torsdag 22 januari 2015

Mikael Wiehe står upp till försvar för antidemokrater. So what else is new?

Mikael Wiehe försvarar nu Hitlerpriset – förlåt, Leninpriset – mot den kritik det fått i dagarna. Tyvärr slår hans hyckleri igenom så tydligt i den grumliga argumentationen att det rimligen inte bör höja vare sig prisets eller hans egen status.

Han jämför till exempel Charlie Hebdo-tecknarna med den svenske satirtecknaren Lars Hillersberg och kritiken mot dennes antisemitiska teckningar till försvar för en antisemitisk propagandist:
Och i Sverige, där vi nu alla är Charlie och lyfter våra pennor till försvar för yttrandefriheten, var det inte länge sedan man förföljde, hånade och antisemitstämplade Lars Hillersberg, en konstnär som verkade i exakt samma tradition som Charlie Hebdo, som vi nu hyllar.
Wiehe glider här på ett svekfullt sätt över viktiga skillnader. Till exempel var det ingen som mejade ner Hillersberg med automatkarbin; i stället riktades kritik mot att han gjorde antisemitiska teckningar till försvar för en antisemitisk propagandist -- något som rimligen borde falla inom ramen för yttrandefriheten i minst lika hög grad som Hillersbergs antisemitiska teckningar.

Lika svekfullt och manipulativt är Wiehes försvar för att uppkalla priset efter massmördaren och antidemokraten Lenin:
Att Lars Diding, som står för fiolerna har gett det stora priset namn efter Lenin och det mindre namn efter Robespierre är naturligtvis en provokation! Och just provokationen är ju, som vi lärt oss av den senaste tidens fruktansvärda händelser i Frankrike, en omistlig del av demokratin och det öppna samhället.
Man gör bristen på egna argument väldigt tydlig när man inte har mer att komma med än falska analogier. Liberala -- och andra demokratiska -- debattörer har stått upp för Charlie Hebdos rätt att provocera utan att bli mördade för det. De har inte därmed försökt förbjuda någon att kritisera tidningen. Charlie-redaktionens satir är inte heller på den nivå som Didings pris befinner sig; att en antidemokrat provocerar genom att hylla en annan antidemokrat (och massmördare) genom att instifta ett pris uppkallat efter denne är faktiskt inte riktigt samma sak som att provocera genom satir. En antidemokrat som hyllar en antidemokrat ligger liksom på en annan nivå än när satiriker kritiserar sin samtid.

Däremot är det naturligtvis inte ett dugg konstigt att en antidemokrats antidemokrat-hyllande pris går till en tredje antidemokrat; det ligger litegrann i sakens natur, liksom att den sålunda belönade antidemokraten står upp till försvar för detta. Kaka söker som bekant maka.

lördag 17 januari 2015

On writing "action", part 1

So I've got some opinions on how to, and how not to, write action – both in movies and TV, and comics. Since I'm a fan of good characterization, a lot of this series will deal with that; but I want to emphasize that I'm not claiming that I'm particularly good at writing this stuff myself; I'll mainly point to good and bad examples and discuss how one could go about it to do it better.

You may think that characterization isn't particularly important in action movies or comics; that the important thing is to have lots and lots of action – fist fights, shootouts and explosions. You'd be wrong. Characterization is what makes an audience care about the characters in the story, and willing to spend up to two hours in their company, rooting for them to succeed. There is a genre of films that mainly tries to appeal to fans of violence, of course. Sometimes, such a movie will be made by a regular Hollywood studio, in which case it'll have excellent production values, at least a couple of big-name actors (though a couple of them will likely have a career that hasn't exactly been booming lately), and well-crafted violence ballets. It will still suck, though, because it's still just a bad excuse for the viewer to enjoy people seeing being maimed and killed. Yes, I'm talking about crap like John Wick – and basically every Jason Statham movie ever made.

(Now, you can enjoy this kind of movie without being a psychopath. For example, if you're into martial arts, there's a lot of enjoyment to be had from watching the techniques used in say, an old Jackie Chan movie. But there has to be some pretty darn good martial arts techniques to justify the simplistic stories and rudimentary characterization levels of these movies.)

