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Monday, February 09, 2009

All Frosting, No Cake

Many years ago my sister made her first cake. My father was so happy about his daughter's first baking effort that he decided to make genuine homemade whipped cream, the kind his father put on top of the five cent banana splits sold in the family restaurant during the Depression, in my sister's cake's honor.

Dad bought a pint of whipping cream and some caster sugar and whipped it up until there was nearly four inches of the stuff...but my poor sister's poor cake was a lamentable effort, only about an inch high. Nevertheless, Dad insisted on putting ALL the whipped cream on the thing.
The frosting completely swamped and drowned the main event. "Where's the cake?" I exclaimed as I went prospecting through the gargantuan whipped cream topping.
We ate it and all got sick afterward from the superabundance of fat and cholesterol.

This deadly dessert is, to me, symbolic ofModern animated features, where technique is the whipped cream and story is the cake.

I was going to write some criticism of two animated features I saw recently, but found that someone else wrote a much better one years before feature animation was a glimmer in Lotte Reiniger's or Walt Disney's eye.

So here are some wonderful excerpts from Mark Twain's essay, FENIMORE COOPER'S LITERARY OFFENSES, written in 1895 (the official birth year of motion pictures!) It is amazing how much these arguments apply to film stories. I am editing the word "Deerslayer" and a few points out so that Twain's argument may be applied to animation in particular. Here goes:

1. The rules (of literary construction state that)...A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere. But the "_________" tale accomplishes nothing and arrives in air.

2. They require that the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it. But as the "__________" tale is not a tale, and accomplishes nothing and arrives nowhere, the episodes have no rightful place in the work, since there was nothing for them to develop.

3. They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the "__________" tale.

4. They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there. But this detail also has been overlooked in the "___________" tale.

5. The require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject at hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say. But this requirement has been ignored from the beginning of the "_________" tale to the end of it.

6. They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in the tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description. But this law gets little or no attention in the "___________" tale, as ____________'s case will amply prove.

9. They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable. But these rules are not respected in the "___________" tale.

10. They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the (viewer) of the "___________" tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

11. They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency. But in the "_______" tale, this rule is vacated.

I will venture to add one point to Twain's wonderful list. Characters in an animated film should have some discernable design relationship to one another and be from the same design universe unless the story calls for it. If a film (CORALINE) has grotesques for neighbours in both the 'real world' and 'other world' while she and her parents and one friend are designed and animated in a completely different style, how do you differentiate the Other World from the Real World? You are piling frosting on top of frosting until you have completely hidden the cake.
THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX is three or four cakes...I waited an hour for the story to start. Was it about a mouse, a rat, or soup? (I didn't wait long enough to find out if it was about a princess.)
CORALINE'S cake makes little sense and collapses like a fallen souffle the minute you try to puzzle out character relationships, motivation, or meaning.
But the frosting is little short of miraculous.
That may be enough for some people, but I somehow doubt that either film is going to do very well. Story remains undeveloped in these features while technique soars to magical levels. But it's all just putting more whipped cream on top of the same sad cake.
All the audience really wants is a good, understandable story, with characters that we are interested in, that is well told. Walt Disney knew that, and his heirs at Pixar know that. Give us more cake and less topping.

I'll let Mr. Twain have the last word.

A work of art? ______ has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no lifelikeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality; its characters are confusedly drawn, and by their acts and words they prove that they are not the sort of people the author claims that they are...Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that.


Brett W. McCoy said...

Interesting... a lot of my stop-motion friends are raving over the movie, but mainly for its technical merits and not its storyline. I read another review today from another animator (Mark Mayerson) and he basically said the same thing as you -- beautifully done in terms of visuals but very little story.

I am big on story myself, I like beautiful animation of course but the animation should be there to tell the story and not just dazzle the audience. One person I know said while she was watching the film it made her want to play it as a video game... I guess that kinda sums it up.

Obviously I haven't seen it, so I can't be too judgemental, I've loved previous movies done by Selick & Burton. I am convinced, though, that the best stuff is coming from the independent guys (like the folks on or guys like Paul Fierlinger) and not the big budget productions. 'Sita Sings the Blues', from the clips I have seen, is another example of stunning animation and great storytelling... just wish I could see the entire film!

