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting, massive tsunamis inundating the earth . . . by the time the waves were lapping at the North Face of Everest I was on the floor with the giggles.

The folks at Syfy Channel (whom I am usually damning for their lack of foresight when they cancel perfectly good series like Eureka or Warehouse 13) have, to their credit, seen the ridiculousness in this trend to supersize old monsters and are churning out made-for-TV movies that are deliberately over-the-top, like Sharknado, in which killer tornadoes not only hit the California coast but scoop up schools of sharks and fling them into the streets where they do what sharks do despite being, you know, fish out of water. It’s a comedy, not a horror movie, and you’re meant to laugh.

In addition to revisiting old enemies and making them more/bigger, Moffat’s also been amping up the stakes in many of the episodes. Used to be the Doctor saved Earth at least once a season. But now saving the Earth is nothing. Now he saves the ENTIRE UNIVERSE over and over. Am I worried that he won’t manage it next time? Uh, not so much.

My favorite episodes are never the ones where the Doctor defeats the Daleks and saves the Earth/Universe or manages to reboot Time once again. My favorites are the small-scale ones. The Doctor hardly even shows up in “Blink”; we just see him in a video telling the ordinary heroine and hero what to do — except he’s actually reading a script that they sent to him through time, which they do not know when they’re watching the video (how cool is that?). I love “The Girl in the Fireplace” because it’s basically the Doctor saving one person from a terrible fate. She’s a wonderful person and we fall in love with her just as the Doctor does. When he saves the Earth or the Universe, it’s hard to care. We just don’t and can’t love abstract concepts like we do individual people.

I get that coming up with new things to be afraid of is a lot harder than revisiting old favorites. But have these writers never heard the axiom “less is more”? Or cottoned on to the idea that the scariest thing is the thing you don’t see? That’s mostly in your mind? That’s why the Weeping Angels were so scary that first time. And the first Alien – because we never saw the monster until the very end. I remember being terrified during Time after Time, a movie about Jack the Ripper and H.G. Wells. You never actually saw Jack kill anyone, but you saw his face when he was moving in to do just that – and then the screen would go black and you’d hear a scream that was quickly choked off. Terrifying.

I’ve been a Doctor Who fan since the Fourth Doctor. But I’m feeling like I’ve got a bit of an overuse injury since Moffat took over as head writer. In fact, I’ve hardly seen any of the last season at all.

Gravity

After writing my last post, I went and saw “Gravity” starring Sandra Bullock, which was beautifully serendipitous, for it is a story of how a woman becomes a heroine.

Bullock plays a medical researcher, Ryan Stone, who has apparently developed some imaging software or hardware that has been repurposed for the Hubble Telescope, and she gets sent into space to install it. But disaster strikes and Ryan is sent spinning into space.

We learn that Ryan was already lost when she climbed aboard the shuttle. She is not just cut off from Earth; she has been cut off from her own self, her identity. Her name is Ryan because “my father wanted a boy” and we assume from what we know of her that she has followed the masculine pathway to success as a brilliant doctor — in a field that allows her to hide in the basement of a hospital and not interact with people. We learn that she had a daughter who was killed, but if she was ever married, the husband is out of the picture. We learn that she spent most of her time working and, when not working, would get in her car and drive aimlessly. She has nothing that roots her to Earth or to other people. She has nothing that roots her to herself.

I talked in my last blog about how men can “step up” from their ordinary lives to being heroes in one step, but women have to “step up” first to being a  self-directed individual. Ryan has done that; she is in control of her life. She is not defined, as so many women are, by her relationships to others. She has lost the only role that defined her, that of mother. 

And now she is in space. She is in the liminal zone, the area between here and there, before and after. She has undergone the ritual of being divested of her old clothing and status and marked as an initiate into the mysteries of the secret brotherhood, NASA. She has been trained in those mysteries and sent out into the wild to be tested. Her test will be a much severer trial than her teachers can know.

She is, like all heroes, accompanied for a while by an older, wiser man (George Clooney) who shares his wisdom with her. But as always happens, this older wise man disappears before the critical moment and Ryan is on her own. 

