Thursday, June 24, 2010

When narrative is stronger than reality: "Up" and a new definition of magic

Today I watched the Pixar movie Up with my students for the important educational purpose of shutting them up for the last two days of school. As I was watching it, I came to an important new definition of magic, as well as a deeper understanding of how it should be used in fantasy. Is "Up" a magical fantasy? Well, it's not science fiction. It's true that a bunch of helium balloons can lift heavy objects, and in a few instances people have actually flown this way in lawn chairs and such. But it's safe to say that if you have a scene where you float an entire house this way, let alone lift it from its foundations exactly along the line where the floor meets the ground, then you're talking about magic, whether you call it that or not.

People who've written or extensively read fantasy knows there's a special art to including magic in a story. If, at a climactic scene of your fantasy novel, a protagonist who's fallen off a thousand-foot cliff is suddenly able to fly when you've never given any reason before to expect he has this ability then you've used magic poorly in your narrative.

So how do you make a character fly, and make it believable? Or more importantly when you're talking about fantasy set in a contemporary world, how do you change a character that can't fly into one that can? Just giving him a bunch of helium balloons will not do the trick. (In fact, I'd say this is the case even if you can do so in a completely scientifically plausible way; you're writing a story, not a physics textbook.) Since magic is by definition not realistic, the usual term to describe what we're aiming for is "believable."

The current conventional wisdom of how to make magic believable is that it has to have a "system." You have to plan out in advance what your magic can and can't do. You define all its limitations and requirements and necessary raegents. Then you demonstrate these in little ways all throughout the story, preferably in a way that is not totally obvious, so that when the magic is really necessary to advance your plot your reader is surprised and yet also convinced.

But the whole idea of establishing a "system of magic" has always bugged me. To begin with, in traditional mythological stories using magic there is rarely a system established. We don't need to know exactly how an evil sorceress can change Ulysses' crew into pigs, or how an evil fairy can put Briar Rose to sleep until a prince wakes her up. They just can. For that matter, classic fantasy novels don't really have systems of magic either. Can anyone explain to me what system of magic Gandalf was using? How about the White Witch in Narnia?

But more important, defining a magic system betrays a completely contemporary, non-magical way of thinking. Suppose I say that my character can fly if he's acquired three feathers of the Lost Eagle of the Mountain, said the appropriate ritual over a fire into which he's thrown a bag of the droppings of a Chromium Dragon and has spoken to his Bird Spirit in a dream. What I'm really doing then is simply defining an alternate form of technology that works every bit as predictably as the hard drive on my computer (probably a heck of a lot moreso). But magic is not supposed to be predictable. That's practically the definition: magic is when something happens that can't be explained. Clarke's famous dictum that technology sufficiently beyond our understanding is indistinguishable from magic is only true to a very limited degree. Indians who first encountered European "thunder sticks" might have seen them as magical the first few times they got shot at. But Indians were neither stupid nor childish, and realized very quickly they needed to get some guns of their own and figure out how to use them, which is just what they did. In no time the magic weapons just became advanced tech. Similarly, humans in a system such as I described above would very quickly create a breeding line of Lost Eagles, have entrepreneurial dragon-dropping patrols and a whole new profession of Bird Spirit Contact Therapists.

I suspect the whole "magic system" meme was a natural outgrowth of fantasy authors that grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons (like I did). D&D is a game, and a game operates by rules, or what's the point? Therefore, a +3 longsword always increases your probablity of inflicting damage by exactly 15%, and a Magic Missile spell can be cast exactly once by a first level "Magic User" (which has got to be least magical-sounding title they could have come up with for a wizard except perhaps "supernatural events technician").

By contrast, Up has no system of magic. In fact, the non-realistic events that occur are not even described as magical; they just happen. They can get away with this because it's an animation, and we're conditioned exempt cartoons especially from the laws of physics. But I'd argue that in traditional mythology made by societies who didn't have a clearly defined field of "science" from which to deviate, that's how magic was usually included. The word "magic" wouldn't even mean anything until it became an accepted norm that nature cannot operate outside certain very precise rules that we can define by observation (i.e. science).

But that doesn't mean that things can just happen for no reason. Almost from the moment we meet the character of Mr. Fredricksen as a child he's carrying a helium baloon. The baloon plays an important part in the meeting of Mr. Fredricksen & his wife; later, his job is selling balloons at the zoo. As if that's not hint enough, the cart keeps trying to float away whenever Mr. Fredricksen turns away. The movie has clearly established the balloon as Mr. Fredricksen's "magic item," something with which he has great power. The Popul Vuh establishes that the Maya Hero Twins Hunahpu and Xbalanque can do magical things with their blowguns, so when they hide inside the tubes from demon bats in Xibalba we're not surprised. And when Mr. Fredricksen blows cloud of balloons out his chimney, we're not surprised either.