If you see one of these movies, it's usually written according to a very simple model:
1. The hero is introduced. He (it's usually a he) does something nice, to show that he's a good guy, and possibly something not-so-nice, just to show that he's a tough or cool guy.
2. The villain is introduced. He does something horrible, to show that he's a horrible person – or, frequently, there's a bunch of villains introduced and shown to be horrible persons, even though one of them is the leader and the rest are his henchmen. The reason for this is that it the more villains there are, the more the hero can kill and/or maim on his way to the top villain. Of course the villains are shown to be such horrible people to justify the hero's levels of violence against them. Generally, unless you have a pretty messed-up personality or view of society, you don't appreciate people being beaten to a pulp for pilfering an apple, for example. And with the levels of violence in modern action movies, the villains have to do some pretty disgusting things to justify them – sadistic torture, rape, mass murder etc.
3. Somehow, the villain(s) and hero cross paths, and the hero gets a reason to fight the villain(s).
4. Fight fight fight fight.
5. The hero wins, and everything is well in the world. End.

There are a lot of crappy movies made according to this model, and some of the blame for this falls on people like Blake Snyder and John Truby.

"Who are they", you ask? Well, Snyder wrote Save the Cat, a scriptwriting manual outlining a simple (or, rather, simplistic) scriptwriting model that gave the reader detailed instruction on how to structure a story. Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller does the same thing. Both of them could have named their books Scriptwriting for Dummies instead – while they make a lot of good points for the novice writer, the resulting monoculture of mechanical movie writing can only be viewed as bad.

Basically, their approach to movie writing is that you tell most of your story through its structure. To shorten their structure-driven movie writing recipe somewhat: start with points 1-3 above, move to the hero having a huge setback and becoming depressed, hitting rock bottom and feeling that he's failed. Then have one of his friends set him straight, have him realize what his big moral weakness is and correct it, and through that change become capable of defeating the villain(s). Huge win, happy ending, blah blah blah.

When I was in my thirties, I had seen so many such movies, built on pretty much exactly the same structure, that I was rather sick and tired of Hollywood movies. I could count the beats of the story off as they occurred, and knew what to expect at pretty much every point of the story. "Well, things seem to be working pretty well. I guess it's time for some disaster to struck, so that… Aaand there it was. OK, how long will we have to wait while the hero's wallowing in his own misery until something happens that makes him pull himself together and finish this?" Basically, the only movies I could be bothered to go to see in a cinema were Disney movies (after the studio pulled itself together with The Great Mouse Detective, they started churning out some quite beautiful animation, and while the stories were pretty predictable as well, the sheer storytelling skill, beautiful artwork, and humor compensated enough to make them worth watching) and the occasional comedy. See, when you use structure to tell the story in a manner to maximize impact on your audience, and that structure has to follow a certain template, your audience is going to learn the template eventually – and then your stories basically won't have any impact, because the audience already knows what is coming.

That's why I've been more fond of "revisionist" superhero writers since the 80s – or rather, the seventies, because Steve Gerber qualifies as a revisionist superhero writer even though he did his most seminal work in the seventies (and I read them in the eighties, anyway) – because these guys worked from a different structure, so I couldn't predict what would happen. Or, maybe I should rephrase that: I could be surprised by what happened. The standard structure always opens for a couple of different outcomes; for example, at the end of a drama, you can have the protagonist succeeding in his (or her) effort, or he could fail, and then kill himself for good measure to try to make a cheap emotional impact on the audience, but once you've seen a bunch of these movies you know what the possible outcomes are. With the revisionist writers, or with independent filmmakers, you'll get something far less predictable. And since a huge part of the reason I like to watch and read fiction is avoidance of boredom, less predictability is usually a good thing.

As long as there's a happy ending, of course. I read enough history and current affairs to have had my fill of unhappy endings. They depress me, and I don't need any more of that in today's world. (That's part of why I like Grant Morrison's writing so much. He'll take you on a wild, unpredictable roller coaster ride and somehow manage to end it all on a positive note anyway, no matter how disastrous and hopeless everything has seemed midway through. Unpredictable and predictably non-tragic. The best combination there is.)