Nancy said...

Hello Brett,
Mark and I work together at Sheridan but we haven't discussed the film. I am curious to see how the students like it. They love the showy effects. But films that are made for other animators (such as your stop motion friends) do not necessarily appeal to a wider audience.

Many modern films are also conceived as video games (I thought that this was obvious in the HARRY POTTER movies and also the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN part 2). Maybe this is appealing to a certain audience. It does not appeal to me.

I'd be very interested to hear what you think of the movie once you have seen it. Henry Selick and Tim Burton were both classmates of mine at Cal I've been following their work for a while, you might say.

Brett W. McCoy said...

I'm with you on HP & PotC 2 :-)

Didn't know that you worked with Mark Mayerson, that's cool!

Floyd Norman said...

That's great, Nancy. But, we've all been through this before, haven't we?

I thought things would have changed by now, but it appears I was wrong.

This doesn't bode well for the future since the people in charge have learned nothing.

JPilot said...

Hi Nancy,

Not to start an argument here, but something doesn't ring right to me.

I believe every film of the French Nouvelle Vague would have driven Mark Twain into a seizure, and yet Godard, Truffault, Chabrol, Romher and the rest are now praised for their body of work (hey, I even had trouble with those films' story structure and I was raised French!) David Lynch would have driven the final stake in Twain's heart.
Steven Speilberg and most modern filmmakers were inspired by Truffault, Godard et al, and I guess one of the big innovations of new wave French cinema was to take the production out of soundstages and film the real world cheaply.

I understand there are certain rules of storytelling. I also believe that following these rules to the letter tends to make the story and plot as predictable as church bells on a Sunday morning.

In other words, a formula.

To try and hold every story structure to the Mark Twain standard seems to me like building cars that would only meet Amish standards. With wood burning motors and wooden chassis and wheels, not very environmentally conscious, but the Bible doesn't mention that one has to be, in so many words, or does it?

I have yet to see Coraline, but I could go on and on about pinning storytelling standards on a film to a one and only stencil, either of late 19th century American literature or early 20th century French surrealism or other literary periods, I would walk out of such a film. Seen it already, too many times and it comes off as done better in its literary form. I say let's just move on.
In the next generation, the standard will be Rap! ;)

Nancy said...

Hi Jean,

No argument here. I am not saying that Twain is the only guideline, I only noted how his DEERSLAYER critique of 1895 applied equally well to CORALINE.

If it's formula you dislike (and I agree with you completely that they are to be eschewed, not swallowed) there is no more pernicious example than the "Hero's Journey" which the Disney studio, among others, faithfully followed for a considerable time. I believe that if you use The Hero's Journey as a structure for every film, they will all start to look alike, which in fact happened.

JPilot said...

"Hero's journey", yup, it's like a box office no fail recipe as far as the accountants are concerned.
I also remember you mentioning one studio working exclusively among this structure.
However that also reinforces the adage that characters are the most important aspect of any story, holding or failing on their strength.
These days, it's the Hannibal Lecter syndrome: the villain seems to carry a film by himself as the most important part of the feature, story be damned (No country for old men and the Dark Knight immediately come to mind).

Nancy said...

THE DARK KNIGHT was a ludicrous movie. There, I'll probably be flamed for saying that. But watching this thing was like being locked in a small cell with a paranoid schizophrenic. I thought Heath Ledger did a great job playing a madman, but that's all he did was rave...the character was too insane to develop at all. So it became an acting exercise that proved fatal for the poor actor. Christian Bale was simply ridiculous--that voice change was just stupid, and are you telling me that a trained police officer wouldn't recognize the shape of a man's mouth, or note that Batman had to have a lot of money to afford all those hokey gadgets...hmm, now WHO in Gotham City might have those qualifications?
THE DARK KNIGHT had lots of crazy gadgets (a talking car that commits suicide, et cetera). But its story was pure fluff. Call it a meringue, instead of a cake...

Brett W. McCoy said...

Nancy, when I think of The Joker, I still have Cesar Romero in my head :-)