What is crucial is not that Ryan remembers her training and demonstrates that she has the intelligence and strength — moral and physical — to pass the trials. The critical moment comes when she chooses to make the return, to cross the threshold again. to leave the liminal space and re-engage with life in a totally new way. She very nearly doesn’t, and this is something that writers about the heroic quest often forget: not everyone makes it back! But Ryan does. She undergoes a double baptism, by fire and by water. As she plummets through the atmosphere, we sense that all the residue of her old life, her old self, is being burned away in the alchemical fire. When she sheds — as she must — the uniform of the initiate in the lake, she is freed to cross the beach, the littoral that is the other threshold, and stand up as her new self: a heroine.

Superheroines

I’m watching a documentary on the evolution of “Wonder Woman” in the comics and on screen. One question that keeps being raised is why there are so few “super” heroines – women who have extraordinary powers beyond just being strong and adept at fighting. Yet we have dozens if not hundreds of superheroes.

Here’s my thought on that. Most men are the “principle actors” of their own lives. They are – as much as anyone can be that is – in charge of what they do and what they can accomplish. No one else is controlling them. So, for a man to be larger than life, to be a hero, he has to do more than most men can do. He has to be “super” in some way.

But until recently, women were hardly ever the principle actors of their own lives. Instead, their lives were dictated by their parents and then their husband. This is still true for many women. So, for a woman to be extraordinary, all she has to do is become the principle actor of her own life!

That is a huge leap for most women, especially in the eyes of those who think women should not be extraordinary. To be a superheroine is to take another, even more extreme step. For most women and for society as a whole, stepping up two levels at once is not yet easily imagined.

The equivalent for a man would be to become a god. We’re seeing that start to happen in the Marvel franchise with the Asgardian gods Odin, Thor, and Loki.

Yet we’re beginning to imagine more superhuman women. In addition to Supergirl and Wonder Woman, we’ve now got all the mutant women of the X-Men franchise. The most powerful mutant of all, in fact, is a woman: Jean Grey. Jean is also a scientist in her “human” form. She’s the principle actor of her own life already. So to be “super” is the next step for her.

I predict that as more and more women take on the role of principle actor of their own lives, we’ll see more and more superheroines in the culture. And, I hope, goddesses too.

 

 

Redemption Movies

We hear a lot from the conservative press about Hollywood’s “liberal agenda” – but not very many specifics as to how that actually plays out in movies, except when it comes to the likes of Oliver Stone and Michael Moore. Yet I’ve heard no complaints at all about a recent trend that seems to me to be espousing the liberal view. I’m not talking about portraying gays in a positive light or showing what happens to people who take the Ayn Randian stance that “service to self” is more natural and also better than “service to others.” No, this trend is far more subversive than that.

I’ve always been interested in why people hold different beliefs as well as what those beliefs are. Over the years I’ve held many conversations with people who are conservative in their outlook, and I’ve found that the differences between their views and my liberal ones go far deeper than economics or that facile term “values.” Our opinions differ because of fundamental differences in the way we see the world. And the essential difference lies in what we think about good and evil.

Liberals believe in cause and effect. Things turn out the way they do because something happened to make that outcome inevitable. Therefore, it is is possible to prevent certain outcomes by changing what happens. This is why liberals are such big proponents of intervention and prevention–and, for that matter, of change in general. Liberals believe you can make things better, or at least prevent some bad things from happening. The argument over global warming, to them, is not really about whether or not it’s real, but about what we should be doing about it. This applies to evil as well. People who do evil had something bad happen to them that warped them; therefore, if we can prevent bad things from happening to people or work with them to heal that trauma, we can prevent them from doing bad things themselves.

Conservatives, on the other hand, think that things are what they are. There’s no global warming, nothing people are doing is affecting the weather, it’s all natural. (A man of my acquaintance sports a bumper sticker on his truck that says “It’s the sun, stupid!”) There’s no cause and effect. Evil things are done by people who are simply evil. You can’t fix them and you can’t prevent them from being evil. All you can do is catch and punish them and lock them up so they can’t do what they will do if allowed to go free. Human beings cannot redeem other human beings, and nor can a bad person “earn” redemption. Redemption is an act of grace, a gift bestowed by God.