There are other things that can make me un-bored with a story, of course, and I hinted at some of them with that Disney reference earlier on. If the ride is enjoyable, it's not really a big problem that that you know where it's going. Other storytelling elements can also be used. With comics, you can have beautiful images. You can also have beautiful language, or clever wordplay, which is also very enjoyable. There is also the characters; strong characters that I care about can do a lot to keep me interested in a comic even if it doesn't quite deliver in other areas. For example, Charles Schulz's Peanuts had a bit of a slow period for a number of years when it wasn't as funny as it had used to be (though in fairness, it's very hard to be as funny as Peanuts was at its peak), but because I still cared for the characters, I still enjoyed reading about their lives and experiences.

So there's an example of something you can use as a writer to make your work more interesting: characterization. What passes for characterization in modern blockbuster movies and TV series is often rather pathetic, unfortunately. Too often, what we get is just stock characters with a couple of quirks thrown in. I'll give you an example: Criminal Minds, where the team has a computer specialist, the characterization of whom boils down to dressing in a flamboyant girly manner, talking flirtatiously to another member on the team when he's out trying to save lives and needs relevant information fast, and saying self-assured stuff like "Do I know where the killer lives? Does the pope wear a funny hat?" a lot – another case of chattering instead of giving out critically important information as fast as humanly possible.

This shallow kind of characterization goes hand in hand with another of my pet peeves, banter, but I hope to get into the problem with mind-bogglingly vapid banter in a later installment of this series, so I'll leave it for now. Just remember: quirks don't equal characterization.

To be fair, there is not a lot of space in an action story for introspection or long soliloquies – which, considering the writing skills of the average action movie writer, and the acting skills of the average action hero, probably isn't a bad thing. However, there are other methods of characterization than weird fashion statements and recurring phraseology. One method, especially appropriate in action stories, is action. That is, the way a person behaves shows us something about what kind of person he or she is. Take a look at the following clip from Lethal Weapon, and pay special attention to how Mel Gibson's character, Riggs, acts at the start of the clip and after the murder. (I suggest you watch the first 20 seconds or so, and then skip to the three minute point.)

First, notice how Riggs doesn't mix at the beginning of the clip. He doesn't approach the other people there; he doesn't want to mingle. He's a man apart, a loner. That's a pretty import part of his emotional makeup, and one that is well echoed in this scene.

Next, after Hunsaker is shot, what does Riggs do? He acts. Immediately. He starts running towards a position from where he can fire on the helicopter, and then starts blasting. So, obviously, he's a man of action (and violence, when necessary). And what does he do as the helicopter leaves? He runs after it – shooting. Now, that's pretty meaningless, because he's not likely to hit anything while running, but obviously he's too angry, to eager to get the bastards, to care. We see this also when he reloads and continues firing after the helicopter is well out of range. So not only is he a man of action, he is also a pretty emotional kind of guy. Also a nice piece of characterization, although a bit overvalued, especially in heroes. Me, I prefer heroes a bit more able to temper their emotions with more practicality – or perhaps "professionalism" is a better word. There are ways to emphasize professionalism more than emotionalism in this scene, but this is already a pretty long, wordy post, so perhaps I will get to that in a later post on this subject. The art of writing action stories will be revisited in the future.

To be continued...

tisdag 13 januari 2015

Sara Gunnerud: Ordens makt i politiken

I sitt förord till Ordens makt i politiken menar Sara Gunnerud att det "används en hel del ful och manipulerande teknik i den svenska samhällsdebatten", och att det är en del av förklaringen till "varför högern har kunnat flytta fram sina positioner så mycket de senaste decennierna". I bokens första kapitel slår hon fast att "[a]tt manipulera med språk är ohederligt" och att det är "omoraliskt att manipulera människor i samhällsdebatten". Hon slår också fast följande sympatiska tes, som jag tycker att alla bör skriva under på:
Den som värnar demokratin måste försvara den, och inte själv bidra till att korrumpera den. Alltså har var och en ett ansvar för kvaliteten i det demokratiska samtalet.
Väl talat. Vi ska återkomma till de orden efter en kort sammanfattning av Gunneruds bok, dess budskap och syfte.