The movie quickly gets us to the destination of Paradise Falls through the "knocked out during a storm" convention (with some help from the Boy Scout Russell's GPS, which is then literally thrown out the window). But it's what happens to the house then that illustrates best how Up uses magic. The house becomes a combination of a burden and a crutch to Mr. Fredricksen, as does his traveling party, which quickly comes to include the giant bird Kevin and Dug the talking dog. He's on the ground but has the floating house by the garden hose, and won't let it drift away. He also can't climb up the hose to get back in, and neither can Russell. So he ties the hose to his back and walks to what he thinks the goal of his quest is, the Falls. The house lightens his load, so he's not carrying so much weight, and shields him from the rain. But it also drags behind him and bangs into things, and slowly it gets heavier and heavier as the balloons lose their helium. If it's not obvious already what this means, Mr. Fredricksen keeps talking to the house and calling it "Ellie." Because we know the house stands for something, the unlikelihood that its bouyancy would be exactly a few pounds less than Mr. Fredricksen's weight doesn't bother us in the least.

Again and again he is faced with choosing between loyalty to the quest he promised Ellie as a child that he'd fulfil and helping the new friends that he doesn't think he wants. Strictly from a narrative point of view it's a story where the protagonist thinks the goal of his quest is one thing (getting "Ellie" to Paradise Falls), but it's actually something else (rescuing Kevin the giant bird from the evil explorer Charles Limbergh Muntz). In a climactic scene he chooses to keep the house from burning up instead of helping Kevin escape from Muntz. Confronted by Russell, he yells "This is not my problem! I didn't ask for this!" having forgotten that the whole point of flying away to a mysterious part of South America is that you're asking for adventure.

From an emotional point of view, the story's entirely about building a new life after the person you built the old life with is gone. After he gets to the Falls and is essentially abandoned by those who tries to be his friend he finds that at the end of Ellie's Secret Adventure Book she thanks him for the adventure, and tells him to start a new one. He throws out all the things he put into the house with Ellie. We get a long shot of the two chairs they sat in together as the house flies away, now a maneuverable man-o'-war ready to board the enemy blimp and rescue Kevin.

This is magic to its core. Yes, the house is going to be lighter from the physical weight of things being thrown out, and we're aware of that. But what sticks with us is the emotional weight Mr. Fredrickson's shedding. No longer is he locking out the rest of the world so he can cling to the past. The core of traditional narrative is a character making a change. When Mr. Fredricksen lets go of what happened, he not only starts flying again, he flies faster than a motorized blimp and is more maneuverable than an airplane. Even his own age is overcome; a man who used to need a machine to go up and down stairs can now climb a ladder on the outside of a blimp balloon, and later can throw away his cane.

When narrative is on your side, it's quite easy to get people to believe in magic. Think of a con artist; he always has a good story. Similarly, every religion in history has a good story behind it; no one would believe otherwise. Fiction writers use the same techniques but "strictly for entertainment purposes" as they say on the box. Storytellers are like verbal stage magicians; we may not tell the crowd our tricks but we are honest about the fact that it's a trick. Humans are instinctively magical thinkers; the centuries-long battle of science is to overcome that tendency through rigorous observation and experiment.

In other words, the power of narrative makes people believe things possible that wouldn't have been before. When narrative overcomes the power of physics, of chemistry, of biology, of psychology, and even of regular common sense, that is magic.

The main rebuttal I can think of to this argument is that by defining magic this way, every good story is in its own way a little bit magical, and a little bit fantastical. This could bother some people. Me, I can live with it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Some other question Stephanopolous could've asked Rudy

In response to the outcry over the fact that he failed to ask a followup question when the man who was mayor of NYC said "Bush never had a domestic terrorist attack during his administration," Steph essentially said "oops my bad" on his blog. To which I suppose some people would say "hey, everyone makes mistakes." 

As a public schoolteacher, I belong to a profession that is often accused of containing countless incompetents whose jobs are invulnerable. I can say from experience that's an exaggeration, but I'll acknowledge some truth. But to give an exact parallel to what GS did last Sunday, consider the following case: a student gets up in my class and writes "1/2 + 1/3 = 2/5," and I say "good work, Johnny!" If this happened during a formal observation it'd be a guaranteed "unsatisfactory," something that could put even a tenured teacher's career in danger.* But would Steph's bosses have even noticed without a public outcry? Hell, did they even notice anyway?

But was this an isolated incident? I say no, even if you only consider that interview, here's just a few of the questions a real journalist might have asked: 

1) Why should Bam's top priority be a danger that kills less Americans per year than falls in the bathtub and choking on tortilla chips? 
2) You say you want Bam's fight against terrorists to be "real, not rhetorical." But just previously you said "thank God he finally used the word 'war on terror.'" So who's really being rhetorical here?
3) As a former prosecutor and a member of the American Bar, do you believe the US criminal justice system or not? Can you see any danger in creating a special class of suspects to whom it doesn't apply?

And yes, I can accept there are answers to some of these questions that are at least within the range of sane debate (though mostly just barely). The point is these are the kinds of questions that are _routinely_ not even asked.  

I'd like to hope this would be the week that people see that the Sunday Talk charade finally jumped the shark. But I'm not getting my hopes up.

* yes, tenure protects teachers' jobs. But there are many ways around these rules that are can be used by competent administrators, something the system lacks far more desperately than competen teachers. But that's another blog.