I wrote a post here, called X-Men: Days of Boresville.
This part of the sample critique I was writing was going to be all about how you don’t do it… how you say unkind things and mock the story. So! The snark demo seems to be covered in the pre-existing post.
Wow, I hated this film. It made me so angry. The central problem I had with the story, the part that offended all of my sensibilities, was that the past-tense storyline played out in 1973, during the U.S. military action in Vietnam. There were scenes set in a number of interesting Vietnam-related situations, including the Paris peace talks.
How cool, right? You could do a million things with that!
Part of the point was to show how the military industrial complex is always looking for their next big villain, the next reason why billions of dollars have to be spent on bigger and shinier weapons instead of, you know, food or bandaids. It’s Germans! No, it’s Communists! Brown Commies! Wait, it’s mutants! OMG!
So far, so good. The possibilities for exploiting this historical period, of creating a mutant-flavored alternate history of the Vietnam War are incredible. It wouldn’t have been off-topic, or separate from the point–we’re talking about a movie that already made the time and space to use this material. But instead, 1973 and its events were set dressing. Meaningful use of the historical subject matter verged on zero.
As a single example, let’s talk about the way Charles is taking drugs that mess with his telepathy so he can walk. The so-called serum is pitched as medication, but there’s also this ongoing cinematic dance, within the direction, that has Charles looking more than a little like an addict. They don’t have the guts to actually make him one, though.
Do I want junkie Charles? Not necessarily. Addicts and their stories are not my favorite thing. But if I’m going to have to watch him inject himself and act all withdrawaly anyway, why not take the opportunity to do some bravura characterization on this so-beloved character?
Consider: you have a teacher whose whole life is about saving mutants from their own powers and from societal discrimination. Now his school is in ruins because his students are being drafted and sent to Asia. But Charles is gleefully shooting chemicals into his arm not because he cannot bear that terrible reality. And not even because he’s a telepath, and if he keeps his powers he might feel those kids he’s linked to as they kill and die and experience unimaginable horrors. Good heavens, no!
He’s taking the serum because he doesn’t like being in a wheelchair.
Now being shot and paralyzed is a traumatic thing, I’ll grant you. And I understand that Charles isn’t meant to be all grown up and stable yet. But what’s stronger? Taking the opportunity to imagine how a compassionate and caring guy like Xavier would be affected by a war that would inevitably use his people more and harder than ordinary folks? Or being asked to care because he has to choose between superpowers and walking?
Moving on from my previous post about Die Hard, workshop etiquette and providing fictional/film examples, here’s what I’d say about The Imitation Game. This is the problematic stuff, and would come later in the critique than the section where I praised the characterization, the weighty and worthwhile subject matter, and the general structure of the story, which holds together in a decently coherent fashion.
Hi, Graham and Morten,
- Though the story moves from beat to beat in a logical manner, and is effective in achieving the desired emotional effect, it lacks subtlety. The story feels heavy-handed, on the nose, as if the characters are bellowing slogans like, “War is bad!” and “It takes more than guns to win these things!” and “Look at this amazing maladjusted smart guy and all the people he saved!” and “Wow, isn’t it horrific and amazing that every day he and his band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but it’s fundamentally clunky.
- The details of your chosen historical period and the military/intelligence community are for the most part accurately rendered, but you have chosen to simplify the chain of command by making Turing and his guys seem responsible for an enormous swath of military action, including calling or cancelling bombing raids. I understand why simplifying is often a good choice, but it’s less interesting, in this case, than if you tried to hint at the complexity.
- Turing’s male sidekicks are somewhat slenderly characterized. They blend together in my mind, forming something of a multi-headed bully when they’re not on his side and a multi-headed cheerleader when they are. The only one who stands out at all is the fellow with a brother in the Navy. That’s less about characterization and more about the story attached to him.
- I’m not sure what I think of you showing us apple and cyanide during the story, foreshadowing the manner of Turing’s death, without explicitly saying that he poisoned himself. Apples have both Biblical and fairy-tale freight, and I wonder if you couldn’t do something more with this.
All of the above is clear and yet it’s respectfully worded. It’s not so “nice” that the intent is lost, but it doesn’t try to snark, show off my huge brain, or score points.
It would be easy to push that line, especially with the first item. I could simply add a touch of sarcasm to the sentences I use to illustrate the story’s various points. (Even if I tool the last one up slightly “Gee willikers, do you all get that every day Turing and his plucky band didn’t solve the problem, all sorts of people died?” the tone changes.)
The exercise here, if you missed the previous post, is to critique a movie that many people will have seen, as if it were actually a novel or short story submitted to one of my classes. It’s a chance to practice critique. And to get to say, “Dear Francis Ford Coppola, about this thingie you’ve written…” Which is just, I hope, fun.