Gunnerud är språkvetare och socialdemokrat. Med sin bok vill hon ge vänstermänniskor (främst, så vitt jag kan förstå, socialdemokrater och fackligt verksamma) språkliga redskap för att dels föra fram sina budskap på ett så effektivt sätt som möjligt, dels analysera borgerliga budskap för att kunna vederlägga dem. Den som klarar av att styra debattens språkbruk kan med hjälp av de associationer orden skapar få övertaget redan från början, och Gunnerud ger en hel del exempel på vad man skulle kunna kalla "tjuvknep" som används i dylika syften.

Samtliga sådana dåliga exempel kommer från borgerliga eller näringslivsanknutna debattörer.

Boken är alltså rejält vinklad. Jag tycker inte att man kan klaga på det i sig; det rör sig trots allt om en socialdemokrat som har ett uttalat, öppet politiskt syfte med vad hon skriver. Problematiskt, rent av rejält problematiskt, blir det dock när Gunnerud själv använder sig av metoder som helt klart skulle platsa i den katalog av fula knep som hon räknar upp. Låt mig ge ett par exempel.

I kapitlet "Maktens undanglidande språk" kritiserar Gunnerud makthavares försök att glida undan ansvar genom ett vagt, otydligt och vilseledande språkbruk. Hon exemplifierar vagt språkbruk med Moderaternas landsbygdsprogram:
Vad gäller EU:s roll i svensk rovdjurspolitik har vi även här sett en utveckling som inte gynnar arbetet med att uppnå acceptans för den förda svenska rovdjurspolitiken
Gunnerud menar att formuleringen "är så vag och öppen att den kan tolkas på helt olika sätt", att det är omöjligt att förstå om det är "EU som ska förmås låta regeringen besluta om vargjakt, eller (…) att svenska medborgare som har starka åsikter om varg ska förmås acceptera vargens närvaro i skog och mark". Letar man litet högre upp i Moderaternas dokument "40 förslag för en levande landsbygd" – som ju formuleringen "även här" antyder att man kan göra – hittar man följande:
Vi kan nu se allt mer frustration över vargstammens kraftiga ökning. Känslan av otrygghet bland boende måste tas på allvar. När rovdjuren angriper tamdjur måste åtgärder vidtas.
För att få tillbaka människors förtroende för rovdjurspolitiken anser vi att "en" länsstyrelse bör få ansvar för skyddsjaktfrågor.
Den otydlighet som kan återfinnas i det av Gunnerud återgivna citatet beror alltså inte på att Moderaterna försöker vara vaga för att "inte stöta sig med någon", som Gunnerud påstår, utan helt enkelt på att hon själv skurit bort delar av vad som sagts. Om hon har gjort det avsiktligt för att kunna angripa Moderaterna eller om hon läst dokumentet med så ideologiskt färgade glasögon att hon helt enkelt oavsiktligt filtrerat bort informationen kan jag naturligtvis inte avgöra. En dålig grund för hennes angrepp är det likafullt, och underminerar hennes position. (Reservation för det fall att hon syftat på något annat, för mig okänt dokument – notapparaten nämner bara "Moderaternas landsbygdsprogram 2013", inget mera – men det verkar rätt osannolikt med tanke på att det var det enda dokument med den citerade formuleringen som dök upp vid en Google-sökning.)

Slarv eller misstag kan dock hända. Värre är det när man förvränger forskares resultat för att understödja den egna agendan. Den amerikanske lingvisten George Lakoff har forskat om åsiktsskillnader mellan, med Wikipedias formulering, "liberals and conservatives", och kommit fram till att dessa följer "from the fact that they subscribe with different strength to two different central metaphors about the relationship of the state to its citizens". I sin bok Thinking Points pratar han i stället om "progressives" och "conservatives".

I Gunneruds tappning blir detta "progressiva" och "borgerliga".

Fundera på det en stund. Lakoff jämförde amerikanska högerrepublikaner med progressiva/liberaler. Gunnerud översätter rakt av amerikanska högerrepublikaner till svenska borgerliga, dvs spektrat FP-C-KD-M, och drar sedan slutsatser om dessa utifrån Lakoffs undersökningar. Den felöversättningen är djupt ohederlig. Mitt eget parti FP ligger klart närmare Demokraterna politiskt, och det djupt reaktionära och främlingsfientliga i dagens republikanska parti saknar i huvudsak klangbotten i svenska borgerliga partier (dock inte i det främlingsfientliga populistpartiet SD, men det är en något annan sak). Men eftersom det passar hennes syften tvekar Gunnerud inte att beskriva den "borgerliga" tankemodellen som att den menar att det är "omoraliskt och destruktivt att göra livet drägligare för den som är fattig, sjuk eller arbetslös" – vilket säkert skulle förvåna till exempel ett stort antal borgerliga socialliberala politiker som genom svensk historia arbetat hårt och i stora stycken framgångsrikt för att göra livet drägligare för just de grupperna.

