Caricatures

[I wrote this a while ago, but am just now posting it.  More recently I’ve been putting in long, stressful hours at work – and then was sick – so I wasn’t accomplishing much of anything at home.]

Have been watching old DVDs, deciding which ones I want to keep and which to give away.  I hadn’t watched the three Crocodile Dundee movies in quite some time, so they were on the list.  These movies are enjoyable fluff, at least in my opinion, but I was reminded of their biggest problem – they have more caricatures than characters in them.

The parts that focus on Australia and the people there are pretty good, but once they head off to New York or Los Angeles, they don’t seem to know how to write the other characters.  All the “players” are stereotypical:  black guys, hookers, gang members, petty criminals, gays, etc.  None of them have any depth and despite different clothes and hair, they are all interchangeable with one another.  Everyone is extremely clean and their toughness is revealed mainly through crude language.  The scary thugs/gang members aren’t particularly scary, the hookers are just sweet girls who are nice as can be, and all the blacks talk in jive speech patterns.

Yes, if you ignore all that, you can enjoy the movies and just go with the silliness of it all.  But my point is, how much better would they have been if the characters were real?  If we believed they were what the credits or other characters said they were?

Similarly, do the stories we write suffer in that way?  Not all young black men are basketball-playing, uneducated, gangbangers.  Some black boys grow up to be Neil DeGrasse Tyson or Denzel Washington.  Most gangbangers aren’t cool, pleasant, clean people that you’d love to hang out with.  Etc., etc., etc.

Too often we see, and then follow the example, of stereotyping people – whether by race, religion, political party, occupation or even gender.  But if you look around at the world, things don’t line up.  Little girls might prefer playing with trucks rather than dolls.  Boys might rather practice the piano and write poetry than take up a sport.  Not all Chinese or Japanese children are scientific or musical prodigies.  You can probably think of a lot more examples.  When you write, you don’t have to do what is expected just because the world of literature/art/movies/tv have said it’s expected.  If your character doesn’t fit the mold, guess what?  They don’t have to!  And your story will be the stronger for it.  Don’t push to make it happen, but why can’t the person in the wheelchair be good at sports?  Why can’t the Muslim and the Jew be best friends?  Does the girl have to always be smarter than the boys?  Do all the boys have to be insensitive to others?  Why can’t there be a ‘cat guy’, with 15 cats?

You probably fit into numerous “categories” yourself, but are you identical to all the other people who fit into any or all of those categories?  Probably not.  So don’t fall into the trap of letting it happen to your characters.

Lost in Space

A movie is well done when you know how it turns out, but you’re still on the edge of your seat in the getting there.  I recently rewatched Apollo 13 and was reminded of that The odd thing, though, is that while I vividly remember watching the Apollo 11 moonwalk on TV, I don’t remember anything about Apollo 13 “in real time” at all.  Granted, at 16, it wasn’t a big part of my world, but still.

Another example of keeping the tension despite knowing it’s coming is a scene in The Sixth Sense.  Something happens that made me jump the first time I saw it.  And though I know it is coming, I still jump.  I’m not sure if that’s me reacting to Haley Joel Osment’s reaction, or something else.  But it still works.

Sometimes filmmakers do get it right.  They touch all the right notes and you are in that world and those circumstances on the screen.  One of the best for creating completely believable false realities was Jim Henson.  We believed a frog could ride a bicycle because we saw it and nothing suggested it wasn’t absolutely real.  People still believe that Miss Piggy bats her eyelashes, even though Frank Oz has pointed out that her eyelashes are fixed and can’t move.  And my absolute favorite – Muppets are more believable musicians than most human actors.  Watch most actors pretending to play a guitar – their hand on the neck strings never move, as it should.  Muppets may not have five fingers, but their few fingers do move, giving a far better impression of actual playing.  A friend made a puppet movie that involved a groundhog.  People picked apart things in the movie (a student film), but none realized they had never questioned for a second that a groundhog puppet could blow out a lit match.

Movie-making done right captures moments like these that stay in our memories long after many other movies are forgotten.