Next in this series, we will discuss my deep and abiding hatred of the most recent X-Men movie.
One of the exercises I assign to many of my writing classes goes like this:
Imagine a popular film was actually a story or novel submitted to this workshop. Write a critique, using the guidelines I’ve set out for workshopping. This is your chance to say: “Dear Joss, I’ve had a chance to review your story ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and…”
It’s a fun exercise, and spawns lots of conversations about films and about critiquing.
Now I’m trying to generate a few examples to go with the exercise. I asked my social media followship to help me choose a film that would work well. I got great answers, but ended up deciding there wasn’t a single one-movie-fits-all answer that met all my teaching needs. Now I’m breaking the task into sections.
Critique in a lot of workshops, mine include, starts with the portion of the process where you say what is working with a particular piece. Here’s my handy sample for that:
…for example, if I wanted to write a critique of a novel called Die Hard, by a couple of guys named Steve and Jed, I might say:
-There’s no doubt that this is John McClane’s story–he’s the guy with both an internal conflict and a goal. The former is his struggle to accept his wife’s independence, and the fact that she has struck out on her own. The external struggle, of course, is the one which occupies most of the story–his fight with the thieves in Nakatomi Plaza.
-The tone you set in this piece is nicely balanced. The action moves along and we’re never bored. The bad guys seem genuinely dangerous, especially Hans Gruber, and yet the humorous moments play well.
-John’s very much a guy of the Eighties and his uneasy and incomplete concessions to feminism reflect that attitude. Held to the standards of the present day, he doesn’t seem that enlightened; it may be that this story doesn’t score perfectly on that front either. But we are looking at something that’s set about thirty years ago. And I think it’s praiseworthy that Holly Gennaro isn’t there merely to motivate John in his fight against Gruber and company. She stands up to Gruber, and works hard to keep a lid on a terrifying situation, thereby protecting the other hostages while hiding her true identity from the thieves.
-Your use of Holly’s last name as a plot device is especially brilliant. It’s a bone of contention between John and Holly. Because they’re fighting about it, it’s already on our radar as Gruber tries to figure out who is causing him such problems and whether he might have any leverage on John. This is a classic example of a story element that works on more than one level.
What you should all notice about this is that I’m not just saying what I like–I’m going into as much detail as I can about why it works.
I’ll be doing this for other elements of critique, including things that don’t work in some other movie.
I got a couple of seasonal presents this week: Badass Book Reviews has listed Child of a Hidden Sea as one of their best 2014 fantasy novels in their annual round-up.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Arts Council has, on the excellent advice of ChiZine Publications, given me a grant to work on a horror novel currently titled See How They Run. ChiZine publishes books by so many authors I love–Caitlin Sweet, Gemma Files, David Nickle, Paul Di Filipo, Claude LaLumiere and Derryl Murphy–and by a plethora of other talented folks I hope to come to love as I get acquainted with their works.
I am, of course, delighted and grateful to both the OAC and ChiZine. My understanding of how the Writers Reserve program works is that it exists to allow small press publishers to direct funds to deserving authors. In other words, there’s no financial benefit for the publisher–they read the submissions, of which there must be many–for the good of the writing community.
My point? If you were going to buy a cool weird book this winter anyway, and you want to throw ChiZine some love, I can guarantee you won’t be sorry. I’m halfway through We Will All Go Down Together, by Gemma Files, and it is a freaky good time. Or if you want to see a fictional rendering of Toronto’s recent citypolitik (and other subjects too), give Dave Nickle’s Knife Fight and other Struggles a try. Got teens? The Caitlin Sweet book, The Door in the Mountain, is a YA novel about Ariadne and the Minotaur, with prose so fine it will make you weep. Or, possibly, bleed.
What’s better during the holiday season than tucking in somewhere cozy with a fine book? Nothing, that’s what! I wish you all good reads, good food, and downtime in what’s left of 2014.
As the year wraps up, we tend to start counting our various accomplishments. I’ve got a Books Read list coming your way soon, but in the meantime, here’s all the new Alyx fiction that saw release in 2014.
Naturally, my big publication news this year was the release of Child of a Hidden Sea, the first book in the Hidden Sea Tales trilogy about Sophie Hansa, her brother Bramwell, and the delectable Captain Garland Parrish of the sailing vessel Nightjar. The sequel, Daughter of No Nation, will be out in November of 2015.
I also had three short stories… well, novelettes, actually, published this year:
“Snow Angels,” Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse, edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, September, 2014.
“The Color of Paradox,” TOR.COM, June 2014.
“The Ugly Woman of Castello di Putti,” TOR.COM, March 2014. This story is one of two Child of a Hidden Sea prequels currently in print.