Gunneruds ohederlighet när hon använder amerikanska högern som förklaringsmodell för svenska mittenpartiers politiska ställningstaganden – och ignorerar de skäl de själva anför för dessa – blir desto mer slående som den sker i en kontext där hon anklagar sina meningsmotståndare för att manipulera människor genom sitt språkbruk.

Det finns fler exempel, men jag tycker de här räcker för att illustrera vad boken egentligen handlar om: politisk ammunition. Saklig analys är vad inte Sara Gunnerud är ute efter, och det är inte heller vad hon levererar. I stället är det en partsinlaga med rejäl ideologisk slagsida och klent med intellektuell hederlighet. Jag var beredd att ta en del kängor mot borgerlig politik i allmänhet och Alliansens regeringspolitik i synnerhet för att få mig till livs en läsvärd analys, men Ordens makt i politiken är så mycket partsinlaga att den är ganska värdelös för den som inte avser att läsa den för att i första hand få sina redan existerande politiska åsikter och fördomar validerade. Rekommenderas inte – utom för vänstermänniskor som redan är övertygade om att de som befinner sig det minsta till höger om Socialdemokraterna är ondskefulla, förstås.

(Föga förvånande kan man finna en mer uppskattande recension på Aftonbladets kultursida.)

fredag 2 januari 2015

Movie review: Man of Steel

"Zod off!!"

Look, this isn't an awful film. But it isn't a particularly good one, either. Spoilers ahead.

On Krypton, scientist Jor-El stands before the ruling council demanding that they allow him to rescue the Kryptonians' collective genetic code from the cataclysm about to destroy their planet. They don't listen. Suddenly, general Zod enters the chamber, accompanied by soldiers, announcing that he's taking over government to save Krypton from these ineffective talkers. Jor-El escapes, stealing the code and bringing it to his home in order to send it, with his newborn son Kal-El, into space, to Earth.

Then the film starts going downhill, unfortunately.

Jor-El's wife Lara doesn't want to send her son away, because what if he dies out there in space? That he's about to die on Krypton when it explodes doesn't seem to matter to her. Then, when she finally agrees to let Jor-El send the boy off – and keep in mind that Zod and his soldiers are on their way to take the Kryptonian genetic codes back, so time's a-wasting – she refuses to let him go, holding on to him as long as possible. Zod then arrives with his soldiers, who seem happy to let their leader walk into an enemy's lair in front of them, apparently unarmed. In fact, most of them stay outside and just two of them walk 5-10 meters behind him, carrying guns that they apparently don't know how to use because Jor-El can grab a gun and shoot them both before they can pull the triggers of their weapons.

Jor-El, the scientist, proceeds to beat the crap out of the soldier Zod, send his son and the Kryptonians' genetic code away into space, and get killed by Zod because nobody in this movie seems to care one bit about actually disarming and tying up violent enemies. Zod walks out to his waiting soldiers, who haven't done anything useful like shooting down the ship leaving their enemy's lair. Kryptonian armed forces thus arrive to capture them before they can stop the ship, and they get sentenced to the Phantom Zone for their crimes. After that, Krypton eventually explodes, killing Lara and everybody else on the planet.

So, what do we have so far? Standard Hollywood writing, where everything is about striding about and making pompous declarations and watching some marvelous imagery from the CGI people. There is nothing much to suggest imminent threat in the scenes, no need for anybody to rush anything because they'll always have time to do whatever is necessary to reach the various plot points outlined in John Truby's The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller or Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need, two books that have done their fair share to ruin Hollywood films in general by insisting on stereotypical structuring of movie scripts. Instead, we get sentimental moments with Lara, put in there for no other reason than to hit the audience over the head with "it's tough for a mother to be separated from her child forever", as if the actress couldn't have shown that through actual acting. We also get Zod showing himself as evil, through his treasonous behavior and cowardly back-stabbing – again, entirely in line with the recipe from Truby, Snyder et al – and we don't confuse the audience with something that might take their attention away from this stuff, like people actually behaving and speaking somewhat realistically, or the top military man of Krypton acting like he knows anything about war and fighting at all.