Yet what do we see onscreen but redemption story after redemption story? Yes, some of those are stories in which the person who has been doing bad things “sees the light” and changes forever. But there are as many stories where it is not so much the anti-hero but the audience who sees the light when we are shown the anti-hero’s “backstory” and come to understand and forgive that person. Once we and the other characters in the story start to feel compassion, the anti-hero can be redeemed.

The biggest example of this is George Lucas’s Star Wars series, which is essentially one long redemption story for Anakin Skywalker. We see him as the innocent child; we see the factors that warp him and cause him to fall from grace, turn to the “Dark Side,” and come to serve the evil Emperor; and we see how Luke’s compassion for his own father awakes Anakin’s better side once again and redeems him.

In J.J. Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek, the character of Kirk is changed to one who flouts the law and gets into fights–all because his dad was killed when he was born and wasn’t there to guide him. The rest of the movie is about Kirk’s redemption, which begins when two father figures, Pike and old Spock, treat him as the man he was meant to be instead of the juvenile delinquent he’s been being. Severus Snape appears to be a villain in the Harry Potter movies up until the last one, when we learn his backstory and find out that he is, in fact, a double agent working to defeat Voldemort because of his love for Harry’s mother. We and Harry hate Snape up until the moment we understand him, and then he becomes a hero to all of us. His redemption, therefore, happens in us.

Even witches are getting their side of the story told. For centuries, witches have been the most evil beings of all: mistresses of Satan himself, blamed for everything that ever goes wrong from plagues to the cow’s milk drying up too early. (Calling your neighbor a witch was also often a convenient way to get your hands on their property.) Historians estimate that the number of people in Western countries killed for being witches ranges from 50,000 to 200,000, and some say the number is far higher.

But now, witches are undergoing redemption. Gregory Maguire’s book Wicked–adapted into a popular Broadway musical–gives us the story of Dorothy in Oz from the Witch of the West’s viewpoint, and shows that her intentions were always good. The TV series Once Upon a Time spends almost more time on the backstories of the witches, sorcerers, ogres, wolves, and other dangerous beings than it does on moving the plot forward.

One of the scariest witches of all time–especially for those of us who grew up on Disney films–is Maleficent, the evil witch who puts Sleeping Beauty to sleep and turns into a dragon to battle Prince Charming. In a list of Disney’s most evil villains, Maleficent came in at #1. Yet Disney is now filming a live-action movie called Maleficent, starring Angelina Jolie. As the official synopsis from Disney puts it:

A beautiful, pure-hearted young woman, Maleficent has an idyllic life growing up in a peaceable forest kingdom, until one day when an invading army threatens the harmony of the land. Maleficent rises to be the land’s fiercest protector, but she ultimately suffers a ruthless betrayal—an act that begins to turn her pure heart to stone. Bent on revenge, Maleficent faces an epic battle with the invading king’s successor and, as a result, places a curse upon his newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Maleficent realizes that Aurora holds the key to peace in the kingdom—and perhaps to Maleficent’s true happiness as well.

So it turns out that even the worst witch started out good and only went bad as a result of mistreatment by others, but that she still has a heart and can be redeemed.

Before “slippery slope” thinkers complain that this trend could lead to film-makers trying to portray Hitler as simply misunderstood, however, I need to point out that even  liberals draw the line somewhere. Voldemort, “He Who Must Not Be Named,” gets his backstory told too, but despite the efforts of Dumbledore and even Harry to get him to take another path, we see a serial killer who consciously chooses evil and, at the end, is beyond redemption both in this world and the next. The evil Emperor of the Star Wars movies must also die. The villains of both new Star Trek movies are shown compassion, reject it, and are killed as well.

The ultimate message seems to be that we do have free will; we are capable of redemption only if we choose it. The first act of grace, then, happens in our own hearts.

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