Anyway, over to Kal-El's – or Clark Kent, the name given to him by his adoptive parents Jonathan and Martha Kent – life on Earth. He does good without revealing himself and his powers to humanity, moving from job to job as something happens that makes him have to show his powers. You know, just like David Banner. Turns out, a) the US military has found a spaceship in the Canadian Arctic, b) the US military absolutely sucks at background checks, so Clark can sneak in and work as a handyman on the site. There, he discovers his Kryptonian heritage, Lois Lane discovers him, and his actions lead to Zod and his gang also discovering him, and coming over to join the party, take the Kryptonian genetic code and basically destroy the Earth and mankind to recreate Krypton and the Kryptonian race. Fierce fighting of various kinds ensues.

Henry Cavill actually isn't bad in the role as Superman, but the scripting doesn't give him the backing he should have. For example, Clark and Jonathan Kent fear that if humanity learns about Clark's powers, they'll fear and shun him, a theme that doesn't really work with the Superman mythos, which is really true-blue, mom and apple pie, honest Midwest, etc. The "humans will fear and hate him" theme really belongs with the X-Men, not a Superman movie – unless you do it a whole lot better, like for example not having Clark let his father die a meaningless death in a tornado, because obviously an old man is better equipped to run back in a storm to the family's car to save the dog trapped in it than the young, athletic son who also happens to have superpowers. You sit there watching, saying to yourself, or your friend next to you, "what are they, stupid?".

No, they're just victims of lazy scriptwriting. You want to kill off Jonathan Kent, fine – but do it in a manner that doesn't insult the characters' intelligences (or the audience's).

Final insult: gratuitously inserting Jor-El back into the story as a computer-stored consciousness, just because it's easier to have him drone on with exposition and repeating the basic conflict between him and Zod just in case the audience is too stupid to remember it, even after it was hammered into them at the start of the movie. What is it with moviemakers wanting to put Jor-El back into Clark's life? Come up with a way show the audience what they need to learn without using this exposition crutch, instead.

From there on, the movie is basically lots of super-powered fights between super-strong and nigh-invulnerable people punching each other with little other effect than making the other guy fly some 50-100 meters away and smashing through a lot of housing on the way, plus a standard (see, for example, Batman Begins) "a huuuuge disaster is looming, will the hero be able to stop it (yes of course he will, and everybody knows it)" finale.

What's good about the movie, then? Well, there is some decent acting in it, with Kevin Costner doing the best job as Jonathan Kent; Costner's so good in the role that it's just a damn shame that they kill him off so early, and in such a flimsy manner. Laurence Fishburne is his usual competent self as Perry White even though he doesn't have much of a script to work with, and Russel Crowe is similarly albeit more stereotypically competent as Jor-El. The women in the movie, Lois Lane included, are to a too-great extent sideline-watchers or in need of rescuing. How I miss Margot Kidder, who almost managed to carry the first two Superman movies of the seventies into "good movie" instead of "watchable" territory. (Oh, Reeves was good in the title role, but Kidder put whatever spark there was in those movies – much like Teri Hatcher did with Lois & Clark.) And like I said, I think Cavill does a decent job, but like the others, he doesn't have much of a script to work with; I wonder if Crowe doesn't, in fact, get to do the most acting in the movie.

Also, the movie looks great; art direction, design and CGI is top-notch. But the actual superheroics are too sparse (and too angst-laden) at first, and are a bit too stacked on top of each other with too little cleverness about it in the second half.

So this is a watchable film, but not a necessary one – unless, of course, you love superheroes. If you do, you're pretty much obliged to see it, and to wish that the producers and writers had done a better job with it.

(Post scriptum: I checked to see who'd actually written it, and to not my surprise, it turned out to be David S. Goyer, who also helped write Christopher Nolan's not-very-well-done Batman trilogy. I'll save my gripes about that for a later post, though.)